Posted by: Dr. Pat Romney | April 24, 2010



In a recent research project conducted by one of my students, elders 74-85 shared their wisdom about what it takes to thrive in the senior years. They spoke principally about love, work and service. An octogenarian says that he goes into his studio each morning because there are pictures in his head that he must get down on paper and he speaks of how “lucky, lucky” (he repeats the word 4 times) he is to be married to his wife. Politics (local and national) involve another one of the participants.  Posters on her front door announce her political affiliations and promote her candidates.  When we meet, she is one name short of the hundred names she needs to get her candidate on the ballot. Another, an internationally known scholar and writer, is enthralled with the students she mentors and is still developing new ideas which she shares regularly with her list serve community.

On another front, I meet with patients at the nursing home.  A man prepares to die, another wishes he could. A woman loses thirty pounds with no discernable physical ailment – her official diagnosis – failure to thrive. Many of my other patients exist in the shadowlands, the life force sucked out of them by years spent in the nursing home.

This is not a surprise. Most of us shudder at the thought of nursing homes. When we are young we hate to go to visit Grandma or Uncle Harry, and we pledge that we will never put our parents in that kind of place.  As we age, we let it be known that this is not where we would like to end our lives.  

But in truth, the decline of most of my patients began many years before their nursing home stays. For many, their lack of education and their poverty was the predictor. For others lifelong illnesses foretold the outcome. For others lack of family is the cause.

Nursing homes can be awful; it’s true.  But if the staff is good and the residents are congenial, they are not as punishing as one might think. But the reality is that love and work – what Freud called the cornerstones of our humanness” are especially hard to come by in nursing homes. Friendships are forged there; it’s true.  And on very, very rare occasions one can find a husband and a wife sharing a room and still proclaiming their love after decades of marriage.

What is invariably missing, however,  is meaningful endeavor. Endeavor that involves residents in service to others. Work which engages the intellect and the soul. Endeavor that taxes and challenges and results in creative outcomes – no matter how small. To play the trumpet or write the soldiers or sketch the sunset or even feed the birds. These are acts of love and work that  sustain a life. Without them we die or we pray that we could.



  1. […] Dr. Romney compares these thoughts with patients she meets at the nursing home. “A man prepares to die, another wishes he could.  A woman loses thirty pounds with no discernible physical ailment – her official diagnosis – failure to thrive.” […]

  2. Having a dad in his late 80’s who is still moving forward in good health and good spirit is a blessing. I am a witness to “thriving in process.” Some his age, or younger, are not as blessed. Dad is engaged and purposeful in his life, a solid and dear companion and friend to his partner, and a loving father to his immediate and extended family members. He doesn’t seem to need or seek the serious challenge each day now that he approaches 90 but he doesn’t avoid one either! He does, however, seek successful outcomes in whatever he does and when those outcomes are successful (which is still quite often) he experiences a quiet joy, and a sense of accomplishment which continues to push him forward to the next day, the next task, the next endeavor. The piece of mind he gains from knowing “I still can” and I still am neded” is fueling his ability to thrive each day. Every day is a meaningful day “waiting to happen” for dad. Let’s help ourselves and our elders, related to us or not, find ways to grow, flourish and share their wonderful and sometimes unrecognized gifts. Help them find the “meaningful endeavor” and help them see that their intellect, their spirit and their love is still needed in this world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: