Thoughts on aging, assisted living, and death

When people age, they often move to assisted living facilities, either by their own choice or in response to outside pressure. Often, these facilities present themselves as being basically just like living in your own apartment, except that they clean for you, provide meals, and offer enjoyable activities.

And, when people first move in, this is generally true. People who can do the activities of daily living without help retain control over their lives, can come and go as they please, and live very similarly to people who live in their own places. But as residents age, they loose physical and cognitive abilities, and often lose control over their lives. What once looked like an apartment can look like an institution really quickly when you start to need more help.

  
    
On TV, we never see aging or death depicted very accurately. People who die on TV don’t decline over time, they’re just there until they’re not, and sometimes they look perfectly healthy in a hospital bed before they aren’t there. And sometimes, not being there isn’t dying, sometimes it’s being put into a home.
        
Real death is not like that. Real death is not usually sudden. People who die of old age normally become disabled first. On TV, when you become disabled enough for it to matter, you disappear. In real life, you are still there, you are still a person, and you still care about your life. 
     
So, if you’re old enough to be considering moving into an assisted living facility, you’re old enough that you need to plan for what will happen as you become more disabled. Don’t assume that the people who run your residence will know what to do; you will be better off if you make the decisions rather than outsourcing them to other people.
  
On valuing your life:
If you are old, people might pressure you to refuse treatment for medical conditions you have so that you will die sooner. They might euphemistically call this dying naturally or not prolonging the dying process. But there’s nothing unnatural about using a feeding tube, treating an infection, or any number of other things people might try to talk you out of. Do not get all of your medical information from people who see the world this way. Medical decisions are yours to make, and make sure that the people advising you on your care believe that your life is worth living.
    
Pay attention to the disability community as well as the aging community. Some people feel like they would rather die than come to be impaired in a way they’re dreading. Hearing the voices of people who live with those impairments and value their lives will make it much, much easier for you to get past that fear.  Everything you face physically as you age is something that some disabled folks live with long-term. They know a lot about how to be disabled and still be free, self-respecting, and live. Disabled adults who live free lives and avoid nursing homes have had to gain a lot of skills that you are going to need. Not all of what they know has reached the aging community. Learn from both. 
   
In particular: There’s a lot of fear and misinformation about feeding tubes. When people ask you to fill out a form indicating which treatment you do and don’t want, feeding tubes are one of the first things they ask about. People often see eating with a feeding tube as something like being a zombie, being undead, and living an unacceptable life. But feeding tubes are really just a way to eat and stay alive if you can’t use your mouth to eat. Similarly, breathing support is just a way to breathe. It doesn’t make you a zombie. It lets you stay alive and gives you more time to live and love and care about things.
  
Questions to consider:
  • When I am no longer able to walk as far as I want to go, how will I get a good wheelchair and learn how to use it?
  • If I lose the ability to speak, how will I communicate? 
  • If I develop dementia, how will I communicate as I decline cognitively? What do I need to do now to make sure that if I develop dementia, I will still be treated like a person?
  • If I need assistance in the activities of daily living, will I still be able to decide how and when to do them, or will those decisions be governed by staff convenience?
  • If others decide that I am a fall risk, will I still be able to make my own decisions about when and how to get out of bed, and whether to use a bed alarm?
Just, generally speaking - your life does not end when you become disabled. It just changes. When you become disabled, your life will still be worth living, and you will still care what happens to you. Don’t let anyone talk you into devaluing it, and plan to keep your freedom.