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!

“Magical Realism” & Aging Upward

What a great term – “magic realism,” a phrase used to described the critically & commercially successful author Isabel Allende’s writing.   It also describes what I believe about aging upward, what I saw my mother, other adults around me live every day.  Magical realism.

In fiction, magical realism is not escapist – it is engagement.   It takes us outside of the everyday experience to experience every day’s reality & our personal deeper truth.  It escorts us from where we are situated in the world to see our place in it.  Where science fiction  & fantasy often interweave the serious with escapism, magical realism is always serious, always striving to convey different experiences, perceptions, views that actually do exist, or existed at some point.  It is different from what we or our culture experiences as reality, so we can’t lump it under realism.

In the same way that Isabel uses magical realism in her writing, she brings it into her talk on living passionately, given at TED2014.  She shares stories about people who are living in our country, our world who experience LIFE in different ways, as a different reality.  The woman whose red patterned shoes announce on her feet the free spirited activist in her heart.  Sophia Loren looking the way she does at the age she is due to … spaghetti.  The old woman who saves young girls from parents selling them into slavery.  Different worlds, different experiences, different perspectives than what’s outside my door, yet they ARE real inside my head.  Magical realism.

In her stories, Isabel may interject a ghost, not to create a frisson of fear but to manifest a reality I believe but  been spooked into hiding or silence;  to show  a reality beyond anything I could experience, yet can feel through another’s eyes.

Isabel weaves just such a tale at TED, making the audience – and viewers – see her exotic world through our own eyes.  She takes the kid of twenty-five by the hand to show what being seventy-one can be, reminds the 90-year old of the richness of aging upward.

For too many years, the magical realism spun around aging was a horror story, burdened with limitation loss liability.  Isabel invites us into her life, to feel its passion, to experience it (including erotic fantasies) as if it is our own.  Then to weave our tale of magical realism, welcoming others to enter the story & help us celebrate the years!


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!!


Peace With The Past

One of the greatest treasures of the last few years has been my relationship with my oldest brother.  It took a lot of tries on my part to open a pathway to connection & effort on his part to make it work.  He is in his late 70s, I am in my  mid 60s & we are both doing our best to create a relationship that hadn’t existed before.

People look at me in disbelief when I say that, but it is true.  It was true with all of my surviving siblings, who tended to non-verbal (yes, even Mike – being cheery doesn’t equate to necessarily being readily forthcoming), all of whom graduated from high school before President Kennedy’s assassination (Peter graduated in ’56!) while I got my diploma less than a year after Woodstock.

Our current relationship is very special to me.  He sends us clippings & keeps us up-to-date on his adored three granddaughters; we take him out for rambles & to his favorite spots for breakfast or lunch.

There is A LOT of heartbreaking history between the two of us, but we choose to leave it where it belongs – in the distant past.

It would be nice if everyone could make peace with people as they grow older.  Our outings with Peter have been a godsend to me, in so many ways.  The greatest blessing is simply being able to speak our truth to each other, without judgement.

Peter’s experience with our parents is wildly different from mine – he’s the first, while I’m the baby.  Our birth order, gender & age difference aren’t the only things that conspired against any relationship – we’re rooted in two different generations,  we have different ideas of what constitutes success, different ideas about class & the importance of social position, different religious beliefs & political leanings.

Perhaps our greatest difference is that Peter seems to see our parents in a radically different light than I do – over forty years since Dad died & sixteen since Mom slipped from us, he still rails at their parental inadequacies.  Will never forget Peter sharing one of the oft-told tales of Dad not being the father he needed.  Had heard it many times – from mother’s side as well as from Peter’s little boy memory.  This time, I was able to respond differently than I would have years ago.  Having an active relationship with Peter made that possible.

Peter’s jaw just about dropped when I looked him straight in the eye &, far from defending our parents, laid out the truth – “Dad & Mom had a remarkable partnership, were deeply in love & utterly devoted ~and~ they were terrible parents.”

It felt GREAT being able to say that, even if he didn’t seem interested in what came next. Mom & Dad were gosh awful parents because they’d never seen good parenting.  There was no Benjamin Spock, no magazines devoted to every stage of parenting, no row upon row of baby books.  In the 1930s, it was assumed a mother knew how to parent & could teach the dad.

Reality… Mom’s father died when she was 19, succumbing to a congenital heart condition that had left him an invalid for several years.  Mom adored her father, a man who loved to play with his children, who enjoyed good times with friends, parties, good music.  When he died, not only did his light leave Mom’s life, so did the happy times.  Her totally self-absorbed mother moved Mom & Aunt Betty, who was just 18, into their grandfather’s strict Methodist household.  Mom had no template for a normal family – the one she had formed, working for a family as nanny & dear companion to the children, was destroyed when the couple unexpectedly divorced.

Dad didn’t fare any better.  He was an only child – his mother was rh neg back when that couldn’t be treated;  all her subsequent children died at birth or soon after.  When Dad was in his early teens, his mother was again pregnant – and carrying the grief of knowing her husband had a mistress.  The New Year’s Eve before her death, she & Dad waited up for “Gar” to be home to see the new year in, as he’d promised;  to the end of his life, Dad remembered his mother’s tears.  The baby died soon after birth, as did my grandmother days later.  Dad’s father subsequently married his mistress.  When Dad was given his choice of where to go for prep school, he narrowed his choices to Haverford or Harrisburg Academy, choosing the later because there would be no expectation of him coming home over weekends.

When Mom & Dad found each other, a whole new reality became possible for each of them.  Dad did what he thought a truly good father should – he loved our mother, was faithful & true to her.  Mom was the image of what she believed was a good mother – keeping house, being supportive of her husband & her children’s #1 cheerleader.  In one way, they were not typical at all of their era.  Looped-out crazy about each other, they were open about being eager lovers to the end; in a stab at lightness in a dark time, Mom said the grave stone should say, “They did it till he died.”

Recalling when, within four months, their youngest son was killed & the lumber yard where Dad was a company officer burned down, leaving him without an income, Mom said she & Dad were lucky – “Tragedy can draw a couple together or tear them apart;  we were blessed to be the former.”  But what brought them together did terrible damage to the family, who only once discussed the impact of Ian’s death on each & all of us – in a meeting in the late 1990s, forty years later, and that was commenting on the fact the Ian was brought up but never the tragedy, never its aftermath.

That was then…  Peter knows these stories, grew up with them as I did, but they didn’t seem to humanize our parents to him.  The difference NOW is that when he lights into Dad about the awful treatment he feels he received at our father’s hands, I can speak up. Not from an impassioned desire to “set the record straight” as I might have at one time. Peter’s experiences are his experiences.  If I want him to respect mine, I have to first respect his.  When he talks about how our parents never said, “I love you,” it’s an opportunity to point out, without trying to score points, that they came from a time where parents showed their love in actions.  I understand that Peter remembers Dad as stern & I remind myself that as father/son they had a different relationship than daddy/daughter.

It is such a blessing that Peter & I made peace, that we have a here & now relationship.  I feel sorry for all the people who don’t get a chance to hear their siblings’ stories as an adult, to hopefully bring to the connection a willingness to hear & the courage to share without any agenda, other than putting out your truth.
















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.