Many of us baby boomers rebelled against the bullshit we detected in our racist, sexist society. We rebelled against a war we knew was a brutal lie. We advocated for civil rights. We demanded equal rights for women. Now we’re getting old. What will we demand for the elderly before we are too feeble, too sick to demand anything?
Were our outbursts in the sixties successful? Of course we didn’t produce the utopia or even the socialist system some of us envisioned. But we did make enough noise to inspire some progress in policies and lifestyle, including organic food choices and yoga classes.
We failed in many ways because we were up against a formidable opponent – our inner and outer capitalist. Corporations have succeeded in marketing a toxic lifestyle and we continue to buy it – from the two huge white trucks I see parked across the street in my neighbor’s driveway to the hormone replacement drugs that I took to alleviate hot flashes, drugs that undoubtedly contributed to the development of cancer in my breast.
If there’s fight left in us, we need to take on the healthcare system, not in terms of HOW we pay for it, but in terms of WHAT we pay for. Those of us who have made it to senior citizenship need to continue, or in some cases resurrect, our demand for honest and intelligent assessment of institutions and of our own complacency and collusion with corporate propaganda.
Consider pharmaceuticals. As I said already, I was poisoned by hormone replacement drugs because I gladly bought the assumption that menopause was a bad thing that my body shouldn’t be doing. I know that many women in my generation did let their bodies do what they were designed to do and adjust to the changes. I, unfortunately, had to be scared into stopping the toxic intake of phony hormones; and lo and behold, my body is adjusting. If only I’d had the fortitude to endure some discomfort – hard to do in a society that considers any discomfort a failure.
We need to beware of the tendency to pop pills. I truly believe that the LSD I did in the 60’s and 70’s was safer than many of the prescription drugs people are taking daily now. I’m glad I did psychedelics. I don’t recommend them to others, but I have no doubt that my mind was opened up to insights that remain powerful and that I otherwise might have missed.
The drugs that got people in big trouble then are the same drugs getting people into trouble now – addictive stuff. So, the first thing we need to be wary of is the prescriptions we are given for pain. Doctors and the so-called legal drugs they prescribe are more responsible for addiction than crack and heroin dealers.
Addictive drugs, such as morphine, are crucial for end of life care, when someone has a short time left and should be allowed to take whatever is needed to have more than pain to focus on.
But we need to be aware that pain medication, even non-addictive medicine like Advil or Tylenol, can cause harm, for example to kidneys and liver. Doctors may tell you to take them regularly for conditions such as arthritis, but we need to be informed about the damage they can do.
Right after my lumpectomy, my surgeon insisted that I get a prescription for hydrocodone. I told her I didn’t want it, but she said I needed to at least have it available if I did have horrific, sickening, writhing, hellish pain. Okay. So I got a bottle of it and ended up not using it. Not because I’m stoic, but because I didn’t have a lot of pain.
Unfortunately I do sometimes get seeringly painful, horrific, hellish headaches. A couple of weeks after the surgery I got one. I thought, “Hey – I’ve got those hydrocodone pills.” I took HALF the dosage suggested and the rest of the day I was so sick I couldn’t eat a cracker without vomiting. What if I had taken the whole recommended dosage right after surgery when the general anesthetic was still kicking around?
Doctors, often lobbied by pharmaceutical companies, do NOT always know what’s best for us. We need information. We need to educate ourselves about drugs and make our own decisions. We need to take advantage of the progress that has been made, such as the willingness of insurance companies to pay for acupuncture treatments.
If you’ve done hospice work, if you’ve been to any nursing care facility, you know the enormous amount of drugs people take. No doubt some of them are necessary. But we need to understand that many of the drugs that are given to the elderly and sick are prescribed to treat the side effects of another drug. For example, pain meds often cause serious constipation, and thus stool softeners and laxatives are required. (When I was prescribed hydrocodone, I was also given a prescription for a stool softener; that wasn’t a good sign to me.)
End of care life should include all the palliative methods available, including pain meds. And an effective drug for chronic debilitating conditions is a blessing. But we, the patients, need to be informed enough and respected enough to decide for ourselves what risks we are willing to take.
In many cases the elderly are not able to make clear decisions, because of dementia or some other condition affecting mental acuity. It is so disturbing for me to see old men and women sitting in wheel chairs in nursing homes, opening their mouths like baby birds to be fed pills whose names and purposes they don’t know.
Before we get to that point, those of us who demanded that women and minorities have rights need to insist on informed choices in treatment, not just financial coverage.
There are plenty of role models, like my 84 year old neighbor who spends much of her day in her stained glass workshop, invites people over to play pool with her, and rides an exercise bike while watching the news. For years she has refused to fill prescriptions for drugs she didn’t think she needed.
I know of another woman in her eighties who had leukemia. A woman who got a degree in chemistry in the 1930’s, one day she informed her family, with her wry humor, that realizing she wasn’t even enjoying Ben and Jerry’s ice cream any more, she was going to stop life support measures. She died peacefully with her daughter by her side.
And the Gray Panthers are still a thriving group, though they don’t get much press. Here’s the website: http://www.graypanthers.org/. Their vision statement: “Create a humane society that puts the needs of people over profits, responsibility over power, and democracy over institutions.”
I will do anything I can to not spend my last months in a nursing home or hospital. And I don’t want the focus of my life to be one of those big pink plastic boxes with compartments for the days of the week that each holds a pile of pills. I hope to die looking at the finches in my yard and listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” having just had a bite of chocolate cream pie.
I need to continue working on my own psyche so as not to be muddled by a fear of death or old age. I need to remember that it is my choice not to take a pill, to get a second opinion, to endure some disappointments and pain. And it is my responsibility to use whatever mind is left to me to understand such choices and to insist that they be respected.