What a week and what a Christmas it has been...friends and family basically closed around us like a strong pair of arms, with prayers, condolences, great home-cooked meals, great restaurant meals (how blessed is food in the shadow of death!) and gifts to remind us that yes, it was still Christmas. My thanks to all of you, and to all visitors to CrazyStable here who left me messages of warmth and encouragement; it meant a great deal to me, knowing you had shared our journey. Last Saturday, my Uncle Don was interred with U.S. Navy honors on the same day, and at the same age, as fellow South Pacific WWII veteran Gerald Ford; our ceremony was tiny, at Calverton Cemetery on Long Island's windswept east end, but no less heartfelt, as one of my cousins and I accepted the "flag of a grateful nation." This weekend, the Child and I head to Ohio to celebrate his twin sister's (and now, his) long and exuberant life at a family reunion and memorial. It is, as another of his nieces observed, a lot of closure in a very short time.
Real closure, of course, will take awhile...not coming to grips with his death, which was a timely gift to him, but with the brutal and disjointed system of "care" that made his final month undignified, depressing, and painful. So much stupidity, so little time: the discharge prescription for Lipitor and a low-fat diet (for an emaciated 94-year-old); the nursing-home aide who informed me "you're not allowed to eat with a patient" when I noted he had lost his appetite from boredom and isolation; the nurses who noted incorrectly on Don's intake sheet that he was incontinent and non-ambulatory and then proceeded over 3 weeks to make it so by effectively imprisoning him in his bed or chair most of the day; the discovery, when he was hospitalized for acute low blood pressure, that this chronically dehydrated patient had been on two antihypertensives (and hadn't eaten or drunk anything before they called 911 and shipped his frail frame to yet another ER). Aging fellow baby boomers, if this is the best we can do for a geriatric care model in the greatest city in the world, we are so in trouble.
Not all nursing homes leave their "low-functioning" patients sitting parked in wheelchairs staring at walls, however. There are some so-called "culture-change" nursing homes with colorful quilts and pets (sometimes little more than window-dressing, sometimes a genuine effort to build back in some sense of "home" in this hyper-regulated environment). And then there is Paro.
Paro is a "seal type mental commit robot for psychological enrichment," invented by Dr. Takanori Shibata for therapeutic action with patients. Spouse and Child met Paro at the Wired NextFest last year and were delighted by him, and he was featured on my go-to site for the blues, CuteOverload.com. Paro is, of course, very cute (and less spooky in robotic form than a more familiar companion animal like a dog or cat), and has shown a remarkable talent for perking up pediatric, disabled, and elderly patients. But there is something utterly heartbreaking about this video, in which Paro does his thing with elderly nursing-home residents of Japan, the once elder-revering country that Forgot to Have Children to revere them.
The first thing you notice is what a primal need it is to have an object for one's affections--find me somebody to love. But in scenes where the old ladies were eagerly grooming Paro, I was also struck powerfully by the vacuum left in the lives of these institutionized elders by the absence of work. We all lust after leisure, but imagine a life devoid of purposeful activity. It is a kind of death in life. No wonder my uncle rewired all his electrical fixtures. All our conversations began with his same declaration: "I'm very busy." Secret of life, anyone?
Me, I think the elderly need a different type of robot. Many of us have our Secret-of-Life contexts, our sacred scrolls, our explanatory or redemptive stories. Often, these are movies. I have friends who insist that the Answer to Everything can be found in, variously, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, It's a Wonderful Life, and To Kill a Mockingbird. For my dad, it was Lost Horizon. Me? My mystical fable is Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The T2 comes back in time to pluck one vulnerable and all-important soul from peril, and heads off Armageddon. There is collateral damage, lots of it, but they were nasty extras anyway. He cannot cry, but he finally understands why we do. And he can't change the programming of his prime directive anymore than can his even higher-tech, liquid-metal nemesis. Can't you just see T2 riding this baby down the hallway of a nursing home, grabbing a patient with one gentle glove, tucking him under one arm, and blasting his way out of the lobby while nurses and aides scream, "You can't do that! If he falls off, we could get sued!" Hey, we all get closure in our own little ways...