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Glenn Takes in a New Boarder

Glenn and I had our annual lunch by the river this week, and to build suspense in advance, he alluded to (over the phone) “big news.”

Before getting to that, though, a reminder about Glenn. Over this past year, radio commentators have dubbed Glenn “The Pranking Dane,” and the “Scandinavian Joker,” while my students refer to him as “Glenn, the Sweetheart.” He is the one who served me strawberry shortcake on our first interview session, and then offered housing to my friend, a kindergarten teacher, who lived with him for 6 months (for free).

Over the years, I’ve followed Glenn to gym class, met him at various restaurants, had tea at his home, met members of his family, introduced him to my extended family, had him over for his birthday (same as my daughter’s), and emailed with him regularly.

Aging Our Way is now published, but Glenn still insists on taking me out to lunch to fill me in on his life every June, like we used to do. It is a sort of year-in-review session, not unlike like the year-end reports I have been writing since the semester ended. (Ugh.) But Glenn keeps his report very entertaining.

So there we were. And, like usual, Glenn brought lots of print-outs in a brown paper bag, to illustrate his year. That included:

1) Two 8 x 11 printed pics of his latest project – a small bunkhouse on his family’s land, still in process; he’s one of several coordinators of this ongoing project

2) A picture of his newest great-grandchild who stopped breathing on day 10 of life and then was brought back to life, magically (eanwhile, Glenn stayed up late many nights filling all family members in by phone and email until all was well again)

3) A printed out joke about an elderly man driving to a late-night alcohol support group,

4) A press release about a local student working on global HIV support whom he had put in touch with his son in Haiti, one of many “matches” Glenn makes on a regular basis

If anyone is in doubt about elders taking control of their lives, this report would help them to see the truth, at least in Glenn’s case.

After presenting these, Glenn then moved to the “big news” which involved housing a middle aged gay man for the summer, whom his pastor sent his way.

The backstory is this: Glenn made an offer long ago to his pastor that he’d be willing to take anyone in who needed free accommodations, after meeting with them. Glenn is a softie, and after meeting this guy, and privately admitting to his own prejudices, Glenn agreed to take him in for a few months. From what I can tell, this guy doesn’t have a caretaking bone in his body (he never offers to help with anything) but Glenn doesn’t seem too bothered by that. Glenn is more bothered that this man “is getting the short end of the stick by not being with women; since women are so wonderful.” Just another day in the life of a generous man and his latest boarder.

Glenn admitted to having less energy these days, but these changes weren’t evident to me. He still jokes about marrying again, reading the latest bestsellers, and getting together with his Tuesday morning Coffee Klatch group (all men) at the diner.

Yes, Glenn is still a sweetheart, and, I’m proud to say, a good friend. Thanks for lunch Glenn.

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Aging + Design: The Inclusive Design Challenge

Here are two fun examples of how my book, Aging our Way, has been used this year, involving questions of aging, space, and design:

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Students enrolled in the Design School at Syracuse University were faced with a challenge: How do we design for an aging population?

They heard from interdisciplinary scholars on aging. They read Aging Our Way. And then they went to the local assisted living center and met with elders…

Check out the Inclusive Design Challenge here.

Thanks to Syracuse University for this wonderful opportunity to think through space, place, and elders as designers.The students were great; I found that so many were inspired by their relationships with grandparents.

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Local public television series Agewise continues this conversation about aging and the importance of place. The latest episode highlights our favorite 97-year-old Dane, Glenn, in his home and with his Tuesday morning breakfast club.

Check out the latest episode, “How to Age in Place.” Glenn and I are featured 21 minutes in.

Thanks to Albany Guardian Society for inviting us to be part of this great series!

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Continuity Across A Life: Sexuality

IMG_0019Yes I said it. Sexual elder. What’s the big deal?

Why do we judge elders who are sexual beings, when we know that continuity across the life course can be a lifeline?

Talking with the producers of an upcoming public television series on aging, I got the distinct sense that aging and sexuality wouldn’t be a topic of focus for their five-part program. And yet, they agreed that this topic was real, and important. And often forgotten. They pointed out that once an audience can get over the discomfort/controversy, they may begin to appreciate intimacy at any age.

I told them about the book editor who said I was “taking a risk” opening my book with Lillian’s story. (Lillian was a romantic, and she swore that sexuality was central to her quality of life at any age.) And then Glenn jumped in and told them about how his cleaning lady was “casting aspersions on his manhood” so he found a slip at a thrift shop and put it out on his rumpled bed next to his pajamas. After finishing his story (so well told!) Glenn offered to loan them a three-part book series he enjoyed, called Fifty Shades of Gray.

Everyone laughed, but there was discomfort too. Think of the stereotypes. Dirty old man. Cute little old lady. (See my post on Betty White taking on the latter stereotype.) Take age out of the equation and you get an everyday person who isn’t harming anyone, who deserves our respect.

This week, Paula Span of New York times, tells us how hard it can be for those in assisted living, to gain some semblance of privacy.

Glenn and Lillian are living in their homes, mostly independently. But not so for their peers in assisted living. I cannot forget Joseph and Myra, a married couple living in a nursing home, who had to go to the chapel to hold hands.

“How many of us are left?”

At our annual lunch at his favorite cafe by the Hudson River, Glenn usually gets around to the question he’s been wanting to ask.

“So, how many of us are left?”IMG_4024-001

Last year, when he asked this, I was fresh off of the memorial of dear Alice. I swallowed, and told him that about half of the original group of 30 that I profiled in my book were still living. And then we talked about how hard it is to see so many go.

This year the losses were even more personal. My grandfather was one of them. He used to ask the same question that Glenn likes to ask. And he’d want to know about the living – the guys in particular – like how Glenn and Eddie were getting on.

When I told Glenn that I thought only 1/3 of the group was still living (10 individuals), he seeemd to connect with that. “We’re all going downhill,” he said. “I’ll be 97 in two months.”

You may recall that Glenn liked to play pranks to get people laughing. To lighten the mood, I asked him if he had played any jokes on anyone recently. He said no, but he had a big surprise for me. (Each year there is big news of some sort that Glenn builds suspense about.)

Out of his file of papers and pictures, he pulled out a bill for a five-day emergency room stay. $25,000. “My doctor told me my heart wasn’t right, so I had to go to the emergency room.” That was the big surprise of 2014. Luckly, being a veteran meant his bills were paid in full, at least in this case.

Glenn lives for his family. An our annual year-in-review lunch, he brought along a file folder full of evidence of his kids and grandkids’ success, and by association, his pride. There was a picture of a fancy yacht, and an amusing story about his grandson’s summer job cleaning that thing with a toothbrush. Then there was a dog bakery menu – evidence of a job his granddaughter’s boyfriend got in New Zealand. And there was his daughter’s recent book on translating – and a free copy for me if I so desired.

After running through the year’s events, he turned to me and says, “Now it is your turn, run through your highlights.” Uh….. I say something brief and they redirect to questions about his kids.

I imagine his kids must have known something was up when he was wheeled into the emergency room. He talks to most of them every day or every other day, and all of a sudden there was silence. I asked if they came to visit recently.

“All of a sudden, when I was in the emergency room, they all had business in New York. They all came to visit, one by one.”

Now back and home, Glenn resumes his daily calls and/or emails with his children (one in Haiti, one in Paris, one in Washington state, and one in Washington DC. He says he can’t do much, and he misses being active. Walking to the mailbox leaves him out of breath. But he did say that he had his Danish friends over last week for lunch.

Two Heroic Love Stories, for these Dreamy Olympic Days

Glenn, my jolly Danish friend who happens to be in his mid-90s, just emailed to offer me his three set collection of 50 Shades of Gray. The last set he lent me, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, left me immobile for weeks. So this time I turned him down nicely.

And yet, romance seems to be in the summer air, along with the 2012 Olympics, which makes for a dreamy sort of effect. And I have been seeing and hearing about romance everywhere I turn lately, particularly involving the over-80 set.

On NPR this morning, I learned about Lena Henderson and Roland Davis of Buffalo, NY, a divorced couple whose second spouses have both passed away. They recently realized that they still care for each another.

Yes, at 85 years old, Lena and Roland reconnected, and came to the common understanding that they need each other in new and familiar ways, 48 years after their divorce. So they are getting married again and doing it up big this time, with four generations of family in the mix.

Now I’m a child of divorced parents, so I may be projecting here, but I think the coolest thing about your mom remarrying your dad almost 5 decades after their divorce (at the age of 85), is that your family can relive that relationship again, hopefully in a good and healing way. And the family can relax a little knowing that mom and dad now have someone looking after them on an everyday basis.

This story reminds me of a long-term romance I only began to understand at a funeral I attended not so long ago. As we all stood at the gravesite of our beloved friend (about whom I wrote in Aging Our Way), a woman who passed away just shy of 100 years old, I glimpsed a small elderly man off to the side, away from the crowd. When I greeted him and he introduced himself, it suddenly dawned on me, who this man was. He was the the one she didn’t want us to know about. Her secret friend. The one who called and delivered kosher chickens, but never when we were around. The one she referred to very quickly, too private to share more. The only other one who visited her in the nursing home.

That day at her gravesite, I met her secret caretaker. I saw it in the twinkle of his eyes. I’m guessing nobody else was in on the secret, but us three.

So, in these long dreamy August Olympic days, as we watch the youth of the world live out their dreams (or not), let’s not forget the love stories of their grandparents, heroic and mysterious (and flawed) in their own right.

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Actively Guarding Against Loneliness

LonelinessJust this morning, a married middle-aged woman admitted to me that she experiences loneliness. “It is most severe when I am at the mall,” she said, “or in a crowd.”

A new report discussed today in the New York Times, finds that about 13 percent of older adults (60+) say they are often lonely, while 30 percent say loneliness is sometimes an issue.

This may have nothing to do with living alone; 62.5 percent of older adults who reported being lonely in this new study were married. And this may have very little to do with age; the suicide rates for older men are roughly the same as for teenage boys.

Whether one is living alone or in a shared living situation, guarding against loneliness takes skill, reminds Steven Kurutz, writing for the New York Times. And cultivating this skill is important, because, if you don’t, there can be serious health consequences.

In a culture where independence is the ultimate in maturity and success, more and more people are “going solo,” according to sociologist Eric Klinenberg. The surprising news Klinenberg unearthed is this: amidst the obsession with independence, singles work extra hard to be social.

From what I have seen in my research, a good number of Americans in the 85+ age group are increasingly “aging in place” and thus living alone.  And yet, despite what we might expect, they too have strategies to actively guard against loneliness. They cultivate daily routines that animate their days. They change it up here and there. They guard their privacy, and enjoy their social lives.

One nonagenarian, Ann, volunteered for decades at a nursing home, pushing wheelchairs and making conversation. She probably thought “Someday I may end up there.” And she did. And she loved it, because they all knew her name.

Another nonagenarian, Glenn, told his pastor he would like to share his home with someone who needs a place to live, for free. As of today, he is currently on his second boarder. The first was a single mother and kindergarten teacher. The second is a struggling actor.

And then there’s Johanna, a centenarian who loves sitting on her porch, who soon become friendly with all of her neighbors. One day, she called a neighbor and asked if he wouldn’t mind taking her to the furniture store. “I’m tired of looking at my old couch; I need a new one.” And so they took an afternoon to go furniture shopping together.

There are myriad ways to cope with loneliness.  I learned this, and the importance of time for oneself, from the elders I have followed for the last 5 years.

But I also see how they crave human contact, as we all do. And they and others manage to create unique opportunities for contact – by starting informal coffee klatches, chatting at the gym, reaching out to neighbors, tweeting, enjoying doctors visits, or becoming a regular at a local diner.

I have come to see that these strategies for connection are a key ingredient in their long, healthy, meaningful lives.

It is okay to admit to loneliness. We all experience it, like my friend who feels this most intensely in a crowd. The question is, what do you do next?

What are your strategies for connection?

Next time: One lonely student far from home makes a lifelong connection…

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Lesson Seven: Resort to Tomfoolery – Aging Our Way

Wouldn’t we all be better off if we laughed more?

Bill, at 95, believes that humor is the greatest medicine. He stands on his downtown front stoop and jokes with random passersby. He does the same thing at the grocery store and the bank. If he gets people laughing, he figures he’s done his duty for the day.

After reading about the role that laughter can play in health and concentration, one of my students suggested a study tip: take a break and force yourself to laugh (which releases oxygen into the blood), then get back to work on that research paper. Now that’s taking laughter = health benefits quite literally.

The “Pranking Dane,” Glenn, has a slightly different approach to humor. For him, the best jokes are the ones that stop people in their tracks. Like when he put that ladies slip on his rumpled bed, and watched his housekeeper react. He also likes to wear a t-shirt that says “Retired: Go Around.”  (See pic below.) Glenn must be the inspiration for Betty White’s new show “Off Their Rockers,” which is all about elders as pranksters.

Glenn is a favorite among readers of Aging Our Way. They love his spunk, and appreciate his efforts to throw ageist notions back in people’s faces (in fun-loving ways).

Glenn – any good pranking lately?

Your turn: What’s your favorite aging-related joke or prank?

This is the seventh in a 13- post series on living well, adapted from Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond

 

 

 

 

 

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The Author

Meika Loe

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