In the past month, three unrelated experiences point to the fact that we have a big problem on our hands, and we are not sure how to get a handle on it.
Older people are getting lost. And I DO NOT mean lost in a moral sense, or lost in the system. I mean they are actually leaving their homes, losing their way and becoming lost.
Here's the evidence:
First, in my morning newsfeed, I stumbled across an article on GPS sneakers. These shoes, with a global positioning device embedded within them, are designed to locate an older adult "wanderer." The idea is that an older adult will wear the sneakers and walk where they may. If they happen to become lost, their loved ones can track them down and rescue them from danger.
Next, a week later, I read a New York Times article on how the number of older adult "wanderers" living in New York City seems to be increasing, and the city is using a "Silver Alert" system, designed to alert the public and the police that a silver-haired person has gone missing. (May 18, 2012 With Dementia, Stepping Outside for Fresh Air Can Mean Going Astray).
And then, just a few days ago as I was driving north in the center lane on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, I spotted something strange.
Right next to my car was an older man, driving up the highway not in a car, but on a motorized wheelchair. He was going 5 mph and was clearly lost. How he got there, I'll never know. He he was lucky to have someone trailing behind him, protecting him from oncoming traffic -- and I hoped towards safety and the nearest exit.
I assumed the man on Lake Shore Drive was lost, had wandered and probably had a form of dementia. And I know from my work that he is one of many. Fifty percent of American adults age 85 and older experience dementia -- and many people younger than 85 as well. In advanced cases, judgement becomes impaired and people may behave unpredictably. Some end up driving their wheelchair onto the highway.
I assumed there was someone who loved or cared for the Lake Shore Drive wheelchair motorist. It was likely that his loved ones thought he was safe at home or out on an errand.
I wondered how these people might react to the news about their motorist's situation. Perhaps they would insist that he leave his home and move to a nursing home, far from the highway, or encourage him to accept a round-the-clock caregiver in his home or get him GPS sneakers. All good options. I wondered what they had already tried and failed in their attempts to keep him safe.
I assumed they might be caught in the dilemma in which many people find themselves. They might be caught between what they think their loved one needs and what the older adult wants for him or herself. Perhaps they are struggling between their sense of responsibility to physically protect that person and their loved ones' need for adult independence, pride and privacy.
This is a complicated and frustrating place to be and a fine line to walk. And many of us will find ourselves there. The fact is, that sometimes we'll find a solution that works. We might work it out amongst ourselves or call in the experts to help us find a compromise. But sometimes even expert advice does not work. And in that case we may wait for the crisis and then put care in place.
I believe that walking this tightrope is not inevitable. As we take steps towards aging, we can be proactive about the need for care and start thinking about these scenarios long before they occur. In other words, we can talk and bring this conversation into the light. We should think about what we want for ourselves and project our needs into the future. We should look at our parents, think that we might be like them and think about what they might have wanted if they'd had the peace of mind or encouragement to have this discussion. Will we be the difficult type that resists all care? Or will we want the input and help of our loved ones? What can we say now to those who will worry about us to ease their way?
It's my hope that through these conversations we can create our own road map for getting the care we need as we age, considering our deep and enduring wishes for our future and our individual reality. Through this process, we may implant our unique GPS device in our minds and in the minds of our loved ones. We should record these directions on paper, keep them somewhere safe and accessible, and use them to help us position ourselves into the future we have chosen.