We took an afternoon not long ago to visit three relatives in their mid-80s. Two are in nursing homes while the other remains in her home where caregivers visit daily.
Realizing I'm but a decade away from likely being where they are and seeing where their once-active lives have led prompted me to question the priorities that face so many who survive into their 80s and 90s.
At one nursing home during lunch, I watched far more women than men, many in wheelchairs, gathered around oval tables having minimal conversations, if any, with fellow residents.
They seemed, for the most part, to be largely confined to their thoughts and memories. Some had their eyes closed.
Our 89-year-old uncle was at a table with two men. He sat in his wheelchair with head bowed and his palsied hands shaking from Parkinson's disease. Some food had accidentally slipped from the fork and wound up on his chin, clothes, the table and floor.
We sat and visited for half an hour. He showed some cognitive difficulty but was able to carry on a conversation, and his memory still seemed relatively sharp. His biggest wish was to leave the nursing home for Christmas to be with family and again savor a home-baked raisin pie.
For him, the endless mornings and nights had become a "Groundhog Day." Up to eat breakfast. Back to his room until lunch and the same scenario until dinner, then back to his room for the night. This was now life for a once-robust man who for decades owned and successfully ran a farm and cattle ranch when he wasn't busting rodeo broncos and trying to last eight seconds on bucking bulls.
Now he wants only to be in a relative's home for Christmas.
Across the way, Jeanetta spotted a resident in his 90s she's known and admired for years. His hair and beard now snow white, he stared blankly toward the wall as she approached and gave him a hug.
He responded initially then returned to his private world. Once a successful businessman and popular community leader, his life had come to this after more than nine decades.
After visiting, I understood more than ever how critical it is for us to appreciate and enjoy the quality moments we're given while we have them. Yet what I see is a society focused on quantity rather than quality of life.
While I understand how precious life is and the treatments and medicines we've developed to prolong existence, the afternoon I spent with them made it clear this ending isn't one I'm striving to achieve.
I don't write this to denigrate the fine efforts of those who work hard in these facilities. I admire and appreciate the demanding responsibilities they shoulder every day. Theirs is a job that requires not only skill, but admirable patience and a caring, compassionate heart.
I also realize many or most nursing homes have directors, staff and activity directors who work hard to try to enrich the residents' lives. And it's a very good thing to try in every way to keep aged minds and bodies active.
Instead I'm talking about the push in our nation to promote longevity, even when it means millions who make it to old age will wind up with a quality of life costing thousands each month--like the ones we visited.
I decided my preference by far is to extend the quality of existence for as long as possible before facing the inevitable.
But I also know that I and others around me who, during our vibrant and productive years never gave this conclusion to longevity much thought, now see its stark realities up close as we edge within several years of facing and enduring it ourselves.
Brock Johnson, a personable rehabilitation specialist who helps train me in post-cancer rehab treatments at the Jones Physical Therapy Center in Harrison, is one who, at age 29 with a 1-year-old daughter, has given longevity considerable thought. He offered an analogy that not only makes sense but left a lasting impression.
"I see an uninterrupted, average life span as an inverted u [or a small n]," he said. "In our youths we are upward bound, experiencing so many things for the first time like falling in love, building friendships, bonding with extended families, playing sports, developing a work ethic, gaining an education, just to name a few.
"Across the arched top is when we're busy earning a living, raising a family and facing the challenges of responsibility. Then comes the downslide where we steadily lose strength, energy and health until the end."
Once we round the turn and begin heading downward the die is cast. There's no reversing course. So the sooner we accept Brock's message of the inverted u, the better we can put our mortal lifetimes into perspective on the downslope.
Which brings me back to the relatives we visited. I saw so much experience gained over long lifetimes and those who had delivered many new lives into the cycle of life and contributed much to society wind up with long days in a small room suffering with physical and cognitive difficulties. It's an ending most of them likely hadn't considered 50 years earlier.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.