‘All this talk of getting old
It’s getting me down my love
Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown
This time I’m comin’ down’
The Drugs Don’t Work – The Verve
My brother Peter has Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease where symptoms of dementia gradually worsen. In its early stages, memory loss tends to be mild. By late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on conversations and respond to their environment. While it’s not 100% clear when it started, Peter has suffered from the ‘full-blown’ condition for some time, and has been hospitalised for the past 6 years. It’s the long goodbye. Sometimes when we visit, he’s in good form and with it. At other times he’s lost-in-space – as a result of the condition, medication or both. Sometimes, there’s light, almost comic relief. A couple of months back he informed that he was “punching in long hours”, complaining about the level of compulsory overtime he had to complete while working there, asking if it was legal! But when he mistakes one of my sisters for my mother (long since dead) or when he just can’t respond at all, there’s a great sadness, the last chapter in his life being spent in a disconnected state. Overall, Peter had an interesting and pretty full life. He spent a number of years in Asia, working with the Royal Air Force. When I grew up in Cabra, courtesy of Peter, I had some of the coolest toys imaginable – all the way from Malaysia and Singapore. After the overseas stint, he came home, got married and raised 6 kids. Benjamin Franklin said: “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” So, maybe there’s some comfort in the fact that he had a lot of good experiences until more recent times. Maybe…
Institutional Rhythm: A couple of weeks back I brought along the guitar and played a few songs (cue jokes about playing to a ‘captive audience’). In advance, I’d chosen stuff from the 60’s that he’d likely remember. With music, the melodies and lyrics become hard-wired into our brains. Several of the residents were able to sing along, remembering every word of those older tunes. About 15 minutes into a pretty lively session, the staff served lunch. We’d reached the bewitching hour of 12:30 – the exact time at which lunch is served regimentally every single day. This particular day, December 25th (Christmas) was no exception. It didn’t matter than one old lady was up dancing with my niece. She was told to sit down. Nor that an older man, who at one time played the Accordion, declared himself to be ‘in the band’. Two other people gave a rendition of their ‘party piece’ (strangely, one resident can still tell jokes really well – but can’t converse normally at all). Leaving that day, I was saddened by the inflexibility. The power of routine seemed to have over-ridden human compassion. The needs of the inmates had been trumped by the requirements of the institution.
Zero Control: On ‘mature reflection’, my anger at the care home (it’s staffed by really nice people) was less about Peter and more about my own fears. Let me make an assumption here. Most people reading this blog will have led an independent life and intend to continue to live with a modicum of dignity and self-reliance. Forget about flying in bad weather, poisonous spiders or public speaking phobias. Having to be ‘helped to the toilet’ or wearing an adult nappy has to be high on the list of our worst fears. The loss of control. The replacement of living (in a fully human sense) with a form of existing. “There’s nothing like spending the final years of your life in a care home – surrounded by a bunch of other elderly people” – said no-one ever!
Living Well: The hope is that, like the Dutch and some other sensible Europeans, we could have an adult conversation about end-of-life issues. About how it might be possible to easily end our own life or ease the suffering of someone we love. Of course, there are enormous ethical considerations and key safeguards required. But they have to be weighted against the equally weighty questions about the quality of life living on some ‘Granny Farm’ – segregated from physically and mentally well people of all ages. Life maintained through the power of pharmacology. Perhaps there are some simple arrangements that might ease the burden. For example, in Holland 3rd level students reside in care homes with the elderly, completing chores with patients in lieu of rental payments. By breaking up the stigma of older people bunched into one place, it’s an example of a potential win-win solution to twin societal problems. Now, that’s clever.
Back at the Ranch: In the meantime, while we live in hope that ‘Ireland Inc.’ will sometime grow up and tackle this awkward but extremely important issue, can I suggest two shorter-term responses (1) Make arrangements for when you get old – by having difficult conversations with your kids now. Don’t postpone it. Ignoring the aging issue doesn’t make it disappear. You are not an Ostrich (2) Secondly, do what you can to grab life with both hands while you still have some control. Don’t put all your money under the mattress, waiting until you ‘retire’ to enjoy the fruits of your labour. I’m guessing that tomorrow, many of us will regret the chances that we didn’t take today.
Simple ideas. All we have to do now is to pay attention i.e. put them into practice. Hey, let me know what tunes you like and I can start practicing for your visit! Or visa versa.
Saying of the Week. Courtesy of Kevin Empey (Willis Towers Watson): “When you commit, the world tilts in your favour.” Hadn’t heard that one before and it struck a chord.
Comment of the Week: Was at a retirement ‘do’ for Karl O’Connor – moving on from Ulster Bank after many years stellar service. Karl is one of life’s really good guys. Talent builder par excellence. Anyway, the line was that there are so many middle-aged, ex Ulster Bank people now working for Bank of Ireland, that BOI has been nicknamed UB40!
Lighter Note: This one from Tim O’Neill (don’t tell his wife Geraldine).
New Dog: This is Lexi. She’s an 8 week-old German Shepherd puppy. I bought Lexi as a surprise for my wife but it turns out she is allergic to dogs. So we are now looking to find her a new home.
She is 59 years old, a beautiful, caring woman who can drive, is a great cook and keeps a fine house. All inquires to 084-2190122.
From Sean Dowling…A Quiz Question
Q: What’s the difference between a Rottweiler and a Poodle urinating on your leg?
A: You’d let the Rottweiler finish!
Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.