Places to live, not just to die

I recently posted “The Gift of Presence”, about my recent experiences volunteering at an aged care facility.

A friend, who works in Aged Care, sent me the following after reading my post. I asked her if I could share it, and she graciously allowed me to do just that.

Please read it. It’s deserves a wide audience.

“If I was to ask what feelings and thoughts you have when describing aged care facilities, I am confident that the majority of them (if not all) would be negative.

Why is that? Where does that picture come from?

While many people are quick to point the finger at the media, on this subject they must take responsibility. Phrases such as ‘kerosene baths’, ‘malnutrition’, and ‘places of despair’ are words too often used by the media about aged care, and they strike fear into the bravest of people.

Of course, that’s not to say wrong doing shouldn’t be reported. It should, but it should also be balanced with good stories and positive reporting.

Dreaming I know, but when did you last see a fund raiser or a telethon for the aged in our community?

A large number of aged care facilities around Australia are operating in the red. There are a significant number that have closed their doors and very few are wanting to expand the business. The industry is highly regulated and receives little to none encouragement for the hard work carried out by many hardworking and passionate staff. The government isn’t putting the much needed dollars into aged care, instead responding to negative press with more regulation and aggressive auditing.

When a resident and their family arrive at the facility they are most often distressed, experiencing fear, sadness and guilt after spending weeks walking through a minefield of paper work and red tape.

The resident has often been on a journey of grief and loss – loss of their physical health and independence, maybe a lifelong partner, their home or their pet. Sometimes these incredibly vulnerable persons have dementia or are nearing the end of their life and are not able to comprehend all that is happening.

The residents’ loved ones are burdened about leaving their relative to ‘die’ in this place and feel incredibly guilty that they must now leave.

But wait – aged care facilities are not places to die but places to live!!! They are places where care is given to the human being and not the human body. As long as we are breathing, we are alive and not dead.

Let me give you an example. Mrs E arrived at the aged care facility very angry and upset. She had been living at home on her own and had a wonderful supportive family. Her husband died five years ago and all of her children were working full time. Mrs E was a very active member of the local community, was ‘a pillar in the local church’, and active in the local political arena.

Unfortunately a year before she came to the aged care facility, she had a fall at home and was hospitalized for six weeks. While she was later able to return to her home, her mobility was limited and she was diagnosed with early stage dementia. A visiting nurse came every day and gave her a shower, and her family visited after work and in the weekend.

The rest of the time Mrs E sat in her chair lonely and afraid to get up to get food and go to the toilet. Several of her close friends could no longer visit because of their own frailty and Mrs E wasn’t confident to go out without family.

She became increasingly depressed and lost a significant amount of weight. Her family tried to encourage her to start looking at aged care facilities but she refused stating she is ‘ better off in her own home’.

Unfortunately Mrs E had a fall and lay on the cold floor overnight until the nurse found her the next day. She sustained a fractured hip and her children were told she could no longer go home and they must find an aged care facility.

When Mrs E came to the facility, she was angry and upset, unwilling to be part of the community.

However, over the next year, the staff lovingly embraced her.  Mrs E had the physical care that she needed but more importantly, she made new friends and found companions in both the residents and staff.

She was able to experience new things and her confidence grew as she had support around her. Her own family became part of the community at the facility and the highlight of the week was the volunteer that came and sat with her, listened to her stories and encouraged her with her artwork.

Mrs E suffered a stroke after 9 months and was lost both her ability to communicate and her mobility. In those hard times, the volunteer continued to come and sit and massage her hands. The staff picked fresh flowers and played beautiful music in her room. They made cups of tea for the family and continued to show daily expressions of compassion and care.

Mrs E deteriorated and in the last few days of her life many of the staff came crying to say good bye and to hold her hand. The volunteer sat with her daily and gently sang to her as she massaged her hands and feet. The family shared stories about their mother and a staff member encouraged the daughter to lay beside her Mum and hold her as her life slipped away.

Aged care facilities are about individuals with a history and life experiences. They feel pain and disappointment, just as we do, and they need to be given love and hope as a basis for their daily lives.

As much as we think we care for them, they care and give back to us through their wisdom.

Aged care places are not perfect but we need to be passionate and proactive about changing the ageist attitude towards the care of the elderly, and towards the elderly themselves.

We need the wider community to support those living in aged care places and not marginalize them. One day it might be our loved ones or even us in such a facility. What would you want?”

Thank you to the person who wrote this. It’s a beautiful reminder of those who live amongst us, yet who we often fail to see. Thank you to those who do invest their time and their heart into aged care. You are heroes unsung.