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McCallum: Staying In Motion

10/26/09 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) Visiting her mother in an assisted living facility has commentator Mary McCallum mulling over the benefits of productive activity for the elderly.

(MCCALLUM)  One of the major laws of physics goes something like this: an object at rest tends to stay at rest, while an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Isaac Newton put this theory forth in greater detail at the tail end of the seventeenth century, yet I recently heard it mentioned on the radio while driving to visit my mother at an assisted living facility outside of Vermont. I was struck by how Newton's First Law of Motion went straight to the heart of my concerns about the current state of my mother's life.

We've all heard the popular phrase, "Growing old isn't for sissies." It puts a comic twist to the aging process and the accompanying losses that shape one's mental and physical health, personal independence and social connection. After watching my parents move into their nineties, losing my father, and dealing with the the deterioration of my surviving mother, I feel as if I've been a student of the American way of aging. What I see isn't very heartening and it certainly isn't comical.

My 93 year-old mother entered a facility unwillingly, and it most likely will be where she lives out the rest of her days. The staff is caring, the food passable and there is a lovely view of the Hudson River, yet her only goal is to get out. In fact, every resident I talk to during my visits yearns to go home. They feel that despite the cheery seasonal decorations, piped in music and bingo tournaments, they are part of a living cemetery.

These are people who led productive lives---they raised families, worked hard, gave to their communities and many had careers. But now they sit, day after day, without meaningful activity. I see my mother becoming increasingly sedentary, solitary and fuzzy headed. She once half-jokingly remarked, "The longer I stay here the stupider I become." Her sharpness is fading and she stays in her room, an object no longer in motion with an increasing tendency to remain at rest.

The recreation people there work diligently to engage residents in bingo games and dominoes, and several wonderful volunteers come and play live music each week. But what I think many residents need is some activity that relates to things they used to do. My mother never played bingo in her life and isn't about to start now, but put her in front of a pile of laundry that needs folding and she would gladly pitch in.

I began looking around for a new model, and obtained an activity schedule from an enlightened facility in Vermont. Among special field trips tailored to the elderly, they also offer Pie Making. Now that's something old ladies know a thing or two about. I wager that if you sat a circle of them down with rolling pins, pie dough and piles of sliced apples they would be in familiar territory.

And having an activity that feels like good old productive work might just keep those women in motion a whole lot longer.
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