Hi Readers — A few years ago, when my sister and I were contemplating assisted living for our mom (who has Alzheimer’s), I visited a place that was really pretty and cheerful and had a lot going for it, including a cool program whereby patients each had a box with some artifacts from their old life in it: A former secretary might have a typewriter. A former engineer might have some blueprints. The folks could take them out and “use” them, which seemed pretty ideal.
But — of course there’s a but — I happened to arrive at snack time, when one of the ladies was asking for another cookie. “No,” the attendant told her patiently. “It’s not good for you! You can’t HAVE another cookie.”
Whereupon, big surprise, the woman asked for another cookie. And the cycle began again.
That incident came to mind when I read this fantastic article about the focus on safety, and sometimes ONLY safety, in caring for the elderly. It seemed to me, at the assisted living place, that if a woman has lost a lot of her mind and yet KNOWS she wants a cookie — give her a cookie! If it shortens her life a little, so be it! At least it’s making whatever time she has left here WORTH IT. Ultimately, I didn’t want my mom to be at a place that would deny her life’s little pleasures in pursuit of something supposedly more important: more days on this planet without life’s little pleasures. Here’s what the article, by Paula Span, says about all this:
The safety-first idea permeates so many discussions about how best to care for old people who can’t function fully independently. It’s our mantra as we try to persuade our parents to change their habits, to exercise caution, to move from one setting to another…. Is it possible we’re awarding safety too much significance?
….At root, though, this question is a philosophical one: how to balance safety with the things that make life worth living. [Gerontologist Dr. Rosalie] Kane has developed a list of factors that contribute to quality of life — security and comfort, meaningful activity, relationships, dignity, autonomy, privacy and others — and she’s not much in favor of policies or decisions that reduce those things, even if they might, say, reduce the risk of a fall.
Exhibit A: Her own father, who died last winter at age 102. He was blind, had high blood pressure and kidney disease, and occasionally aspirated his food (meaning that he choked and took food particles into his lungs). He lived in a city apartment with a live-in helper and driver. And he routinely did things few nursing home or assisted living administrators would tolerate. …He was [not] about to trade the pleasures of sharp cheddar, dark chocolate and pickles for pureed foods and thickened liquids. Besides, Dr. Kane asks, “How would you thicken a rye and water, his five o’clock libation forever?” Her father learned a few guidelines for mindful chewing and swallowing. Still, she said, “He decided to take his chances, and we decided not to be the kind of family who said, ‘No, you shouldn’t do that.’”
So how is this relevant to Free-Range Kids? Because the same safety obsession that goes with elder care often goes with kinder care, too. When we focus ONLY on our kids’ safety, even when they are already pretty darn safe (I’m not suggesting baby bungee jumping here), we are apt to deny them a lovely part of life. “No you may NOT ride your bike down the block. Yes it is VERY safe, but it is not completely, 100.000% safe, because you COULD hurt yourself, so let’s play it safe and keep you inside.” Same with: No you cannot go knock on your friend’s door to see if she’s home. No you may not go on that sleepover. No you may not play in the woods, etc., etc., etc.
As you know, I love safety and do not court danger. Hooray for car seats and helmets. But when safety crowds out every other consideration, including beauty, joy, fun, growth, experience — and cookies — something is wrong.
That’s not the kind of life I’d want for my mom. It’s not the kind of life I want for my kids. — Lenore (who thanks a reader for sending in the NY Times piece).