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.