Baby Boomers are notorious for not wishing to think about the future! Ironically enough, however, research shows that we are going to live longer than any other generation. On one side of this equation is the potential for a long and rich life filled with rewarding relationships and the potential to make many contributions to the world around us. But on the other is the inevitability that we will probably need more care for more years than any other generation – not just because of longer life but also because, as research also shows, we are being strained to our limits – physically, materially, and emotionally – by caring for our own aging loved ones.
The good news is that science also shows that people who think about their later years do a better job planning for those years and that people who are prepared have a longer, healthier, and happier longevity. This means that now – in our active and productive years – is the time to start setting the stage for a good-quality late life. Baby Boomers tend to feel a bit omnipotent if only because we have been such a powerful cohort socially and economically, and it can be difficult to think about the late years, which signify a move toward greater dependence. But old age does not escape even the most powerful among us, and denying rather than preparing for future needs can only hurt us.
Begin this important journey by trying to imagine yourself “old-old,” which is when help becomes really important. What does that mean for you? In the United States it starts at about 90, although with every moment people are living longer, and soon, people will be 90 years young, and old-old will begin at 100. Whatever “old-old” means to you, imagine that you have lived long enough to rely on help from others. People come into your home day in day out. You may be modest, but you need someone to help you bathe in the morning because you worry about falling. You depend on help for meals. You like to cook, but you tire more easily than before, and it’s hard to do all the grocery shopping on your own or to stand at the stove. You like the community center but need some help getting there, because you don’t see well enough to drive when it gets dark (or perhaps you fear being jostled on the bus). Your children visit as often as they can… but they lead busy lives. Now, your daily companions from good morning to good night are paid caregivers – lovely people, but some with very different backgrounds and life experiences – and not a single one of them knew you “when.” You love to reminisce and share stories, and you want to develop a good working relationship, but at the same time you do get a bit tired of explaining who you are, who you were, what you did, where you’ve been, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
It’s dinner time. You notice an unfamiliar taste to the mashed potatoes, and the green beans look different. You ask your helper of the day, who answers, Oh, isn’t it great? They’re making really good instant potatoes now! You think to yourself, No, not really. And you ask, What about the beans, to which she answers, Frozen. I recently read that frozen is just as good as fresh. But you have always stayed away from ready-made and frozen food! But mmm… you don’t want to complain, because it’s so nice for someone to cook you a hot meal. As you move to your pantry you notice that your usual white paper towels are flowered, that your favorite HotnSaucy mustard has been replaced by Sweet&Tangy, and that your favorite drink has been replaced with a look-alike. What’s happening to your kitchen?? Now you move into your living area to settle in for the evening. On top of the television you notice a little basket of plastic flowers that was never there before with a little ceramic puppy “chasing” a silk butterfly. What’s this, you ask your helper. Oh, she says, This is one of my favorite things from home. It’s really cute, don’t you think? You hate plastic flowers. You hate knick knacks. But you’re beginning to really like that caregiver and worry about hurting her feelings…
In case this seems far-fetched and you cannot imagine yourself in such a position, millions of older adults find themselves in precisely this position! People in care face these and a myriad other dilemmas. They are grateful for attention. They are grateful for help. And they are grateful for a sense of security that comes with being in the company of others. The all-too-common price, however, is a loss of voice that comes with being surrounded by stronger, younger voices, be it family members, caregiving aides, volunteers, or medical and other service providers.
This is where planning and preparation comes in. We can avoid these kinds of dilemmas if we have a way of telling those who care for us how we wish things to be done – how to do the just-right things as we see them. Not only does research show that active planning for late life sets the stage for better quality, it also shows that the more voice we maintain in our daily affairs, the better we feel about life. In fact, this is why people are now routinely engaged by many types of service providers in developing their own treatment or service plans: science shows that when we have some control over our destiny, we have a better destiny! Translated into the world of later-life planning, this means that caregivers whose work is informed by the personal values, needs, and preferences of the person in care will do a better job at keeping that person’s life familiar, comfortable, and joyful.
Everyone knows how to put food on the table or help someone stand under the shower or make a bed, lock the door, pay for medicine, etc. But not all older adults are the same. We are born as individuals and become even more individual as we grow, mature, and experience life. Values get shaped by family, ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, geography, and many other factors. Why should we presume that if someone knows how to give quality care as defined by one older person he or she will automatically know how to do that in the next situation? Why make caregivers work in the dark or place ourselves in the position of giving the same tips and guidelines over and over again just to be sure that our voice remains part of the daily decision-making mix? In contrast, imagine that those around you have a resource filled with tips for doing things as you would if you could do them yourself. Imagine the relief, comfort, and security from knowing that every day can bring quality of life without having to demand, describe, explain, defend, or excuse over and over and over again. The social mission of Custom Elder Care is to help people create precisely such a resource.