Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Future in 'Another Country'

American psychologist, Mary Pipher, in the late 1990s wrote Another Country, published as an audio-book. It's a moving and eloquent summary of the communication difficulties we as Boomers have with our parents' generation. Our elders' beliefs about life are usually different from ours and can separate us profoundly. Add to that the self-absorption of many of our generation and you have a recipe for loneliness in the truly old.

Dr Pipher bemoans current society's lack of understanding and acceptance of the inevitable dependency that old age brings.
This increasingly results in the frail elderly being shut away from the generations behind them into nursing (sometimes called 'rest') homes. But, as we Boomers live longer and collect not just children but grandchildren who can remain dependent financially on us for much longer than was ever true in the past, many of us get sandwiched between the demands of our aging relatives and the need we feel to try to assist our struggling offspring. So it's easy to understand why we don't but Pipher's plea is that we pay more attention to what is really happening with our elders, if for no other reason than we will get there one day. Because their generation, unlike ours, tends not to explain, complain and 'be a bother', we don't pay enough mind to the current paradigm of elder care as the template for how we ourselves will be treated in the future.

We need wider recognition of the crucial difference between the lives of the 'well elderly' (many of whom, as Canadian David Cravit points out in his 2008 book, "The New Old", have much the same lifestyle and interests as us Boomers) and the 'ill elderly' - wits call them the illderly (and those who live like us, the wellderly). What we seem to have difficulty accepting is that the 'illderly' cohort, now dying only slowly thanks to modern medicine, represents where most of us will finally end up. If we do, will we 20 to 40 years from now accept being shunted away into care facilities in the way they are?

If not, what can we do to change that outcome for ourselves? Pay closer attention to the nature and logic of nursing homes is one start. Pretty well everyone who's had some exposure finds their reality distasteful, even hateful. Yet the political push to change isn't there. I recall years ago reading about a planned new town (I think it was in England) that was to be made up of concentric circles of elder accommodation. As you aged, you would move inwards from independent town houses on the outside, through assisted-living flats, to nursing homes and finally to the centre and the hospital where you die. Even then, I thought the idea was repulsive. Though I doubt it got finished (or even started) - too expensive, the logic of it is still current i.e. as they get frail, contain them away from our sight.

How does today's eldercare social policy fit with the adventure mindset so many of us Boomers retain and admire? Any 'On The Road Again' for us future oldsters beyond the Real Oldies station on our internet radios? Back in the '90s I was asked to advise a Canadian project to build private hospitals into 'Sun Bird' hotel residences in Florida. A project dreamed up by some hospitality financiers as the future of hotels. I didn't think it about it at the time but a cynic could say the political appeal was to give our richer elderly a lessened incentive to come back up here to drain our publicly-funded health care!

My wife and I didn't have that much opportunity to see close up what happened with our parents and friends. When we left for distant shores, they were still hale and hearty and we had the good fortune to leave siblings behind. Lacking such exposure, I probably understand the real experiences of older folk even less than a more typical Boomer of the 'Sandwich Generation'. And that's a knowledge gap I should work harder at filling as the 'Millennials' coming into power increasingly lament the burden we'll become! Worryingly, there seems to be a broader consensus developing we want to be a burden. Publicity for things like the SKI concept probably don't help (Spend your Kids' Inheritance).

As there's now little doubt we're going to be around for quite a while longer than our parents, don't we need to shout more firmly for politicians to engage us today in brainstorming creative new solutions for our care tomorrow? Ones that keep us in sight and 'in the game' rather than shuffle us away out of it? In Canada there may be a federal election coming up. If so, we should use our voter's voice. But not by demanding that we deserve, but rather a future civil society that keeps its total population 'in play'.

After all, we are all inter-dependent but that isn't so well appreciated any more.

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