An old dilemma

January 06 2003 | by

Nursing homes are being built almost as fast as shopping malls. With the faster pace of life, and the desire to meet personal goals, the responsibility of caring for our elderly is being transferred to others. And with this shift, the happiness and vitality of our loved ones is often sacrificed

By Scott McConnaha

On the way home from a recent family gathering, my wife and I stopped to visit her grandmother, who is now living in a nursing home. My initial reaction to this idea was a protest. I was tired, our daughter was irritable and there was plenty of work to do at home. But the holiday wasn’t the same without her there, my wife said. It’ll be a short visit. She did not have to justify this trip to the nursing home. I knew all along that seeing her grandmother was the right thing to do. It was just so inconvenient.

Looking back on our visit now, I realize that the time with her grandmother was a valuable moment of companionship and joy in an otherwise lonely and depressive setting. I recall the sadness on the faces of many of the residents in the facility, people who stared longingly at us as we passed by, saying, with only a look, Won’t you visit with me awhile?

Once they were young

Nursing homes like that always make me feel uncomfortable. The general gloom in the air makes it hard to concentrate on little more than the thought of being in a place of impending death. I remember visiting my own grandfather in a nursing home before he died, and seeing a resident from down the hall being wheeled away in a body bag. The thought of my own grandfather leaving this world in the same way was troubling.

Looking down at an elderly loved one who is too weak even to sit up makes it hard to believe that he or she was once young and full of life. It is pretty difficult to picture that person lifting his or her first baby out of the crib, or chasing friends in the playground, or even cutting the grass. It is also rather saddening, when now, just eating a spoonful of food is a difficult task for them.

I have always said that I do not want to end up in the same situation as my grandfather. Who would? Spending your remaining days in a place where the only way to leave is through death cannot make for a generally happy setting. I want to be in my own home, surrounded by my family and friends, enjoying life right up to the end, even if I am slower, more forgetful and in pain. But how realistic is this dream?

For some elderly individuals, there is no choice but a full-care facility. Medical reasons and the safety of the patient often demand that certain people be admitted to a nursing home. Even in families where they are willing to make all the sacrifices in the world to keep the loved one at home, many elderly people simply must be under the care of full-time professionals. But we all know that not every resident in a nursing home has to be there.

An inconvenient guest?

One of the downfalls of a society that moves quickly and promotes self-fulfillment is that those who need our care are often left in the hands of others. Reaching my own goals, or professional and financial success may be hampered if I have to take care of an aging relative. The separation of families has also contributed to a greater need for nursing homes. Because of job transfers, or for various other reasons, sons and daughters are not staying near their parents when they move out of the house.

Many years ago, there was little need for nursing homes. People stayed in or near the town where they grew up, leaving them close to their aging parents. And it was more or less assumed that when an elderly family member needed more permanent care, he or she moved in with a son’s or daughter’s family. The elderly who demanded more medical attention were admitted into hospitals or were visited by doctors at home. The practice of taking in elderly relatives still occurs today, but not nearly as much as in years past.

When I was a child, which was not all that long ago, I had a friend whose grandmother lived with his family. Her presence forced us to quiet down during her nap time, but aside from that, everyone usually enjoyed having her in the home. But it cannot always be easy to care for an elderly person. It is often said that when a disease strikes or an accident occurs, it is not just the victim who must endure new challenges, but the whole family as well. The same is true when a person gets too old to live alone.

If a family happens to be in the fortunate position to be able to take in an elderly family member, it does not mean that things will go perfectly, or even be pleasant every day. The demands of caring for someone force us to change much of our usual routine. Grandma’s nap time at my friend’s house was only one of several changes they experienced.

Many older people can no longer drive, so they need to be driven to their appointments. Their medication consumption needs to be monitored. Some older people become temperamental and childlike in the way they interact with you, especially if things are not going their way. Their diet needs to be closely watched. And someone always has to be with them. No more is a trip to the mall or a restaurant as easy as jumping in the car and taking off.

Returning love received

The challenges that go along with caring for an older parent or grandparent often wear on people. Just like we need some time away from the demands of parenthood every once in a while, those caring for the elderly certainly need respite as well. Organizations often sponsor adult day-care, which is a perfect way for both sides to get some relief. In the morning before you go to work, you swing by the ‘senior center’ dropping off your parent, and you stop off again to get him or her on your way home in the evening. This gives you the opportunity to maintain your daily routine, and the satisfaction of knowing that your loved one is being cared for.

These adult day-care centers are good for the elderly because they allow them to get out of the house for a while, something we all enjoy doing. These places also provide them with companions of their own age, which must be a welcome change after having to live with their children and grandchildren on such a permanent level. Because, let’s face it, the transition from independence and autonomy to dependence on one of your children has to be a challenge for the elderly as well.

But even this situation works out nicely for only some elderly care situations. One of the most difficult decisions a son or daughter must have to face is whether or not to place a parent in a nursing home. Even though doctors and other professionals are telling you that it is the best and most logical move to make, it still has to be terribly sad to place your parent in a setting you know you would not enjoy. Sometimes, though, there really is no other choice.

Getting old is not easy. And although I am not speaking from experience, I have seen enough of my relatives face the challenge and hardships of aging to know that having to revert back to being cared for, after being the provider for so many years, is a tragic and uncomfortable part of life. The best thing that any of us can do for our parents and grandparents is simply to act out of love, even if it means that certain decisions will force us to alter our lifestyles a bit. Just don’t forget all the love we once needed from them.

1) For some elderly individuals, there is no choice but a full-care facility
2) Medical reasons and the safety of the patient often demand that certain people be admitted to a nursing home

Updated on October 06 2016