Gary Tetz

I think it’s a law that every boy has to try secretly smoking behind the garage, at least once in childhood. For me, that first attempt involved a neighbor kid and I grabbing a handful of grass — no, not that kind — rolling it into some old newspaper and lighting it up like we’d seen all the cool kids do. 

Unlike a certain former president in a previous century, I did inhale, and was instantly transformed into a pitiful choking, spitting, eye-watering mess. It’s fair to wonder why we had been given matches and left unsupervised, but I’d prefer to take that up privately with my therapist. The important thing is that perhaps this unpleasant experience prevented a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

As it turns out, though, maybe a tobacco habit would actually be less harmful than the impact of darker struggles many of us face — namely, feelings of melancholy, unhappiness and loneliness. Because in a recent study, each of those challenges was shown to accelerate aging even more than smoking does.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that sad, lonely people might as well take up smoking, too. But the study does demonstrate how mental health is at least as important to our longevity as many of the other threats we usually consider to be more dramatic and urgent. “Actually, it’s not the six packs of cigarettes a day that concerns me,” I half-expect my physician to say at my next annual physical. “It’s your melancholy mindset and hermit lifestyle that’s actually going to kill you.”

Within a long-term care facility, many of our residents and patients come to us having experienced life catastrophes that leave them facing those same struggles — unhappiness, discouragement and loneliness. This makes your presence absolutely vital, and your impact so much more deeply nuanced than simply providing long-term care services. 

You probably can’t be the total cure, but you can certainly be a healing antidote, helping them feel more valued and connected as the current of unwelcome events and changes sweeps them helplessly along. 

Beyond the glow of gratefulness you witness in every warm and present resident interaction, your greatest privilege is to help slow the clock of biological aging itself. You’re actually prolonging life, one smile and positive interaction at a time. 

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a two-time national Silver Medalist and three-time regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program, as well as an Award of Excellence honoree in the APEX Awards. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a writer and video producer for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.