Yes, worse than you’ve imagined if you’ve ever even thought about it all.
We all hope to grow old. To be healthy and live a long life is the idea anyway. Yet we rarely think about end of life issues until the subject is thrust upon us by having a love one in need of a nursing home. Nursing always seemed a bit creepy to me when I was a very young child. As an adult I now find them closer to terrifying.
This opinion comes from my real world experience with a close friend, that I’ll call “Jay”. Jay is not his real name, and he wouldn’t even care if I did use his real name, but he could be anybody. So I’ll call him Jay. Before I get into this one-person case study it is helpful to know some facts about growing old on planet Earth. Growing old in America is, lamentably, one more thing that our “greatest of all countries” America, deals with so much worse than many other countries do. Our treatment of our loved ones is a byproduct of our industrialized culture. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it much better. Recent studies of “Blue Zones” (places, lifestyles and environments of the world's longest-lived people) and Centenarian (people who are 100 or more years old) reveal something so very obvious, I’m sort of surprised it required any study at all. The “secrets” to a long healthy life come down to what you eat and do. Eat REAL food! Eat a largely plant-based diet free of preservatives, pesticides or other toxins. Keep active and engaged with others. Cultures who keep their elderly at home where they are part of social celebrations, where they keep active, tend to gardens, where they engage, in person not just on line or by phone, with others, is the other key to a longer healthier life. That and movement. stretching, walking, dancing, yoga, Tai Chi, moving.
So Americans blow it on both counts. Our diet is all wrong. Our Factory Farmed meats are full antibiotics and hormones. Our vegetables are toxic and drenched in ever increasing amounts of pesticides, especially those that are genetically modified. All these toxins run off the farms and from the animal urine into our water supply. A water supply also contaminated by plastics, pharmaceuticals and undisclosed fracking chemicals. So we even messed up our water! Why? The answer is as simple as it is sad – GREED! Greed drives the process, and greed is how they managed to take over our entire political process, our elected leaders, the EPA, the FDA and the entire News Media. Spoiler Alert – Greed is also why our Elder Care Facilities are a nightmare. Would you be surprised to learn that those charged to watch over Grandma, with all the life and death responsibilities that involves, are not paid a living wage? Welcome to the “New Normal”. Wages used to follow productivity right up until around President Ronald Reagan. The same guy who let so many mental institutions close down, putting the burden on, too often, privatized prisons and law enforcement, where it remains today and is . But that subject of needed reforms deserves it’s own entire blog. The top CEO used to make about 20 times their workers wage. Today the CEO’s make almost 350 times their workers wage. And it’s not just Caretakers. Ambulance Drivers, School Buss Drivers, Security Personal… Life and death positions making minimum wage! Minimum wages that once were still a living wage, but that was decades ago. Not today.
Those are all numbers and facts. Important stuff to know but to really get to how bad it is, nothing beats experience. So, these last few years of helping Jay have been very enlightening. He’s an old friend with no family and I don’t mind helping when I can. And he has been a very interesting friend. He shares my dark humor, love of animals and travel. He was a know TV actor and hero to the disabled community. Even if many today don’t know it. He helped write the “American with Disabilities Act”. He met with Governors and Presidents. He protested inaccessible buildings and sidewalks by parking on them! He was arrested numerous times for refusing to pay his parking fines. Let that sink in… while today Bankers and Wall Street CEO’s don’t even get arrested for crashing the worlds economy, laundering drug money for terrorist, fraudulently foreclosing on peoples homes, Jay was going to jail for parking tickets!
The first phone call I got was from a nursing home in Westchester, CA. One or more of the staff was waking patients up by punching them then robbing them. Jay had snuck to a phone (his was stolen) and called 911 and the LA Times. But there seems to be some very odd loopholes in regards to nursing homes. The staff can just say they are senile and if they have no advocate or loved one, they are screwed. So I drive to Westchester and ask to see Jay. I am being told that he cant have visitors just has he wheeled up to me and said in an urgent hushed voice “Let’s get out of here!” He had two black eyes. We made it out the door and just as I got him into the car an employee tried to stop us by physically grabbing the car door. My friend has two black eyes, I’m suppressing my urge to reciprocate and now this fool is grabbing my car. I stop, jump out and let him know by words and body language that he is not dealing with an elderly patient. He’s about to get his ass kicked. Like all bullies, he’s a coward, so he runs back into the facility threatening to call the police. As if a patient there of their own free will can be arrested for leaving?
That was the just the start of a long line of nightmare facilities. I started to see a common theme. My friend was too articulate. The more vegetative patients were the preferred ones. Jay complained when his entire load of laundry never came back, leaving him with only a pair of sweatpants and a tee shirt for days. He complained when his checkbook was stolen and his account was drained. He complained when his devices were broken or stolen, when his bathroom was completely inaccessible. He spoke out against injustice, just as he had always done, just as anyone would. He was “evicted” from the last four homes. Tuluca Lake, Los Angeles, Marina Del Rey, Santa Monica, different cities, same story. But they cant just evict for no reason, so they do things like wheeling him to the curb, putting him in a cab and calling the police when he returns. The police tell him it’s a civil matter and he can’t enter private property. As I write this he is on a five day “Code 5250”. His latest facility wants him out say they say he has gone crazy. Surprisingly, he has not. I got a nurse on the phone and he told me that Jay was a great patient, but the supervisors want him gone. When he got to Silverlake Medical Center Psych Ward, the staff told him that they see this all the time! Even the wording on the paperwork looks copy and pasted. So in two days from now, I’ll try to help him find a new home. With most every new place I see good staff and caring people. But they aren’t the entire system. I see patients sitting in corners like vegetables, I hear others moaning incoherently, I saw my first elderly woman with tattoos, so that generation is now in the system already.
It’s outrageous that Jay is experiencing this, but it would be just as bad if it were a WW II Vet, a stranger, your Grandmother! Every time I shudder thinking that this could be my home. The last place I live before I die. I tell my kid, who is way too young to grasp it, that I don’t need much maybe a small cabin with a view, a back room near a weeping willow tree, anything but not a place like this. I’m planting the seed now. I’m educating him on alternatives and how other cultures make it work. I hope to be an example by taking care of my parents if they get to that stage. But when it’s an inescapable matter of simply not having the money or needing medical care; it limits the options. That is where our entire nation, culture and government need to step up. If we take some time now with these uncomfortable choices it will be better in the long run. Living wills, End of Life Options, choices written down now not later under stress. Congress if full of millionaires, they’re millionaires by the time they do their deals and retire anyway. They are notorious for only addressing issues that effects their corporate donors or effects them personally. Pushing for reform should be done but don’t expect that to help you or your loved ones any time soon enough. This has to start with “Grass Roots” organizing…. And let the elderly smoke grass too!