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:
- a rant against efficient food production. Mechanization and industrialization have freed millions, if not billions, from the drudgery and back-breaking work of manual labor. With the world’s population estimated at 7.32 billion and climbing, we have many mouths to feed.
- a screed against psychiatric medications, because when used properly they save lives and alleviate suffering. (At one point, I myself was a poster child for better-living-through-modern-pharmacology.)
- a call to suffer for the sake of suffering. I hold no truck with the romanticism of pain.
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?