Ending the Nightmare before It Starts

Preface: I’ve been enjoying working with Lorna Dueck and her excellent team on the TV show “Context with Lorna Dueck.” For the last few months I’ve been blogging weekly on her site here. To encourage subscribers and other readers of this blog to subscribe to the one I write over there, I’ll post a few of those posts here for a while—and for faithful readers of both (God bless you) I’ll give a heads-up at the beginning of any blog posts here that have already been posted there. (I respect your time and attention.)

So then, let’s start with the first one I wrote for Lorna…one that got a lot of attention.

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What’s the absolute, number one, no-doubt-about-it worst fear each of us have about aging?

Pain? My late mother endured it for more than a decade as a cancer survivor. I never again want to witness such an ordeal.

Blindness or other loss of perception? To lose contact with the world, to lose the enjoyment of its rich pleasures, is a grim prospect indeed.

Bodily dysfunction? Embarrassment from incontinence, fear of tripping and falling, frustration over household tasks attempted with arthritic fingers…the list of ways in which our bodies can fail us is horribly long.

No, as Bette Davis wryly put it, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”

Poverty—which haunts far too many older Canadians—makes all of these challenges worse, of course, since money can buy us medicine and tools and helpers.

Yet as bad as all these are, the number one fear we all have about aging is something else: loneliness…and being alone.

Experts repeatedly affirm that old people thrive when they have strong friendships, when they enjoy a sense of community, when they begin the day with purpose.

These bland generalizations can be put more sharply: We all, old or young, thrive when someone cares about us and we care about them.

And we shrink when we have no one, and no one has us.

Recall those frightening studies of baby monkeys that had every physical need provided for, but failed to thrive for lack of a caring touch and a smiling face.

With an ever-larger and longer-lived population of seniors, we can’t possibly afford to pay for everyone to get the highest standard of medical care.

 But the good news amid this bad news is that the single worst thing about aging is the one thing we can all do something about. We can, each of us, provide the one thing that older people need more than they need anything else: caring attention.

A sustained relationship with an old person, of course, doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s life nowadays. Lots of us would rather pay higher taxes (or tithes) to have other people look after the elderly.

What the elderly need most, however, is us. Not our dollars.

Could we consider “adopting” a single old person or couple? Could we decide to visit them so regularly that they could count on it and look forward to it?

Could we know them well enough that when something is wrong in their care we could spot it and advocate for them?

Could we guarantee for at least these one or two people that they will never again have to spend a Christmas Day, or New Year’s Eve, or birthday alone?

Could we ask our kids to trade just one hockey or video game a week to get them out of themselves and into a distinctly different experience that will be far more demanding—and rewarding?

The one thing we most fear about aging is precisely the one thing we can fix.

Will we?