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When age robs minds and bodies

It's hard to decide whether to laugh or cry. It is an ordinary Sunday morning. Outside the sun is brightly shining.

Inside the nursing home where mother has lived for several years, life is normal _ well, as normal as it gets.

A pleasant, but obviously confused resident is constantly asking if she is in the right place to eat supper. She shuffles around in pink slippers, pausing to ask us all about supper. Then she asks where we are.

A nurse patiently explains that we are all in a nursing home in Tallahassee.

"She doesn't have good sense," whispers my 87-year-old mother with a knowing smile. Mother forgets that there are lots of days when she doesn't know where she is either. The difference is that mother never admits it. She just talks about being in New Orleans or Mobile and won't listen to anyone who suggests she is really in Tallahassee.

Next to us is a resident who constantly demands to see her daughter. Another patient reminds her that the daughter lives in Iowa and isn't likely to be at the nursing home today. Undeterred she calls out for "Connie," over and over again.

A woman in a wheel chair periodically screams for help, but in between her screams seems to be in no obvious discomfort.

A woman sleeps slumped over in a wheelchair, but she won't fall out. A baby blue quilted band around her chest keeps her semi-upright.

A song breaks out: "I had a little girl in Arkansas" croons a friendly resident who spends much his day at checkers or extending friendly greetings to nursing home visitors.

In the halls of Congress and throughout the Florida Legislature we are now debating ways to provide health care to a nation that is overwhelmed by increasing costs. The debate springs to life here.

Last week state Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher predicted that the 85 and older crowd in Florida will multiply by more than 75 percent in this decade. That growth means unprecedented problems in a state that must come up with some way to provide medical care for many of them.

Gallagher also suggested that many of us will live to be 100 years old. I am half way there and frightened at the prospect.

I am reminded of it each week as I visit mother and remember how much she wanted to die before her mind and body deserted her.

Some of the residents at mother's nursing home have frail bodies that cannot walk. Some have Alzheimer's or have had strokes that have affected their minds. Some have lost the use of mind and body. All need constant care.

Mother is somewhere in the middle. Her mind functions some days and not others. She no longer walks, and speaks so badly that only a few can understand her at all. She cannot dress herself or eat without help.

It is enough to bring tears to the eyes of those who knew her when she was the well traveled, well educated, neat and trim woman of yesterday.

It helps to know that she doesn't really know how limited her life is. Each week I remember the nursing home visits I made with her in years gone by as she paused to see an old friend. I remember, too, her comments about not wanting to wind up like those friends who had lost their minds and the use of their bodies.

Each time I leave her, I resolve anew that I will not end my days this way. But I struggle with the knowledge that mother never planned this either.

What does living longer gain for us if our final years are spent like this? Should we prolong life to populate nursing homes and provide employment for those who need jobs?

Over and over the problem strikes me as impossible to solve. Some days I wish I had left her in her little house in Mississippi despite her obvious inability to take care of herself. Other days I readily recognize that she needs daily care and it would have been cruel to leave her alone.

But have we done her any service?

She would be among the first to suggest that the money being spent here would be better spent to provide health care for her great grandchildren.

Fortunately we live in a nation that does not force us to choose between the old and the young, but Gallagher is right. We must find a new way to provide care at both ends of the spectrum or face a complete failure of the health care system.

Lucy Morgan is Tallahassee bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times.