Channeling Brooke Astor: Could this story be yours?

It’s hard to feel sorry for Anthony Marshall, Brooke Astor’s kid. Okay, he’s 85, but he’s still her kid. According to current reports, Marshall managed to appropriate from his declining mother, before she died at 105, a few zillion dollars that weren’t rightfully his. This despite all the zillions that were. And despite the fact that he had lived quite a respectable life as a diplomat, manager of the family estate, member of significant boards and producer of plays. The judge who sentenced him to one to three years for his transgressions said he believed Mrs. Astor loved her son and was loved by him. But it came to one pretty sad end.

It was a finale — some would say a sobering, Shakespearean finale — to a case that had mushroomed from a family feud over her care into a five-month trial for “grand theft Astor,” as one prosecutor described it on Monday, “a six-year crime spree involving a series of larcenies.”

In the back-story, heard sobbing in the courtroom or often shown helping him through doors and into cars, is Marshall’s wife Charlene. Nobody ever said Mrs. Astor loved Charlene, or vice versa. But the son and his wife come off as money-grabbing ultra-rich ingrates, who neglected, mistreated and swindled the beloved aging philanthropist.

Fascinating as such tales of wealth and intrigue inevitably are, several legitimate questions nag:  When did everything turn sour? When did a son who presumably loved and respected his mother forget about doing that? When did a mother who presumably loved and provided for her son become preyed upon rather than protected? And could the finale have been different?

Never having been on intimate terms with the Astors or the Marshalls, I can’t answer for them. But countless unspectacular versions of filial love gone wrong or lower-profile cases of neglected aging parents  are played out every day, and similar questions nag.  Could some open dialogue, before the parties hit their 80s and their 100s, have made a difference? Could closer attention, earlier on, to the complexities of health care  — and who would be in charge — have made the last years better for the aging parent? Were there wounds that could have been healed, plans that could have been made before dementia and calamity struck?

There frequently are. It’s easier, too, if you don’t have a zillion dollars.

Anthony Marshall Gets Prison for Stealing From Brooke Astor – NYTimes.com.

Taking on MoveOn

I am a certified MoveOn supporter. Though I had to opt out of the e-feeds because my Inbox overfloweth, I have sent money, forwarded news, heeded their messages.

But enough is enough. They are pushing for measures we should have, but won’t get today. I am coming down on the side of those who say just get us a bill. In the words of Washington Post editorial writer E. J. Dionne — in a column today aptly titled Don’t scream: organize:

Instead of trying to derail the process – exactly what conservative opponents want to do – those on the left dissatisfied with the Senate bill should focus their efforts over the next few weeks on getting as many fixes into it as they can.

What we have in the Senate bill is a mishmash of stuff we didn’t want, along with the absence of stuff we did. Ridiculous obstacles to a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion — write two checks every month just so Ben Nelson can get benefits in perpetuity for Nebraska and maybe we’ll satisfy the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the bargain? — piled on top of other obstacles for the poor and benefits for the rich (read: Big Pharma.) But come on, folks, it’s a bill. If we get a bill, it can be improved. If we fail, it’ll be another generation of a punitive, non-working “system” of health care before we get this far again. By then there will be other Joe Liebermans eager to grab the spotlight and claim the power to derail every other beneficial detail. I’ll be dead, but I plan to haunt you.

Dionne points out that the House bill is superior, the two bills will now have to be reconciled, and there will be future opportunities to build on this beginning.

Enactment of a single bill will not mark the end of the struggle. It will open a series of new opportunities. It’s a lot easier to improve a system premised on the idea that everyone should have health coverage than to create such a system in the first place. Better to take a victory and build on it than to label victory as defeat.

Successful political movements prosper on the confidence that they can sustain themselves over time so they can finish tomorrow what they start today. At this moment, rage is understandable, but hope is what’s necessary.

Progressives – don’t scream: organize.

Needless pain, senseless dying

His wife is dying. If she’s lucky, she will be dead before you read this. If he has his way, she will hang on — for what purpose I am not sure, since she is now barely conscious and in terrible pain — but, in his words, she is “not ready to close the curtain.” He cannot bring himself to say the D-word out loud.

Joe — not his real name — called me last night. I am not sure for what purpose the call was either, except he’s quite understandably angry and I was a handy person to be angry with for a while. His wife was a supporter of an organization I serve, as a board member and a one-on-one client volunteer. Compassion and Choices N.CA is a chapter of the national Compassion and Choices nonprofit organization. We advocate for everyone’s right to a humane and compassionate death, which Cathy — not her real name — is not having. We also advocate for changing the laws that ban physician aid in dying, and the right of a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to hasten his or her own dying if living a few more days or weeks becomes unbearable. Cathy’s life is past unbearable by now.

After suffering for several months with back pain, trying chiropractic sessions and over-the-counter medications, Cathy wound up in an emergency room in mid-November, almost accidentally having an MRI that showed the tumors throughout her body. Lung cancer had metastasized to her brain, spine and almost everywhere else. THIS IS A GOOD TIME TO CALL HOSPICE. Joe encouraged Cathy to fight on. She is in terrible pain, and worse than the pain, Joe says, is the difficulty she has breathing, which keeps her from sleeping because she feels like she’s drowning — “but she doesn’t scream out, exactly…” he said. I wonder how heroic she must need to be for him. She is down to 89 pounds.

As gently as possible, I suggested he call one of several excellent local hospice organizations which I’d earlier mentioned to Cathy’s friend who connected us. As a matter of fact, Joe said, he had already called one of them, they’d been over, he was impressed with them. I was almost beginning to breathe myself when he added that he still wanted to talk with the other I had mentioned (Big mistake. Why did I do that?) and had made an appointment with them to come after the weekend. I suggested they would not mind coming on a weekend.

Denial is a perfectly legal way to deal with things, but it should have its limits. If your spouse, partner, child, friend or parent is terminally ill and in unremitting pain, hospice can be the kindest word you have ever spoken. Hospice care IS NOT about “giving up,” or about dying. It is about comfort, pain management, living, peace. It is entirely possible to sign up for hospice care, change your mind and start some newly-discovered intervention later if one should be found. Probably at some point, you will say the D-word out loud. It won’t kill you.

Joe and Cathy are highly educated, financially well off, widely known and admired. He spoke of moving her to their second home nearby where she could enjoy the ocean, and perhaps take time “to say goodbye to her friends when she feels a little better.”

Get smarter before the New Year? Sure you can

Scientific proof is limited. But this space, in the interest of staving off dementia while smartening up the general population, has been investigating recent reports on benefits of brain exercise. (One recent report in this space said crossword puzzles aren’t any big brain deal, which is mildly contradicted by the report below, which proves one cannot believe everything one reads online. Still… evidence is coming in.)

Doing crossword puzzles, reading, and playing cards daily may delay the rapid memory decline that occurs if people develop dementia, according to a U.S. study.

Researchers from New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine spent five years following 488 people aged 75 to 85 who did not have dementia at the start of the study.

Participants were tracked for how often they engaged in six endeavors: reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, having group discussions and playing music. Almost 1/4 of them developed dementia (that’s the bad news) during the study period. But the more engagement, the slower the decline.

Denise Park, PhD, founder of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas and a panelist on the recent brain fitness segment of PBS’ Life (Part 2) series, argued against crossword puzzles in this space (Can You Beef Up Your Brain, 12-09-09.) The social component (think tackling a new dance step) of brain exercise, she and many others maintain, is critical. Or the multi-layered element involved in learning to play a musical instrument or taking up photography — Park believes those sorts of endeavors will always beat crossword puzzles and solitary computer games.

Now comes Kathryn Bresnik of ProProfs.com. Bresnik isn’t quite ready to assert that you can improve your cognitive function right this minute by playing online brain games, but she cites a recent report (by Mary Brophy Marcus in USA Today) that the movement is gaining traction:

Computer games have been inching their way into the medical world over the last few years and though your local hospital may not become a mini-arcade, experts say patients can expect to see more gaming in medical settings in the years to come, especially brain games.

That report covered a recent Games for Health Conference in Boston, which for the first time featured a day of sessions specifically focused on gaming and cognitive health, and presentations by researchers from such mildly disparate sites as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment. (Pick which to believe.)

For the past two days, since being alerted to ProProfs.com, I have been sneaking over to their game page, doing things like the Family Word Search or the Quick Calculate math one. Being an admitted novice to computer games, I found it pretty nifty to have that little voice telling me That. Is. Correct. when I did something right, and presenting instant tallies of time and scores.

So, okay, I haven’t made it into the top 50 for this week, and the games I chose are probably designed for 7th graders rather than 70-somethings. But here’s the thing: Every day, my scores are just a tiny bit better. This seems proof, albeit slightly anecdotal, that I am getting smarter. You may want to give it a try. If I can get smart enough to embed the game that the site tells me I can embed into a blog, it will be done at a later date, and perhaps we can poll True/Slant readers for increased cognitive function.

One caveat: While you are doing computer games, you cannot be doing dishes. Or writing blogs, for that matter. Smartness has its price.

via A crossword puzzle a day may delay dementia – Aging- msnbc.com.

Stress, sorrow and depression – – the dark side of the holidays

Win McNamee/Getty
Win McNamee/Getty

The photo on the front page of the Sunday New York Times tells the ultimate underside to holiday joy: a young woman, Sarah Walton, with her arms around the tombstone of her husband. The scene is in Arlington cemetery; the simple stone reads LTC James J. Walton and lists the parameters of his brief life, 1967-2008.

In households and hotel rooms everywhere, sadness and loss color the holidays gray. Most of the sadness is of a far lesser sort than that of the grieving widow, but just as real: relationships gone sour, bills that can’t be paid, health that can’t be restored — or the old, familiar pains of too many demands and too little time.

At my San Francisco church, a ‘Blue Christmas’ service was started four years ago by Associate Pastor Catherine Oliver, designed for those who struggle under the weight of everyone else’s festive spirits. Some of the faces she sees are familiar, but many belong to strangers seeking comfort or relief. This year, Oliver reports, attendance was not notably higher — “but there were more men.”

Acknowledging the stress and depression that so often accompany the Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s Day season, the Mayo Clinic recently posted a few tips to help bring a little peace and joy into the season. They are summarized here, in categories found to be common.

First, Mayo Clinic recommends, recognize holiday triggers so you can disarm them before meltdown occurs. Most common among these are:

Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify — especially if you’re thrust together for several days. On the other hand, facing the holidays without a loved one can be tough and leave you feeling lonely and sad.

Finances. With the added expenses of gifts, travel, food and entertainment, the holidays can put a strain on your budget — and your peace of mind. Not to mention that overspending now can mean financial worries for months to come.

Physical demands. Even die-hard holiday enthusiasts may find that the extra shopping and socializing can leave them wiped out. Being exhausted increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. To top it off, burning the wick at both ends makes you more susceptible to colds and other unwelcome guests.

The good news is that even with the worst of causes, holiday blues can be lessened. Most effectively by following a few good recommendations such as these:

Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.

Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

Be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can’t come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videotapes.

Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.

Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone’s name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.

Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.

Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity. If it’s not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

Don’t abandon healthy habits. Don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.

Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.

Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

None of the above can bring back a loved one, or make a new job appear. But perhaps they can help you through to a better and brighter New Year.

Stress, depression and the holidays: 10 tips for coping – MayoClinic.com.

Forget Barry & Tiger. Cal Ripken is still my hero

Today’s news says it’s all over for Barry. A lot may be over for Tiger, since Pepsi says their eponymous drink will be canned — or not canned, as the case may be. Still, it’s hard to feel terribly sorry for either of them. Barry never showed much affection for his fans, and Tiger apparently didn’t have enough affection for his family to keep them out of the sordid spotlight. But I suspect neither will wind up in the poorhouse unless they find new ways to abuse the public trust. For Barry, today’s news, reported by John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle, just looks like a confirmation of last year’s news:

Barry Bonds’ agent finally acknowledged Wednesday that the home run king is done playing baseball.

‘It’s two years since he played his last game, and if there was any chance he’d be back in a major-league uniform, it would have happened by now,’ agent Jeff Borris told The Chronicle. ‘When 2008 came around, I couldn’t get him a job. When 2009 came around, I couldn’t get him a job. Now, 2010 … I’d say it’s nearly impossible. It’s an unfortunate ending to a storied career.’

I’m just not sure it couldn’t have had a happier ending. If, perhaps, he had seemed to care more about the fans who made him rich and less about the stuff he was stuffing into his body in the presumed interest of getting richer. Maybe Tiger can find a happier ending, if he gets his act together before he hits retirement age himself; golfers don’t hit it quite as early.

There is a caveat which should be entered here: 99% of my sports information comes second hand from my husband, who has the uncanny ability to read complex books and magazines with one eye while digesting unbelievable hours worth of every known sport on TV with the other. But who didn’t follow, first-hand, the steroid saga of Mr. Bonds? And who could possibly be missing all the interminable coverage of the Woods family tragedy?

For a while I occasionally watched Barry Bonds do magic at the plate, and for a while he made such an attractive hero. I never saw Tiger except on the small screen, but at first he seemed such an attractive hero. So now I’m left feeling just a tiny part of one more national betrayal.

But here is the good news: Cal Ripken will be in Secaucus, NJ at the World Series MVP and Heroes Show on December 12.

Let’s all go to Secaucus.

Can you beef up your brain?

Not multi-tasking fast enough? Trouble concentrating? Worried about memory loss?

Maybe those neurotransmitters in your poor, information-overloaded brain can be expanded to improve these functions… and maybe not.  A panel of experts on the PBS series Life (Part 2) is tackling the topic of brain exercise — a topic which has been tackled in this space several times in the past (How’s your brain fitness today, 10/5; Diet, exercise and Alzheimer’s, 11/28.)

We talked with panelist Denise Park, PhD, founder of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas, who starts right out by debunking any notion that those crossword puzzles will keep you sharp: [youtubevid id=”xZBzZZJHic0″]

But all is not lost. Jigsaw puzzles could indeed help. “With jigsaw puzzles you’re manipulating materials,” Park comments, “and actively puzzle-solving; what we call executive function.” This may explain — though only in part — the brilliance of British novelist Margaret Drabble, whose new memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet is subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws; although my own personal history with jigsaws unfortunately hasn’t enabled me to write like Margaret Drabble.

It is the combination of functions that stimulates, and perhaps enhances, those brain cells, Park explains. She recommends doing something both stimulating and fun: dancing (“I believe the social component is important”), learning to play a musical instrument, etc. — in which motor, auditory and other systems all come into play. Or taking up something like photography, with which one masters one step and then moves on to the next.

“I’m reluctant to prescribe anything to improve cognition,” Park says, “because we don’t know yet. We need to know a lot more.” Still, current findings — Park’s Center is doing fascinating work with aging citizens who are learning to quilt — are heartening, and anecdotal evidence about those of us reciting lists of numbers to each other and then trying to do them backwards, as suggested by the SharpBrains people, suggests that hilarity is good.

And the best news may be that computers aren’t the be-all and end-all here. Park suspects that sitting in front of a computer playing games, even games advertised to stimulate the brain, may have no great brain-building value at all.

So this space advises getting out the dancing shoes or the mandolin, inviting friends in to play numbers games — and maybe buying a giant jigsaw puzzle (for two.)

New cancer insights from man's — and woman's — best friend

Lessons on love and fidelity have long been learned from the canine kingdom; now add cancer and aging.

The Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation, a not-for-profit research foundation headquartered in West Lafayette, Indiana, has a mission “to accelerate medical progress in the fields of cancer treatment, cancer prevention, and aging,” and is coming up with useful data through studies of pet dogs. (The center was named posthumously, after his untimely death, for founder Gerald Murphy, developer of the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test that remains the gold standard for early detection of prostate cancer.) Most recently comes news of discoveries made with the help of Kona, a Rottweiler who is getting along in years herself. It was reported last week on MSNBC by by Anne Marie Tiernon of WTHR-TV.

There are new clues about why some of us live longer than others. A new study of dogs has revealed a new role for the ovaries. Ovaries produce eggs and hormones and also have a primary role in bearing children. But the study in West Lafayette points to a larger ovarian ecology, meaning the ovaries have a role in how long we live.

Kona, a 13-year-old Rottweiler from Cleveland, has achieved exceptional longevity for her breed. Most live about nine years. Data about Kona and 304 other Rottweilers was collected and analyzed at the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation.’We are trying to find ways to promote exceptional longevity in pets and people,’ said Dr. David Waters, DVM PhD. director of the Exceptional Living Studies Center.

In combing through the dog data, the Center’s researchers found links between ovaries and a long life.

‘To reach exceptional longevity is to live about 30 percent longer, similar to the difference between a 100-year-old person and a person that would only live, let’s say, 72 years,’ Dr. Waters said. So we are talking about a big difference and that keeping ovaries longer was associated with an increased likelihood of reaching exceptional longevity.’

Being a female, Kona was born with a 2-to-1 advantage over male dogs to reach her 13th birthday.

‘But the interesting part was when we take a look at the dogs who lose their ovaries, the females who lose their ovaries in the first four years, now the female survival advantage disappears,’ Dr. Waters said.

Dr. Waters, whose research work has extended to a variety of complex issues relating to cancer and aging, sums up the bottom line for women:

The takeaway from these studies, including the one with Kona? That doctors and women will pause and question the routine removal of ovaries during a hysterectomy. In the United States, the standard practice for decades has been to remove the ovaries during a hysterectomy to prevent ovarian cancer and maybe some breast cancers that are estrogen-fed.

The findings are something new to add to your plus and minus columns when making a decision with your doctor.