Only Anecdotal

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The theme this week is around people who need people. And while this is lovely in an ideal world, I have to say that in this one, these are not the luckiest people in the world.

These are not unfamiliar thoughts on this blog, as I have often discussed the woeful lack of community-based, long-term care services. If we did build a society in which we realized that people needing people is a natural, human instinct, we would not have built communities that value privacy and independence above the community itself. Twisted, wrong interpretations of mottoes we hold in our collective psyche: Live free or die. L’enfer c’est les autres. Our misery comes not from having to tolerate other people, but from our refusal to do so.

So, enter the assisted living. I have visited many an assisted living community, and I must say that they can be lovely. In most, I enter the lobby with the feeling that I have entered a grand hotel, often with happy hour, and brunch–with carving station. Also, mostly, with a homogenous population of a certain age and a certain income bracket… and a certain functionality, too. A little too poor, and it’s the end. A little too incontinent, and it’s time for the nursing home. I struggle with the notion of these restrictions, and also with the notion of yet another sequestering of a population in its own community.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-weekend advocacy training sponsored by Massachusetts Families Organizing for Change. Tagged onto a fellowship that I had through the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program, the experience was life-changing, particularly because of the people I met. But also because of the work we did. In one exercise, we sat as friends and family to design the ideal community for people with disabilities, for people we love. The first section involved looking at pictures of various houses. One was a typical colonial, not unlike my own house, with four windows, two up, two down, and a lovely little set of stairs leading to the front door. I saw that my mother would have enormous difficulty visiting, as she has trouble with stairs. So, we went on to discuss this, and so many other issues that come up. For wanderers, it would be such a relief never to have to worry about traffic or strangers, at least within a certain area. And what if we made it easy for service delivery, such as personal care? If people lived close together, it would eliminate transportation time and cost. If there were developmentally appropriate entertainment available, so much for the better. And so on. Before we knew it, we had created… Fernald.

Or something like it. Perhaps nicer, an assisted living sort of community, maybe. McLean Hospital, perhaps. But not the sort of community that has space for all of us, together. We anticipate the dangers of the outside world, and feel an enormous need to protect, to seclude, rather than to figure out ways to include and accept.

And so in our urgency, we reach that certain age–or someone we love does–and the time has come to find a place beyond the world and its children, its chaos and its property taxes, the hectic pace, the long walk to the mailbox in the snow, the laundry, the everyday.

We think of luxury in this way, an escape from the everyday responsibilities, but without this, without meaningful work, existence, can we remain whole and healthy? Or are we simply waiting for death?

In fact, I suppose we could argue that we are always waiting for death, but in reality I doubt that many in this country’s mainstream culture contemplate this notion at all, much less on a regular basis. And so we separate hints of it from ordinary life, this cultural obsession with youth, appearance of health, wealth… I fear that our desire to care, to help the needy, to seek solutions elsewhere, are all ways to separate ourselves, too, from the Other, the near-dead, the sick, the Us in them.

This week, I logged into my database to find an enormous number of consumers still flashing open files at me. I scrolled through the names, trying to remember the stories, and pictured some back porch, a kitchen table, a white dog, the scent of bacon and coffee still lingering from the morning, life, the stories, some waiting still to be told again, and lived, too, all distinct and yet the same in their foothold in this life, the one that we wish to tidy, to sanitize, to hold onto a heartbeat if not a heart.

I sat with three families in two days recently, and listened to the tremendous burdens they face as they attempt to care for their parents who cannot afford the luxury of assisted living. Is a nursing home the only solution? Not cheap, but at least feasible in the twisted funding structure of most state’s Medicaid programs, and their ever-present, post-Olmstead institutional bias. These frail family members no longer fit where they were, as they were, and yes, there are surely ways that they could, that we could fit intergenerational, inter-ability lives together, better. But for most of us, now, in a crisis, building a new world comes not so easily, not so affordably, not so quickly. We wish to include, but it is so much easier to protect.

Written by Only Anecdotal

27 Aug 2012 at 8:58pm

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