It’s Messy

I have a new friend. She is 93. I have been having coffee klatches with her. I find her fascinating. She has been telling me her story. There is nothing linear about her story. There is also nothing linear about the way she tells her story to me. As I listen to her, she takes me along on a tangled, curvy journey of her life. I feel the twists and turns in how she tells me about it.

As she is telling her story she goes back and forth between different languages, in a fluid and seemingly necessary way. I try to follow along as best I can. I don’t stop her because I feel this is the way she has to tell her story. Sometime her native language does better justice to it than her second language. I go along with her wherever she takes me, and then she always seems to conclude with some powerful, profound statement. Something that pulls it all together and nearly knocks me off my chair with the strength of it. It is a roller coaster for us both, and I hang on for the whole ride.

Maybe there is a deep lesson in this. Could my friend’s story of her life, as an entirely coherent yet messy narrative, be another way we might think about the experience of growing older? As a story that is not neat and clear and step-wise. But one that works together to make us who we are.

In many ways we like to think about growing older in a very linear way. By linear, I mean moving along in a single, straight line and having only one dimension (time). Like this chart.

graph

Clearly, as time increases we grow older. So, it is easy to think of it as a linear process.

Evidence that we might think this way is in how we talk about growing older as being entirely tied to chronological age (e.g. 65+), assumptions that all older people have similar experiences, and one-size-fits-all policies, products, and services that are expected to meet everyone’s needs. You know, ageism in general.

However, there is nothing really linear about growing older. It is quite multi-dimensional, on every level. There can be great fluctuations. Up and down. Sideways. All over the place. Different for each person. More like this.

maze-32458_1280

This resonates with me.

This also happens to be the way my brain works. I try to make it linear sometimes, to force it into a neat line. But it is all over the place. And I have learned to lean into it a bit. An idea comes, and I ride with it all over the place. Then sometimes I drop it for a while, and I pick up some other pieces that might go along with it, or might not. Then, I often need to rest. Let go of all the chaos that is happening in there. And then I come back to it, and see what fits together. And lots of time I have created something new. I have had to say goodbye to some things, but this is to make room for new things.

Hmm. When I have talked to fellow humans who are growing older, it seems like aging is more like this. A tangled, beautiful mess. And as I am growing older, I feel this to be true, particularly as a life transition.

When I think about it, we sometimes talk about what it is like to be an elder. But we don’t talk very often about the process of growing older, meaning the long journey from early adulthood through middle adulthood to elderhood. Certainly, we are all growing older from birth. But, in reality, most of us probably don’t feel that we are “aging” until middle adulthood. We are on this incredible journey of living and change. And it is messy.

Sometimes it seems as if the expectation is that one day, you magically wake up, and you are “old”. Some might think that this happens at an arbitrary age, like 75. Maybe some think it is when you are no longer “independent”.

But it does not happen that way. We GROW older, meaning there is a process. And from everything I hear from elders, the experience of growing older is a multi-dimensional process – complex, tangled, and messy. Just like life in general.

wool-3543790_1920

To be clear messy is not a “bad” thing. Maybe it is not “good” either. We might be tempted to qualify the experience of growing older as “good” or “bad”;  these linear terms do not adequately represent the experience.

If we consider that the process and experience of growing older is not linear, then perhaps we have to consider that the acceptance or embracing of growing older is also not linear.

We are a society of aging-deniers. “I’m not old.” “I will never be old.” “Young at heart.” Yet, we grow old. It seems that while we are busy denying something is happening, it is happening. And we miss the opportunity to really live it.

Maybe if we allowed ourselves some messiness in accepting growing older, we would be better equipped to accept rather than deny. Maybe even embrace growing older.

There is really no one way to grow old.

For me, growing older, and my relationship with it, is messy. As a revisionary gerontologist, I do believe that growing older is a beautiful process that brings many gifts. I believe it is the process of becoming oneself. And, it is also scary, frustrating, emotional, and not easy at times. This is okay.

On one hand, I think wrinkles and grey hair are beautiful. They show a life lived. On the other hand, I do not want grey hair right now. If you look in my medicine cabinet, you will see a nice balance of non-toxic moisturizers and face washes with glycolic acid and retinol (“youth-enhancing products”). This is my paradox of embracing growing older.

data-1293312_1280

I look in the mirror and I see me. I see everything I have experienced to get me to this place. And I am in awe. But when I look at pictures of myself 10, 20, 30 years ago, I notice I look different now. And there is a little bit of grief for what has changed. There is also pride in who I am now and how my face and my body reflect a life lived.

I am being very honest about this. And I am somewhat ashamed at my paradox. After all, I am a revisionary gerontologist. Yet, perhaps this is part of the process of growing older. It does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in a linear, organized fashion.

The culture of aging in which we live is so strong, with its negative messages and unrealistic expectations. When I think about myself in it, it is like I am in a jungle, hacking my way through this maze. Of course the jungle is beautiful, I tell myself. Oh yes, that snake is just stunning.

nature-3343170_1920

I know I am supposed to love all of it, but I don’t. At least not all of the time. (Note: This metaphor is NOT comparing growing older to a snake. It is about seeing beauty in things, even natural things, that also make us afraid.)

Just like we don’t wake up one day and “become old”, I don’t think we wake up and really embrace growing older. This acceptance is messy too. Perhaps it is a necessary messiness. Where we have to hold these ideas in our brains, about what is important, what our physical selves mean to us, how we confront and live with changes in our bodies, our brains, our relationships . And let some things go. And embrace others.

What I don’t think we should do is force this messiness into a straight line. Just like it is probably not a good idea to tell anyone how to age, it is probably also not a good idea to tell anyone, or ourselves, the one correct way to embrace aging.

Yes, and.

The paradigm of growing older needs to change. We need to create a new narrative of growing older. Even if it is a messy one. Maybe this narrative addresses the possibilities and meaning we derive from the ups and downs of growing older. It promotes the gifts of growing older.

We need to have these ongoing conversations with each other. To resist the temptation to make things neat and organized and step-wise. To listen. To honor each of our lived experiences, both in terms of growing older and our acceptance or embracing of it. Maybe if we are willing to share our own messy stories with others, we become less afraid. And maybe there is comfort in knowing that everyone has their own tangled mess.

45376
https://www.everythingcrossstitch.com/my-mess-mrp-p45376.aspxc

 

 

On Bullies and Bullying

“They are so mean to each other,” the administrator tells me.

“There is a group of them that says terrible things to some of the other residents.”

“They act like children – the way they fight with each other!”

“They are a bunch of bullies and should be ashamed of themselves – at their age!”

Do I believe that elders act this way?

Yes.

Do people of any age sometimes act this way?

Yes.

Why is my stomach hurting when I think about this topic?

Perhaps it is because no one likes a bully (or maybe I am remembering the time my childhood bully punched me in the stomach). But it is unsettling me and I’m not sure why yet. What I do know is that when I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach, I have to hold the topic or idea in front of me and work through it. Will you help me do this, for the sake of my stomach?

There has been a lot of attention lately about “elderly bullies”. My sense is that it might refer to a lot of different ways of acting, but in this context the term bully is usually used to describe older individuals who are mean to others – they might exclude them from activities, or generally treat others in an insulting, rude, or offensive way.  The term is usually reserved for actions from one elder to another, not necessarily from an elder to a professional, although this could also be the case.

More broadly, the term bullying is defined as “unwanted aggressive behavior” toward another. Many definitions also include that this behavior is repeated and that there is a power imbalance between the individuals.

edward-lear-1823469_1280

Bullies have unfortunately been around forever. Most of the time, when we have talked about bullies, this has been centered around children. So, this is kind of new to consider bullying among elders. However, it is not necessarily a phenomenon for just the very young and old. People of any age bully each other. Have you heard of mean tweets?

I worry over how we are thinking about and addressing bullying in elders, and how this might be related to their age and the way we think about growing older.

I have more questions than answers. However, perhaps these questions will challenge us to think more deeply about bullying.

What are we considering bullying?

I’m not entirely clear on when and how we are using the term in the context of elders. What is actually happening to label it as bullying? If Mrs. Wilson one day yells at Mr. Gomez in their art class, because he is “going too slow” is this considered bullying? Or, is it just a rude way of Mrs. Wilson expressing her frustration? If a group of (older) women tell the “new person” she can’t sit with them for lunch, are they being bullies? Or, are these ladies exercising their rights as adults to choose who sits with them (even though this is not polite)?

If the people involved were younger, would we consider it bullying?

Is bullying in the eye of the beholder? Maybe it is defined by the reaction of the person being bullied. Does calling an interaction bullying really help us to understand the situation and look at it from different perspectives?

bully-655659_1920Is bullying even the right term?

I imagine we are using this term to reflect what we see in bullying among children, especially given recent, necessary attention to this painful experience. Perhaps there are similarities to what we see in bullying with children, but there are also big differences. Similarities might be the aggression, the sense of ganging up on an innocent person, and the bully demonstrating power and control.

The differences might be that with bullying in children, we are talking about humans who lack growth – they are developmentally immature. In other words, they don’t know much yet about how to interact in this world. They have little life experience. With bullying in elders, these are individuals who have extensive life experience and are developmentally mature adults.

Here is another major difference. With children, we, “the adults”, are in a position to guide them regarding how they should act. This is based on the premise that children do not know better. With elders, you could argue that we, “the adults”, do not need to guide them on how to act, as they are adults too. In fact, they could have more life experience than we do. So, it is adults telling other adults how to act. It is important to note that elders likely do know what it appropriate behavior, even if they are not acting in ways that we think appropriate.

child-2027489_1280

When we talk about older people as bullies it attaches a label that is used primarily with children. It has the potential to suggest that this behavior is child-like, and that the people doing it are children. Yet, they are adults.

The term bullying might not adequately capture the complexities of the actions of an elder, especially when these actions are possibly the result of a lifetime of experiences, personality, the current environment, coping mechanisms, etc.

Could the way we see bullying be reflective of a paradigm of growing older?

There is pretty clear evidence that this unfortunate paradigm does exist. In this paradigm, older people:

  • Should always be nice.
  • Should always “behave”, i.e. do what people tell them to do, or don’t do what we don’t want them to do.
  • Need to fit into “our” way of doing things.
  • Are essentially like children and need to be managed.
  • Are seen as helpless.
  • Are not asked for their perspective.
  • Need to be protected and kept safe at all costs.

According to this paradigm, older people who are not nice, and do not behave the way we think they should, need “us” to tell “them” how to act.

Why would elders bully?

I imagine there are many reasons why elders are acting like bullies. Maybe they were always bullies. Maybe this is how they exert power and control over others because they feel powerless and are lacking control. Maybe they are living with deep emotional pain. Maybe that is how they respond to seeing others around them living with various cognitive and physical challenges, and it reflects their own fears. Maybe they are complex human beings.

two-32877_1280

Why are we so focused on bullying in elders (as opposed to other adults)?

It seems like most of our concern about bullying related to elders is with those living in long-term care (nursing homes, assisted living, continuing care retirement communities, etc.) or otherwise being served by a program like senior centers, adult day, etc. In other words, all situations in which “we”, the professional, have both a sense of responsibility for their security and well-being as well as sometimes a sense of control over their actions.

This is a unique situation when you consider that bullying happens at every age, and we are not always focused on addressing it in other situations like we are with elders. Bullying happens in the office, in PTA meetings, in book clubs. Yet we don’t often see anti-bullying programs in these situations, to manage the young-to-middle-aged adults. The difference with elders seems to be that we, the professionals, think we need to manage bullying. This leads me to a related, important question.

What is our responsibility, as professionals, to intervene in situations in which we see bullying in elders?

When do we step in? Certainly, do not want elders to be hurt by offensive, aggressive words and actions. We want to provide a sense of security. At the same time, we need to be mindful of paternalism and infantilizing elders, even if we feel they are acting immature.

What about people with dementia who are being treated terribly by their peers? What if they cannot defend themselves?

I suspect the answers to this are complex and dependent on many factors, including the level of harm done and the ability of the person being bullied to defend himself or herself. It seems like it also goes back to understanding what is actually happening in a situation, from various perspectives. Perhaps our responsibility goes beyond the specific bullying situation to our role in bigger issues like creating community, connection, and a different culture of aging and care. So…..

What are “we”, as professionals, doing to create a culture of bullying?

I know this is not easy. But we do need to think about this. Bear in mind, this is not about blaming ourselves. This is about being introspective and authentic, because we are caring people who want to do the right thing. Let’s consider…..

How do we inadvertently create a culture in which people might not value each other, or know each other, or be afraid of each other?

Do we send messages that some people are “better” than others by separating people based on their independence/dependence level or cognitive status?

Do we boss older people around? Tell them what they need to be doing? Tell them what they should not be doing?

Do you limit people’s autonomy so that they feel they need to control situations and others with aggression?

umbrella-1778642_1280

What are some things we can do to address this?

In the spirit of person-centeredness, understanding who people are and what matters to them, it is important to consider how we can have open, honest conversations surrounding bullying. I say “surrounding bullying” because I think it is more than what the term suggests, in terms of a focus only on the aggression, hate, rudeness, incivility, etc.

Although it is important to discuss what bullying means to people and how it should be addressed, it is more than that.

It is about the standards we create and uphold on how we treat each other in a community.

Maybe there are things we can do that can re-frame this conversation so that, rather than just focus on bullying, we focus on creating community, connection, purpose, acceptance, empathy, etc.

Perhaps we can even frame this conversation in terms of well-being – how we can explore what people need and create a culture that supports these needs in a very deliberate, proactive way. If we use the Domains of Well-Being from the Eden Alternative  as an example, how do we create a culture that supports identity, growth, autonomy, security, connectedness, meaning, and joy for each and every person we are serving. Would this create a bully-free zone?

This starts with the voices of elders. As we think more about what bullying means, elders, including the bullies themselves, need to be a part of this conversation. One way we can approach this conversation is by finding commonality in our shared experiences of feeling belittled, discriminated against, unacknowledged, ignored – things that likely each of us have experienced at some point in our lives, even bullies.

man-2027351_1280

What Do We Want to Say About Growing Older?

We don’t have the right language to address the experience of growing older and older people themselves. Here are some recent headlines I have come across:

the-glamorous-grandmas-of-instagram-2.jpg

And…
The Glamorous Grandmas of Instagram (1)
It is interesting to me that, particularly in these examples, older people are characterized by a role that is not at all related to the point of these articles. If these articles were indeed about grandparenting, that would be appropriate. However, they are not.

How about these headlines:

NBA Greats Go Geriatric in Formulaic 'Uncle Drew'
The term geriatric refers to a branch of medicine that focuses on the health of people who have grown older. Neither of these headlines are related to medical situations, yet they use the term “geriatric”.

I think this is reflective of several things. One is our general discomfort of how to refer to older people. It is also indicative of a narrow view of growing older, as if the only way we can think about an older woman or an older man is as a grandma or grandpa. Or in the context of medical care. Perhaps it is also reflective of our need to categorize older people into nice little boxes. Or maybe it is reflective of how we really don’t know who older people are.

So what is the language we can use to talk about the experiences of growing older and who people are as they grow older? There have been numerous debates related to this over the years. Do we call people senior citizens? Older adults? Seniors? Elders? Retirees?

The conversations have mostly been at this somewhat superficial, yet necessary, level. However, in order to really find the right language, I think we need to deepen this conversation. Because it is not just about what words we use to describe a group of older people. It is considering what we are wanting to say about growing older. The very fact that we struggle with what to call people who have grown older is evidence of a conflict. And although I think some of this conflict is driven by wanting to be respectful to elders, and not offending people, there is something deeper that we do not really talk about all that much.

There is a tension or paradox in the language we use that reflects tension in our paradigm about the experience of growing older and how we see older people.

silhouette-3141264_1280

On one hand we want to acknowledge elders or elderhood as something special, unique, different. We want to honor elders as important members of our community, with life experiences to be valued. On the other hand we don’t want to stereotype or group people just based on their age. We don’t want to draw boxes around them so that they are separated from us, or seen as “other”. However, the very fact that we yearn to give this group of people a categorical name is evidence that we DO think of them as different than other (younger) people.

Should we think of them differently? How?

On one hand we want to acknowledge the unique experience of growing older, perhaps by specifically connecting people’s ages with what they are doing or saying. On the other hand, does it matter to distinguish age when we talk about how people are living? Does that abnormalize aging?

I wonder how these headlines above might have been different. Maybe it should simply be “Glamorous Women of Instagram, at Any Age.” We seem to be uncomfortable saying “61-year old MAN” vs “61-year old GRANDPA”. And maybe it seems important to reference a person’s age. Perhaps this is because we want to highlight an achievement and make a point about their age in attaining this achievement. But then it is as if we are saying, “Despite this woman being 65, she is fashionable! Can you believe it!” or “Despite this man being 61, he is fit! That is crazy!” We wouldn’t expect to see a headline that says, “Glamorous Teenagers of Instagram” or “Handsome 25-year-old Man Models at Milan Fashion Week”. Is that because this is considered “normal”?

On one hand we want to celebrate elderhood. On the other hand, we want to see people not for their age but for who they are as individuals.

There is a paradox in this, a tension that I think is really important to consider and talk about. How do we strike a balance in which we are honoring people for their life experience, and considering their unique place in our life span, but also acknowledging they are not just their age. How do we celebrate older people for who they are as secondary to their age, not despite their age?

Perhaps we need to get to a point in which we don’t need to be surprised that an older person is glamorous or strong. Certainly it is important to show positive examples of growing older, and I do think this is part of what will change the culture of growing older. Yet, I also think we need to be careful and thoughtful about not suggesting that there is an archetype to growing older. You don’t need to be glamorous or strong to be great. But good for you if you are! It really is a perplexing challenge.

When we relegate people to categories based on their age alone, whether we call it “seniors” or “elders” or “older adults”, there is the danger of attributing qualities to them as a group, rather than as individuals. Whether those qualities are negative or positive. Even when we call people “elders” (which is regarded positively as a respectful term), this might evoke an image – perhaps an attribution to this group that they are all similarly wise or sage. I do believe that elders are wise, because of their life experiences, and that growing older has the potential to transform your view of yourself, others, and the world. However, this likely looks different for each person. Their life experiences serve them in different, unique ways. There are elders who are perhaps “wiser” than others, even though we might ascribe this quality universally to all elders as a category. In this case it is a positive quality, but it does make you think about how categorization is serving us, and the implications for generalizing a group of people based on age alone.

old-people.jpg

Certainly, we do this with other age groups, but I think it is different. We might generalize about teenagers or millennials, for example. But with older people it seems so much deeper, and we really struggle to see people as individuals outside of these group identities, these boxes into which we put them.

It is not just about our insufficient language for the experience of growing older or people who are growing older. We also don’t have the language for how we support each other as we grow older. I mean the products, services – the system of “care”. Much of the language we use is at worst ageist, paternalistic, and medical. At best, it simply does not adequately characterize a way of supporting people as they grow older (or grow with dementia) that is enabling rather than disabling, dignified, and well…normal. None of this language is adequate to encapsulate unique, diverse human beings who are not necessarily different because they are older, but because they are multidimensional individuals whose dimensions are even more developed through life experience. Who are living life, like we are all trying to do.

We have developed an entire “system” of supports and services for older people whose membership to this group is based on age alone. There really has been very little attention to the individuality of people as they grow older.

I (2)How can we differently present and describe supports and services for people as they grow older? Especially in a way that walks this fine line of honoring life experience and membership in a unique stage of life, while acknowledging individuality and normalcy. That does not simplify people into categories like “grandma” or “geriatric”.

Here is a small example that came into my head. I was driving back from the grocery store and I saw a private bus whose passengers were all elders. It was the type of bus that is used by a senior center or care community. As I watched them I thought about how it must be so weird to be on this bus that seemingly advertises that you are all 1) old and 2) not “able” to drive. This bus is so reflective of a categorization of people based on age that suggests all these people are the same. In a way the bus is emblematic of your “dependence”. And yet, how untrue that is. That bus could be bringing everyone somewhere very fun. These individuals could be returning from a civic project in which they volunteered their time. They might have been working on the community garden. Or, helping people register to vote. The reasons for people being on this bus are infinite. But we might just see a bus of old people.

You might be thinking, what about school buses? School buses carry a group of people of the same age. Yet, there is a totally different connotation than a bus of older people. Other than seeing the people on a school bus as students, I don’t think we make assumptions about them as a whole.

So, how could we present this bus of older people in a different way? Could we use a little bit of humor in how we think about and frame these things? What if the bus had signage that said, “On this bus there is __ years of life experience. So be careful!” Or, “The people on this bus raised __ children, served in __ wars, and have been there, seen that.” Or, “Here is some advice from riders of this bus, “Slow down. Pay Attention. Be nice.” Something authentic, and maybe fun, that could change this tragic discourse of “geriatric people” on a bus to seeing them as multi-dimensional human beings. Just like us. Yet different.

i-1.png

Unraveling the Paradigm: The Medicalization of Growing Older

lines-1285346_1920

Paradigm: A system of beliefs, ideas, values, and habits that is a way of thinking about the real world.

There is a paradigm of growing older. It is maybe hard to see at first. Because we are so used to it. But once you are aware of it, you see it is everywhere. It is pervasive.

You also begin to see it is not one thing. The current paradigm of aging includes a number of different beliefs, ideas, values, and habits.  (By the way, there is also a paradigm of dementia, but we will talk about that at another time. Don’t worry.)

You might be thinking, “So what? Why are you being so fancy, Sonya? Paradigms live out there somewhere. Let’s talk about the real world. Stop being so nerdy.”

I think talking about the paradigm is important. Because this paradigm, which by definition is widely accepted, directly influences everything we do to, and for, people as they grow older. It is behind nearly all the products, services, and systems we have developed to support people who are growing older. It influences education, policy, research, and practice. It drives our attitudes towards growing older, and elders themselves. It runs wide and deep.

ribbon-2090126_1920And, I believe the paradigm needs to change. It is based on erroneous assumptions about growing older. It is not built from the individual lived experiences of people growing older. And it is not serving people well as they grow older.

“What is this paradigm you speak of?” you might be asking. “What does it look like?”

I can’t say I have identified every belief, idea, value, and habit that is a part of this paradigm of growing older. But I keep seeing evidence of it. Maybe we can unravel it, because it is a tangled mess.

thread-1484387_1920(1)

And if we take it apart and look at the pieces, maybe we can put it back together in a different way, with different pieces – a new paradigm.

Will you indulge me? Don’t worry, I am only going to unravel one piece at a time. I know you are very busy people and have things to do.

Today, I would like to talk about the part of the paradigm that is the “medicalization of aging”.

Sometimes this has been framed as discussions about whether aging is a disease. Although I am not going to discuss right now the details of this ongoing discussion, the fact that this still is an ongoing topic is reflective of a continued narrow view of growing older from a purely medical lens. I will just say that seeing aging as a disease is very concerning. The definition of a disease is essentially an abnormality, so that suggests that people who are growing older are abnormal. Since every person who is privileged to keep living grows older, I’m not sure then what normal means. Also, if the life stage of elderhood is a disease, would that mean the other stages of life are diseases too? While those who interact with teenagers might think adolescence is indeed a disease, I’m not really sure how this type of thinking will help anybody. Don’t get me started.

But it is more than debating whether aging is a disease. Rather than focus on this narrow discussion, I would like to share some thoughts more broadly about how the experience of growing older is often seen mostly from a medical lens, and thus has become over-medicalized.

To me, the medicalization of aging means primarily viewing aging as a medical problem, defining the experiences and challenges of aging in medical terms, and thus seeing “solutions” also as primarily medical. It neglects the multidimensional, individual experience of growing older. It is not seeing the whole picture.

glasses-593006_1920

The paradigm of the medicalization of aging tells us that older people are primarily “patients”. We create “interventions” to “treat” them.  The focus is on their disabilities. While this is especially true for elders living in long-term care communities, or elders living with dementia, I see the medical lens being used for all people growing older. This has been thought and written about for several years by many smart people.  For me, I started realizing how deep the paradigm was when I saw more and more evidence of the medicalization of aging

Here is some evidence.

  • Reports on growing older in the United States that focus mainly on disability rates, or even health status.
  • Journal articles in which elders are categorized by their physical disabilities – “frail” versus “well” elders. Frailty is indeed considered a medical condition. “Normal aging” is the absence of frailty.
  • The segregation of elders in residential care determined by their functional, health, or disease status.
  • The reality that most people, when they hear I am a gerontologist, assume I am a medical professional. As if the study of aging is only medical.
  • When I talk to elders, and ask them what they want to discuss related to growing older, almost all of the topics are focused on medical topics or how to navigate the medical system. While this is certainly a concern for people as they grow older could it also be evidence of the internalized view of aging as a medical problem?
  • I am on Facebook and a see a sweet video about farm animals visiting elders living in a nursing home. They call it “farm therapy”. In regular life, people petting farm animals would just call it “petting farm animals”. When we refer to everything a older person does as “therapy” we are again seeing that person in medical terms. Not as a whole person who might just enjoy petting farm animals, but a sick person who interacts with the world through defined interventions.
  • The development of “interventions” to address nutrition, exercise, loneliness, social activities, recreation, etc. We generally do not use this medical language in other parts of the lifespan. Outside of research and actual medical interactions, we don’t refer to the meals of 4 year olds as “nutritional interventions”. We don’t generally talk about “behavioral interventions” for college students. We don’t require research, a.k.a “an evidence base”, to determine what type of hobby a 44-year old woman should embrace and what would benefit her.

Is this partially because older people may experience health and medical challenges as they grow older? Maybe. However, these terms are not just used in the context of medical situations. They also might be interpreted to mean that aging IS a medical situation. That would be why we need interventions, therapies, and evidence base to support elders.

To be clear, there are aspects of growing older that are medical. One might even argue that there are aspects of growing older that are more medical than other times in the life span. People get sick. Joints hurt. People might experience cognitive changes. However, the experience of growing older is certainly more than physiological changes, and is much, much more than medical. The changes we experience as we grow older are not necessarily medical problems. People are more than medical beings.

Am I saying that medical treatments are bad? No. That medicine is bad. No. That medical professionals are bad. No. What am I saying? Why is this a problem?

I am saying that only seeing aging through a medical lens limits the possibilities of aging and distracts us from the many things that aging means for each of us. To think of growing older with just a medical lens diminishes all the other aspects of living. It might neglect the importance of, and attention to, non-medical needs such as connectedness, identity, autonomy, growth, security, joy, purpose, – overall well-being (thank you, Eden Alternative ).

When we think of growing older as a medical problem, we might become over-reliant on medical solutions. Sometimes at the expense of quality of life. Or we might start “prescribing” things for elders that are non-medical, but we medicalize them anyway. Then everyday activities become protocols to be followed – we lose what matters to people.

Reframing aging will open doors for us to look for new ways to support people so that they can LIVE as they grow older and grow with dementia.

OPEN DOORWe need a paradigm shift.

To get back to being nerdy, the term “paradigm shift” was actually coined by philosopher Thomas Kuhn. He used the term to describe a shift in scientific thinking, but it is very applicable to phenomena outside science. According to Kuhn, a paradigm shift occurs when enough things start to happen that are at odds with the paradigm that currently exists.

It is important to note that Kuhn does not suggest this paradigm shift is easy, or seamless. He describes a state of crisis as people believing a new paradigm are at odds with the old paradigm. This process of shifting from one paradigm to another is also called a revolution. And that is what I believe we need to have. In order to have the revolution, to change the paradigm, we need to be clear on what the paradigm is. Because sometimes paradigms are so deeply embedded that we don’t even notice them. So we need to take notice. And think really deeply about the parts of this paradigm that are really not serving us well, if our goal is to grow older with meaning and well-being. And LIVE.

More unraveling to come soon…..

There Is No Place Like Home, Unless You Feel Homeless There

Last September, my husband and I moved from Norfolk, our home of over 10 years, to Arlington. We loved our community in Norfolk. There were our friends and neighbors, who were very much a part of our daily lives. The neighborhood in which we lived was tight-knit and inclusive. People knew me. When you passed someone on the sidewalk you always said “hello” and they said “hello” back. You would recognize people in the grocery store. When our house was struck by lightning, and the fire trucks arrived, multiple neighbors came running to make sure we were okay (they were particularly concerned that Blue the Elder dog was safe). There was a sense of community pride. We were involved in a number of community groups. I knew the people who were homeless. And they were a part of the community. We belonged to each other.

In Arlington we live in a lovely home and a lovely neighborhood with lovely people.

Last month we returned to Norfolk for a vacation. We rented a beach house so we could enjoy the Chesapeake Bay and made regular visits to our old neighborhood to see our friends. It was wonderful, and it felt like home. Yet, it wasn’t home anymore. We loved being there, and it was so comfortable, yet it was also bittersweet. Because we didn’t live there anymore.

This perplexed me. I didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore. And I don’t feel like I belong in Arlington either. I feel… homeless.vintage-1722325_1920.jpgSo, being a Revisionary Gerontologist, it got me thinking. A large part of my work with nursing homes and assisted living communities has been exploring how to create home and community for people living in long-term care. This is a fundamental aspect of culture change.

“Culture change” is the common name given to the national movement for the transformation of older adult services, based on person-directed values and practices where the voices of elders and those working most closely with them are solicited, respected, and honored. Core person-directed values are relationship, choice, dignity, respect, self-determination, and purposeful living. (From Pioneer Network, http://www.pioneernetwork.net)

A key goal of culture change is for elders to feel “at home” wherever they live.

Yet, how often, and how much, do elders in nursing homes and other types of care communities feel that they do not belong? That they are homeless?

The comparison of living in a nursing home with feeling homeless is not a new idea. Judith Carboni published an article called “Homelessness Among the Institutionalized Elderly” in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing in 1990. Yes, you read that correctly. 1990. We have been talking about this, and working on this, for at least 28 years. And, unfortunately, this article is as relevant today as it was 28 years ago.

Based on her literature review, observations, and interviews Ms. Carboni suggested that people living in nursing homes experience feelings of homelessness, even though they are “sheltered”. It is important to note that homelessness is more than not feeling “at home”. It is an emotionally “painful experience that brings about deep, existential despair”.

She observed, “The closer individuals move to the state of homelessness, the less able they are to find meaning in the experience and consequently become more disorganized and confused… Because individuals are no longer able to integrate experiences and form them into meaningful wholes, they are left adrift in a strange and frightening world without meaning.”vintage-1722329_1920This experience of homelessness evokes “meanings of non-personhood, disconnectedness, no journey, no boundaries, powerlessness/dependence, insecurity/ uncertainty, and meaningless space”.

There are several things that are very interesting, and devastatingly sad, about these findings. Clearly it brings to light how incredibly detrimental feelings of homelessness might be to individuals living in nursing homes. And we likely are not paying attention to it.

There are all sorts of outcomes we measure in nursing homes to evaluate quality of care and life. However, I do not think we really give due diligence to how many people are experiencing non-personhood, disconnectedness, no journey, no boundaries, powerlessness/dependence, insecurity/uncertainty, and meaningless space. What would this look like? It makes me wonder about elders I have seen in nursing homes who seem to be “settling in just fine” because they are not voicing complaints, sadness, or loneliness. But are they feeling homeless?

Interestingly, Ms. Carboni found that a key coping strategy for elders living in nursing homes was what she called “pretending”. What does pretending look like?

  • Living in the past – in their minds, returning to where they have felt at home in the past
  • Keeping the secret – outwardly acknowledging this is their home, but inside denying this is their home
  • Distancing –  not getting involved with other elders to avoid seeing other people’s sense of homelessness that mirrors and reinforces their own homelessness
  • Surrendering – Giving up and feeling there is no choice – “what can I do?

Are elders “settling in just fine”? Or, are they great pretenders?

Another thing I find interesting is that a result of homelessness is disorganization and confusion. While we might (misguidedly) attribute disorganization and confusion to being old, or having dementia, how much of this is related to feelings of homelessness? vintage-1723763_1920.jpgEven more concerning is this ongoing theme in which people living in nursing homes, who feel homeless, who do not feel they belong, lack meaning. That might be the case in spite of the many well-intentioned ways we attempt to provide opportunities for engagement (in other words, recreational programs, visiting, socializing, etc.). Perhaps this is because we do not always know what is important to people. Or we make assumptions about what people need or what is best for them. It is important to note that “belonging” means many different things for people, and it is not always about social connections. For some people, they can feel that they belong, yet be by themselves, happily reading a book. This gives them meaning.

To take that a step further, if you are living in a nursing home, and are feeling homeless and lack meaning, how might you act? Maybe you would try to leave. Maybe you would stay in your room. Maybe you would allow yourself to be conditioned by the routines around you, because they don’t really mean anything to you anyway.fairytale-1735412_1920.jpgWhen we compare living in a nursing home to homelessness, and really understand the lived experience of homelessness, we see that homelessness is not as much tied to having a physical place to live as it is to the meaning we assign to where we live. In other words, you can live in a lovely home (like me), or a beautiful nursing home, assisted living community, or 55+ community, and still feel homeless.

There is also the great likelihood that feelings of homelessness are not just experienced by elders in nursing homes. Maybe people growing older or growing with dementia feel this way regardless of where they live – maybe they feel like they don’t belong in our society.fairytale-1735327_1920.jpgI see these themes – not belonging, not being seen – quite frequently, in nursing homes and assisted living, and in our own neighborhoods. Quite honestly, I see them so often that they are the norm. We have got to do better. But how.

Perhaps one way to consider this is to think less about the problems (e.g. time, money, resources, regulations, etc.), and think more about the possibilities. Because this, in fact, is about building community.

Peter Block, in one of my favorite books, “Community: The Structure of Belonging” says:

“Community as used here is about the experience of belonging. We are in community each time we find a place where we belong. The word belong has two meanings. First and foremost, to belong is to be related to and a part of something. It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase. It is the opposite of thinking that wherever I am, I would be better off somewhere else. The opposite of belonging is to feel isolated and always (all ways) on the margin, an outsider. To belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I am among friends.”

How can we facilitate creating communities where elders and people living with dementia feel they BELONG?

How can we create communities where people feel they are a PART OF SOMETHING?

How can we create communities in which elders and people living with dementia KNOW THEY ARE AMONG FRIENDS?

Instead of building homes in which people feel homeless, let’s build communities where people belong, are a part of something, and know they are amongst friends. I have felt these things in a community. And I hope you have too. It is possible. Let’s make it possible for people growing older or growing with dementia. Because we are not building communities for THEM. We are building OUR community, in which we all live.

 

 

Seeing Reed

A few months ago I went to the funeral of my friend, Reed. Reed was five years old.

There are no words to describe the pain and sadness of this loss for his family and friends.

To honor his life, I wanted to share a few things about Reed.

Reed was beautiful, with curly, crazy hair, an infectious smile, and a curious spirit. He loved pushing things like toy trucks, or carts. He had a great wiggle when he got excited. He was so happy when he was swimming.

Reed also lived with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental challenges.

I knew Reed from when he was a little baby. My husband and I are friends with his parents. We would often go to their house in the evenings, and the grownups would drink wine, play games, and talk for hours. But we got to be with Reed until he went to bed. I held him and played with him.

I remember how mesmerized I was with his huge eyes, which watched you intently. It made me feel that there was something almost divine in that baby body; his eyes were full of such expression and wisdom.

superhero-450419_1920
John Hain, http://www.JohnHain.com

One day when Reed was about two, I was finishing a run in our neighborhood, and passed their house. Reed’s mom was on the front steps, waiting for Reed’s bus to drop him off. I stopped and waited with her. When the bus pulled up, she went to the bus and retrieved him from his seat.

Reed was so tired and laid his head on her shoulders as she carried him towards me. His eyes were sleepy and serene. When she got close to me, Reed suddenly put out his arms to me, and hopped onto me, laying his sweet little head on my shoulder. Reed’s mom and I smiled and laughed in surprise.

My heart swelled. It felt so nice to be wanted by Reed. I was so glad I could provide a shoulder for him. It was one of those pure moments when you feel so connected. Like you both belong.

gratitude-1350037_1920
John Hain, http://www.JohnHain.com

One Halloween, Reed and his family came by to trick or treat. I was dressed as Miss Piggy. He took one look at me, and yelled, “OFF. OFF. OFF” and grabbed at my blond wig. He wanted to see me, not Miss Piggy. It felt nice to be seen.

Although there is no one like Reed, there are souls like him in our midst. We just have to see them. See each other.

“Discover the gift of who each person is, and then invite people to live in each other’s hearts…. And then hope that people will not only discover their gift and their own goodness but that they’ll live out of that place with each other….”

– Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir

There is so much we can learn about each other. It makes us better for ourselves and each other.

Perhaps we can try living so that we assume that every person we meet teaches us something. That they know something we do not know, but can tell us if we listen. We can see this in the eyes of every person we meet, people of every age, background, life situation, or diagnosis.

Reed’s mom shared this amazing video with me a few years ago. To me, this is the definition of pure joy.

I hope it brings you joy, and thank you, Reed, for the joy and lessons you have brought to all of us.

Blue the Elder Dog

Sometimes being a Revisionary Gerontologist can get me down. There are a lot of things that need to change in how we see people as they grow older and grow with dementia, and how we support them. The negative, deficit-based, overly medical paradigm is so pervasive and so deep. What to do? Sigh. I get very frustrated, and then a little despondent.

And when that happens, I watch videos of capybaras babysitting puppies (seriously, look it up). That makes me smile, and then the happy hormones sustain me.

I also happen to have a source of animal happiness living with me, and I go to him when I am in need of rejuvenation. His name is Blue.

Blue is thirteen and a half, so he is an Elder Dog.

blue1

Blue is an Australian Shepherd, very smart, tennis-ball obsessed, beautiful, soft, afraid of large black dogs and children, very fond of loud sighs, has a great “side-eye”, and is the strangest combination of serious and silly that I have ever witnessed.

Blue also has diabetes, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, arthritis, is nearly deaf, and mostly blind.

And he is the best dog he has even been, because of all these things that make him who he is.

As Blue has grown older, he has taught me a lot about aging and living. Here are some of the things I have learned.

1. Blue is still him. And he is changed.

Blue will always be Blue. And, each day he also evolves into something new. Both are true.

10927937134_35bc94a852_o2016-10-05 17.39.59

2. Focus on strengths, not just weaknesses.

I realized that, when I was talking about Blue recently, I was only talking about his “deficits” – his diabetes, his trouble moving around, his lack of hearing and vision. But that is not all that is Blue. Blue is many other things too. And those things are pretty great.

blue4

3. Curiosity never gets old.

As a puppy, Blue was very mischievous. At the time, I probably did not appreciate it very much. But now, I love to watch him be curious. It is the essence of his spirit.

blue2-e1524853733758.jpg

4. All behavior has meaning.

We hear this said about people living with dementia, in particular, but this certainly applies to each one of us. Our actions often speak louder than words. Sometimes we need to “listen” to what someone is telling us without words. In this picture, we were on day 10 of an RV trip, and Blue started sitting on the table in the RV. At first I thought we had entirely broken his spirit on this RV trip. But then I realized he was tired of being on the floor, where he could not see anything from the confines of the RV. He wanted to see what was out there. So he took matters into his own hands.

2016-10-09-09-57-31.jpg

5. There is always room for play.

As a herder, Blue always loved playing with tennis and soccer balls. We recently learned, after him getting clocked in the head a few times, that he couldn’t see the ball very well. So now we play differently. He still brings us no fewer than 5-6 tennis balls to remind US to make room for play.

blue9

6. Enjoy simple pleasures.

This winter we stayed at a mountain cabin. It was still chilly- the mornings were in the 30’s. But we had such a beautiful view from the deck that we would bundle up and have our coffee out there each morning. Blue joined us too. He developed a habit in which he would go out to the deck, wait for us to place him in the chair, and snooze in the early sun for several hours. He did not care about where we were or what we were doing. We was unfazed by the cold. He just wanted to be basking in the sun. I was amazed by how peaceful he looked. The picture of contentment. And when he was done, he would bark for us to take him down from the chair and go inside.

blue10.jpg

 

7. Take time for rest, and when you do it, do it well.

2016-08-31 09.32.14

8. Interdependence is not all bad.

Blue has always been fiercely independent. I have called him a “loophole” dog because, ultimately, he finds a way to do what he wants to do. However, he has leaned into his increased dependence on us, and waits for us to carry him up and down the stairs, or lift him onto the couch.

And, we so depend on him for his love. And, how he makes me laugh at least 20 times a day because he is so ridiculous. And, because he is now such a cuddle-bunny.

blue11

And, because a Revisionary Gerontologist sometimes just needs Blue the Elder Dog to help her bask in pure joy.

Maybe this brought you some joy too.

 

Being Seen: A Passion Project

I was in an assisted living community, about to facilitate a workshop for the people who worked there. It was a “memory care” community, a place that specifically cares for people with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. I was milling around, chatting with people. This lady, who lived there, was watching me from across the room. She wheeled herself to me, almost furtively. She grabbed my hands in hers and looked right at me. She had huge, beautiful brown eyes.

She said, “Were you a dancer?”

I was a surprised by the question, because I was. I had danced ballet until I was 15. And I had seriously considered pursuing it professionally.

2017_02_17_12_11_30

“Yes”, I replied. “But I stopped.”

She nodded seriously, in an understanding way. “Why did you stop? Were you afraid you would not make it?”

I answered, “Maybe……”

She looked deep into my eyes. “Don’t worry. I can see in those eyes that you are going to go far.”

This was a woman who was living with what we might call “moderate to severe dementia”.

Yet.

She saw me. And I saw her. She was beautiful and kind, and her words made me tear up. I was seeing her, for who she was at that moment. But did other people see her?

I think about this a lot. That we not only ignore aging in our society, but we really don’t “see” people for who they are as they grow older and grow with dementia. We see lots of things about a person – their wrinkles, their wheelchair, their walker, their diagnosis. But we don’t SEE them.

People tell me that they feel invisible as they grow older. I hear this theme in the many conversations I have with elders living in nursing homes and assisted living communities. They tell me this in different ways. Sometimes, they tell me by making it clear that they do not want to be a “bother”. Other times they tell me by saying they don’t matter – that there are other people who have needs too. I see their invisibility when people pass them and do not acknowledge them. When they are treated as if they are not there.

statue-2393168_1920

This invisibility extends outside the walls of nursing homes and assisted living communities. I see it in doctor’s offices, at the grocery store, and in my own neighborhood. This invisibility is even in research, when we group people into categories such as “frail” or “active”. When we generalize millions of people growing older and growing with dementia by putting people into neat little boxes.

People living with dementia tell me they feel particularly invisible. Maybe their friends and families don’t talk to them as much, or maybe not at all. Maybe people see them for just their “losses”, or maybe they create an image of who they think a person with dementia should be.

Yet, each person is a unique human being. Time, cognitive changes, and change of living arrangements do not diminish who a person is.

Invisibility is the opposite of visibility, of being seen.

A basic human need is to be seen. But what does this mean? Do people actually feel like they are being seen, especially as they grow older? Why or why not? When do they feel seen?

I think that all people deserve to be seen. To tell or show us who they are. For us to be ready and willing to take this gift.

We need to see each other for who we are as we grow older and grow with dementia – who we have been, who we are now, and who we will be. We need to be curious about each other as we grow older.

I believe we have to change the way we see aging, and that starts with seeing individuals who are growing older. I believe that the more we see older people for being people, we will do better at how we treat older people, and maybe even change the way we support each other through services and care. Maybe we will find better ways of actualizing what matters to people as they grow older and grow with dementia, and how they want to live. When people are seen, when we see people, we feel more connected to each other.

So, I have started a little passion project.

PicMonkey Collage7

Being Seen is a project about providing a place for people to be seen as they are growing older. Being Seen is about not seeing people for their age, but for who they are at their age. Here is what I know about Being Seen thus far.

Being Seen is not about presenting portrayals of growing older that are positive or negative, successful or not successful, frail or active. It is just people being who they are. I mean, who am I to label their experience?

Being Seen is not about interpreting people’s experiences through our lens. It is about giving people the mic to tell us who they are.

Being Seen is not just who a person was – their life story. It is also who they are today.

Being Seen is about changing the narrative of aging by creating a new narrative, one that is made from elders themselves. Being Seen is about honoring who people are, as individuals, as they grow older. Each person is unique and has their own story. The story we have created about aging has not been built from the ground up. Let’s “go back to the root” and see people for who they are.

Being Seen shares vignettes of people who are growing older and growing with dementia. The definition of vignette is “a brief evocative description, account, or episode”. In the context of photography, a vignette is often regarded as the darker corners around a photograph. The things that we do not look at. But they are there.

These vignettes might be quotations, photographs, or more lengthy interviews. Elders in these vignettes will be from multiple types of communities, from “typical” residential neighborhoods, senior apartments, as well as elders living in nursing homes and assisted living communities.

being seen1

Here is what I do not know about Being Seen – what I am processing and gathering ideas about.

How can I create a place for people to be seen? Is Being Seen a website? A social media site? A blog? A book? A film?

Being Seen is about seeing people for who they are as they grow older and grow with dementia. So, does it target specific age categories, like 55+? Technically, we are all growing older, and people living with dementia vary in age.

What do I ask people to get to the nugget of being seen? What questions help us to see people? Are there specific questions? What does it mean to be seen or not be seen?

help-2574944_1920

So, I need help. I would like you to be a part of this conversation about what it means to be seen. And, to contribute to the story of who we are as we grow older. Here is what I am asking of you.

Consider answering these questions.

What does it mean to be seen?

At your age of [fill in your age], what would you like people to see about you?

At your age of [fill in your age], what makes you feel like you are being seen?

At your age of [fill in your age], who are you now?

You can either share your answers in the comments below or you can email me at sonya@sbcgerontology.com.

I can’t wait to SEE you.

Hug a Gerontologist: We are Having an Identity Crisis

Screenshot-2018-3-21 Keep Calm and Hug a Gerontologist T-Shirt
This is an actual t-shirt you can buy from https://www.cafepress.com.

Please hug a gerontologist next time you meet one. I do mean a gerontologist, not a geriatrician. I do not mean to not hug a geriatrician. Go ahead and hug them too if it feels right. I have some friends who are geriatricians and they are, for lack of a better term, “the cat’s pajamas”.  What I mean is that gerontologists, specifically, need some love because we are having an identity crisis.

How do I know this? Here is some evidence.

Almost every time I meet someone and tell them I am a gerontologist they ask me medical questions and where I see patients.  You see, I am often mistaken for a geriatrician, who is a medical doctor specializing in the health of older people. I make it very clear to people that I am not a medical doctor. In fact, I have anxiety that I am going to be speaking at a workshop one day and someone is going to yell “Is there a doctor in the house?”  People will point at me, and I will not be able to help as I have no medical training. Yes, it is true. Gerontologists generally do not have medical training, unless they are also physicians, nurses, or other medical professionals.  Do we have some knowledge of the medical aspects of aging? Sure. Just as we have knowledge of the psychological, biological, social, and spiritual aspects of aging. We are trained to think broadly about the aging experience.

This leads me to another aspect of the identity crisis. It is sort of our fault.

You see, we have really not done a good job of explaining who we are. We really have not owned the uniqueness of gerontology as different from other disciplines that study aging. Lots of other fields of study focus on aging, like psychology, biology, social work, etc. And it can be quite confusing because a psychologist can also consider herself a gerontologist, or a nurse might be a gerontological nurse. Sometimes I am not sure if we know who we are. And I think this had led to missed opportunities in how gerontology as a study and practice can truly be something different.

emancipation-156066_1280

I realize that no one is asking me to be the Leader of the Gerontologists, but in the spirit of being heard, I think we need a revolution in the field of gerontology, and it starts with reclaiming and re-framing our identity. This is important because the paradigm of aging needs to change. When I say the paradigm needs to change, I am not talking about “those people” need to change. I am talking about all of us, even gerontologists. Perhaps, as gerontologists, we need to be leading the way. However, in order to do this, we need to articulate and embrace our identity, and it needs to reflect a different paradigm of growing older.

In my mind, gerontology is unique because it is the multi-dimensional view of growing older. The very nature of this recognizes that growing older is complex and individual. The idea of gerontology as multi-dimensional, complex, and individualistic needs to be clearly articulated, and operationalized through education, research, practice, and policy in aging.

We are an important companion to our great sister, geriatrics, which also seeks to integrate various aspects of medicine and wellness. To that point, promoting and emphasizing gerontology as a non-medical study of aging is an opportunity that we need to claim.  Because so much of aging is viewed through a medical lens, the field of gerontology is positioned to offer a wider lens of aging by continually trying to understand the multi-dimensional experience of  growing older and applying this knowledge in supporting people to live fully.

Gerontology is about the lived, individual experience of growing older. This is inherently person-centered. This means that central to gerontology should be the voices of people growing older. This also means that we have to take a good look at the “expert culture” in gerontology that positions professionals as holding more knowledge and power than elders, and possible discounting what is important to people as they grow older. Are gerontologists truly “experts” in aging? Or, do we simply offer a perspective of growing older?  What is our role? Are we facilitators of all these dimensions in the multi-dimensional, individual experience of aging? Is our job to infuse this into everything we do?

I have an idea that maybe helps us to think about this. I have a new definition of aging that I have been mulling about.

Aging is the process of becoming oneself.

me

If that is true, then gerontology is the study of becoming oneself as we grow with age. When I think of the idea of becoming oneself, it means both evolving, which is continually becoming something new, and rooting, becoming even more deeply who you are. In some ways, then, could gerontologists be midwives of growing older? In fact, a definition of midwife is “a person or thing that produces or aids in producing something new or different”. Gerontologists could be those people who “midwife” the experience of aging as a multi-faceted, individual experience, by viewing all aspects of a person. We could bring the lived experiences of individuals who are growing older to everything we do.

I think it is time for gerontologists to really think about who we are. Maybe even to challenge who we have become and whether it is who we want to be. We have such an opportunity here, to midwife, in so many ways, something new. But it would help us if we had hugs.

hello-i-am.jpg

 

A Story of Mine to Share

One of my oldest memories of my grandmother is when she was sick.   My mom says she was sick for about eight years before she died and I was eight when she passed away so she must have been sick the whole time I knew her.  I don’t think I realized how sick my grandmother was. I remember she did not go out of the house a lot.  She spent most of her time cooking, it seemed.

In this particular memory, she was crying and she said to me, “Sonya, do you want to see how they are hurting me?” And she showed me her arm, which was bruised and had a small wound from a blood test.  I didn’t know who “they” were but imagined them to be pretty horrible. In retrospect my grandmother had a great sense of humor, sharp and somewhat teasing, so I don’t know if she was teasing me.  I remember her smock that day – the blue one with the patches of flowered fabric.  I especially remember the way her hands looked. They were worn and veined, but always soft from the Crisco she used for, well, everything she cooked. She was sitting in their kitchen, which is where I always remember her. I remember her being small and fragile and soft-stepping.

2018_03_09_09_37_06

Yet I also know she was strong and resilient and solid. I remember that she SAW me.

When my grandparents died, I was very worried about them. They died almost exactly two years apart and I imagined they were in heaven together, but I was not sure. As the good Catholic School student that I was, I prayed for them every night. I believed that I could talk to them in my prayers so every night I spoke to them in my prayers.  Naturally, they did not answer back, but I felt that they could hear me and it comforted me.

When I was in graduate school, I took a course in group therapy techniques.  During one of the classes we discussed how people achieve closure upon the death of a loved one and how therapists need to be aware of how this need may manifest.  Our professor described how after his father died he had dreams of a figure who represented his father (it was actually the character played by Jimmy Smitts in the TV series “NYPD Blue”) and this represented needed closure for him.

A few weeks after this class I had a dream.  I woke in one of those groggy states in which what just happened in your brain is still so new and incredibly, heartbreakingly real. In my dream, my grandparents came back to me.  They came to see me at my age, which at that time was about 26.  When my grandmother saw me in my dream, she just cried. Then they told me that they were okay and they were obviously together.  They gave me gifts – gifts inappropriate for that time and my age, gifts for a child.  But I loved them. They gave me a few coins and some trinkets.  My grandmother told me, “I am so sorry that I missed all these years of yours. I am so sorry that I missed you growing up.”

2018_03_09_09_37_39

I had felt for many years that I never fully had closure from their deaths.  And this dream gave me a sense of peace because my grandmother was able to see me now and because I knew that she also missed me as much as I missed her.  It gave me tremendous peace to know that they were together and are whole.

Death can be scary to a child, but my parents were very open about it. They demystified it for me. They told me it was a part of life. They told me that my grandmother would always be with me. And she is. She is a part of who I am. And that is why the telling of this story is important. Because it is MY story. It is who I am.

We all deserve to tell our stories.

2015_09_02_19_50_41

“Stories must be shared. We live alone, we die alone, and we write alone. But a journey that is not shared is a poorer one. To be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ by others defines identity. The process does not end at a certain age. Something is added to my life if someone, with an open mind, listens to my story, hears my music, and sees what I have created.”

Written by Ragna Adlandsvik, a Norwegian educator who created writing groups for elders, and quoted from the book “Narrative Gerontology in Research and Practice” by Kate de Medeiros (pg .25)

More about this soon…..