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A Call to Pens–Writer as Social Activist

Life cycle [1]In the back yard of a Canadian middle-class home, a ten-year-old child plays with his neighbor while the supervising adult works in the garden. “What are those?” the visitor asks, pointing to freshly unearthed carrots, their ragged tops still attached. He’s an accomplished eater of store-prepared vegetable trays, with their polished and uniformly rounded “baby” carrots; nevertheless, when the adult provides the answer, it seems beyond ridiculous to him. Later, when he bites into one root, cleansed with sun-warmed water from the garden hose, his face lights with discovery.

Another child orders his favorite meal at McDonald’s. Though he’s uttered the words hundreds of times, until today they’ve been nothing more than a constellation of blended, meaningless sound. Chickenmcnuggets. Like the bag of frozen, pre-flavored “drummettes” his family purchases in the grocery story, he’s drawn no connection between his food and the clucking, pecking creatures he admires in the zoo. He is twelve.

An almost-ninety-year-old woman cries as she visits her family doctor and recounts the trials of the past four months. She has suffered two hip fractures—the first almost certainly due to a new medication, the second from post-surgical frailty. Ongoing mobility and memory problems mean that she’s been forced to bid farewell to her home of fifty years and seek assisted-living accommodations. During the interview, the physician is noticeably distressed by the woman’s tears and offers a solution: a prescription for antidepressants.

I promise I’m going to connect this all to writing, but first, can you spot the common thread within these true vignettes?

For me, they’re about what happens when you take human beings and, in the quest to make modern life efficient, full of ease and pleasure, lose meaningful connection to the natural world. Perhaps lose connection to what it means to be fully human.

What This Blog Post Is Not:

But We Pay a Hefty Price for the Disconnect

Unless things change, the first kid has lost the opportunity to know the pleasure and satisfaction of a hobby that contributes to thriftiness, fitness, self-sufficiency, and food security.

Both children are missing vital elements of food literacy. Unless corrected, they will likely pay with their health.

Also missing: a visceral understanding of environmental and agricultural issues, impacting the quality of their future citizenship. How can people make wise decisions about personal consumption and public policy when they lack fundamental information about how the world works?

In the case of the elderly woman—the example which chaps my hide and was the prompt for this blog post—the cost might well be her life. Tax a failing brain and struggling body with another chemical, and you’ve all but pushed her into the next fall, which will likely be her last.

A Looming Problem

The 2014 census estimates that there are 76.4 million American baby boomers headed for their twilight years. Over the next few decades, our society will cope with geriatric-derived issues on an unprecedented scale. (Among them, problems with: estate planning, accessible housing, loss of independence, physical and mental decline, elder abuse, etc.)

What happens when that grey tsunami meets the medical system?

Considering the elderly woman, do you think her doctor’s response is unusual? What likelihood is there that she will refuse the prescription, or that if she does so, she’ll be supported by her family and caregivers the next time she dissolves in tears?

Based on my experience as both former prescriber of antidepressants, house-call-maker and nursing home attendant, I’d opine the respective answers are no, and less than 10%. This is fairly standard care in North America.

What do you think of this response, though? Is there anyone here who believes that a grief reaction or existential crisis—natural, if unpleasant aspects of being human—can or should be healed by a pill?

The Call to Pens—Where You Come In

If we want our society to be different, there are many avenues of attack, but one of the most basic lies within your purview as a writer: change the dominant narrative around the aging process. Take us away from stories in which the only alternative to despair is the medicalization of natural emotional challenges.

Instead, cast the elderly in the role of (reluctant) hero. Position their health troubles as a call to adventure. Weave narratives in which they gather mentors and allies. Have them engage the enemy and fight their way to solutions which are respectful, holistic, empowering, and which won’t create more problems than they solve. (Or not. Show us how the system must be changed to make these solutions possible.)

Take advantage of fiction’s back-door method of presenting options, and keep going until these narratives become part of our culture, until you’ve altered our constructs. Work from the grassroots up until you’ve reached future patients, their loved-ones, and eventually the conservative medical establishment.

If you will do this, then the day may come when another caring physician, upon meeting another crying patient, will make use of an entire toolbox of non-pharmacologic treatments. I’d like to think that toolkit will contain a referral to counseling, to spiritual advisors, to support groups, and so on. But also? A library card and prescribed reading list.

While I am directing your social activism, remember our food-challenged youngsters? Why not kill two poultry with one butcher knife? Invite them to read about hip, geriatric gardening ninjas. Make it cool to possess hand calluses and grey hair. Inspire them to mimic cultivar-loving protagonists, so that as they pass through the fiction-inspired toy aisle, they’re nagging their parents to purchase hoes and seeds in addition to archery sets and sheriff badges.

That way, when our youth sit next to their grandparents at the Thanksgiving table, the words of grace will hold additional meaning and context. They’ll understand the origin of the energy contained in their food, and that it once resided in the sun before wending its way from cosmos to earth to platter to lips.

BTW, If You’re Thinking I’m Nuts, My Son Agrees

It’s not that he disagrees with the premise of this post, but he believes there’s more than enough published literature tackling these themes. He might be right, but when I’ve searched my memory and the bookstore for high-profile books, I found only memoir, romps and satire, or novels feature youthful protagonists. Nevertheless, here are a few options:

The Fault in Our Stars [3] by John Green—fiction; though the main characters are dying teenagers, they cope with existential pain and the challenges of being forced to care-give their caregivers.

Still Alice [4] by Lisa Genova—fiction; a 50-year-old Harvard psychology professor and her family cope with her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. (Book was initially self-published).

Tuesdays with Morrie [5] by Mitch Albom—memoir; the author learns life lessons from his former professor, now dying of ALS

Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying [6] by Ram Dass—memoir about dealing with the aftermath of stroke, including the requirement to embrace humility and accept help.

Now, Unboxeders, I’ll turn it over to you. Please add to my woefully short reading list. Also, if you could invite all fiction-writers to tackle one society-shifting theme, what would it be and why? Does your fiction embrace that topic? If not, care to make that change?


About Jan O'Hara [7]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [8] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen [9]; Cold and Hottie [10]) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.