Your Turn: Aging in America

An excerpt from the new book The Age of Dignity posted on our site started an animated conversation amongst followers of our Facebook page, with many writing in to share their personal stories of caring for elderly loved ones and myriad concerns about their own futures.

In the book, author Ai-Jen Poo recounts her family’s decision to put her beloved grandfather in a nursing home, against his wishes, during the final months of his life.

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“I almost feel as though he died the moment he arrived there; his dignity was stripped away upon entry,” she writes. “My father, my sister and I will always regret that my grandfather’s final hours and ultimately his death were so lacking in comfort and beauty.”

Poo, who is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, writes about the coming “elder boom” that we are just starting to experience, which is leading to “skyrocketing” demand for professional caregivers. By 2050, Poo writes, the number of people needing long‑term care and personal assistance is expected to shoot up from 12 million to 27 million.

Is America in a good position to care for all these people? Hundreds of people shared the financial, personal and moral dilemmas they are currently facing in caring for an aging family member or in making decisions about their own futures.

“There are some, but not enough, great care facilities, but they are expensive and out of reach of most people. We need more support such as increased Social Security benefits and new ways to cover these expenses,” says Diane Beaulaurier, in the most popular comment.

A number of people suggested that friends and family members who are caring for the elderly be compensated for their work. Here’s what Nancy Fields had to say about that:

“Start paying the unpaid caregivers. Medicare doesn’t blink an eye at paying a nursing home for poor quality care and yet totally ignores the financial burdens put on families who are caregivers.”

There were many who feel institutions are not the appropriate place for elders to spend the later stages of life. Most people, like Poo’s grandfather, want to live and age at home. “I don’t want to be in a nursing home,” writes Jude Silver Nance. But as several people replied to Nance, one may not have a choice.

“Most patients are not in a home because of something within their control: Parkinson’s, ALS, Alzheimer’s, stroke, MS, the list goes on,” writes Jennifer Harvey.

Others, having cared for their own parents, don’t want to put the same burden on their children. Nancy Schwalen writes:

“I have been doing this for 4 1/2 years (the first 2 years I helped her with caring for my father). I want to be in my home when I get to my 80s but I don’t want my kids to have to give up a big chunk of their lives so I can. What a dilemma.”

While some reflected on horrible experiences witnessed at nursing homes, as Poo did in her excerpt, others living in facilities for the aged say they are working out just fine.

“I have lived in a retirement home for 16 terrific years. I am surrounded by friends who care, a staff that looks after our needs. Believe me, living in ‘an institution’ is NOT horrible, it is great! My husband had great care for the last 10 weeks of his life in the nursing home unit at our place, when I could visit at any hour. He was well cared for,” Marji Tuell writes.

Carla White White, who says she has worked in a nursing home for 25 years, said she never witnessed any “cruelty or neglect” in the various facilities she’s worked at as a traveling nurse. She adds:

“Nursing homes are constantly evolving to provide dignity and comfort to the residents… Maligning nursing homes does nothing but scare people. I’m extremely proud of the care that I was able to give our residents.”

A number of people suggested that our laws should allow assisted-suicide as an option to allow “death with dignity” as Milton Combs put it. He adds:

“I’m almost 70 and many of my peers already have plans in place for ending their lives when the time comes, whether determined by health or finances.”

In general, many people expressed concern that the complex issue of aging in America is not getting the attention it deserves, especially as our society changes.

In the old days it was family. Today with the economy the way it is no one can go without a pay check even though you can request family leave. Someone needs to come up with a way. Thanks for addressing this. I am almost there and basically have NO ONE,” writes Pat Rose.

Our Facebook community also pointed to resources that may be helpful to the elderly and those who care for them, including a recent Atlantic article about a “cutting-edge” approach in the Netherlands, where one activist who wanted to make convalescent homes less institutional created an entire village for elderly residents. Wouldn’t that be nice!