What I hadn’t calculated was what it’s like to watch a friend — someone you’ve eaten breakfast with every morning for several years — waste away and die. And just as you’re recovering from that friend’s death, another friend begins to waste away. I can say with certainty that the prospect of watching dozens (at my young age, perhaps hundreds) of my friends and neighbors in assisted living die is a sadness beyond words.
Facilitated aging is a way of life for a growing number of Americans, more than a million of whom now live in roughly 40,000 such facilities across the country.
During my first few weeks in one such place, I requested a meeting with senior management. I’ve been both a journalist and a Zen monk in my day, and I like to make sure we all understand one another and communicate well.
The three executives and I met in my room, and the meeting soon turned fractious. I don’t remember exactly what the head of the housing board said, but I challenged it.
“That’s not fair,” I told him. “You get to go home every day at 5 p.m., but this is my home.” He stood up, pointed his finger at me, and roared: “This is NOT your home. You just lease an apartment here like everybody else.”
I realized right then that the residents of “their” assisted living facility, among whom I now numbered, didn’t have a voice. We arrive in this, our new society, suddenly disconnected from our past life, possibly ill, often without the comfort and support of a spouse we’d been married to for decades. We eat meals in a dining room filled with strangers and, for perhaps the first time in a half-century, sleep alone in an unfamiliar bed.
We then can find ourselves silenced by, and subjected to, a top-down management team whose initial goal seems to be to strip us of our autonomy. And it is in this environment that most of us will die.
Something else I soon came to realize was that the administrators who make up the management team play a distinct and dramatically different role from that of the staff members.
Administrators represent the whims of those who own the facility. The staff members — the personal care assistants, the certified nursing assistants and so on — are the heroes for those of us living in a facility. Underpaid, overworked and highly susceptible to work-related injuries, they are the glue that holds together most of this country’s facilities for the aging. And just as we residents live in “their” facility, these staff members work in “their” facility.