Monday, March 28, 2005

Wasting the elder resource

Remember when aging parents and grandparents and sometimes even great-grandparents would stay in the home until they left this world? And how about the days when children stayed at home until they were ready for school, rather than attend daycare? Remember when families spent at least two meals a day at the family table?

It wasn't that long ago that these things happened, especially here in the Midwest. I guess I have to admit that I'm of the age that I can see how our society has transitioned from the extended to the nuclear family to the institutionalization of our culture.

I remember when we finally decided to take my grandfather to the nursing home. It was probably not by accident that there in a perfect line lay the hospital then the nursing home and finally the cemetery. People could view the end of their time unfold before them, witnesses to their very own end.

Grandpop didn't want to go. He was slowly dying, in fact, but as the ambulance crew tried to take him his old, gnarled arms bent the metal headboard of his bed. The attendants left him there and drove back in an empty ambulance. They didn't want to tangle with anybody that tough.

A couple weeks later, though, Grandpop called and asked if we could take him to the nursing home. He knew he could no longer take care of himself and that it was time that someone else did.

Fortunately, that situation has changed. Now we are lucky enough to have a variety of long-term care including skilled nursing home facilities, assisted living, and independent living.

What we have traded, though, is a part of our culture, our very civilization, that is incredibly important.

The Native American culture, and by that I mean the original Native American culture, had a structure in which the elders would tell stories through the long winters to their children and great-grandchildren. They could be either serious or humorous stories but every single one was a story with some sort of lesson. Those stories usually included animals or spirit beings with amazingly anthropomorphic qualities, or very human traits. The point was that children learned from their elders whom they respected incredibly.

Unfortunately for us, that has all changed.

Today, in the interest of financial independence, we pay exorbitant amounts of money to place children in daycare then pay two dollars or more a gallon for gasoline to go to jobs where a significant portion of our salaries goes to the government which administers elderly and early childhood programs. At retirement, we end up in nursing homes, paying $3,000 or $4,000 a month for skilled care and somewhat less for assisted living. In other words, we are paying good money to dismantle a societal structure that seemed to work pretty well to begin with.

The Native Americans, on the other hand, already had a structure that worked. Why couldn't we emulate that, and restructure our institutions so the elderly could again be role models for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren? It could be formal, or even better, informal, but at least it would be a place to start to reintegrate the lessons of the past and make it part of the knowledge of the future.