The great American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau said it best: “Our lives are frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” Simplicity is the ease with which one completes a task or understands a matter or problem. I often develop an overwhelming feeling that we make some things so complex that the true outcome becomes clouded. I believe this to be true of aging as well.
Who has heard the story of the elderly woman who has a minor fall and the next thing you know the family and social workers have descended? They come in, well-intentioned, removing throw rugs, making suggestions that the woman no longer use stairs, questioning her capacity to manage finances, or her ability to drive an automobile, and inevitably, beginning to talk about her need to live in an assisted living facility.
As parents we encourage development and independence. Recently, brain researchers have shown that the full development of the brain is a gradual process which is said to take about 25 years. Why shouldn’t this be the same as we age, but in reverse? Don’t get me wrong, but I cannot fathom why a minor incident must evolve into a plan that everything should change.
Confinement used to be the only answer to taking care of the aged. Things have definitely evolved in the business of continuing care, and now there are many creative options. Family members can take an active role in helping to support their loved ones. The elderly have more options than ever, and families can be as involved as needed. For example, I have even noticed the addition of playgrounds at assisted living facilities to help encourage grandchildren to visit. Many options can be explored to find the right fit for a family member who needs care.
To illustrate that one option for caring for the elderly is not necessarily better than another, I’d like to share offer a few personal experiences of clients or elderly people I have known. One late evening, I received a call from one of our private duty caregivers working in a well-known assisted living home and she was frantic because a woman in the apartment next door had fallen and no one was coming to her aid. No nurse was on duty on that particular floor and no one was answering at the front desk. Our caregiver could not leave her patient so I informed her to call 911. I’m not knocking assisted living; I’m just saying the same thing can happen no matter where you are living.
Additionally, consider the following case of the elderly woman who loved to walk. At the age of 90 she would often go walking two miles a day. Her wishes were to remain at home no matter how bad her Alzheimer’s disease progressed. A social worker got involved and was worried about her walking the streets of the town where she lived and recommended that she be placed into a facility to help prevent a fall. Thankfully, the woman’s trustee was able to honor her wishes by providing her with private-duty caregivers. At this writing, I am happy to report that this lovely woman is realizing her dreams of remaining at home. She is happy, content and will soon be celebrating her 98th birthday. I feel certain that in this person’s case, the right decision was made. After all, as seen in my previous example, there is no guarantee that if a person is in the care of a nursing facility, that someone will always be available to help in the case of a fall. Shouldn’t we at least attempt to honor a person’s wishes to remain in their home so that they can continue doing what is meaningful to them? Perhaps we should be more creative in finding a solution that addresses the person’s safety and well-being as well as their expressed desires.
Additionally, I have seen cases where the decision to place a loved one in the care of a group home has been a beneficial one. A good friend of mine has a mother whose Alzheimer’s disease was causing her to become increasingly withdrawn at home. He reached out to me for advice, and I recommended several options ranging from in-home care, small group homes, assisted living to full skilled nursing facilities. With much thought, the family chose a group home. This worked out very well because his mother, a formally very social person, is now “coming out of her shell” and enjoying having regular interaction with other people. Conversely, I had another client with Alzheimer’s disease who was placed into a group home by the family after both the social worker and our company recommended against it, and it was a disaster. A previously calm and pleasant woman quickly became very agitated, violent, withdrawn and frail.
My point in providing a variety of examples, is that not everyone fits into the same box of continuing care needs. Sometimes, a little closer observation may reveal that the situation isn’t as bad as we thought and may just require a little extra oversight. Let’s not jump to the most extreme conclusion first, and for goodness sake, let’s leave our aging parents and grandparents independent as long as possible if that is their wish for the end of their life’s journey.