Washington, D.C., where I live, is a government town, and reminders of this fact crop up in places you might not expect. Many cities run ads in their transit systems for consumer goods and services. The ones in the Washington Metro often focus instead on advocacy and policy.
I noticed one this month decrying cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. "Today you’re an accountant," it reads. "Tomorrow you’re dad’s nurse. Further cuts to Medicaid and Medicare will impact 78 percent of post-acute and skilled nursing care patients. We have a solution."
The "we" refers to the American Health Care Association, a trade organization of long-term and post-acute care providers. I have mixed feelings about the cuts the ad refers to, but I really hate the ad itself. It makes caring for your dad seem like a personal disaster. It’s not. It is actually a blessing from which many families would benefit.
In my family, we tend to live long lives and the survivors frequently end up in somebody’s home. My parents cared for my grandparents. My mother moved in with my sister. My wife’s mother lived with us for her last three years. It wasn’t always bright and cheery, or easy. She was in a wheelchair and on oxygen. If we weren’t careful, she would light up a cigarette (and risk blowing up the house).
Eventually she needed help with feeding, and then with other things. She was in and out of the hospital. Sometimes she thought it was 1927. She shared a room with our youngest child, who, at age 4, would toddle into our room at 3 a.m. and mumble, matter-of-factly and without removing her pacifier, "Grandma fell out of bed."
Despite all of this, everyone was better for the time we had together. Old people have the kind of grace that takes a lifetime to acquire. They have many hours in the day, so they can be patient with little ones. They’ve committed and repented of a lifetime of sins, so they are good confidantes for teenagers. They have the humility and charm to accept care without making you feel awkward or embarrassed for them. And if they are at all self-deprecating, they can be a lot of fun.
We all live through good and bad phases. My mother-in-law had a long bad phase, but she was a great old lady. She thanked my wife every day for being so good to her. Her genuine appreciation healed years of unhappiness. She died at home, surrounded by children and grandchildren singing her off to heaven. The American Health Care Association’s solution, however wonderful it might be, does not include this service.
Health providers do something really important for old people, and sometimes they’re indispensable. But I don’t like the implication that they do this so we can get on with the more important business of being accountants or lawyers or software engineers.
Our parents and grandparents are not some nuisance whose management every well-run home should outsource. They are the people whose love brought us into the world. They spent their best years raising us to adulthood. And they still have a lot to teach us — like how to grow old, how to deal with infirmity, how to prepare for death.
Those lessons may be more important than the ones they taught us when we were 6. We owe it to ourselves to have a chance to learn them.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.