Mending the Souls of Our Seniors

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Daniel (Yiqiao) Wang

University of Ottawa

Class of 2019

“Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul”.

Atul Gawande’s recently published book, Being Mortal, discusses the treatment of our elderly population and the various flaws of our health care system. One important point from the book is that health care providers such as physicians and nurses are too focused on physical well-being while forgetting about the less tangible necessities of life.

When an elderly individual is sent to a nursing home, safety is the highest priority. Residents are provided with call bells, ramps, elevators, nurses, and physicians who come directly to their rooms. This seems beneficial, as physical health is maintained. With 24 hour nursing surveillance and living in single rooms, residents are less prone to injuring themselves. It is a situation that seems optimal for both the caregivers and seniors. Why, then, is the rate of depression and sadness so high among the elderly population in nursing homes?

Gawande discusses one possible reason in his book – the lack of a concept called “loyalty.” To understand loyalty, Bill Thomas must be introduced; Dr. Thomas is a Harvard medical school graduate who changed the style of living in the Chase Memorial Nursing Home. In his life before medicine, Dr. Thomas was a farmer. He had animals running around his barn, and his entire family under one roof. His farm was the one place where he felt the most joy. When Dr. Thomas began working at the nursing home, he was almost certain he knew why many residents were unhappy. They did not have family around them and animals to care for. In what seemed like a crazy idea, Dr. Thomas decided to add animals, over 100 birds, dogs, cats, plants, and even a daycare with kids into the nursing home. The results were surprising: in his words, Dr. Thomas said, “You see people come alive, you see them begin to interact with the world, you see them begin to love and to care and to laugh.”

One reason for this joy could be loyalty. A philosopher named Josiah Royce defined loyalty as a dedication to a cause beyond oneself. This is the opposite of individualism, where we do things solely for our own desires. Royce argued that it is the pursuit of something greater than ourselves that gives us happiness and a willingness to live. This concept seems to directly apply to nursing homes, and the nursing home of Dr. Thomas. When residents are put into nursing homes, all of their goals and aspirations are taken away. They are no longer sharing wisdom or taking care of children, tending to the needs of something such as a pet, or even going outside for walks as often to improve their health. The animals and plants in the nursing home, although seemingly a farfetched idea, give those residents a purpose. Specifically, they were given a purpose greater than themselves. When a resident waters their own plant, walks the dog, or feeds the cat, it gives them a goal, something to strive towards. They have the ability to care and to see the result of their labour.

Like Gawande, Royce and Thomas, I believe a life without a greater purpose is empty. Personally, I remember seeing seniors in the long-term care home where I volunteer sitting in their wheelchairs, looking out a window with blank stares. I recall a lady bursting out in tears, exclaiming to me that she did not want to live. I also remember being happy to see a resident laugh, who seemed as though she did not laugh in years.

I hope that by sharing this knowledge with others, and by working together with nursing homes to give seniors a purpose, we can change how the elderly perceive their environment and acquire joy once again. We need to begin mending the soul, one individual at a time.

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