Personal Struggles

Retirement planning – it’s not what you think.

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How do you define using your time in a meaningful way?  If you’re getting ready for retirement – or are already retired – how are you going to spend those 40+ hours you previously filled at your job?  “That’s easy!”, you say. “I’m gonna do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it: sleep in, read, play golf, travel; I’ll have no problem filling in the time!”

Now fast forward a year or two: you’re bored; your spouse is sick of you just hanging around the house; you’re feeling like there’s something more you could be doing; and even with doing whatever you’ve wanted to do, something’s missing. You wish there was more to this long sought after retirement phase of your life.

How do you envision using your free time?

You’re not alone.  The founding Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, Laura L. Carstensen, correctly states in a recent AARP article, that “people are happiest when they feel embedded in something larger than themselves.”  As we all know, we are living longer.  In order to make good use of these added years, we need to ask ourselves what we can offer others in these bonus years of our lives.  Should we continue in what might be our restricted scope of the past: getting by, doing what we can for ourselves and our family, but rarely reaching out beyond that confined scope?  If you feel as I do, that’s not nearly satisfying enough.

What should our lives look like now that most people spend as many years as “old people” as they do rearing children?

How should societies function when more people are over 60 than under 15?

Ms. Carstensen is certain that today’s generations of older people will set the course for decades to come and that “change will happen, one person at a time.”  I personally think that too often we think that any “doing” that we do must be grandiose in scale; or remarkable and newsworthy in order to be worthwhile.  If I felt that way, I don’t think I’d even make an effort to give of my skills, my time and my passion to my community.  Why bother?  It won’t do any good, right?  WRONG!

“If every person over 50 makes a single contribution, the world could be improved immeasurably.”

Is this the sunset of your life or just the beginning?

Think about it: us Baby Boomers have a history of life skills that can benefit so many!  How sad it would be if the engineer, the lawyer, the CPA, the household family manager, the medical professional, and other highly skilled people put those skills on the shelf, never to be used again?  What a waste!  I’m not saying you continue to be that engineer, lawyer, and the like in your retirement.  What I am saying, however, is that your past experience, regardless of its nature, can be used for the good of others but perhaps reshaped into a different form.

The bulk of my employment experience has been in the legal field and the senior housing industry, but at this stage of my life I’m not specifically involved in being a paralegal, or a senior housing manager.  What I am doing, however, is combining those skills and directing them towards areas for which I am very compassionate, e.g. advocacy for older adults, and counsel for those taking care of a loved one with dementia.  You too can contribute to your local community by applying your skills in ways that benefit others and are meaningful to you.  I would be of no use to anyone if I didn’t believe my personal Baby Boomer motto:  Committed to strengthening my community one person at a time –  not one society at a time; not one State at a time, and certainly not the world.  But I can motivate myself to strengthen my community one person at a time.

At what do you excel and what do you like to do?  As an older adult, perhaps retired, you now have the luxury of doing what you LIKE and WANT to do, not just what brings home steady income and puts food on the table.  Whoo hoo!  What a luxury!!!

LET’S TALK ABOUT THIS SOME MORE:

What are you doing now to plan for a satisfactory remainder of your life?

How are others currently benefiting from your knowledge-base and how did you find the new venue in which to share your knowledge?

If you’re retired: How satisfied are you in this stage of your life?  If you’re satisfied: why?  If you’re not satisfied: why not?

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Honesty is NOT always the best policy.

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Bear with me – don’t judge me quite yet.

You are not destined for Alcatraz just because of a little well-placed dishonesty.

If you are primarily responsible for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or other dementia, or perhaps you assist an elderly relative who relies on you for help, do you find yourself telling little white lies?  Do you stretch the truth a bit in order to keep the peace?  Without doing any harm to your loved one or anyone else, do those little white lies help you accomplish tasks on behalf of your loved one, thus improving their life?  Congratulations – you understand that honesty isn’t always the best route to take and you’re in good company.

How do you jump over the hurdles of negotiating with a loved one for whom you provide care?  Here are a few examples that come to mind.

Scenario one: the need to get creative in order to leave the house for personal business.  For example, if telling your wife that you’re going to a caregiver support group meeting makes her mad, sad, or distrustful of your intentions, (“I’m sure you’re going to say bad things about me!”), why not tell your spouse that you’re going out with the guys, and you promise you will be back in two hours.  Then make sure you’re back on time!  If you’re not comfortable with that lie, by all means, every month you can continue to explain how helpful this caregiver support group is to you and how much it helps you be a better husband; and month after month your wife will not understand your rationale and will feel ashamed.  Knowing that you’re going to a support group only confirms how miserable she’s made your life. Read the rest of this entry »

Life can turn on a dime.

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If ever there is an example of how life can turn on a dime, it’s Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ tragic experience.  January 8, 2012 marks one year since Ms. Giffords was shot in the head while meeting with her constituents in Tucson, Arizona.

The bullet traveled 1000 feet per second into her brain and not only did she survive, even her neurosurgeons termed her recovery a miracle.  Is Ms. Giffords back to 100%?  No.  Will she be?  There is a strong hope that she will.  As her husband said to Diane Sawyer when asked if he’s holding out too much hope: “You can’t have too much hope!  That’s not practical!”  In her ABC special on 20/20 chronicling Congressman Giffords’ and her husband, Astronaut Mark Kelly’s journey, Diane Sawyer characterized their endeavors in this manner:

 The courage & love you bring when the life you live, is not the life you planned.

Life turns on a dime in many ways: in relationships; in difficult financial times; and in sickness and in health, to name just a few.

Some of you reading this Blog are in the midst of a life trauma that you certainly didn’t plan, and from which you wish you were released.  What challenge do you face?  Did you see it coming?

One story of life’s changes. I volunteer as a Facilitator for an Alzheimer’s Association caregiver support group.  Every member of our group has a loved one with some sort of dementia diagnosis.  Some are in the early stages, some are in the middle stages, and three in particular recently experienced the end stage.

RRRING!  A telephone rings in the middle of the night and life changes for caregivers gearing up for the Holidays with their family.

In the wink of an eye, life as they knew it took a sharp turn.  It’s the Holiday season and suddenly one set of caregivers hires in-home hospice care for their parent and another caregiver rides in an ambulance with her spouse to a local hospice center because of a terminal change in health.   Within days both sets of caregivers arrange memorial services for which they hadn’t planned at this stage of their loved one’s life.

BANG!  Six lives are lost, and Gabrielle Giffords’ and Mark Kelly’s lives change forever.

Congresswoman Giffords loved spending time with her constituents.  The night before she was shot, she took a long bike ride with a friend and was eager for the next day to begin.  A week later she and her husband were to undergo in vitro fertilization so they could start planning the birth of their first child together.  And those attending this gathering, both staff and general citizenry, hoped for a successful and enjoyable experience.  The bottom line is that you can’t plan for what you can’t see coming.

Oftentimes when we hear of tragedies such as those mentioned above, we naively say to ourselves, “Those are the types of things that happen to other people; not us.”  Well, the truth of the matter is, those types of things happen to people, and that’s us.

Congresswoman Giffords’ neurosurgeons stated that they don’t know where in the brain one finds charm, optimism, humor or charisma.  Certainly no where in the brain can one find sufficient prescience that allows us to see what’s coming around the corner.

No matter how hard we try; no matter how careful we are; life turns on a dime.  And sometimes, the life we live becomes the life we did not plan.

I received inspiration for this article from the caregiver heroes with whom I am acquainted, and from Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly in their book: Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.

Negotiating to Yes

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Negotiating to Yes.

I really appreciate this article by Lark Elizabeth Kirkwood because teamwork is a theme/process that is applicable to so many areas of our lives.  Employed in a small or large company? Applicable.  Volunteer for non-profits?  Applicable.  Family members trying to play on their strengths in a caregiving situation?  Applicable.

Thank you Lark for showing us that teamwork isn’t just for sports teams any more.

Optimism amongst the chaos.

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In the book, Gabby, by Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly, Congresswoman Giffords’ husband, Mark, provides statements about optimism that have greatly encouraged me.  Here are just a few:

  • “I saw how optimism is a form of therapy and hope is a form of love.”
  • “Doctors at TIRR, the rehab hospital, told us that our optimism and encouragement could make a great difference in Gabby’s recovery…”
  • “To be of help to a brain-injury patient, we were told, families need to find a way to balance pragmatism and optimism.”

In a Time Magazine article published December 13, 2011, Congresswoman Giffords addresses the struggles she and her husband have endured as they continue to adjust to the “new normal” brought about as a result of a bullet that pierced her brain on January 8, 2011 when she was reaching out to her Congressional district in Arizona.  So many of us have new normals as we walk, or fall, head first into Baby Boomerism.  This normal may involve a loved one who has a fatal or debilitating illness.  This new normal may be characterized as our own bodily/physical struggles inherent with our age.  Each of us have some sort of chronic something-or-other that inhibits our ability to function at 100%.

What is the chronic something-or-other that inhibits your ability to function at 100%?

The above question is a rhetorical one.  Neither myself nor the public need to know the specifics – but you know the specifics and you’re the one making long-term adjustments as a result.

What processes do you follow to unearth the optimism that exists somewhere in your psyche? How do you overcome your personal challenges so that you end most days victorious, rather than defeated?

My wonderful sister, on my left, and I at a Napa winery - tasting wine of course! Cheers!

For me, it’s acceptance.  For me, acceptance doesn’t mean giving in or giving up; rather, acceptance means being o.k. with how things currently are and finding ways to succeed within that new normal.  This mentality or attitude is more optimistic than you may think.  Again, for me, I  decided to allow optimism to nurture the hope that oftentimes is buried deep within me.  Things could very well change for the better –  which doesn’t have to be defined as being 100% problem-free.  Nope.  If I garner optimism at the start of each day, I’m making a conscious and aware decision to acknowledge and celebrate even the smallest of victories that might occur in the next 24-hours.  If I wait for a humongous, star-spangled mega-victory, I may wait forever.  Instead, I attempt to be aware of even the smallest improvements/goodnesses in my day so that my life is filled with many victories to celebrate.  The previous sentence says that “I attempt” to garner optimism throughout my day.  I don’t always succeed – but I try.

What small victory can you celebrate today?

What works for you? The rest of us would love to celebrate that victory with you.

Senior Citizens are NOT children!

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An epidemic has taken hold of this Nation.  Adults 70 years or older are being infantalized.  Adult children have decided that their parents can’t do anything without their guidance.  Service employees, e.g. restaurants, retail store clerks and the like, feel compelled to talk down to their Senior customers.  Caregivers in long-term care (LTC) facilities further degrade the residents with baby talk.  These residents downsized their living space; don’t downsize who they are by treating them as anything other than who they are: intelligent adults.

Only you can put an end to this epidemic.  If it is not eradicated by the time you reach the Senior Citizen age, you too will be subjected to its horrors.

Adult children.

Mom moves into your house because of a financial or medical reason, and suddenly Mom has no say in what goes on in her life.  Everywhere she turns, her son and daughter-in-law are bossing her around in the guise of trying to do what is best for her.  Mom wants to stay up late reading or watching TV and she’s told she should go to bed.  Mom wants to do this activity, or that activity with friends outside of the home and she’s told not to leave the house because the son and daughter-in-law want to make sure she doesn’t get into any trouble.

PA-LEEEEEZE!!!!!

Your Mom raised you and somehow you turned out o.k.  She must have been a good parent, teacher, guidance counselor, child supporter, you name it.  Just because she is living under your roof doesn’t mean she’s lost her right to have a say in matters that go on in the household.  Ask her opinion from time to time.  Let her somehow contribute to the functioning of the household, e.g. day-to-day participation in household functions, helping you with decisions you’re making about your own lives.  Doing so will restore her pride and make her feel less superfluous.  It’s quite o.k. to be concerned about her well-being – you should be – but you can do so without suffocating her.

Service employees.

My mother with my daughter Erin, circa 1976.

Why is it that wait-staff, retail sales clerks and the like feel an immediate need to speak super loudly to a Senior citizen customer?  In my work with the elderly, I made this very mistake by talking loudly to a LTC resident I had just met.  She finally interrupted me, put her hand on my knee and said, “Irene, I’m old; not deaf.  Please stop yelling at me.”  So simply lower your voice and don’t call her a pet name such as “Sweetie,” “Hon,” etc.  I’ll never forget my mother’s phone call to me many years ago when she was barely over 70 years old.  She went to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles to renew her driver’s license.  After filling out the paperwork and getting her photo taken, it was time for her to leave with her newly issued license.  The DMV clerk then said quite loudly, “Now Sweetie – before you leave, make sure that you have everything with you that you came with.”  My mother called me that evening, both angered and in tears, bristling at the way in which she was treated.  In my mother’s eyes, the DMV clerk downsized her intelligence and abilities and that thoughtless act forever changed my mother as a result.  Please treat your Senior consumers with respect and with dignity.  They know they are older than you are – you don’t have to remind them of that fact with your ill-placed attitudes and gestures.

An aside:

Here I am, 58 years old, with my hubby. Only HE is allowed to call me Dear.

When I was 58 years old, a couple years ago, I picked up some items at my local grocery store and used the self-checkout counter to purchase my groceries.  As I was leaving the store, the retail clerk said, “Thanks Dear!”  A male customer who was older than me also went through the self-checkout at the same time but that retail clerk didn’t say a cutesy name to him!  Oh Boy – she didn’t know what she had just started.  I didn’t make a scene.  I left the store, wrote a letter to the manager and included this blog entry/article with a suggestion that he update his store training to include my suggestions about how to treat Senior Citizens.  He wrote me back to thank me and stated that he planned to provide updated sensitivity training to his staff.  BRAVO!

Professional LTC caregivers.

Oh boy – I see this a lot.  Caregivers who, God bless them, have a job that not many of us would willingly perform – especially at the low hourly wage at which they are paid.  I admire you and I respect you.  You’re a better person than I because I don’t have what it takes to do what you do.  But please address your patients/residents by their given names.  I would even go so far as to suggest that you call them by their surname until they give you permission to use their first name.  “Good morning Mrs. Smith.  It’s so good to see you today!”  That’s a far more respectful greeting than the following:  “Good morning Sweetie Pie.  Let’s get you ready for breakfast, shall we Hon?”  YUCK!  God help the person who addresses me that way when I reach my Senior years.  I’m a friendly person at heart, but I too would bristle at any condescending treatment directed towards me.  (And considering how I reacted to the cutesy name directed at me in the supermarket a few years ago (above) I may not be quite as civil in my later years.)

BOTTOM LINE FOR EVERYONE CONCERNED.  These Senior Citizens with whom you have contact survived the Great Depression and at least one World War.  Surely they have the ability, and the right, to be treated with respect and given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making their own personal decisions.  Don’t take away their ability prematurely.  Eventually they may not have the ability to function independently, but it doesn’t do them any good for you to hasten the time in which that may happen.

Caregiver Guilt

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Do you feel as though you don’t visit your loved one often enough at the long-term care (LTC) facility in which they live? Try to acknowledge that guilt is a feeling that may not necessarily reflect an accurate reality of how attentive you are towards your loved one.

The local caregiver.

Many people have expressed their concerns to me that they’re just not doing enough for their loved one who lives in a LTC facility. Even when a caregiver visits Mom several days a week, the caregiver still feels guilty for not making more of an effort to be there for her.

Guilt is a valid feeling – I believe all feelings are valid – but the feeling of guilt may not accurately reflect what is going on. Let’s face it, most of us are hard on ourselves. The old adage, “we’re our own worse critic” came about resultant from generations of people who unfairly beat themselves into the ground.

At a recent gathering I attended, a woman expressed how guilty she felt for not visiting her mother more often than she thought appropriate. Another person, also a caregiver, suggested that this person ask herself whether or not she felt she was doing the best she could in this situation. “If you are, then perhaps your feeling of guilt is based on emotion rather than reality.” Whether five visits a week or one visit a month – if that’s the best a person is able to do, then it’s sufficient.

Some of us caregivers simply need to cut ourselves some slack. Even when the loved one we’re visiting has no concept of the passage of time and is not able to discern whether they’ve been visited as recently as the last hour or as long ago as last year, we still berate ourselves for not being there more frequently.

Caveat: I need to add that even if your loved one doesn’t a) recognize you, and b) can’t quantify the passage of time, you are still a wonderful addition to that person’s life.  No staff caregiver can take your place when it comes to providing a loving presence for your Mom who lives in a facility. Just being there with a smile, a hug, and speaking words of compassion can do wonders towards brightening Mom’s day.

The long-distance caregiver.

One of many walks my father and I took around his facility

My biggest role as a caregiver was that which I performed long distance for my father who lived in a dementia unit in a Southern Oregon assisted living facility. I felt like I was doing something truly valuable for him while I was there but as soon as I boarded the plane for Seattle the guilt enveloped me. Usually, the first night of my return was spent crying because I felt I had been impatient with him, or I acted flustered when I had to answer a question that my father had already asked me no less than two dozen times prior. I relived every moment of my visit, criticizing this and that about what I did, or didn’t do. I was a wreck. I had to talk myself into believing that dad did have a good time and dad was genuinely happy to see me, and by golly, I didn’t do that bad of a job as a caregiver daughter.

I could then relax knowing that he was being well-cared for in my absence; my visits augmented that care, and I could rest on that fact rather than falling back on my guilt. The NY Times article, Being There and Far Away sheds some light on the long distance caregiver’s experience.  I hope you’ll take the time to read the article as I believe it will touch on some topics that all caregivers may experience.

As I mentioned in my Blog entry, Deathbed Promises and How to Fulfill Them take a deep breath and shed the mantle of guilt you’re wearing. It doesn’t do you any good and it gets in the way of you being the best caregiver you can be.  Cut yourself some slack and don’t be so hard on yourself.

Do your best – that’s all that is required.