I was recently speaking to a relative who has been in a senior’s home, unhappily, for a couple of years.
Although her family has offered many options for her to live with them, she has found fault with each of them, as she has found in the home, and so she has ended up feeling trapped in her current setting.
In fairness, she has not been happy for a long time and so it might be difficult to expect she’d be happy at this particular stage of her life, when she has multiple health issues.
I was, just the same, struck with the emphasis she placed on the concept of dignity, or perhaps more accurately indignity, when it came to identifying her greatest source of unhappiness.
There are many reasons for this element standing out for her at this point. First, she shares a bathroom with someone who is neither hygienic nor considerate. It’s a constant source of annoyance for her and more than once a day she is faced with an inability to use the facility when she really needs to.
Second, because she has put on a lot of weight after becoming essentially chair-bound, she cannot tend to all of her own needs, most significantly her bathing process.
This means she must be taken care of by staff, and for anyone who is shy about being seen with their clothing off, this can be a challenging time.
She’d like her hair washed more and her body washed less, but that is the third indignity.
It’s not up to her to make such decisions. The timing of activities in her life are set by the institutional schedule and staffing availability.
While there is some effort made to prepare her for actions they might be taken, it is not uncommon for someone to come sweeping into the room and whisk her off for some procedure that comes as a surprise to her. It reminds her, in her own words, of “being treated like a child.”
Finally, as her fourth major indignity, she finds the food objectionable and thus doesn’t even enjoy her mealtimes. Again, she’s a very picky eater and has been difficult to please since she stopped shopping and cooking for herself but the reality is that most large institutions have relatively simple meals intended to provide the basics of nutrition more than the pleasures of fine taste.
I remember my father, when he had a colostomy during a bout of colon cancer, commenting on how there comes a point when you have to sacrifice the dignities of the body and retain the dignities of the mind.
In other words, you had to maintain your own sense of personal dignity in the way you acted and dealt with others, even as your bodily functions and lack of privacy were paraded around for all to share.
As difficult as my relative might be to deal with, because of her general inflexibility and unwillingness to compromise her very specific needs, I was, just the same, sympathetic to her. After seven decades of complete independence to do as she chose to do, she has found the lack of choice in her current setting to be a significant challenge to her sense of dignity.
She has always marched to her own drummer and the institutional drummers have a completely different rhythm to which I doubt she will ever be able to march. I felt the most sorry for her because, while she is the greatest contributor to her own state of mind, it is sad to see her so unhappy at this stage in her life.
It is said that as we age we become less flexible and more fixed in our ways, but for those who are on the downhill slope, perhaps we should reconsider our mindsets and actually work on becoming more flexible and more accommodating. It’s okay to want things a certain way when we have the choice to do so, but we better learn to be adaptable when that choice no longer exists. The ability to focus on the blessings of each day will never be more important than when those blessings seem few and far between!
Graham Hookey writes about education, parenting and eldercare. (firstname.lastname@example.org)