Now that I’m 81 years old, more of my friends are moving into nursing homes. Sometimes, it’s due to some kind of frailty. Other instances, it’s a sort of insurance policy. They want to make sure they get in before their health fails and it’s too late. Still, I try to dissuade them.
Nursing homes today infantilize older people. We’re too easily discounted.
If people start living to 100, we need to flip the script on aging. I believe a large part of that will be rethinking where and how older people live. Nursing homes need to be places where elders continue to be pertinent and matter.
Recently, I read about an experiment in which older people received plants. Some were told to nourish and take care of them. Others were assured that an aide would tend to them. The group that took responsibility for their plants lived longer.
That isn’t a surprise to me. People, no matter their age, need to feel and be viewed as capable. Everyone wants a purpose. Writing off older people is stupid. When given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge.
Tutoring, anti-poverty work, human care – these are all valuable jobs older people could do. Even people fortunate enough to no longer require a paycheck will want to keep looking for ways to make a contribution and learn new things. I know I do.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of jobs that seemed, to me at least, more play than work. I’ve been an English teacher in Honolulu. I served as part of the crew on a small boat from Tahiti to New Zealand. I was on active duty in the military and also spent time in the reserves. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, an assistant dean of admissions at Princeton, and the founder and first president of Expeditionary Learning (EL Education), an organization that makes schools more engaging, effective and joyous. For 20 years, I also ran the Fund for the City of New York, a foundation set up by the Ford Foundation to improve the functioning of government and quality of life in New York City.
Today, I’m retired. I still sit on a number of boards and write the occasional study or report, but I feel a step removed from the engagement and connection that “real” work has.
The irony is that as I’ve gotten older, I feel I’ve developed more strengths. (When you make a lot of mistakes as I have, you learn from them.) I’m wiser. I’ve always been a patient person, but now I’m even more so. I’m pretty calm. I don’t worry much. I’m optimistic.
I don’t think I’m an outlier. Many people my age are also savvy. If we’re going to live to 100 – and are pretty fit and healthy — why not put that to good use?
I’ve got a long list of things I’d still like to learn, too. Drawing. Maybe painting, if I really had 20 years. Yoga. Tennis. I’d also like to travel, returning to places I had adventures in, like Japan, plus locals I never got around to visiting, such as Africa, China, Brazil and Scotland.
For now, though, my purpose is to be the primary caregiver to my wife, Cathy, who has Alzheimer’s. My main job is to be with her and take care of her. It’s tragic that so much of her memory is gone. But taking care of the woman I love, that’s not hard.
If I weren’t around, she’d have to live in a nursing home.
My mother and mother-in-law both passed away in nursing homes. Each time I visited them, I thought, “Boy, this place could use an Outward Bound.” (Although we’d have to use a different name lest people connect it with facilitating an early departure to another world.) Older people need challenges built into their daily routines — things that make them feel fresh. Proud. Competent.
If it were up to me to design a better living situation, I’d get people up earlier in the morning for brisk walks or a dip in cold water. There would be new opportunities to try things, even jumping rope, so they had the chance to improve their skills the more they try.
Instead of depending so much on staff, residents could cook and take care of each other. They could camp out. Spend time in nature. Meditate. They could build a culture. Maybe at one particular nursing home, everyone’s writing. At another, everyone paints.
The context of daily life also needs to be addressed. Modify an activity by doing it out in the woods rather than in a rec room. What happens when you go through another part of your routine with the lights off? Let’s change the rules.
Everyone needs surprises, no matter their age. Imagine saying, “We’re going to put on a circus. This person’s going to learn to juggle. That person’s going to walk a tightrope, even if we never take it off the ground. And you, over there? You’re going to be the elephant.”
We all learn better when there’s more risk, challenge and emotion involved. As Confucius said, “The last part of your life is for understanding.” People living to 100 could aim to understand better — and be better understood.
Greg Farrell retired as President and CEO of Expeditionary Learning (now EL Education), a nonprofit school creation and improvement organization, in 2008. He currently serves on its board, and on the boards of several other nonprofits. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Keene, N.Y., where he and his wife, Cathy, raised their two sons. Cathy, who was a professor and dean at LaGuardia Community College, has Alzheimer’s, and Greg is her chief caregiver.
This post is paid for by AARP.