Southeast Advocacy Center for Elder Rights
Health Care at 84
By Mike Gorman, OTR
We are all allotted a portion of days in this that we call our lives. We’re born, we live, we die. Amen. What comes in between is what we call our life. This is the story of a particular point in the life of a woman; we’ll call her “Jenny”. Jenny has lived a long full life. At this point in her story, Jenny is 84 years old and she lives alone in a retirement community in the sunny South. Jenny is a vibrant, thoughtful person with deep spiritual roots. In fact Jenny told me that she once met the Dali Lama in person! Jenny loves to read and she loves to be active. Or, at least she did. About six months ago Jenny fell while changing her shoes and suffered a complex fracture of her left acetabulum (the socket of the hip joint). Because of the complexity of the fracture, combined with some of Jenny’s other health issues, Jenny’s physician elected not to surgically repair the fracture. This left Jenny’s bones to heal on their own as she went through convalescence. Jenny’s stay in the hospital lasted a week and then she was transferred to a long term care facility where she received rehab services with the hope that she would eventually return home.
After two and a half months in the nursing facility Jenny did return home where, at the time of this writing, she continues to heal, recover and receive therapy services six months after her fall. I had the pleasure of talking with Jenny recently about her experience in the health care system. Jenny’s experience was one of pragmatics, spirituality, humanity and Bingo.
The Pragmatics of Health Care:
Jenny had a broken hip, she couldn’t return home and she had to deal with the facts of facets of the health care system that she found herself in. Jenny had to move into a nursing facility; at 84 years old Jenny had a roommate; there were dictated times to get up, times to eat and times to go to bed; there were times when the care workers were pressed for time and didn’t treat Jenny with the consideration and compassion she deserved or wanted; and privacy, well that was all but gone. Jenny said that the intimate details of life such as bathing and dressing were now done in front of others. Jenny became depressed, couldn’t sleep, lost her appetite and began to think negatively, a behavior very uncharacteristic for her.
Health Care and Spirituality:
Jenny says that because of her physical ailments her thoughts became very physically oriented. She was so focused on her physical body and what it couldn’t do that Jenny lost her sense of a spiritual perspective. Spirituality was very important to Jenny but as she was losing so many things, her independence, her privacy, her personal space, she had trouble relating to life from her spiritual base. This led Jenny to feelings of giving up, something that she had never experienced before in her life.
Health Care and Humanity – an Oxymoron?
I like to think that the people that work in health are among the best of us but the fact is that health care workers are just as human as the rest of us. The human element in Jenny’s situation came from the staff in the facility where she lived. For Jenny this source of humanity was a double edged sword. To perhaps overly generalize, there were two types of attitudes among the staff in the facility, there were those that seemed to be simply going through the motions of doing a job and there were those that connected with Jenny and the other patients in meaningful ways. These compassionate care workers or “CCW’s” I’ll call them, recognized Jenny as a real person and treated her as an equal. The age of the worker did not seem to be a factor in determining attitude. Some workers were young and new to health care while others had been around for a while. The good ones, the CCW’s, regardless of age or experience, had a way of connecting with patients. The CCW’s facilitated Jenny’s recovery by allowing her to attempt to do things for herself but they were there if they saw she was having problems and needed help. The CCW’s allowed Jenny to maintain her dignity and were involved with her on a personal level; they greeted her in a genuine, pleasant and spontaneous way. The compassion of the CCW’s made a difference in Jenny’s life.
The other important source of human kindness for Jenny during her recovery came from her friends and her social support system. Their love and compassion were, and continue to be, a great source of comfort for Jenny.
Bingo is a force to be reckoned with in long term care. I am an occupational therapist and as such I believe in the importance of meaningful activity in life. Is Bingo a meaningful activity? If you’ve spent any time in a long term care facility then you know without a doubt that Bingo is a meaningful activity! Years ago I worked as an activities aide in a nursing facility and Bingo was by far the most popular event of every week. There was nothing that even ran a close second! During her time in the nursing facility it was one of the things that Jenny enjoyed the most. Bingo allowed Jenny to pass the time, meet new people, make friends and even to find some new “buddies” as she called them. Time may heal all wounds, but Bingo makes the time flyJ.
Since her fall Jenny has worked, and continues to work, at overcoming the depression that this experience has left her with. How could one not be depressed when faced with the loss of so much independence? Even though she is now back at home, Jenny still has to rely on the help of others. Jenny has to use a walker to get around and she receives assistance from home health aides. One of the things that Jenny has done for herself to help in the healing process is to start a “Gratitude Journal” in which she lists all of the things that she is grateful for.
During my interview with Jenny I found her to be a remarkable and delightful person. I was so impressed by her resiliency and “life force”. I say life force because I don’t know what else to call it. What I’m referring to is how “alive” she is; how engaged in life she is. At 84 years she is fully living each day even though she is dealing with the physical, emotional and psychological effects of her fall. The purpose of this story is to tell how an experience in health care is so much more than receiving treatment for an illness or injury. We wouldn’t expect that receiving medical care could take away our sense of spirituality. It shouldn’t be able to make a lifelong positive thinker negative and depressed. And yet these are not uncommon results during times when our lives intersect with the health care system. This is not meant to demonize health care or its workers. Health care fills a vital need in our world and many care workers are angels of mercy. I’ve met many in my life. The point of this story is to raise awareness by telling the story of a real person. A real nice person to be precise. A person that has received care in our health care system. The medical model did what it was supposed to but it seems the human element is what makes all of the difference.