A life well lived

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Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz
I went to a funeral last weekend. Being big on denial, it was the last place in the world I wanted to be. But much to my own surprise, there I was.

We gathered to honor an incredible woman of almost 80, one of the anchors of the Canadian community in which I grew up. For me, like so many others, she was an icon, a mentor, an inspiration and any of a dozen other glowing clichés that spring quickly to mind.

Although these events are never easy, this was a beautiful, painful, bittersweet celebration of her vitality and indomitable spirit. People talked about how she tried to get the most out of life even when she knew it was almost over, like the day she hobbled in her walker over to her scooter and rode downtown by herself to eat at her favorite restaurant. Every memory shared offered proof that hers was a life well lived, right up until the last breath and moment.

That's a fashionable phrase we hear a lot these days—“life well lived.” A long-term care provider I hold in high esteem has even used it as a marketing tagline. If I didn't know it was a genuine part of that company's culture, I would be cynical and suspicious, like I am of the local car dealership that calls itself Integrity Ford. But I happen to know this provider's values are in complete alignment, and I've seen those words come alive in the actions of its employees.

No matter the level of function or independence, no matter the likelihood of healing or even improvement, they work with one goal—to create a life well lived for every person in their care. I've watched them do this in a myriad of ways, from the burst of impromptu creativity that smoothes a difficult Med-Pass, to displays of almost magical motivational genius in therapy. It takes a special kind of energy and commitment to want to do more than they have to, to not just chart “patient refused” and move along. And sadly, not everyone has that.

I know this because I've seen the other side. Recently, and all too personally. An elderly neighbor, of whom I'm extremely fond, was hospitalized and then admitted to a local nursing home, and it fell to my wife and I to help him navigate the health care gauntlet. I'm trying to resist the urge to write much about this until my own indignation ebbs, but suffice it to say that the experience was not only unpleasant, it was almost unforgivable.

Every day in the course of our visits, we saw people just going through the motions. People who spent their time somewhere between disinterest and open hostility. People unwilling to go beyond the bare minimum. Sure, there were those who appeared to genuinely care about my neighbor's dignity and quality of life, but they were clearly in the minority, and were still trapped in a tangle of bad systems and uninspired leadership. On the day of his escape, a nurse expressed concern that he wasn't strong enough to leave. But I'm convinced he wasn't strong enough to stay.

He's doing better now that he's safe at home, and disgusted as I am about the great care he didn't receive, I've spent enough time observing this profession to know his experience was the exception, not the rule. I also know you're not that kind of disinterested leader or caregiver, since anyone who places so little value on those they serve probably isn't spending much time improving themselves by reading McKnight's Long-term Care News.

So the point of all this is just to say thank-you. Thanks for caring, and for devoting the extra energy and commitment essential to helping those in your care experience life well lived, right up until it's over. And for believing they deserve it. 

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Things I Think

Things I Think is written by longtime industry columnist Gary Tetz, who resides in Walla Walla, WA. Since his debut with SNALF.com at the end of a previous century, he has continued to amuse, inform and sometimes befuddle long-term care readers worldwide.

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