Peter Durand

Aging in America

In Health on November 19, 2008 at 3:19 am

My grandmother broke her hip.

“Great Momma” Mary was going out to defrost the freezer in the garage and slipped on a step. Bump-bump-bump! Right down the three concrete steps. She knew right away that something bad had happened.

Life had just changed big time for her and her husband, Jimmy, aka “Big Daddy”.
She crawled back into the house and called for my grandfather, who was still snoring in bed. He has always been a sound sleeper. Even as a young pilot in WWII, his nickname was “Sleepy”.


James “Big Daddy” Roberts, age 90, pumping iron at a physical therapy session.

Today, Big Daddy has two artificial knees, diabetes, neuropathy in his feet, and can’t walk without a walker or his wooden cane with the face of Moses carved in the front.

His wife, although fifteen years his junior, is what we tend to categorize as “frail”.

Diagnosed with diabetes last year after loosing a shocking amount of weight, Great Momma Mary is still the shopper, the cleaner, the pill-manager, the trash-taker-outer and the schedule-keeper.

Or was.

They are in a pickle. So, by proxy, is “The Family”.

Fortunately, all of my grandparents have been independent spirits and highly social. My dad’s mother, Dottie, ran a fantastic little shop filled with exotic fabrics and Asian artifacts called the Torri. She kept her own house and balanced her own books well into her 89th year, until she, too, got frail and fell.

Now the discussions between my mother and her siblings are about how to convince my grandfather that “thing have changed.” My mom, the oldest, has her own medical gauntlet to run with my step-father who may or may not have Alzheimer’s.

The youngest sister lives two-and-a-half hours away, has kids in school with the cavalcade of activities: football practice, horseback lessons, eye exams, Bible study class, and life on the run in the suburbs.

Fortunately, my grandfather is strong-willed and strong-bodied, leading a remarkable active social life for a man who has been stripped of his legal right to drive.

Plus, he has got it all together upstairs.

This situation is, of course, an entirely normal rite of passage for any child, but outfitted with all the special American angles. We always seem surprised when people in our families get old. The questions erupt quickly, shockingly unanticipated, seemingly from nowhere. We are like cities who didn’t make plans to stockpile road salt and the first flurries are just beginning:

Should we get in-home, non-medical care? Should we consider assisted living? How much will my grandparents’ investments allow? What happens to the house that my grandfather’s brother designed in the 1930s? How do we talk about these issues? Who makes the final decisions?

When Joseph Coughlin of the MIT AgeLab talks about “the elderly” or “aging”, he reminds the audience that he is talking about us–all of us. By being alive, we age. As we age, things change. In America, there are a lot more people aging than at anytime in our nation’s existence.

Matt Cottam, co-founder and creative director of TellArt which specializes in designing human experiences, spent the summer on-site at a retirement community in Rhode Island with a team of designers completing the first phase of the Nursing Home of the Future project.

In his presentation at BIF-4, he shares some of the teams insights into life and decision-making of “the elderly”. The statistical snapshots are pretty mind-boggling:

  • A Baby Boomer turns 60 every 7 seconds.
  • One year of nursing home care costs $80,000
  • $240,000 to live in a nursing home for 3 years (if you are 45, you need to save $1,000/month!)
  • There are as many eldercare facilities in the US as there are McDonald’s franchises.

The team has created some stellar multimedia storytelling devices, in particular:

This weekend, as I sat in my mother’s kitchen hashing out the details of various options facing our family over the Sunday paper, I noticed that the Wall Street Journal had put out a special encore supplement on the very topic: Solving the Caregiving Puzzle.

Among the articles on re-inventing retirement, is an interview with Martha Stewart who described lessons from her mother’s long life. These lessons of caring for an older parent (Stewart’s mom lived to be 93) will be coming out in a book in 2009.

Trying to make it through a book or article on eldercare is one thing; trying to discuss the options facing your parent–and the permanent effect it will have on their finances and independence–is another challenge entirely.

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