Monday, August 08, 2011

How to Deal with the Elderly? How About the Savagery of the Jungle?

Where should we look for a model in dealing with Alzheimer's disease? To April Bogle, the Director of Public Relations at Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, the answer is simple. We mustn't look to religion. Or to the ideals of Western civilization. Or to heroes of mercy like Florence Nightengale or Clara Barton.

No. We must look to the rainforest.

Here, ladies and gentlemen, the mind-boggling Ms. Bogle shows us the self-centered savagery that marks modern ethics.

It's simply unnatural to encourage old people to live on well past their functionality; I'm convinced of this now more than ever since I returned from the rainforest of Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. This may sound like a heartless statement, but it is just the opposite.

For more than 10 years I've watched my father -- a brilliant college administrator and professor of history, a progressive thinker and agent of social change, a man who loved to ride his bike for exercise, worked in his rock garden for meditative therapy, grilled hamburgers for his wife and two daughters and wrote stories about his past for fun -- deteriorate into someone who is lost, scared, immobile...

There are the smells that you can't hide no matter how attentive the staff. And the sounds. The jabbering, moaning and crying is a constant, like the ocean, wave upon wave. And then, of course, there's the television that's always on, even though everyone knows TV is not a viable activity for people with late-stage Alzheimer's.

In a nursing home, there is no system for life and death except the endless waiting. The rainforest, on the other hand, has it all worked out. Obviously it is a brutal plan, but I argue no more horrendous than the "care" people endure in a nursing home. In the rainforest, everything is about survival -- from being eaten, from lack of sun or water, from limited nutritious soil. Yet everything, except perhaps the big cats and big snakes, gets eaten. Everything dies. And the remains are taken care of by four different kinds of vultures and thousands of other natural recyclers.

Monkeys befriend toucans and then break their necks before eating them. Frogs eat mosquito larvae and other pesky bugs. Termites eat rotting trees and build large nests that birds invade for dinner. Even the trees know how to survive -- the walking palm sprouts new roots and kills old ones so that it can "walk" to find the nourishing sun under the thick tree canopy.

And the smells? Earthy fresh, clean, sometimes floral, occasionally appetizing (flowers that smell like garlic). And the sounds? A symphony of the original tweets and twitters, clicks and clacks, even howls and squeals. Some are songs of joy, some are sirens of warning, some are simply announcements of being alive.

Is this more brutal or terrifying than an Alzheimer's home? At least in the rainforest, nature is in balance and everything is there for a purpose. It is a highly complex system of interconnectedness and interdependency that functions perfectly when left on its own.

For my part, Ms. Bogle, I choose as a model the mercy tendered by patient, loving and visionary Christian caregivers over the...ahem...breaking of necks and eating of prey.

Thanks to Wesley J. Smith for the alert to this bizarre and alarming column. Smith's salient response can be read right here.