Seizing the chance to redefine aging

There was only one possible topic I could address for this maiden entry of “The Age of Innocence,” a new, twice-monthly column devoted to Aging.

The death of my mother.

The photo you see to your right is one I took of my mom last June, only a month before she died.

At age 90 and suffering from the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s, she was housed in an upscale assisted living facility in East Lansing, Michigan, just miles away from where I grew up.

The facility purportedly offered “memory care” for her failing body and brain, but my siblings and I knew this was largely a joke.

In truth, she received virtually no mental or physical stimulation other than endless blaring reruns of The Carol Burnett Show, punctuated by weekly visits from a volunteer pianist and a handful of other obligatory social activities.

Physical activity? Non-existent. Mental engagement? A marketing sham. Instead, she spent days on end being wheeled from her bedroom to the dining room and into the living room.

When I first arrived from California and stepped inside the facility, my mother’s eyes were glazed orbs, unfocused and dull, staring listlessly downwards.

Since older adults in long-term care facilities rarely experience the joy of human touch, the first thing I did was rub her arms, massage her shoulders, and kiss her cheeks.

The Age of Innocence. Life , death and the new world of Aging. For a complete archive of Matt Perry’s columns, click here.

While the facility had a back porch, there was no ramp to allow residents access to the grass or trees below. Instead, a locked gate prevented them from descending into the natural world.

With the help of a staffer, we opened the gate and bumped her wheelchair down the five steps onto the grass. As I wheeled my mother forward, the wind hit her face and she recoiled, then did something simple but marvelous: She looked up, her eyes suddenly alert.

Her feet grazing the grass, hands grasping pine tree needles, nose warmed by the sun, face bracing from the wind – she looked to the horizon and became, for the first time since my arrival, alive.

I knelt down beside her and asked “Would you like me to sing to you?”

“Oh, that would be wonderful,” she replied, uttering her first words of the day, in a voice so clear and distinct it shocked me.

I sang “O Holy Night!” which for years she had performed at Christmas services with my father, then segued into Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and the Turtles’ “Happy Together” – two songs I knew by heart.

Finally, my mom was there with me.

Then she commanded me very clearly “Over there. I want to go over there.”

I wheeled her over the grass to the spot in the photo. This sick, frail, elderly woman then reached up to the iron fence, pulled herself out of her wheelchair and began rattling it.

At 90 years old. All by herself. One month before her death.

And that is when I took this photo.

What rang in my head at this moment were the words of Peter Reed, executive director of the Pioneer Network, an organization devoted to changing the culture of aging: “The way we treat older adults in this society borrows more from the prison system than it does the healthcare system.”

Is it any wonder that my mother was rattling her cage, warehoused in a system that rarely meets the physical needs of residents while almost entirely neglecting their emotional and spiritual desires – not to mention their sensual ones?

What has become obvious during the past year that I’ve covered aging issues is that growing old is much like global warming. We are on the precipice of disaster and can either follow the visionaries who seek to redefine aging, or continue to treat and imprison our parents and grandparents – in their bodies and our facilities.

Do I despair? Yes, I despair for older adults like my mom who have had their humanity stripped from them.

Do I have hope? Yes. Because over the past year covering older adults I’ve been blessed to meet many amazing people who are committed to transforming the aging experience. .

In Sacramento alone – my home – there are several national leaders in the field: Reed, who lives here although the Pioneer Network is headquartered in Chicago. And David Troxel, who has established The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s (with his business partner Virginia Bell who is in her 90’s) which trains long-term care workers to treat dementia patients as if they were their own best friend.

In Silicon Valley, the brilliant physician and longevity expert Walter Bortz has outlined a roadmap for successful aging in “We Live Too Short and Die Too Long.”

AgeSong Senior Communities treats residents at their six Bay Area facilities as “wise elders.”

In California and nationally there are hundreds of cutting-edge programs to keep older adults vibrant and engaged, with more and more springing up every month: The Eden Alternative is changing the physical environment for older adults with sunlight, pets and plants; and the Music & Memory initiative seeks to give every single resident in long-term care an iPod so they can listen to the music they love, as emotionally rendered in the film “Alive Inside.”

While in this column I will occasionally spotlight the terrors of aging, I will typically focus on these powerful reformers who are providing solutions and changing the way we live and age.

Because freedom in our Golden Years is worth fighting for.

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