I find it interesting that, as we grow older, our priorities transcend life’s basic necessities—a roof over our heads, three square meals a day, personal safety—and even as our options and capacities become limited.
The primary goals of life do not remain constant; they change over time. This is the reality that not only aging people but also people caring for them—relatives, doctors and health workers, indeed medical institutions and nursing homes—should take into account, according to Atul Gawande in his best-selling book, “Being Mortal.”
Gawande is a surgeon, a professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, and a prize-winning science writer.
Until I read the book, I had never thought that much else mattered to old people other than medical and personal care by doctors and family. But studies have shown that, for some reason, freedom and autonomy matter more to old people than personal safety; that, by allowing them to lock the door of their tiny nursing-home apartments, they regain control of their lives and some of their dignity, thereby improving their attitude toward life and prolonging their lives. For taking control of their lives, they don’t mind the risks they retake being by themselves.
Sense of purpose
The other surprise that comes from another study is that, putting another living being, whether plant or animal, in their care would give old folks a reason for getting up in the morning with a sense of purpose. This somehow brings their appetites back, lifts them out of depression, and makes them sleep better, thus decreasing their need for medications.
To think that life’s primary goals remain constant is a disservice to both young and old. Several studies discussed in the book continue to be conducted to address, in a more imaginative and humane way, the needs of the aging population—needs that go beyond being kept safe and fed.
While young people may prefer meeting new people rather than spending time with a sibling, older people would rather spend time with family members and established friends. The young and the old differ in their priorities, but it doesn’t mean they are not prepared to risk them altogether for a cause that matters more.
“Reality is more complex,” says Gawande. “People readily demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their safety and survival for the sake of something beyond themselves, such as family, country or justice. And this is regardless of age.”
Not only has Gawande’s book afforded me a closer look at aging and what matters in the end for old people individually—which should also matter to those who would care for them; it has made me look back at the way I cared for my parents in their last years.
Of course, there’s no way we can compare the institutions in First World countries, with their resources, expertise and continuous research, with our own. But we have something that would be the envy of the world—traditional respect and reverence for the elderly.
We are a naturally caring and grateful people, especially toward our family elders; generally, children can be counted on to take turns caring for them.
Many times we have poor relations and extended family on whom we can rely to go into a mutually beneficial relationship when called upon. Even hired medical workers in time develop a sense of family with their ward and become quite affectionate.
It would not hurt to have a CCTV camera and regular personal supervision as deterrents to possible maltreatment, as there have been such instances, though definitely not as a rule.
It is my prayer that philanthropists put up a world-class facility here to implement some of the creative practices in caring for the aging—applicable, of course, in our culture and environment. If it could happen within my life span, I should be so lucky.