Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb.13, 2009

It takes a village - at any age

I've always enjoyed being around older people. When my aunts and uncles visited my parents, I listened carefully to their family stories. When the folks entertained friends, I hovered nearby while they played cards and talked. When my grandparents got together with their siblings or friends, I enjoyed eavesdropping. I didn't want to miss anything.

Even today, I'd just as soon be around my older relatives as ones my own age. So when people say that they're uncomfortable or bored around older people, I find it hard to imagine.

I suppose my brief stint working in a nursing home at age 18 also helped me be comfortable around "senior citizens," although I was somewhat naive about the aging process and what it did to some people.

Stella rocked back and forth, spewed four-letter words and spit out her food at every meal. Clyde, a big man, had a penchant for biting. Harry spent most of his day shuffling up and down the halls. Ivah, a 300-pound woman paralyzed on one side from a stroke, couldn't speak, but her tears spoke volumes.

I became accustomed to seeing people come into the nursing home in bad shape and go downhill from there. Their physical needs were met, but their emotional needs were not.

So when my mother and Aunt Edith decided that their father - my Grandpa Mostrom - should be placed in that same nursing home after he had spent 10 years living in our home part of the year and Edith's the other part, I protested.

But something had to be done. He was still in pretty good shape, but he couldn't be left alone any more and both of his daughters worked full-time.

It turned out to be a good decision. Grandpa thrived in the home. He read his Bible every day, made potholders for us and his caregivers and outlived several "roommates." He also had us and Edith's family as "advocates" - people who knew and loved him and could tell the staff about his history, his likes and dislikes and his personality. And we visited him regularly.

Now, my 98-year-old mother-in-law Donna is in a nursing home in Wisconsin after suffering a stroke a month ago. Long-term care for the elderly has come a long way since 1981, the year Grandpa died. The facility Donna is in is one of the nicest I've ever seen and the staff are first-rate. The surroundings are beautiful, homey, warm. Residents have opportunities to stay busy, including doing therapy if they need it, participating in arts and crafts and engaging in social activities. There is even a place where residents can work and are paid for their efforts.

But that's not to say it's easy for older people who have lived independently all their lives to depend on others for their care.

And a society that fawns over youth and athletic skill has little use for the elderly. They are often characterized as if they are one-dimensional - "that sweet little old lady" or "that crotchety old man" or "that person with dementia."

One of the aides asked me if Donna is usually "a sweet lady." I wasn't sure how to answer that. "Sweet" wouldn't be a word I'd use to describe my mother-in-law. Could she be sweet? Of course! But feisty, independent, vibrant, opinionated, stubborn, quick on her feet and with answers - those would be much more descriptive of her.

And now she's angry, frustrated and depressed.

But who wouldn't be? After living independently all her life, Donna now has to depend on others to bathe her, clothe her, brush her hair and teeth, take her to the bathroom, feed her and push her along in a wheelchair. And not only that, but she isn't able to read or do crossword puzzles - her favorite activities.

Art, Art's brother Tommy and I have tried to convey the type of person Donna is to her caregivers. Before we returned home, Art typed a two-page "list" about his mother - her family history, her favorite activities, foods she likes and dislikes - and gave it to the staff at the home. They were appreciative and said it would help them get to know Donna better. And I sent previous columns I've written - about Donna's penchant for bursting into song, her love of the Green Bay Packers, her frugality - to her caregivers.

But Art and I can't be there on a daily basis. So we're depending on Tommy and Donna's loving extended family - nieces, nephews, in-laws and cousins - to help speak for her since she can't yet speak for herself.

So although elder-care facilities or nursing homes or assisted living facilities or whatever you want to call them have improved dramatically in the last few decades, it isn't enough. No training can provide caregivers sufficient skills that they can substitute for interactions with family and friends. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, for an adult - whether young or old - to thrive, the village of family, friends and acquaintances is essential.

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