Nursing homes leave wrong impression on youth

by Paige Fieldsted

  • A look at aging as an athlete through the eyes of John Percival.

Odors of decay, urine, cafeteria food and musky perfume waft down the hallways, assaulting anyone and everyone who enters the building.
A peek into the dimly lit rooms reveals wrinkled men and women snoring in wheelchairs; others are unable to get out of bed.

The scene described above can be found in many nursing homes across the nation. And the underlying message creates fear in the younger population.

“We’re convinced kids walk away thinking, ‘Well, this is it.’ The impression is this is where you do end up at inevitably, ultimately,” said Scott Wright, the director of Gerontology at the University of Utah.

Wright said too often younger people are leaving nursing homes with the fear and misconception that the residents there are a representation of what aging is; that incontinence and immobility are what awaits them with age.

Lonnie Kay Percival has experienced a grandparent, a parent and a father-in-law dying in nursing homes. She says she understands how nursing homes can leave fear in children.

“The smell of old people, plus urine and cafeteria food and I don’t know what else, would be overwhelming,” said Percival, 69. “And there are so many old people all at once. I mean everywhere you look there are old people. I think it is a scary thing.”

Although Wright said it is a common belief among young people that all old people end up in nursing homes, statistics from the 2000 U.S. census illustrate that is not the case.

In 2000, 12 percent of the population was 65 years and older, but only 4.5 percent of the 35 million seniors were living in nursing homes. This number has decreased steadily since the 1990 census.

USA Today reported more than 1.8 million people are currently residing in nursing homes. Despite what seems like a high number, the number of residents in nursing homes is declining.

Even though such a small percentage of the population lives in nursing homes, youth who visit nursing homes and receive no other education are left with the wrong impression about what it means to grow old.

“We always cringe when the preschool or elementary school teachers gather the kids and say, ‘Okay we’re going to go to the nursing home on a field trip,’” Wright said. “You know it’s good for the older adults in the nursing home but (the kids) walk away thinking, ‘Well this is what aging is.’ It’s a very impressionable age and we want younger people to realize that is not necessarily all that aging is.”

Across the nation, education programs are becoming available to better inform the general population about what it means to age.

At the University of Utah, an entire department is dedicated to the study of older people and aging. In Salt Lake City, resources are available for those wanting to learn about aging. An entire section of Utah.gov is dedicated to seniors and information about them.

Percival said education has to be at a more personal level in order to dispel fear.

“I think we just have to organize our service project hours with the young people so that they get to know that they’re not just a wrinkled old person but that inside there is an interesting person,” Percival said. “Because inside they’ve lived a good life and an exciting life and they can share a lot of wisdom with the youth.”

Connecting on a more personal level could help overcome many of the attitudes that people have about aging. Assumptions like getting old means losing the mental and physical capacity to take care of ourselves, and to interact with others.

Wright said changing attitudes about growing old is an important step in changing behaviors now that will affect how we age in the future.

“It’s not just about behavior,” Wright said. “We have to change attitudes about aging.”

While many public school programs are working to changing the attitudes of younger people, Percival believes the change has to begin at home.

“It comes back to some parenting skills. Parents have to explain to children and talk to them,” Percival said. “I don’t know if you can turn that over to the schools and have it be successful.”