I have always been astonished by the progress of aging. As dementia and frailty robbed my grandfather of the independence that allowed him and my grandmother to live in their home of 25 years, they--like many people of their generation--moved to an assisted living facility.
I will never forget visiting my grandfather in the early days at his new home: he was there in the middle of the room in his wheelchair, asleep. It was just one of the many encounters I had with his and my grandmother's isolation, their boredom, their loneliness. And they were exceptions, for they had each other. Far too many people age alone--often without companionship, family, or any support network.
Without the people, the routines, the activities that fill our lives from day to day with purpose, what do we live for?
PBS Newshour recently spotlighted Seattle’s Providence Mount St. Vincent nursing home, a place that houses a home for the elderly--from assisted living to skilled nursing--as well as a day care for children up to five years old.
From a young age, these young children are learning about life in all its phases--frailty, dementia and all. And for the elderly residents, they are surrounded by youth and vigor.
All of us have common needs to be recognized. All of us have common needs to be loved, and all of us have common needs to share life together. And so these children bring life and vibrancy and normalcy. It’s a gift. It’s a gift in exposing young families to positive aspects of aging, and it’s a gift of also having children seeing frailty, normalcy and that’s part of that full circle of life.
For me, preparing for death can't just happen when the end is nigh. It's a destination that we have to be aware of and prepare for from an early age: engaging with the elderly and the ailing teaches us the importance of caring for ourselves and for others; it reminds us of human frailty and needs; it replaces the fear of the unknown with the freedom to make tough, but empowering choices about our own mortality as well as the end of life for those we care for.