I work as a caretaker to the elderly. My primary job is to remain in their homes and help them with mobility, using the facilities, and quality of life assistance. Although I am relatively new to the field, I have discovered a few things that I believe can help those of us who plan to live to an age where we won’t be in complete control of ourselves.
Especially in the year of COVID-19, sickness and death confront us at every headline, in masked faces at the grocery store, and in prayer requests across social media. Ultimately, we must face our mortality whether we like it or not. But with Christmas finally around the corner, there is no better time to cherish what makes life meaningful.
1. Family Is Essential
The presence of adult children in the lives of my clients has been indescribably crucial. As I’ve seen many times, having children who can fight for you is better than any amount of money you could have accumulated over your lifetime. So that’s my number one takeaway: don’t get old without a family! Have kids while you can, and if tensions or division arise later in life, put your utmost effort into reconciliation.
Conversely, there’s the sad story of my Great Uncle Bob, a man estranged from his wife who never had children. Throughout his life, he became alienated from his extended family. Eventually, he washed up at a random nursing home that accepted Medicaid. Fortunately, my mother (bless her heart) found out and intervened to improve his quality of care.
When you’re old and unable to care for yourself, you need an advocate. Your children and grandchildren are your best legacy, and, in your twilight years, they will brighten your life more than any other accomplishment. In many ways, children and family are one of the only things that keep us from oblivion before our actual death.
2. Don’t Be Ashamed of Dementia
Every elderly person I’ve worked with has had at least some signs of mental decline. Although it makes most people uncomfortable to consider how soon and how often the elderly start losing their ability to talk and think, it’s no one’s fault mental “oomph” is lost.
Being old leads to mental degradation. It’s something everyone will experience in time — a shadow that is inescapable. Yet, despite impaired awareness, elderly men and women experiencing mental decline are just as deserving of love, affection, and human rights as the rest of us. I’ve seen enough to realize that it’s possible to live past dementia and remain happy without full mental capacity.
3. Death Comes to Us All
It must be accepted. When you get old or when a loved one gets old, realize that, in due time, they will die and there’s nothing you can do about it. What you can do is give the elderly person comfort before he meets his maker.
Working with someone on hospice always carries that little question in the back of your head: “What if he dies under my watch?” In time, however, you learn to live with it and accept the fact that these people will die. It will one day be your turn as well.
Being a hospice caretaker was an eye-opening experience for me, as I saw someone one day who was alive (although not in good condition) then gone by the time the week was over. It awakened my appreciation for the fact that I am young and healthy.
Furthermore, it encouraged me to do what I can so that, when I am like him, my last days aren’t spent with an almost total stranger who is getting paid to give me a morphine drip. I still have time (Lord willing) to fight for a life that won’t be a footnote at the end of a church service. We’d all be wise to follow suit.
4. Find Ways to Share Your Story
Don’t lose your chance to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do. Then share your story with other people before you lose the ability to tell it yourself.
Various clients of mine had rich and wide-ranging experiences, but I was unable to learn to many details because of their illness. I gathered some clues from their family members, but in the end, these fascinating lives disappeared underneath the waves of time. Tell people your stories so they can remember them. Prepare for your inevitable demise so it won’t ring hollow when you finally return to the earth.
Once, as I sat with one of my clients was on his deathbed, I noticed an entire room filled with trophies from sailing. Because of those trophies, I knew that he had experienced so much more than the little he could communicate. Perhaps he told his stories to others, but he no longer could to me. I felt sad that this person had so many untold tales of his once vibrant past, now silent and forgotten.
The loss of each human life ends a world of experiences and knowledge that could fill a book. So do your best to record the amazing things you’ve done and the funny stories you’ve experienced. With today’s YouTube and Facebook world, that shouldn’t be too hard. Even without social media, you can write or record your memoirs. Dying without telling the grand story of your life to at least one person outside the family is a travesty.
Being old is a privilege that we should cherish (after all, the alternative is to die young!). We shouldn’t look down on old people because of their dementia and health conditions, because someday, we’ll likely wear similar shoes. I’m thankful for the privilege of working with the elderly, and the perspective it has given me at a still young age.
This past year, as COVID-19 has only exacerbated the isolation of the elderly, make a point to wish “Merry Christmas” to the seniors you meet, whether in your family or not. Take time to tell your stories, and listen to the stories of others, especially those who are older. I guarantee your holidays will be brighter and more meaningful for it.