What makes life worth living when we are already old and frail and unable to care for ourselves?
This question bothers me no end as I note the sad plight of senior folks confined in nursing homes. I can’t help but feel terribly depressed as I see the “nursing home residents” bound to and slumped on wheelchairs and lined up on the corridor.
Some of them are so debilitated that they could hardly move, and their eyes lack the flicker of vitality and vigor. It seems that they no longer have any motivation to live, and they are just waiting for death to come. And it looks like the Grim Ripper will come soon.
In their mind, they may even welcome death because it would end their pain and misery. Well, death is the inevitable end because like everybody else, they are mortal.
According to Dr. Atul Gawande, author of the book “Being Mortal,” the decline of our body is unstoppable. We can only delay it with healthy diet and exercise, but the deterioration of the body continues and eventually ends in death.
As we get old, Gawande noted, our body parts and systems wear off. Parts which used to be tough like our teeth and bones soften, and those which used to be soft and elastic like our arteries harden and become breakable.
Some people live longer than others but they, too, eventually die. Even holy people succumb to death. Remember Pope (now saint) John Paul II? When the end was about to come, he suffered, among others, incontinence as there was a total failure of his bodily systems.
Nursing homes are full of senior people with medical problems similar to those of Saint John Paul. But what is pathetic about them is that they are obviously in a depressing mood every day. Are there ways to lift their spirit?
There were many studies, researches and experiments conducted on the problem of aging. One experiment was called “dog therapy,” and this involved giving dogs as pets to nursing-home residents. The objective was to make the residents feel as if they are living in their homes, not in an institutionalized place like a nursing home.
The results of this experiment indicated that those given dogs were in much happier mood than those without dogs. It also showed that they recovered faster from their illnesses. This kind of therapy, though, was later stopped because taking care of the dogs became an added burden of the nursing-home personnel.
According to Doctor Gawande, the sad situation in nursing homes has come as a result of the view that aging is a medical problem, and from this perspective, old people are seen as patients.
Gawande said that the medical profession is unprepared for the problem of old people, noting that there are only few doctors specializing in geriatrics and gerontology. This is so because gerontology is not a money-making field in medicine. Many like to become surgeons because surgeons make a lot of money.
And not a few doctors have the patience to attend to the needs of the elderly. A case in point is the problem of old, deaf people. Some doctors don’t have the patience of having to repeat their words many times when they are talking to folks with impaired hearing.
What nags medical experts looking into the end-of-life problem is: Is there a happy death? We believe there is a happy death in the Asian setting. If you’re surrounded by people who love you at the appointed time, you would somehow feel you’re dying a happy death.
There is another way of looking at death. It is the Christian way. This point was succinctly elucidated on by Saint Francis of Assisi when he said, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”