For the Week of January 24, 2005
I got a neat birthday present last week. My mom came by to visit.
She's 81, old enough so that "spry" is a compliment. I think of her as a preview of coming attractions.
Mom's nearly blind, she has very high blood pressure, and it's no longer a surprise when she approaches me in a wheelchair. When she walks I hold her on my elbow and feel the tension in the arm - it's difficult for her. But she got it in her head to take advantage of a cheap fare from California, via Minneapolis, so I bear the minor inconvenience of her in my day with good grace.
I often think of how technology could help my mom, and people like her. Always-on medical monitoring, inventory applications so she can keep track of her stuff, home automation so the chores do themselves, video-over-IP so we can call and see her any time, an RFID pendant that can track her movements so we know she's safe and not losing it. I'd like a voice interface to a broadband Internet connection so she can stay in touch with homebound friends, despite any infirmity.
I credit mom being with us to the fact she's able to stay in her own home. My brother and his family moved in with her some years ago. I know my father began to die when we had to pull him out of his failing business, and the home on Warburton Drive is an essential element in my mom's identity.
When she gets sick of my brother, both my sisters have "grandma rooms" where she can come and stay. My niece in San Jose is very fond of her "gammy" and I know her nephews in Corona are as well. All her California grandchildren are more fortunate than they know, for they know her far better than do my own kids, who see her only once in a while, and then only for brief stretches.
A study last year called grandparents the key to civilization's birth. It was when people lived old enough to become wise elders, and pass on the stories of past times, that man really settled down and became something other than an animal. And I know that, without mom around, my family is often dominated by short-term crises - grades, friends, problems at work, money troubles.
Mom has been through a lot in her life, and that perspective is something I know I haven't taken advantage of. But kids can. And kids want to.
Which brings me to Martin Bayne. Martin and I have begun work on a new book project, about the growing elder care crisis, which disguises itself today as a problem with nursing home finance.
The fact is that, if you're really lucky, if you avoid the heart attack, the stroke, the cancer, the gun shot, and the car accident, if you do everything as you should and get your just reward, you're likely to end your days warehoused, abused, and neglected in some "facility" somewhere.
Some 1.5 million Americans today live in nursing homes, most of them women, many of them over 85, most of them on some sort of government assistance. They are under increasing risk of physical abuse, and every effort to prevent that abuse (by law or litigation) is met by an industry demand for carte blanche. Rising insurance rates, rising costs of meeting government requirements, means higher costs and less money for care, they argue, often successfully.
It's going to get worse before it gets better, because my generation is living longer. The first true baby boomers turn 59 this year, retirement is just around the corner, and infirmity is not far behind.
Japan is far ahead of us down this road, and there is enormous interest there in technology as a solution. Instead of networked chips, they're looking to humanoid robots, real Robbies who can do the physical work of Mama-san care that they can't import guest workers for.
But this solution, like the Always-On world I call for, is not going to be enough. Being with mom, listening to her, I realize it's not only insufficient economically and physically, but socially, morally, and psychologically.
People need people. Robots can provide for our physical needs, computers can assure our safety and comfort, but at the end of the day it's the presence of other humans in our lives that makes life worth living.
Most people in nursing homes don't have that. Families come rarely. The other residents are lost in their own troubles. The workers are strangers.
And that's where Martin's Hearthstone idea comes in.
The idea is to treat more of us, as we age, as my siblings treat my mom. If older people spend their days with little children, the need for staff on both ends of the age spectrum is reduced. Why the ages are segregated in day care is beyond me.
But beyond that, ways must be found to keep people in homes, real homes, for much longer. There's a chef near me who has lived for some years with an old black lady, unrelated to him. She taught him her recipes, she taught him how to live, and now he's giving her dignity as her memories fade, and as her body withers.
Legal ways should be found to enable more of this. When my mom does pass away, I want my brother to inherit her house, free and clear. When this old cook dies, the chef should get some of her estate.
The benefits are many-fold. The chef is a better cook, and a better man, for serving this lady who has become his grandma. My sister-in-law, who lost her own mother when she was young, honors my mom as she would have liked to have honored her own, and has become saintly in my eyes as a result.
And then there are the kids. We often have no time for our kids. But our parents have nothing but time for them. And if our kids grow up with grandparents around them, even someone else's, perhaps they will seek their counsel later, as they become teenagers and find they can't talk to mom or dad.
Perhaps they will serve these grandparents tea, fluff their pillows, turn off the TV, spill out their hearts, and see smiles coming to older faces, then listen as the wisdom of decades rains down upon them, blessing both sides of the conversation and bringing with it the light of hope and contentment.
That's Hearthstone. That's my new project. Wish me luck with it.
I urge everyone who reads A-Clue.Com over to Mooreslore to enjoy my ongoing online novel, The Chinese Century. I hope it's as much fun to read as it has been to write.
In partnership with ZDNet, I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source .
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout , a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.
My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .
Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
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