Growing old: Is it a blessing or a curse?
But please, stick it out. The message of the upcoming one-hour “Frontline” public television documentary, “Living Old,” is one we need to see and hear even if it makes us uncomfortable and fearful about our own fate.
Through the eyes of the elderly, their families and doctors and nurses who care for them, “Living Old” explores the modern and not-so-pretty realities of aging we rarely talk about.
Yes, modern science is able to prolong life, but at what price? As our nation ages - people 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population - many professionals worry our healthcare system, with its focus on treatment and cure, is woefully ill-equipped to handle the new realities of long-term care.
“Loving families begin to wonder, is it love or is it cruelty to treat this pneumonia in my father who is suffering from cancer and has begun to lose his appreciation of all of those things that made his life worth living?” said Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2005.
“Nobody’s bothered to think about what the repercussions are of trying to keep people alive longer and longer,” said Dr. David Muller, dean of medical education at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "(It’s) another bypass surgery, another transplant … without anyone worrying about ‘Well, what’s next?’ ”
And it’s not just the devastating illnesses.
“Not everyone has cancer, not everyone has Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, but almost everyone loses function,” Muller said. “It could be something as simple as slowly worsening vision or really bad arthritis on one knee that makes it harder to get around.”
For example, only one in 20 people over the age of 85 is fully mobile, and roughly half will develop some form of dementia.
“Everything started to go at 82 years,” said Rose Chanes, 96 and in assisted living. “I don’t hear, I don’t see. … You’ve got to be crazy to call it a blessing to live like this. … I call it a curse.”
“Living Old” will air on public television stations on or about Nov. 21. We watched a preview and admired the love and dedication of a daughter who gives up her job to care for her bedridden father at home. We fought back tears, hearing a dying man with lung cancer worry about how his wife would cope.
He died two weeks after the interview. We felt the pain of a daughter seeing her parents grow frailer, the father with Parkinson’s disease and the mother with Alzheimer’s.
“With my mother, it’s been a slow process, but in the last few months things have escalated,” said Mary Ann DiBerardino, whose parents, in their 90s and married for 68 years, share a room in a nursing home. “It’s difficult some days when I’m not sure if she doesn’t eat because perhaps she’s forgotten how to use her utensils or does she not know how to swallow.”
That’s the reality of old age and death for millions of Americans.
“Everybody has the fantasy of dying by just going to sleep, not feeling anything, just ‘don’t wake up,’ ” said Lillian Gleason, a registered nurse. “But it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes people live a long time with serious, serious problems.”
And it could happen to anyone.
“I really seriously have to think about what’s going to happen to me when I get older,” Gleason said. “It’s kind of a scary, scary question. I think we all want to postpone it. I know I do. I don’t really want to think about it right now. But I am faced with it every day because I see it in my work.”
Watch “Living Old,” and you will see it too.
Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com or GVCruz@aol.com.