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When life becomes one room

By Lyn Bender - posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Inspecting aged care 'homes' and picturing my own mother as an occupant feels alien and eerie. I can see her lost and ghostlike wandering the corridors confused as to which of the identical rooms is hers. Or guided by a compassionate staff member to her facsimile of the last room of everyone. When familiar cues of home are lost, impairment worsens. My own mind wanders. Are these single rooms with their hospital bed and small allowance of personal display, the best that life can offer in the last days, or years, of those graced with longevity?

A nagging existential fear of many is extreme isolation; the common companion of the aged. Symbolized in the occasional grotesque news story

of the lonely person found deceased after days or months or years.


The alarm sounded by someone who has been alerted by the strange odour of decomposition, the accumulation of unpaid bills. Later featured in the nightly news with reporter microphone in hand interviewing shocked neighbours. How aghast we all are, and how could this happen in this day and age? The talkback shows asking whatever happened to family and to good neighbours?

What a terrible ending for a life.

Juxtapose this against the sterility of sameness, in the well administered aged care facility: No perished body will go unnoticed for more than a minute, no one is alone if lonely: but where souls and spirit may silently disappear.

We had several inspections to make. Most are Jewish facilities and I see more [electric] Chanukah Menorah candles in one afternoon than I have seen for years- being a lapsed Jewess, external to the flock. Where would I go when my time came? But like most I have avoided any thought of my own decline and have hoped instead to go on forever, or until I stopped dead - in my tracks. Like many I have been able to imagine that untimely diagnosis of cancer or another tragic illness; but not of the slow thinning of personhood and sinking into the fogginess of dementia and immobility. Among the many realities

younger and able (now extended to the fifties and even sixties) do not wish to face is the process of decline and older age. Perhaps that is why our new mostly "middle aged" government with its marathon running Prime Minister has scrapped the Advisory Panel on Positive Aging that was just six months shy of completing its report.

The collateral damage of the expanded life span, is the increase in dementia and disablement.The number of people with dementia estimated by the World Health Organisation as 35.6 million and is expected to double by 2030. In Australia over 320,000 and one in four Australians over 85 have been diagnosed ; but it can claim much younger minds and bodies.


But for now, I have kept eluded the grim reaper of the disability that aging brings.

Of the places we inspect, we are in agreement that the first is the winner. The Psychologist, who interviews us, is in touch with the sadness confusion and ambivalence that attach to a decision to "place a loved one in care" as they term this process. She is aware of the trauma of holocaust-impacted families, and also of the decline, confusion and loss of displacement for the parent. This is home but it is not a home she tells us. However we do all that we can to create a homelike caring environment. There are courtyard gardens, activities , music, a hair salon and manicurist, Even a café.

The second best home is a little more upmarket with Skype and tracking facilities but less homely. Our guide explains the concept of aging in place. As the person declines they may still remain in the same room but receive extra care. I had thought this meant remaining at home as long as possible.

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About the Author

Lyn Bender is a psychologist in private practice. She is a former manager of Lifeline Melbourne and is working on her first novel.

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