The End of the Path Varies for Each of Us

There is a narrow path we walk as we age, and it is impossible to see around the bend, as the destination is different for each and every one of us. Genetics, lifestyle, interests, support, and financial means all create different issues and different paths for each of us. It is this unknown that makes it very hard to prepare for personal aging.

We all have known the most athletic person with a perfect diet who dies of a heart attack. Genetics, probably, and nothing to be done about that. And, the least exercised, a smoker, drinker and bacon lover who lives to be 100+. One of my good friends, a retired cardiologist who is 93 and still driving actually told me that he never exercised, and does not eat salads. However, he does maintain a lean weight, and corrects his diet for a few days should the scales show him a pound over. And his mind is as sharp as a tack. He has a collection of hundreds of art objects and can name the artist of each one. And probably relate a story as to when and how it was acquired.

However, we have no control at all over when we leave this earth, but we do need to think about maximizing our time while here. Having the best experience possible would be the goal. And, that takes some effort, as things are not quite as they seem as one ages. And the system is not really equipped to understand the nuances and how to best deal with the problems of the future.

Perhaps not so interesting a tidbit on aging is that it is a series of challenges. At random, things just stop working or break. And things get less easy. Little things like picking up things from the floor, or getting down on the floor, or opening jars, or trying to read something and not have glasses handy. The list is endless and covers all the senses and body parts and body systems. However, being alive and hopeful is far better than the alternative, It is in living life, however, that we do need to get educated about the issues of aging and the end of life.

Have you read the book, Being Mortal? By Atul Gawande? It contains a wonderful explanation of where we are in treating people at the end of life, and how it could possibly be better. Atul Gawande is a practicing surgeon. He has discovered a way to practice medicine better, especially as life draws to a close. The idea is to ensure we never sacrifice what people really care about when we are trying to provide health care for them. In the book he covers how when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.
An excerpt, “Through eye-opening research and gripping stories of his own patients and family, Gawande reveals the suffering this dynamic has produced. Nursing homes, devoted above all to safety, battle with residents over the food they are allowed to eat and the choices they are allowed to make. Doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them. And families go along with all of it.” It is certainly worth a read.

On a similar note, if you can stretch, this weekend I attended my husband’s grandaughter’s graduation. The commencement speaker was Donald Newhouse, president of Advance Publications. He discussed the loss of his wife over many years, starting with her inability to speak until she could not care for herself at all and knew no one around her. This year at 80 after a 12-year battle with primary progressive aphasia, a disease that disables the part of the brain that processes speech and language, she passed.

He is now dedicating himself to learning about her disease and to search for a cure. Newhouse ended his speech with “I would hope some of you who studied in the fields of humanities and in the sciences, young as you are, will think of careers that touch on the aged, the demented and will work to find treatments for these diseases or to find ways of supporting the millions upon millions of families in the United States that have been financially and psychologically devastated by the burdens placed on them by the need to care for their loved ones”.

We really do not know what path our aging will take, and what we have to face when we get there. But we can start now to think about how the environment, the system, the facilities, the access could all be better planned for when we do need some more time, some extra assistance, so rest breaks from standing, a bathroom close that is private, a place in the shade. And we can encourage all, like Donald Newhouse did, to think about careers and improvements that touch on the aged and issues that we will face as this world rapidly ages in the next 15-30 years.

“Healthcare 2030: Are You Prepared to Meet the Challenges?” is an interactive workshop that C. Sam Smith and I present to the state home care association conferences as the closing session. When we come to a state near you, join us. It is great food for thought, and we might actually be able to make a difference if we think about what we want our future to look like.