Sandra Martin is author of A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices, which won the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction in 2017 and was a finalist for both the Donner Prize in Public Policy and the J.W. Dafoe Book Prize.
Back in the naïve days of early March, I bristled when the adult children of a widowed friend threatened to pack her off to the countryside to wait out the pestilence. I could feel the generational tectonic plates shifting in favour of a cohort of kids whose diapers I used to change.
“Why are people your age treating us like toddlers, who are incapable of making decisions for ourselves?” I demanded of a 40ish venture capitalist, with as much umbrage as I could muster while maintaining physical distance in a freezing cold park as the wind howled around my ears and thunder clouds scudded overhead.
“Because you raised us that way,” was the quick retort.
Harumph, but I had to admit he had a point. Early boomers such as myself grew up carefree and unsupervised and subjected our offspring to the regimented oversight of daycare, extra-curricular lessons and summer camp. We could avoid the solitary and stultifying lives of our stay-at-home mothers and pursue ambitious careers, ditch unsuitable mates, and embrace more daring lifestyles.
As for our parents, at the first sign of frailty, we confined them into expensive and benumbing residences, where everything from waking to exercising was scheduled – the equivalent of a 24/7 daycare. While prizing our own independence, we wanted safety for those we loved: freedom for us, control for everybody else, so we wouldn’t have to worry about them.
Now the tables are being capsized and we are in danger of being caged “for our own good” by our adult children in the same kind of systematic care we imposed on them. We learned how that experiment worked out when we tried group singalongs and communal dinners on our own parents in old folks’ homes. We were grateful to the cleaners and caregivers who fed and bathed our loved ones, paying limited attention to the economic reality that meant many of these aides were working shifts in several different care homes in order to eke out a living. Little did we realize that in doing so they could be transferring germs and viruses from one place to another.
Having a viable plan for the rest of our lives is the best retort to our overprotective adult children. On my bucket list of things I don’t want to experience any time soon – how about never – are exotic cruises and long-term care homes.
The surge of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care homes has outpaced what was expected in public health models, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who admitted that the pandemic has had “a far more severe impact on senior’s residences and long-term care facilities than we had certainly hoped for, or more than we feared.” The numbers coming out of places such as Lynn Valley in North Vancouver, B.C., Pinecrest in Bobcaygeon, Ont., and especially Résidence Herron in Dorval, Que., which has been likened to a concentration camp, are horrifying. Unfed, dehydrated, trapped in filthy sheets soaked in urine and stained with feces, residents, living in close quarters, are easy prey for a rampaging virus. Some panicked families are pulling their loved ones out of institutions in order to care for them at home without having the equipment, the training or the stamina to cope with physically and mentally compromised relatives.
As for doing away with myself so as not to be a burden, forget it. That’s what an altruistic 75-year-old friend of mine proposed. She sent me an e-mail asking for tips on a “elective, rapid and pain-free exit that does not rob the system of resources that could otherwise go to the next generation?” Actually, no, but as the author of a social history of the right to die, I know lots of examples of people who tried to end their lives, botched it and ended up in worse shape at higher cost to the health care system.
Ditto lifting physical distancing and exposing yourself to the virus “in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren,” as Dan Patrick, 70, the hapless Lieutenant Governor of Texas suggested during an interview with Fox News in late March. At least Mr. Patrick was willing to sacrifice himself, unlike Marc Dalton, a Conservative MP from British Columbia who proposed “moving Canada back to work” while ignoring the deplorable situation in long-term care homes, since most of the residents were going to die soon anyway.
COVID-19 will run its contagious course, but will it inspire necessary societal change? Will it finally be time to revisit Medicare and fix the glaring gap around home care? Memory is short, as we know from many other pandemics. The demographic surge of baby boomers such as myself reaching their “golden” years is a tsunami in waiting. There are already more people over 65 than under 15; imagine that ratio in another 15 years when the early boomers hit their 80s. What are we going to do with them – or rather, us?
Money is key unless we want a big divide between those who have the largesse to age in place and pay for dedicated caregivers and the rest of us who either have no home or can’t afford the services we need without a guaranteed basic income. On a personal level, the only way we alleged oldies are going to ensure a safe and independent future for ourselves is taking charge and planning for our future – a long one – now.
Pandemics are a great time for us to show our individual and collective mettle. A good place to start is by making or updating our wills, appointing proxies for health and finances and sharing our end-of-life wishes with our loved ones. Don’t make decisions without knowing their implications. For example, before listing choices about extraordinary life saving measures, say if you can’t breathe on your own or your heart stops, check out what it means to be resuscitated or placed on a ventilator.
Making decisions is futile if you keep them to yourself, a lesson I learned from an older friend who listed me as her health proxy, but never shared that information. I was stunned when the hospital called and asked whether I thought they should remove her from life support.
Finally, let your decision makers know where your documents are kept. A friend of mine stored her husband’s will and “do not resuscitate” instructions in the freezer, but she forgot where she had put them in the shock of his sudden collapse and the arrival of the paramedics.
I know lots of people who pride themselves on being technophobes. This is a serious mistake. Embracing the internet is a life skill, and one that will be essential if, like many 80 pluses, you have lost your driver’s licence. Texting, Zooming, FaceTiming, e-readers and other forms of social media mean you can stay connected with friends and family around the world, order your own groceries, read books and watch movies online, and connect with doctors and other professionals while self-isolating in your own home.
And while you are stuck inside, look around. Is this where you want to spend the rest of your days? If so, modify it to meet your future needs by sorting and culling your stuff, identifying impediments such as a lack of railings on steps, and planning essential improvements, such as a bathroom on the ground floor.
Remember, if you don’t make your own choices, others will make them for you. So, if you don’t want to be in a long-term care home, what is your alternative? What better time than the Age of COVID to demonstrate our resilience, maturity and resourcefulness – and if we can combat ageism at the same time, good on us.
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