After a decade in assisted living, Martin Bayne knows more about long term care than just about any living person. Fewer than one out of 25,000 residents survive that long in institutional care. And Martin has an important message for those of us promoting culture change — nothing we’re doing will make a shred of difference until residents take responsibility for finding purpose in their own life.
Without purpose, they may as well die — which is exactly what kills most people living with frailty, Martin says.
“Without purpose, nothing gets done, everything stays the same. People don’t move, they don’t have new ideas, they don’t grow and eventually they just give up and die,” Martin told me during a phone conversation we had yesterday after he shared his most recent post with ChangingAging.
In the 1990s at the peak of a professional career spanning journalism, long term care insurance, aging advocacy and Zen Buddhism, Martin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. His slowly worsening condition forced him to move to assisted living a decade ago. A prolific writer and advocate, Martin can no longer even type and relies on voice recognition software to update his blog The Voice of Aging Boomers. He also recently appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and contributed to publications such as The Washington Post and next month to Readers Digest.
Martin said he sees the world of aging and its challenges differently than others in the field. Not only does he live with significant physical suffering — “ravaging tremors, excruciating pain and a failing heart that often makes me fight for each breath” — but he’s acutely aware of the suffering of those around him, which creates an environment of “ambient despair” so palpable, “it’s like pea soup you can almost cut with a knife.”
We still don’t have anything in this country that can directly address the real concerns of those who are aging and living with frailty, Martin said.
“Folks like Bill (Thomas) have done a lot of wonderful things, there’s tremendous need to promote culture change,” Martin said. “But on a fundamental level, if people don’t take responsibility for finding purpose in their own life none of that other stuff will matter.”
There is a way to dramatically improve the lives of people living with frailty, whether they live in an institutional nursing home or a Green House home, Martin said. It’s simple, doesn’t cost a nickel, and with guidance it’s not difficult to do.
The secret to finding purpose boils down to helping people overcome their ego and think of themselves as part of a community, rather than as an individual, he said.
“Letting go of the ego is the hardest thing we have to do in life, but once you make that breakthrough and go down that track it becomes a natural way to live,” Martin said.
Martin credits his years studying Buddhism in a Soto Zen Buddhist monastery in helping him learn to accept the pain and suffering we all experience in life. It helped him come to terms and accept the fact that he will not live forever.
Martin acknowledged it won’t be easy to convert others to his way of thinking. American society in particular is hugely ego-centric. He said our culture’s obsession with living as long as possible is dangerous and promotes selfishness. It keeps us from coming to terms with our mortality and also keeps us from acting with compassion.
A similar problem exists in long term care facilities, Martin said. We criticize assisted living and nursing homes for fostering helplessness among residents, but what they’re really fostering is selfishness, Martin said.
“The people with the best intentions treat these facilities as if it’s a place for people to come and be entertained,” he said.
“We put people here and give them no responsibilities an that is a big mistake. It leads people to only think of themselves,” and not the community they’re a part of, he said.
How do we change the status quo? The secret to changing people away from an ego-centric attitude is to expose them to “incremental compassion”, Martin said.
“It won’t be a new program, it won’t be new government regulation that fixes this problem,” Martin said. “Compassion is the key to make kindness and good-heartedness the rule of order.”
Martin plans to explore these topics in an upcoming hour-long NPR show he has been commissioned to host for his local NPR station. The first episode of his show “Aging and Dying in America” will broadcast this May 30th.
We’ll be sure to give readers a heads up to listen online. In the meantime, how important do you think compassion and purpose are in improving the lives of elders and others living with frailty?