WE LIVE in a society obsessed with youth, and with youth's twin corollaries: sex and babies.
This is a nation united in its love of being entertained by young bodies and young voices.
A nation deeply concerned about Miley Cyrus’s declining morals, and which team LeBron James will play for next year.
This is also a nation divided about whether a woman should have access to birth control, how much access, and a woman’s right to control her own reproductive organs vs. the rights of an unborn fetus.
On your Facebook feed right now it’ll probably take you just a few seconds to find a confrontational post about abortion, about birth control, about Hobby Lobby, about Obamacare, from any side of those debates.
Almost all of these hot-button issues involve decisions young people will make about their young bodies, fought over on social media and web platforms mostly designed by people in their early 20s.
It will take you quite a bit longer to find a Facebook post about the miserably low pay of nursing home employees, or about the often indescribably poor conditions for nursing home patients themselves.
Or about modern medicine’s obsession with lab numbers and achieving immortality in the face of the body’s inevitable decline.
Or about the unbelievably painful and miserable ordeal, for all involved, of taking care of an ill or handicapped parent who can no longer take care of themselves.
These are challenges which our media and our society leave us totally unprepared to deal with. Yet these challenges are the ones which we all—barring untimely early death —will have to face sooner or later.
Getting old and dying is not sexy. It’s not pretty. It makes for really unpleasant reading in your local weekly newspaper. But it’s part of life, too.
Long story short: My mother passed away earlier this week after a long struggle, with her children and granddaughters by her side to say goodbye.
Longer story short: It began with a heart attack about 20 years ago, largely recovered from. And then a stroke six years ago, not so well-recovered from.
Much longer story short: After being in and out of ICUs and ERs and therapy units and a couple of stints at a nursing home, my wheelchair-and-bed-bound mom ended up in the long-term care of her family—a fate shared by millions of older Americans, but a subject almost taboo in American media.
I’m not complaining. We’re some of the lucky ones.
Our mom could still speak, and hear, and think. Our family was spared the unbearable heartbreak of Alzheimer’s.
We had the wherewithal to keep her out of long-term residency at a nursing home, and with her family where she belonged, her final days spent in home hospice care.
We’re the lucky ones. We had the pleasure of our mom’s company, debilitated though she was, for a few precious extra years. She was able to see her grandchildren growing up. We’re convinced that’s what she stayed alive for, why she hung on so long.
I’ll avoid the temptation to write a loving tribute to my mother. Not because there’s not a lot to write, but because this isn’t the venue for such a private conversation.
But in the spirit of journalism I want to share some very specific lessons my family learned, with varying levels of success, during my mother’s long health ordeal:
Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Due to the labyrinthine eldercare rules of Medicare and Medicaid, it’s too easy for a patient’s entire life savings to get sucked away by hospitals and doctors and caregivers. Seek professional financial help early on in managing your relative’s savings and assets. Hopefully things will get better sooner rather than later. But if not, you won’t be stuck winging it without a plan.
Don’t shy away from the tough issues. The really tough issues. Like what level of resuscitation is preferred. Like how little quality of life is too little. Like burial vs. cremation. Like how you’re going to pay for the funeral. These are profound questions society avoids, but they’re profound for a reason.
Be spiritual. From what I’ve seen, the sick elderly folks who have a tolerable quality of life are without exception the ones who practice some kind of faith, who roll their wheelchairs up and down the halls singing hymns, who pray together, who laugh together. Whether they always had faith in their lives or found it late in life, this is true 100 percent of the time. Whatever your beliefs, they are crucially important to quality of life.
Don’t smoke. Don’t smoke. Don’t smoke.
Enjoy life every day. No matter how young and immortal you think you are today, life is fleeting and good health is priceless. If something’s important to you, don’t put it off until tomorrow.
I’ll return to the usual diet of politics and controversy in the future. But I felt compelled to share these things with you this week. You’re never too young to hear it.