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.

Life: does longevity trump quality?

“We have to get out of the way,” she said; “make room for other, new people on the planet.” Accomplished author/editor Cyra McFadden, at a recent dinner party, was talking about a group of women scientist friends’ excitement over discoveries they have made which show promise of extending life a fraction longer. Cyra was in fierce, though silent, disagreement.

It may be time for those of us who disagree with the rampant prolong-life-at-all-costs theories  to stop being silent.

Americans are, in fact (as reported in Epoch Times below, and elsewhere) living longer all the time. Sometimes that’s just fine, especially if we’re in reasonable health. But what if we’re not? What if we’d just as soon be getting on with whatever follows this temporary time on earth? Millions and millions of people are living for hours, days or extended months and years in circumstances they would not choose simply because we have created a culture that says we must be kept alive no matter what.

Average life expectancy continues to increase, and today’s older Americans enjoy better health and financial security than any previous generation. Key trends are reported in “Older Americans 2008: Key Indicators of Well-Being,” a unique, comprehensive look at aging in the United States from the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics.

“This report comes at a critical time,” according to Edward Sondik, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Health Statistics. “As the baby boomers age and America’s older population grows larger and more diverse, community leaders, policymakers, and researchers have an even greater need for reliable data to understand where older Americans stand today and what they may face tomorrow.”

Where do we stand right now? Well, the same source that says we’re living longer and enjoying better health and financial security (hmmmm on the financial security business) reveals that Americans are “engaging in regular leisure time physical activity” on these levels: ages 45-64: 30%; ages 75-84: 20%; geezers 85 and over: 10%. Hello? Better health and financial security, just no leisure time physical activity? Could it bear some relationship to obesity factors in the same data: 30+% for men, 40+% for women?

Does living well need to be assessed in the compulsion to live long? Why not? Everyone should have the right to live at whatever weight and whatever level of inaction he or she chooses. But the system is weighted toward keeping us alive under all conditions, and bucking the system is not easy. A poignant, wrenching tale of her father’s slow decline and death — and her mother’s refusal to go down that same path — was recently told by California writer/teacher Katy Butler in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Almost without their consent, Butler’s gifted, educated parents had their late years altered to match the system’s preferences:

They signed living wills and durable power-of-attorney documents for health care. My mother, who watched friends die slowly of cancer, had an underlined copy of the Hemlock Society’s “Final Exit” in her bookcase. Even so, I watched them lose control of their lives to a set of perverse financial incentives — for cardiologists, hospitals and especially the manufacturers of advanced medical devices — skewed to promote maximum treatment. At a point hard to precisely define, they stopped being beneficiaries of the war on sudden death and became its victims.

Given the limitless sources of victimization floating around, we should not have to add just-try-to-keep-them-alive-forever health care to the list.

My husband and I, having long ago signed advance directives with additional specific issues sheets (“If this happens, do that; if that happens, don’t do this,” etc) recently got them out and talked things over again, a very good thing to do for EVERYbody over 18. We will add dementia provisions to the existing documents while we can remember to do that (the closest you can come to avoid being warehoused in a memory-loss facility for umpteen years.) We are clear, and our friends and family understand, about having no interest in hanging onto life in a greatly diminished state if such an opportunity presents itself; for increasing thousands, it presents itself every day.

All this being said, there’s still a reasonable chance that I’ll be out of town one day when I’m in my 80s (which aren’t that far off), get wiped out by a speeding cyclist and picked up in a seriously mangled state by the paramedics, taken to a hospital that’s not Kaiser (which has all my directives on file,) miraculously brought into some heavily-sedated state of being because the hospital doesn’t consult Kaiser or the living will registry (which also has my directives) and kept alive by assorted mechanisms. By the time my husband or children get there to insist everything be unplugged — which of course will involve long hours and possibly court action — hundreds of thousands of dollars will have been needlessly spent.

I consider myself a highly valuable member of society, and my life a gift from God. But would those dollars not be better spent on a few kids needing specialized care?

Epoch Times – Americans Are Living Longer, According to Federal Report.