Archive for the 'aging with dignity' Category

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.

We Miss You, Kochi-Dog

We were one of the families that adopted a dog just after 9/11. Matt and I were just starting our life together. We had planned to visit my family in India, around our one year anniversary. Instead, like many Americans, we sat in front of the TV in shock. Our trip was no longer possible.  Then we saw a funny looking mutt named Snoopy flash on our TV screen during a public service announcement.

the former snoopyWeeks later, we took Snoopy home from the Humane Society. We renamed him Kochi, after the place in India that we were no longer able to visit. Instead, we experienced our first lessons in parenting.  The dog (like us) was one year old. He was hyper and endlessly curious. At obedience class, we learned that we had to be consistent in our messaging, or all hell would break loose.

Gradually the dog fell into familiar patterns, and so did we. There was something deeply comforting about daily routines revolving around our new (slightly freakish) family member.

Inside the house Kochi displayed the affection of a kitty cat. He rubbed up against your leg, sat at your feet, straddled any part of you he could get close to. After a dog-sitting stint, my mother said she had never before known a dog to wake her up in the morning by rubbing against her bed.

relaxed, but ready to pounceOutside, the dog lost all loyalties. Life in the outdoors was totally governed by scent. Kochi’s MO was find-and-conquer.  (This may go back to his hardscrabble days living on a farm, before we adopted him, and his mixed Husky heritage.) Walking with us downtown, Kochi always sniffed out the chicken bones and pizza crusts hidden under the bushes. The fleeting scent, sight, and sound of a deer running through the park or neighborhood set him off at a fast pace. And always at the most inopportune times, he found and attempted to kill skunks. He must have been sprayed at least 7 times. The most embarrassing tale involved bringing him to a nature preserve and him immediately clobbering a duck (who survived).  Then again, there was also the time he jumped out of the half-open car window (while I was driving) to catch a squirrel; another uncomfortable memory I immediately repressed.

Given the dog’s unpredictability, we wondered how he’d be with a baby in the house. We followed everyone’s advice; Matt brought the baby hat back from the hospital, which he sniffed readily. When baby came home, he licked her face. The baby then became a child who pulled at his tail, teased, and dropped lots of delicious food crumbs. With her, Kochi was cautious, but affectionate. In 6 years only once did he bark at her; when she accidentally jumped on his foot doing gymnastics. The rest of the time Kochi was a gentle friend and brother, utterly patient and forgiving. L became his primary playmate and caretaker, whistling for him to come, letting him outside, and planning his birthday parties.

feeding kochiFast-forward to Kochi-dog’s thirteenth birthday. He ambled up the stairs, after the line of treats carefully set out for him. That year he almost missed the bone at the end of the path of treats. And getting up the stairs wasn’t easy. I started to refer to him as the elder in our house. We compared him to Great-Gramps, the other elder in our family whom my daughter loved dearly. Both were a bit lazy. They moved slower. They had little aches and pains. Both were near the end of their lives. We talked about making sure to give them lots of love before they go.

Around that time, our daughter set up a “salon” in the corner of the living room. Next to the hairbrush and the spray bottle was a pile of rawhide bones. All types of salon customers were welcome, and all went away happy.

Six months lakochi learns to stayter our dear pup no longer lived for food, companionship, and exercise. He walked with pain, barely ate, and slept for longer and longer periods. As my mother-in-law said, “Kochi is only 10% here.” This was a shocking reality, coming from the dog who seemingly had a million lives; he always bounced back. But a non-wagging tail raised questions about his quality of life. And when he stopped eating for good we knew we needed to call his vet.

Kochi’s vet did something extraordinary. She came to the house to help Kochi die peacefully. This decision was and still is especially hard for me. As a hospice volunteer, I help to make human lives comfortable during the dying process. But I never end a life. I was prepared to continue giving comfort care to our dog Kochi. But what was the point, if a few days of pain and suffering could be avoided?

Comfort care at the end of Kochi’s life looked like this: Matt and I peacefully saying goodbye (petting aby the fireplacend consoling), as he relaxed in his favorite bed in the living room, by the fireplace. I say relaxed, because the vet made sure he was drowsy with sedative. But even with his eyes closed, his nose was still sniffing away, sensing that someone new and interesting was in the room. While renal failure and arthritis slowed him down, dear Kochi never lost his curious spirit.

As I write this, I think I hear a deep sigh coming from the living room, by the fireplace. Smacking teeth and deep sighs have for years been part of my writing process, I now realize. During my working at home days, when Kochi relaxed, I did too, and vice versa. And that’s how it was in the end too.

That first night he was gone, we put on headlamps and tramped out into the dark and snowy backyard to find the holes he had dug the summer before. Each hole got decorated with his favorite bones. Later we joked about the squirrels having a field day. Inside, we hung his dogtag on a nail by the door. We lit a candle, and we looked at pictures and reminisced.

For anyonkochi and his devoted parentse who has lost a beloved pet/family member, you know how hard it is. I still want to feed Kochi the leftover scrambled eggs and Matt still wants to let him out at night.  Three weeks later, we persevere, but there is a huge hole in our lives. We talk about missing him; that’s all we can do.

Of course there is comfort in a life well-lived and the gifts he gave. And relief. Today, thunderstorms are in the forecast, and I am relieved that Kochi will never again have to endure that trauma.

Image

Thank you Mom and Rani, Karen, and Anh – Aunties to Kochi – for the fantastic pictures and memories. I will always treasure these.

If you have a favorite memory of Kochi to share, or a story about saying goodbye to a pet or a loved one, all are welcome here, as usual.

By the way, in case there are questions, it seems appropriate to me that my 100th post on this blog about aging with dignity and quality of life should be about our beloved pet. This blog has been a space for me to grieve and celebrate the cycle of life. Writing is one way I process such things. Thank you for sharing in this process with me, dear, loyal readers.

With love, Meika

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“Getting On,” A Poignant HBO Comedy about Aging & Death?

Friends, HBO has a new show, called “Getting On” about the women who care for elder women in a facility. It is a comedic drama. Has anyone seen it? Is it laughs at the expense of elders? I tried to upload the home page to see a preview and it crashed my computer, so I don’t have a review.

However, after hearing the Fresh Air interview with the creators, I now know that it is based on their experiences advocating for their mothers as they aged in institutions. And the ways in which they talked about the beauty of time spent caring for them moved me, as well as their attempts to honor the work that care workers do. And I like Molly Shannon, who is in the show. So there it is.

If you’ve seen it, I’d love to see your review!

Elder Exploitation; Lessons from 2 Unscammable Elders

So far this month I have  heard of two elder women being targeted for scams. Contrary to what we might expect, these ladies proved unscammable.

Their fast reactions contradict the findings of a new research study reported in the New York Times. The study shows that as we age, our brains are less able to assess danger. However, in this case we have a 99 year old who managed to avert a scam.

That newly-unscammable elder was Ruth, who had gotten wise to this type of scam since being targeted once before in a similar way. This time she was on guard. The evening phone caller pretended to be her grandson in great need. “Gramma, it’s me, your grandson. I need your help.” This time Ruth said “Can you please hold for a moment?” and paused to gather herself. When she went back on the line, the caller had hung up.

Similarly, Carol, age 75, recounted how a woman called, and with a kind voice, started asking questions. Carol answered a few of her questions and then managed to ask her own question. “Can I ask who is soliciting this information?” she said. The caller hung up.

It seems as if a stall technique can be a valuable tactic in assessing danger.

The realization that one is being targeted and perceived as vulnerable is a powerful one. I doubt it made either of their days. But it was fine fodder for talk among their friends, and the good news is, that realization will hopefully help them (and their friends) the next time a scam outfit calls.

A friendly holiday message from Ruth and Carol: In this holiday season, when old friends and distant family members may be calling, be on guard for fakes!

 

 

 

An Unlikely Friendship, 60 Years Apart

Erin Knauer and Chandran Kaimal participated in the Digital Life History Project at Colgate University. Here is Erin’s moving account of the strong inter-generational and cross-cultural friendship that emerged from this project. You can see the digital story they made together (honoring Chandran’s immigrant experiences) here.

When I first met Chandran, I saw a kind little old man, who seemed a bit shy and willing but embarrassed to open up to me. He couldn’t really fathom why I was interested in hearing his story. During graduation he touched on this, saying that he had resigned/expected no surprises to come in his old age, that he would not develop such a close relationship since he had formed them all when younger. And this ended up not being the case with our close friendship, which has broadened to include my family.

Our first conversation consisted of a broad overview of his life, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I was. I think the real reason behind this is that I am the daughter of a Colombian immigrant who came to this country with nothing, and eventually, with hard work, made something of herself- a rags to riches kind of story. So I felt we immediately had this base connection, something by which he could understand me, in terms of my identity, (cultural), much better then anyone else I know.

I’ve listened to all my mom’s stories my entire life (occasionally unwillingly), and I love them. Chandran’s stories were very similar in many regards. He told me about his continuous struggles to assimilate, the sacrifice of leaving your family behind for your own prosperity/path, and about his close bond to his children and what he carried from his culture and traditions to them.

From the first session, we talked for hours, finding more similarities in his and my Mother’s stories, comparing their experiences living the American life/dream, and how they raised their children. He could truly understand my perspective on things, my sense of belonging to no place or culture, calling three separate countries home, feeling like an outsider amongst ‘my own’ people, and he could see how that lead me to study anthropology.

The more I talked with him, the more I wanted to see him and spend time with him, since he was an escape from school and gave me guidance. In this way he took on a grandfather role, and he considers me one of his granddaughters. This resulted in a kind of mutual helping and counseling, where he helped me de-stress and begin to believe in myself, and I helped by listening and, on a few occasions, giving him my perspective on something that troubled him. And we usually did all this talking over dinner, which made it even more special and made it feel more like I was coming home when I walked through their door.

In the following semesters we made it a point to meet at least once each time, so we could catch up and he could hear about how I was doing with school. I really wanted him to meet my family, especially my mom, and so the last night I spent at Hamilton before heading home, Chandran and his wife Lorraine invited my parents and I to their house for dinner. My mom and Chandran traded stories over what I had told each about the other, which was quite fun to hear. They also compared their immigrant stories and exchanged perspectives they developed through living as Americans and having families here.

I asked Chandran if he would come to my graduation, for which he most graciously agreed, and so when I came back in May, I came back early and stayed stayed at his house. That gave us a little time to catch up, and in the evening my parents and sister arrived and we enjoyed another wonderful dinner. My sister also hit it off with him and she now corresponds with him, in regards to cooking Indian food. And so our family bond grows!

I look to Chandran as a comforting, kind, and understanding figure who I can talk to about anything. My grandparents died when I was little, so he has replaced/represents them in my eyes. I love the wisdom he imparts so willingly to me, and that fatherly love he has bestowed on me, and I’m so thankful I was lucky enough to receive it.

I hope this answers your questions and please let me know if you have any more. Sorry I made this so long, but I feel this is the least I can write to give an honest description of our relationship. I will keep in touch and let you know how things work out for me. Until then, please continue those life history interviews, because us students need to slow down and listen to the wise from time to time!

Cheers,

Erin

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Goodbye, dear Alice

I visited with Alice twice this December. I had no idea those visits were to be our last.

The first time, I brought along my four year old. Alice was prepared. She hid chocolate snowmen around her apartment for my daughter to find. She entertained with stories – one  about Three Billy Goats Gruff, and another that she started and then exclaimed “Oh darn, I’ve forgotten how this one goes, so we’ll have to do something else!” Alice then gave us bells to use while marching and singing Jingle Bells. Alice didn’t march this time, but she did sing along. And she laughed and clapped. She later said she couldn’t believe how much my daughter had grown.

The next time, a week later, I stopped by to drop off a holiday gift. (The week before I had said I wanted to buy her a sweater. She relented, eventually, agreeing that she loves sweaters, and asking for purple.) Alice ushered me into her apartment and handed me a box. It was full of practical things – tape, car cleaner, band-aids – all 3M products that she found handy. A perfect Alice gift. We chatted for a while.  Like usual, Alice asked about the book, about my grandfather, and about teaching. Then she always listened intently and followed up with fantastic questions; a first-rate conversationalist. But there was more: Alice always gave me the feeling that she was my biggest fan.

That day Alice told me that, with great relief, she finally sold her condo. She laughed as she recounted a funny story, about how, at the downtown closing, she wasn’t able to get up the stairs, where the new owner sat, so the lawyers ran up and down the stairs, with endless papers for her to sign. At the end of the closing, the new owner, an elder in her own right (but not 94 like Alice), descended the stairs and presented Alice with a wrapped gift. Alice was terribly moved by her thoughtfulness.

Both of our December visits we were constantly interrupted by nurses coming into Alice’s apartment to administer eye-drops. She knew each of their names, greeted them warmly, and always introduced me. She disliked the incursions on her privacy, but you’d never know it. She told me she chose this place because “they don’t look down on you; they treat you like a human being.” She herself lived by that mantra. (For more, listen to Alice’s AARP interview.)

On my way out, I walked Alice to the dining room. Alice made a request: “Would you bring that picture of me that looked so good in the book? I think that would be nice for my obituary. I’m getting things in order, and I would love to have a few pictures.”  I promised to drop it by. I didn’t think anything of it. This was a typical Alice move – always organized; always one step ahead.

“We can’t forget the hug, can we?” were always Alice’s last words when we parted.

(See my previous blog about Alice and her strong belief in the power of hugs.)

~

Today I heard that Alice passed away of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve, just two weeks after my last visit. Her lifelong friend, Betty, also passed away that night, across town.  An unbelievable coincidence.

To say that this was an unanticipated loss would be an understatement. None of the people in her life can believe it. Over the phone and email, we all recount stories like “just last week she was…” Sure, we all knew she was 94. But we all thought she was immortal. Or perhaps we anticipated some sort of decline before death. But not with Alice. We should have known.

Alice was the woman who, at 90, had a “whole system for self-care,” a plan that included a hired driver who would take her and Betty out for groceries and picnics.  At 91 she fully orchestrated her move into assisted living, a precautionary move due to increased blindness. Decades before, Alice managed libraries and helped to open the first home for old women in Albany. At 94 and legally blind, Alice felt she still had work to do, adopting lonely souls who wanted to be listened to. That said, she never missed an opportunity to share laughs over an order of grilled cheese on cinnamon raisin bread at the Luncheonette.

Alice spent a lifetime taking care of others, and taking care of business. She prepared herself for the end, but did not wish for it. At 94, Alice was near the end of her “to do” list.  Somehow, the powers that be helped her to finalize things as smoothly as possible. I imagine she would approve.

Still. A life without Alice? Without her supportive questions, her steadfast friendship, her affirming hugs?

Dear Alice, how we will miss you! But, perhaps just as you had planned, we are caring for each other now, and will continue to do so.

Hugs and more hugs,

Meika


The Author

Meika Loe

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