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?
Brian Alger says
This is an inspiring article. Both of my parents passed away in a nursing home. Although I met a number of caring people there, it was an institution and a business first and foremost. Martin’s insights about moving away from an ego-centric attitude to “incremental compassion” can make an important difference. I think is essential to build a sense of community and purpose as a means to improve the lives of elders and others living with frailty. I look forward to the broadcast.
Joy Loverde says
Like Bill Thomas, Martin Bayne is a path-carver. His perspective from inside the walls of assisted living demands that we pay attention NOW to the process of creating a purposeful life.
Lydia Corbett says
thanks! It surely does!!!!!
Thank you for this post! I ‘found’ Martin months ago and was moved by his NPR Fresh Air segment. I am so glad to hear about what he is up to now, and that there is a show in the future that he is hosting. He is an inspiration and I look forward to learning more from his perspective.
Margit novack says
To say I enjoy Martin’s posts is perhaps the wrong word. I value what he writes, his unique perspective and his thought- provoking ideas. He is not afraid to be controversial. How bold and exhilarating is that!
Exactly what so many of witness daily. The elders we see accepting volunteer roles to visit the bed ridden, welcome new elders, etc are the happiest and healthiest in our homes. They didn’t necessarily start out the healthiest, but by sharing themselves, they found purpose. Encouraging those who are so use to being “taken care of” is difficult though.
John Robinson says
What a beautiful article and what wisdom! Life only matters insofar as we have purpose and community, and it’s community that gives us purpose. Only when you matter as much or more than I matter do we have a place and a purpose in living. And that can be anywhere – but without it, we are nowhere. Caring for something beyond the self is what gives self life. I am so moved by this man’s essential and direct insight.
Kort Nygard says
I was talking to a depressed nursing home resident who said he’d be content again if he could just have a job. I offered to get him some towels to fold. His response: “No, no, I don’t want BUSYWORK! I want something that if I don’t do my job something BAD happens!”
Starr Piner says
Amen, thank you for sharing these insights! Very thought provoking!!
Marcia Barhydt says
This article couldn’t have been posted at a better time for me. I have mild depression and it’s easy on some days for me to get bogged down with myself.
I think Martin’s concept that we must take responsibility for ourselves is a life changing attitude. We cannot sit around waiting for others to care for us, do for us, think for us. We need to continue to be as vibrant as possible. And that takes being responsible for ourselves.
What a concept. Thanks so much Kavan for posting your article today.
Karen Overturf says
Absolutely! What Martin addresses is the “helplessness” plague of Long Term Care that Dr. Thomas pointed out. Helping people find Meaningfulness in life once they hear “don’t you worry, it’s all taken care of,” can be counter-intuitive. Every single person has a need to have their day be worthwhile.
Great find, Kavan!