Old Issues: Aging Alone

When I visit my older brother (by only 20 months) in the nursing home where he now resides, it is clear to see that aging for many eventually becomes an isolated, institutionalized existence.

In brochures and TV commercials, we often see toned and tanned older Americans — or “active adults” — enjoying golf, tennis, socializing and other activities. Even in the advertisements for nursing homes, residents are presented as playing cards, participating in sing-a-longs, and generally being involved with life. What is not shown in the ads, and what I witness when I enter the well-lighted recreation room at the nursing home, is a number of residents slumped over their (wheel)chairs, staring into space, or babbling indecipherable words.

My brother, who turned 80 this year, was a scientist, having worked with Dr. Francis Crick, who shared the Nobel Prize with James Watson in the early 1960s for discovering the double helix structure of DNA. My brother also worked at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and was a professor of microbiology and immunology at Brown University for 30 years. Several times students honored him as a favorite professor.

Now, his life is markedly different. His sharp mind has been decimated by Lewy body dementia, the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Lewy body dementia causes a progressive decline in mental abilities.  People with this disease may experience visual hallucinations, aggressive behavior, increased risk of falling and injury.  These and other symptoms make it almost impossible for patients with Lewy body dementia to be cared for at home once the disease progresses.

In 2014, Britain’s Commonwealth Fund ranked the U.S. health care system the worst in a survey of 11 wealthy nations. Even though the United States had the most expensive health care system, it was last in terms of “efficiency, equity and outcomes,” the report said.

Why does the United States lag? We have easy access to processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and trans fats. We also are a sedentary society, with excellent transportation systems that do not require walking and jobs that involve long hours of sitting. Our sedentary lifestyles, in addition to inherited predispositions, contribute to the prevalence of degenerative diseases, like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

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  • Bernice Moss October 9, 2016 at 7:46 pm


    Wonderful article – your compassion for your brother is heartwarming. I have experience in visiting nursing homes and found them much as you describe. Hopefully the next administration will work to change the system.

    Thank you for sending this to me.

    Regards, Bernice

  • Jo Ann Desper October 6, 2016 at 10:24 am

    My 100-year-old mother-in-law is in a well respected nursing home but suffers from bouts of depression. She is deaf and this causes her to feel isolated and alone. She is experiencing memory loss problems that I associate with the monotonous routine of life in an institution. The author expresses these issues clearly.

  • debra o'conner October 4, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    Wonderfully written. I find it appalling to walk into these institutions of ill health not because the patients are unwell but because the system is.

  • Penny Gaskin September 30, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Very well-written article that effectively descibes both the emotional toll of having a loved one with demetia, and the shortcomings of our society and health care system in dealing with elder care. This is becoming an incresingly important issue as our Boomer generation continues to age.

  • Coll Hunley September 29, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    A very poignant essay, which shows your deep compassion for your brother, which extends to elders as a whole. Yes, a lost tribe–so to speak. Thanks for raising awareness about their conditions and limited choices. And for supporting your sister-in-law in her travails, as well as your brother. An accomplished man!

  • Rosie September 28, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    As the youngest member of our family, I find it difficult to face the fact that we are not kids anymore. One sister passed, and one brother “lost” to Dementia. Who or what will be next? Ellen Sue, your article was wonderful! We as a nation should all be angry, alarmed, and ashamed of the lack of attention our country gives to the care of our elders. As always, your writing is moving and right on point!
    Your sister, Rosie

  • Krista Nelson September 28, 2016 at 8:15 am

    I love the way you blended a very intimate portrait with big picture issues. Great essay!

  • Rhoda Goldstein September 27, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    Thank you, Ellensue, for writing this article. It is so important to raise people’s consciousness about the issue of elder care and caring. Your eloquence was moving and and saddening.

  • Sheila Kraemer September 27, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    Good article. So sorry that Paul faces this. One of my friends spent the last 6 years of her life mostly bedridden in a nursing home. I was one of only a few people to visit her regularly, always bringing something to cheer her. She looked forward to my visits, though they were also a reminder of how many had abandoned her. Her own depression at her existence as well as her inability to walk kept her in the bed for at least half the years, insisting on taking her meals there. She finally started taking meals in the dining room, but didn’t communicate with anyone else. The last year she allowed them to take her in her wheelchair on planned outings with other residents, and got a new lease on life for awhile. She was lucky in that she could communicate with intelligence, was an avid listener of books on tape, and kept up with the doings of her scattered family. But even when they cannot communicate, it is important to visit and communicate with them, to help them feel part of life at some level. So keep on making those trips and consider it a mitzvah for all. You ARE doing something.

  • Edith Rae Brown September 27, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    It is an absolute disgrace of humanity. I have not heard the issue of care for the elderly with any significant program to
    announced by our Presidential candidates. Hillary has made reference and think she will put efforts in this area. We need serious help and much stronger observation of the nursing homes. I very much agree with all the previous comments. We need to see a change.

  • Mickey September 27, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    Oops. The web site is Livestrong [dot] com. Sorry for the error.

  • Mickey September 27, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Ditto with Roz Warren. Ashamed? What can be done? Helpless with shame? From Living Strong [dot] com, this is #2:
    “Develop a new belief system that encourages you to recognize that being independent, competent, self-confident and capable of helping, fixing and changing yourself is healthy, desirable and necessary.”
    My son played a piece about activists working to bring chemical awareness to their state. Depressing but uplifting because they persevered. There must be strategies that can begin a movement, movements to change this depressing downward spiral. I call on the young people out there. Get up and act. Thank you.

  • Carol Arrington September 27, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    When I used to visit my mother-in-law in a nursing home I would leave depressed and sad. When her son was living (he preceded her in death) he went to visit her every night he was able to. I could not do this physically or emotionally. She had dementia eventually and she lived to be 105. I have a 103 yr. old aunt who is in assisted living – she has family who visit and she is doing well so sometimes it can be better.

  • Jane snyder September 27, 2016 at 11:14 am

    I totally agree . I volunteer at a dementia/altheimers facility . I bring my dog with me and people are slumped over or strapped in wheel chairs . Also I never see any family members visiting . I had my dad in a board and care which is much smaller and I visited all the time . There has to be an advocate if not the people just sit and stare . It is very sad

  • Jackie Hanover September 27, 2016 at 10:56 am

    I totally agree with the observations made by the author, having seen the same nursing home atmosphere first-hand while visiting my sister-in-law. The visits are very depressing and you walk away feeling sad and totally helpless.

  • susan lieberman September 27, 2016 at 10:20 am

    And couldn’t this be any of us? Anger and shame seem to me just the right combination of emotions.

  • roz warren September 27, 2016 at 9:33 am

    Terrific essay.