The F-Words of Senior Housing

Photo by Joyce Huis on Unsplash

Looking for a Senior Living spot for a parent or friend – maybe even for yourself? Here are a few tips to speed the process, in these upside down times when you can’t simply go visiting.

Where to start? There are almost as many varieties of Senior Living as there are seniors on park benches. Or there were, when people could go to parks. The site to which I’ve directed more geezer friends than I can count is A Place for Mom. (Why is it always mom? Well, sorry dads, but we seem to outlive you by a long shot.) This site, though, has a wealth of short-form information to help you home in on the sort of place you’re looking for.

After the basics – cost, location, availability etc – all you need to consider are the three F-words. The promotional stuff really doesn’t tell you about the F-words. In essential order of importance they are:

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Food. Interest in food increases exponentially with age. At my own geezer house (call these places what you will, I call mine the geezer house) we have a four-star chef. Presumably the salary and benefits here are good, because the job has to be about as much fun as being a Trump appointee. Somebody wants ethnic, somebody wants more garlic, somebody else wants bland and tasteless. Too much spice! Not enough dessert variety! More light choices! You get the picture. So ask about the food. Ask whether there’s an onsite chef or an outside food service. If meals are contracted to a supplier, you or your geezer friend/relative may not love the food. Weekly entrées repeated throughout the month? Not wonderful. Get specific with your food questions.

Frivolity. Almost everywhere promises eternal happiness through crossword puzzles and arts-&-crafts. Almost everywhere advertises elegant-looking dancing couples. Don’t believe it. Ask for pictures of the onsite library. Ask about the fit with what you or your geezer enjoy: Symphony & opera – assuming we eventually get those chances? Find out if the facility has regular transportation to such events. Nature walks? Find out if there are arrangements for hikes or offsite exercise. Socialization? Find out what the real opportunities are, not what the pretty pictures in the brochures suggest. Preferences about all of these don’t magically change on moving from a regular neighborhood to a “senior community.”

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Fire drills. Every city or county has safety regulations. Equal parts important and invasive. Once you move into a geezer house your safety is in its hands, and it’s not always pretty. Ask for details. Some places (mine included) have unannounced fire drills. As far as I know, no one has ever died of a heart attack by being blasted awake from a nap by the most god-awful shrieking noise you’ve ever heard, generally followed by instructions to remain calm. But I’ve come close enough that we now have an agreement that they alert me ahead of time so I can arrange not to be at home. Try to find out what invasive procedures are in place for staff to enter an apartment without prior permission. It may well be necessary (Is Mrs. Jones OK? She hasn’t been seen today . . ) but it’s one more major change to face, and geezers don’t do change any better than the next person.

Here’s to the day when we all emerge from virus hell, and explorations in real time render a focus on the Senior Housing F-words unnecessary.   

What If Your Grandmother Simply Wants to Die?

“Is this living?” she asks me. And then again, the words that are hardest to hear, “I just want to die.” This from a greatly beloved cousin of mine, someone I have known my entire life. She is now 93, widowed for 12 years, living comfortably in an assisted living community in upstate New York, relatively healthy for her age.

Maybe you recognize your grandmother in her? At almost every turn, if you turn around among today’s retirees, chronically ill or elderly, there is this strain of despair. Bits of it were always there, particularly among the “old-old” as over-80s tend to be categorized. But add the isolation of quarantine, and questioning the value of living gets to be a pandemic in and of itself.

In my own independent/assisted-living building there is a 96-year-old retired college professor, a nationally recognized poet and writer, longtime radical activist who now shares my cousin’s despair. Her son comes every other week from his home a two-hour drive away, but more and more she feels it’s only out of a sense of filial duty and must be burdensome to him. Because both her sight and her hearing are diminished she can no longer write – or even read without a struggle. If others try visiting, to read to her or perhaps listen to favorite music to create a small break in the monotony, “it just feels artificial,” she says. “Everything feels artificial. I am just existing here, a prisoner in my own apartment.”

Photo by Gabriel Santos Fotografia on Pexels.com

These are women (and occasional men) whose lives were made meaningful by trips to the symphony, or a lecture, or even to the grocery store. A surprising number of them, including my cousin, were activists; they are the ones now writing letters and postcards to representatives – or to voters. But they are also the ones with diminishing sight or arthritic fingers, and up pops one more reason not to want to live any more.

So how to find meaning, some reason for living? For many there are ‘daily inspiration’ type services by the zillion, available to send messages by phone, text or email as frequently as anyone might ask. I’ve talked with several dozen people while putting together this essay, men and women both, who say their daily messages from religious sites, astrologers or you name it brighten their days and often bring meaning in these isolated/isolating times. (Some of them are re-reading the Torah, the Bible or the Quran.) Unfortunately, neither my cousin nor my friend in this building would be a candidate for inspirational messaging of any sort.

But for almost anyone, telling her story can turn into a reason for living – and more. As the memorable song in “Hamilton” goes: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Telling it yourself gives you editorial control, if nothing else; if you’re old and isolated it might give you much more. There’s a site called StoryWorth on which one can sign up one’s grandmother for a fee. Every week, StoryWorth sends a question like “When did you buy your first car?” or “What was your childhood home like,” things of that sort. Grandma reminisces about the question, perhaps attaches photos of the old home place, and hits Reply. At the end of the year, StoryWorth (this is not a paid plug; there may be similar sites but I couldn’t find them) puts it all together in a book for the family.

I bought my cousin a cassette recorder. Yes, they’re still on the market. I’d initially thought to get her a digital voice recorder (those who have iPhones need nothing more) but her son suggested that anything digital might be too bewildering. Along with the recorder I sent a converter device, into which her son can place the cassettes and morph them into thumb drives or something of the sort which can easily be mailed to children and grandchildren. Because I’ve known her all my life, I was also able to send a list of more specific questions – How did you meet Joe? Where did you go on your honeymoon? What do you remember most fondly about that first apartment (the one with all the roaches)? What were the parts you and Joe sang in the Carolina Players production of “Of Thee I Sing”?

Will it help? Who knows. Her voice has indeed sounded a little more upbeat and she says she’s looking forward to the recorder’s arrival. Those of us who still love life, despite its chaos and quarantine and bitter inequities, generally wish that joy for others. But the population of lonely, isolated seniors grows every day; some of them simply wanting to die. This space welcomes any and all thoughts on what to do if it is your grandmother.

On Parenting Aging Parents

Caregiving1         “I thought I would have a life,” Sharon said to me. “My youngest is now in college, my husband is nearing retirement and we thought we would have a life. Instead, I am juggling time with my father – who’s in an independent living facility but is certainly not independent – and my mother who lives alone in the house she’s had for 40 years. My mother is, how do I put this?, needy. Suddenly she needs help with all sorts of things and I have been designated The Helper.”

It was one of the saddest mini-conversations I’ve had in a very long time. I had known  Sharon for less than an hour. She is 54. She was visiting a friend of mine, and this report came when 6 of us were having lunch at the retirement condo where I live. Actually, other than one sixty-something I’ll call Joan, I was the only one in the group older than 54. At 86 I happily accumulate younger friends as often as possible, since the rest of us keep dying off. My lunch guests were talking about what a good spot I am in, especially since my children all live in faraway states.Caregiving4 That was when one 40-something said, “I wish my parents would consider moving to a place like this; they don’t want to leave their big, three-story house, and I’m afraid I’m going to be trying to take care of them there by the time I hit my fifties. And that’s when Sharon chimed in with the comment above: “Yeah, I thought I would have a life . . .” And Joan said, with a wry smile, “Welcome to the club.”

I have another friend I’ll call Robert, a business associate with whom I’m not all that close. But because he knew I was writing this piece he told me a similar story. His parents are somewhat younger than this octogenarian writer, but not that much. They had what my friend describes as “a rather loveless marriage” for more than 20 years, but when it ended – with his father leaving to be with an old sweetheart whom “he probably should’ve married in the first place” – that was the last time they spoke. His mother later found a new partner, and both parents, though neither remarried, were contentedly partnered for many years. Not long ago, though, his mother’s partner died, and at about the same time his father’s partner sold their house (which she owned) and moved to another state to be near her daughter. Robert’s father “now rents a room in a home not his own — surviving on Social Security and a small amount of work— surprised he’s still here because he thought he would be dead 10 or more years ago and did not plan to see his 80s.” So much for life plans.Caregiving5 “Both are alone and needy now, in different, complementary ways,” Robert says. “If they could somehow bring themselves to talk to one another, perhaps they could begin to chisel away at the layers of resentment, hostility and blame that destroyed their relationship.” Apparently this won’t begin to happen any time soon, however, as Robert tells me they maintain no interest in communicating. His mother lives alone in a home she owns and craves companionship; his father has little money left and needs a roof over his head, a more secure one than the stranger’s home in which he’s been unhappily existing for more than two years now. Robert laments they are in a unique position to help each other, if they were open to it. As their only child, Robert sees this as the sensible alternative to driving him crazy. But he also admits they might not reflect upon or even begin to realize just how their current lives affect him.

Two messages stand out: Needy parents, and children going crazy as designated helpers.

These two examples may not be universal, but they are surely not uncommon. The upside is that many such parents have children at least able to help. (Many parents also have children who are delighted to be caregivers, resulting in a blessing for all. I’m just not sure this is often the case.) But consider the aging elderly who have no (available) children and even fewer resources; be grateful if you’re aged and have one or the other. The downside, at least across the U.S., is a growing inter-generational tragedy. My unscientific micro-sampling, conducted over a period of several weeks, turned up a half-dozen youngish Boomers caring (with varying degrees of joy & satisfaction) for septuagenarian or octogenarian parents, and a handful of Gen-X’ers caring for Boomer parents.Caregiving3 Two of the latter have serious financial concerns put this way by one: “So I’m spending my retirement savings on my mom, and – considering my choice not to have children myself – wondering what’s going to happen to me.”

The above, should you want to consider it as such, is an open letter to parents of my generation. Here’s the thing: 100% of us are going to die, which will definitely not be the worst thing that ever happens: just look at all the great people who have already done it. Most of us will need some degree of care by someone, in the months or years leading up to our deaths. Some of us have more choices about our final years than others, but there may be ways to get through our geezerhood without upending our children’s lives – if we talk with them about it.

Caregiving6       It might be a conversation worth having.

 

Smarter Scams, New Victims Every Day

frowny face

My “grandson” and I talked for a full several minutes before I determined he was no one I knew. Despite a few clues – my grandchildren don’t call me “Grandma,” his voice could have been the 21-year-old I hadn’t seen in nearly a year, but it wasn’t perfect – I found the caller convincing enough to trade three or four questions and answers before I hung up the phone.

“Grandson” never got around to the pitch. I want to believe I would never have fallen for a story that would separate me from several thousand dollars, but I surely could have. Today’s scammers – especially those preying on seniors or the socially isolated – are incredibly skilled.

One very smart senior in the San Francisco Bay Area was recently taken in by a call from a fake grandson – and had the courage to tell the story to the local newspaper. Retired physician/author Walter Bortz, who has a real and well-loved grandson, listened with shock and sorrow to an entirely plausible tale that wound up costing him $5,000. The “grandson” told of having had too much drink the night before, of drugs found in the cab he unfortunately took, going to jail, getting beaten up and having his nose broken. Then he gave the phone to a “police officer” who explained how bail could be arranged……..

Elements of the scam – eloquently told to local reporters by the victim – are widely used. The “relative” is often caught up in an arrest involving drugs and/or guns (through no fault of his or her own) and often in another state or country. The need is always urgent, to avoid some terrible consequence like jail time or to cover medical expenses. Transactions are made through prepaid cards available almost everywhere today. Once cashed, the money is impossible to trace.

It’s the meanness of these scams that is almost as bad as the financial loss. Rose, a young businesswoman, tells of her own grandmother getting a call from someone pretending to be Rose and spilling out a tale of disaster that had her grandmother frightened and sobbing. Long after the ruse was uncovered and explained – “I was calling my grandmother, saying, ‘Look! I’m here at my desk. I’m sending you a photo! ’” – the targeted victim was still in distress over the fears she had had for her beloved granddaughter.

JoAnn (a pseudonym,) a friend of this writer in Louisiana, fell victim – almost – to one of the oldest scams around. It began with an official-looking notice of her having won a Canadian lottery. JoAnn lives alone and has withdrawn from friends – but she plays the lottery; she thought one of her tickets had paid off. The notification included a “Certified check” for her seven-figure winnings. All she had to do was deposit the check, wire $1,279 to cover out-of-state taxes, and live in luxury. JoAnn was saved by an alert teller who had not seen her come into the local bank for a long time. The teller began asking questions about the sender, and JoAnn finally told her about winning the lottery. “If you don’t mind,” the teller said, “let me see if this check clears before you do anything further.”

My friend suffered not from financial loss but from the embarrassment factor. JoAnn was in tears by the time she got through telling the story over the phone. “How foolish did I look?” she said. “Suppose word gets around that I fell for such a thing. I have a PhD, for heaven’s sake.” The teller turned everything over to federal agents and it’s highly unlikely that word got around.

But word should get around. Bortz deserves high praise for going public, proving that no one is exempt from the possibility of being scammed. “I like to think that I am worldly wise,” he told The Almanac, “(and yet) I got snookered into this one. But I guess it shows that I’m a nice grandfather.”

Nice grandfathers, and grandmothers, and gentle people everywhere, are being targeted today. The Federal Trade Commission has a fairly complete list of current scams, and how to deal with them, on its Consumer Information page.

The schemes are old, the twists are new, the advice is age-old and two-fold: (a) Keep asking questions; and (b) If it seems too good (or even bad) to be true, it probably is.

Geezers, Learning Curves & Technology

learning curve.3 learning curve.2 technology

Technology, for anyone born after 1980, is part of your language. But the rest of us? It’s like learning to speak in tongues. And learning curves do not always move smoothly upward.

Suppose you grew up thinking a drop down window simply had a broken sash cord – if you’re born after 1980 you probably don’t know what sash cords are anyway – and right click was something you did with castanets? And your brain is wired to hit the return lever at the end of every line, but you’re suddenly supposed to know where the tool bar with the back button is, and you thought a back button was something that fastened to a loop at the top of your blouse? You get the picture.

Well, no, you don’t get the picture, that’s the problem.

Getting the picture onto the blog post takes us right back to the language issue: we know those free-use illustrations are out there, but where and how to find them and — more to the point — how to get them from Point A (wherever they are) to Point B (above) is hidden in the mystery language of WordPress and the internet. Friends, some born after 1980, try to help. They install PhotoBucket, they study Windows Live Photo Gallery, they try to explain Flickr or Paint or Pinterest. The learning curve flatlines.

Enter my techie friend Ryan. He may have been born before 1980 but not much before if so. Ryan speaks WordPress.

All you have to know, he explains, is to Google the topic, click on Images, make the magic Usage Rights appear by clicking on the Search Tools, save to your Desktop (which used to be a flat pine surface.) Then on your WordPress dashboard (which used to be in the car) click Edit on the screen below Title, click once on the photo, which brings up the magic pencil, which will lead you to the boxes, and more pencils and a few more choices. Simple. Of course.

Here’s the bottom line: I hope you like those THREE illustrations.

 

The Intriguing Invisible Audience

The questions were sharp, incisive. The comments were poignant, sometimes wrenching, sometimes funny. But the really funny thing was that I couldn’t see a soul in the audience.

This was a recent talk and group discussion with the Senior Center Without Walls. I was on the phone in my living room, the moderator was somewhere else, and some 20 to 30 seniors – most of them old, if unseen, friends by now – were sitting comfortably in their San Francisco Bay Area living rooms. Who knew?

This particular discussion dealt with end-of-life issues, although I got in (with advance permission) an introductory plug for Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade, and my current soapbox about preserving reproductive justice. I talked briefly about my longtime involvement with Compassion and Choices, about the work of that excellent organization, and the multiple benefits of considering one’s own mortality before one’s own death is knocking at the door. From the various phones came personal tales – “My husband died exactly as he wished…” “one member of the family wanted to contradict what (the dying person) explicitly wanted…” And questions about what C&C can do (counsel, advocate, support) and even – every nonprofit representative’s favorite: “Where can I send money?”

Audience members come and go at will, during Senior Center Without Walls discussions, and the pretty constant beeping that heralded the comings and goings made the entire event feel like a free-wheeling open house. Which is, in fact, not far from the truth.

Senior Center Without Walls participants play bingo, read plays, join support groups for everything from low vision to LGBT issues, bird-watch (guided help with identifying the birds seen from your window) and share in adventures that range from armchair travel to sing-alongs.

I hope they learned a little from this discussion leader; I learned a LOT from the scattered seniors of Seniors Without Walls.

 

 

 

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

I’m in mourning for Mavis Gallant.

You don’t remember Mavis Gallant? If you’re older than 14, you shared a century with her characters. You would have passed them on the streets of Manhattan, or Montreal, or Paris. They were people you recognized… even if you might not have stopped to talk with them. Where you really got to know them was in the pages of The New Yorker, which published 116 of her stories over a span of 40 years.

Mavis Gallant died recently at the entirely respectable age of 91. She produced sharp, beautifully crafted and highly readable short stories for more than half of those years. Collections of her stories were published in 1956 (The Other Paris), 2009 (The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories), and a dozen more collections appeared in the years in between — it boggles the short story writer’s mind.

And here’s the rub for me: In addition to the mourning, there is envy, admiration and — to be honest — a dash of literary despair. On the one hand is the shimmering example of a writer — a woman writer at that! — still writing great stories well past the age of, ahem, this octogenarian writer. And on the other is the sheer heft of her oeuvre. One volume of collected stories alone ran to 900 pages. We are not talking pages of tripe.

Mavis Gallant understood the abandoned and deceived; her own mother deposited her at a boarding school when she was four, saying, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” She also understood the displaced, having left her Canadian home for France, briefly wandering elsewhere in the post-World War II years when displacement was a fact of life for much of Europe and Asia. As a woman who defined the phrase “living by one’s wits,” she turned those wits to short fiction in a singular way. She also wrote novels and essays, critically acclaimed nonfiction.

But here is another rub: On top of the lack of maternal love and affection, Gallant endured other unimaginable emotional assaults and upheavals, realities that underlie her fiction. As a girl of 10, she was lied to about her father — she waited two years for him to reappear because nobody told her he had died. She was briefly and unhappily married, and heart-breakingly betrayed by her literary agent, who pocketed the money from the first New Yorker stories while Gallant struggled with hunger and despair in Spain and France. Gallant took it all in, survived and turned her life to short fiction, to the benefit of us all.

The rubs boil down to this: Suppose you’re a writer with a plain old happy childhood? You’ve already watched with envy — sometimes admiration and way more than a dash of despair — the flood of memoirs documenting addiction, abuse and aberrations of every conceivable kind, most of which inhabit bestseller lists for months. And here are the obituaries for one hugely admired short story writer, with the news that she too has a personal depth of Shakespearean tragedy to mine. Bless her battered heart.

At least she shared it all with us, in those dozens and dozens of marvelous stories. And kept at it until the end of her 91 eventful years.

Rest in peace, Mavis.

 

The curious world of cyberspace

Disappearing from cyberspace is a little like being a tree that falls in the forest. A very small tree. Having disappeared from cyberspace myself for a couple of weeks, I am comforted by the fact that the forest is very large.

It’s not that this space disappeared, just that Boomers and Beyond disappeared. Boomers and Beyond is a blog primarily about issues critical to over-50 generations, and it came to pass on  True/Slant.com a couple of years ago. It dealt with health care and fitness and housing choices and brain exercises and driving safety, and often diverted into rants about gay rights and abortion rights and gun control and other miscellany — because the True/Slant folks were a free-wheeling bunch and why should anybody quit worrying about rights and justice when they turn 50? All those profound words are archived in this nifty blog (this WordPress one right here) created by incredible friend-of-B&B-&-this space Mary Trigiani, so that if anyone stumbles into the forest and wants to study a small bush those twigs — OK, enough with the metaphor — are there to be read.

True/Slant didn’t actually disappear; it got bought by Forbes, and is gradually reappearing (as a New And Improved Forbes blogsite) there. Boomers & Beyond is reportedly going to reappear thereon, as soon as a contract appears. In the interim, it is just sitting there inert, and after several watchful readers noticed its inertia (posting anything new isn’t an option at True/Slant any more) I decided to venture once more into cyberspace.

It’s pleasant to meet you here. I hope we’ll meet again soon.