My father’s health had been poor for at least the past decade. He spent a lot of time in and out of hospital, especially in the last months of his life. The experience was one that no family should go through, but many do.
Every time the medical team managed to control one health condition, it seemed that another would flare up, confounding my father’s doctors and their efforts. From infections to failing kidneys to heart failure to fluid retention—well, you get the picture. I lost track of the multitude of tests he endured, but among them were electrocardiographs, echocardiograms, X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, and daily blood tests. He found it challenging to eat or drink. Finally, he simply wanted to go home.
My father comforted me the last time I saw him alive. He told me he was ready to go and asked me to take care of our family. I cried when he held my hand as he had done at times over the years, because now his big, strong hands were weak and frail.
On February 11, 2018, William Henry Colin Milner passed away at the age of 85. My father took his final breath at home, where he wanted to be, in his skilled nursing room at Haro Park Centre, supported by family and nurses he knew well.
He left us the day before the first anniversary of another death. My brother, Robert, celebrated his 59th birthday less than a month prior to dying of a heart attack the prior February, an event that shocked and devastated our family.
I am so sad when I think of their deaths. And I am so angry.
You see, Robert caught pneumonia, which raised his risk for a heart attack—something he likely never realized. While he did demanding physical work, my brother ate a poor diet and smoked, two lifestyle behaviors associated with heart disease. His early death grieves me all the more because he had the potential to enjoy those additional years of life I talk about so frequently in my work, and he never will.
Most of the issues that my father faced were preventable. He could have aged so differently if he had eaten well, kept physically active and stayed more socially engaged, along with all the other things that we promote for active aging. Sadly, my father experienced a profound change in his lifestyle and his quality of life after his health and mobility declined. While he had those additional years of life, he was unable to live them fully.
I wanted more years with my father and my brother. I won’t have them. But, through my advocacy of active aging, I want to ensure that other fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters, live as long, and as fully, as possible before they die. And, that they experience a beautiful death when it comes time to leave their families.
So, please, do us all a favor: The next time someone asks you to justify your wellness program, staff or culture, think about the families out there. Think about your family. Think about how wellness can change the way we live and the way we die. Think about how wellness matters. The only person who disputes the value of wellness is the person who is well.
Today, when I look at my hands, I see the grooves and wrinkles that I first noticed on my father’s hands 42 years ago. At the time, aged 17, I realized he was getting “old,” and it was an awakening. Yet my father was only 45, a relatively young man in reality. Now, aged 59, I wonder how my two daughters see me. But I also think about how I feel versus what my hands show.
Active aging provides me—and everyone who embraces it—a foundation to engage fully in life at every stage. And that’s a priceless gift not only to ourselves, but to all the people we love.