i had occasion to visit a rest home for the elderly last sunday, while i was spending the day in auckland. we went to visit a family friend - someone who is a close friend of my parents, but who i haven't had much contact with for quite a while.
i've not been to a resthome for many years. i used to go regularly to one in hamilton for a couple of years, to visit someone who has since passed away. so it's not like it's an entirely new experience for me, and yet it was somehow a disturbing one.
i guess it was a combination of the smells and the sight of the people who lived there, mostly beyond the stage of being able to walk without help. we visited in the afternoon, around 3pm, and many of the residents were in the various lounges (i saw 2), in front of a television set. we went into the lounge where the person we were visiting was located, and they were all sitting in their chairs, some asleep, others awake and focusing on the television set. there was no conversation, no stimulation.
maybe it was a bad time of the day. maybe the place would be livelier at another time. or maybe it wouldn't because perhaps these were a group of people who weren't all able to converse, who weren't all fully aware of what was going on around them. whatever the case, it felt heartbreaking to me to see them all lined up like that, and left to themselves, many of them looking rather helpless and lonely.
the woman we had come to visit was fast asleep. we tried waking her up by calling her name, and by jiggling her feet. we made quite a few attempts, but she just wouldn't wake up. it was a sleep so deep that i'm pretty sure it was drug-induced. maybe that's what she needed, for her own personal health and well-being. i don't know her well enough to come to any kind of conclusion, and it was the first time i'd visited her in this place. but we stayed for 20 minutes and she didn't wake up. even now, she probably doesn't know we visited - unless the nurses told her. i kind of hope they didn't, so that she doesn't feel disappointed.
perhaps the residents are content with their lives. perhaps they live with the knowledge that this is the best care they can expect to receive at this time of their lives, and it's enough for them. as an outsider looking in, it didn't feel that way. i think back to my experiences of asia, where the older generation stay with their extended family. where they hear the sound of children around them every day, and where visitors to the family will be sure to stop in and have a chat.
of course that comes with a different kind of cost. often the cost is borne by the women of the house, who have the difficult task of caring for them, while they also manage their children and the household. or it's borne by servants, who are paid a subsistence wage - pretty much like our resthome caregivers here. it seems that this is a global constant: caring for the elderly is not a well-paying job.
it was hardly surprising that every caregiver i saw in this place was a woman of colour. some of them, from listening to their accents, were clearly migrants. these are contributing migrants too, though not often described as such. they aren't making the "right kind" of contribution, i suppose. and they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
in a nz context, i'm sure we can do better than this. i'm sure these people would have a better quality of life and consequently better health if they were in regular contact with young people, especially children. they would receive better care if they were staying in places that didn't have profit-making as the dominating motive. more and better-paid caregivers will surely make a difference.
they also deserve time and attention from the community. the one resident who was chirpy and responsive was a croation woman, who had a visitor, a younger woman who was obviously a relative. the older woman couldn't speak any english, but she was alert and conversing in her own language, telling us things we couldn't understand but which her younger relative kindly translated for us. she gave us an enthusiastic goodbye as we left.
one day this is going to be me, in one of these homes. and it's going to be you. i'm sure we can do better than this.