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Defying Death in Retirement Homes

Posted on 20 September 2015, 21:20

Based on a television commercial, a certain retirement home in Hawaii is the place to be in your old age.  People who live there are content, happy, and having a lot of fun, fully enjoying their senior years.  When they are not strolling around the beautiful gardens or playing deck shuffleboard, they are probably at the nearby shopping center or playing a round of golf down the road. They’ll likely end the night with some fine dining. Yet, when I visited my in-laws at that same retirement home on a number of occasions several years ago, I found it a somewhat depressing place.  The residents looked like zombies, seemingly not knowing each other, and outside of taking meals in the dining room they were all holed up in their individual apartments. There, they kept to themselves as much as possible. I saw none of the gaiety or merriment depicted in the television commercial. 

It was much the same thing at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C. when I visited an old friend there two years ago.  I had expected to see a lot of camaraderie – many old soldiers gathered around in a circle, sharing old war stories, laughing, reminiscing, slapping each other on the back, and otherwise having a ball.  However, I found it much like the Hawaii retirement home.  The residents who were not in their rooms napping or watching TV were just sitting around staring off into space, eyelids at half mast, mouths half open, drool sometimes hanging from their chins.  In the dining room, they, for the most part, sat at individual tables, seemingly not knowing each other.  My friend, now 99 and a World War II veteran who has resided there for some 20 years, usually sat alone in the dining hall and didn’t appear to know most of the other old warriors.  He knew the person in the room adjoining his just enough to nod to him whenever he saw him in the hallway, but he didn’t know much about him.     

More recently, I have observed much the same depressing environment at another Hawaii retirement home as my wife and I visited her aunt.  The building is new, the furnishings fine, the lounge comfortable, the lattes served by the lounge machine especially tasty, but on more than 20 visits to the home I have seen very little of the residents, except at meal time.  They all seem to stay in their small rooms, watching television or sleeping.  A few of them sit in the hallway staring at the walls or sleeping in a sitting position.  They head for the dining room in a parade of walkers three times a day, though they don’t eat much and don’t talk to each other at the table.  They just sit there, looking at the food, seemingly wondering if it is worth the effort to take another mouthful.  After 30 minutes or so, they slowly position themselves in front of their walkers, and shuffle back to their rooms.  The administrators appear to do their best to keep them occupied, encouraging them to engage in such activities as balloon volleyball, in which they sit on opposing couches and attempt to hit a balloon over a coffee table, or an exercise session in which they don’t do much more than windmill their arms, but only a small percentage of them participate.  Most prefer to confine themselves to their rooms. 

The sense I got at those retirement homes as well as others I have visited over the years is one of despair and hopelessness – people just waiting around to die, although not wanting to think about death.  On a couple of occasions I tried to engage some of them – the few who leave their rooms – in a conversation, hoping to get some clue as to what they are thinking about and what their thoughts are on death.  However, the mere mention of death resulted in a look of shock or dismay and I was unable to get any real philosophical musing from them.  The conversations had to be limited to the weather, the tasteless food in the dining room, or the reason their children don’t visit more often. 

As I observed the hopelessness and despair among the retirement home residents on a more recent trip to the “Old Soldier’s Home” in Washington, D.C., I thought about the interview with Julien Musolino, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Rutgers University, I had read recently on the Internet.  Musolino contends that there is no such thing as a soul and the quicker people realize that the happier they will be.  They’ll feel liberated and that liberation will lead to both truth and happiness.  That seems to be the view of so many of the philistines promoting nihilism on the Internet.  They say we should live in the moment, enjoy each day as it comes, and forget about the future.  Nearly all of them come across as young people rebelling against the God of their parents.  They are able to escape into various activities each day – texting, tweeting and phoning each other about their mundane activities, not taking the time to realize how meaningless those activities are in the great scheme of things.  I wonder if they will feel the same way when they end up in a retirement home, when living in the moment means staring at the walls and napping all day, with drool dripping, when it means graying, grunting, grumbling, grimacing, groaning, growling, griping, grieving, groveling, and groping, when the only thing you have to look forward to is the next meal, and when you make it to table you don’t even want to eat. 

Now in my 79th year, I qualify for retirement homes, but I can’t see myself living out my final years in such a depressing environment.  Philistinism – whether it be no belief at all in the survival of consciousness at death, such as that espoused by Musolino, or merely a hope that comes from the blind faith of orthodoxy – doesn’t work for me, and from what I have witnessed it doesn’t work for most others in their declining years.  The non-believers, like Musolino, can pretend to rejoice in their “heroic” march into an abyss of nothingness, but they’ll never convince me that it is anything but bravado.  As Kierkegaard saw it, such people are in despair even though they think they are happy.  “The reason is that his sensuous nature and the psycho-sensuous completely dominate him,” the famous existentialist offered. “The reason is that he lives in the sensuous categories agreeable/disagreeable, and says goodbye to truth, etc.; the reason is that he is too sensuous to have the courage to venture to be spirit or to endure it.” 

To quote William James, the pioneering psychologist and renowned philosopher:  “Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet. In the practical life of the individual, we know how his whole gloom or glee about any present fact depends on the remoter schemes and hopes of which it stands related.  Its significance and framing give it the chief part of its value.  Let it be known to lead nowhere, and however agreeable it may be in its immediacy, its glow and guilding vanish.  The old man, sick with an insidious internal disease, may laugh and quaff his wine at first as well as ever, but he knows his fate now, for the doctors have revealed it, and the knowledge knocks the satisfaction out of all these functions.  They are partners of death and the worm is their brother, and they turn to a mere flatness.” 

The believers who rely on blind faith and the teachings of orthodoxy are really not much better off than the non-believers, as strumming harps and singing psalms 24/7 for eternity is hardly more appealing than extinction.  The orthodox believers repress the idea of death by escaping into the same twaddle to which the non-believer clings. They are philistines nonetheless.

I am convinced that one must move from blind faith to true faith, or conviction, if he or she is to live the retirement years with some purpose.  “Too many indeed hold the solemn verities concerning the hereafter in a sort of half consciousness, believing in them, yet nevertheless not fully realizing them,” wrote Dr. Madison Peters, a Christian author of a century ago.  “They must flame within us, setting our whole moral and intellectual nature on fire, sending a life current of energy though every part of our being, arousing us to impetuous action and to sustained effort born of strong conviction.”

Such conviction comes from giving up the 10 G’s for the 10 S’s: seeking, searching, studying, striving, struggling, sacrificing, serving, surrendering, solving and then soaring.

To quote Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist:  “Death is psychologically as important as birth, and like it, is an integral part of life. ...As a doctor, I make every effort to strengthen the belief in immortality, especially with older patients when such questions come threateningly close. For, seen in correct psychological perspective, death is not an end but a goal, and life’s inclination towards death begins as soon as the meridian is passed.”

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.

Next blog post:  October 5



Glad to know that there are some good ones out there.
Actually, the ones I mentioned were very nice places.  The problem is that the people don’t interact.  I can see, however, that if the person has two or three like-minded friends in the home, it can make a big difference.

Michael Tymn, Mon 28 Sep, 19:45

My father and mother both melted away in a retirement home like you don’t want to be in, however my mother-in-law researched vey carefully and is now 94 living happily in a home with a vibrant and active community of aged go-getters who wouldn’t dream of wasting away quietly. It’s not inevitably a horrible end!

Michael D, Sun 27 Sep, 15:15

Much the same in Canada, from what I know, after seeing my mother off through 5 years in a home in Vancouver. Unfortunately, like many, she could not look after herself anymore nor was I able to keep her safe at home. But I agree with your observations, Mike,but in addition to “certainty”- achieved through knowledge and experience of spirit contact and communication, I would add the need for life long fitness activities of some sort too. That would help many seniors enjoy later years a lot more if they maintained some degree of mobility and agility. Hey! They could dance and kick up their heels to spirit tunes!

paul biscop, Thu 24 Sep, 00:33

The video Alive Inside is primarily about music therapy for people with dementia but it touches on the deeper issues of emotional and spiritual isolation of the elderly. Check out the home page and you should be able to watch the movie on this link.
Another bit of good news in the fight against dementia

Wendy Zammit, Wed 23 Sep, 00:15

Thanks to all for the comments.  Professor Musolino, who was mentioned in the post, responded to me by email and said that the views I ascribe to him are really not his views and referred me to his book and to He said his views are the opposite of “promoting nihilism” and “forgetting about the future.”  That is not what I understood from the interview mentioned, but I may very well have misunderstood, which I often do. 

Incidentally, Dave, I’m not 79.  I’m in my 79th year, which began when I turned 78. wink

Michael Tymn, Tue 22 Sep, 23:29

Unlike Sigmund Freud who believed that repressed sexual desire was the basis for most psychological disorder, I believe that it is death anxiety instead.  People simply don’t want to face death even though they know it is inevitable.  Whether death results in annihilation or some sort of afterlife, I think it must be faced soberly and squarely.  In the event of death, one of two things will occur:  Nothing, or something.

Bruno Molon, Tue 22 Sep, 17:54

Michael,are you realy 79yrs of age.
I have enjoyed reading all your comments and I have three of your books.
May you continue writing for years to come.

david hall, Tue 22 Sep, 02:18

Totally agree Michael. This video really analyses the problem - that nursing homes are institutions are modelled on hospitals not homes.

Wendy Zammit, Tue 22 Sep, 00:15

Well Michael, Bette Davis is reported to have said “Getting old is not for sissies” and she apparently spoke from experience as she battled serious and eventually terminal disease.

I think that what you have observed in nursing homes is just ‘the human condition’ at the end of a long life.  After 80, 90 or 100 years on this planet most of us will have lost everything that was meaningful to us.  One reaches a point where one knows more people who are dead than are alive; where we have lost our beautiful body, its intellect and its vitality; where it is a major chore to move one’s arms and legs; where vision and hearing fail and teeth fall out; where evacuation of the bowels and bladder becomes a priority; where aches and pains become a daily experience that no liniment will eliminate; where there are so many rules about eating and drinking that no food or drink on the menu causes us to salivate in anticipation; where we no longer understand a society in which popular music is just noise and in which celebrities are praised for their amorality;  where the only game left to us is guessing which illness will finally take us out of our misery.

We all will experience these losses if we live long enough and withdrawal into one’s own mental world or sleep as we transition to another reality is probably a reasonable thing to do. - AOL

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 21 Sep, 23:02

Medical science has learned a great deal about prolonging life physically, but contributed little toward improving the quality of life in old age. So we have many who are technically alive, sometimes even in relatively good physical health, but who languish in a shadow world of emptiness and hopelessness.

Science can’t be blamed. Arguably, God or nature (take your pick) didn’t design our species to survive into extreme old age. But when death is considered by most people to be the ultimate disease, medical researchers and practitioners feel morally obligated to keep people going as long as possible, even if they are in physical or mental pain.

It takes a strong sense of life’s meaning, the conviction that it has a purpose, to bear the burdens of old age. To attain such a conviction requires a long time, maybe most of a lifetime. Anyone who doesn’t want to end up with a vacuous existence in a nursing facility warehouse needs to be searching, now, for answers to what it’s all about.

Rick Darby, Mon 21 Sep, 21:22

C. G. Jung also said “Everyone shoud get aquainted with Death.”.  You can’t do that when death is a taboo word as it is now. Many people die and return and want to talk about it, but are ridiculed, the teachers are not bing heard. 
Curiosity from th audiance will have tooccur first.

Darlene, Mon 21 Sep, 18:31

I agree with you re retirement homes. Of course if one is infirmed, we might not have a choice. I know at least 3 people in their 90s who live alone and manage quite well. Of course there is a part of us that lives on….enormous amounts of genuine after death communication show this very clearly…eg drop-ins, the R101 and evidential mediumistic messages which have to be subsequently verified. Patience Worth, Rosemary Brown…The Bang sisters..veridical apparitions etc etc. We have the knowledge. Let us be like Swedenberg and pay his rent up to the day he died, and not a penny more. He looked forward to his departure as he was ‘told’ of the day of his death. No need for blind belief.

Tricia, Mon 21 Sep, 11:04

Briliantly written Michael. This is the end product of the death-denying society. We have a lovely Spiritualist friend aged 92 in a nursing home who gets the same reaction when she tries to talk to fellow residents about the glorious reality of the afterlife.

Wendy Zammit, Mon 21 Sep, 02:59

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The Only Planet of Choice: Visitations – Many people use the word ‘Alien’ to describe a visitor from outer space. Extra terrestrial is another word, which is rather more user friendly. For the sake of the question and answer format, the word used by the questioner has been left, though even Tom questions our use of‘Alien’. Should we wish to foster openess between all beings of the Universe perhaps we should also look at our vocabulary? In a discussion between Andrew and Tom many years earlier, Andrew had asked Tom about UFOs and whether they were created manifestations. Tom had replied: “Many of the flying things that you call UFOs come from our place, but they come from other places also, and they do come in physical form. But many of them are not physical. They are like your movie screen”. Read here
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