Being Mortal

Being Mortal

Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande

The inhabitants of Chase Memorial Nursing Home now included one hundred parakeets, four dogs, two cats, plus a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens. There were also hundreds of indoor plants and a thriving vegetable and flower garden. The home had on-site child care for the staff and a new after-school program. Researchers studied the effects of this program over two years, comparing a variety of measures for Chase’s residents with those of residents at another nursing home nearby. Their study found that the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half that of the control nursing home. Psychotropic drugs for agitation, like Haldol, decreased in particular. The total drug costs fell to just 38 percent of the comparison facility. Deaths fell 15 percent. The study couldn’t say why. But Thomas thought he could. “I believe that the difference in death rates can be traced to the fundamental human need for a reason to live.” And other research was consistent with this conclusion. In the early 1970s, the psychologists Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer performed an experiment in which they got a Connecticut nursing home to give each of its residents a plant. Half of them were assigned the job of watering their plant and attended a lecture on the benefits of taking on responsibilities in their lives. The other half had their plant watered for them and attended a lecture on how the staff was responsible for their well-being. After a year and a half, the group encouraged to take more responsibility—even for such a small thing as a plant—proved more active and alert and appeared to live longer.

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