Learned about Tai Chi from my big sis!

Mega thanks to my sister, MIM, for cluing me into the power of Tai Chi.  Mind you, I scoffed when she disclosed its remarkable benefits – watching her go through the moves looked like a Saturday Night Live skit, they were so s l o w.  Compounding my disbelief was the fact my sister was doing them in a wheelchair.  Seriously?  How could it make a difference?

Thank goodness I was open to discovering Tai Chi’s rocking powers, especially for people like Mim, whose physical condition left her toodling about on wheels.  And not just physically stronger – – mentally too!

Additional mega thanks to the great Jane Brody for yesterday’s excellent NY Times article on the benefits of Tai Chi – read, learn, do!

An unexpected present – living in an America most increasingly can’t afford

My generation (born 1952), countless before & a couple after were taught from their mother’s knee through grad school that America’s success was built 4-square on having a strong, thriving middle class.

A middle class that began a full-threaded unraveling in the Great Meltdown of 2008, a financial disaster from which the tippy top of our economic strata – the folks who created the fiscal calamity in the first place – have recovered quite nicely, thank you, leaving shredded fragments of a devastated bourgeoisie in its wake, millions of us raised on an American dream increasing beyond our reach.

I came of age during the push for women’s rights, when activists broke through glass ceilings & made 2-working parent households the norm rather than exception.  An age when women worked as an act of fulfillment, in contrast to today when millions work – often well beyond retirement – out of necessity.

In her book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, journalist/poet Alissa Quart reports from the front lines of an embattled & shrinking – disappearing – demographic.  People who are a broken down car or defunct fridge away from slipping into poverty;  individuals, couples, families living precariously on the edge of potential financial disaster – what Ms. Quart describes as the “Middle Precariat.”   Men & women, across the age spectrum, who believed in a good education as the doorway to a good job, to career stability, to the second car in the driveway, maybe a second home at the lake.  Nothing flashy, but a little more than simply enough.  Men & women, retired fired & barely getting by, who now find their jobs could be gone in the shrug of a merger, getting by on incomes that are stagnant (or worse), for whom decent affordable benefits without huge deductibles are as rare as a Screaming Eagle Cabernet 1992.

These are the people, Ms. Quart writes, “Who did everything ‘rightand  yet the math of their family lives is simply not adding up.”

The birth of her daughter, seven years ago, tipped her & her husband – both freelance writers – into a few years of “fiscal vertigo.”  They faced the double whammy of hospital charges & child care costs, but ultimately – for the moment – avoided the financial abyss.  Although Ms. Quart is now gainfully employed as exec editor of the nonprofit, Economic Hardship Reporting Project, she clearly identifies with her subjects because she was one.

Back in the 1960s & ’70s – my high school, college & early career years – the American dream was the afore mentioned 2-car family, vacation home, college for all the kids.  Olders elders ancients found new freedom in the  “senior lifestyle communities” that were springing up, offering them independence & fun in their golden years.  American manufacturing was strong, Coca Cola & Sarah Lee filled kitchen pantries around the world.  Folks might have guessed that “offshoring” was summertime fun at the beach, while “offsourcing” would have left them clueless.

Little did my generation imagine an older age where we’d find “golden ticket” jobs as computer programmers moved to India, gilt-edged positions cut due to mergers.  My boss’s promise, when he brought me on as a public relations writer at Prudential Healthcare, that the position was “cradle to grave” had an early death in 1997, when PHCS was purchased by AETNA, which slashed staff & moved most remaining positions to NJ.

Over the past twenty-five years, the age pegged as “senior” fell to 50, while discrimination against over “senior” employees hit an all-time high.   Instead of the job security our parents enjoyed, even workers in their forties & fifties find themselves shown the door with the hollow “Look at it as an opportunity to reinvent yourself!” only to discover themselves in an age-twisted landscape where ability to forget & relearn is elevated over experience & wisdom.

As one 50+ woman who sought 2nd career, racking  up debt without getting job offers, sighs, “The world has evolved beyond me.”

Can America exist without a strong middle class?  Not if you asked my teachers.  They saw out nation’s success as rooted in the hard work ethic  & deep values that were the hallmarks of America’s bourgeoisie.  Can it thrive in a system that caters to the financially elite, leaving the rest to sink or swim on their own.

For generations – from pre-WWII to post-9/11 – Americans held the “social contract” as sacrosanct.  Get the right education, find the right job, work hard & all will be well.  Sure, we were shaken in the 1980s by the S&L Crisis &  Black Monday  (people watched life savings wiped out, real time, on computer), but all sectors of the economy eventually recovered.  Today, America’s booming economy doesn’t rest on a thriving middle class – per Ms. Quart, it’s “rigged” to shut it out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the few who actually HAS risen from the ashes of fiscal disaster, but mine hit in 2001, when my highly praised corporate career disappeared due to a parental health crisis, 9/11 & execs who loved the results I delivered but were disquieted because they couldn’t figure out how I managed to act outside set norms & get exceptional results.  I was blessed because of realizing on the drive from my old job to an unexpected new life that something incredible was on my horizon, I just didn’t know what.  But I had a home that was paid for, a husband who loved me & no children depending on me for room & board or tuition.

Ms. Quart goes straight to the heart talking about this last point – parents caught in the squeeze  of a flourishing economy, an increasingly shredded social net & precious few full time jobs offering the hefty salaries & generous benefits that were our norm in the ’80s & ’90s.  The people who barely register, if at all, on the radar of legislators who are more concerned about winning their next election than helping their struggling constituents.

We live in surreal times.  My thanks to Ms. Quart for doing her bit in documenting some of the most unimagined aspects of these spaced out days.

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!