A Perspective on Our Collective Grief

Events of the past few months have left the world reeling in a collective grief on a scale which most of us have never experienced.  I’ve written in the past about sociologist Robert Atchley’s views on grieving the loss of our work identity.  We are way beyond anything he or any of us could have imagined.  We have lost so much in such a short time from an invisible enemy that grief is an inevitable emotion.  Having spent the last several years adjusting to a heart-wrenching life situation where I was overwhelmed by grief I’m offering my perspective.  

Years ago as we grappled with the impact of Martin’s disease I remember sitting in a popular local restaurant lunching with a friend.  People bustled past the windows on that sunny day.  Inside seating was filled, glasses clinked, servers brought delicious food and drink.  In the midst of cheerfulness, as I poured out my despair, disappointment, uncertainty and anger over this unexpected disease, my friend said, “You do realize somebody else has it worse than you?”  

Surprised and hurt at how a friend invalidated my feelings, I recognized in that moment what we all crave in life.  We want everything to be normal, usual, positive, happy.  Perhaps even mundane.  I thought about all the people who told me to look on the bright side, think positive, at least you still have him.  Few wanted to listen to my grieving.

Today I read this post on Facebook:

Without thinking, I shared it.  Then, I realized I was diminishing someone else’s grief.  I did exactly what I complained about in other people. I was no different. We want to look on the bright side.  Yes, most cases of COVID-19 are mild.  Going to the hospital and being put on a ventilator is not a death sentence.  Yet, for some there is no bright side.  A person they love died.  In actuality people are losing a mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter.  They are grieving.  And we must recognize the death toll.  We must recognize the grief – their grief, our grief.  

This is now a melancholy time.  As with Martin’s disease so it is with COVID-19 – there is no vaccine, no cure, no surgery, no nothing.  Many of us may feel alone, helpless.  Our lives forever changed.  Normal is no longer normal.  Our usual day is replaced by shuttering ourselves in isolation.  If we are lucky we have at least one other with whom to share our space and our fears.  We have the internet, Skype, FaceTime, but we are social creatures wanting to go out into the world, rub shoulders with other people, go to work, shop, travel, have fun, be happy.  We mourn the loss.

In order to have someone to listen, just listen, I spent six years expressing most of my heartache to a therapist, at first weekly, then every other week.  Six years.  Without her I could not have found even a morsel of happiness again.  I learned that suppressing negative emotions leads to other negative feelings such as resentment.  Quashing grief only heightens stress levels, which leads to health issues.  Talking about my grief was cathartic.  For me it was a release that allowed me to go on.  I was able to discard the negative thereby making way for some enjoyment of life. Grieving is necessary for letting go of negative emotions.

I’ve read many articles on grief.  Most of the articles refer to the loss of a spouse or significant other.  And, every author points to people telling them exactly the type of comments I encountered.  Get over it.  Think positive.  Move on.  Most people who give this advice probably think they are being helpful as I did by re-posting the above quote.  But, for the person going through the grief process, it can feel belittling of their situation.  It can also make them think they shouldn’t be feeling the negativity of the situation – ahhhh – the guilt.

Now, today, we are also hearing about grief over what may seem trivial to some of us.  Grief, however, is personal.  For my young granddaughters the closing of school for the year brought tears.  Our 17-year-old will graduate without making “the walk” to receive her diploma or attending a senior prom or the planned mystery tour for seniors following graduation.  The celebrations, which are so much a part of this experience have vaporized.  To those of us with wider life experience this may seem small.  To her the loss is real.  She deserves to shed tears and feel the loss.  

This is a time for compassion.  Whether we see the loss as large or small is irrelevant.  What matters is that we respond with compassion.  We must honor the feelings of the person.  Grief is personal.

Both my doctor and therapist talked to me about anticipatory grief, meaning I was anticipating the final loss of Martin and grieving over that future event.  I had no idea when it would occur so I felt a loss of control.  Our future was uncertain.  I venture to say many are struggling with the same feelings surrounding the pandemic.  We have no idea when it will end or how it will end.  We have no idea what the final toll in human life will be.  We worry about money and jobs and the economic impact.  We worry about our children’s education and socialization.  We mourn the loss of our social ties, work, clubs, sporting events, classes.  Normal provides comfort.  When our normal, usual life is upended so is our sense of safety.  

I say it’s important to give ourselves permission to grieve the loss of our lives as we knew it.  Grief, whether it’s because of a death, divorce, an empty nest, retirement or the catastrophic assault of a modern day plague, plays a very important role in our very ability to give way to the bright side, to move ahead, to adjust to our altered reality.  Depending on a number of factors, from our personality type to our personal circumstance to our support system, each of us has a different grief meter.  Divesting ourselves of the negative emotions allows us to move ahead sooner rather than later.   By grieving we also honor that part of our life.  It’s ok to mourn the loss.

We are in a time when an abundance of compassion is needed as never before.  Having a meltdown is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of someone requiring comfort, understanding and love.  In this time of coming together, albeit virtually for most of us, lend a willing ear to anyone wanting or needing to express their sorrow.  It will be good for both of you.

Revelations

 

It’s that time of year again where we made our New Year’s resolutions, face a clean slate, decide what we want to write on our slate.  I feel like I started with a clean slate in September.  I’m still working on it.  If someone told me a year ago, at the beginning of 2020, I’d be living in a new house, different climate and culture, changing my reality, I’d most likely have thought them daffy.  Yet, here I am.  I didn’t make resolutions again this year.  However, I am pondering some revelations.

Rhetorically, does a move to another state change our reality?  Decidedly so.  

Despite my trepidation about living in the snow belt, our Christmas was not white with snow, but sunny with temperatures in the high 50’s.  By Thursday it was 61.  I washed, waxed and detailed my car while Martin bicycled 18 miles.  Major storms, which made national news, went either north or south of us revealing a short winter season.  I’m ready if we get hammered as today it appears ‘The Iceman Cometh’.  My new reality includes a snow plowing service for the driveway as well as generator for power outages.  

But, compared to my altered emotional, spiritual and mental reality, the change in my physical reality is a minor aspect.   

Christmas night, as we prepared to leave our daughter’s house after a day of family, our grandchildren offered up hugs, our son-in-law backed my car out of the driveway and our daughter said, “Watch out for deer.  They’re scampering all over the place.”  

“I know.  We see them scampering.  I’m tired.  Glad it’s only 5 minutes to the house.”

She smiled.  “A lot better than 12 hours.”

Yes.

Having family, assistance and love just 5 minutes away has granted the measure of peace I hoped for.  I’m happier than I’ve been in years.  My only regret is not making the move sooner.  While being a caregiver is still strenuous, it is now a shared responsibility.  The kindness, acceptance, attention, effort, compassion, empathy, time together – I could go on and on.  

This hasn’t been easy.  After 21 years in South Carolina, even with the help of family, adapting to a new culture is a challenge.  Fortunately, we’ve lived here before.  Some things never change.  At the same time, growth renders cities and streets unrecognizable.  Family ties, of course, make it easier to find doctors, hair stylists, the best places to shop and other services.  When we moved to South Carolina, we had to rely on maps to get around.  GPS makes a new locale a lot simpler, especially wending our way through those now unfamiliar high growth, high traffic areas. 

While not making resolutions, I did reflect on what I wanted 2020 to look like.  Nearly two weeks into the new year and new decade, I decided to take a page from fellow blogger Pat Doyle’s post (https://retirementtransition.blog/2020/01/06/woty-2020-release/) and choose a Word Of The Year (WOTY) as a guide.   I wanted a word to lead the way to the emotional, spiritual and mental growth I sought in this new reality.  I wanted a word to aide my focus.  I wanted a word to define 2020 for me.  My WOTY is ‘Engage’.  While I’ve been busy settling in, locating services, changing licenses, address, painting walls and whatever else was needed to make this home our own, other than family, I haven’t engaged in the community in a meaningful social way.  

We live in the country.  However, looking around at what’s close to home revealed a wealth of interests hinging upon our natural world.  Small town activities abound.  Then there’s always the big cities, a bit longer to get to, but filled with many pursuits to choose from.  

Martin’s Painting of Canadian Geese

Keeping it local, as a first step to engaging Martin and I joined the Michigan State University Bird Sanctuary and Manor House only a few minutes from our home.  Similarly, we joined the Kalamazoo Nature Center – yes, there really is a Kalamazoo, Michigan – a bit further down the road.  

As a caregiver one of the challenges of engaging is finding activities, which will engage and satisfy both of us as well as finding community involvement for me alone.  The Bird Sanctuary is home to Trumpet swans, Canadian geese, ducks and rescued birds such as a Bald Eagle.  With nature trails surrounding a large pond and a monthly Birds and Coffee Walk, as longtime hikers, it’s the perfect place for both of us to get some exercise, engage with other people and nature.  On our last visit we met a photographer who drives over an hour just to take pictures of the once endangered Trumpet swans.  Martin took his own photos of geese, translating them to his artist canvas.  For me, there’s also the Richland Area Community Center with yoga and art classes.  It’s a beginning.

With an open mind and an open heart and ‘Engage’ as my WOTY, we’ll see what I can draw upon my slate by the end of 2020.  Engaging is under way!  More revelations to come.

A Perfect House

Thank you to everyone for the heartfelt messages.  Having an international community of support is priceless.  My heart goes out to those of you who have experienced or are experiencing similar situations.  I learned a lot from this move, not the least of which is to follow my own advice to live in the moment.

When our South Carolina house went under contract, we left for Michigan on a sweltering July day with the objective of buying another house.  Since Martin doesn’t drive anymore, the nearly 800 miles behind the wheel was left to me.  Many asked why we didn’t fly.  Martin doesn’t fly anymore either.  Airports are noisy.  Jets are cramped.  Even with the no check-in line, getting through security is a challenge for me alone.  For someone who must be spoken to slowly, succinctly without a surrounding cacophony just getting to the plane is a major stress.  I split the drive into two days with a stopover in Lexington, Kentucky at our favorite Man O’War Boulevard hotel.  Still, it was exhausting, for both of us.  It is what it is.

The closing on our SC house was scheduled for August 28 so time was of the essence.  On the advice of Martin’s neurologist I was working to take Martin from one house to the other with scarcely any stops in between.  Getting him settled into a new environment with as few adjustments as possible was imperative for his well-being and mine.

With the idea of downsizing both in house and land, we arrived with a handful of properties to view.  Houses in Michigan are most often built on basements, many with finished walk-out basements.  I knew there would be stairs.  With that in mind, I pursued only ranch styles to keep it to one set.  After all, I wanted a house where we could age in place.  We had a lot of advantages in our quest, from human help to technological help — the internet, smart phones and GPS; our Realtor, Faith, appropriately named for this adventure, is my daughter, Rachel’s, niece by marriage.  I felt confident there was a house for us among the ones identified.

However, none of the houses “spoke” to us.  Martin was especially discouraged.  After two days of intent looking, I found myself sitting on the sofa in Rachel’s sunroom at 4 a.m.  Our search was taking us further and further from her address.  There wasn’t a point of moving to Michigan if we were an hour away from help.  

During this introspection, an epiphany – instead of buying for the present, I was buying for a future I didn’t even know if we would have.  I had an idea where Martin’s disease would take us, but how many years away was that?  In 2018 his neurologist told us it was moving at a glacial pace.  It could be ten or even twenty years.  We are still in good physical health.  Martin bicycles 80 to a 100 miles a week at 21 miles per hour!  He can certainly climb stairs.  I needed to consider two story houses, two sets of stairs for the moment we were in, not the future yet to come. 

Later that morning as Faith drove us to look at more properties, I mentioned my thoughts to her.  We were minutes from Rachel’s house when she pointed to the right and said, “If you’re considering two stories, there’s a beautiful house behind all those trees.”   After pulling up the listing on my phone, scrolling through photos and showing Martin, I told Faith we wanted to see the house.

It isn’t a style I would have thought about purchasing.  This wasn’t downsizing; it’s nearly 3,700 square feet.  Definitely not the smaller piece of land I searched for, it sits on fifteen acres with a small pond and a slice of frontage along a small lake.  

As I stood in the huge kitchen that day, I caught a glimpse of Martin disappearing down one of the many paths through the woods.  I quickly asked Faith to go after him so I could look around some more.  I watched as her 6’2” frame vanished down the path after Martin.  With her spring green dress and long flowing blond curls, I felt like I was watching Alice chasing the White Rabbit.  I hoped we weren’t about to go down the rabbit hole.  Upon their return I put my doubts aside.  Martin was all smiles.  “Better, better, better” his way of saying this is the one.

There were other two stories, but this is the one.  This is the house for this moment in our lives.  We will grow old.  We will have health issues.  We will die.  All the advice, including mine, about having a house for aging in place deprives us of living in the present, the here and now, the joy of the moment.

This is the house with the family sized kitchen for cooking and gathering, dedicated spaces for the art studio, indoors bicycling when the snow flies, a writing room for me, the house in a private setting with deer, turkey, squirrels and chipmunks, the house with room for bird feeding stations, the house about a mile from a good riding route for Martin, the house with beautiful gardens to tend in good weather and add winter interest, the house with the dining room big enough for our family to enjoy Sunday dinners and the house close enough for help to arrive in minutes.  This is the perfect house for this moment.

A Moving Experience

Apologies to everyone for my long hiatus.  Thank you to those who messaged asking if I’m OK.  The answer is I’m OK now and getting better every day.  It was a tough past year for both Martin and me, which turned grueling in April as Martin’s dementia continues to swallow his core of self.  My caregiving duties increased tremendously.  This disease is oppressive for both victim and caregiver.  

As bloggers most of us write about the positives of retirement.  We don’t write about the negatives unless they turn out to be positives.  Yet there is a sad side to aging.  One day you wake up to the unexpected.  At the risk of depressing you, truthfully, retirement is not all cookies and ice cream.  

I’m writing this from my new-to-me home in Michigan by way of a calamitous year.  I won’t bore you with a blow by blow of all that happened; just a glimpse.  Retirement is like the other parts of our lives.  Things go wrong.  People can be mean.  The best laid plans can be ripped to shreds by a disease you never heard of.  Unfulfilled expectations lead to depression, anger, a feeling of helplessness.

We built our South Carolina house for our retirement.  Open floor plan, wide doorways, solid surface floors, one story, waist high counters and more.  It was the perfect house for aging in place in a warm, sunny climate until the universe spewed a meteor in our direction.  It hit us head-on.

I tried hiring help through two different companies I vetted.  Both came highly recommended by other caregivers.  The first person hired just to clean my home took the nozzles off the bathroom faucets telling me she always cleaned those.  Next came her claim that I needed a whole house water filtration system.  No, I didn’t need to call my plumber; she just happened to have a friend who did nothing but install filtration systems.  (It’s not the filtration system, which is the scam.  It’s the exorbitant price charged.)  After removing her from my house, yes, I did need to call my plumber.  She broke the seal on all four nozzles along with the tiny little baskets designed to direct the water flow.  Nearly $500 later, new nozzles sent free of charge from Delta Faucets and reimbursement from her company, I tried a second company with similar results.  Not as costly, but, still, someone trying to take advantage of me.  

In the meantime, one morning Martin had a dangerous drop in blood pressure, passed out in the kitchen while making his latte.  Reacting to the thud I heard, I arrived to a sea of blood and milk on the kitchen floor.  He was already standing at the sink with blood drizzling down his chin.  Warning to the squeamish:  this part is graphic.  The metal latte pitcher went into his chin.  As he yelled, “No, no it’s only an itty-bitty” I dialed 911, tried to get a towel pressed to his chin to stem the bleeding and said, “It’s a BIG bitty”. Fortunately, a 6’4” fire fighter arrived within minutes and Martin followed his instructions.  After an ambulance ride to the ER, where his blood pressure dropped to 70/40, and several stitches inside and out, I thought this was the worst we would endure for the moment.

Mean people are not just strangers.  Sometimes they live on the same street.  A neighbor spread the rumor Martin didn’t have Primary Progressive Aphasia – I was making it up just to get sympathy.  (I wish it were so.) After all, who ever heard of such a disease? And he was still bicycling.  The neighbor’s rumor caused other neighbors and one contractor to treat me badly.  Of all the situations, this middle school bullying behavior by adults, most of whom are my age or close to it, was the most difficult for me.  I understand fear of dementia.  I don’t understand cruelty born of ignorance.

There’s more, lots more, but I said I wouldn’t bore you with a blow by blow account.  The wakeup call came from my doctor in May.  If it wasn’t for the stress I was under, I would be in good health.   As we all know, good health is aging’s holy grail.  I needed to find a balance for both Martin and me.  I couldn’t do anything about his disease, but I could do something about where we lived.  

 After nearly a year of listening to my oldest daughter asking us to move to Michigan to live near her, I faced facts.  Although we had loving helpful friends, we needed more.  Living in the tundra was not our idea of a great environment in which to age.  But, we spent 46 years living in the North.  We could do it again.  Reluctantly, sadly we prepared our house for sale.

Fueled by a hot sellers’ market and right pricing, mercifully, within a week our house was under contract.  Those few showings alone agitated Martin, which stressed me.  The universe was finally spreading sunshine in our direction.  Finding a house just five minutes from our daughter convinced me God’s hand was surely in this.  I won’t say hiccups didn’t occur along the way, but most situations were resolved with minimal fuss.

Then, on a late August day, with Martin, a car load of cats in carriers and a large plastic bin marked “Survival Kit” I headed north to our new home.  

Reflections

 

I’m not making New Year’s resolutions again – reflections only.  I’d like to say 2018 was challenging, pushing me to become my best ever.  The truth is 2018 was a roller coaster ride with some Ferris wheel spins.  Most of the time I felt like throwing up.  

As Martin’s rare form of dementia has progressed, so has my grief.  So have the number of household jobs I’ve taken on.  If anyone wants to know how to fix a dishwasher, shimmy into a crawl space while on the lookout for spiders and snakes, get the broken front door handle replaced as the air conditioner is also being replaced or negotiate with the insurance company after your husband’s been hit by an errant driver while bicycling (Martin escaped with ‘just’ cuts and bruises), let me know.  I can do all of that and much, much more.

I am and always have been a planner, keeping calendars with events months in advance, carving out time for my pursuits.  Now, nothing can be planned even when I plan it.  Calendared events are never a sure thing.  There are certain situations which cannot be handed off to a helper, like the huge thud in the attic as the air conditioner blows up or the overflowing dishwasher or the leak under the sink.  You don’t say, “Well, I’m off to the gym.”  

As time for myself continues to shrink and well-meaning people ply me with advice (I’d rather they just listen), my retirement life is not what I envisioned.  But, it is what it is.  I have no choice other than making the best of it.  

Despite all that, I’m looking forward to 2019.  A clean slate.  A fresh start.  2018 is almost over.  Out with the old; in with the new.  Time to let go, forgive, move on.  

Everything that could possibly be replaced or repaired in the house is done.  When Martin had to stop driving last summer, I traded both vehicles for one new car.  I’ve said goodbye to fake friends, grudges, bad habits, doubts and anything toxic.

Speaking of toxic, toward the end of 2018 I further adopted additional natural remedies for managing stress.  Supplementing meditation and mindfulness is Solfeggio music.  What is Solfeggio music?  It’s music based on ancient chants using the frequencies of the universe and your brain to achieve harmony and balance in your body.  I listen to it daily for hours and hours.  It not only relaxes me, it also relaxes Martin and our cats.  It is now the background music of our life story.

Slipped inside my pillow case, a muslin bag filled with dried lavender buds and hops makes for a restful night.  Diffusers filled with lavender and patchouli water scent the air.  I’m back to my daily walk, rain or shine.  When I worked, I treated myself to a monthly massage.  Why I discontinued that ritual just because I left the daily grind is a mystery to me.  It’s been resurrected as good for the body and spirit.  

Rituals and routine are good for us.  They provide a sense of stability in an unstable world.  Routines reduce stress and anxiety.  They minimize the need to plan, especially when life seems out of our control. Through routine we maintain good habits.  Rituals, like having a bowl of good luck lentil soup on New Year’s Day, not only mark the passage of time, but also honor our cultural heritage linking us spiritually to our ancestral past.  Rituals connect us as family and community.  They can turn an ordinary day into an event.

Lastly, I go into 2019 with my sense of humor mostly intact.  Life demands a sense of humor, especially when faced with a heavy burden.  Humor not only eases your mental stress, it can have profound effects on your physical health, reducing inflammation in your body.  Surround yourself with happy people who support your happiness as well as your struggles.  I have a friend with a quirky sense of humor, where he and I will be laughing at something when no one else sees the humor.  One needs friends like that.

Goodbye 2018…Welcome 2019!

  

Starting Over

Oftentimes, my ideas for blog posts come from words spoken to me by someone I’ve met up with, a friend or one of my readers, hearing something on TV or reading an article. During the last few years I’ve heard many, many people comment about starting over when they retire. Some look forward to retiring with the excitement of entering a new venture. Others lament the idea after being forced to retire because of poor health, a spouse’s illness or an employer terminating their job position. Whatever the reason for retiring, we are all starting over, as we will many times in life.

A lifetime ago, I left one job for another job. A larger paycheck, less work and no travel. My then current supervisor, in an effort to keep me where I was, said, “I hate to see you start over someplace else, especially at your age.” Laughable today since I was a mere thirty-five at the time. I wasn’t sure if this was a scare tactic or a reflection of his regret since he had scrapped a position elsewhere, in his forties, to join the company and become my boss. Whatever it was, I didn’t fall for his line. Instead, I recognized then as I recognize now, we start over many, many times during our lives. We begin anew again and again.

Starting over when we are young is seen as progress. We start over when we enter kindergarten or middle school, high school and then college or trade school. We start over with our first real job. We start over with each promotion on the job. New responsibilities, maybe an office of our own. We start over with the move to another city or state or perhaps another country. We leave familiar territory and old friends behind. Then there’s starting over after a relationship ends, divorce and starting over with a new relationship. There’s lots of starting over — new beginnings following endings.

Retirement leaves a void once filled by paid work. There are as many ways to fill that void as there are rain drops in a puddle. The trick is choosing the activities that are fulfilling to you. If you have a lifetime of hobbies and volunteer work in your quiver, you may have an easier time adding purpose back into your life.

Then, of course, there are those who did not choose retirement as much as having it chosen for them. It’s not unusual to experience grief for a lost way of life, a paycheck, work friends, daily routine. However, people who choose their retirement date most often feel the same loss. Acknowledging the loss and accepting the ensuing grief will eventually let you move on. Then you can embrace the opportunity before you.  The opportunity to grow, to prosper in ways other than money or promotions.

What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? Stay active! In my unexpected role of caregiver, I’m starting over. Yet, I continue, for both our sakes, to find snippets of time to garden and write and do art. While Martin leans on me, I’ve learned to bank on my strengths. What are your strengths? I was always highly organized at work. Something I let slip in my early years of retirement. Now, I’m pulling that rabbit back out of the hat. I also put a huge value on my time and guard it with zeal. I find it easier to say no.

Create your retirement circle of friends. Once you retire, unless your current friends are also retiring, you may find you have less in common with them. Your schedule will no longer revolve around Monday through Friday work weeks. Every day is Saturday. I developed new friendships by taking classes. Common interests create a common bond. Volunteering at an organization whose good works you value is another great way to find other retirees to add to your network. This is the time to try new activities. If one doesn’t pan out, you’re free to go on to another. It’s not like failing at a job. New friends are waiting. Put yourself out there.

Starting over can be difficult. It can also be exhilarating, challenging you to try things you never thought of doing, to experience and savor the unexpected. Think about the other times in life when you started over. How did you feel? What did you do? Give yourself time. Retirement is a journey of discovery and change. It’s just one more opportunity to start over.

Not In A Million Years

Still swinging in the wind

Five years ago I started this blog by posting a photo of myself on the bridge spanning Grandfather Mountain near Blowing Rock, NC. Taken a year earlier the photo has always symbolized my trepidation about retiring. Today, it symbolizes my apprehension about the future. I remind myself daily that today is all I really have, all any of us have. The past is in the past. The future has yet to unfold itself. Enjoy today.

Out of deference to Martin I have not written about this part of our journey, but the time has come where his condition is advanced. I don’t think there is anyone in our circle who isn’t aware of it. It is also time for me to start writing about it. My experience might help others. It is the reason I have not finished my retirement book. It’s hard to produce an Ernie J. Zelinski type How To Retire Happy, Wild and Free when you have a huge unanticipated cloud hanging over your retirement.

As an unexpected caregiver, I have created a good support network, including a therapist I see once or twice a month. During one session I sat with her silent in my thoughts. She said, “I’ll bet you never saw this coming.”

“Not in a million years.”

She continued. “I’ll bet there are some days you could just go outside and scream.”

I nodded. Not just some days — every day. And once in a while I go to the top of the hill on my six acres and do just that. As a caregiver much of my time goes to doing everything and anything requiring reading, writing or verbal skills. There are my doctor’s appointments and Martin’s, my emails and his, snail mail, financials, repairs around the house, the art studio we decided to build, shopping, pumping gas, reading recipes so he can cook, programming the thermostat and anything else requiring the understanding of words. Some days the pressure is enormous.

Like a coyote stealthily slipping through the night woods in search of prey, it started in 2010 with personality changes in Martin. They were attributed to stress and depression. Averse to taking medications, he refused antidepressants. It took years of intermittent doctor’s visits, struggle with Martin’s denial of the facts, cognitive tests, blood work, CT scans, MRI’s, and finally one very good neurologist to reach a diagnosis of Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA). That was two years after an initial diagnosis of Aphasia, which is usually caused by a stroke or brain injury, and of which there are several versions of the disease.

Aphasia Poster

What is Aphasia? It is not Alzheimer’s. It is a loss of language skills — reading, writing, verbal abilities and comprehension of the spoken word. According to the Aphasia Association most people with PPA retain the ability to take care of themselves and pursue hobbies. However, they confront a 60% chance of the brain deteriorating into Alzheimer’s. That said, Alzheimer’s drugs do not help with Aphasia. Because so few people have this condition — it’s estimated only 200,000 have the PPA version — there are no drugs and most physicians know little about it. Martin’s neurologist only sees one or two cases a year. Obviously, this is one of the reasons a solid diagnosis took so long.

Nothing makes a person stop and realize what is important and what isn’t like a diagnosis of a serious disease. Our priorities definitely changed. Everything came into focus.

Oh, I threw my pity party, a long one in fact, of about a year. My negativity almost swallowed me up. It took time to realize this is not about old age. I had polio at age 3, lost my oldest brother in a car accident when I was 7, followed by the loss of cousins from brain tumor, leukemia and other tragedies similar to my brother’s death. Adversity can happen at any age. One day I asked, “Why us?” A voice inside answered, “Why not us?”

Bicycling is good for the brain

Martin still bicycles a hundred miles a week. He creates all kinds of art. He cooks, cleans and works on the property. I have to leave the washer and dryer on the same cycle. If I move the dial, he doesn’t recognize it has been moved. I have to watch for things like his microwaving fresh carrots in the plastic bag they came in from the store. When he sets the table, I may find a spoon and knife instead of a fork and knife. It could be worse. It may get worse. But we have today and today is good.

Along with prioritizing comes a focus on what works best for both of us. As a caregiver I often put Martin’s needs first. When his neurologist asked him what stressed him most, he answered without hesitation, “Other people.” As an extravert, not having people to the house as often has been difficult. I do most of my socializing outside our home.

Martin’s bird among coneflowers

While it’s important for Martin to remain engaged, his neurologist recommends limiting any situations that may cause him anxiety. Speaking of other people, some understand that; some do not. Since all looks normal with Martin’s appearance, there are those who do not understand the unseen changes in his brain have rendered him a different person than he used to be. Their presence alone can cause stress as he struggles to converse with them and comprehend what they are saying. We learned to distance ourselves from those who are not understanding about our new normal.

As my time is taken up more and more with caregiving, I have grappled with discontinuing this blog. I’ve decided to post once a month instead of foregoing it altogether. It’s important to me and I feel like it is to my readers. I have started rewriting my retirement book to speak truth about my journey. No, retirement is not always rosy. But, neither is life at any juncture. This is just one more change, one more challenge, one more adjustment. Even in the face of adversity, even with an event I would never see coming in a million years, there is still much to be celebrated. Enjoy your day, no matter what it brings!

Homeward Bound

Last week, as part of my post on retirement lessons, I wrote about choosing where you will live. I didn’t choose my place for retirement as much as stumbled across it as a result of a job transfer Martin took nearly twenty years ago. My friends won’t like me saying this. Some of them even tell me, “Shush. Stop talking about how great Greenville is. We have enough retirees here now.” For me Greenville, South Carolina is a great place to retire. However, not everyone wants to retire to Greenville or anyplace else than where they are at the moment. If you do decide to move, here are a few considerations.

There are all kinds of reasons we choose to move when we retire. According to the US Census, most people move to be closer to family and grandchildren. While we love our families, pinning our retirement location on their location should include both discussion with our family and thought about our needs and wants and their needs and wants. Even then, life has a way of changing the best laid plans.

I met one couple who moved to Greenville to be near their son and daughter-in-law and their two children. Imagine the couple’s surprise after moving hundreds of miles, buying a house and settling into their new surroundings only to have their son accept a promotion that moved his family to Dallas. Ouch! No, they didn’t follow them. Instead they decided to stay here and take an occasional two hour flight to visit them in Dallas.

Conversely, some retirees choose to stay put because of family, only to have the grandchildren grow up and spread themselves in the direction of the four winds. The reality is we live in a transient society, children become adults and create their careers and lives, often moving to where opportunity takes them.

The weather also seems to be a top draw. But, choosing a climate so far removed from what you lived in most of your life may not be a sound idea. I’ve met scads of people who retired from northern or mid-western towns to Florida, only to sell and move to the Carolinas. Locals call them half-backs as this is about halfway between northern states like Connecticut and Florida.

One transplant from the Bronx quipped about his back tracking, “There was something not quite right about sitting around the pool on Christmas Day in your swim trunks.” For native Floridians there is probably something not quite right about trudging through snow on Christmas Day. My point is before you choose to move to the extreme opposite of what you are used to, think about what you will miss about your native climate, scenery and customs. While I don’t miss the frigid January temperatures, I would miss the changing colors of autumn leaves, the cooler dryer air and an evening by the fireplace.

As I mentioned last week, good close by medical care is a must for me. I’m in good health. However, if a heart attack or accident occurs, I don’t want to be out of range of a hospital or ambulance service. I’m tough, but not that tough. Sue of Life Below Zero is definitely more of a risk taker than I am. Hats off to her. Me? I’ll live bolder in more conventional ways. I recommend scoping out the medical care and proximity in your new destination before you make the move.

One of my retirement mantras is never stop learning. While having a college or university nearby is important as part of my cultural experience, so is a convenient grocery store and farmers market for my cooking at home obsession and farm store and nursery for my gardening habit. Although I live in the country all of these amenities are only minutes from my house along with locally owned restaurants and trendy shops. Also consider your partner’s needs, if you have one. Martin can bicycle right out of our property onto roads with little traffic and fabulous scenery.

Additionally, before making a move, look at housing affordability, taxes on property, income, sales and vehicles including boats or RVs. Some states do not tax food; others do. Some states do not tax social security; others do. Consider the cost of your move including the cost of moving household goods, getting new registrations on vehicles, a new license and anything else your new locale may require. Consider, too, the emotional cost of finding your way around, locating a new doctor, insurance company and other services, registering to vote, making new friends, creating a new social and cultural life.

While many retirees move, the truth is most do not, preferring to stay in their climate with the friends, family, services  and activities familiar to them. If you do decide a move is right for you, think of all the implications before making the leap. Otherwise, you may not be homeward bound.

Retirement Lessons

 

Last Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of our retirement. Martin and I celebrated at a favorite lunch spot, The Blue Porch, with friends. Five years ago I had no idea how emotionally under-prepared I was to retire. Our mantra back then was, “We’re going to have fun!” It took about six weeks for me to realize we weren’t having fun. I started this blog on a whim. Putting my feelings in writing had always helped. Writing not only helped me, but I hope it helped some other people along the way. It also opened up an unexpected world for me. These are the lessons I learned giving way to a more fulfilled life and understanding of what it means to retire.

Ask yourself if retirement is what you really want and need. If you’re running from a job you hate, are just worn out from working or stressed by your work environment, maybe what you really need is a sabbatical. A month away from work may provide an attitude adjustment. Another option may be to work part-time, easing into retirement. Not all companies hire part-time employees, but if it is an option at your workplace, consider it.

If retirement is indeed what you want and need, then have a plan. I’m not talking about a financial plan, although that’s vitally important, but a how will you fill your time plan. If you don’t have a plan of what you will do to fill the time you spent working, commuting to work and preparing for work, you will end up bored, a leaf in the wind with lots of other people ready to take up your time with their agenda. Will your current hobbies and interests fill the gap or will you need more?

Speaking of planning, also give some forethought to your transitionary period. You may hate your job or feel bone tired with working, but post-retirement you may find yourself missing the daily routine, the camaraderie of co-workers and the identity that work provides. It will take time to create a new identity, find a new social network and settle in. Retirement is a major life change. This is a new phase offering plenty of opportunity to do what you want to do with your time. However, after 40 or more years in the workplace, there is also a period of grieving. Yes, grieving for your lost identity and the social aspects of work. If your company offers an Employee Assistance Program including counseling, take advantage pre-retirement to discuss your feelings and expectations with a counselor. Having meaning and purpose in life doesn’t end when you leave the workplace. Purpose is an essential to being happy and healthy. It will take time and effort to find your renewed purpose.

Think about where you will retire. Having downsized and built “the retirement home” in 2004, I stayed exactly where I was already. I got that part of it right. Close proximity to a nationally recognized teaching hospital system and colleges offering daytime adult education courses geared toward retirees were essentials on my list. The icing on the cake was discovering an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at a nearby university. The Blue Ridge Mountains where bicycling, motorcycling and hiking are prominent activities that Martin and I enjoy are in our backyard. It may seem like a great idea to live in the middle of nowhere with lots of peace and quiet, but if it takes an hour to get to a doctor or hospital, it may not be a sound idea. I had a fall in 2015 requiring stitches. Martin had me at the ER in 15 minutes. It wasn’t life threatening. However, it made me think about heart attack, stroke or surgery. I was glad the hospital was near.

Choose your timing carefully.  I retired in the fall.  As a gardener and hiker and Martin as a bicyclist and motorcyclist, our timing undoubtedly should have been in the spring.  We may have had fun for more than 6 weeks! I’ve read many, many times that retirement should begin January 1st.  If you are living in the frozen tundra of the north, unless you are a winter sports advocate or plan to escape to a warmer climate for a few months, emotionally, January may be the worst time to retire.  No matter where you live, make your emotional outlook and core retirement activities a priority.  It’s your calendar; do what’s best for you.

Recognize that retirement is not the end, but the beginning. It is a journey, not a destination. Retirement offers the opportunity of a lifetime to try new and different activities. You may not enjoy all the things you try. If an activity doesn’t pan out, give something else a try. This is a time to be adventurous. Renew your childhood curiosity. You get to start all over again without the pressure inherent for success in the workplace. Because people are living longer, years in retirement are also increasing. You have the opportunity to reinvent yourself many times over. I am not the person I was 5 years ago. I look forward to what surprises may unfold for me in the future.

Views on retirement and getting older are changing. Retirement is whatever we choose to make it. There is no one size fits all. There are as many options as there are one-of-a-kind snowflakes blowing on a winter’s day. I hope my lessons help you avoid some of the pitfalls and reap the rewards of a retired life. As always — put your dent in the universe!

What’s Your Definition of Intelligence?

 

 

This is the second time I’ve participated as a volunteer subject for the Furman University Adulthood and Aging course, which is part of the Psychology Program. We volunteers are age 60 and over, are interviewed individually by a student assigned to us and answer questions about age related topics such as our perceptions about cognitive and physical changes, our beliefs toward aging and social relationships. The student then writes a paper about their interpretation of our views.

I find the entire process interesting as it makes me think about what I truly believe about (for want of a better word) aging. I also have the opportunity to influence a younger generation’s mind-set about growing old.

One of the recent questions asked of me was, “What is your definition of intelligence?” Hmmmm…mine is not a dictionary answer.

There are many forms of intelligence. There’s book knowledge that we acquire in school and beyond. In school I took all kinds of intelligence tests. I’m not sure they measured intelligence as much as memory and recall ability. There’s intelligence drawn from life experience. There’s a type of intelligence embedded in our decision making capacity, adaptability to change and willingness to take risk. I would say that’s wisdom gleaned from experience.

Part of our decision making abilities is problem-solving. We think we have the solution to a problem, make a decision to act upon it in a certain way and take action. But, what happens if our problem-solving doesn’t work? Do we try another possible solution? Do we retreat, afraid to make another bid? I’d say there’s an innate intelligence in the person willing to change direction, attempting to solve the problem another way.

Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Throughout my life, this has been one of my favorite quotes. It’s a reminder to adapt to life’s curve balls. In life, change is the only aspect we can depend upon. Growing old is just further change.

We all know the parts will eventually wear out — another change. We all know we will decline in some ways — more change. It is those of us who possess a willingness to adapt who have the greatest chance of surviving the longest with a quality life. That is the kind of intelligence to cultivate.