Some poignant observations about life (and death) in nursing homes

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

Despite Stephen Covey's warning, most of us are ruled by the tyranny of the urgent.

Should you doubt this premise, answer the following question: Have you spent more time today thinking about your legacy, or things you need to get done before 5 p.m.? Now be honest.

I'm not trying to pass judgment. Considering the bigger picture can seem like an unaffordable luxury when the truck needs to be loaded. And that's the reality most of us live in. It is refreshing, however, when someone serves up important observations that help us snap out of it.

That's exactly what Valery Hazanov's brilliant essay about life in nursing homes does, or should do. Hazanov, a Brooklyn-based clinical psychologist, spent eight months tending to dying residents. In a recent Vox.com essay, he neatly distills the experience into seven general lessons.

Having just read the piece, I'm not sure whether I should be inspired or depressed.

It would be a bit of a disservice to regurgitate all seven lessons here. But three really struck me:

• At the end, only the important things remain

Isn't it funny how short the shelf life really is for most of our things? Our autos are destined for landfills in less than a generation. Our homes will likely be demolished in a century or less. The buildings we work in? Most of them probably should have already been knocked down. What's more, none of those are things that residents cherish. As for the things they do: a few family photos, artwork by the grandchildren (if there are grandchildren) and maybe a few books. For when you are a resident, it's readily apparent that your remaining time is limited. That reality comes in handy when you need to prune away the B.S.

• Having a routine is key to happiness

The other extreme of having too much to do is having nothing too little. Hazanov writes about one resident whose regular routine is honored every day. Hazanov concludes that this is probably what keeps her alive. I have little doubt that is true. I also firmly believe that boredom is a killer.

• Think about how you want to die

Most of us put far more thought into our next trip than our final days. Hazanov aptly notes that residents die in a range of ways. Some are barely interested in being alive; others fight for just one more breath. He passes along his father's stated preference to die well rather than live well, if given the choice of doing just one. I have to agree, although I'd prefer to do both.

So feel free to read more if you'd like. Chances are it will serve you better than scratching out the next item on the to-do list.

John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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