Are You A Caregiver?

To Do List

To Do List

Some of my best ideas for posts come from friends, family and, of course, my readers. A friend, who is in the process of finding nursing home care for her 92 year old mother, suggested I write this post on caregiving. With reader comments about their caregiving responsibilities, it’s a subject I’ve looked at before. Admittedly I avoided it because caregiving is such a broad subject with many layers. Where to begin? I decided to begin with the caregiver, a many layered and varied subject in and of itself with as many scenarios as there are people.

According to caregiving.org in 2015 there were nearly 44 million unpaid caregivers in the United States alone. With 10,000 baby boomers arriving daily at their 65th birthday, that number is expected to rise. Boomers are not only giving care, they are needing care. However, caregiving.org reported 1 in 10 caregivers were over the age of 75. Forty percent of caregivers report the care as being a high burden for them and higher hour (44.5 hours a week) caregivers are stressed. The physical burden, especially at an older age, appears to carry a larger emotional burden as the hours of caregiving amount to that of a full-time job with little or no time for a personal break.

As a wife and mother I’ve been in the role of caregiving in the past, one that comes as a natural part of raising children or caring for a spouse recuperating after an accident. Most of the caregivers are, in fact, women. I can imagine that as we age and find ourselves caring for someone, we may not view ourselves as caregivers. It’s what we have always done for family or sometimes, even friends.

I’ve known many people, like my friend, who are either caregiving directly or are responsible for arranging caregiving. It is a complicated subject. There is no one size fits all. Some people are caregiving for an aging spouse or other relative or friend, while others are continuing the care of handicapped adult children and others still are taking on the upbringing of grandchildren. Some retired not expecting to be in this role.

Earlier in the summer I had the pleasure of having one of my grandchildren visit for two weeks as he accompanied Martin and me on a trip to Michigan to visit our oldest daughter and her family. An active, engaging seven-year-old caring for him takes a lot of energy. There are the usual undertakings like making sure he is eating his vegetables or getting a bath or off to bed at a prescribed time to the unfamiliar activities of assisting with the technical gadgets this generation carries with them as a matter of course. Then there was keeping track of him, keeping him occupied, making sure he is spending his time well. I found myself more tired in the evening. What was a snap when I was thirty takes more effort for the aging me. And, I wasn’t having to be concerned with school, financial responsibilities or healthcare.

This reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago when I was interviewing the local Alzheimer’s Association as a volunteer for United Way. The woman representing the organization remarked about how stressful the role of caregiving is for the caregiver, impacting their quality of life and even their health as they care for their loved one. Support and a respite, if only for a few hours a week is important. Depending on the extent and duration of the caregiving, it can be stressful, especially as we age.

According to the Center for Disease Control more than half of caregivers said they do not have time to take care of themselves and almost half said they are too tired to do so. It’s easy for me to say because I’m not in that role, at least not yet, but this brings to mind one of my favorite sayings, “Put your own oxygen mask on first. Otherwise, you may not be able to help the other passengers.” If you are in the role of being a caregiver, it is important to take care of yourself so you are able to continue to care for your loved one. Otherwise, what will happen to them if you leave this world first?

That means eating well balanced meals, finding time for some exercise, getting your immunizations, health check-ups and taking any medications you may need. A support group where you can share your story and network for needed services can provide some relief for the stress. Is that easier said than done?

As I mentioned above, caregiving and receiving care is expected to take on more significance as baby boomers age. This generation’s huge numbers is expected to be an opportunity for companies in the healthcare and senior care industries. Most of this generation wants to age in place using in-home services. Realistically, they may not have the financial capacity to go to assisted living facilities.  Aging in place may not be by choice but necessity.

As also mentioned, some of my readers have written comments about caregiving responsibilities. I’d like to hear from any and all of you who are engaged in caregiving be it a spouse, parent, adult child, grandchildren or friend. Caregiving runs the gamut of taking someone grocery shopping, to the doctor or doing some housework to being responsible for attending to all physical and personal needs, finances and even some medical or nursing duties.

For starters:  What are your responsibilities?  How does your caregiving impact your hours for taking care of yourself?  Do you have time for activities you enjoy like a hobby? Do you feel burdened by caregiving responsibilities or is it something you enjoy doing? Why is that? Did you expect to be in this role when you retired or did it catch you by surprise? If you didn’t expect to be a caregiver, how did it change your retirement? Do you consider yourself in good health? Has being a caregiver caused your own health to decline? Do you feel more stressed or is caregiving just one more hat to wear? And whatever else you want to comment about.

Let us know what it’s like on the front lines of caregiving. Tell me your story.  I’ll post your comments and pass your observations on to others in a future post. Your story may help someone else.

The Pettie Pets

Portia finds a comfy spot

Portia finds a comfy spot courtesy of a visitor’s suitcase

May is National Pet Month. As the owners of six (yes six!) cats we’re pet lovers at our house. We also like dogs, but I’m highly allergic, so we stick with cats, to which I’m just a little allergic. I love cats that much. We call them the pettie pets.

While it’s not always easy to have a pet in retirement, especially if you are a frequent traveler, it is well worth the effort to add one of these companions to your life. Like humans, what they really want is love and care. In return they give us love and care.

I wake every morning to a dark gray tabby named Portia greeting me with a soft “mrump mrump” as she butts my head and paws at my covers. She loves to have her hunches scratched. Then she snuggles in the crook of my arm as she purrs contentedly listening with perked ears for a certain sound from the kitchen. While this is going on Martin is letting the outdoor cats in from their night in the garage and preparing to feed everyone. The second he pops open a can of cat food, Portia leaps off the bed running to the kitchen. That’s the sound she waits for every morning.

According to Dr. Marty Becker of the American Humane Society, “Dogs and cats have broken down the walls of our hearts. There haven’t been comparable domesticated species in 5,000 years. When you’re petting them, you both get this massive release of oxytocin, prolactin, dopamine, and a decrease in cortisol. It’s a reciprocal biochemical spa treatment.” (quoted from the article on purina.com 11 Ways To Be The Best Pet Owner).

This is just one of the benefits of having a pet. I’ve known for a long time that petting a cat or dog can lower your blood pressure. Having a companion at any age that is a de-stressor is beneficial. Anyone who has been reading this blog knows I also call our cats the Zen Masters for their calm attitude and calming influence.

Trio likes the tubes

Trio likes the tubes

Since loneliness is one of the potential scourges of aging, it may be a plus to add a furry companion as we age. When I come home, the three indoor cats come out of their hiding places to welcome me. Out in the garden, the outside cats show up to laze around under a bush or soak up the sun on a path as they watch me work. In return for belly rubs and scratching under the chin (known at our house as chiny-chin) , I enjoy more head butts, kneading and purring from my loving companions.

Oftentimes, retirees miss the daily structure work provided. Owning a pet can replace some of structure you lost when you gave up your job. We’ve found it takes no time at all for our cats to adapt to a routine. And they have an internal clock that is spot on. Every morning at precisely 6:30 a.m. our diluted orange named Carmen is at the door with our wake up meow. Occasionally, she tests the waters with an earlier weak little mew. Otherwise, she knows what time to get us out of bed. They also know when it’s snack time, dinner time, time for an outside walk. Pets have our number. And our hearts.

Carmen sporting pink nail covers so she won't scratch the furniture

Carmen sporting pink nail covers so she won’t scratch the furniture

While cats aren’t usually pets to put on a leash and take for a walk, owning a dog can help keep you in shape. If you tend to be sedentary, your dog won’t let you make excuses for staying on the couch. I’ve known dogs who got their leash between their teeth and brought it to their owner with a ‘it’s time to get up and out and walk me’ look in their eyes. Fido can be a very good exercise coach. He or she may even help you meet some people.

There are many reasons to own a pet. We never expected to have six cats _ sounds a little like having kids, but two were planned, the other four just showed up at our house. Our cats are a lot of work and an extra expense, but they are also a source of great joy. They put smiles on our faces. And that alone is a great reason to have pets.

Mothers Are Forever

My Mother

My Mother

Not everyone is a mother but everyone has a mother. My mother died in 2008. Yet she is still with me and always will be. Mothers are forever. She is inside my head and my heart. She is in the eyes that look back at me from my bathroom mirror each morning. She is in the hundred cliches I mouth about life’s tributes and trials. She is in my sense of fairness, of responsibility, of duty. She is in my love of gardening, painting and writing.

A mother’s influence and presence is forever _ even if you never really knew her or she is now gone.

Like most people my relationship with my mother had good times and not so good times. As a small child I loved dressing up in her long orange ruched gloves, veiled hats and rhinestone bracelets. My mother often played out story book roles with me. I was Little Red Riding Hood to her Grandmother and the Big Bad Wolf. She read me Walt Whitman poems. But, she also had difficulty letting me go as a teen and young woman. Advice was often forthcoming whether I wanted it or not. And her advice was often contrary to what I did or thought I should do. This strained our relationship. Still, she was the person I could count on to help me out in a pinch.

She taught me right from wrong, how to hold a tea cup in polite society (your pinky finger must be held out from the cup handle in a slight curve), make a bed with squared corners and the best apple dumplings ever. She taught me to say, “excuse me” and “please” and “thank you”, to have respect for my elders. She also taught me to stand up for myself and not give in or give up if principles were at stake.

My mother had a wry sense of humor, somewhat sarcastic.  She saw life’s ironies.  Me, too.  When it came to her red hair and aging, she quipped, “Red heads never dye.  They just fade away.”

She was kind and helpful to people, including strangers. I remember leaving Asbury Park late one week night after shopping. On the way to our car, we encountered a distraught teenager who just missed the last bus to take her home. With businesses closing their doors and turning off lights the streets were quickly becoming deserted. Even though it was miles out of our way, my mother offered the girl a ride home. When she hesitated, my mother took out her police badge, showed it to the teen and told her she would be safe. We took the girl home. As my mother walked the teen to the door of her house and spoke to her father, I could see the gratitude on the man’s face.

Mothers are caretakers. Mothers are influencers. Mothers are leaders. Mothers are shapers of society as they are shapers of their children’s beliefs, abilities and character. Mothers are strong, resilient, resourceful and constant. Mothers are the very fiber that knit our society together. Mothers never leave us. They are always with us in our actions, our words, the voice in our head, the face in our mirror. Mothers are forever.

Whether your mother is with you or not, tell her thank you with gratitude in your heart for all she has given you, including life itself.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

In Order To Keep Them…

As the eighty year old woman standing in front of me related the problems she had with her fifty-six year old daughter, I bet myself this woman didn’t think of herself as an interfering parent. The woman lamented her daughter’s two marriages and subsequent divorces, her dead-end (in her eyes) job and the daughter’s lack of regular communication with her.

“If she would just do what I tell her,” the woman complained, “I know she’d be a lot better off than she is. But she doesn’t even answer my calls.”

I looked at the woman and said, “In order to keep them, you have to let them go.”

“What? I don’t know what you mean.”

I repeated. “In order to keep them, you have to let them go.”

Even after delivering a lengthy explanation of what I meant, the woman refused to believe she was _ you guessed it _ an interfering parent. At eighty, still trying to tell a fifty-six year old how to live her life, one might think she is an aberration. But, frankly, she reminded me of my mother, who was still trying to parent me at eighty and thought I should still be parenting my then twenty-seven year old daughter.

As the mother of two adult daughters I came up with my saying of “in order to keep them, you have to let them go” in answer to my mother’s over reach as a parent. While I love my daughters, sometimes worry about my daughters and give advice if asked, I decided that once they were adults, I was letting them go. And, while I loved my mother, our relationship was strained and that was on the good days. When she died at ninety, she was still criticizing my adult decisions. I did not want that kind of relationship with my daughters.

It was, and still is, my experience that parents who insist on continuing to tell their offspring how to live their lives often ended up with a strained relationship. And, sometimes the well-meaning parent helped create the very mess of a life their offspring lives.

I remember one mother bragging warmly about how she spoiled her seventeen year old son, making him a sandwich while he continued to lay on the sofa watching sports. She did his laundry and picked up his room. She and her husband provided him with a nice allowance and a car even though he did no chores around the house or held a job. “We want him to enjoy being young,” she said. Six years later she couldn’t understand why he dropped out of college, made no effort to find a job and laid around on the sofa watching TV all day while bumming money off his parents to go out with his buddies at night. Protecting your child from life’s responsibilities and hard knocks does not prepare them for a life of independence.

Perhaps worse yet is the parent who continues treating their child like a child long after the child has successfully flown the nest. I’ve known many parents who decide their adult children are all going to be best friends throughout life, even expecting daughter or son-in-laws to all be on best friend terms. While I’ve heard of this happening, most families may continue to get along but the idea that your sons or daughters spouses are all going to mesh to the point of best friends forever, is a pressure few relationships can withstand. After all, we come from different family cultures with different life views. Your children’s spouses came with their own set of friends and family. Respecting that boundary will go a long way in nourishing a healthy relationship with your children, not to mention your in-laws.

I’ve watched as these same parents expect every holiday to be held at their house, totally dismissing the fact that their children’s spouses also have families. When I questioned one mother about the wisdom of this need on her part, she said, “I want all my children with me just like it was when they were kids.”

Well, they are no longer kids. Adults work out their own holiday schedule. This is about recognizing that your children now have boundaries like any other adult in your life. This is about respecting their boundaries. This is about treating them like adults instead of like children. This is about transitioning to an adult relationship.

My dear mother’s over reach with parenting left her bemoaning the fact that Martin and I were moving to South Carolina and not taking our twenty-seven year old with us. “How can you go and leave her behind?” She asked in an incredulous tone.

Your children do not belong to you like a piece of property. They’re not furniture or accessories. The idea of uprooting a mature woman with an independent life was absurd. But, my ever protective, ever shouldering any burden you may have mother always saw her over reach as just part of being a caring mother. She thought I was a derelict in that role. One of the reasons for our strained relationship, which brings me to another point. Foisting your beliefs about anything, parenting included, onto your adult children is nothing short of trying to continue to control their lives, albeit, perhaps, with good intentions.

I’m not a sociologist or psychologist so all the above is just my view from my experience over a lifetime _ way too many stories of mothers and fathers continuing to parent adult children. That said, I believe the best way to parent adult children is to let them fly the nest, set up their own shop and leave them to their own devices unless, of course, your opinion on their life decisions is asked. In order to keep them, you have to let them go.

WHERE THERE’S A WILL

As a young woman I worked for a bank in a branch office. Prior to opening each morning, the teller assigned to the task, went through the newspaper obituaries. If any of our customers was reported deceased, the teller placed a hold on their accounts, including joint accounts, and sealed their safe deposit box. Sometimes, even people with a Last Will and Testament, left their relatives in a bind when the only place that held a copy of the will was the sealed safe deposit box. Waiting for a probate judge’s order to open the box takes time and costs money. Anytime you have to go to court for anything, you should see dollar signs. However, many people did no planning at all, dying intestate, meaning without a will. We had a saying at the bank, “If you don’t have a will, the state has one for you.” You may intend for all your worldly possessions to go to your spouse but, depending on the state where you live, without a will, state law may dictate your estate is split evenly among your spouse and children, no matter what the age of the children. Don’t assume your children will do the right thing by mom or dad and give the money back to the surviving spouse. And with probate courts inundated with cases, an attorney recently told me it can take up to a year for an estate with a will to get through probate. This is reality, folks.

We all know someone who died suddenly, perhaps from a heart attack or car accident. Yet, most of us put off estate planning thinking, “We’ll get to it later.” Yes, we all do it. Even me. Despite all the life lessons from my banking days, until recently, I had not updated my will for years. No one wants to think about dying. We are a frail type, we humans, who don’t want to face our mortality. We like to think we always have more time. We fool ourselves into thinking, ‘later’ will always be there for us. The heart attack or car accident isn’t the way we will go. Oh no, not us. The truth is we have no idea the day, the hour, the minute or the how. My dad used to joke about it saying, “Something’s gonna get ya. Nobody gets out alive.” Then, he’d laugh at his own joke. Fortunately, both he and my mother left a plan, allowing we children to grieve instead of wending our way through the overwhelming task of trying to figure out what they wanted in the way of funeral arrangements or how to pay for them. There’s enough to decide even with a will. Without a road map, it’s really stressful. That’s how family squabbles happen. And, who wants that to be their legacy?

Give the gift of a will

Give the gift of a will

End of life planning is complicated these days. In South Carolina, where I live, probate court can be avoided by having a trust agreement, rather than just a will. Then, there are revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. And, just in case you forgot some old account someplace or another, a will can be embedded into the trust. This isn’t an ad for attorneys, but, the truth of the matter is, you probably need one to advise you on what is best for your circumstance in the state in which you live. Just in case that isn’t enough to think about, matters are further complicated by the need for Powers of Attorney for both health care and financial management. These documents cover any eventuality where you become unable to make your own decisions regarding your health and money management. Since each document is separate from the other, the health care attorney-in-fact doesn’t necessarily have to be the same person as the financial attorney-in-fact. Before naming someone to either of these positions, be sure to discuss your decision with that person asking them for their agreement to accept the task. Nobody likes surprises. This is serious business, so cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. You may also be asked to name alternates because, as we know, stuff happens, and your primary may become deceased or incapacitated themselves, rendering them incapable of carrying out the task. Your attorney will most likely ask you to name a runner up, or two. Whew!

Although this is a serious subject requiring serious consideration, action and, let’s not forget, money, it is the best gift you can give to your survivors. Despite my feet dragging on the matter of updating my planning, the big lesson – well one of them – I learned in life is this. If you don’t make a decision and take action, time and circumstance will make the decision for you and you may not like the outcome. To that, someone said to me about making a will, “What do I care? I’ll be gone!” If you care about your survivors, whether spouse, children, siblings, significant others or grandchildren, give them the gift of not having to squabble over your health care, funeral arrangements and money. Give them the gift of being able to just grieve without worry about the details because you left a detailed plan. And, one last thing – no excuses – dreary as it is, there’s no time like the present to create your plan.

FORTY YEARS DOWN

A couple of weeks ago, Martin and I celebrated our fortieth anniversary. What does one say about such a milestone? I thought hard about this one. All the things we did. All the things we learned. Forty years of better and some worse. Not much sickness yet; mainly good health. As for richer or poorer, we scraped the bottom of the barrel some years and rode the wave of plenty in others. We certainly experienced the ups and downs of life and a committed relationship. Having read lots of ‘what I learned in forty years of marriage’ type posts, I decided against listing all the lessons. Mainly because I didn’t want to bore my readers but, also, because, to me, there is one big lesson. And, the big lesson covers a lot of territory.

We are nowhere near the same people we were in 1975, young, idealistic, starry-eyed about our future and each other. 1975 was, by all accounts, a year when our societal norms were different from even ten years before. Wannabe hippies, we married in a meadow, mowed, of course, on my parents 125 acres in a tiny hamlet in upstate New York. Cow country, I call it. Escaping the normal retirement trends of the day, my parents sold their suburban New Jersey home, bought the acreage with a barn and built a log cabin on a hillside overlooking Columbus, NY. For Martin and me, this setting appealed to our hippie tendencies of matching beads, long hair and a tad bit new age. This is where we chose to be married. Our nuptials were performed by an Episcopalian priest, H. Alan Smith, who, much to our liking, walked around town in a white t-shirt and blue jean overalls, sporting a beard and mustache. John Ludington, who worked with me and moonlighted weekends as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, performed songs like ‘Time In A Bottle’, ‘Annie’s Song’ and ‘The Wedding Song’. Our oldest daughter, three at the time, filled the role of flower girl. What I envisioned as a warm, sunny June day, was, instead, cold, with light rain misting on the meadow. Stuck in traffic getting out of Syracuse, H. Alan was twenty minutes late in arriving. Thinking my minister stood me up at the altar, my tear stained face stayed that way as I cried throughout my own wedding. After a reception of family and close friends, Martin and I went to our apartment. We took the week off from work, bought bicycles with the cash wedding gifts and that was our honeymoon.

Our Wedding Invitation

Our Wedding Invitation

From this rather unconventional start to our marriage, we developed a rather unconventional relationship. No, no, no. Get your mind out of the gutter. We didn’t become swingers or open marriage or anything really out there. It goes something like this. The only one in the family with a stable job on that cold, rainy day was me. Martin worked a temporary full-time job with the county. Did I mention I worked in banking, as a teller? Yes, I worked in a conservative industry. It was not long before I ditched my short skirts, beads and crazy shoes for a more conservative look as I applied for the bank’s management training program. I was the last person without a four year degree to land a slot in the program. Martin eventually shaved off his mustache, got a proper haircut and a permanent job before going on to earn a four year degree. We built our first house, acting as the general contractor, as well as putting up drywall after stuffing in insulation, laying the hardwood floors after putting in the subfloor and doing whatever else we could do with our four hands. Eventually, I got a bachelors myself. I was the main breadwinner for half our marriage and Martin took over for the second half. As a result of all our maneuvering in life, the relationship we developed is more of a mutual support system with both of us pitching in with the kids, cooking, cleaning, laundry, yard work and repairs. As the years went on and on and on, we figured out who carried which strength and let that person run with that particular ball.

Matching Beads

Matching Beads

Recently, in a class at Furman University OLLI, the instructor mentioned how women are more attached to the house and home, while men are drawn to the yard and spaces outside the home. Of course, me, with my chainsaw and all, begged to differ. This idea was further discussed when one of my classmates came for dinner at our house. As Martin cooked a scrumptious shrimp scampi, she and I sat in the kitchen sipping wine after a tour of my garden. We talked about how Martin and I both have specialties around the house, including meals we make. While Martin’s Mr. Fix-It, changing out the kitchen faucet or working on our tractor, he is also likely to paint a pair of side tables for the great room or want to change out drapes in the dining room. As the one who plans, plants and maintains the gardens, I care less about interior decor. Knick knacks bring on hyperventilation as I think about all the dusting. I do most of the clearing of the underbrush on our property, Martin following with the bush hog to grind it down. Like I said, we each have our strengths. Since most people seem curious about how we came to this arrangement, I guess we operate differently from most couples.

After forty years, we just do what we do, naturally, without question, as a team. That didn’t come easy. We grew at different rates, at different paces, at different times. We experienced our share of wrangling. It was years into our marriage before I realized I married a renaissance man and just how fortunate that made me. Forty years of pinnacles and peaks, along with long days and nights in the valleys. Somehow we made it. And, that’s where the real lesson lies. Only one in my book. Not forty. Not a string of I learned this and that. As with everything else in our lives, we learned to accept change. We learned to accept change and growth in each other. We learned we are not the same people we were in 1975 but a matured, developed, personally stretched version of those people. We learned to roll with the punches, taking flexibility and sometimes patience to a new level, at least for us. Difficult at times, we each learned to adapt to the person, our partner, friend, lover, who came out on the other side of individual growth spurts. And, through it all, we stuck by each other with love and commitment and faith that we, us, our union would prevail. And, it did.

In true Merlino tradition, we celebrated our forty years, not with a trip to Italy or any other far off destination. Not with a big party with all the hoopla and family and friends. Not with any of that. Instead, we went an hour up the road to Asheville, NC, wandered through the River Arts District looking at good, great and bad art (my opinion), ate really cheap but really good fish tacos at The White Duck Taco Shop and spent the night in a cushy boutique hotel, where we ate a really expensive but really amazing dinner at The Red Stag Restaurant. There we lifted our glasses and toasted, just the two of us, as we wanted it, to another forty years.

LIFE IS STRANGE

After writing the last blog on technology, which garnered lots of comments (thank you!), a life is strange experience occurred a couple of days ago prompting more thoughts on technology. But, the real story is the part about humans, not machines. Working in the garden, cell phone clipped to my jeans, I receive a text from a friend on the other side of the country. “Kathy, are you free right now? I need a favor.” Since I’m rarely free from activity these days but always willing to drop whatever to help out a friend in need, I text back, “What do you need?” The story is a friend of my friend has passed away. The woman was estranged from her family and children. My friend is trying to locate the children to inform them of their mother’s passing. And, she needs a favor from me? How can I possibly help? My friend thinks she found her friend’s daughter on Facebook. Since my friend does not have a FB account (yes, I have friends who are not totally tied into the world of technology), can I send a message to her friend’s daughter asking the daughter to call my friend so my friend can impart the news of the mother’s passing (whew…are you still with me?…hope I’m writing this well enough to understand). Of course, I say, “Yes.”

Still standing in a sea of coreopsis and sunlight, I use my smart phone to pull up my Facebook account and plug in the daughter’s name. Glancing at her photo, she looks happy, not someone who is estranged from her mother, years and years of estrangement to the point of no one knowing where she is in the world. I try not to dwell too much on the photo. After all, I’m on a mission. But, my imagination and the tragedy of this situation tug at the edges of my mind. I imagine what may have broken their relationship to such extremes. Imagine a daughter, who is coming of age but still immature. Imagine she wants to be free of her mother’s supervision. Imagine a mother, worried her daughter might make mistakes, so she holds tighter and tighter while the daughter struggles harder and harder to be free. Imagine the mother, in desperation, becomes more controlling. Imagine the daughter does make mistakes and the mother can’t resist an “I told you so.” Imagine the daughter runs away, severs the relationship forever. There are probably a hundred more scenarios I can imagine. But, back to my mission. Right now I have to write a simple message. Not much information, one line should do it. I imagine how strange it will be for this daughter to receive my message, a message from a complete stranger in another state, asking her to call another complete stranger in yet another state who is a friend of her mother. I look at the picture again. She looks intelligent. She’ll read between the lines. But, will she care? Will she call? As I stand in my sea of flowers poking one letter at a time on the small screen of my phone, it occurs to me how strange and even wonderful it is that within minutes this daughter is found (hopefully it’s the daughter), my friend and I have communicated across thousands of miles and I am now sending a message to this woman. Life is strangely wonderful and at the same time, often cruel and unjust. There is a certain poignancy to this unfolding story.

Coreopsis At My Feet

Coreopsis At My Feet

After texting “Done” to my friend, I continue working and wondering if the daughter will call. How hard it must be for my friend to deliver such sad news, not knowing how it will be received. Or, if it will be received, waiting to see if the daughter ever calls at all. And, how tragic for this family torn apart for whatever reason to hear the news of a mother’s death, having no way now of making amends, if there is any regret. Within minutes, my friend sends another text announcing the daughter’s call to her. The daughter jumped right on it. She cared. Although I never met my friend’s friend or her daughter, I say a little prayer for these two women. They have unexpectedly touched my life, reminding me of what is important in my little world. I pray for inner peace and self-forgiveness for the daughter. I hope the mother’s spirit is at rest. Surely, there were times when each wanted to reach out to the other, to close the gap of silence, to speak and forgive. And, I say a prayer for my friend, for taking on the role of family and caring. As for me, my heart is heavy yet at the same time, very light. I smile at the sunny day and the sea of coreopsis at my feet. Somehow, I feel like I played a larger role in the universe today. Life is, indeed, strange.

Technology

Why people assume certain attitudes always intrigues me. That, of course, is one of the reasons I chronicle the impact mindset has on aging and, in particular, aging well. Following that thought, about a year ago I read an article from the Pew Research Center on “Older Adults and Technology Use” (http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/04/03/older-adults-and-technology-use/). While the article cites a lot of statistical information about how older adults (categorized as 65 and older) use technology, the brief paragraph about attitude stands out for me. According to the article, aside from physical challenges like reading small print, and learning to use the technology, some older adults don’t believe there is a benefit to using it. Well, of course, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know I’m not so sure that’s the entire story.

Doing a little informal research of my own, I began paying close attention when I heard an older adult say, “Oh, I hate technology!” I did my usual eavesdropping on complete strangers. And, sometimes I inserted myself in the conversation, asking a few questions to satisfy my mental inquiry on the subject. I was probably a real pain to some of those people, especially when I asked them if they liked their car or their washer or their TV. I got a lot of blank stares. You see, people don’t think of those things as technology or even new technology. Because they have had lots of gadgets in their lives for so many decades, they expect to continue using them and expect to continue learning how to use the new versions when the old ones wear out. But, when it comes to computers, smart phones, social networking, email, texting, downloading music or books, or…enter the sci-fi of yesterday…Skyping, there is resistance from a certain segment of older adults. Like most people, when there’s something I really don’t want to do, even when I know I should do it, I become exceedingly proficient at finding excuses not to do whatever it is. My imagination can conjure up the best of them. That is just human nature. We can create obstacles where there really aren’t any hurdles at all. Hurdles like small print, when using a tablet like the iPad with zoom out technology will instantly make the print larger. Hurdles like learning how to use the new technology when classes, most of them free of charge, are offered by the vendors and manufacturers of the new technology, not to mention senior centers and local colleges and technology clubs.

Technology

Technology

Then, there’s the catchall of ‘no benefit’ to using new technology. That’s the attitude, the mindset shunning the entire package of new gadgets, no further questions or comments necessary, thank you. That’s also the part, which does not compute with me. How can something, which has so transformed our very way of life on this entire planet, have no-o-o-o benefit for a segment of our aging population? And, if they have shunned it, never immersed themselves in its use, how can they determine it has no benefit? It reminds me of the authoritarian Dad who, when confronted with a child wanting to try something new, spouts, “No!” to the poor kid before the request fully leaves their lips. If the child dares to query, “Why?”, Dad then blurts out, “Cause I said so, that’s why!”. Based on my non-scientific research, it seems like those who think all this new tech stuff has no benefit, probably never gave it a proper chance. For example, when I hear grandparents say they have no use for Facebook or Skype or text messaging, I wonder if they realize they are depriving themselves of a closer relationship with their grandchildren, especially if said grandchildren are miles away. No grandchildren? Well, then, children, siblings, aging parents, cousins, nieces, nephews or old friends. Even if no other benefit existed for immersing myself in new technology, the benefit of being able to engage with my grandkids nearly 800 miles north is benefit enough for me to put forth the effort necessary to figure out the technology. My two daughters do a superb job of posting videos and pictures of their children so I don’t miss football, softball or volleyball games or track meets or birthday parties or holidays. And, I can share my daily happenings with them. We Skype or FaceTime for special occasions. Amazing! It sure beats just sending a card or gift or saying, “Happy birthday” over the phone. How can you not love that?!!! And, it’s great to text a grandchild with a sentiment or attaboy but it is even better to get an “I love you, too” in return.

Speaking of kids, young people today are no different, than we were at a young age. Why, when we were young, we embraced new ideas and things to do every single day of every single week. We learned to use the technology of the day with anticipation and excitement. We didn’t think twice about benefits. It was simply what our world was doing and we wanted to be part of our world. Remember learning to drive? Was it a stick shift or an automatic? Remember the first TV at your house? How about when more than a few TV stations joined the lineup and you got a remote with the TV? You were older then, but you figured it out. Yet, as we age, we decide to play ‘old dog can’t be taught new tricks’. Well, old dog, here’s why you absolutely must keep learning new technology. The biggest benefit to learning about and using new technology is it helps keep your mind younger, sharper, more supple so you’ll be around to see even more technological advances and learn to use them. Remember, a few posts back I said learning new things opens new neural pathways in the brain. New neural pathways are necessary for maintaining brain health. You cannot find a more significant benefit than maintaining your brain health. So, don’t go closing your mind to using new technology. Who knows? Maybe you’ll stay sharp enough to see your extended family extend even further into the future. And, that’s a real benefit.

ON DEATH AND DYING

Yesterday morning at 3 a.m. my father-in-law passed away in a hospice house. Having already experienced this profound loss with both my parents, I seem better prepared to support my husband through the grief and feelings of loss. The night before, as we made the hour plus drive down I-85 to the hospice house, for his sake, I tried to stay mindful and centered in the now. There was little traffic considering it was only 9 o’clock on a Monday evening. Rain continued to gently spatter the windshield as I watched the wipers swish it away every couple of seconds. My husband drove through the dark, rain soaked night as I navigated. Neither of us had much to say beyond the perfunctory directions I gave.

Dying of bone cancer, my father-in-law was transferred from the hospital to the hospice house only a few days before. In contrast to the institutionalized look of the hospital, the hospice house met us with a warm, craftsman style facade of huge stacked stone columns and pecan stained wooden windows. I remember thinking, “What a beautiful place to die.” This time of night the door was locked. So, I pushed the intercom button and heard the buzzing sound as the security guard unlocked it for us. At the front desk, I signed us in, hesitating over the question, “Are you spending the night?”. I looked at the guard and said, “He’s not expected to make it through the night.” The guard nodded and told me to check whichever box I wanted, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. I thought, “If I could, I would choose ‘No’ as in no, he would not die.” But, we are mortal. We all die. This was to be the end of a life.

As we walked down the hall, I looked at the chapel room to our left and then, ahead at a couple lounging together on one of the large sofas in front of the stone fireplace. They could have been any couple snuggled together in their living room, enjoying a cozy fire on a drizzly winter night. But, this was a couple also in grief, waiting for a life to end. They half lay on the sofa with stocking feet resting on the coffee table before them, her head on his shoulder, whispering to each other in the quiet of the night. She gave me a small, weak smile as we passed. I returned the smile and wondered if the grief in her eyes was also reflected in my own. As we turned the corner, I could see the nurses’ station down the hall. Three of the angels of hospice sat at the station talking in hushed tones as they went over the charts of the dying. I did not know how anyone could work day after day, night after night, helping someone die but, I knew I was exceptionally grateful these courageous women were here tonight.

We slipped into the room just before the nurses’ station. My mother-in-law and youngest daughter were already there by my father-in-law’s side. We all hugged as he lay in morphine-induced unconsciousness, struggling for each breath with a sort of snoring sound. If he hesitated a breath, my mother-in-law would lightly rest a hand on his chest as if feeling for his aliveness until he took a breath. We talked about other visitors and the flowers in the room and how much longer it might be before he passed and was free of pain and struggle. There were phone calls to and from other family members and close friends, who were scheduled to arrive by car or air to say their goodbyes but, who were obviously not going to make it in time. We walked down the hall for drinks or restroom stops. I noticed the couple lounging in the outer room was gone, perhaps to sit by the bed of their loved one, waiting for death to come.

As I watched my father-in-law struggle for each breath, I could see why assistance in dying is gaining support. This was hard to watch. I hoped the morphine masked the pain enough that he truly was not suffering too much. I felt small and helpless. And, I couldn’t help wondering how my own passing would be. I often heard people say they wished for a peaceful death and also wondered if they might consider this peaceful. When he finally gave up his struggle and left this earthly place, it was a relief to know he was no longer suffering. While life is important and we cherish and make the most of each day, how a life ends is also important.

John Merlino at Age 2

John Merlino at Age 2

In memory of my father-in-law, John Merlino

DEFINING MOMENTS

We all have them throughout our lives. Defining moments. Events which teach us life lessons, expose us to something as never before. Moments of joy, happiness, or sorrow and pain. Fifty years ago I was an eleven year old in Mrs. Gipe’s English class when my Dad opened the classroom door and said, “The Principal asked me to tell you the President’s been shot. He died. We’ve called for the buses to take the children home. I’ll let you know when they’re here.” You see, my Dad was the elementary school janitor. In the days before classroom phones and intercoms, he was often given the added job of spreading news from room to room. As I watched his face, I realized how heavy this particular news was for him. I also realized it was perhaps even more heavy a burden because this week marked the fourth anniversary of my brother Leon’s death in a car accident. Sadness already filled our house.

Mrs. Gipe, being an English teacher and loving poetry, took out a book and started reading “O Captain, My Captain” by Walt Whitman. As she read the poem about Abraham Lincoln’s death, her voice faltered now and again, but she never broke down in front of us kids. Other than her voice, the room was so quiet it was hard to believe there were about 30 eleven year olds sitting there. She never had time to finish reading the poem to us as my Dad opened the door a few minutes later to announce the arrival of the school buses.

As we filed out to the sidewalk, I saw my Mom on the corner waiting to cross the kids, who walked home, safely to the other side of the street. You see my Mom was the crossing guard. She always looked very professional and in charge in her police uniform but she always smiled as she greeted the kids. Today, her face looked sad. I knew she had looked that way all week, often standing in front of the piano in our living room just staring at my brother’s photos. And, although Thanksgiving was just a week away, there was a lull over our house hushing down any anticipation of the holiday season to come.

On the bus, Ginnie, a girl in my class broke down and started crying. There were others crying, too. But, I sat in the seat across from Ginnie and we lived near each other and played together and were in Girl Scouts together and had been in the same class since kindergarten. I knew her pretty well. So, it was she who I told it would be O.K. “But, what’s going to happen to us?” she wailed. I heard myself tell her, “Nothing. Everything’s going to be O.K.” I didn’t know if everything was really going to be O.K. But, when my brother was killed, people told me everything was going to be O.K. so I repeated it to Ginnie. Nothing seemed to be the same since his death but I still had a family, my Dad still worked at the school I attended and my Mom now stood on the school corner every morning and afternoon making sure kids crossed the street in safety. Our family still did most of the things we always did. There was just a piece missing. It wasn’t the same, but, it was O.K.

At the time I was too young to realize it, but Kennedy’s assassination intertwined with the experience of my brother’s death was a defining moment for me. As I look back fifty years, I recognize there were many kids on that school bus who had never experienced the death of anyone. They were afraid, confused, saddened. While the thought of the President being murdered was scary to me, I was one of the kids who was able to remain calm and offer comfort to my friends and classmates. I knew life would change but it would also go on. In that moment, a defining moment, I grew up just a little bit more.