Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

This barely filled space doesn't signify zero resolutions; rather the resolutions are being amassed to be featured in the January 2, 2010 post. If you wish to contribute a resolution before January 2nd, send it to the gmail address at the right, letting me know if you are an aging parent or an adult child. Happy New Year to all.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Day After Christmas

What happens after an event that we've been anticipating--hearing about well in advance--takes place? No matter the event, it happens (present tense). Then it's over. Ended. Done. And we are left with the emotional residue--wonderful or not so wonderful, depending.

When it's something we've been dreading, it's no doubt an emotional relief to have it over. When it's something we've looked forward to, and it meets or exceeds our expectations, we may be filled with happiness and wish it could last. But since it can't, we may feel sad, or it's a "let down."

The day after Christmas signals such an ending is coming and it's not uncommon for people who enjoy the festivities to have an emotional response. When aging parents have a busy life the holidays don't necessarily fill a void, rather they are a welcome addition to an already busy schedule. When parents live alone, however, and don't have a busy life, the void left at the end of the holidays can intensify feelings of emptiness, and of being alone. And the fact that winter weather sets in and it gets dark earlier isn't helpful in certain parts of the US.

Can adult children inflate that let down feeling? Yes. First, refer to this past Tuesday's post and reread the three suggestions. Next, use your 2010 calendar to ensure the three suggestions aren't forgotten.

I am remembering the advice given to me by a priest interviewed for my divorce book years ago. He talked about the importance of touching base on a regular basis with people we care about when they face challenges or need us in their lives. To this end, he said, he wrote on his calendar at regular intervals--daily, twice weekly, weekly, monthly etc. etc.--"phone so-and-so," putting their telephone numbers next to their names. He said it was the only way he could be certain of regularly continuing the connection. That advice turned out to be helpful for me at certain times with my counselees and their parents. It's rarely lack of interest that prevents us from doing something additional on a regular basis. More likely we just get busy and forget.

So once again I guess we need to be thinking about picking up the phone--after we take out our 2010 calendar or whatever date-book technology we use and write in a few names and numbers of our older, living alone friends and possibly even our parents.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

It's The Haa, Haa--py--est Time of The Year

The words and melody from the radio fill my car as I drive to the post office to mail the holiday cards. We have snow.  It looks like a winter wonderland. And kids, amid shrieks of laughter and merriment, are sledding down our shared driveway on anything they can find that's large enough to sit on. Sun is shining, snow balls are flying, and I'm certain school vacation is adding to this happiest of times.

Then my counseling background kicks in and I remember that holidays aren't always the happiest of times for people. So I decide to check in with a few older people and see how they're doing. (I'm a counselor, trained to ask objective questions.) My findings:

The consensus, from my small sample--but there's no disagreement: This is the haa, haa-py-est time of the year for children who have none of the responsibilities of adulthood, for newly marrieds who are looking forward, and for young couples with children who still believe in Santa. It's an especially happy time when older family members are geographically near enough to children and grandchildren so that they can gather together to celebrate and talk about shared past experiences. Meanwhile the excitement of the children in the family provides a background of energy and optimism.

"The holidays are a time when our mind drifts back to past Christmases that were happy times. It's a sentimental time," recalls one older widow. "It's a wonderful time when families can get together, yet a lot of people are completely alone. As people get older, they have experienced losses. Especially for those who've lost their mates, other people's happiness can be a reminder of the losses we've incurred. We're just more vulnerable to that kind of thing when we get older." "Unless there's a lot of family around and a lot going on, it's not the happiest time of the year. It's depressing," shares a 70-year-old man.

There's agreement that it takes effort for older people to find this a happy time. "It doesn't just happen," says one. "It's what you make of it when you're older," says another. "If you make the effort to be with people it's good, but it can be exhausting. We may continue to decorate and continue to write notes on the Christmas cards because we want our home to look festive and we like to get letters back after we write the notes. But we need to trim down and trim back so we aren't too tired to enjoy."

So then I ask the question: How can younger people help? Can they help?

The answers:
1. Keep in close contact with elders--aunts, uncles. Make sure they're not forgotten.
2. A phone call even; it doesn't have to be a visit. I had a wonderful phone call from a far-away relative recently. You know older people don't relate to an email as they do to a phone call.
3. It's nice to take older people out to something, but take them to something that is rather quiet, that isn't too taxing an experience.
* * * * *
OK, everyone. Why not pick up the phone and talk with at least one older person who lives alone or feels isolated. Brighten his or her day. Make these older people feel special, cared about...because they are. Raise their self-esteem. Add interest to their lives. Major studies confirm that connections are one of the most important factors in successful aging. It may not be the Haa, Haa-py-est time of the year for most older people, but we can make it better.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A SAD STORY (begun 12/17; finished Sat. 12/19)

This situation may not be all that uncommon, although I hope I'm wrong. It involves a retired, respected professional in the health care field and his independence; and his capable, caring adult daughter with an extraordinarily busy life. And stuff that can happen, but shouldn't.

Rodney, divorced, and in his early 80's, was living happily by himself in a condo in a very nice southern California suburb. Because of his profession he had many friends who valued his wisdom and kind ways. But he was increasingly seeming "spacey,"-- "dementia-like" to those who knew him well. He appeared unsteady on his feet at times. Close friends obviously noticed this and may have attributed it to his age. (We've discussed how people hesitate to "rock the boat" in a previous post.) So the reasons for no one questioning this physical and mental change could be many.

One day Rodney took a bad fall in his apartment. A neighbor heard his call for help and phoned 911. At the local hospital where supposedly they did a full evaluation to determine the cause of his fall, his daughter was told he needed assisted living. She quickly and efficiently made arrangements for assisted living, but it was soon evident that Rodney needed even more help so a private aide was hired to be with him. More falls, more trips in and out of the hospital. No one understood the cause, only the effect as Rodney became more and more frustrated and, at times, unruly.

Assisted living could not provide the care Rodney required. So his daughter located a group home with adequate staff to watch him and prevent more falls. The superviser of the home, a thorough person, had a hunch... that medication could be causing Rodney's problems. It then surfaced that Rodney (who could legally write prescriptions), had prescribed a medication commonly used to aid sleep for himself. Rodney had no primary care doctor (unrelated specialists treated him). And evidently prior to the "hunch" no one was aware Rodney was taking this medication and that it could produce the side effects Rodney was experiencing.

The good news: the group home's superviser put Rodney on a new medication. He's himself again; he's much steadier on his feet. The bad news: he has nothing in common with the residents at this group home. He doesn't like living there. But during these many months his efficient daughter quickly sold his condo because, she was told, he could no longer live alone and because funds were--and would be--needed for his care. Rodney has no condo to return to.

Initially his daughter was glad to see him cared for, didn't wanted another upheaval, and thought she would have peace of mind. But with new medication, Rodney made it clear he had no reason to stay in the group home.

A bad start, lack of information, incomplete knowledge, inaccurate assumptions, and a busy, caring daughter's well-meaning quick fixes. Upon rereading this story, it makes sense that people, who have--or have given--power of attorney and/or health care proxy responsibility, reread and share the "Key Thoughts" (see sidebar at right). In addition:
1. It would make sense for adult children to have a current list of parents' medications.
2. Getting help from an experienced geriatric social worker would most likely have reduced stress on the busy daughter and led to well-thought-out changes with a quicker, better outcome.
* * * * *
Oh yes, Rodney did move from the group home, but much time had passed and other problems arose, so he moved to an assisted living facility.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ambition and Reality

Why is it many of us think we can do more than is possible in a given amount of time? Do our internal clocks run faster than those of most aging people? Or are older people just more realistic than we are?...and/or better at judging time due to more years of experience?

Yes, this is my way of explaining that my holiday-card-sending is still in progress. But I want to take a minute to talk about the fact that so many adult children feel there is too much to do and too little time to do it in. A friend has aptly named this phenomena "compressed time." I don't think I speak only for myself and my friend when I say many of us are slaves to this phenomena.

This may be one of the reasons younger people can seem rude to older people, whose metabolisms probably run at a slower pace. In this coming Saturday's blog I am going to discuss a sad, but true story, reported by someone I've known for decades. It may have been driven by caring adult children's feeling of "compressed time." You can judge for yourself. In any event, it's an instructive story that will be a gift to two generations if it saves any other caring adult children and their adult parents from such a situation.

I could not find a place for the story in my book. But it needs to be publicized. The consequences of not knowing this story are too great, in my opinion. So, until Saturday when all of my cards will be in the mail, think about "compressed time" and feel free to share your thoughts for this blog.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas and Holiday Cards

Chanukah began last night, when the first candle was lit. Christmas is 13 days away. Getting the Christmas cards out is now at the top my "things to do" list. This post will be very short, since I have yet to begin the job of writing little notes on the cards, then signing, addressing, and adding the stamps to them.

I don't know why I feel compelled to write a note on each card. Possibly because we live on the other side of the country from where we were born and have many friends and much family in the West, so it's a time to catch up. But I don't send the first cards to the people who live the farthest away. I send the first cards to the oldest people on my list.

Edie tops my list this year. She is either 98 or 99. I'm going to phone her tomorrow to have a little chat and I will confirm her age. She's a petite, very wise woman who is always perfectly put together and is often quoted in my book. I understand from others that her daughters give her hairdresser appointments for the entire year (that's a great gift, they set up a charge at the beauty shop), which is certainly one the of the reasons Edie always looks immaculate.

So I'm off to begin the cards and plan to finish before Tuesday's post. If I run into problems, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Deck the Halls--well, sort of

I visited a sick friend in a nursing home last week. Every nook and cranny greeted me with colorful holiday decorations, creating such a spirited atmosphere that I almost forgot where I was. The theme was Christmas (with a smidge of Chanukah). Clearly much time, thought, and energy went into decorating this nursing home. I thought about how uplifting it was to be surrounded by a holiday atmosphere and how much I loved it as a child.

It reinforced the reason, throughout my growing up years and even now, with no children present in the house, we decorate for holidays. Why? Tradition no doubt, but I think it goes deeper. Going through the ritual lets us indulge ourselves as we think about times past; and with the tradition and creativity that go into transforming our homes for the holidays comes a special feeling of warmth and joy.

Eloise and Earl, who died in their 90’s, had to be the masters of this art. (You haven’t met them yet but they figure prominently in my book.) Their tree decorations were unique, and chronicled their life and their friends. No surprise that their tree was featured in House Beautiful and provided a photo op and text for a NY Times article some years later. Its ornaments-- a nut cup from their wedding, an eyelash curler from some still-secret event in their lives--along with hundreds of items from friends and from their travels to almost every place in the world, conjured up countless memories. These older people had inordinate energy; and while I think many older people would love to have this kind of energy and decorate every year, most don’t.

Yet well into their 80's, Eloise and Earl made a decision. Climbing to the highest step on the ladder and stretching out over the staircase railing to put the honored piece on the top of the tree needed to be done by someone younger. The tree, over a story tall (and positioned in an area where the staircase curved up to the second floor) required stretching and reaching from the balcony to the branches for the finishing touches. My husband inherited this job, wobbling on the ladder, finally putting the ornament perfectly in place when Eloise would teasingly say "Could you move it about half an inch to the right (or left)."

Back to the present I wondered: would offering to help with holiday decorations bring additional joy to aging parents as it did to Eloise and Earl? Does it make sense to renew everyone's curiosity in that old box of ornaments (it's probably stored somewhere) so we can share a special experience with parents or other older people in our lives? If the old box no longer exists, do we start our own tradition and purchase some decorative items? Older and younger people engaged in a project together is empowering and generates a sharing of ideas and memories we might otherwise never know about.

My parents are no longer alive. But I'm thinking of someone to whom I may offer my help. I love to decorate. So my offer may turn out to be a more meaningful gift for my older friend than any I've listed in the previous two posts...except for the wide rubber band jar opener, that is!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Gifts for Aging Grown-ups Part 2

Making distinctions between gift suggestions in categories 1 and 2 has been more difficult than I imagined. The good news: most gifts in Category One seem helpful to all older people. Some additonal Category One suggestions are below. Category Two gifts follow.

Gifts that lift the spirit
Amaryllis plant: Easy care. Flowers are showy, beautiful and reflect the holdiay season. The plants, from which the flower stalk has already started growing, are in flower shops, gardening centers, and grocery stores (Trader Joes has a nice supply in my area). It takes a week or two for the buds to open, depending how far along they are. Bright light helps them open faster. Blooms last about a week in an enviornment that is not too warm and where the soil is kept damp, but not soggy. Check with a salesperson and purchase ones now whose buds aren't yet open if you want them to look beautiful for Christmas. Watching nature unford is uplifing.

Snuggie: from my then 9-year-old niece, Lilli, who requested one of these fleese, blanket-like, sleeve added "garmets" for Christmas last year, to older people who want to wrap up in a warm, comfy way in a chair or on the sofa, this is a welcome, fairly inexpensive gift. Google "snuggie". there are some money saving offers during the holiday season.

Specialty magazines. According to my unofficial advisors (I susbscribe to none of these) check out: Art and Antiques, Bon Appetit, Kiplinger's Personal Finance (http://www.kiplinger.com/), National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Travel and Leisure. While I don't subscribe, I like Harper's Bazaar (http://www.harpersbazaar.com/) with its "Fabulous at Every Age" section. Don't we love getting mail that isn't junk?

Latest photos of the family, children and grandchildren.

Anything made by a grandchild.

Gifts that lift the spirit continues. Our Category Two gift recipients drive or have easy access to purchase what they need.

Memberships. Depending on parents' interests, memberships to: botanical gardens, museums (art, natural history etc.), historical societies, zoos, libraries, woman's clubs, etc. Many offer exhibits and members' meetings and most offer lectures and send timely, informative magazines. In New York City, for example, the 92nd Street Y offers a wide variety timely, stimulating programs--lectures, concerts, classes. In many of today's libraries card holders can check out everything from DVDs and movies to books formatted for the Kindle.

Tickets for parents to attend or take a friend or go with you to a concert, performance, sporting event, the theatre, dog show, boat show, auto show, flower show etc.

Invitation to go on a trip with you--a short trip to a nearby beach or lake (if you live near water) or the mountains or a more involved trip (cruise, group tour). For far-away-living children, taking care of arrangements for parents to come for a visit is usually a very precious and welcome gift.

Subscribe to a premium channel for your parents' TV (eg. HBO, Showtime, a sports channel).
* * * * *
Lastly, my gift for you or anyone whose grip has become weaker with age. A suggestion for a jar-opener that costs nothing-- a somewhat wide rubber band that you stretch around the lid of a jar. It grips the lid making it easy to turn and thus easy to open. Somewhat wide rubber bands are found on produce (like celery) in grocery stores that don't use twist-ties for that purpose. Rubber gloves may also accomplish this, but they're bulkier and cost money. Happy shopping!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Gifts for Aging Grownups

The day after Thanksgiving signals the official start of the holiday shopping season. Time to think about gifts. According to my aging advisors, the gifts below will please older people. Why? Because they reinforce independence while adding pleasure.

For organization’s sake, they’re in two categories:
Category one, today's post. Gift suggerstions for chronologically old, independent-living people. who may or may not be young at heart. Most of these gifts are practical and make life easier. Some are fun, add excitement and could be considered a luxury. Having most of them will, according to R (age 96)—"SAVE." She says they’re “a time saver, an energy saver, and a money saver” because they save old people, who are more frail and don’t get out as readily or easily from having to go out and buy them.

Category two will be Saturday’s post. Gift suggestions for chronologically younger, independent-living older people who may or may not drive, but easily get out more often. They can include gifts from category one, but additional gifts join this list. Many gifts are not exclusive to one category, indeed some may work for everyone on your list.

Practical, time saving, great to have on hand
Postage stamps
Mailer envelopes with “bubble” lining
Small note paper (for writing short notes, when long letters are unnecessary)
Selection of greeting cards (eg. birthday, sympathy)
Attractive note pads
Wrapping paper and ribbon (for holiday, birthday gifts etc.).
Nice soaps, small guest soaps--bars or liquid
Pen supply (know favorites kinds—fine point, felt tip etc.)

Good to have when needed
A good blood pressure monitor (if appropriate)
Nice pill box (a small one or the 7-day kind)
Magnifying mirror
Small magnifying glasses (for different reading areas)
Good, sturdy step stool with something strong to hold onto. We know falls are major health hazards and we may not be told about them. (Oct. 31 post) (Check Williams- Sonoma catalog)
Small alarm clock, that glows in the dark, for nightstand.
A good nail file (nails become more fragile with age). Check the double-sided crystal nail files http://www.supportplus.com/
Moisturizing creams and lotions
Favorite snack foods

Stylish dressing with ease. Criteria: does it slip on easily; is it attractive?
The challenge: finding clothing for the older person who takes pride in his/her looks—or for others who should take more pride in how they look. Mostly worn in the house, but still appropriate if unexpected guests arrive or if going to the mail box. Requirements: easy to put on--no difficult or small buttons--or hooks--in hard to reach places, no unreliable zippers.

Good-looking easy-to-slip-into slippers or sandals (non-skid soles)
Zip-front hostess coat, duster, caftan that doesn’t look bed-roomy. Check: http://www.carolwrightgifts.com/, the Carol Wright Catalog, or local stores. Older people often prefer models with two big pockets (eg. for Kleenex).
Sweaters, sweater vests, shawls, shrugs (provide warmth; enhance wardrobe)
A gift certificate for a dressmaker or tailor to do alterations (possibly come to the house) so favorite clothes fit well.

Gifts that lift the spirit
Lottery tickets
A written invitation to take parent(s) or older friend for light (errand) shopping.
A written invitation to take parent(s)/or older friend for lunch, movie, sporting event etc.
Food baskets
Attractive night light
Taxi script
New towels and washcloths, not too heavy and luxurious, so they dry out easily; don’t smell stale. One old-timer says the “Bar Mop Dish Cloth” at Williams-Sonoma is “soft and light weight--great for washing your face.” http://www.williams-sonoma.com/
* * * *
Saturday’s post will feature Category Two gift suggestions.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009 Revisited

Sixteen family members and friends reconnected to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday. Five new guests; five newly-created place card leaves. And Ruth’s place card leaf took its new place as part of the centerpiece. (Nov. 21 post.)

R at 96 and her best friend (86) were the oldest. Three of the younger guests were new to our Thanksgiving tradition. They included a new boyfriend, one of Ruth’s granddaughters, and the youngest son of R’s neighbors. His mother was at R’s birthday luncheon saying after her mother died, she turned to R for understanding and wisdom. (Oct. 13 post.)

This Thanksgiving over 25% of our guests were newcomers, and while there were many connections, some had never met our family nucleus before. Sixteen people, their ages ranging from 22-96, represented 8 decades. And R, who seems to remember almost everything, says it’s the best Thanksgiving she can remember. Her back-up comment: “No one in the family even thought of turning on the TV.”

It was like an intergenerational magnet .The wisdom of the older, the accomplishments and activities of the younger, and the energy, optimism, and moving forward spirit of the youngest pulled everyone together.

* * * * *

Tuesday’s post will feature holiday gift possibilities, given the season has begun. Anyone heard of crystal nail files?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving. I'm on vacation with friends and family and cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 16 people! Next post is next Saturday.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Thursday is Thanksgiving. My favorite holiday. For me it's a warm, inclusive, happy yet somewhat poignant celebration of our good fortune in this country and we remember also that many are not as fortunate as we. My husband has begun the meal, since we've had men and women fighting overseas, with a short prayer for their safe return, expressing our gratitude for their sacrifices.

While I have always prepared the majority of the meal, I have made a special point of encouraging older people to participate in the preparations. My father, alternated with Harry (when both were in their 80's and early 90's), stringing a cranberry necklace for the turkey--something I'd seen on the now deceased Gourmet Magazine cover many years ago. If I couldn't cook the elaborate turkey, I could at least make--or have Dad or Harry make--it look elaborate.

Mother, in her 80's, made her special pumpkin chiffon pie, but bought, instead of making, the dough as her fingers became more arthritic. And R., who celebrated her 96th birthday in September (see October post), fixed the stuffing and helped me make Harry's wife Mary's yams, after Mary died in her early 90's.

And so traditions begin and are continued. For almost 20 years, since I saw part of an early morning Martha Stewart prepare-for-Thanksgiving show before going to work, I have made place cards on autumn leaves, guests' names written with a special white ink pen. During these years guests have brought boyfriends, girlfriends, and fiances; and have divorced, broken engagements and died. We have disposed of all but the latter's place card leaves, which are placed name side down, along with other autumn leaves, around the centerpiece.

Ruth's leaf will be a new addition to the name side down group this year. I think she was 93 when she died. It wasn't easy for her daughter--and later grand-daughters--to pick her up from her assisted living apartment almost an hour away. But she looked forward to coming for Thanksgiving. And as long as she wanted to come, her grandchildren made the effort to bring her and take her home. And as she grew more frail each year and had sight only in one eye, she continued to create for me a Thanksgiving card of appreciation.

When something means a lot to an older person, but entails going out of our way and even sustaining an underlying worry that some emergency type health issue could interrupt everything, our knee-jerk reaction may be that we don't want to make the effort (which is probably very little effort compared to the effort an old person must make). But when we do, and see the priceless joy we've made possible, how could we not make that extra effort.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Eating Alone

Friends were shocked when a very independent, accomplished 80-year-old widow sold her home and moved to dramatically smaller quarters in an independent living complex. Before, during, and after her husband’s death, her days were filled with activities; but from almost the moment he died she told everyone she “dreaded” eating alone and being alone at night.

Preparing and eating healthy meals can be a big hurdle for people living alone. While older couples can enjoy each other’s company at meal time, the thought of eating alone is painful for some older widowed people, and dreaded by others. Still others cook and eat alone, although transportation to grocery stores can be a problem.  In such instances, adult children can schedule a time (or two) each week to take parents grocery shopping (or hire someone to do this). Also thoughtful still-driving neighbors can offer rides. Some older people make plans to share a taxi when they go shopping.

One widowed mother, on a fixed income (as are many), goes to the market with someone twice a week. Never-the-less her daughter buys extra groceries on sale (3 for $2.00) to share with her mother who likes to cook. It enables her mother to have items she might not want to afford otherwise, while making reimbursement by a proud parent, who doesn’t want to accept "charity," insignificant or unnecessary. Dignity upheld.

This same daughter not only brings groceries during her weekly visits, but cooks with her mother, when time allows. She and her mother enjoy doing something real together, making/baking then freezing some in small portions to ensure delicious food at another time. A famous writer said she wanted to participate in life-- didn't want to be a "passenger in life." Doesn't cooking make one a participant?

Question: How can adult children enhance parent's nutrition? Suggestions:
  1. Give a "Fruit of the Month" gift for special occasions (wwwHarry and David).
  2. Bring cheese and crackers and/or fruit, instead of candy and cookies, when visiting any older person.
  3. Bring sugar-free drinks and treats for those on sugar-restricted diets.
  4. Bring flavored bottled water which can incent even non-water drinkers to drink (especially important for older people who don't experience thirst as much and can easily become dehydrated).
  5. Nutritious snacks like peanut butter filled pretzels with or without salt are available at Trader Joe's, as are "blister peanuts."
  6. Meals on Wheels supplies a complete, nutritious hot meal daily. Fine for aging parents who don't require gourmet-type food.
Isn't ensuring--to the best of our ability--that parents have nutritious food an important priority.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Saturday's Blog postponed until Tuesday

I've been visiting the place I was born, sleeping in my old room, reconnecting with people I've known. No time to write a post on Saturday. Next post Tuesday.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Yankees and Aging Parents

The NY Yankees won the 2009 World Series last week. What a way to inaugurate the New Yankee Stadium! Jubilation reigned in the ballpark. But George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner, did not attend the game. Millions watched as his son, Yankees' managing partner Hal Steinbrenner, accepted the magnificent World Series Trophy, crafted by Tiffany & Company.

Mr. Steinbrenner, now 79, was home watching the game on TV, we are told. For over three decades he invested so much of himself--financially and emotionally--in his Yankee team. Since money is no problem and he must have had all the resources to make it easy for him to attend the game--limo, luxurious box, capable caregivers--we can only guess as to why he stayed home. But that's not the our primary concern. What was this victorious moment like for his sons, Hal and Hank? I thought about the importance we place on having our parents with us to celebrate important events.

These thoughts followed: Why is it so important? Are our wishes for our parents always compatible with their wishes and needs? Do we want things for our parents that we assume will be good for them, not realizing it may have the opposite effect? I was discussing these questions with a friend, who shared the following true story with me. It was one of those eye-opening moments:

The wife of a prominent community leader who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer's, wanted him to accompany her to an important social event. She thought that it would be good for him to get out, he would have many friends at the event, and she wanted him to participate in life. You can imagine her surprise when she found him sitting in the bedroom crying. "Why?" you ask. Because he was having a lucid enough moment to realize that he wouldn't recognize people he should recognize and he didn't want to embarrass himself and end up feeling foolish.

My friend said she could relate to this situation because of her mother, who has macular degeneration. A still bright and intelligent woman in her early 90's, she stopped going out socially because of the difficulty she had recognizing people she knew. And it was hard to see food on a plate or in a bowl so she no longer wanted to eat out. While she had pride, she greatly appreciated it when friends came up and said something like "Hello A. It's me--Sally," saving her from embarrassing moments. But that didn't happen often enough even though her friends knew about her vision problem.

Which brings us back to the reality that there are important occasions our parents just can't be there to share with us, even though they'd like to and we'd like them to. And while we may feel bad, it doesn't change anything, so probably everyone feels better if we find ways to make the best of it. I think the Steinbrenners--young and old-- set a good example.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

What's The Goal?

Over the many years I counseled, this question provided simple, but very good guidance for parents dealing with difficult teenagers. I’ve found it’s equally helpful with parents. (Indeed, to be honest, I’ve found it’s helpful in dealing with almost any situation.)

“Empowering Parents” and ‘Keeping Them Safe” (preventing threat to life and limb) are goals and as such are repetitive themes in this blog. As I was reading Tuesday’s post, it was perfectly clear that parents have pride, fear losing independence, and resent being lectured to. It was also clear that adult children may live with a constantly unsettled feeling that can rise to “crazed” unless we have the tools to give us confidence.

So this brings us to our goals for ourselves. And this is where the advice given on the airplane (“First place the [oxygen] mask over your nose and mouth and then assist others) comes in. Many have said we become “parents to our parents.” That clearly isn’t empowering. Indeed it puts additional responsibilities on us and creates additional stress for us, assuming parents are still competent. If they’re not, of course, we must step in and that is the time we, legitimately in my opinion, may become parents our parents.

Until then, towards our goal of empowering, we have opportunities to uphold and support parents’ pride…in their ability to handle things, in their wisdom, in their appearance, in their accomplishments. We can no doubt add to the list.

When parents get old and especially when they live alone, pride may be one of the few things they have left. Indeed the compliments that are so much a part of normal every day life may be hard to come by. Supporting parental pride when legitimate, (they’ll know if we’re faking!), contributes to self-esteem and makes people feel good. Obviously when parents feel good about themselves, we, as caring children, feel good and isn’t that a good goal for ourselves!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Old Parents vs Vacation Plans: Dilemma

It's hard to know when our parents' emergency events will occur. One thing I do know--on a few hours notice I was able to fly from Milan, Italy to the West Coast in the same day.

I knew my mother was having medical issues as I left for a vacation in Italy. Indeed I had reservations about going so far away. On the other hand, when we have older parents we never know when an event will happen and rationally I knew it didn't make sense to put life on hold awaiting such an event. So we followed through with our plans to go to Italy with friends.

Some years earlier I had attended a program about aging parents. It included a clip from a film or TV show featuring an adult child whose life literally revolved around her parents and her concerns about their health issues. She was so consumed with apprehension every time the phone rang, that it seemed plausible that she would make herself sick and that her husband would book a one-way flight to a far-away place!

While the film clip seemed exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous, I didn't forget it. For this trip I planned ahead, leaving my itinerary and contact information along with instructions about doctors and doctors' appointments for everyone who might need them.

Night #1--Milan: the phone call came. Everyone but Mother had gone out for a birthday dinner. Mother had recently come out of the hospital and remained home with a caregiver; but she needed oxygen. Her doctor wouldn't order oxygen and simply put, the caregiver (who couldn't reach the family) worried Mother would die, and decided to phone me in Italy. Needless to say, I made immediate plans to return to the US.

Fortunately I had a Plan A--someone to meet me at the airport should I ever need to make the quick trip back. And that part of the plan went like clockwork. I should say, as a far-away-living daughter, many years before I had spoken with my brother about his flexibility should I need to fly back on the spur of the moment. I also discussed this possibility with a very good friend so I'd have a back-up if my brother wasn't available.

When I got to the house my limp, semi-asleep mother could barely keep her eyes open, and was in no condition to appreciate the new sweater I managed to buy in Italy or anything for that matter. But I knew she was glad I was there.

With a list of Mother's doctors and an updated list of her medications always in my wallet, I was ready to communicate intelligently with her doctors. Turned out medication-- too much and some unnecessary--caused the problem. So simple, yet so emotionally and physically draining for everyone involved.

What did I learn? Planning ahead for emergency situations makes so much sense. When stress is high it's comforting to know we don't have to worry about certain things and we do have some control over others. When coming a distance, having someone who cares and shares our concerns meet us at an airport is welcoming and supportive. And keeping essential information in a wallet makes communication with professionals more effective. I also learned we have good friends who we had to suddenly abandon in Italy They survived and so has our friendship.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Things Most Parents Won’t Tell Us… and Why

(Because of responses to Tuesday’s post, this replaces the planned "Food" post.)

The following situations and reactions are truly not exclusive to older people. We’d probably react the same way; but when older people are involved it's different, or does it just seem different? OK. Most parents won’t tell us--

--They’ve fallen. Reason #1 for a remarkable 88-year-old mother: PRIDE. By the time her daughter found out, her mother had fallen many times and bounced back to normal without anyone’s knowing; or if they knew, they’d been sworn to secrecy. This time she broke her 88-year-old hip. It turns out a simple corrective device, placed in her shoes, was all that was needed to solve the balance problem that caused the fall in the first place. But the solution came after enduring hospitalization and rehabilitation for her hip. While she’s still a spunky and amazing 88-year-old, it did “take her down a notch.”

Reason #2: for more older parents than we realize: FEAR--of being forced to give up their home and go to a place where their adult children think falls are less likely—be it moving from a home with stairs to a one-floor apartment or to independent or assisted living, or coming to live with their adult children (granted, much less likely today than it was in previous generations)

--They’ve had a driving incident. Reason: older parents FEAR they'll have to stop driving. This fear is very prevalent. But it but needn’t be if adult children are smart like Kim (Archives: Driving Part 1); rule out medical issues that prevent people’s driving; and know about resources that enable older people to drive well longer (Archives: Driving Part 2). If it's determined that parents are no longer qualified to drive, it will be based on solid evidence. On the other hand, it makes everyone's life easier and happier if safe-driving parents continue to drive (possibly aided by programs like CarFit, http://www.car-fit.org/), as long as it remains legitimate for them to do so.

--Their problems and concerns. Reason #1: THEY STILL FEEL PROTECTIVE TOWARDS THEIR CHILDREN and don’t want to burden them, especially if the adult children are dealing with problems of their own.

Reason #2: They DON'T WANT TO BE TOLD WHAT TO DO, they just want someone to listen and someone who they know cares, to bounce ideas off of.

And to a lesser degree, depending on their children's way of responding---

--What they’re doing. Reason: NO ONE WANTS A LECTURE or being told what to do, be they children, young adults or old adults. One independent-living, 80-something-year old father said: “I told my daughter I was going to the movie with a friend and immediately was told it wasn’t wise because of swine flu. Come on. Children and people with certain conditions and are most at risk and I’m neither.” Another 80-year-old sums up the feelings of many when she confidently says “I still think I can make my own decisions.”

Basically, it seems when parents have reached a certain age and consider themselves independent and able to make good decisions, some may be protective of their adult children and most—if not all—resent unsolicited, even if well-meaning, advice for the reasons above. There is a little poem in my yet-to-be published book that goes something like this:

Our children have knowledge of important things
Things that they think we should know
Forgetting we told them those very same things
When they were young-- years ago.

Something to think about.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dallas Wedding

The family wedding in Dallas included at least one 90-year-old. A psychiatrist, still with a part-time practice, she looked splendid at the wedding in a red dress and flattering make-up! And she didn't hesitate to dance and was still dancing when I left!

It was heartening for all and reinforces my belief that empowering older people results in remarkable senior citizens.

I'm feeling a bit like Julie in the "Julie and Julia" movie (I don't know how many people are reading my blog), so I want to use today's post to do a quick check. Would you click "Follow" (above HELP!) at the top of this blog or http://helpagingparents@gmail.com/ (which is also the e-mail address near the bottom of the right sidebar [column]) and let me know you're reading this blog. You can give your name--or not. And if you want to tell me about your older parents, or you are an older parent, or have questions or ideas you'd like discussed-- about relatively healthy, independent older parents-- do include them in the e-mail.

Until Saturday, then, when I think I want to talk about food.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Three Sundays ago an allegedly drunk mother left a party in New York City with seven young girls in her car—to take them to a slumber party. According to the New York media, people were very concerned about her driving. One person unsuccessfully tried to prevent her from getting into the car, but no one stopped her. Her car sped out of control and crashed. An 11-year-old girl was killed; others were hospitalized. A radio news report a day or two later, said that the mother had regained consciousness, was distraught, and was under suicide watch.

Questions: under what circumstances should we force people to do—or not do—something for their own good? What are the consequences of doing nothing in potentially life-and-limb-threatening situations--because we think nothing will happen? And when do we act too quickly and change people’s lives unnecessarily and not for their own good?

There’s no question, we must intervene in situations that threaten life and limb. That’s easy to say, but may be difficult to do. And I know, from a school counselor’s viewpoint, it takes discipline—not easy when we know someone well. As a counselor there is no choice, however. Child abuse and potential suicide, among others issues, require immediate intervention, just as certain issues with parents require immediate intervention.

Denial, an emotional mechanism that operates without our being aware of it, can keep us from acting. (Remember denial protects us from having to deal with a reality until we’re ready to deal with it.) Could that be the excuse for the people at the party? Can that be an excuse when older parents are clearly a danger to themselves and/or others and no one intervenes? Should we do a reality check with our parent’s doctor or a trusted friend, who knows our parents, to rule out our possible denial in questionable situations? It seems that would serve everyone well.

Knee-jerk reactions, on the other hand, cause us to make major changes quickly, possibly unnecessarily. So how do we determine necessary from knee-jerk?

A highly respected head of elderly services at a family counseling agency tells us, for example, that adult children are quick to rush their parents into assisted living when they see, for instance, “food rotting in the refrigerator, mail piling up, and the home or apartment a mess.” But, she says, “these parents most likely need ‘care management, not assisted living’ and could probably remain in their home for quite a while (by getting help from a social worker or someone experienced in working with the elderly).

In one case new prescription glasses were the answer. A home aide hired to clean up a few hours a week, solved another problem. Forgetfulness was caused by easily changed medication, not dementia. Bottom line: if it isn’t immediately dangerous, make haste slowly.

While we can’t be perfect, it seems we can save ourselves and our parents unnecessary problems and unhappiness if we keep the above in mind. And these websites may help:
http://mayoclinic.org/, http://www.helpguide.org/, http://www.familydoctor.org/ (American Academy of Family Physicians, click 'seniors'), http://forms.lighthouse.org/hny/search
www.afb.org/seniorsite, (American Foundation for the Blind), http://www.alz.org/ (Alzheimer’s Assn)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dignity Diminished at Bridal Shower

This weekend is a family wedding. Grandfathers have passed away, but grandmothers on the groom’s side will be flying to Texas for the occasion. I haven’t met the bride or her family so I have no idea of the generations that will be represented on her side. One thing I do know, weddings are almost always intergenerational events, giving old and young the opportunity to interact easily, sharing a common, celebratory feeling during that brief period of time.

I’m reminded once again of Katy’s mother, who we met in the last post. But this time she had a diminishing experience, that even Katy couldn’t have predicted, when she attended a bridal shower for her granddaughter several years ago. Katy’s mother was 86 at the time, without wheel chair and a bit younger than she was in the last post. After the shower as they were driving home she reported to Katy (who sat no where near her mother at the shower) that a “young girl” (actually an adult in her early twenties) came over, introduced herself, sat down, and they had “a really nice conversation” until the end when the “girl” was getting ready to leave and said: “I really enjoyed talking with you, Gran.”

Katy’s mother was incensed at being called “Gran” (a name even her grandchildren didn’t use). No amount of explaining or rationalizing that this was probably the endearing term the “girl” used with her own grandmother, could erase the negative effect of a young woman’s well-intentioned conversation with the bride-to-be’s grandmother, who considered herself a capable, normal woman--not an old lady.

It’s hard to get into the head of older people, but older people have shared with me so that a wider audience can understand certain ways of thinking. For most, the importance of being respected and not considered "old" top of the list (along with independence, decent health and good friends).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Diminished or Dignified

A good friend's mother died last year at 104. A proud, strong woman with pride and standards, she became less easy to get along with and more set in her ways as she aged. She was fiercely loyal and I loved her. However, there was a fine line that no one should cross if they wanted a relationship with-- and/or cooperation from--her. That was the line that diminished dignity.

She remained independent in her own apartment with part-time help, until she was 102 and her unsteadiness led to falls. So it was a choice: caregivers in her apartment or a care facility of some kind. While she chose caregivers, she balked at having them. They, of course, didn't dare call her honey or sweetie or dear, but then they couldn't call her "chief or boss" either (POST 1). So they addressed her by her formal name: they called her Mrs. Miller. That suited her just fine.

Her trips to emergency increased with her age and age-related issues. Her son was at-the-ready, leaving instructions at nursing stations and the like saying "She wants to be called Mrs. Miller," after he informed appropriate people individually. If there was to be cooperation, Mrs Miller needed to be treated with--and know she had--respect.

I think about the many alert, mentally capable elderly people whose lives are untentionally diminished by people who assume if you're old, you can't be treated like a normal functioning human being. It's not ill-spirited. Is it thoughtless or a response to a stereotyped idea of older people? We could say it's not politically correct. But most likely many would not listen because old people won't have a loud enough political lobbying voice to be heard on this subject until baby boomers age a bit more.

Yet calling older people well-meaning, but diminishing, names is just one example. I think about Katy's mother who, in her late-80's, needed a wheel chair when there was a lot of walking involved. She was a smart and with-it woman, but Katy noticed that if they were going shopping, for example, the sales associate or clerk would address remarks to Katy, even though Katy's mother had initiated the conversation. This can happen in doctors' offices, at hospital registration sites, you name it. On the other hand, if we go shopping with our smart, with-it teenager (who's in a wheel chair for some not-observable reason) and he/she initiates a question, our teenager is answered. Check it out!

If we are sensitive and find ourselves involved in an experience like Katy's with her mother, Katy's response, "You know, Mother asked the question," is a good model. In a nice, but straight-forward way, it redirects the conversation to her mother so that the sales person or whoever is aware of his/her unfounded assumption. (And even if he/she doesn't "get it" completely, our parent isn't excluded from the conversation.)

We are so often on fast-forward that these diminishing experiences are easily ignored. But older parents, who usually have less going on in their lives and therefore may attach greater significance to things we hardly notice, say:"It chips away a little at a time." If your parent is not as strong as Mrs. Miller and empowering is a goal, these kinds of slights may be well worth recognizing.

* * *

If you have older parents and wish to share other examples for a future post, e-mail me (address at right sidebar).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Remarkable Parents

A man turned 100 recently and gave up riding his motorcycle! An e-mail from a reliable friend (after reading the driving posts), informed me of that fact because that man, who had a very distinguished career by the way, was her friend’s father.

And we worry about our aging parents driving cars.

We learn about increasing numbers of amazing old people all the time it seems. Is it because of medical advances and health information causing people to live better longer and/or because of technological advances and instant communication? In any event I'm going to tell you about a woman people call "remarkable" who never drove a car, much less rode a motorcycle. Today, October 13, she is 96 years and one month old. 

Facts: R. was widowed at 51. Her only child, my husband, lives far away. She flies unaccompanied to see us. She doesn’t use a cane. Everyone comments that she still has style, always looks well put together. The 40 birthday cards and phone calls she received a month ago are testimony to the love and admiration she has earned over the years. She is the wise octogenarian in my yet-to-be-published book.

R says she had to be independent from an early age. Independence is now a highest priority; she doesn't want to be taken care of. So she exercises (still uses the tread mill she bought right after her husband died) and "I don't abuse myself.” Translated: she eats right, rations her energy for what’s important and she makes the effort to be with people she cares about. She uses taxis and handles all of her affairs, and reads widely so she knows what’s going on.

Living in the same home since the 1940’s, R has welcomed many young families and babies to the neighborhood--always with a small gift for the babies. The babies have graduated high school and college and new families have filled homes that the others have left. She’s a surrogate grandmother, mother and wise friend to young and old. Who else would have a turkey sent to a neighbor’s son at college to share with friends who couldn’t be home for Thanksgiving?

R didn't want a celebration for her 95th birthday. This year was different. A neighbor in her 40’s was giving R a birthday luncheon. The 11 guests’ ages were 13-96. The hostess’s 13-year-old daughter wanted to be there as did her 25-year-old sister (recuperating from an ankle fracture).

No gifts; only memories shared around a large dining room table. One guest expressed how fortunate she felt to live across the street, saying after her mother died, she turned to R for understanding and wisdom. Another shared a time her husband and son were having difficulties and R suggested writing a note of explanation, instead of arguing while emotions heated up. It works! The 13-year-old said R was responsible for her New York trip with her class last spring, when her parents were uncertain about financing it. R explained to her mother why it would be a worthwhile experience (and gave the child a bit of spending money for the trip). R was as dear to these younger and older women as they were to her.

R has lived a long time, making the effort (it gets harder every year, she says) to remain involved, always thoughtful with words and deeds. Is that what enables her to so successfully span generations? Is it her genuine interest in others or the fact that you hear wisdom and feel a solid connection to what matters when she talks with you? Is it because she’s an inspiration and remarkable? Well, everyone and every birthday card says she is.
* * *
Do you have or know a remarkable, older parent? E-mail and tell me why. I'll try to use it in a post (with or without her/his first name).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Astors and Us

Media attention is focused on the Astors this weekend: Brooke, the elderly--now deceased--mother, her old adult son, and his adult son...three generations whose current situation might have been astonishing to imagine several decades ago.

Today things we assume to be rock solid or think could never happen, surprise us. I got to thinking about end-of-life issues—about my Dad and I discussing what I needed to know because I was his healthcare proxy (also called healthcare representative). I thought about problems that developed among siblings I know after parents died and the will was read. I wondered if there is a way to reduce that potential for conflict among family members, assuming the family members get along well to begin with.

I spoke with an attorney, a friend who has practiced trust and estate law for many decades and has excellent instincts about family relations. He says it’s better if adult children know certain things ahead of time: for example, who will be trustee or have power of attorney. That prevents second-guessing the rationale after the will is read. He advises parents to bring adult children into the process (assuming they are responsible in the ordinary sense) so they are not "left in the dark." At the minimum, he suggests that adult children know:

1. who the key advisors are (accountant, banker, casualty and life insurance agent, doctor, lawyer, and stock broker)

2. where the important documents are located.

If this isn't possible or desirable, adult children should at least know whom to contact. And lastly, ideally adult children should also know if there is a living will and in general what the will provides.

He continued with this idea which I really like: Parents who don’t want to discuss anything with their children ahead of time can write a letter, separate from any formal estate documents, explaining his or her thinking when the will or estate planning was done. It should be kept with other important documents with instructions “Not to be Opened Until My Death.”

To go a step further, I know of instances among my friends, where the mother dies and the father remarries. I imagine you do too. Then the father dies, leaving his adult children's relationship with the second wife in shambles. The reason: wills that seem (and perhaps are) unfair to the father's biological children. Could a letter, assuming a direct conversation before his death was too uncomfortable, be helpful?

We talked about second marriages. "Situation that include children from other spouses literally cry out for careful thought and planning, to be carried out by expertly-prepared life and estate-planning documents," he counseled.

If our parents haven't discussed anything with us yet, do we have the kind of relationship where we can initiate something? Can we use this post as a springboard for discussion?

Perhaps the above thoughts and information can help avoid some of the pitfalls.

If you have ideas, thoughts, insights, or questions, e-mail me at the gmail address (right sidebar) and I’ll get back to you before the next post.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pets and Parents

This week’s New Yorker magazine (Oct.12) presents three covers showing the progression of a well-dressed woman’s purchase of a fast food hamburger, for—it turns out—her French poodle.

An article in today’s New York Times Science Section (page D5), "Exploring the Health Benefits of Pets" discusses the effect of pets on children's well being. While it focuses on children, the next-to-the-last paragraph mentions an Alzheimer’s patient’s recognition of her beloved dog.

If we’ve had a pet, we know the inexplicable bond. This is no doubt a reason why gifting a pet to older parents who seem to need a jump-start, or are lonely, has crossed the mind of many adult children. That may—or may not—be a good idea.

“Social connectedness,” according to the major studies, is one of the three most important factors in successful aging. It is such a normal part of living that we take it for granted. If we are alert we will know when the social connectedness void begins to infiltrate our parents’ lives.

Whether pets qualify as offering social connectedness no doubt depends on the people and pets involved. We know pets provide companionship; their antics provide entertainment. They “stir up the dust;” usually give unconditional love, and give purpose to their owner’s life. A 2002 study found that older people who had pets experienced better overall physical and mental health than those who didn’t.

Halise Diamond, DVM at the Animal Referral and Emergency Center in Mesa, Arizona, reminds us that pets add so much to people’s lives, but they’re also a responsibility. She emphasizes that their care should be in keeping with an older person’s strength and mental ability. For example, a forgetful pet owner who doesn’t feed or overfeeds a pet, neglects its medications or overmedicates, can cause a pet serious problems, even death. If older parents have a pet and are becoming forgetful, Dr. Diamond recommends a calendar on which a pet’s needed medications are written and then crossed off once given.

If we contemplate giving a pet--to anyone actually--we need to consider:

Does the person want a pet? (Dr. Diamond emphasizes this is true no matter the age of the intended recipient.)

If an older person is on a fixed income, consider the cost of medical care—even routine check ups can be expensive.

If mobility is a problem, a dog that needs a lot of exercise is a problem.

Puppies require a lot of training and older people aren’t as forgiving as younger people when their possessions are chewed and scratched.

Rescue cats and dogs are older and more mellow.

The staff at a good shelter knows why pets have been relinquished and should be able to select pets that are appropriate for older people.

Some birds live a long time and may outlive an elderly owner. Hmmmm. Do I want a bird?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Driving (or Not) Part 4

I’ve forgotten whether Dad’s driver’s license came up for renewal the year before or the year after his 90th birthday. What I do remember is the fact that it was renewed for 8 or 10 years!

Also surprising: Dad went to the DMV bureau in a smaller town (he lived in a city) 20 minutes away. It was easy to park there; they were nice. He had a habit of keeping his driver’s license and all credit cards, but one, hidden in the trunk of his car. As he began the renewal process he realized he didn’t have his soon-to-expire license and told the DMV person that it was in the trunk of his car; he’d get it. No problem--the computer could access data. He only needed proof of who he was. The only “document” that had his name: a Safeway Grocery Store club membership card in his pocket. Proof of ID accepted. Renewal granted.

Fact: Some older drivers (and others) drive under “ify” circumstances.
Fact: When it’s threatening to life and limb, prevention is key.
Fact: Parents resent being forced to do something, just as we would resent our children forcing us to do something.
Fact: The entities and agencies, you would expect help from, may be of little or no help.

We all agree that we must stop parents who drive dangerously, but how do we do it without straining family relationships? If you're an only child, it's your burden. If there are siblings and the majority or all agree, great! If you don't agree, see information in #4.

#1. What seems like a major problem, may be easily solved (could be medications or a case like Kim’s mother). Remind mentally able parents of this. By pulling then into the situation and saying the problem may be easily solved, it's respectful, empowering, and helps them buy into whatever may come. To rule out serious problems, with your parents agreeing and perhaps making the call, first consult the primary care doctor, which may lead to additional testing (eg. vision, neurological).

#2. If it’s not correctable, the doctor is in the best position to deliver the message. This is a huge loss, a chunk of life is being removed. Doctors have practice in delivering bad news and hopefully do it in a kind, objective manner.

#3. Many adult children have phoned police, insurance companies, DMV etc., in efforts to curtail parents’ driving, and the results vary. It’s sneaky, which is disrespectful and undermines self-esteem among other things. Understandably children usually don’t feel good about it. Only as
a last resort, it may have merit.

#4. If we must deliver the no-more-driving message, how can we give facts, affirm our parents’ ability to participate in the decision-making and arrive at a no-more-driving result? If we're uncomfortable with that responsibility, a social worker experienced with the elderly can be a big help. Contact a local family counseling agency or an agency whose social workers specialize in geriatrics. It definitely won't be the first time they've helped adult children with this problem.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Driving (or Not) Part 3

Most of us think driving is necessary for our quality of life. No wonder we dread having the not-driving talk with our parents! If we can have this talk before driving is an issue we’re a step ahead. If we’re in crisis mode, it’s so much harder.

What follows are strategies and some information that I knew, wish I’d known or tried successfully with my parents.

I put older drivers in three groups: Those in the first group know themselves, are honest with themselves and quit driving when they should. They have pride and don't appreciate being told what to do. Denial characterizes the second group’s members, who don’t realize they’re bad drivers. Drivers in the third group are the most difficult. They’re not only bad drivers, but you can’t discuss anything with them. Today we focus on groups 1 and 2.

If your parent is in the first group like my father was, you’re lucky. Dad took the “Driving Miss Daisy” movie to heart; we had the driving discussion early. As a far-away-living adult child who believes in empowering, I found excuses to visit him every 4-6 weeks after Mother died. Once Dad turned 90 friends constantly pressured me to make him quit driving. (Age, you know.) I couldn’t see making my father do anything if there was no threat to life and limb. I did check his car for scratches, dents, or newly painted areas during each visit.(I would have done that regularly, even if I lived in the same town.) If we were going some place together, I always asked him whether he wanted to drive. He volunteered at least once each visit.

He stuck to the speed limit. Not over, not under. His depth perception was better than mine. He no longer had the radio on. “A distraction,” he said. Writing about it now I wonder if he surmised he was taking a driver’s exam with me. He was in control.

The second group is in denial. Denial exists without our even realizing it. It’s a psychological mechanism that keeps us from facing a reality we’re not yet ready to deal with. How do we speed up parents’ readiness to face reality? We can only try. An often successful start begins by saying “I need your help,” which pulls them in as a partner to the solution. We could explain that older drivers should know about resources that extend people’s ability to drive and offer information from the last post’s websites, or possibly an objective observation we’ve made of their driving or something connected to their driving; then see if anything resonates.

For example, my mother had a stroke. She recovered well, but her balance was shaky. She worried about falling. She still planned to drive. My kneejerk reaction was to tell her all of my reservations. Instead I said objectively that she could drive (true), and she could have lessons to boost her confidence or go with me to a large empty parking lot if she wanted to try that first. I also explained that she would have to be able to get in and out of the car by herself and maneuver her walker alone (reality). At first she said she wanted to try, but then decided there was too much effort involved. Perhaps because Dad was still alive to drive her, she never drove again.

“Driving (or Not)” concludes--honest!-- with the next post.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Driving (or Not) Part 2

We know from the last post that older drivers have much better safe-driving statistics than teenagers. We also realize that the consequences of unsafe driving are usually far more life-changing for older people than for teens.

When adult children take the time to think things through, as in Kim’s mother's case, the sobering reality of “taking away the keys” (along with the unhappiness, loss of independence etc. that accompany it), is averted. We can’t say “avoided” because dangerous drivers can not be on the road and there’s always the possibility—for anyone actually— that in future years safe drivers could become unsafe drivers.

While my parents were alive, I was clueless about information and programs to help older people continue drive. Luckily my father had seen the movie “Driving Miss Daisy” while he was in his 70’s. He said he would never drive too long and I should let him know if/when I thought he should limit or stop driving. (He stopped himself some 20 years later; mother was a different story—more about that later.) Here's a sample of information that I wish I'd known about.

AARP has an excellent site http://www.aarp.org/families/driver_safety with valuable information, that includes taking the “55 Alive” Driver Safety Course, (added bonus--it may save on auto insurance), a Driving IQ test and warning signs for when to limit or stop driving. A friend of mine—when he turned 55—told his mother that he would take the course with her every year and as long as she passed, she could continue to drive if there were no accidents. (She stopped driving at 98; they both took the course many times.)

Then there is CarFit, a program that enables you to check how well your car fits you (or in this case how well your parent’s car fits her or him). Individual appointments are scheduled for a “quick comprehensive check.” Recommendations for car adjustments and adaptations, as well as a list of resources, are then given. The easy-to-use website (http://www.car-fit.org/) provides all the information you need.

Finally there are booklets. Check out The Effects of Aging on Driving Skills, an excellent, free, small booklet offered by the USAA Educational Foundation. It’s downloadable from the website. http://www.usaaedfoundation.org/ (phone 800-531-8159). I also like The Older and Wiser Driver, http://www.aaafoundation.org/ (202-638-5944). Just write: "older and wiser and driver" (without quote symbols) in the search space and the brochure comes up.

I find the above helpful for keeping older parents, who are capable of driving, safe and “in the driver’s seat.” And that expression is actually appropriate. When older people can continue to drive safely, as you well know, a huge aspect of their independence and feeling of control stays in tact. They feel good and we don’t have the additional responsibility of getting them from place to place. So we feel good.

Next post: the “(or Not)” conclusion to my driving posts.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Driving (or Not) Part 1

“Perhaps the scariest road hazard is the one they don’t make a sign for.” The large bold type on the back cover of the August 10&17, 2009 New Yorker catches my eye: The silhouette of a girl, leaning forward, hands on the steering wheel, pony tail flying fills a drawing--a yellow and black, road-hazard-shaped sign, with a smaller sign just below saying TEENS. I save the back cover. I know I want to use it in my blog.

When we think about scary drivers, don’t we usually think “old drivers?” Mary’s Florida father (last post) won’t be driving for a while. That may be a relief. Admittedly many of us shudder when we think about older Florida/Arizona/California drivers. And some of us may wonder if drivers in their 80’s should be on the road, period. If teenagers are “perhaps the scariest road hazard,” what about older drivers?

Research shows that drivers age 55 and older are 25% of the driving population but have only 1% of the accidents. AARP tells us that older drivers usually drive fewer miles each year than younger drivers, so we must consider that. Also the number of accidents per mile rises sharply at age 75, which may be why some think older drivers are scary.

The New Yorker back cover informs us that “teens make up only 7% of America’s drivers but account for 12% of all accidents,” elaborating “IN 2007 TEENS KILLED MORE THAN 3,000 PEOPLE IN OTHER VEHICLES.” With the goal of supporting our parents’ self-esteem and not taking away independence prematurely, how do children use the preceding facts and information when assessing and discussing older parents’ driving?

If we have aging parents and teenagers and we see signs of dangerous driving, how do we respond to each age group? Yes, I know, have sufficient insurance. But of course more is involved. Aren’t we more likely to ground a teenager (whose whole life is ahead) but take the keys away permanently and change the life of an older person? Should one size fit all older drivers?

“Make Haste Slowly” is good advice, unless there’s a threat to life and limb. Taking time to get the information needed for informed decisions instead of knee-jerk reactions, is especially important when potentially life-changing consequences are at stake. As we gather information and review options, solutions for seemingly large problems are often clarified.

Example: Kim’s 76-year-old mother spends winters in the South with her adult son. Her mind is good and she’s a good driver; but she gave her children a scare. She took a wrong turn going home from a party, got in a lane that put her onto a freeway, and ended up in a neighboring state. Ultimately she got home three hours later. While her son immediately wanted to take away the keys, her far-away-living daughter suggested their mother have thorough physical, neurological, and vision examinations-- taking away the keys only until the results were back. The results? She was fine. Then what? Creative thinking. Her adult children gifted her with a GPS programmed only for “home.” Three years later, a happy, confident, independent 79-year-old continues to drive without incident.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Release from the Hospital

One night in August I came home to find a voice mail message from a woman who said an aunt had told her to contact me. She needed advice about home health aides. Her father was coming home from the hospital.

When I phoned the Florida number I learned that Mary lives and works in New Jersey. Her healthy, Florida-living father (age 83) had his annual physical, was sent to a cardiologist, and thought it was no big deal. Although he told Mary, an only child, not to bother coming to Florida, she took a week off work and went. Father ended up with successful bypass surgery, but an infection followed, and he was now in an intermediate care/rehab facility about to be released.She needed reliable temporary help for her dad when he went home.

I suggested the hospital social worker whom, it turns out, she had met with. She said she had “around a hundred” names of agencies etc. and didn’t know where to begin. While medicine’s not my competency, when there’s a chance to empower a parent I grab it.

After being told her father was very independent and mentally capable, I asked if her father preferred a male or female aide (hadn’t entered Mary’s mind, she said). I explained some men prefer men for obvious reasons or because they don’t appreciate the nurturing nature (“Honey,” “Sweetie”-- they want “Boss”). Having this kind of conversation with him is affirming and empowering. He would begin to feel some control, providing the potential for a better result.

I also asked if there were family or close friends living near her dad. None. He and his girlfriend ended their relationship some months before and since she was in her early 90’s, Mary didn’t think she could be much help anyway.

We discussed the importance of contacting an agency where the workers were bonded to ensure—as much as possible—that nothing would be stolen (a major problem and concern). Her response that her father had nothing of value in his condo made me think how violated and insecure we would feel if someone we depended on came into our home and took anything without asking and I mentioned this. I then added older people, like my dad, often balked at paying additional monies to an agency. Mary quipped “Are your dad and my dad brothers?” She had a plan.

"Empower" is usually not one of the first words we think of when it comes to older people. More often we hear that we should "preserve" older people's independence, "preserve" their dignity. There is nothing wrong with that. Yet it's a static concept. "Preserve"--hold onto. Think about children. We try to empower, move them forward-- not "preserve." Can we apply this to older people?

Mary's father had no major issues until now. While we never know when our parents’ first “aging event” will occur, we do know that when we can find ways to empower, regardless of the situation, parents feel respect, feel some control, and everyone benefits.