So the big question for the many of us who are moving into senior-citizen status: Why is there not a broader focus on health issues for the aging?
If I had to guess, I would say it’s all about time. Think about it — what is the one thing that all of us desire but will never have? The answer: more time. But please be sure to let me know if they ever invent four extra hours in a day, because I’m gettin’ me some of that. Think of what you could do with four extra hours each day.
Unfortunately, as we age, it requires more time to do just about everything, including having our health issues properly diagnosed and addressed. And unless you are enrolled in a special concierge plan using private doctors who charge retainer fees for their services, you’re most likely to experience the typical 10-minute doctor appointment for a health issue that may be more serious and require more time and expertise than what your physician has time for. But don’t blame your doctor; it’s not her fault. Our current health system is so mixed up, we now treat symptoms instead of trying to keep people well. As Atul Gawande writes in his book “Being Mortal,” “Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul.”
There’s just not enough time to properly care for our aging population nowadays. And the older we get, the more likely we are to end up taking medications that have more and/or worse side effects than the original symptoms we were experiencing that brought us to the doorstep of the doctor in the first place. And yet, as a society, we have decided that doctors should be the ones who largely define how people will live in their waning days — “… a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about,” Gawande writes.
The truth is, doctors learn how to treat diseases and make people feel better. They are not trained in how to give our lives meaning, especially as we grow old. Not many people are, and I believe there is evidence to prove that life is better and more worthwhile when we seek a cause beyond ourselves. People are dying every day from what “Being Mortal” exposes as the three plagues of nursing-home existence: boredom, loneliness and helplessness. Gawande states, “The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater …”
Keren Brown Wilson, one of the creators of the “assisted living home” concept, originally designed the home to give people as much independence as possible and, at the same time, provide an alternative to skilled nursing facilities. The key word here is “home.” Home is where you get to decide how to spend your time and what you want to do. Away from home, you don’t always get to choose. It is this loss of freedom that so many people fear when they move to an assisted-living community. At the center of Wilson’s work was an attempt to solve the question, “What makes life worth living when we are old and unable to care for ourselves?”
So the message is easy. Give us something to live for, and we will live longer, and with more gusto! I like that.
This is part three of a four-part series on aging and being mortal. You can call DeLong at 912-531-7867 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.