Maybe Safety Shouldn’t Always Be First (At Any Age)

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).

Let her live it up!

Overprotection Begins with City Planning

Hi Readers — This comment came in response to the blog post below, regarding a Minnesota community up in arms about an Alzheimer’s facility moving in. The people there are worried for their children’s sake. Ironically, it is when we try to make a neighborhood unneighborly that we all suffer. Voila:

Dear Free-Range Kids: The crucial concept here (from my perspective as a native and current Minnesota guy who has also lived in Albany, NY, DC, and Hartford, CT) is zoning and neighborhood planning.

Here in MN, it is presumed that any credible, autonomous, functional person has a drivers license, access to at least one vehicle, and wants to live in a neighborhood where walking to a corner store for milk and eggs is not an option. Protecting your family’s financial future is the same as believing that two- or three-family structures within a block or two are a threat, and that driving your kids to school is the only way.

So, people are convinced that the only way to protect the value of their home is to hope they’re embedded in a wide enclave of exclusively residential single-family, owner-occupied homes with a few ultra-safe businesses on the periphery surrounded by massive parking lots.

I saw similar issues at play in Albany, Washington, and Hartford, as well. But, these circumstances in MN rub me the wrong way in the same fashion that gated and/or contractually-beige housing developments do. If you can’t bear uncertainty about your neighbors, you’d better have a lot of money to buy a chunk of land and build a big fence, if not a moat.

Otherwise, get over yourself. Meet your neighbors. Walk a lot. Make eye contact. Say “hi” to strangers walking by (the next time, they won’t be strangers). Be open to babies and puppies. Poke fun at the silliness in Woodbury, MN and welcome a small-to-medium-sized group home into your own neighborhood. — Bose

Help! Very Old People! They Will Hurt Our Children!

Hi Readers — Here’s a heart-sinker:  A Minnesota community doesn’t want a facility for Alzheimer’s patients to move in, because old people, even though supervised, might hurt  — or even traumatize by their very weirdness — their kids. So much for diversity. So much for community. So much for compassion.

As John Tevlin writes in this great Star Tribune column:

Nearly everyone who spoke against the facility had concerns that their children might be attacked or see an elderly adult do something inappropriate.

But Janelle Meyers, housing director for Prairie Lodge Assisted Living unit, also run by Ecumen in Brooklyn Park, said children are regular guests there. The caretakers of the most severely affected people are highly trained. “They know the residents very well, and can anticipate when problems are most likely to occur,” she said.

Meyers brings her son to work frequently, and there is a day-care center directly across the street.

“They bring the kids here on a regular basis,” Meyers said. “They do crafts and sing. It’s good for both of them to have contact with each other.”

“Some people don’t have respect for older adults,” Meyers said. “They are undervalued, and, personally, I think that’s so sad.”

I think so, too. And the fear of old people seems as misguided as it gets. I guess the same old truth prevails: The more separated we are from any group of people — by race or creed or, now, age — the more we begin to fear them. Even geezers. — Lenore