The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.
— George Elliot, Middlemarch
When my mother reached the age of 100, I had to place her in a nursing home. Giving up the freedom of her car, losing her apartment, adjusting to living in a room with two other women, was challenging but she never lost her sense of humor or her capacity for enjoyment. She would call to tell me the good news: the oatmeal had been hot that morning! She could be angry but never held a grudge. Her love of people and her sense of humor made her popular with everyone.
I quickly came to understand the rhythms of institutional life: meals, television, Bingo, jigsaw puzzles, exercise class, church service on Sunday. It was a decent, well-run place but my mother chose not to be much involved. Instead of watching TV and playing games, she stayed in her room, reading spiritual materials, practicing her own form of contemplation. I saw it as a kind of spiritual activism that one of my teaching colleagues called “Affecting the quality of the day.” In her quiet way, my mother brought calm, hope, trust, humor and compassion to all around her.
I do not want to imply that she was saintly, but I kept wondering what might be the impact if all the residents in that nursing home had spent less time watching TV and more time “affecting the quality of the day.” Society does not yet understand how interconnected we all are. Mother’s nursing home might have birthed a powerful group of elders helping to lift consciousness.
At its most basic, activism may be what Robert Sardello calls the value of simply noticing. “Just noticing, we find a center that can re-establish coherence, an inner body harmony with the widest spiritual reaches…The world is so agitated that to be in the presence of a single person who is at peace can feel remarkably healing.”
Perhaps the ability to be still and simply notice brings with it a new orientation toward time. One moves from chronos where time is like an arrow to the future measured in seconds, minutes, and hours, to kairos, where time is circular, encompassing past, present and future in the perfection of the present moment. Instead of dwelling on the number of years we have left, old age gifts us with a new and deeper awareness of present time as the doorway to eternity.
Just one comment. I have found that elders can be all kinds of activist by just being themselves wherever they are. Your mom’s behavior is also evidence of that greater phenomenon. Elders present an alternative possibility to the reality of the moment, by just staying true to themselves. It is a gift, affirming the possibility of being oneself, and thus changing the world.
Madeleine Kolb says
A very thoughtful post. The activities for the residents are from out of another era, and even back then, some of them were a complete bore. Was bingo ever really entertaining?
@Sheryl, the TVs giving the same depressing news over and over sounds like sheer torture, especially if the sound is turned up super-high.
My own mom is in a nursing home. As a private person, she also prefers to be in her room, reading sometimes, to being in group activities of a type that she never liked in the past. She’s pretty much an atheist, and not always in good humor, though she is “proper.” Actually it can get annoying when it is assumed that if you are old, you must be religious. Occasionally, she’ll go to a music presentation.
Actually, also, I find the recreation director to be a tireless worker who tries – with limited budget and support – to provide activities and to engage everyone – and to get them to engage with one another. She has, I have found, a better grasp of how people really function than some of the “professional” staff. It is incredibly difficult to present activities that are suitable for a wide array of residents.
One thing which bothered me – but not most residents, to be clear, – was that a new administration put in new TVs all over – including in the dining room and lobby. The upshot? – constant noise. It was often a challenge to have conversations during meals pre-TV — for many reasons ( Hearing loss,varying degrees of cognition, …) but now it is almost impossible. I feel it also absolves staff of trying to speak with residents In the dining room. The set is tuned to a local cable channel which gives news and the weather, over and over… Have I ever requested that it be turned down? – Yes, and I told administrators that I saw it as reducing socialization. On 2 occasions when the sound was turned down, some residents had a fit. Because, they are also using this to tune out surroundings – and other residents. I felt it was better pre-TV; this seems to isolate people – people who are already isolated from the “world”, even when together. Pre_TV, I saw the more capable residents taking time to speak to and look out for others. That seems to have disappeared. Frustrating. The NH is using this the way some parents use TV to sedate and occupy children . . .
Elva Roy says
I very much appreciate Cheryl’s thoughtful post and agree with what she said.
Dorothea Johnson says
Having worked in these settings for a couple of decades, I’m left with the impression that elders prefer the solitude and the meaningful, quiet, interaction 1:1. It is us, the caregivers, who impose all of these activities and noise onto them. For two reasons, one, this is all we know, and two, it makes us feel like we’re helping. We equate care with doing, you see. Elders generally disagree. And of course, “being” is not a reimbursable service, so there’s that too.
Thank you for the beautiful post.
Thank you for raising some very key points, from your experience. first, about being vs “doing” – all the imposed activity which may not be adding value. There is little recognition of the richness and potential in simply being – at any age, not just for the elderly.
and you also raise a financial issue, a very interesting one – what creates profit in most cases is doing things, intervention. also there could be question of whether a person or family is “getting their money’s worth” if the time is not being filled with activities.
Roger Anunsen says
Thank you for a terrific post. I plan to use portions in our “The Aging Mind” gerontology course. I will feature your wondering about the impact of spending . . . less time watching TV and more time “affecting the quality of the day”.
We teach our students that, especially with the endless focus on crime and chaos, those plugged-in elders are certainly not helping their cognitive future and may be creating a risk factor. Even though we hear elders say they are not “really listening” to that 24/7 news channel, we remind them that they did not come equipped with earlids. The hard facts are that their minds and their emotions continue to hear, repeated over and over and over again, the worst of the world. Brain research may soon reveal that their brains are indeed being damaged.
Our Rx is to turn the news off for 20-minutes. Listen to music without commercials or even intentionally turn on some silence.Set a timer if necessary. Read something or simply daydream. Then, turn on the news and see if the world is still there. Repeat until it feels right to expand to 25 minutes, then 40 and then the goal of 55 minutes. Ahhhhh! A cost -free brain healthy prescription.
“Affecting the quality of the day.” Thank you for these power-filled words. Placed end-to-end, your phrase becomes a series of drivers toward a life of purpose. One of the University of Oregon’s most popular sports taglines is “Win the Day.” Your mother certainly did just that.
Jake Tunney says
ohhh, so nice!