Getting old is worse than you think
GARY MASON NATIONAL AFFAIRS COLUMNIST
NOVEMBER 1, 2018
Here’s a fun topic to start your day: old age. Let me begin with my conclusion: it sucks.
Of course, age, particularly old age, is relative. People talk about their golden years in glowing terms – when they are in good health and have the means to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
I’m not talking about that period. I’m talking about that uncertain, often painful stage beyond the golden years, beyond beach walks with the family, beyond an enjoyable round of golf with friends, when all of that is impossible. This phase of one’s life can be deeply distressing.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been forced to learn a lot about what happens when a loved one becomes ill and is no longer able to care for himself. The situation ignites a series of discussions and group decisions, none of which is easy or without anxiety. And as our population ages, these are conversations that are going to be taking place on an ever increasing basis.
Two words of advice for anyone on the precipice of such change: brace yourself.
The seniors’ care system in Canada is under enormous strain, to be sure, and it’s only getting worse. A problem arises when seniors who have entered hospital can no longer return to independent living. Hospitals face heavy daily demands for beds for the aged. It’s all about churn. They don’t like having anyone there for long stretches of time.
If someone is unable to return home as normal, then the hospital will try to design a support system to make that possible. Most often, that includes supports such as in-home nursing, for instance. Some of this can be subsidized, but a lot of it can’t. In many cases, required assistance could cost a family tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Private nursing homes are another option, but they are expensive. Especially if the person needs 24-hour care; then we’re talking $10,000 or more a month. Most people opt for a publicly-funded bed, but those are not easy to come by. There are wait lists across the country for them. And sometimes, when a bed does come up, it can be a long way from where the person was living.
There were reports last year of people in Newfoundland being moved to residential nursing facilities 200 kilometres from their hometown. Some provinces have a limit of 100 kms. Imagine. In 2017, the waiting list for long-term care beds in Ontario was 32,000. Some provinces, such as B.C., are trying to build more to keep up with ever increasing demand, but it’s been impossible.
Meantime, entire floors of hospitals are packed with patients who should be in a care home but aren’t, because there’s no space.
It’s utterly depressing.
One thing you will discover as you navigate this uncomfortable, unpredictable world, however, is that it is inhabited by the most incredible human beings. They include overworked nurses and social workers, underpaid orderlies and security staff. These people have some of the hardest, most underappreciated jobs anywhere, with enormous responsibilities. And I have quickly come to appreciate how much most of them genuinely care for the poor, sick strangers that have been put under their wings.
Being pushed into this world has also made me think about death. A lot. I maintain that when it’s time to go, I want it to end like it did for my Uncle Artie. He was a handsome, outgoing man right to the bitter end. He died, at 80, of a massive heart attack, under a gorgeous old oak tree in his backyard, while on his way for a swim.
I know what I don’t want. I don’t want to exist simply for the sake of existing, living in a strange place alongside others who are very much surviving in the same manner, with more misery in their lives than joy. The moment I find myself heading into that situation is the moment I want out, by whatever means possible.
Canada’s assisted-dying law requires people to be lucid enough to give consent even minutes before a lethal injection is administered. This is a flawed aspect of the legislation, and the case of Halifax’s Audrey Parker illustrates that.
Ms. Parker ended her life on Thursday, by lethal injection, only because the late-consent clause forced her into making that decision earlier than she wanted to. And that’s not right.
When we choose to die, and where, should be on our terms, not anyone else’s.