Declaration of INTERdependence – Chapter 9

Was in my twenties when I first thought of my sister, Mim, as like the opening illustration for The Cat That Walked By Himself –  by herself, on her own solitary path, the wildest of all wild creatures.  I admired her fierce independence.  She was like the semi-feral cat that lets you stroke it – when it likes – and feed it – when it likes – and let it into the house on a nasty night, but who always makes it clear that there are no mutual obligations, that when it’s ready to be gone, gone it will be, without a backward glance or a nano second thought.  I doubt she ever lost that wild sense of walking alone – when she was in her early 50s, Mim made a point of saying to me, “I bet you think I talk about you (our relationship) with my psychologist.  Well, I don’t – your name never comes up.”  Her pronouncement took me by surprise, but not for the reason she thought – – it had never occurred to me to think that my wild, semi-feral sister EVER brought up the topic of me (our relationship) because it was clear throughout her life that she had no interest in making it better.

My parents admired the appearance of independence.  As far as I could tell, they always saw my sister & oldest brother as adamantly independent, which was weird since both of them fell considerably short of financial independence.  That said, I grew up with the image of both as paragons of independent spirits.

Can still remember the rush of joy that whooshed through me when, in my early thirties, I first learned the word INTERdependence, a whole new concept to me & one which swelled my being from the moment we connected.  Which explains why Declaring Interdependence, Chapter 9 of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, was such pleasure to read!

You know the drill – Rabbi Friedman is in italics, I am in plain type.

Anthropologist Jenny Keith and her colleagues had studied elders in several urban, suburban, and rural communities around the world.  When they asked the question, “What scares you the most about growing old?” to elders at a suburban American community, the most frequent answer was, “Having to rely on others for help.”  – –  How to respond to this?  From an eldercare pov, or from my personal experience?  My own experience might help, so will go from there.  My sister HATED relying on others for help, especially when she needed it most.  So, like a lot of older people, she asked without asking.  She’d phrase a request in a round-about way that got people to do what she wanted without her ever directly asking, therefore never having to feel obligated to return the favor.  Mom did a form of this, as did other clients – Mom’s request “If you’re anywhere near the pharmacy, would you pick up...?” is still an inside joke with John – – she invariable was out of her must-take meds, but didn’t want to put herself in the position of a) having to ask & b) possibly being turned down.

My independent & proud of it mother-in-law had her own way of showing dread of asking for help.  She would NOT let us help after she broke her hip (was mugged!) & she had been told NOT to walk up & down the stairs in her cozy house – – she got up & down the steps on her butt!  But having John move in with her while she fully recuperated or – a thousand times worse – moving in with us was unthinkable to her “I can handle it myself” spirit.

 

Elders in an African village had a very different perspective.  When they were asked, “What are you most looking forward to about old age?” many of them answered, “Having someone kind to take care of me.”  For them, the experience of connection in being cared for was to to be cherished, not feared. – – Oh, to have more elders feel this way, to have more kind youngers eager to take care of them.  It is the #1 quality that John & I bring to our eldercare – we are kind.  Not patronizing, not fussing, not (worst of all) treating like a child or invalid – – simply kind, cherishing the opportunity to connect, not because they are relatives or friends, but because they are fellow travelers who’ve taken the long road far longer than us.  We reach out from hospitality as much as to provide aid.

 

(In that African village) interdependence is a lifelong and community-wide way of life, so that need for care is not clouded by fears that dependency will threaten personhood. – – Here in the USofA, independence is glorified & busyness is raised to high art.  Too many people define themselves by job titles or being a wife, a mother.  Losing their roles typically leads to losing a sense of self.  For them, dependency doesn’t threaten their personhood – it obliterates it.

 

Our North American (I’d narrow down to the USA – deev) culture views dependency as a disease. … Our culture exalts independence.  We admire people who manage for themselves.  We lionize those who ask nothing of others. … We like to imagine that we can continue to be totally independent as we grow older.  – – see above

 

In the context of such an idealization of independence, those who find themselves “counting on kindness,” as social worker Wendy Lustbader puts it, find that they have failed , that they are somehow deficient.  – –  Both my mother & mother-in-law were remarkably independent – Mom M. got by quite well on her own, with a teensy bit of help every week from her one & only child;  aside from the broken hip, she was healthy until the moment she was felled by a massive heart attack, in the snugness of her own home.  As for my mother, multiple hospitalizations, her own broken hip & a torn rotator cuff that demobilized the full use of an arm meant she needed our help & support, always given & received with a light touch & tender heart.  We were blessed to read – together – Still Here, by Ram Dass, which describes his experience of caring for his father & his own dependency after a stroke in his 60s – – the concepts he covers were already familiar to us, but he gave a language to wrap around them.  They helped Mom feel like a partner in her care, which I’ve found to be key in helping clients feel a sense of control & empowerment.  It’s why I never use the term “caregiver” with them – it’s always “care partner.”

 

(People who need care, who have) lost their sense of self-worth because of seeing themselves as only dependent have bought what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out is a way of judging people based on what they DO or PRODUCE rather than the value inherent in who they are. – – It feels like a lot of people have a very hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of anyone having value simply by sharing space on the same planet at the same time.  It we aren’t doing, aren’t producing, then why take up space?  This sense is going to get stronger as few & fewer people have contact with olders elders ancients in natural settings – around dinner tables in homes, at celebrations, doing fun things.  When generations mingle on a regular basis, they have a chance to feel appreciation, enjoyment, pleasure in each other’s company.

I was blessed to live in a community where the majority of adults – from high school to ancients – gathered every Friday for supper & socializing.  That was the norm, a generation ago.  All ages rubbing shoulders, recognizing each other by sight even where there wasn’t a family or friend connection.  Impossible for me to imagine what it’s like to grow up in today’s increasingly age segregated society.

 

“Just as the grandeur of the sun or an oak tree is not reducible to the functions it fulfills, so the grandeur of the human life is not reducible to the needs it is capable of satisfying.” ~ Rabbi Heschel ~ – – Am reminded of driving Mom up from INOVA/Alexandria (Virginia) to St. Mary’s/Langhorne (PA).  Still paralyzed on one side, she’d been transferred to get additional care close to home.  Once in the car – she did NOT want go by ambulance (she was claustrophobic) – she wouldn’t get out until we arrived at St. Mary’s.  Mom wanted an ice cream cone & although we took the back roads home, there was nary a place for ice cream anywhere along our ramble.  FINALLY, in Avondale, PA, we spotted a place, amidst farm fields, with a big sign “ICE CREAM.”  I parked the car, windows up, air conditioner on, and went into get Mom a vanilla cone.  As I waited, a young woman came up to me & asked, in a peculiar tone, “Is that your mother sitting out there in the car?”  Thinking I was about to get slammed for leaving her alone, I was about to explain she was comfortable & all was well, when the woman continued – “I spotted her when I got out of my car & she smiled at me.  Oh my gosh, I got such a strong sense of specialness!”  THAT was someone seeing & appreciating & being awed by “the grandeur of the human life.”

 

We are all interdependent all of the time. – – Children need to be taught this & to see it in the lives around them.  My mother & I were as interdependent at the end, when she was at home in hospice, as we were when she was making me lunch & brushing my hair.  The acts changed, but the dynamic remained the same.

 

If it is true that we are enlarged by being in relationships of caring and giving, then we might well reexamine our denial and dread of dependency. – –  And it has to start in our earliest years.  Again, I was blessed to see seriously old people who could no longer do some things as well as they did, but they focused on what they could & appreciated the things that opened up because of their age.  There are no easy answers for how to do this in today’s silo-ized society, but it is imperative that we do – quickly, because the window to turn things around is limited.  It’s not a matter of “If not now, when?” but of “If not now, you can kiss it goodbye.”

 

We can change ourselves and our culture when it comes to interdependence.  We can make conscious choices about searching for help.  We can weigh the price of avoiding dependency.  We can consider the possibility of living into a vision of an interdependent, interconnected world.  – – While this nation started with a Declaration of Independence, it became a reality because thirteen separate colonies decided to band together into an interdependent whole committed to a common goal.  We, as human beings, start out as dependent little ones, gain our independence, then mature into interdependence.  Let’s start with that image as we lean into the vision of interconnection that is the highest state of human experience.

 

This chapter in  Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older brought up memories of  brilliant, funny, often acerbic Benita Acton Odhner, bed-ridden in her 80s by osteoporosis, who opened her home to her grandsons & their friends – her “boys” adored her & only seemed delighted to be at her beck & call.  “Grandma”/”Aunt” Benita had the large house & the groceries, they had youth & a willingness to repay her hospitality in any way they could.   The memory of that quite elderly lady in her beautiful bed jacket having a gab with a gaggle of young men – – an image I carry with me, 30+ years later.  A sweet tableaux of wondrous interdependence.

Glorious goose bumps, calls to glory

Writing my previous post, CALL & RESPONSE – remembering for others, linked me back to an “ancient” post from 05/28/15 recalling  the 2014 National Center for Creative Aging Leadership Exchange & Conference.

How is it possible the conference was less than four years ago?  So much growth, so many WOW moments over such a relatively short time!

What stands out most to me in reading the older2elder post is how much it mirrored my feelings at this past July’s IAGG 21st quadrennial World Congress – –  ” The people around me shared my passion, even if they were light years past me in experience & expertise. In 2014, my main take-away was how little I knew, compared to the rest.”  There were so many moments at 2017 IAGG’s Age Stage that left me “uplifted & inspired with fresh awe of what can be accomplished with people dealing with the challenges of dementia.

Above all – “Mostly, my memories of NCCA 2014 are impressions.  Chiefly, the impression that this was my most true calling, that I wasn’t loopy thinking there’s hope for uprooting replanting nurturing a different way of experiencing expansive LIVING than what’s too often the norm in our culture.” and–  “Most of what I remember from that first conference are impressions, the greatest being the sense that this was where I’d been drawn all of my life, where everything that happened along every step has been directed.  It was after the conference that I could see that what stretches out before me (reveals) every scrap of every experience in my life as stepping stones to this here & now.  Nothing was wasted, it all had its use.”

Okay – I’ve got goose bumps reading that last.  Recently frustrated when the astonishing Judith Sachs stunned me by remembered we met at the IAGG World Congress  –  I’d completely forgotten.  As I worried to John, “The greatest sense I took away from what should have been a life-altering six days are just impressions.  How did I blow an opportunity for so much more?! (sob)”

Then, just now, a post from eons past whooshed back memories of  my first “aging” conference & brought sweet relief – – “While I might not have written a posting about NCCA 2014 (which still seems impossible), it certainly inscribed itself across my soul.”    

Ditto the IAGG 21st World Congress.  Ditto every conference & workshop I’ve attended & taken from my Spring 2014 Omega weekend onward.  Each inscribed itself upon my soul.

The very last paragraph rings as true for my experiences at the IAGG World Congress as it did for the 2014 NCCA Conference – – “Like this year, friends made it possible for me to attend (the NCCA Conference).  Blessings on them for the opportunity to have my mind heart spirit opened in ways I can’t describe. … Goose bumps!

Yes, I feel foolish, not having remembered meeting Judith Sachs last July.  The only names that really connected are Wendy Lustbader, a woman I revered long before meeting her at the Age Stage, and Emily…  oh rats!  I forget her last name.  Names weren’t important to me at the IAGG World Congress.  I wasn’t there to collect contacts, to forge relationships, to swirl myself into a network of astounding energies.

What I described in frustration to John turns out to be my glorious truth – – I went there as an impressionist, or whatever the term is for a novice (no longer a fledgling!), open to soaking in impressions, to open my mind heart spirit in ways I can’t describe to myself, let alone to others.

Which brings me back to something I wrote in that long-ago posting:  “As for a question posed back in March 2014 – – ‘When I die, will I leave a legacy as an interesting anomaly who had a rare talent for engaging empowering energizing a few older friends?  Or will I be remembered as a catalyst for an overhauled expectation & experience of aging?’   It was after NCCA 2014 that it hit home that one thing & one thing only will determine if I am remembered as the one or the other.  Me.”

That earlier self pulled no punches placing responsibility & accountability for being “remembered as a catalyst for an overhauled expectation & experience of aging” fully on future ME’s shoulders.

Dear Past Self – I have not let you down.  Am continuing the good fight, am making my first dents, will never set down your torch.  And, having read you, am filled with a sense of joy hope exaltation that coming away from the IAGG World Congress with “only” impressions of all I’d seen felt heard was precisely the starting point I needed.

Three cheers for unpredictable online ramblings that drew me to a glorious past self speaking a present truth to light the way for my future success thanks to now actions!  For impressions that shimmer & glow as they illuminate inspire enflame.  And for glorious goose bumps that recognize, without words, greatness yet to come.

 

CALL & RESPONSE – remembering for others

The Philadelphia area was walloped yesterday by a snowy nor’ easter that left us, from middish afternoon, without electricity.  No ELECTRIC lights, but the radiant light from the snow fall made it possible to still read, just had to sit near the window.

Dipped back into Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older to refresh my memory of something in Chapter 6, Making Sense of Dementia’s Brokeness – –  “We can emulate God by remembering for those who cannot remember for themselves.  We can connect them to memory.”

On looking back, my reply – –  “YES!  This is what John & I do with older friends & clients.  We help connect them to memories.” – – was correct, but a bit too… generic.  My personal sense goes much deeper.

John & I never had to nudge our mothers’ memories – at 87 & 91, respectively, both Mom M. & my mother had only the minor memory problems of older age.  Because of our core lack of experience, John & I were clear that working with dementia patients was way outside our areas of expertise.  The Universe had other plans.

Turns out that our two dearest of the dear clients had dementia.  In both cases, we made it clear to the families that we would do all we could -AND- once the dementia took serious root, we’d back away & let someone adept in that stage take the reins.

As it turned out, we were connected to both clients to their deaths because neither needed a higher level of care.  Both remained aware of their surroundings, people & personalities to the end.  While Anne often needed an assist in connecting to a memory or a moment, she never lost a sense of her own core self.

Knowing their backgrounds helped.  Anne had been diagnosed with dementia before the unexpected passing of Kent, her adored husband & devoted partner, but she was pretty much fully connected to her past for several years.  Building up our knowledge of her background was easy – I had long-ago stories from Mom, who knew both her family & Kent’s (I learned about his high school football exploits when Kent stopped by to pick up Mom for appointments – he was her favorite volunteer chauffeur), her son is a classmate & her daughter a BFF.  It helped that Anne was naturally garrulous.

Richard was more of a challenge.  We’d never met until the family asked us to accept him as a client.  Although he was showing symptoms of dementia, he hadn’t been diagnosed.  We pumped his children for background & were blessed that, like Anne, he was a great talker & happily filled us in on his Ohio boyhood, how he came to be an art professor at Lehigh University, his love of his university, his colleagues, communities, friends, family, neighbors.  It helped immensely that before he moved in with his daughter, we made many visits to his treasured home on Stonesthrow Road, a connection that proved priceless in our two years with that gifted & gracious man.

We got to know Richard on our rambles around his Bethlehem, PA neck of the woods & especially heading down the beautiful River Road that always drew out a flow of wondrous memories of artists he knew & visitors from China he’d entertained with fabulous dinners put on by Bucks County friends.  We listened & remembered, storing up the stories against the day that he would not so easily recall them on his own.

We’ve learned that there’s no such thing as too much background information in working with olders, whether a family member or a client.  Thanks to her photos, I have an awareness of Mom from toddler to her final adieu.   The 1914 photo of 3-year old “Cossie” sitting with her little sister Bets next to a lovely, early 20s Marjorie Wells – aka “Grandma” Rose to me!  The picture with Betty, their older brother, Bob, and Bob’s dog, Buddy.  Her 1928 graduation class picture.  The photo as maid of honor at her best friend’s wedding, standing next to Christa’s brother, the man Mom believed she’d marry.  Wonderful photos of a love-struck Kay.  The pictures of her as nanny & confidante of Edwin & Lynne’s children, after her heart-breaking breakup.  Her wedding photos with her actual Own True Love.  Pictures of her from new mom all the way up to treasured snap shots with her adored grandchildren, here in the USA & down in Australia.

One of the most effective tools for a playfulness coach is a client’s family album.  Through Mom’s photos, I grew up with a sense of the many personifications of Katharine Lockhart, nee Reynolds.  They let me time jump throughout her life.  Getting copies of pictures from across the spectrum of a person’s life helps us connect, especially if memory fades.

Most of what I know about using the sense of memory to build up & strengthen a failing memory was learned through Anne.  Rabbi Friedman quotes Anne Basting’s observation that memory is “a relational process” – it’s collaborative.  It certainly was with us.

In the early years of our connection, Anne regaled us with tales of JAM – Jane, Anne & Macy – her BFFs, from childhood to widowhood.  As a girl, she’d walk up the hill to South Avenue where she’d meet up with her two besties & head to school or sports events or parties or whatever fun was on their agenda.

For years, every time we drove past what was had been the Carpenter place, Anne would get a BIG smile & sing out, “There’s Macy’s house!”  The first time she didn’t say it was our earliest sign that my dear friend was in decline.  I thought maybe she’d been preoccupied, but when we drove past later in the week & here was still no recognition, the truth hit home.  From then on to our last jaunt, four days before Anne’s passing, whenever we were coming up to what is now Sarah & Jeff’s house, I’d get a BIG smile, touch Anne’s arm & sing out, “There’s Macy’s house!”  If the day had ever come that Anne didn’t respond with a similar big smile & the comment, “Yes, it is.  We were JAM – did you know that?”, I would have sailed past in silence.

Similarly with our much-missed Richard, who died this past November on the crest of the wave, on the last day of a retrospective of his life & art work – – if he’d ever gotten to the point that he didn’t remember savoring Anice Terhune’s Yorkshire pudding, the guests from China who’d warmly welcomed him to their country,  his tales about serving on the Printmaking Council of New Jersey, we would have recalled them for him, opening a path to elusive lovely moments.  And if the day came he couldn’t get there with even the most tender nudge, we would have kept quiet, letting him enjoy the drive for the itself.

In writing this, am reminded of an exercise that the awesome Anthony Hyatt led us through in a pre-conference workshop before the 2014 National Center for Creative Aging Conference.  I’d never done call & response, but Anthony blew us all away as he showed how, using it, even people with serious memory challenges can be drawn into a greater whole, to be part of a singing group producing beautiful sounds.

It truly does feel like yesterday, looking around the circle, registering each person’s face as we all realized the power of something as simple as feeding a line & hearing it in reply.

Am going to have to change the title of this posting from “Remembering for Others,” because it turns out to be an homage to the call & response process, which – without our realizing it – infuses our playfulness coaching.  We feed them the information they fed us & wait to see if there is an answering response.

That last part is essential – we wait for an answering response.  With Richard, we always heard it – he left us before his memories slipped back to where even a prompt couldn’t draw them out.  But with Anne…  With Anne, we had to let go of trying to get her to connect with moments buried under layers of forgetfulness, to not try to spark her memory or even notice the church in which she was raised & married, the school she attended, the lanes she walked.  It would have been a disservice.

But Anne didn’t forget everything.  There was one place with which, to our final drive, Anne connected.  There is a stretch of Terwood Road that comes up to Edge Hill from Willow Grove toward Huntingdon Vally & Bryn Athyn.  Up until her last year, Anne would invariably say, as we drove toward the funky intersection, “I should know this area,” & we’d always smile as we assured her, “You’ll recognize it in a minute or so.”  Sure enough, as we came up to the quirky intersection, she’d grin & say, “NOW I know where we are!”  & the rest of the drive was spent in happy connection.

Sometime in her last year, the intersection stopped being a land mark in her failing memory.  We’d slip through it with no recognition.  We’d start our drive down Terwood’s roller coaster hills, past Lundy Lane on our left, the Papermill Road crossing.  Just past where Washington Lane finally ends at Terwood, with the wide meadows of what were Raytharn Farm wheat fields when Anne was a youngster (now the Pennypack Trust), the road comes to a rise.  To the left, fields stretch all the way to the horizon, with what looks like one unusually large, sprawling tree at the crest.  Up to & including that last drive, when we took a special route designed to showcase that view in the winter dusk, Anne never failed to exclaim with joy at the sight of that tree (actually, 3 close together), outlined bold & strong against the fading light.

To this day, John & I would love to know the memory Anne connected to the sight, for we are both sure that only something special & strong would have always drawn out such a riveting reaction.  What call drew out such a wondrous response?

Thoughts on… Softening to Reality

The first six chapters of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older focused on Facing Shatterings As We Grow Older.  The next seven – Searching for the Sparks… Beginning Again (and Again).  Chapter 7 – Softening to Reality, finding sweetness & suffering – speaks to the pain & blessings of a pierced heart.

Rabbi Friedman is in italics, my commentary is not.

 

Rabbi Friedman’s sister died at sixty-one.  Jill was forty-four when she was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, a reminder that illness fragility dependence are not limited to the old & elderly.  Rabbi Friedman says she never doubted that the cancer would kill her, accepted that -and- sought palliative treatments.

“(Jill) did not dwell in a place of regret.  She said over & over, “It is what it is.”  She counted her blessings, focusing on gratitude rather than on disillusionment.  She delighted in visits from relatives and colleagues from near and far.  She reconnected with old friends and deepened her connections with newer ones. – – How blessed am I that this has been my experience with both my parents -and- my sister.  Dad was only 63 when he died;  while he had concerns for his wife & his daughters (I was still in college) & regretted leaving those he loved, he did not dwell there.  He was all about “It is what it is.”  Mom died at 91, counting her blessings to the end.  My sister was, if anything, relieved that after years of poor, disabling poor health, she was diagnosed with a condition that would kill her in ten days.  She was so at ease with her fate, my older brother didn’t process that she really meant she’d be gone in ten days – when she died on Day 10, he was shocked.   From the first phone call with her, from the emergency room waiting to be admitted to her passing twenty minutes before we arrived for a visit, to Mim it was all about “It is what it is.”

 

Jill said her illness was not a death sentence, but a life sentence.  She  faced a devastating reality, and heroically squeezed unimaginable goodness out of the last years of her life. – – I hope that someone can write that about me!

 

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, outlines three dimensions of responding to suffering in a way that will ultimately prove redemptive ~ ~ yielding to the darkness; discerning sparks of light, and wrestling sweetness. – – I love how Rabbi Friedman gives us not only a sort of map for navigating growing older, but also landmarks to help us know where we are.  “Yielding to the darkness, discerning sparks of light, and wrestling sweetness” – – Jill had seventeen years to experience those three dimensions;  the longest I’ve experienced from the onset of a medical crisis to death were the six weeks between Dad’s diagnosis of a brain tumor & his death in nursing home.  Mom had about two weeks from her decline at St. Mary’s/Langhorne to her at-home death; Mim had ten days; Mom Murphy had a massive heart attack in her home & was gone in moments;  Ian was killed instantly.  How different would be my experience of the three dimensions set out by the Baal Shem Tov if one of them had been diagnosed years or even months before their death, had gone through extensive & extended periods – years – of pain?   It gives me pause, realizing how inexperienced I am with a lengthy dying process.

 

In responding to suffering, the first, immense step is to accept reality. … We can stiffen and resist the truth of our lives, or we can soften to it. – –  Again, I go back to my experiences of the dying process ~ Dad, Mom, my sister Mim.   Mom eased into the awareness that she was near death – she transferred from INOVA/Alexandria to St Mary’s/Langhorne for continued care & rehab, with the expectation she’d be returning home somewhat her old self.  From the first solid diagnosis, both Dad & Mim knew they were on their way out.  All three gave every indication of accepting their reality without fear.  My sister went beyond accepting reality to expressing whole-hearted gratitude that her end would be swift, the pain would be managed, that she wouldn’t be doomed to her greatest fear – a long dwindle.

 

When we resist painful reality, we add to our suffering (and often to that of the people around us).  – – I have seen this with friends of our older friends.  They are rare, but always heartbreaking.  Clear to see their resistance bringing greater, deeper pain.  We’ve also seen it with families who resist the painful reality of a loved one’s deterioration.

 

This business of yielding to unwelcome reality is so hard.  It is natural, reflexive, to deny, to stiffen. … But a strange thing happens.  Instead of feeling better, now you are not only sore, but also stiff.  …  Stretch, move gently, your doctor tells you, and you will heal.  This is yielding. – – Our reflex is to resist, but just like with an injured muscle, tightening up only makes the situation worse.  “Stretch, move gently, your doctor tells you, and you will heal” – when I was a little girl, no older than nine, I went along when Mom had an appointment with her back doctor.  I still remembering Dr. Veek telling me she was one of his star patients – when Mom push-toshed him, he explained, “Your mother is one of the few patients I have who actually follows through with the exercises I prescribe.”  And Mom did, to the last – a daily walk, a daily nap, a daily set of exercises.  It could be a bother, a nuisance, but she did all three, every day, at home or away.  It would have been easy to blow off his advice, but she took it to heart, followed through & was remarkably fit in her antiquity.

 

To soften to reality, we need to allow ourselves to feel hurt and grief.  In this yielding to what is, we are liberated from the burden of resisting. …  Once we know the terrain of our sadness and we can let go of resisting it, we can begin to open ourselves to growth. – – I’ve seen the heartbreak & mega problems caused by refusal to feel hurt & grief.  The people who REFUSED to yield to what were/are imprisoned, shackled to the pain.  Refusing to examine the terrain of their sadness, they are never able to be open to growth that takes them beyond the hurt & grief.

 

Dr. Bill Thomas suggest we need to embrace aging in order to live into the potential of our elderhood.  …  He calls us to consider new roles and dimensions of our lives, including departing from busyness and allowing for being and reflection.  – – BIG grin!  My mother was a master of living into the potential of her elderhood, was joyfully open to considering new roles & dimensions of her life, took deep delight in “allowing for being and reflection.”  Or, as my dear old mother put it,  “Nature brings us, willingly or not, into more meditative states and slower tempos. Am I bored to tears sitting in the big chair in the living room or in my soothing rocking chair? No, it is surprisingly rewarding. The problem is that young kids – looking through the eyes of a still preening self — feel sad and think, ‘How dull her life must be.’ Too many Ancient and near-Ancient Ones fall for that line. Truth be told, growth keeps right on going, ideally right out of the ceilings of our cramped opinion.”

 

Once we have allowed ourselves to dwell in darkness and we have opened our eyes wide to sparks of light within it, the Baal She Tov teaches that we are ready for wrestling some sweetness out of a bitter experience. … Ultimately, what we can hope for is to harvest something of sweetness, something redemptive out of our most anguishing life experiences.  – – Back to The Velveteen Grammie for my response:  “For whatever reason, growing feeble, infirm and even forgetful is part of the Lord’s grand scheme. As I edge closer toward triple digits, it is easier to let go of time-bound prejudices and expectations.”

 

Even the most wrenching agony may also contain goodness if we are able to be open to it.  We may, like Jill, grow closer to those who love us or find our faith deepened.  Perhaps we will learn from our suffering and be able to share that wisdom with others. – – Back to The Velveteen Grammie:  “A friend urged me to write about old age and make all the younger folks envious of us Ancients. Growing old, even some of the sadder aspects of it, is part of the Lord’s grand scheme. Let go of time-bound prejudices and fears of growing older. ”  Mom had no idea when she started sharing her thoughts online, as part of an online discussion about welcoming women in the priesthood of a male-only ministry.  From being part of that online-only discussion ~ she was active on both the pro-women in the priesthood discussion AND against, because each made points that hit home ~ she came to accept that just by living as long as she had, as well as she had, as aware as she was, people valued her opinions, enjoyed her recollections of long ago times, basked in her online company.

 

Writing these reflections on Softening to Reality, a chapter I’ve read at least twice before penning these commentaries on favorite snippets from Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older,  am hit with how inexperienced I am with any extensive death process.  In a nutshell – none.

How different my responses to Rabbi Friedman’s wisdom would be if I’d faced the challenges of a loved one’s lengthy death or if they’d resisted yielding to reality, had chosen to clench their eyes shut to what was happening, who braced themselves against the very things that could loosen & liberate their strife.  And I find myself wishing that EVERYONE could have such glorious inexperience bless their lives!

Brokeness… Chapter 6 – – facing the feared

My only negative experience with dementia or other cognitive dysfunction is 2nd-hand, through my mother, who had a gnawing fear of falling into senility, like her mother.  Mom’s memories of the years when Gran’s mental instability fell totally apart never left her.

Praise be, Mom experienced only the minor cognitive challenges that come with being closer to 100 than to 80 – a bit of occasional forgetfulness, the rare moment when she’d get a distant look in her eye & lean her head in a particular way & we’d know that she had lost the thread of conversation, our clue to repeat or reinforce what was just said.

John’s mother was a total wow, apparently as sharp at 87 as she probably was at 17.

I think of Mom’s compadres & older friends, my elder mentors & role models, and realize that they were apparently all in the same camp as my mother, with several of them even sharper than ever in their “sunset” years.

The two of us are forever blessed to have been graced with the privilege & fun of working with Anne Davis Hyatt – who’d been diagnosed with dementia a while before we started our glorious 7-year run of partnering up for good times – and with our beloved Richard, diagnosed soon after we met.  Both much-missed friends had their challenges remembering, but each focused on the joy each moment held.  We learned more about full-throttle living from each of them than we did the trials tribulations tragedy of dementia.  Neither friendship gave us any experience in what to expect from & how to respond to someone with serious to catastrophic cognitive impairment, just treasured lessons in how to look past lack to awe & wonder.

Which leaves me unable to give much in the way of insights to Chapter Six of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older Making Sense of Dementia’s Brokeness.  Will share what I can & welcome others to share their own experiences & insights.

You know the drill – Rabbi Friedman’s words are in italics, mine are in regular type.

Dementia will touch us – – if we are lucky enough to be spared personally, we are still likely to encounter it in our parents, partners, or friends – – and our fear of it colors our perspective on our own aging.– – In my experience, the great joy killer of dementia is the fear people have of it.  Thanks to working with Anne Hyatt, I know that dementia need not lessen or shrink or diminish the human spirit.  When she had waded into her dementia, already struggling to remember the day & date from moment to moment, John & I would take her every Wednesay night up the River Road to a country inn above New Hope for dinner & to hear the jazz stylings of the great Barbara Trent.  We’d sit where Anne, herself a trained jazz pianist, could watch Barbara at the keyboard.  We could never decide who enjoyed those Wednesday evenings more – Anne or Barbara, who reveled in our friend’s joy in her music.  There was a group of regulars at the bar who took particular delight in Anne, which was explained by one of them, a woman in her mid-60s – – “I used to fear growing older, but now that I’ve gotten to know Anne, that fear has flown.”   An interesting twist on Rabbi Friedman’s comment – those lucky enough to know Anne found themselves released from fear of a dismal, heartbreaking old age.

 

Educator, scholar, and artist Anne Basting … argues persuasively that we need to transcend our fears of dementia.  We need to be empowered to open our hearts and minds to a reality more complex than that suggested by the “fear machine.” – –  I am blessed to know Anne Bastings.  I was sitting next to her at a major conference on aging expansively when it was announced – to the roar of the room – that she’d been named a MacArthur Fellow just a day or so before.  Anne’s Timeslips work is about helping people with memory challenges connect to moments rather than specific memories.  OUR challenge is to let the person be as fully within their moments rather than constantly doing all we can to get them to share memories to which WE can connect.

 

Rose was a Eastern European woman with quite advanced dementia.  She could no longer speak but she could sing, and sing she did, all day and all night.  She had an amazing ability to take up any melody you started in any genre. …  She didn’t sing the words, only ‘la, la’ with great gusto.  Teenage volunteers in the nursing home adored being with Rose.  They lovingly called her “the la la lady” and competed to sit next to her in the synagogue. – –  Anne to a T!  I can’t remember how many times people – especially men – at her very nice continuous care residence marveled to me how much they appreciated just being in her presence, that she always had a smile & never said an unpleasant word about anyone else.  I chalk it up to Anne caring her music within herself.

 

I once heard another caregiver explain to a fellow elevator rider, “There’s nothing I can do for him, and I am doing it.” – – This speaks volumes to the challenges faced by family care providers – our natural inclination is to feel like we should be doing SOMETHING tangible to help a loved one dealing with dependency, perhaps layered with fragility & maybe dementia, perhaps with Alzheimer’s or some other serious-catastrophic condition.  When they can’t do something clear cut with tangible outcomes, people can stay away when what they need to be doing is just be present.  “There’s nothing I can do for him, and I am doing it” – there’s great wisdom love tenderness in that insight.

 

We might think about the family caregiver’s spiritual challenge in terms of the oft-stated biblical command to love the stranger.  We must treat the stranger with care, “for you know the soul of the stranger.”  (Exodus 23:9)  …  Can you let go of the expectation that the person will behave or appear as she used to, and appreciate her for who she is now?  In loving the stranger, can we learn from his person & her journey? – – I’ve never worked with or even known someone who was so deep into dementia they did not have a sense of their surroundings, of those around them, of themselves.  I love the King James phrasing of Hebrews 13:2 – “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  Yes!  If only we could hold onto this, remember it when most needed, when a loved one looks at us with the eyes of a stranger.

It can be truly heroic to experience impatience, grief, and frustration and still compassionately do what needs to be done.  Perhaps we can begin to make peace with dementia, so that should we experience, this illness, we will bring compassion toward ourselves and those around us. – –  I believe that by experiencing the impatience, grief & frustration that is typical of any caregiving situation, not just with dementia, we are gifted with deeper compassion toward others, toward ourselves, toward all life brings us.  What comes to US, especially from truly heroic efforts to be present in the face of great challenge, is the greatest give a loved one can give his or her beloved – the one receiving the care becomes the one responsible for gifts whose worth are beyond description or imagination.

 

I am convinced that the tzelem (image of God in man) is not defined by cognition or capacity.  Amid all the changes of dementia, the tzelem remains;  it is our very humanity.  If we are always living in God’s image, the perhaps we need to question the assumption that the person with dementia is always suffering of living on a lower plane of existence. – – I believe this is the very thing that friends of mine who provide maintenance support (John & I are strictly social enrichment) experience & why so many of them feel their work has a deep spiritual connection.  “Tzelem is not defined by cognition or capacity” – perhaps the person with dementia has fewer barriers to feeling a oneness with the Divine than those of us rooted in minutes & memories.- – I believe this is the very thing that friends of mine who provide maintenance support (John & I are strictly social enrichment) experience & why so many of them feel their work has a deep spiritual connection.  “Tzelem is not defined by cognition or capacity” – perhaps the person with dementia has fewer barriers to feeling a oneness with the Divine than those of us rooted in minutes & memories.

 

Even when we are mired in the moment, bereft of all perspective on our lives, God sees more, in boundless compassion.  God holds ALL of who we’ve been.  We may forget, but God does not. – – I love this thought.  Will inscribe it on my heart.

 

We can emulate God by remembering for those who cannot remember for themselves.  We can connect them to memory.  – – YES!  This is what John & I do with older friends & clients.  We help connect them to memories.  We cringe, hearing youngers implore loved ones with cognitive problems, “Mom, do you remember…” or “Dad, you know who this is…”  We set up the memory, like teeing up a golf ball, so the friend or client can swing, connect & loft it high into the air. Emulate God – remember for those who cannot.    

 

Our challenge is to address the divine within individuals with dementia.  As Rita Bresnahan writes:  “It is not Mom who must remember who I am.  Rather, it is I who must remember who my mother is.  Who she truly is.  Not merely ‘an Alzheimer’s patient.”  Not merely ‘my mother.’  It is up to me to (continue to be)… keenly aware of her spirit, honoring her soul-essence.  Meeting her with caring and love and respect in that sacred place of wholeness where nothing can diminish.” – – Speaks for itself.  I love love love this passage.

 

Read, re-read, then read #10 again.  That snippet, within its full context, is worth the price of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older & the time it takes to read the relatively short by full of inspiration & insight book.  To read with others, preferably your children and your parents, your loved ones and your friends.

Finding Wholeness… – Chapter 4

The chapter heading ~ Finding Wholeness As Our Bodies Break Down ~ IS the very essence of Mom’s experience inching upward toward triple digits.  At 90, she wrote – “As the years tick by and my fixtures and fittings become unglued and the ‘fur’ is loved off, a stronger sense of being Real has moved forward.”  Am quite sure she would have written out the Maya Angelou quote that kicks off the chapter – “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”  – to keep on her night stand.

What a blast she would have had, sitting down with Rabbi Dayle Friedman, sharing her thoughts on Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, mixing in some of her Swedenborgian wisdom on becoming an “Ancient”!

Rabbi Friedman is in italics, my comments (or Mom’s) in regular font:

While we cannot realistically dream of escaping physical limitations or suffering as we grow older, we can hope for wholeness. … Just as we can grow to appreciate the preciousness of each stage of the rose, we can come – with effort – to greater peace with our aging bodies. – – I’ll let Mom take this... “A favorite saying of mine for many moons is ‘Old age ain’t for sissies.’  Actually, managing to get to 90 relatively sound of heart, mind and body (or  any one or more of those three) indicates some grit.  As I inch closer toward  triple digits, being old has gotten a lot easier.  Somewhere around my late  80s, I began to see the humor and humanity more in things, to take upsets  less personally and put them more easily into perspective.”

 

The spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who suffered a devastating stroke in his sixties, works to great each pain or physical discomfort with tender compassion, saying, “Ah, so, even this.” – –  Handing it again to Mom…  “For whatever reason, growing feeble, infirm and even forgetful is part of the  Lord’s grand scheme.”

 

We can try contemplative practice to help us be with a pain or soreness, opening to what exactly the experience is like instead of bracing ourselves against it. – – Yep, back to Mom… “Moving out of that hanging-on state to one of accepting that the  body is a temporary shelter designed to house our eternal soul could be  compared to moving out of darkness and confusion toward lightness and the  light.”

 

We are more than our bodies. … What may help us is to let go of anger at ourselves, or at aging itself, and honor our bodies for doing as best it can under the circumstances.  This letting go may need to happen again and again as our bodies and abilities continue to change.  – – More Mom…. “Ideally, the concepts of physical being, of time and relationships,  are liberated as we get older and older.”

 

It may help us as well to turn our attention toward others who are suffering, to use our own experience of pain to develop empathy and connection. – – So much of Mom’s life focused on putting her attention toward others.  In the mid-1950s, Mom had a nervous breakdown & was hospitalized for over a month, undergoing every sort of horrific “treatment” that was the norm back then; unlike other people of her day, who would have never talked about it, even with close friends, Mom was open about what brought her to that point, helped countless people by talking about her experiences, letting others know what brought her to breaking – her refusal to seek or let others help with two family medical emergencies that piled on, one after another.  ~ When her youngest son was killed, Mom got through it in part by putting her focus on his best friend, who was with him when it happened, and on his family.  From that tragedy on, if a friend lost a child, Mom was among the first to show up to comfort & just be present.  ~ In her last weeks, Mom’s hospital rooms were centers of good humor, interesting conversation & healing peace for the hospital personnel.  She gave as much comfort to the friends & family who came to see her at INOVA/Alexandria, then at St. Mary’s & finally at home as they gave to her. ~  Mom’s greatest desire was that each connection be reciprocal & she did all she could to make it so.

 

We live in a culture that lionizes activity, productivity, and independence.  … We have accepted the notion that our worth is determined by our level of activity or by what we generate.  – – And we are back to Mom…  “The changes  that come  with old age are scary, especially changes in life roles.  I have  not enjoyed the hands-on role of wife for over 26 years.  At ninety, I cannot  even manage the role I played as a parent.  The resources just are not there.    I cannot provide massive emotional or even minor financial support.   I  cannot wash a floor or do the grocery shopping or even dust my own room. (I   can still shell hard boiled eggs and clean mushrooms!)”

 

In contrast, Jewish tradition teaches that our worth is not conditioned by any external measure.  We humans are ultimately worthy simply because we are beings created in the divine image. – –  Mom… “Growing old, even some of the sadder aspects of it,  is part of the Lord’s grand scheme.  Let go of time-bound prejudices and fears  of growing older.”

 

As Ram Dass observes, limits and fatigue “may … be a message to attend to the moment – to be with it … to taste it … to embrace it, a way of making us take time, finally to see what’s here now.” – –  Mom… “Today. my body constantly clues me in that it is merely temporary.  It is  breaking down.  That is in the order of things, however rotten it is to  experience. … Lots of things I loved to do are just memories.  Instead of gearing up into  depression over what is no longer, I find it simpler to shift perspective.”

 

So, what can we hope for?  We can hope for healing … for the capacity to feel whole even when the body that carries us is broken. – – Who else? Mom, of course…  “Whoever is ME is changing so fast it is hard to keep up at times.  It feels  like more is bubbling up to the surface than ever before – well, since I fell  in love, married and became a mom for the first time.”

 

As our bodies experience the illness and decline that are normal elements of aging, we can strive to expand our field of vision – – remaining awake to the present moment but also seeing beyond the moment and beyond ourselves. – – Letting Mom have the last word…  “Dependency has not turned out to be as bad as I thought it would be.  There is a wonderful passage from the book Still Here that expresses my experience over the past year – “When there is true surrender and service between people, the roles of helper and helped, and the boundaries between those in power and those who are powerless, begin to dissolve.”  That has been my experience with my daughter and son-in-law and with, it seems, most of the other people in my life – the boundaries have begun to dissolve.”

It may seem lazy of me, letting Mom respond instead of me (how astonished she’d be), but it’s pretty amazing that someone who was THERE can share her experiences.  Thank you, Rabbi Friedman, for this special way to reconnect with the amazing Katharine Reynolds Lockhart (aka Mom).

Expressing our truth

Confession – I’ve been wildly in love with Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (aka SARK) for WAY over 25 years.  And I’ve done my best to set other people’s hearts aflame with wild love of her spirit, inspiration & wondrous artwork that sets souls on fire.  If I could fill this post with her whip-up-energies creativity, it would be single line – artwork – single line – quote – single line – art….

Maya Angelou expressed it perfectly – “We, in this world, and this weary world itself, have a great gaping need for SARK.”  Amen & hallelujah, sister!

Enlargements of SARK’s ecstatically colorful drawings turned Mom’s hospital rooms into outbursts of WOW – some time at the local office supply store making big & BIGGER prints followed by loops of blue tape (doesn’t remove paint or wall paper – usually) can transform even a grey room into healing JOY.

As I stumbled out of bed this morning, headed to the bathroom, I spotted Living Juicy: Daily Morsels for Your Creative Soul,  opened it up & was stopped in my tracks by the April 13th page, a shout out to “Express your truth.”

What is true for you? Your experience of the truth is dramatically important and needs expression.  Only you can reveal your truth.  Aha!  The truth can sometimes feel so terrifying – especially to listen to those inner voices that speak the loudest.  I am still learning a lot about my truth in so many ways.  I can now allow my truth to become known…”

The amazing Lori Soneson Odhner (surely a soul sister of SARK’s) recently shared the following –  “Some people suggest that there are only two options. Get divorced or stay in an unhappy marriage. We promote the idea that you can make your marriage better,” inspiring ME to post, “during my first conversation with john – – lasted five hours, or still ongoing, depending on your pov – – we tsked-tsked about people who seemed to throw in the towel when relationships got rocky rather than work on them. 28+ years into our marriage, we still have moments when it feels like our relationship is crashing, but we use the arrgghh like a flashlight to spot problems needing attention. we choose the third option – make it better.

Reading SARK, thinking about Lori, created the aha moment of realizing that the great gift given to myself & my hubster is our ability to express to each other our truth.  John said it, soon after our engagement, spoken with awe & amazement – “I can tell you ANYTHING.”  At the moment, I was undone with the awwwwwwe his comment stirred in me.  It took until now to realize that he felt safe being open to me with HIS truth.  Even if it disagreed with mine, it would be respected & honored, even when it wasn’t shared.

We didn’t need to learn to do that, it came as naturally as breathing.  Maybe it was because, at 37 and 43, we’d learned a thing or two about human nature & divine spirit.  Or maybe we would have been that way had we fallen head over heels at 17 & 24.

Expressing our truth is what I mean by using the arrgghh to flash light on problems that need attention.  Take John & the cushions – his truth is that he likes to sleep with his feet atop a tower of cushions & pillows  (it’s good for circulation/blood pressure).  That’s both his truth & medically sound.  BUT my truth is that one of the things that served us well in our marriage is twining untwining retwining our feet as we sleep through the night.

Not realizing that the lack of podiatric intimacy was becoming a canker in our relationship, I collapsed recently into a heap of wet soggy frustrated tears punctuated by yelps of despair.

After John settled me down, drying my tears & kissing away my yelps, we used my arrgghh as a flashlight, discovering that well over a year of John heaving his feet atop his pile of pillows also kept the two of us on our separate sides of the bed.  I’d tried to solve the quandary last year, putting MY feet up at the same elevated plane, only to find it caused painful problems with my lower legs (due to weirdly jointed knees).  An unhelpful bit of truth.

By last week, it was clear that what might seem like the small problem of no more feet snugging was having a big effect on our core emotional connection.  John decided it was healthier for our marriage to stick with the elevation after I get up (at 5:15 a.m., long before John).  He was astonished at how more soundly he sleeps with his feet back at bed level, often snugged up next to mine – the elevation that helped his BP played havoc with his REM sleep.

We came to a solution thanks to listening to & respecting each other’s truth.  That doesn’t mean it always turns out that way, but it’s pretty astonishing how many times we get there.

Am smiling, thinking about going to church.  I was raised by parents who put faith & church at the heart of our family.  Going to Sunday services became an important part of expressing my beliefs,  powerful as a connector to teachings, rituals & community in ways that went way past doctrine.  John was raised by parents who did not steep him in religion, but his strong yet tender grasp of spiritual principles exceeds mine – they just lack the language to describe them, making them all the stronger.

Because he loves me, my Keet went with me to Sunday church services.  Trying to find one that clicked with both of us, we tried this one, then that.  Each was okay, but something wasn’t… something.  Then this past summer, just before our 28th anniversary, for reasons neither of us recall, we started going to services in a place that I’d never attended, not once, in all my 65 years.  It CLICKED.  Clicked with me, clicked with John – our different spiritual truths now intertwine as beautifully as our feet!

Expressing our truth is the bedrock of our relationship.  After 29 years of loving John,  28.5 years of being married to him, I am able to truthfully tweak his words, loudly proudly thankfully – I can tell him ANYTHING!