Becoming REAL (rough draft)

The following is the first draft of our talk next month to the Jenkintown Kiwanis.  It is very much a work in progress!

Becoming REAL

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ignition, Take Off

Yikes!  Launch Day has arrived!  Am still a total novice at WordPress, but decided to let my rocket take off, even if in very primitive shape & stage.

Am very much partnering in this endeavor – as I do in all my work with older friends – with all the awesome oldsters elders ancients whose paths I’ve been blessed to cross.  First & foremost, my mother, Katharine Reynolds Lockhart.

Friends & pleasant acquaintances would often say to me, “Well, I’d have my mother live with me, too, if we got along as well as the two of you.”

The reality is that we did NOT mesh well.  Among our many challenges, was our similar dissimilar natures:   we were ALIKE in very visible ways – love of family & friends, love of church school community, love of a good party & always ready for a celebration, BUT when it came to things that lead to peace in the home – how we defined family, what we expected from ourselves & others, how we interpreted the similar terms we used – we were poles apart.  It was difficult, challenging & I came darn close once to a breakdown, BUT WE MADE IT WORK.

My deep personal belief about families – we are created to be tribal.  Sadly, it feels like everything in our current culture works against that, leaves us separated, not receiving the support we are meant to be giving & getting across the ages.  It’s not meant to be easy – it’s meant to draw all of us closer to wisdom.

What a forever blessing that John & I were able to pair up to give both of our mothers the sort of aging upward that suited them best.  My O Best Beloved & I were as well-suited for providing care & support to our long-widowed mothers as we are for doing the same with each other.   FYI ~ you can’t plan for that sort of connection, like there is some secret sauce that will cook up the sort of connect that made it possible to pamper the Moms;  we both acknowledge it’s in Greater Hands than ours.  (My not-organized-religion hubster blew my socks off when he told me, “You didn’t plan this & I didn’t plan this, but SOMEONE planned it!!”)  Praise be, we knew at the time it was a blessing, never ever took it for granted, never forgot to say & offer up our thanks.

Since Mom is my most active, albeit in Other Realms, partner, am sharing this launch post with her.

Background:  Mom became active on the internet in the late 1990s.   She started because there was a lively discussion taking place in our church organization, with Mom agreeing with points held by very different camps.  Born at the very tag end of the Gilded Age, she was pretty daunted by computers but she really really really wanted to be part of the to & fro.  So, since the computer studio was right next door to her bedroom, Mom would haul a chair into the room, sit next to me & dictate as I transcribed.  As she would say, “It war a pleasure!” to help.  Mom was open to accessing the wonders of the internet because she’d gone through major MEGA changes since 11/97 & going online; connecting with scores of women & men of all ages who thought she was absolutely the cat’s pajamas, took her stunning evolution zooming into the stratosphere!

The following is an article Mom wrote in 2000 – at 90! – for an alumni journal.  It cobbles together a bunch of e-mails she wrote to a devoted & ever-growing dist list (her version of blogging, which was still basically unknown – she would have taken to it like a duck to water).  Enjoy!

 

THE VELVETEEN GRAMMIE

Margery Williams’  classic story, The Velveteen Rabbit+, includes an exchange  between two nursery toys, the Skin Horse and the Rabbit, who has asked the horse, “What is REAL?”  The Rabbit wants to know if it happens all at once, like being wound up, 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 people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your fur has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and  very shabby.  But those things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real  you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

 I 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.

 It’s said that timing is everything.  The issue of aging is no  different.  From the  mid-1960s to recently, the culture in the USA did not  give much value to older people.  The times today are a’changing as the  generation of revolutionaries who declared “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” now  find themselves eligible for AARP* membership.  I have found that the voice of wisdom is increasingly sought out by a generation that has no intention of becoming invisible or going softly into that goodnight.

When I was a young whippersnapper of 50 and 60, I did not think much about  what life would be like if I lived to be a ripe old age.  If I had, it would  have fallen short of the mark, nowhere near what my experience has been,  especially as I tripped the “old”ometer into my nineties.

 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.

Looking back, the toughest years were when my energies were beginning to flag  and my body started slowing down.  The proprium – sense of self –  feels  threatened  as it becomes clear that an individual is far more than just the  sum of physical parts. To get to the light, we have to work through the  darkness.  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.  Ideally, the concepts of physical being, of time and relationships,  are liberated as we get older and older.

 My own awareness shifted when I suffered a small stroke late last September.

That small stroke speeded up the process.  My mind feels strong, my spirit  feels strong.  As my body continues to head south, it no longer has the  energy  to kick up a fuss about being temporary or to even try to fake being  permanent.  My feet drag somewhat and I move a lot more slowly than I did,  but most days my spirit soars,  making itself felt more and more.

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, gong 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 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. 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.

 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 timebound prejudices and expectations.  Many women of my generation  anchored our identities on others,. those we took care of and nourished.  Personally, I balked at sparing time or energy to think and act for myself.  Luckily, I had taken some proactive strides toward becoming more aware well  before the stroke.

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.  I take two strong pain pills a day and I have excellent and open  doctors.  I live in a supportive household with two “youngsters” who love me.  My daughter badgered and brow beat me to think for myself rather than  constantly trying to mirror back what I thought she or others wanted me to  say or do.  She was the burr under my saddle for change, but the catalyst was  my son-in-law, who is remarkably gifted in the ways of healthy communication.

My online “family” brings unexpected and incalculable blessings, fulfilling  in this life the promise that “with thought brings presence,”  all at the click of a mouse.

It is not all “beer and skittles” – there are rough patches. 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!)   Changing roles and  changing identities can be rough, especially on children, no matter how old  they are.  Imagine the upset at finding that good old Mom is not what she  used to be.  That discovery could make even an adult feel like a kid lost at the department store.

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 I write this in July, we are even thinking about putting together my very own web site, which  seems … well, I do not know what it seems, but it does.  Talk about “the times today are a’changing”  ~ I would not have dreamt that I would set foot  anywhere near a meeting of people considering the role of women within the General Church, but there I was on July 8, feeling right at home, sitting  front and center, and enjoying it immensely.

Of course, there is the fear of dependency.  In January, I was diagnosed  with acute degenerative arthritis of the right shoulder.  Nothing can be done  to alleviate the condition.  It will get progressively worse and worse.  Luckily, aside from the pain, the only effect at the moment is that I cannot  get out of bed without a helping hand.  Still, instead of being a custodial  parent, I am the one needing care.  That took me down a peg at first, but  dependency has turned out to have unique blessings.  A passage from the book  Still Here ++ 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 old limiting  boundaries have begun to dissolve.

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.  Picture going to a favorite restaurant and ordering a favorite dish, only to  told it is no longer on the menu.   There are two choices – get in a funk  over what is not availabIe or grab the opportunity to check over the menu for something new.  My personal menu of possibilities seems like one of the  oversized diner menus.  There are many things that my physical condition  keep me from doing, but there are a lot of new experiences just waiting to be  given a whirl.  On the physical level, life stinks.  On almost every other  level – emotional, mental, spiritual –  the world is my oyster and every  month has an R!

 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.  Marianne Williamson says that to get to the light, a  person has to work through the darkness.    In middle and early old age, life  can seem dark and scary as we move out of the familiar into the unknown.   Work through it toward the light. 

A key lesson learned over the past few years is that even unhappy events can  bring unexpected opportunites.  Going back to Margery Williams book, if the Boy had not gotten sick, if the beloved but germ-infested Rabbit was not doomed to be burned, if he had not been able to wriggle a bit to get out the sack,  if great sadness had not caused a real tear to trickle down his shabby velvet nose, the Rabbit would  not have come at that time into the fullness of being REAL.   

You could say my eyes come close to dropping off (cataract surgery is scheduled this fall) and my physical appearance is certainly getting  shabbier.  Take heart!  This Velveteen Grammie holds the happy hope of one  day being reunited with her O! Best Beloved and – together – seeing the REAL light.

 

 +     The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams  1922

 ++   Still Here, Ram Dass   2000 

 *     American Association of Retired Persons (open to people over 50 years  old)