Category Archives: The Aging Process

I See that you’re suffering; let me provide relief

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother’s core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of the weeks-old vase of flowers. She had been beautiful when my father met her and still capable of love when I became their late-in-life child, but by the time she gazed up at me that day, none of this mattered.”

The first paragraph in Alice Sebold’s novel, The Almost Moon, hit me in the gut. A frustrated daughter relieves her mother’s suffering while also setting herself free from the pressures of caring for someone who no longer recognized her as her daughter.

But this is a novel. This is not real life. As soon as I finished the book, I sighed and silently asked the unthinkable, “When will we see a headline about a daughter ‘relieving’ her mother of suffering?”

And then this article appeared. Is that what this is about? When we see a mother-daughter murder-suicide in the news, alarm bells ring. I discussed this with Dak and these are our thoughts in his words:

 

It’s just one case, right? It’s not like this is happening all over the place. This is not an epidemic. It’s just a weird thing is what it is. It’s an isolated incident, that’s all.

And yet, there is a whole lot of mystery to this that opens out into many possible worlds. This story offers very little detail. The authors won’t speculate. This one will.

I can imagine reasons for this happening from many angles.

The mother had a dread disease and no one would listen to her except the daughter who decided to act to alleviate her mother’s pain and then couldn’t live with herself.

The tyrannical mother finally became weak enough for the abused daughter to overpower and kill. Then killed herself.

Sorrow at loss of being useful.
Sorrow for being a burden.
Without hope.
Interior demons hide in the dark and they look like competence to everyone else.
Despair. So many reasons for despair.
Why did she choose a gun?
A belief that there is a better afterlife.
The weight of living is too heavy.
Too much of a burden on the ones you love.
Too much of a burden on the country you love.
Loss of community to death, to convenience, to entertainment and long distance.

What are the solutions here? How do we feel when we read a story like this? I feel my mind reach out to try to comprehend what happened, but why? Do I think I might become a woman whose mother is still alive and have to face this situation myself? No. But I can imagine how it could have felt and I think it would have felt pretty bad. No matter what the story behind the people is, at least one of them was suffering and had no relief in life. We can moralize about her choice, but that doesn’t seem like a solution to me. I feel that it’s wrong to kill, but happy people have no reason to kill. A satisfied society is a safe society.

So these two…hey one of them lived to be 93. That’s some persisting. I don’t think people live to be 93 without figuring a few things out and my feeling is that she had a good way of coping with stress, one that worked. Her daughter made it to 60 and that’s saying a lot as well. (I know we’re not supposed to be impressed with how long we live now compared to the entirety of our previous existence, but I’ve been watching “Cosmos.”)

She was suffering and we were in no position to offer relief. I think the fear is that one day we will be suffering in such a way that we need help for relief and it doesn’t come, or it’s slow to come. What kind of help?

We seem divided from our heritage. We have social media instead of being social, and I think many of us are fooled into thinking that the two are equivalent. There will always be suffering, but what if we were so kind to each other and considered ourselves together as a body rather than individual and separated pieces that we all shared the suffering so it ceased being so awful to any one of us?

I think it’s easy to forget that there are solutions to our problems and they are going to be found whenever two or more of us gather together. Remember who told us to do that? Again here it is easy to get hooked into the story, but the story is alive in us. We are telling the story of ourselves right now. I know I’m not alone in preferring kindness to suffering.

Dak Gustal is a freelance writer and poet living in Randoph, VT. You may contact him at st.augustus@gmail.com

Poetry in Caregiving

Over the years Dak (a.k.a. my brother Steve) has given me a most treasured gift: his love through words and friendship. I am grateful that we are a sister and brother duo that has grown up sharing similar interests and friends. We played well together as young kids (even though I broke many of his “toy” sticks just to make him mad), acted in high school plays and marched in band at the same time. While living in Denver, CO, he sang in a church choir that I directed (often times teasing me before we sang by mouthing to me, “What are we singing?”) Today we are uncovering ways we can combine our talents to further the understanding of family caregiving and aging. I am blessed to have such a wise and loving brother on my team. It is my honor to share his thoughts about the month that is now closing and the journey of family caregiving. Read more »

Brain Seeks Research: Cash Available through NFL

Ever forget where you put your car keys? That’s normal. Forgetting what car keys are…not normal. What is the difference between normal aging and memory loss? In my presentation called Forget Less; Remember More, I help you arm yourself with the facts about your brain and reduce your worries. We explore how the human brain works and what it needs to stay healthy. I introduce exercises fun, simple activities you do on a regular basis to help build a stronger brain.

Rather than worrying about cognitive decline as we age, I teach the facts about aging and memory loss, about normal function vs. disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia and is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Every 68 seconds an American develops Alzheimer’s disease. That will increase to every 33 seconds by 2050. And yet research lags behind. Why? Because we remain a youth-centric nation and many of the diseases with dementia affect older adults.

Enter brain injuries among professional football players. Read more »

What older adults know

This is where I started working with older adults. 24 years ago, I fell in love with teaching and directing adult learning programs. The experience shaped my career. My brother and I attended camp together as kids and now he’s back as an adult, sharing what I know to be a very special week:

Dak and KBBy Dak Gustal

What is knowing? What is not knowing?

I am at the Norwegian adult learning program at Concordia Language Village’s “Skogfjorden” in northern Minnesota and I am feeling good but also a little torn apart. Things move fast here, and there is a sense of motion that cannot be denied but also does not want to be fully explained, like a wave and a particle trying to compete for the same space in the mind. And this is only day two.

Here is a program predominantly led and attended by older adults and when you hear that, you might be tempted to think there should be a slow pace going on. You would be wrong.

These are not people waiting around for some kind of reward; they are teaching and reaching out to all that is around them, embracing their interests and uninhibited by learning.

DSC_0069

These are people that are willing and able to tell the truth of their lives and they share readily of themselves here without reserve.

They are not growing old despite their aging; they are also not burdened with the idea that they are more than what they are.

They are comfortable with their lives and because of this, they are able to offer themselves up with a kind of joy and openness that you don’t find in youth.

Contrast this with the serenity of the setting—the deep, northern woods, beautiful rustic cabins and pristine lakes in the cooling colors of autumn—and you feel life in a way that is its own reward. The mix of active and strident work learning a new language with the natural pace of deep nature is life itself lived fully.

***

At Buck Lake, Late September, 2013

Few look
But if you do
Come open
Fly apart
The leaves
Falling here
Are your heart
The wind
Breathes
For you
Forever here
You will not survive
This kind of beauty
Look anyway

Dak Gustal is a freelance writer and poet living in Randoph, VT. You may contact him at st.augustus@gmail.com

Ew! Nanna and Pappa should not have sex

By Dak Gustal

Oh my! Did you know that sex is such a big deal?

I sure didn’t. I was surprised to find out that people think about and want to have sex even when they have wrinkles and gray hair.

Yeah, I took a look at this article about how people get fired when residents have sex in nursing homes, and also at this one about people that allow and expect it to happen. Read more »

A new way to handle ‘badly behaved’ older adults

Tase them! This isn’t the first time a nursing home resident has been tased and it won’t be the last. It should cause alarm bells to be clanging in the hearts of everyone caring for an aging loved one. We aren’t given details in the report (I’m waiting for Paul Harvey to fill us in with “the rest of the story”), but it’s very disturbing to think that a professional caregiver felt it necessary to call in outside enforcement.

I’ve been in tough situations with residents. I recall Ann in a dementia care community I managed: she believed herself to be a nurse by day, thought she needed to free fellow residents by night. When our dementia care community’s water pipes sprung a leak and we needed to evacuate residents just after bedtime, Ann seized the opportunity. Read more »

Is Assisted Living a Dangerous Place to Live?

The PBS Frontline special “Life and Death in Assisted Living” has sparked a great deal of chatter on social media. Assisted living (AL) is not regulated like nursing home care (or SNF-skilled nursing facility), but do we want it to be? Regulations tend to put the kibosh on creative offerings.

One of the initial definitions of assisted living was “living with risk.” When I first worked in the industry, folders replaced charts; aides didn’t wear uniforms; and med carts never entered the dining room. Buildings were designed to look like country mansions with grand staircases (that residents were discouraged from using).

Assisted living in 1996 was designed to provide some assistance in a home-like setting. As people have aged in place, AL has become a less-regulated version of a nursing home. While the industry markets these communities as homes, they refer to them as facilities. Who wants to live in a facility?

As for staff being overworked, underpaid, and under-trained, I agree. Years ago my partner and I started our company Age In Motion, Inc. We designed programs to address the issue of assisted living staff that was (still is) underpaid, undervalued, and under-trained. We created a staff training that not only motivated the staff and reminded them of their importance, but also taught them about normal aging, diseases that cause dementia, family dynamics, and activities that engage individuals and groups.

I thought we’d be in demand … that everyone, especially senior housing, would want this training. Sadly, most choose to ignore aging until it happens to someone they love, then the cramming begins. But where do you get the information?

This is why I do what I do and have done what I’ve done. Let’s talk about this thing called aging, engage in understanding what happens to us as we grow older — the ups, the downs, the good, the bad. This is the package. This is why I started The Unexpected Caregiver radio show four years ago and have a mission to syndicate it throughout the US and world.

The conversation is long overdue, but it is not distasteful to have. Aging and taking care of each other is not distasteful. And if we learn about aging, plan for our aging years, research our options, we will have a better understanding of what is to come.

No, assisted living is not dangerous. It is as misunderstood as the journey of aging.

Monsters are only scary when we don’t face them

As a little girl, I was afraid of monsters in the closet. When my parents came to tuck me in, I made sure Dad shut the closet doors tight. Once the lights went out I never looked in the closet. The fear of growing old is just as scary to many. We buy products to help us cover it up, reverse it, or change its color. And even though demographics paint a clear picture that we are moving from a predominantly youth nation to a “mature” one, we still try to outrun the unknown that comes with aging. It’s almost as if we want to stuff anything having to do with growing older in the closet and shut the door tight.

2013 Marge and Kari

Marge recently presented me with one of her beautiful gourd creations

Marge Engelman, a professor and now a dear friend, was the first person that asked me to look at myself as an older woman. For a class exercise, she had us draw ourselves as an 85-year-old person—how we envisioned looking, what we were doing and with whom. This was my first course in aging studies during my Master’s work in 1994. What an eye-opener! I now teach that exercise in my presentations and like me, people experience many “ah-ha” moments. Once the door is open and the conversation rolling about what aging is all about, fear drops off. Looking at this mysterious, oftentimes-scary part of our lives called “aging,” is much like the monsters I imagined in my closet as a little girl. When I bravely looked in my childhood closet, the only thing frightening about the inside of my closet was if my parents decided to open it and discover my secret cleaning methods. I was afraid of what could be in there.

I am blessed that I have spent a great deal of time working with and around older adults. I have many elderly friends. I love them and embrace their aging…so why not my own aging? When I look at myself in the mirror, I see the aging changes. I also see the future possibilities and the many crazy times that have formed my face. I encourage you to look into the face of aging—have conversations with friends, talk with an older person, look in the mirror and observe the changes without judging. I hope that one day we all embrace aging instead of ignoring, fearing, and trying to make it—aging—go away.

Are You a “Wise Hoot”?

I designed a seminar called “Connecting with and Coaching Caregivers of Older Adults” for Health Ed and presented in Des Moines, IA, this past Friday. I travel to Cedar Rapids next week and then Milwaukee in May. I had a great group of professional caregivers last Friday, all eager to learn better methods of supporting the family caregiver.

One participant named Liz came back after lunch with a crazy, owl ring. She gave it to me and said, “This is because you’re wise and you’re a hoot.” Read more »

It’s not you; it’s your hormones

Thank you Dr. Sara Gottfried for reminding us to stop blaming ourselves and take a look at our biology. If our hormones are out of balance, we’re struggling against our selves. I gained invaluable insights into hormones during my radio interview with Dr. Sara: Caregiving and Hormones.

As women and as caregivers, we tend to give and give and give. Dr. Sara sees thousands of women in her medical practice. The majority of her patients fall into the classic definition Read more »

Woman Dies While Nurse Calls 911

The lead sentence in a California online news source read: “A nurse’s refusal to give CPR to a dying 87-year-old woman at a California independent-living home despite desperate pleas from a 911 dispatcher has prompted outrage and spawned a criminal investigation.”

This is a tragedy. We need to dig deeper, however, to understand how this can happen. Did the independent living community have a medical arrangement with her? Read more »

Isn’t it Time to Embrace this Thing Called Aging?

“I want to talk about another word that is used to demean and diminish older people.” The first sentence in a recent blog post written by Dr. Bill Thomas perked my interest. It wasn’t a word that immediately came to me, but is such an “ah-ha” after reading his post. We say it often, “My mother is 75, but she still drives.” Still is the word. In other words, the person is old, but they can still do this or that. They are old, but still useful. Still able to get by on their own. Still smiling. The list goes on and on.

We are all aging, yet many want to ignore the aging changes and make note of what we can still do despite our age. Read more »

Talking about aging will help family and informal caregivers

In this video, Kari discusses aging and caregiving on Valley News Live.  Read more »