If we don't create and support environments that foster dignity and connection -- where even the most vulnerable among us can participate in opportunities for service and recreation that honor our intrinsic worth at every age -- shame on us.
In a previous piece, "Casinos as the Bleak New Senior Citizen Center," I ventured into the heart of a riverboat casino to talk with seniors taking advantage of the $2.99 discount lunch buffet. I was spurred by the realization that more than half of all adult visitors to casinos last year were 50 and older, and many of them (as is echoed in the slim body of research on the subject) come to play slots -- a game that I surmised can make a luckless zombie out of any of us. I closed the piece by asking:
Now that government is the biggest sponsor of casino gaming, all of us--even those who never visit casinos -- have to ask, are we turning a blind eye to a government-sponsored predator that creates false community, drains money and undermines dignity for those most vulnerable among us? Are casinos really the most responsible form of recreation we can offer our seniors?
I couldn't end on that bleak note without offering more in the realm of alternatives. I decided to visit a proper senior center, of the sort that's recently been making some headway. I chose PACE (Program for the All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly), which is among the new-model interdisciplinary care centers -- incorporating teams of doctors, recreational managers, dieticians, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, and home care coordinators in an integrated approach. The idea is that the team effectively assesses medical needs and support systems to create unique, comprehensive care/life plans.
Arriving at the sun-lit PACE building in Baton Rouge, I watched as wheelchairs and walkers glided smoothly across the wood floor as people left in vans for home or the grocery store, and new people arrived for the day's activities. Everyone who entered was greeted warmly by name while the receptionists retrieved their name tag.
In the lobby, I read the PACE Bill of Rights (posted in conspicuously large font) that reminded everyone not only of their entitlement to high-quality care and attention, but that they had the right to complain and leave the program should they choose. I overheard a nurse leading a seminar in their main gathering room on "The Good Life," offering reminders such as: "Get out and exercise, say thank you like you mean it, smile, connect to your family, give your clutter away to someone who needs it, and be a friend to have a friend." I looked over the month's newsletter, which highlighted trips to a local outdoor shopping area, a swamp tour, a saxophone concert, a Wii bowling tournament, a springtime fashion show, and a "Top Chef" of the Month class.
"Oh, everybody loves Charlene!"
The Executive Director, Sharon Thoms, RN, described to me how the PACE model of care won her over. "I saw how our participants flourished here. We were able to interact with their families in a proactive and positive way. They could come from home and go back. It wasn't a dreaded place to come. Here they receive all their healthcare, opportunities for fun, and nourishment... I stay because I see that it works."
Two of their original four patients from 2008 were still with the program. Though their health had declined and they'd grown increasingly frail, the team had adjusted to those changes and strategized for how to keep them safe and out of the hospital. "One woman broke her hip, and we got her out of the hospital and back home in two days. We made sure she was comfortable, that she had no infections, and she was back walking in no time."