I was enjoying drinks last week with Jody Holtzman (AARP), Terry Booker (IBC), and Doug Ghertner (change:healthcare) at a wonderful conference sponsored by Oliver Wyman. Jody was waxing eloquent about how every start-up needs a strategy for the senior population, when – after a few too many drinks – I emphatically told everyone at the table that I had the senior market cracked. I had experienced first hand the ills of the American health care system for seniors and had identified the perfect solutions.
My father-in-law grew up on a small, Kosher dairy farm outside of Pennsylvania (insert Jewish farmer joke here). He is 72 years old, he was about 40 pounds overweight, he has been widowed for about four years, and, about 30 minutes after my mother-in-law passed away, he started dating a woman that my wife never quite accepted, which is akin to saying that Russia is watching events unfold in the Ukraine from the sidelines (and to be clear, I don’t condone either position).
In January of this year, he was jumping from a backhoe onto a helicopter pad (don’t ask), fell 6 feet, and shattered his heel. The heel is a terrible bone to break in general (poor circulation) and, in particular, for someone who is older and a bit overweight (my goal is to not use the word “patient” once in this article because we aren’t patients, we’re people).
He flew to LA on a massive dose of pain killers (more suitable for a dairy cow than a person), had surgery at a leading hospital system there, and spent the next 2 months lying on his back (truly) while my sister-in-law sponge-bathed and bed-panned her father back to health.
In mid-March, he was given permission to go home and by early April was building a vault at the Federal Prison in Pueblo, CO (true story) when his foot started to smell.
He came up to San Francisco to live with my wife and me, and after five more surgeries, health care bills totaling tens of thousands of more dollars, 40 hyperbaric oxygen sessions, five more months lying in bed (literally), and one nasty surgical site infection and non-healing wound later, was back on his feet and on his way to Montana to plug an artesian well in northern Montana where the nearest hotel is 90 miles from his job (I wish I was making this up but I’m not that creative).
So what’s the point and what are the solutions:
1. While living with us for five months, my wife (for those who don’t know her, think Kathy Bates in the movie Misery) almost starved him to death. It was unclear what was tougher on the poor soul – the gash around his ankle, the 7 months in bed, or the kale smoothies every morning for breakfast. But … he lost 40 pounds, looks great, feels great, has a fully functional heel (!!), and is now living a healthier and happier life. While I was a believer before, I am an even bigger believer now in wellness for seniors. The weight loss made a world of a difference. Every senior in the country should come and live with Amy and experience her starvation diet. We could probably turn it into some kind of reality TV show.
2. In August as he was starting to see the recuperation finish line, his girlfriend broke up with him (which is understandable after eight months apart). A couple of days after they broke up, my father-in-law went on J-Date, the Jewish dating site, and posted his profile. I didn’t see the actual profile but I envision the following: “72 year old male, gimpy but recovering, living with daughter, seeks attractive, outgoing female. Must like sleeping in cars on side of road, heavy equipment, and working in close proximity with America’s most dangerous criminals.” He also posted a pre-starvation picture. He had 180 date requests within 24 hours – I kid you not! The last month he stayed with us, he had four lunch dates and three evening dates each week, was routinely out until midnight, and slept until 9 am most mornings with a bottle of aspirin next to his bed (and it wasn’t for the foot pain). Our kids aren’t teenagers yet, but I’m pretty confident I am ready to handle their dating adventures now. I got to peruse my father-in-law’s dating options on J-Date and, if he wasn’t the father of my wife, I would have asked him to take me with him.
Notwithstanding seven months on his back, my father-in-law is really happy. While he had a remarkable and positive attitude throughout the ordeal (and I greatly admire him for that); he’s also happy because he got to spend eight months with his family, he is meeting new people, and he is experiencing new things. Kidding aside, he really had a good time with J-Date, and it has made me realize that the big senior opportunity is in creating happiness. He is healthy and thriving today (after a horrible eight months) because he had a great attitude and because he is happy and engaged with people of all sorts. In the provision of all care, but in particular with senior care, we REALLY have to cultivate the mind in addition to the body.
3. Pick your hospitals carefully. The infection NEVER should have happened (a huge shout out to Dr. Jamie Bigelow at Dignity Health for getting us to the right place). Big reputation and a famous name on the door does not necessarily equal great care. As consumers, we need to be educated on what makes for a good hospital (beyond simplistic “Best of” lists), and we need to be provided with clear data to evaluate the places we go for treatment.
4. Approach my wife Amy even more carefully than you pick your hospitals. I go to sleep each night fearful that she’s going to break my heel to “help” me lose 15 pounds. But she is not to be trifled with, and, to her great credit, she nursed her dad back to health and even better health than before. This process was stressful on everyone – my father-in-law (obviously), Amy, her sister, his sister, and the whole family. Everyone came together, worked together, and handled it beautifully despite the stress. Everyone showed great respect and appreciation for the family caregivers and for my father-in-law during the process. This is incredibly important and worth remembering in family caregiving situations.
5. Logistics are a bear when dealing with senior care. He was unable to drive while recuperating, and my wife, who, like me, has three young children and a husband too cheap to support her with extra child care over the summer, had to get him to his daily hyperbaric oxygen treatments (please see my next blog on why Uber is actually worth $10 trillion dollars).
So you’re probably wondering what Esther Dyson has to do with this. During the conference, Esther led a wonderful session on “the quantified self.” About 15 bourbons into the evening, I challenged Doug to explain to me what is “the quantified self” as I impetuously decided it was an oft used but rarely defined term. Doug gave a wonderful answer, which is that it’s a means to an end and one of many means to that end. We should be talking about awareness. How do we make people more knowledgeable about the implications of their lifestyles and more self-aware about those implications when making daily decisions. The self doesn’t have to be quantified (although it certainly doesn’t hurt). It has to be qualified. Terry then told me I needed to document our conversation for posterity and suggested Lisa’s blog. We were trying to figure out a way to bring it all together when I started to wonder if Esther is on J-Date….
I don’t have a twitter account but try me at #ihopemywifedoesntreadthisblog or #ihopeihaventoffendedestherdyson or #ittakes9hourstogetfromtampatosfandihadnothingbettertodothanwritethis
PS. I hope it doesn’t happen again, but my father-in law is welcome back (sick or healthy) any time he wants, and not just because we had a “captive” babysitter for five months, which was nice. I am in awe of how he and the whole family handled such an extreme situation with grace and I even learned something in the process.
Marty Felsenthal is a partner with HLM .