THE TOP TEN THINGS THAT I LEARNED AT THE ASSISTED-LIVING FACILITY
My mother spent the last 12 years of her life in an assisted-living facility not far from my house. During this time, I spent many, many hours at the facility. Here are the top ten things that I learned from observing, and interacting with, my mom and other residents.
10. Everybody has a story.
Even those, or especially those, whose lives look diminished and sad have stories to tell. Ask for these stories. You will learn that the storyteller’s life was not always so small and that she likely lived a very full and interesting life. My mom’s assisted-living facility published a weekly flyer that frequently included the biography of a resident. It was humbling to be reminded that these people had lived long and fulfilling lives before their need for care.
9. If you want to know how to approach an elderly person, watch how kids and pets do it.
If you want to give an elderly person a treat, bring a dog or a kid to visit him. Then watch what happens. A dog will not feel awkward around an elderly person’s disabilities, and generally speaking, neither will a small child. My mom spent the last 10 days of her life in an adult foster home because she was too ill to stay in assisted living. It was wonderful to see the delight on her face when the owner’s children would prance into the room and dance for her.
8. Start getting rid of your stuff.
If you are over, say, 55 or 60, start looking at your possessions with a cold eye. If you live to be very old, the time will come when you can no longer take care of or use all of that stuff. And, if you have had to go through a parent’s stuff after they pass, you will know what a burden you are creating for those you will leave behind. As Roz Chast says in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, her wonderful memoir of her parents’ last years, once you have gone through and sorted your parents’ stuff, you start to look at your stuff “a little more postmortemistically.” So, organize your photos. Take on a room every year and get rid of what you no longer use or enjoy. And then start over again. Not only will you be doing your kids, or whoever is left to pick up the pieces, a favor, but not having to take care of so much stuff will free you up to do what you really want to do with the years left to you. (Unless, of course, taking care of your stuff is how you want to spend the years left to you.)
7. Keep moving.
No, not your residence, your body. Here is the bottom line, people. If we don’t keep moving as we get older, we will stop being able to move. And then everything will go downhill really fast. So walk. Or swim. Take a yoga class. Stay limber. Get out of your chairs. Move your body. Every day.
6. Keep your balance.
Of course we want to be balanced in mind and spirit, but I am speaking here of physical balance. Old people fall. A lot. So, don’t wait until you are really old to work on your balance. Stand on one foot at a time for a while every day. If you want a little more challenge, do the yoga tree pose every day. http://www.wikihow.com/Do-a-Yoga-Tree-Pose Take a tai chi or qi gong class. Of course, if we live to be very old, we will probably fall, but I like to think that working on our balance before then will forestall that day.
5. Make younger friends.
By the last few years of her life, all of my mother’s friends had pre-deceased her. This is a very lonely business. So, don’t put all of your relationship eggs in one generational basket. Cultivate younger friends. If you are lucky, maybe they will visit you in your dotage.
4. Learn to enjoy your own company.
Here is the sad truth. Most of the people who lived at my mother’s assisted living facility rarely had visitors. Even if you have family nearby and even if they visit you when they can, if you live to be very old and your friends pre-decease you, you will probably end up spending a lot of time alone. So, if you don’t enjoy your own company, make it a priority to cultivate alone time, and figure out what to do with it.
3. If you are an unhappy, self-absorbed adult, you will be an unhappy, self-absorbed elderly person.
Any one who has cared for an elderly or very sick relative knows that we continue to be ourselves, only more so, as we grow older or sicker. So, if you have unattractive qualities, you might want to work on those now. In this way, you might be more likely to keep those family members and friends coming around.
2. Show up.
If you have a friend or family member who is ill or frail, show up for them. Be generous with your time to the extent that you have any to give. Your loved one likely can’t remember what it felt like to have a job and a family and multiple calls on her time. She just knows that she feels very alone. Although we can’t picture it now, the time is likely to come when we are the ones who long for a visitor.
1. Practice kindness and patience and the gentle art of listening.
These are the most important gifts that we can give to someone whose health is failing. (OK, they are the most important gifts that we can give to anyone.) And they are sometimes not easy gifts to give when our loved one is moving and talking slowly or repeating the same stories over and over again. I wish I could say that I was always patient with my mother. I was not. Here are two things that I did find to be helpful: (1) Ask about something that you are interested in, (see lesson №1 above), then be silent and listen. I would sometimes ask my mother to tell me about her girlhood or her experiences during WWII. Not only did this cut off her oft-repeated stories about old TV shows, but now that she is gone, I am so glad that I asked these questions. In fact, I wish that I had asked more; (2) When you run out of patience and the ability to be kind, take a few days off to look away and do whatever you need to do to restore your ability to be present with patience and kindness. This may help you to ward off burn-out and keep you from becoming one of those persons who never shows up.
Of course, all of these lessons are aspirational. May we all do our best to take them to heart.
Originally published at woacanotes.blogspot.com on January 23, 2015.