When my 55-year-old husband was dying of cancer, we agreed that it could be worse. He was still relatively young and amazingly robust until about three months before he died. Pain meds and the disease itself did slow his thinking processes. Yet, his mind remained strong, his ability to solve problems impressive, right to the end.
Of course, he was in considerable physical discomfort, and the emotional pain of leaving me behind was one of his most difficult trials. But what he was not suffering was the additional burden of advanced age.
The death of a young person is always hard to bear. It seems so unnatural for children of any age to not outlive their parents. However, recent experiences with the declining health of my 93-year-old mother cause me to consider that perhaps even worse than dying young is living to be very old, with little quality of life due to several serious ailments, but not being sick enough to leave this world. She actually told me that she knows more than a few people who would be very happy not to wake up tomorrow.
That is the cruelty being suffered in obscurity by millions of the elderly who are shut away in nursing homes and senior living centers across the United States. Bored, lonely, in pain, or so demented or sedated that they don't know who they are, these are the forgotten mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, and uncles who deserve better attention than they are receiving.
People are living longer than ever before. Unfortunately, longer does not always mean better.
In far too many cases, additional years can mean persistent pain from multiple chronic illnesses that cause increased frailty and diminished quality of life.
For the very elderly, the borders of daily experience narrow as distress grows and the ability to perform all but the simplest of tasks disappears. The resulting grief from this lost meaning of life and sense of no longer being loved or useful is soul killing.
Of course, not all of the very elderly are in such dire straights. But, according to Bessie's Hope (an organization that visits seniors in nursing homes), 60% of nursing home residents in the U. S. receive no (that's zero!) visits of any kind other than to receive medical treatment.
What happened to the days when we cherished the wisdom of our elders? How could we allow their supposed Golden Years to deteriorate into little more than a succession of doctor appointments and increasingly invasive and dehumanizing treatments?
I am by no means a proponent of euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide. I am, however, convinced that if we are going to keep bodies alive for a hundred years, our treatment of the souls that inhabit these withering temples must keep pace with compassion, respect, attention, love, and our presence in their lives.
Often, the missing ingredient is family. And the answer to quality human interaction is conversation that encourages a sense of purpose for the ones who gave us life in the first place.
Imagine the grief of slowly losing your sense of self to illness, pain, and loneliness. Let us walk a few halting steps in the shoes of those who are suffering this fate and hasten to give them the gift of our heartfelt presence.
Creating a record of family history through an ethical will or geneology or simply listening to stories of the past can offer mutual insight. By sharing something other than a quick drop-in or one more ride to the doctor, these interactions can produce renewed appreciation and affection—perhaps even deep resolution of old hurts or misunderstandings.
Ultimately, this is a situation that only love can heal. Surely, this gift of self to those who are losing that precious commodity is not too much to ask.
Copyright (C) 2012 Cheryl Eckl Communications, Inc.
Cheryl's print books are available online and as e-books for Kindle, Nook, and iPad. See her ad for A Beautiful Grief: Reflections on Letting Go in this month's Psychology Today