“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.

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!


Wednesday – Powerful Play Day

Okay, am rested & revived & ready to talk about a delightfully play-filled day that modeled the sort of typical day I hope every human regularly enjoys.

John & I started out our day breakfasting with older friends at a local senior community to which we’ve developed long, deep ties over the past eight years, then moved onto a local library to pick out videos for a lunch feast & film fest with another older buddy (NOT headed out, even on a walk around the property, ’cause it is miserably hot & massively humid),  set up a movie & left my two guys watching Marilyn Jack Tony while I skedaddled over to Feast & Fancy to pick up the lunch yums, back for the lunch & the 2nd flick, grocery shopping on the way home with a blip to the post office, then left my hubster at home feeding the cats & working on a commission while I high-tailed it to Glencairn for a delightful reception in the cloisters featuring old friends & new pleasant acquaintances followed by a presentation on our local college’s IMPRESSIVE building arts program that features s summer workshops in blacksmithing, stained glass, stone carving & mosaics, home to make a totally YUM dinner, a day capped off with John’s gin & tonic (almost as famous as his coffee) & a couple of Pecan Sandies. Oh, and dashing off a teaser about the day that was so rushed as to include nary a single link nor tag.

It was a day filled with friends & engaging conversation that kept us at Rydal Park LONG past our usual adios time (lots of origin stories batted back & forth), good food (from RP’s Wed sticky buns to F&F’s decadent butterscotch cookies to Morningstar Farms’ bbq riblets with mashed potatoes & a toss of broccoli/cucumbers/roasted beets), great films (can’t beat Some Like It Hot & Swing Time), an unexpected mind soul spirit WOW, dashing off a great pre-planned supper that was super healthy & took all of 20 minutes to make & serve, savored some lovely down time with just the two of us reflecting on how the day hit all the high notes of old & new, fun & practical, a cross-section of ages, a play day for all our senses.

The high part for me was bidding our adieus to our film fest friend & having him playfully beseech us to “Stay!”  said it with a sparkle in his eyes & a lilt in his voice.  Not long ago, it would have come from the depths of a lonely, bed-stranded soul, but he knows we’ll be back tonight for an after-supper visit, we’re slipping in another extra Monday visit next week –  while he was sorry to see us go, more fun times are ahead.

He’s the beneficiary of John (even less a techie than I), having to learn how to play DVDs for the two Wednesdays.  Made my heart flutter, John reminding me he needed to learn the ins & outs of which buttons to press, which order, suggesting we log in extra time with our amigo so that he can master it rather than just try to remember what he thinks I said.  He is an ab fab life & business partner!

The primary reason for going to the event at Glencairn was because a friend – Kenneth Leap – mentioned it yesterday as we exchanged greetings waiting to order at Be Well.  I went for friendship & was blown away by how many aspects of what each of the master craftsman does fits into, embodies what inspires me & imbues my purpose of spreading the gospel of play.  In brief – from Warren (blacksmithing), that you need to strike while the iron is hot; from Claire (mosaic), that many little pieces combine into beautiful images & pictures; from Jens (stone carving), that wondrous things lie within, waiting to be released; from Kenneth (stained glass), that it’s the shading of the materials that brings out the beauty of the piece.

It was a day that modeled the ideal of variety, old friends & new ones in waiting, laughter & knowledge, great tastes & textures, expected pleasures & surprising connections.  Although every moment of it was gratis – we not only didn’t make any money, we paid for our own breakfast & treated to lunch – it’s hard to imagine a better investment of our time & energies.  Paying gigs will come in time, maybe force us to cut back on our Wednesday play dates, so we are taking great care to get as much out of this precious time as possible.  These merry moments will not come again – make the most of them.

These Wednesdays don’t make us any money, but they enrich us beyond description.

When we leave the breakfast table at Rydal Park, all of us rolling out of there feeling lighter in spirit & stronger in our sense that life is good & having friends is great ~ ~ it is priceless.

When we scour through DVDs at the Abington Library, looking for a comedy or drama balanced with a musical, when the friendly faces at return/check out ask how he liked last week’s selections, comments on the day’s selections, connecting connecting their energies with ours around his well being & happiness ~ ~ it is priceless.

When the ladies & Eric a Feast & Fancy spot us walking in, immediately shouting out greetings & setting to work making our Wednesday order – two cheddar & havarti sandwiches on wheat (John) & pumpernickel (mine) with lettuce & tomato, a thick seafood salad on white with lettuce & tomato for our dear amigo, asking about when they can expect to see him back rather than settling for take-out –  their happy, caring energies connecting with ours & are included in the order as we head out the door ~ ~ it is priceless.

When we greet the welcoming staff at our friend’s senior residence, then see his face light up the moment we hove into sight, when we feel his unbridled joy at being able to eat when HE wants, rather than having to stick to a scheduled meal time; when we hear the soft sound of his “yum….” as he bites into his thick seafood sandwich, his satisfaction at getting a bag of potato chips all to himself, his anticipation of the home-made from glorious scratch butterscotch cookies that he KNOWS will cap off the lunch spread – – to experience all that is priceless.

Perhaps it is somewhat lunatic that we spend our own limited resources doing things with & for non-clients, but we don’t do the work to which we have been loud & clear called.  We do it because it has become one of our very favorites forms of play, because we have the Universe has outfitted us (separately & together) to enter into it with all of our separate & conjoined hearts, because we derive as deep abiding pleasure from interchanges exchanges engagement – – because making that our vocation & avocation, paid or gratis, is priceless.