The following is the first draft of our talk next month to the Jenkintown Kiwanis. It is very much a work in progress!
Everything I know about the essential nature of aging upward I learned from Margery Williams’ classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. And from my mother, Katharine Reynolds Lockhart, aka The Velveteen Grammie, who quoted from the children’s classic to describe her own experience with growing older:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to those who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
In 2000, a year before she died, Mom wrote to an online circle of friends, “I can relate to that passage. I turned 90 in May. 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.”
17 years after Mom shared that, John & I find ourselves in the vanguard of eldercare evolutionaries, dedicated to helping oldsters elders ancients live as expansively as possible. We think about my mom, about John’s, about his grandparents & the older friends who seemed to surround me as I grew up & the two of us want what they experienced for the many, not the few.
Back when Mom wrote that, we would have roared at the thought we’d be speaking about the promise of becoming REAL. In those days, John was busy with his railroad art commissions, while I was on a career high having been named in 2000 a major financial services company’s Employee of the Year.
Then, in autumn 2001, without warning, life went off the rails; our plans were tossed as the Universe took control, shaking us but ultimately leading to a wondrous path we’d never imagined.
Turned out the artist & businessperson had been eldercare evolutionaries in training over all the years that came before, preparing us to be right where we are now, as we are right now – awake & aware of the opportunities as well as challenges of aging upward in America.
Mom caught how many youngers feel about getting up there in years:
Just as little children look at their parents as really old, not-so-young people can see their own parents as shutting down as we age, going into some sort of benign hibernation.
It is true that 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 rocker? 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.” And 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.
This old biddy believes that the Lord intends us to live fully–whatever our physical or mental condition–right up to the moment we traipse across the threshold of our spiritual home.
Thanks, Mom, for summing up our mission, right there in your last line – to do what we can to help every person experience full lives right up to their last breath, to be the broadest deepest widest expression of themselves possible in any given moment.
That sounds wonderful upbeat ideal – yet with too many oldsters elders ancients, getting them there can be an wrenching ordeal. Chalk it up to physics – a body at rest wants to stay at rest.
In June, an 85-year old fellow in a senior residence – a family friend, not a client – slipped in the shower. He caught himself before falling, but bruised his back muscles when he slammed against the shower wall. He didn’t break anything, but the muscles were bruised badly enough to require a week’s bed rest. Which is all it took for atrophy to affect his legs & fear to enter his heart. Week after week, he resisted the staff’s offers to help him do his rehab exercises & he balked at us taking him out for our weekly meander.
After two months of admittedly yum take-out lunches (thick seafood sandwiches from Feast & Fancy) teamed with double-feature in-room film fests (heavy on Fred Astaire & Audrey Hepburn), John & I said ENOUGH. That Wednesday, we put our foot down & hauled his wheel chair out, taking him OUT.
It was a challenge getting him into & out of the car, but we had a delightful ramble through Ambler woodside, saying BAAAAA at the sheep grazing at Fitz Dixon’s Erdenheim, admiring our favorite steamboat gothic house in Wynmoor, topped with lunch at a favorite diner. The next week, we went through the same drill, having to weedle & plead to get him out. The third – still had to cajole. Then came the fourth – as we walked into his room, he sat upright, broke out in a big smile & a cheery HELLO, swung his legs over the bed. He was ready to roll!
I wish we could say we’ve never run into heartbreaking situations. One of the worst was the mother who refused to do anything with us because IF she enjoyed herself, it would lighten the burden of guilt she laid on her physician daughter for not spending every spare moment with her widowed parent. The wonderful gentleman we had to drop because the daughter insisted we do housework & walk the HUGE German Shepherd because “you work for me.” Or the mother whose children wouldn’t listen to concerns that she seemed a bit more depressed each time we saw her – they were so full of themselves, they brushed away the books we suggested, refused to talk to their parent’s senior residence’s counselor & boasted to everyone about the book they’d write on how eldercare should be done – you don’t want to know the end of that story.
We’ve known some sad situations, but they’ve been rare. People bring us on board BECAUSE we’ve been around the eldering block before, want our perspective. They want us to be open & honest with them about what we see, offer opinions & suggestions if asked, but that the final decision is either theirs or their parent’s.
One older woman particularly stands out. Her family brought us on because of her growing depression after their father’s stroke, just after they’d sold their house & just before they’d moved into Rydal Park.
Outside of our Moms, Anne Davis Hyatt & her family remain the high water mark of our eldering experience. Her situation should have been particularly bleak. She moved into a single-person unit instead of into the spacious apartment they’d picked out TOGETHER
Anne was alone, without her husband, without any friends, with six children who’d never been involved in her care, who loved her but were more like their engineer Dad than their super social Mom – oh, and she’d recently been diagnosed with early stage dementia.
But her six kids swung into action, laser focused on how could they serve as their father’s earthly hands, on what they could do to help their mother feel as fully herself as possible. They researched care options, ran financial diagnostics & kept in close touch through phone conferences. Their findings suggested that pouring money into enrichment could lengthen her time in Independent Care, be less expensive than Personal Care – – AND she’d be happy.
John & I were brought on right off the bat, within months of Kent’s passing, one of three different care partners, each with a different approach & particular strength. We got Anne OUT, Tamar accompanied her to art classes & Bible study, played the piano for her & read aloud, got her over to Bryn Athyn on Sundays for church & throughout the week to visit classmates friends family. The third person, arranged by Rydal Park, escorted her to concerts & movies in the auditorium. Her daughter, Lisa, visited her every Saturday morning & had her to lunch every week after church; her sons alternated taking Mom out to Sunday supper.
The Hyatts used Rydal Park as one of several tools in their kit. By including the personal family community in their mother’s weekly mix, they made the most of each & did their Dad proud – they were, indeed, his hands in this life, making sure his beloved wife was in a setting that allowed her to be her best self.
In her last year, even when Anne could not remember the day or date from moment to moment, she was ALWAYS ready for the next moment of joy. She didn’t remember our names, but her face always beamed when we came around the corner because she knew she was about to have FUN.
The Hyatt children gambled that if they invested in enrichment activities – services not covered under Medicare or LTC – it would extend her stay in Independent Care, delay the onset of further dementia and reduce the amount of expensive, not necessarily all that personal personalized care. This past January, John & I had a rollicking Saturday supper with Anne & several of Rydal Park buddies, six of us crowded & crowing around a table for four. She had Sunday lunch with Lisa, supper with Hugh or Justin. She chummed around with Tamar on Monday, had her quiet Tuesday (what we dubbed her “sabbath”) & should have had Wednesday dinner with us except she took a fall that morning moving the few feet between her bed & bathroom. She was admitted to Abington Hospital, was in good spirits but declining on Thursday & on Friday, after the family was gathered, she was gone. What a way to go!
We’ve been blessed to work with some remarkable families. Anne’s children, who suddenly found themselves responsible for their mother’s well-being & saw their care as an extension of their Dad. The niece who made sure her maiden auntie was getting at least somewhat balanced meals (left on her own, she would have stuck to chicken croquettes & mashed potatoes, no veggies, no water). The clan matriarch who, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, is blissfully ensconced at the family summer home on a New England pond, each week bringing a fresh influx of this child or that, with his or her family in tow, with the last weekend the crowning glory, with as many children as possible descending to pack up the house for the season – Mary would tell & retell those stories straight through the coldest, bleakest winter day & we’d all feel the summer sun on our faces, the lapping of the water on our feet.
There isn’t a category for what the two of us do. We call ourselves playfulness coaches working with all ages, all stages. Eldercare evolutionaries working to radically change our nation’s current woeful culture around the elderly.
We reach to a future we can’t put into words.
This past July, I went to the 6-day International Association of Gerontology & Geriatrics 21st quadrennial World Congress in San Francisco. I went not really knowing my why or what I expected to bring away. It never occurred to me that I might add value to the momentous gathering of 6000+ specialists from around the world.
What I discovered is that what John & I bring, right where we are, who we are, was deeply valued by the men & women I met. I met authors & thought leaders I’ve admired for years & was blown away when they told me how moved they were by my insights & perceptions. It seems they’re so caught up in their specialities, they appreciate getting the view from the trenches.
John & I will always make time for a client or two, will always be there for our friends, whether an oldster elder ancient or their family, but we’ve cut back in order to reach forward. I recently got Cyber Access for the Technically Timid off the ground; CATT spins socializing into social networking, offering a friendly human interface to provide the tech timid with hands-free Internet access – just as I did for Mom many years ago. Have laptop, will travel. And we’re working on a book – That Your Days May Be Long, nurturing a 5th Commandment meme & mindset for our modern world.
John & I look forward to developing new tools for families friends care partners to include in their own kits, to helping them become playfulness coaches. John & I took unexpected paths to this work & we love it. We get to touch people’s lives, to nurture a new norm where oldsters elders ancients look around as they trip the “old-o-meter” into their 70s 80s 90s beyond, finding their hair has been loved off, their eyes dropping out, loose in the joints & shabbier to look at – and it doesn’t matter because they’re still truly madly deeply themselves within each moment, each situation, on track to becoming REAL.
Doesn’t get any better than that.