“You in the West throw away your old people.”
About a year and a half ago, the Telegraph published an article called “We treat the elderly horribly, says Jared Diamond.” I stumbled across it the other day and…let’s just say that it was an eye opener. The quote that really got me, was this one:
Diamond recounted a meeting with a friend from Fiji who told him: “You [the West] throw away your old people.”
It’s terrible because it’s true and it made me even more grateful that my mother’s experience was so much different than what we in the West would consider the norm.
My mother was lucky enough to live in a lovely nursing home. She had saved money for years to be able to afford a Quaker-oriented home in Hanover, New Hampshire. It was a great place filled with people who, like my mother, identified themselves as highly cultured and wealthy intellectuals. She spent her remaining years surrounded by highly accomplished writers, musicians and other leaders of industry. We tend to look at the nursing home years as sad and lonely but I’m pretty sure that the time she spent living in that home was among her happiest and we were all sad that she wasn’t able to stay there long before she passed away.
Like I already said: we all understood how lucky my mother was. Not everybody has the money to be able to pay for space in a high end facility. Others can’t afford care at all and spend their final days feeling like a burden to their families (no matter how hard those families might try to convince their elders otherwise) and feeling like outcasts. Worse than that—some people find space in homes that seem promising only to find out, after all the paperwork is signed and the checks are cashed that the care is substandard and that the staff would rather ignore the residents than help care for them.
Not every culture allows their elderly to simply fade out of existence, choosing instead to worship youth. In February, the Huffington Post published a list of different cultures that actively respect, celebrate and lift up their elderly community members. Many Native American tribes, for example, treat a person’s passing as a duel rite of passage. It marks the passage of the elder from this life to his or her next. It is also when that elder teaches the younger members of the tribe everything that he or she knows. This knowledge is taken very seriously. In Korea, taking care of the older generations is an important point of pride for the younger generations.
In our culture, though, we shuffle off our elderly to nursing and assisted living facilities. We hire people to tend to their needs and care instead of making the most out of those final years together and, as a result, elder abuse—especially for residents whose families rarely visit—is incredibly common.
There are many different types of elder abuse. Some of it is insidious and subtle—staffers endearing themselves to residents in the hopes of “inheriting” money or other valuables. Sometimes a person will steal social security numbers and use a resident’s identity to rack up thousands of dollars in debt. Worse, sometimes the abuse is physical. As horrifying as it is to consider, elder sexual abuse is something that happens a lot in senior living facilities. (Note: If you suspect that something like this is happening to someone you love, or is happening in the facility in which your loved one is living, it is important to seek help from qualified nursing home abuse attorneys to make sure that the abuse is stopped and dealt with as quickly as possible.)
Even if someone in an elder care facility isn’t being actively abused, they could still be passively abused through neglect. The fact is that, for many people, finding the time to visit someone who is living in an assisted living facility or nursing home takes quite a lot of effort. If we weren’t already in the habit of making a trip to see our parents, grandparents or elderly friends, it simply might not occur to us to start making a habit of it now. If our elderly loved ones live far away things get more complicated, especially if we used to be able to stay in their homes and don’t have the money to pay for a hotel room now. Many elderly care residents say that the hardest part of moving into nursing homes or hospices isn’t adjusting to the new space or their new communities. It is the loneliness that comes from not having ready access to family and friends.
So what can we do? Unfortunately it doesn’t’ look like there is a simple answer that will solve this problem in a matter of days. You can, though, make an effort to spend time with the elders in your life. Call them regularly. Visit as often as you can. Make sure that they know how much you love and appreciate them! It’s something that will benefit the both of you!
Abby Locker is a young idealist who loves examining society around her. After college, she hopped on a plane and switched coasts moving from east to west. Abby has been relying on her entrepreneurial instincts ever since. In the end she is just like you, drinking her coffee one sip at a time.