Efficient Heartbreak

John & I are blessed that – up until two years ago – none of our older friends seemed to be burdened with lives that were sad, empty echoes of earlier years.  Both our fathers died in their early 60s, yet both our mothers lived full & vibrant lives up to their last breath.

The older people we knew & know through our community may walk a bit slower, may not be up for a set of tennis or playing Twister with their grandkids, but for the most part they remain sharp & interesting & engaged in life.

Up until the summer of 2015, the closest we came to a neglected oldster in our life was a client who was a maiden auntie; she grew up spending ALL summer at the family shore house & was sad when every year seemed to find her nieces & nephews arranging shorter & shorter visits to a place that was, to her, paradise.  But they DID still get her down!

We only knew best practice – or darn near close to – families.  Until Rochelle.  Her life went into a tailspin around this time, two years back – due to remarkably lousy decisions by children who were well-intentioned yet seemed to believe, even before her diagnosis of early stage dementia, that being in her early 80s precluded her from having any weight in determining her path forward.

Months before her diagnosis, before the decision (made by her children with only cursory attention to her feelings) to move to her oldest son’s house, Rochelle had planned to take a granddaughter on a graduation trip to England.  The two had delighted sharing tales of Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Benjamin Bunny & Peter Rabbit; as adults, they share a passion for Jane Austen.  The trip moved forward, with the addition of another, older grandchild to lend a hand.  For Rochelle, the dementia diagnosis changed the journey from a special time with grandchildren to  a glorious last hurrah.

It was a great success!  While the older grandchild visited friends in London, the two gals took a luxury coach tour of the Lake District, keeping eyes peeled for squirrels, rabbits & porcupines.  It was as grand a tour as our friend had hoped.

Back home, things were happening in her absence.  Her oldest had promised that he’d get started on cleaning out the house while she was away.  It wasn’t so much cleaNing as it was cleaRing.

When she arrived back to her lovely home on four wooded acres, tired but blissed, she practically floated in the door, where she was greeted joyfully by her devoted Shih Tzu.  She walked through her kitchen – she was home!  Walked through the dining room – home! Walked into the music room – and the first thing she spotted was the wall opposite the door, the one that housed her extensive prized vinyl collection – empty.

Her treasured record & CD collection – gone.  Video tape & DVD collection – gone.  Most of her books – gone.   Disappeared  in the name of efficiency (“so so much easier doing it without Mom around to slow things down“).

It is hard to imagine that things could possibly go downhill from there, but they did.  I haven’t the heart to write about it now – envision things going from bad to unbelievably worse.

How comforting it would be to say that the family learned,  but they seem almost invested in not seeing how their actions contributed to their mother’s sharp decline.  Not seeing they could have done anything differently,  they continue along their grief-strewn way, oblivious of the devastation left in their wake.

As far as John & I can see, the ONLY constructive thing that has come out of what feels like a never-ending heartbreak is that we’ve experienced the worst practices situation that had always eluded us.  Where Rochelle had been one of our sustaining clients, we were dropped by the family when we spoke out as advocates;  she’s now a cherished friend visited visit once a week, whisked (with sweet pooch) out for a drive & lunch, then back for a classic video.

John & I are currently between clients (translate – little income at the moment), but we consider what’s spent on lunch & movies to be priceless if it gives a friend options choices FREEDOM – she chooses when to eat, what to order & which video to watch. Her joy at those simple pleasures is a priceless reminder to us of the many things we take for granted that she treasures as rare & empowering.

If I had three wishes, one of them would be to sit her children down & get them to understand that what they did in the name of efficiency caused deep damage.  From the moment she saw that entire wall of empty shelves, Rochelle knew she no longer had control over her own life.  In an instant, she gave up.

In the place of the woman who had readily shared her desires & hopes, Rochelle became someone who agreed with whatever was suggested, however ill-conceived or wrong headed.  She stopped caring about anything other than her dog & she only has her from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon.

Her apathy was brought home when we reconnected this past winter, having heard she was now in a senior residence.  Her physical therapist confided. “In all the months I’ve worked with Rochelle,  she’s never shown any motivation to improve.

Terrible damage was done in the name of efficiency.  More damage is being done because of supposedly adult children who seem to care less about their mother’s well being & more about assuring themselves they know exactly what to do in a situation they’ve never face before that has brought countless others to their knees.

Maybe that’s it.  Maybe they are afraid of feeling vulnerable, about admitting they don’t know, that they need to reach to an astonishingly wide range of others to get a handle on the one they claim to love so much.

That might not feel efficient to them, but of how much more effective it would be!

Goosebumps – NCCA

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NCCA – the National Center for Creative Aging.  I have no memory of how the NCCA first came into my life, how I came up with the cockamamie idea that it made sense for me – at that time virtually penniless – to go to the first NCCA Conference & Leadership Exchange in D.C., but the monies were raised for the conference & transportation costs, lodgings (with friends, outside D.C., in what turned out to be challenging to access Herndon VA) was arranged, and down I went.

Will never forget sitting in the intimate, circle-in-the-round auditorium in  the Arena Stage performance space, of having it hit me for the first time that the NCCA was based 4-square on the work of Gene Cohen, a man whose book, The Creative Age, drop kicked me into seeing the WHY for the vibrant oldsters elders ancients all around me in our little hometown.

Had I researched the conference at all online, it would have been OBVIOUS,  but I apparently went down, flying blind.

So, why did I go, if I didn’t even take a moment to check out the conference schedule? I arrived with a vague idea of where the main event would take place, virtually no understanding of where the pre-conference workshop I’d signed up for was happening, basically no knowledge of what was happening.  Mind you, I got my first smart phone (yes, in 2014) immediately before it so I’d have Internet access;  alas, I hadn’t a clue how to use it, had to keep asking smartly dressed young people bustling along the sidewalks for their aid with Mapquest.

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Long walks – those I remember.  Not having a clue of the shortest route from one spot to the next.  Hadn’t thought to get familiar with the area, to actually map out where event locations, to look over the schedule.

Had never been to a conference before.  The first time I saw the program was looking at the registration materials, the day AFTER the wonderful pre-conference workshop.

My most vivid memory of the entire conference was hearing Wendy Miller introduced, realizing she was Gene’s widow, having it HIT me right between the eyes – – DUH!  ‘Creative Aging: Exploring Potential in the Second Half of Life’ screamed Gene Cohen & yet I’d missed it!!

What made me think about goosebumps I’ll forever remember?  Dipping back into the wondrous book given to all conference attendees – Creativity Matters: The Arts & Aging Toolkit.

Confession time –  Gene’s book, The Creative Age, no longer sits next to The Mature Mind on my bookshelf – lent it to someone who never returned it.  That fate will NEVER happen to Creativity Matters,  because it will NEVER leave my possession!

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Talk about goosebumps – that priceless book continues to astound me.  It is packed with priceless information & inspiration ~  looking at how creativity nurtures an abundant older age, at the value of incorporating the arts into our  life, of the profound advantage of senior centers & residences, adult-day care programs & long-term care facilities, of families & friends in seeking, offering participatory arts programs that go beyond the “arts & crafts” that so often seem the norm.  To REACH &, in reaching, to satisfy.

It was in 2014 – at the pre-conference workshop? – that I first heard “Like” (Elizabeth) Lokon, director & founder of Opening Minds Through Art, explain that with older people, especially ones facing the challenges of cognitive impairment, “simple is complex, complex is simple” – trying to to duplicate an actual image was a struggle, frustrating, but to create a beautiful abstract painting looked difficult but was simple.

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Which brings us to last month’s IAGG World Congress & the wondrous talk by Marilyn Raichle, who spoke about the enjoyment that her mother – who has Alzheimer’s – drew from painting.  Although the subjects were defined, the delightful images her mother created were deliciously abstract, showcasing the processing from the delineated start to what showed up on the page.

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Which takes me to feeling sad.  Sad that I never asked for one of of the beautiful paintings that Anne Davis Hyatt created over her closing eight years.  Like Marilyn’s mother, from one moment to the next Anne could not remember the day or the date, but she did paint evocative hillsides & rivers & skies capturing her wonder & love of the sense of it all.

That’s what I learned from the NCCA, why I continue to get goosebumps remembering that I haven’t the vaguest recollection of how we first connected – – it shouts from the rooftops the importance of helping people of all ages stay anchored in the glorious sense of living, that the arts, from painting to poetry & performance & beyond, open the way & present a path to doing what I aim to provide for all my own clients friends family – living as expansively, as fully themselves, as possible in any given moment, feeling the thrill of goosebumps at the joy of it all.

IAGG ~ let the play begin!

Deep breath – the Inernational Association of Gerontology & Geriatrics quadrennial 21st World Congress kicked off with registration today, with the full-blown program from tomorrow through Thursday.  In San Francisco!!

Blessings on the small but mighty circle of supporters whose big & small contribution$$ got me here & for the side trip to Auburn to visit my brave cousin, Bob Ripley, who’s doing all he can to have all the time he can with family & friends.  The short trip made a BIG difference I never tightening broadening deepening family relationships at a time when they matter most.

Mega thanks to the many whose best wishes, blessings & “You go, girl”!! encouragement helped power the AWEsome forces that got me here.  Never underestimate the POWer of invisible but mighty positive energies.

Put in a lot of walking today to spots that hold great memories of trips with Scott & Mom, with just Mom, solo.  Photo shoots with Sissy, Stephie & Sissette at Aquatic Park, breakfast at the Buena Vista, drinks at The Fairmont’s Tonga Room, dinner on Tiburon.  I don’t have the spare $ to indulge, but oh I can recall the playful times & the ab fab memories that helped Mom stay power-ful to the last moment of her life in this playground.

Let the mega moments that are sure to fill the IAGG begin!!

“Listening to Love” Phila Inquirer 06/14/15

My brother, Peter, going through some of his storage boxes, came across the awesome article at Danielle Snyderman, M.D., apparently still a gerontologist working at The Hill of Whitemarsh, an “upscale retirement community” outside of Philadelphia.  Bless the bro, he clipped it out & sent it to me!

Listening to Love is about how she started interviewing couples in the community, gathering their love stories; about how the telling affects the couple, how them can proven a source of invaluable information to her, how they are a inexpressible comfort in time of final parting.

Stop reading this – hit the link & start reading Stacey Burling’s timeless article!!


Storytelling & Memory

“Old age crept up on me today.”  That was Mom’s description of turning down my offer to trek over to our beloved Chestnut Hill for sauteed soft shell crab.  As Mom put it, “Am still saying it to myself – I turned down soft shell crab.”

Mom’s posting is 17+ years old, but her storytelling still makes me smile.  How she loved language & playing with words!  For her, it was as natural as breathing.  Those who knew Mom, could picture her through her writings;  those who didn’t, wished they could meet her, soak her in.

Much as she was a lifelong devotee of soft shells, they lost their premier position the moment she had her first bite of Oysters Kilpatrick,  at The American Club in Sydney.   I’ve never tasted them, but Mom practically lifted right out of her shoes talking about her beloved bivalves.

Her description of tucking into a soft shell crab has me pondering a supper time run over to 8142 Germantown Avenue, it’s that tantalizing ~ ~ “Have you ever sunk your teeth into a soft shell crab?  One bite, and I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.  Lightly floured, delicately sauteed is culinary bliss.”

And then there is her personal “Best of Soft Shells” – “I have an honor roll of places I have dined delectably on soft shells – the Crab Claw in St. Michael’s, Maryland;  the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford, MD;  Monique’s, an Alsatian restaurant in New Hope, PA.  The best I ever sampled was at Louisa’s in Cape May, NJ.  Under the Blue Moon in Chestnut Hill was our traditional haunt for many years, until the owners had the audacity to retire (many frequent diners went into mourning);  now we go to Roller’s for our annual gastronomical pilgrimage.   Wherever I am, if soft shell crab is on the menu, I am doing just fine.”

Reading that again, for the first time in several years, got me thinking about Mom & how she was a natural storyteller, got me pondering if storytelling affects our memory skills.

Turns out that Mom’s form of spinning a yarn has a name – autobiographical memory (AM). Alas, I was only able to access abstracts of indepth articles (which might have been way over my head), but my brain lit up reading them.

What I was able to scope out from the abstract of Susan Bluck’s Autobiographical Memory – Exploring its functions in everyday life,  is that it pulls together or touches psychological, social and/or cultural historic context.  It appears to foster social relationships, engage emotional states, reflect & feed back how we perceive the world & our own inner landscape, nurtures other cognitive abilities.  It’s believed that the functions of autobiographical memory sort themselves out into three core areas of functioning – self, social, directive.  (I have no idea what that means!)  Personally, I love that accuracy is no big deal in autobiographical memory, that “levels & types of accuracy need not always be regarded as memory ‘failures’ but are sometimes integral to a self-memory system that serves a variety of meaningful ends of human activity.”  Praise be!

Here’s the kicker, at least for me – sharing our stories with interested listeners positively impacts OUR  memory function!  The abstract for Monisha Pasupathi, Lisa M.. Stallworth & Kyle Murdoch’s How what we tell becomes what we know: Listener effects on speakers’ long‐term memory for events discusses how sharing memories of our past with attentive others could be considered “rehearsing one’s memory,” that a single recollection could have a positive long-term impact – if it is told to an interested listener.  Or, to use their more learned phrasing, “Variations in the social context of recollection affect how we tell others about events, such variations can also come to influence long‐term memory.”

Interesting thing about this study – the positive impact did not seem to be tied to sharing it with simply other people, but depended on telling INTERESTED listeners.  “Attentive listeners facilitate long‐term memory, whereas situations with distracted listeners are difficult to distinguish from the situations with no listener and with no recounting at all.”

Turns out that Mom’s love of telling tales plucked from her life might not have had as powerful impact on her memory – which was excellent to the last – as much as having people like myself, my sibs, her loved ones, friends & pleasant acquaintances lapping up every word.  Something to ponder.

The Play’s The Thing

Human beings need play the way they need vitamins.  ~ lionel tiger ~

Spend the day with a typical older person living in even one of the better “senior lifestyle residences” & notice if any semblance of spontaneous, unstructured PLAY is part of his or her experience.

Too often, not much, if any.

The greatest source of playful interaction & connection is typically mealtime, where – if she’s lucky (and the vast majority of residents are women) – she’s part of a regular circle of friends sharing lunch & laughs.  Alas, such “breakfast brigades” & “lunch bunches” are far from the norm & many of the ones that meet every day focus on aches pains problems rather than providing lively & expansive back & forth.  Even the best are haunted by the specter of alteration by debilitation & death.

Typically, the more high-end a senior residence, the more choices there are for playful interaction, from year ’round swimming to fair weather golfing, dancing & bridge & the performing arts (as participant or audience). But how many of residents actually take part in those activities?  And if they want to participate, who helps makes sure they get to & from them?  Personal care in even the best facilities can fall prey to being top quality maintenance rather than continual enrichment, however well-meaning & best-intentioned its goals.

Top of the scale, Ma!   Everyone on the face of the planet needs a steady diet of laughter-lobbing play, play that gets the energies flowing, the heart pitter pattering, that deepens old ties & forges new ones.

I think of a young family who swiped my heart this past spring when I helped with the youngest while their mother finished up her degree work at a local college.  Those children –  & parents & grandparents – breathe play into everything they do, bring a sense of adventure & the unknown into all aspects of their lives.

That family sits atop the high end of my playfulness scale.  Don’t look to me to describe the sorry folks of all ages who slide down the scale to the very end.  My True North purpose is to duplicate/modify best practices, then upgrade, even transform lives.  Think Galileo, Pasteur, the Wright brothers, Robert Goddard – each was considered a crackpot or kook & look at all they accomplished, the paths they opened that others have traveled.  Boys – move over & make room for me.

When I look at that wondrous play-filled family that scampered off with my heart, I see children & parents who know their boundaries, who have chores, who place expectations on each other.  They live work play within a creative structure.  How can we create a structure where older people could value & access more play?

Alas, when people think about play, they tend to limit it to children.  Back in February 2008, the NY Times Magazine’s ran a cover story on play – spinning off a presentation by Stuart Brown & Krista Tippett at the NY Public Library discussing its biological & spiritual roots.  But four months later, in a wildly popular TED talk, Stuart (I like to think of myself as friends awaiting an introduction) pointed out that the cover didn’t show a single adult at play, only children.  They’d missed the point of his work – that play is as needed in adulthood as it is when we are in our single digits, teens, twenties.  In my experience, it is as important as fresh air & good nutrition for a happy, healthy life.

Background – seventeen years ago, I expected that 2017 would find me easing out of my corporate career.  I had an exceptional run & quite a few professional accolades & honors, including 2000 Employee of the Year.  Then, in late summer/early autumn 2001, it became clear the Universe had WAY different plans for me.  But it wasn’t until I crossed paths with Anne Davis Hyatt that I got the first aha about my True North life purpose.

Kent, Anne’s best beloved, died after a stroke, in his late 80s.  She was suddenly solo.  And depressed.   Oh, and been recently diagnosed with dementia.

Anne’s family gathered together, discussed the situation, then checked out best next steps.  Their conclusion – infuse Mom with play activities, with a variety of play mates.  They brought me on for rambles & restaurant runs; Tamar to scoot Anne back to her beloved little hometown for visits with family & friends, pal up with her for weekly painting classes, play the piano & read aloud; and, always, Anne’s children were there for numerous regular weekly visits, after-church Sunday dinner & Sunday supper.

In the 7+ years Anne was our client, I don’t recall a single serious illness, nor a hospitalization.  The healthy dose of social interaction every day played out in a strong spirit housed in a declining body.  She was out & about doing things right up to the day she fell in her apartment.  This was a woman whose dementia had progressed to the point where she could not remember from moment to moment the day let alone the date, but no one – NO ONE – was more primed for the next great FUN moment.  Anne would frame the sunset with her hands, saying, “I don’t remember what they’re called (the sky, clouds, sun, trees & fields), but aren’t they BEAUTIFUL?!”  Imagine if she had been left, as the vast majority of seriously older people are, without an infusion of play into her day?

Play’s the thing!   For now, Anne – like my mother – would be considered an outlier.  Praise be, I have spent my life surrounded by older people whom others would consider similar fabuolous outliers!  My goal is to help turn that around so that the qualities that hallmarked their lives are considered the norm rather than a happy aberration.

Ten years ago, even 7+ years ago when I first started chumming around with Anne, that goal might have seemed unimaginable.  Today, it’s more & more can-do, with remarkable individuals groups organizations coalescing to turn around our current culture’s woeful attitudes around & expectations of aging upward.

It speaks volumes that next week’s International Association for Gerontology & Geriatrics (IAGG) World Congress will, for the first time (!), feature as one of its official venues, The Age Stage.  It’s HUGE, that such an august body recognizes the importance & power of creativity, a cornerstone of play, in aging upward.

The Age Stage is a physical reminder that “the play is the thing.”

Four years ago, I discovered that the National Center for Creative Aging is rooted in the findings of Gene Cohen, a “book mentor” of mine for many years who died far too young in 2009.  So much has changed since the years where Medicare allocated a laughable (not in a good way) $250 a year for mental health. Gene fought to get that increased, fought for oldsters elders ancients to be considered deserving of good mental health, whether a kid of 65 or a 95+ grey head.  Just as most people accept the various ages of life, Gene believed that older age has its own stages – reevaluation, liberation, summation & encore.

I will be thinking of those stages – and reveling at my liberation – throughout the IAGG World Congress, blessed to be who I am with the background I’ve gathered (or been gathered for me), at this age, in this era, at this time, in this place.

Next week, the IAGG will give space & time to showcase the importance of aging creatively.  Give me a little time & watch me win them over to giving play its due!