Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Aging with Dignity

This past couple of days I’ve thought a lot about aging.  I’ve seen the gamut in terms of how people grow older.  But most of all I’ve come to realize how important to me it is to grow old with dignity.

My husband has been suffering for some time with a foot ailment that makes it difficult to walk.  So in the interest of being there for Zelda’s big day, he swallowed a lot of pride and ordered a wheelchair for transit in the airports because his feet simply wouldn’t have made it otherwise.  He asked me if I wanted one too since walking is still not my forte.  I initially said yes, but my son convinced me that I didn’t really need one, especially if I took my cool cane, and he was right. 

But I must say going through security with a person in a wheelchair is a breeze.  He got the chair and I got the benefits as well.  But I quickly realized that my cane and his chair put us in a whole different category as far as others in the airport perceived us.  It was a little unsettling to come to that realization.

In Chicago I did all the driving and we made sure to minimize the amount of walking he had to do.  It turned out just fine and no one there had to even know about his foot ailments.  After seeing a slew of specialists it will be nice if someone finally comes up with a good diagnosis and a treatment regimen, but until then he is definitely more disabled than I am.

Those thoughts about dignity hit home with me yesterday when I happened to go up to the 8th floor of the Self-Help Home in search of Zelda.  Stepping off the elevator I looked straight ahead into an open bathroom door where a male nurse was assisting an elderly man, who happened to be a rabbi, to clean up after going to the bathroom.  I could see the look of shame and discomfort as the rabbi saw me and kept asking the nurse to shut the door.  He eventually did, but not before I realized how awful the rabbi must have felt to be showcased to strangers in such a situation.  I felt angry at the nurse for stripping the rabbi of his dignity.

There were other situations where I realized the residents had surrendered their dignity and were were just going through the motions of existing.  There was Henry, who 2 years ago had seemed so alert and interesting, saying he was just there temporarily until his foot healed and he could go home.  Now he wheels himself around in a wheelchair and avoids eye contact, apparently accepting the fact that he will be in assisted living for the rest of his life.

I saw a woman last night who was sitting in a wheelchair at the nurses’ station.  She had fallen asleep with her head on the counter.  No one seemed to notice or care.  She was not demanding any attention.

Last night as I was going to sleep, I had nightmares about what would happen to me at the age of these people.  I so want to be like Zelda, feisty until the end, living independently until age 98 when her failing eyesight made it dangerous to do so.  I want to think my caregivers will be people who remember my dignity and allow me to retain as much of it as I wish. 

We’re home again and life is relatively back to normal.  I hope someone else is remembering to cut up Zelda’s food, which she no longer can see, in our absence.  I see a gray cloud off in the distance signifying my old age and hope I can hold it at bay for a few more decades.


Blogger Kristin said...

You are both so active! It's been a hard year but I don't think it's indicative of the rest of your life. It is crazy, though, how fast some things become part of our lives - mobility or lack thereof - and how quickly we accept them. A year ago, I never would have thought of myself as walking several miles a day. A year ago, you wouldn't have imagined your hip surgery.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- A lot can change in a year. I hope for both of us our mobility issues will be temporary.

BTW, the Self-help Home is really a very fine institution overall. I think most of the people who work there are caring. But there are naturally some sad situations, some of which are not entirely necessary.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I think we all worry about where we're headed as we age. All we can do is stay active and fit and take care of ourselves as best we can. We can never eliminate all the uncertainty, unfortunately!

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post touched on one of my deepest fears -- that in my old age (assuming I reach it!), I'll be physically incapacitated (and/or in significant pain), romantically partnerless, and living in an institution. May you have many healthy years left, B. Seeems to me you take excellent care of yourself!


11:58 PM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

I hope they figure out something soon to help your husband's foot situation. In the meantime I wouldn't regard being in a wheelchair as an indication that some amount of dignity has been lost or taken away.

I think that dignity mostly has to do more with a person's attitude when it comes to the annoying and unfortunate circumstances that occur as people get older. They deserve to be cut some slack and to cut themselves some slack as well. But this is a really difficult subject to generalize on because each situation is so unique.

11:44 PM  

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