Gary Tetz

I had a birthday recently. OK, more than just recently. Tuesday. That’s recent enough that the scent of looming mortality still wafts around me, rising up through the air like that warm smell from the Hotel California. My long-term care colleagues were kind, supportive and treated me to an exquisite lunch. But the rest I’ve had to deal with on my own.

People congratulated me for “another trip around the sun,” and I’m certain that in facility break rooms across America, my health was lavishly toasted. But all that praise seems misplaced, as continued existence has been mostly out of my hands. Sure, I’ve done some things to keep myself alive, i.e. eating mountains of raw, undressed kale. But I’ve also made many choices that will no doubt contribute to my imminent demise, such as not eating enough raw, undressed kale, along with a multi-page list of others I should probably save for confession or therapy.

Then there’s the issue of context. Living another year is an achievement, of sorts. But not compared to, say, the age of Earth. And since there’s always the chance that humans are a transitory life form, it seems way too soon to celebrate. The well-known, absolutely true story of Jerry, a popular pterodactyl, is a cautionary case-in-point.

After spending a similar milestone birthday surrounded by his adoring dinosaur friends, a speech seemed appropriate. “Thanks, everyone,” he said, with grateful tears in his eyes. “But this isn’t just about me. It’s a celebration of our eternal permanence as a species. Raise your glasses! So good!” Then came the Ice Age, and now Jerry winters in the Fedchenko Glacier.

Finally, what real relevance does age have, anyway? We might as well celebrate height or foot size, because we all know vigorous 80-year-olds and frail 30-somethings — young people with days left, and older folks with years. Maybe we honor the day of our birth because we simply don’t know the rest of the story — the hidden struggles, the lurking diseases, the time and opportunities any of us have remaining.

Instead of “Happy Birthday,” the wise and beloved Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh suggests “Happy Continuation Day,” and I think he’s onto something. Nothing really begins or ends, and all we really know for certain is that we’re each wherever we are — on an often baffling, difficult and beautiful journey that simply requires our acceptance, presence and helpful engagement with our fellow travelers.   

So next time the Facebook reminder pops up and we’re ordered to honor someone’s birthday, how about if we take a slightly different perspective, and say something like, “Happy ‘Wherever You Are’ Day!” or “Happy ‘Your Journey Continues’ Day!” Or how about, “Happy ‘We’re all in this Together’ Day!”

Actually, since all those sentiments are synonymous with what our profession is all about — meeting and helping people wherever they are in their lives, wherever we are in ours — we could actually forget the age thing entirely, and just say, “Happy Long-Term Care Day!”

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.