My best friend is in the midst of a dilemma facing so many of us at the present time, albeit in different guises – for some time now, she has spent many hours on the ‘phone each week trying to sort out issues pertaining to the health and wellbeing of her aging parents. In addition, a couple of times each week she checks in with her sister – a full-time teacher and also mother to three boys, who lives closer to her parents – to discuss “strategy.” Their father has Alzheimer’s disease, and broke his hip in a fall about a month ago at the residential center where he had been living for some months. This was not the first institutional care situation for him. Her mother is unable to get about outside the house, and as she has limited mobility, even with assistance there reached a point where she was unable to cope with her husband’s illness. In addition to his physical and psychological challenges, he is also an escape artist.
My friend’s parents have both worked their entire lives, plus my friend’s father is a veteran of the Korean War. They have their own home, and struggled to give their daughters a fair start in life – doesn’t every generation want to give their children something better than they had? So, they’re pretty much your ordinary middle-class American family. They have never been profligate with money – they bought a house and have savings - but it’s tragic, how they have struggled to afford the care they both need, especially now that the savings are almost gone, spent on the very specific support my friend's father requires. My friend has spent hours on the ‘phone to the VA, to Medicare, to different care homes, checking their rates and what they offer - she and her sister liaise all the time, trying to work out what’s best and what they can contribute. In one care home, their father was not given his correct medication for diabetes or the Alzheimer’s. In another, no one checked on him and he walked out of the premises with some regularity, putting his life in danger - and, indeed, other lives. When her mother complained about the terrible lack of care at the incredibly poorly run rehab facility (where her father had been taken following his fall) - because the management’s promises had been far from reflected in the sub-standard operation – an over zealous nurse called the police - who were left scratching their heads when faced with a female senior citizen who could not walk, and who only wanted to question why her husband was not being properly cared for, why he had been allowed to fall several more times while in a place where he was supposed to be healing, and where he was not receiving his pain medication. The rehab facility also discharged him two days early, when was in a wheelchair and unable to move around - the family were still scrambling to find another place for him to go at that point. And that is just the tip of their iceberg. More importantly, it is also just the tip of our collective iceberg.
You know the drill when you’re flying – in an emergency decompression, you put your own oxygen mask on first before you try to help anyone else. It makes sense, and the analogy has been used in so many areas of life – if you’re weak or compromised, how can you begin to be of service to another? Yet, despite all best efforts, our country’s leaders – of any stripe – seem to throw a lot of money around on supplying oxygen masks overseas. And before I am accused of being isolationist or unable to see the big picture, I understand there is good reason for international expenditure on several levels – protect the world, and we protect ourselves. But I also remember reading a statistic during the first several months of the Iraq war, that the cost of that war itself, even in those early months, could have put every kid in America through college, to say nothing of how much healthcare could have been provided.
There is absolutely a place for overseas aid, and there is a case for protecting our national security, and a case for international outreach – but for heaven’s sake, we are sitting on a time bomb here that universal health care is just not addressing. And I am sorry – there is still no such thing as affordable health care in America. What we have is, for some, more affordable insurance options, but what with the deductibles, and the co-pays and the other small print, it’s not working out as affordable, and is still a major headache for a very significant percentage of the population. Mind you, in fairness, it’s early days yet – though let’s not even get started on the cost of long term care insurance.
My friend and her family are currently the victims of domestic terror – and that terror is the truth what is happening to their family and the strain on the fabric of their lives. They’ve reached Code Red, and it is happening to families across the US, and it will not ease given the great numbers reaching their golden years and therefore more susceptible to compromised physical ability, and perhaps to age-related psychiatric illness. I read just recently that the Baby Boomer generation (and I’m one of them) had assumed they would swan through being seniors, envisioning themselves as always active and vital – but they tend to think about "senior" as being perpetually in their 70’s, rather than looking at the reality of what comes next. As the commentator said, “They don’t know how things change again when you get into your 80’s, and everything gets even harder, and you need more help.” Many of those boomers are not only now faced with their own challenges, but those of their very senior parents.
Both my friend and her sister have already compromised their work and home life while sorting out problems with their aging and unwell parents, and they’ve both suffered illness directly attributable to worry – so I think it’s time to address this form of domestic terror afflicting a great many families. And what do we do to fight any sort of terror? We commit a very serious budget to easing the threat, the risk, the pain, the strain and the stress. It’s time to put on the oxygen mask at home. A country that does not take care of its own renders itself a very weak country indeed.