From the moment you’re born you begin to die. So the saying goes. It’s true in a way but life sure holds promise when you’re young. Everything is in front of you. And then the calendars come and go, each year passing faster than the year before. One day you look in the mirror and you’ve aged.
How long must a person live to say they had a good run? How long is too long? Studies indicate we are living longer and longer but just how long do you want to live? It comes down to three words: “quality of life.”
Last Thursday I took a book to a colleague who due to several bad falls had to be put in an assisted living center. The center promotes itself with a bit of word wizardry: “Life may change, but it never gets old.” The people I saw in its rooms and corridors beg to differ. No they didn’t say one thing to me. Their faces talked to me and the message came across loud and clear. Empty stares whispered, “We’ve lived too long.”
Never have I seen such a depressing assembly of people. They live, for how long I’m not sure, in an assisted living center, that euphemism for what people used to call an old folks home. From one room only did I hear joy. A family with small children was visiting an elderly patient and the kids were laughing. It sounded like music.
I believe the only people happy to have aged ones in centers are those who put them there, and I’m sure they feel they had good reason to do so, but I fervently believe it should be their last choice. I am convinced that when we reach the end of the road the one place we most want to be is home. We want to be in that place where we belong. Sometimes though as the center’s motto says “life may change.”
Yes life changes. My associate, besides being in his early 80s, has Parkinson’s disease. His hands tremble wildly, he stands with difficulty, and his voice trails off to a whisper. A line of ants can trip him. Over the last five months he’s fallen four or five times, the last fall landing him in the hospital with a broken arm and head injuries. When his wife could no longer pick him up from the floor she found a room for him in the new breed of old folks’ home. He says he’s here temporarily but aren’t we all?
Driving up my one-and-only time there, I found it cheery on the outside. The grounds are lushly landscaped and fountains splash water and bird feeders are here and there. Manicured laws flank the circular drive. A pergola shelters a wooden bench. No one sat there. The sun rained down like liquid lava.
A brand new crescent-shaped brick building greeted me: it’s expansive and from what I hear expensive. Its multipurpose role in life’s last stages seems to have come via a long night of drunken debauchery by a hospital, hospice, and hotel. The three consummated their relationship and something akin to a Hospice-tel resulted.
As I approached the building dread began to fill me. I didn’t have to be told what I was about to see.
I walked through one of those power-assisted doors and checked in at a window similar to a theater’s ticket window.
“Room 135,” said the attendant, a lady who looked like Ernestine, the character Lily Tomlin played on Saturday Night Live. There was nothing to laugh about though as I entered the double doors that open up to a long corridor. The moment I stepped through those doors my mind played the opening notes from “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” dolefully performed on a Hammond M-102. A funereal feeling took over me.
Room 135 was not close. It was down one corridor and then on another corridor to the left. I walked past old women in wheelchairs, tubes in their nostrils. I walked past old men on walkers, tubes attached to their sides. I walked past rooms with open doors. People lay there inert hooked to wires and tubes. Oxygen tanks and clicking machinery greeted me at every turn. I felt guilty for being younger and healthy, and I began to get cold. But what got me most was the absence of emotion on the faces. I walked past people staring at the ceiling … staring into space … staring down at the floor. A few people looked right through me. I didn’t exist in their world. In some rooms the TV was on but it might as well have been in Kansas. Many patients slept. So many slept it gave me the idea that sleep is a form of escape from such a place.
If there’s such a thing as seeing people give up their will to live I witnessed it. Someone should slip in under the cover of early morning darkness and nail a huge sign over the door of places like this. Three words will do: “Despair Lives Here.”
Growing up I didn’t have a relative in an old folks home, not that I recall. I lost loved ones in hospitals or in their homes, which is where they belonged when the ends comes. While they were sick and fading, family members took care of them. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Now people stick their relatives in centers, provided they have the means. Long-term care insurance is available now. I hear all sorts of reasons for this change in responsibility. “Oh the medical care is so much better there. They can get rehabilitation. They get good meals. Planned activities keep them busy.”
I hope I do not live so long that I have to be shunted off to an assistive center. I hope my end comes at a time when I still feel connected to life and not a tube. But I must admit I too have played a part in the assisted living center business.
A while back I was asked to write marketing copy for a brochure describing an assisted living center for people with Alzheimer’s. It was particularly ironic that I was asked to write the marketing copy for Carroll Campbell Place. In 1992 I had written a speech for Carroll Campbell when he was South Carolina’s 112th governor. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 61. Four years later he died on Pearl Harbor Day 2005.
“A place of comfort, a place of caring,” I wrote. “The day comes when Alzheimer’s can overwhelm a family. The day comes when loved ones with Alzheimer’s need a soothing, secure place like home – a place where a spacious, open environment nurtures time and season awareness. There comes a time when innovative care makes a difference for the resident and the family.”
I wrote all that and I want to believe my words. Deep inside I believe that facilities like Carroll Campbell Place are a good option when people literally have nowhere else to turn but I cannot for the life of me get the dead, empty expressions of Thursday’s patients out of my mind. I have seen those expressions before … at the zoo. “The veterinarian care is so much better there. They can get rehabilitation. They get good meals. Planned activities keep them busy.”
“Only the good die young.” We’ve all heard that saying. Maybe we need to revise it. If an assisted living center is in your future “the only good is to die young.”
I realize genetics, lifestyle, and fate play a huge role in how healthy we are or aren’t but anyone who reaches what I deem to be the elder statesman age and is alert, active, and living in their own home has much to be thankful for.
I didn’t stay long at the assisted living center that Thursday. I just couldn’t tolerate it. My friend and associate was asleep when I entered his room. I suppose I should have sat quietly and waited for him to wake up. I just couldn’t. I touched his shoulder and he came around. I gave him the book, which was my reason for coming and after a few minutes’ conversation I left.
Retracing my steps down the long corridors I felt I had aged ten years. I didn’t look into the rooms this time. I’d seen enough. When I stepped out into the roaring July sunshine I didn’t mind the heat at all. I felt like a man released from prison. All the way home I resolved to take better care of myself; to eat well, and to keep my running schedule as long as I can. I want to think, and hope, that Room 135 isn’t in my future.