In Being Mortal Atul Gwande, the practicing surgeon and author of three best sellers goes beyond medical advice for elders. He talks about how we all need a purpose in our life for as long as we are alive. For the most part, our human nature desires to maintain control—over small and large decisions—in all aspects of our lives. How can this natural desire be accomplished when we lose independence and need the assistance of others for some of our activities of daily living? How do we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of aging in place at home versus moving into a senior community?
It can be easier, if you can age at home, to be surrounded by familiar, sentimental objects, to receive family and friends in a private environment, and to see and enjoy nature outside your window. These things can still be accomplished to some degree if you are able to live in an independent living setting. But it is much harder if you live in an assisted living or skilled nursing home facility. Often residents and family members come to realize that while the senior is safe in an assisted living community, they often feel helpless, lonely and bored.
So, how can we keep life meaningful when we are frail or sick? We need regular visits with people we know and care about. We need everyday pleasures like flowers or plants in a room, or a bird feeder in eyesight. We need mental stimulation, a newspaper subscriptions, books on tape, or a book discussion group. But mostly, we need a cause beyond ourselves. Finding something to do beyond ourselves makes life matter, whether it is taking care of a beloved spouse or friend, caring for a pet, writing letters for a political cause, or volunteering in one’s faith community.
Can you find things in a residential community that might make daily life better? Things like more privacy in sleeping rooms, comfortable common areas to be with others, staff members who believe in keeping residents active and moving, and volunteers who are a regular part of the community, singing with residents, bringing dogs to pet, or reading out loud. The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. We owe it to our loved ones and ourselves to live as well as we can, with purpose in our life, for as long as we can.
To Atul Gwande, life is meaningful because it is a story. “A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens…and in stories, endings matter.”