Living OldThe East Texas Geriatric Education Center-Consortium (ETGEC-C) hosts a monthly video series focusing on a wide range of aging topics.  Some videos are light and fun, such as Quartet, Young at Heart and Age of Champions.  Others are educational, like Exploring the Myths of Dementia.  And then there are those that tear at the heart and make you wonder what it will be like when you are old, fragile and need help.  Today we had one of those videos.  Living Old is a PBS Frontline film from 2006 that looks at the challenges facing America’s growing elderly population. The film’s synopsis states “those over the age of 85 now comprise the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, creating a much higher need for medical care and straining America’s health care system.”

There really was little good news reported in this film.  Yet it could not be viewed as something you should ignore or avoid.  It is important to look at the possibilities in one’s life for the realities of aging – the decline in physical and mental health, the inevitable loss of some level of function, the need to rely on others and to view yourself as a burden to those you love and who love you.  The trick it seems is to either accept the inevitabilities of aging or fight it every step of the way.  What it really comes down to is understanding what your quality of life may be when you are chronically ill, in need of Depends, sitting in a wheelchair with uncontrollable Parkinson-like symptoms… and you are in better shape than your spouse sitting across from you with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, loss of vision and limbs due to diabetic wounds – who doesn’t eat because she can’t remember how to swallow.

What is considered ‘good news’ in this sad scenario?  Some say if you are lucky you’ll be able to live and die in your own home, have a loving daughter to care for you or that your attitude will help relieve the pain and suffering.  But if you’re really lucky, the good news is you’ll have a heart attack and go quickly!

The film focuses on the profound questions of what modern technology has done to prolong life to the point beyond when living seems worth it – yet being stuck without much alternative since assisted suicide and euthanasia (which are different from each other) is frowned upon or illegal.  This is real life and death stuff with no easy answers.  Even the best in the business, Geriatricians, with all the health knowledge at their disposal cannot fathom what to do when they get old and are unable to function.  The film also focuses on the lack of health providers with adequate knowledge of geriatrics and how to care for older patients.  Whereas the ETGEC-C and the other 45 GECs in America pride themselves on trying to fill this huge gap in knowledge and provide clinical training that health providers need to provide adequate care for their older patients, we are nowhere close to accomplishing this mission.  The main reason I feel this way is that the need for quality health care for the very old is accelerating faster than the speed of the proposed solution, i.e. provide incentives for more health providers to enter geriatrics and fund programs such as the GECs to better train health providers.  Throwing money at problems never seems to work well.

I am hoping that the simple act of increasing awareness of the issues of aging, such as with this video series, of understanding the dynamics of living longer with more years of disability and poor health, gets through to the general public and that it becomes more of a priority to have useful dialogue for better solutions – including one on the legalization of assisted suicide.  And that opens up an entirely different discussion that will be examined in future posts.

Our Guest Blogger this week is Tony DiNuzzo, Ph.D., Director, East Texas Geriatric Education Center/Consortium, UTMB.

Join us for a real-time discussion about questions raised by this essay on Tuesday from 12:00 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. See Discussion and SL tabs above for details. Link to the virtual meeting room: http://tinyurl.com/cjfx9ag.

Based on: Living Old

  1. Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcVKu6-PQCM
  2. Full Program – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/livingold/view
  3. Image Source: http://www.shoppbs.org/product/index.jsp?productId=2537118