The image of LTC in the arts

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Dr. Eleanor Barbera
Dr. Eleanor Barbera

I was perusing The New York Times last week when I came upon an article about a play centering on my favorite topic — aging.

“Singing Beach,” by playwright Tina Howe, revolves around the drama that consumes a family when confronted with the need to place an elderly parent in a nursing home. Howe is 79 years old and lives with her 81-year old husband, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She says the play was inspired by the care needs of her father years ago.

I enlisted a friend with similar interests to accompany me to the performance. “The director is a friend of mine,” I told her. “And I'm curious to see how long-term care is portrayed in the show.”

Howe, an Obie Award winner and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, notes that all the producers she'd initially approached turned down the script. Then, she encountered my director friend, Ari Laura Kreith, who found the subject in keeping with the mission of her company Theatre 167

According to its website, Theatre 167 was “born in a community where 167 different languages are spoken” and it “creates, cultivates, and supports new work by artists of wide-ranging backgrounds, traditions, and beliefs” in order to provide “theatrical events that deepen and enhance our understanding of one another.”

Given our youth-obsessed culture and the paucity of “coming of old age” films and other media, this play certainly contributes a unique perspective and one that is, at the same time, universal. After all, among the 167 languages mentioned, each has speakers who are older adults and may one day be in need of long-term care.

My theater companion and I both enjoyed the well-crafted play with its surprisingly light-hearted moments while tackling a difficult theme. Elodie Morss, playing the young protagonist Piper, was particularly captivating, and the shifts between fantasy and reality lent depth and poignancy to the exploration of the topic.

What stood out to me most as a long-term care professional, however, was the message that placing a loved one in a nursing home was considered putting them “out to pasture” and that, once they were there, everyone would go on with their own pursuits as if the elder were no longer part of their lives.

This is a common depiction in the arts, along with the view that nursing homes are dreadful places filled with the LTC equivalents of “Nurse Ratched.”

Naturally, when I had the opportunity to speak to the playwright after the performance, I assured her that life goes on after admission to long-term care and that families can become part of the LTC community. (Apparently, you can put an eldercare psychologist into the audience but you can't keep her from speaking up after the show is over.) Ms. Howe seemed reassured to hear my message.

This message bears repeating by long-term care professionals, as well as by individual facilities. Misperceptions of the LTC experience lead people to avoid placement even when it might be in the best interest of their family as a whole.

Caregivers often wait until the stress of caregiving leads to their own health crisis and placement for their loved one then occurs in an emergency situation. Once placement occurs, families often have no idea how they can best assist their relative or how to make the most of their changed caregiving role.

One way to alter perceptions of long-term care is to offer programs that benefit the local community, such as hosting support groups open to caregivers or educational workshops on illnesses such as diabetes. Such offerings afford the opportunity for caregivers to see that facilities and their staff are committed to providing expert care and to meet other caregivers who are considering or already part of the nursing center community.

Once a resident has been admitted, families benefit from information about how to become part of the care team and from assistance in connecting with other families such as through a welcoming committee or the family council.

Each time long-term care providers share a story about the good work being done in our facilities, we help to create a more realistic picture of LTC and the value we bring to people's lives.

As for our depiction in the arts, perhaps it's time for me to work on the second draft of my novel. If anyone knows any literary agents who might be interested, please send them my way.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident's Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Gold Medal blogger in the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with more than 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.

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