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Denial is not a river in Egypt

Here’s a scenario most of us have experienced in some form. It’s the middle of the night and the phone rings.  It’s your son in Seattle calling to tell you his 70- year old father-in-law took a fall and he’s with him in a hospital emergency room. He has a fracture — or did he say “fractures” — plural. Or maybe it’s an early morning call; your 80-something sister in Florida is calling; she just received a diagnosis that will keep her homebound — maybe even bedbound — for months. 

Those calls are “911 look-alikes.”  You’re not the one in crisis, but the family member at the other end of the line is dealing with an emergency and wants/needs your assistance. Even if you have been fortunate enough to avoid any kind of personal health crisis or life-changing accident, someone else’s 911 situation is about to impact you. Be ready — use that moment well.

You are a good and caring person, of course, and you will provide gentle counsel and offer information and resources appropriate to their emergent situation. Maybe you’ll do follow-up calls or make a cross-country visit to the individuals(s) in distress. You’ll probably send a get-well card or flowers. Maybe you’ll use the Internet to assemble ideas that address “their” issues. And then, quite probably, time will pass and you will move on to the other things in your life.  Opportunity lost.

“Opportunity,” you say? “Yes,” I reply.

Here’s how I see it.  As older adults, we are in active denial — about “being old” of course, but also about the likelihood we’ll have a debilitating fall or be diagnosed with a medical condition that  displaces us from our circle of comfort. According to aging expert Dr. Mary Doheny, we are unwilling to talk about aging “until something really traumatic happens to us like the death of a spouse, the illness of a partner or the need for hip or knee replacement.” And at that point, “denial often turns to despair” and any ability to make informed choices is reduced — dramatically.  

Denial does not work. Aging keeps happening. And many people do not have a strategy for dealing with that reality. When a “911 look-alike” occurs — maybe we should use that moment as a reminder to develop that strategy. Here’s why. The Federal Commission on Long-Term Care indicates “70 percent of us who live beyond the age of 75 will need some sort of caregiving, on average for three years.” Do you have a plan for that?

Perhaps, as are many, you’re “counting on family members to provide any needed caregiving” But are you talking to them about your care preferences?” This is not a conversation about death and dying — this is a conversation about “defining how you want to ‘live,’ despite changing health needs and the daily physical struggles that emerge as you age.“

Maybe you won’t need a middle-of-the-night call to ignite your interest in developing a personal long-term care strategy. Maybe this column will do it. I like to think it will, at minimum, prompt more conversation. The holidays upcoming might be the perfect opportunity.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.