Gypsy!

 

It takes the heart & soul of a gypsy to live the sort of life the Universe staked out for John & myself.  Praise be, he’s an artist, so a semblance of that unanchored existence was already part of our dynamic.

If we provided high-end maintenance support, folks would be clamoring for services.  Alas, neither of us are experienced helping older people navigate daily tasks, provide other forms of in-home care.  We rarely interacted with elderly people.  Although our mothers lived to ripe old ages & both saw their bodies decay, their minds & spirits were sharp & their engagement with life keen to the last.  They were old, never elderly.

People often quip, “We want to have you work with us when we get old!” – but wouldn’t think to have us scoot Great-Aunt Molly on a drive or take dear Dad out for a minor league ball game.  At least one woman in our little hometown says she’d NEVER hire us to squire her around because we have too much fun, should do it for free.

Our client list is always fluid & not just because a client has departed us for Higher Realms.  Over the space of four weeks, we lost two sustaining clients.  In one case, the family didn’t consider it worth the out-of-pocket expense.  In the other, the older friend’s family stepped up to the plate – an optimum outcome, just not for us.

One thing we discovered since starting older2elder (just being older doesn’t make someone an elder) is that if people value what we provide, they think we undercharge.  If they don’t, they’d balk at anything.

Luckily, 25+ years in corporate America stands me in good stead in developing work that matters, that people value & give value.  I am not frustrated that some folks think I flagrantly over charge.  It’s of “soft” value, can’t be quantified.  My corporate bosses could grasp a dire problem, but typically balked at doing something that would prevent it in the first place.  Adult children aren’t all that different. 

The same sort of thing that 25+ years ago made insurers balk at paying for at-home care, so people were kept in the hospital significantly longer than need be in order for it to be covered.  Now, covering it is standard practice.   Some day, Medicare will recognize the value of social support as well as maintenance care, but not at this moment.  And youngers tend to balk at anything not covered.  Don’t mean to guilt them, but the same child who sees the need for a sponge bath doesn’t see the value of being socially engaged, if it means out-of-pocket expense.  A pity.

One younger I know, well off if not well-to-do, balked at getting a hospital bed for his mother because it wasn’t covered, purchased a walker with a flimsy shelf rather than spending the extra bucks for one with a seat.  Family members – like insurance companies – too often focus on costs rather than on outcomes.  Hopefully the son will realize, as the insurance company ultimately did, that dear old Mom being able to get up & walk with a good stride & sound sense of balance means less chance of debilitating falls, that a decent walker with sturdy seat will increase her choices of where to go – both will boost her confidence * reduce future care, costs.

We are a couple of gypsies, following the life purpose that courses through our veins.  If that means breaking out a begging bowl to get to events like the International Association of Gerontology & Geriatrics World Congress, we’ll tap into our inner monk & stand by the online highway.  (And offer up thanks it’s in the USA instead of Korea, France or Brazil!) 

We go to conferences, read books, surf the internet, seek out thought leaders because the ripple made over the past years is swelling into a wave that will sweep across the world to our shores, transforming eldercare into a full spectrum of valued services, from in-home care to a wide range of socializing that provides oldsters elders ancients with the options, choices, freedom we all crave.

Options, choice, freedom defines the care John & I provide.  Can’t do much better than that.  At least not if you’re just a couple of gypsies!

Gene D. Cohen – forever in my heart

Will never forget the moment at my first (the first) National Center for Creative Aging Leadership Conference & Exchange when it hit me like a lightning bolt that the NCCA is the child of the great Gene D. Cohen, MD – a man I never met & who changed my life for all time.

There is not date inscribed in my copy of Creative Awakenings ~ awakening human potential in the second half of life  to clue me into when I first came across it ~ my guess is it was well after its 2000 publication date, probably several years after Mom’s 2001 death.  I remember buying it, then not reading it for several more years, so my best guess at when I actually settled down for a read would be around 2007 – ten years ago, seven years before that first NCCA Conference, two years before Gene’s death in 2009, at a mere 65 years old.

I have even less memory of what drew me to that first NCCA Conference.  There wasn’t any buzz on it; the group was an enthusiastic circle of creatives who believed what I had come to see over two years, at that point, of working with Anne Davis Hyatt as our client – – that the arts are the key to full-throttle life experience, straight across the age spectrum & health condition.  Through many years with Anne, John & I saw real-time the impact creativity can have on squashing the heartache of dementia.  It was that new -found, present-moment awareness that lead practically penniless me to an auditorium at the Arena Stage in D.C., looking at a program that featured not a single name I knew.

When I heard one of the earliest speakers prepare to introduce Wendy Miller, no bells started ringing, no lights of recognition started flashing.  Was still, incredibly, clueless as she was described her as the wife of the late Gene Cohen.  But then Wendy started talking, opening up the umbrella in her hand with its under-canopy of clouds & sky, started sharing the work she had done with her husband, the amazing strides he’d made in a too short life & it hit me – SHAZAM!  Everything fell into glorious place – literally, it was like little threads  had been brushing past my face & magically coalesced into a beautiful shawl draped across my stunned shoulders.

Gene Cohen, first in Creative Awakenings & then The Mature Mind, expressed what I had observed over a lifetime of casual & intimate connection with the incredible oldsters elders ancients in my little hometown, particularly with my mother & her WOW! circle of friends.  It made NO sense to me that surveys typically used “65+” to cover all the ages from getting-their-first-Social Security check to centenarians, because I could see, right before me, what differences are found in the years between oldster & ancient.

Not kidding – when I realized who Wendy Miller was, that many of the strangers around me were no strangers to the work of Gene Cohen, I started to cry tears of discovery & joy.  After a lifetime of searching, I had found my tribe.

Gene Cohen looked like a larger-than-life pixie & brought a pixie’s joy of play & dusting of magic to his work as a geriatric psychiatrist.  He famously teamed up with George Burns to produce Public Service Announcements on aging!

His outlook on what my mother described as “tripping the old-ometer” upward was upbeat & optimistic – a radical departure from the too-common prognosis of aging as constant decline & deterioration devoid of any up side.   He was an early researcher into brain function in the elderly, a neglected area of study since young whippersnapper scientists assumed there wasn’t anything of interest to know about aging.

Even before baby boomers were old enough to make studies into aging financially viable, Gene was beating the drums that our brains are ravaged by diseases associated with age, not aging itself, and therefore many can be treated; that our brains are more flexible, that they are more attuned to creativity & blossom through the arts in ways few scientists or people who hold the purse strings to funding suspected.  He showed that the neurons that engage us in creative endeavors are not profoundly affected by the ravages of Alzheimer’s – they follow a different track & can be accessed when others are shut down.

How he would have loved the video of the old man who had seriously declined to a virtually non-responsive state who LIT UP on hearing music – even when the headphones were taken off, he remained responsive & connected, talking where he had been mute.  Gene would have grooved out over the story of Edward Hardy, a 93-year old jazz pianist with dementia who seemed to have given up, whose life changed due to a young activities director, also a musician, who reconnected Edward with music – and life.

There is so much I could write about Gene. It’s an honor to feature him in one of my first blog postings, since I am writing this & doing all that’s before me because of all he wrote & did.  You can expect many more blog postings ahead spotlighting this remarkable man who had every grace except that of years.

I do want to recall the most special moment from last year’s 2016 NCCA Leadership Conference & Exchange.  That first year found us in an auditorium-in-the-round at the Arena Stage; by 2015, the number of participants saw us moving to a considerably LARGER auditorium;  last year sent us to the Newseum!  I think it was the second morning of the conference that found me arriving late, having rushed so much I’d skipped breakfast at my delightful Airbnb.  What joy to discover the breakfast buffet spread was still available.  I’d picked up my bagel & fresh fruit, was pouring my cup of coffee, when I was joined by a lovely woman wearing an shawl that looked like it was spun of the sky.  Her ID showcased not her name, but the front cover of a book – Sky Above Clouds.  We talked about Gene, I shared how he was the one who woke me up to life’s calling.  Several minutes went by before it hit me ~ SHAZAM! ~ that she was Wendy Miller!  And she was talking to ME!

The short conversation & that 2nd awakened moment are with me still.  They will be with me when I head to the International Association of Gerontology & Geriatrics World Congress in less than two weeks.  They are with me always & forever.