Is this when the wheels start to come off?

I have a friend who is battling colon cancer. She has undergone several series of chemotherapy over the past year and has yet to receive an “all clear” diagnosis from her doctors. Each time she thinks she is done, they’ve found new reasons for concern. After completing her last round of chemotherapy, she is now in a wait-and-see holding pattern and we are all cautiously optimistic.

Another friend is currently undergoing chemotherapy for Lymphoma.  She is one month into her treatments and after another 4 – 5 months her doctors will do another evaluation. She is getting a lot of support from her husband and friends, and we are cautiously optimistic about her outcome.

A neighbor who is also a good friend had a mastectomy a few years ago when a small tumor was discovered in her left breast. Recently, during a routine follow-up with her oncologist, it was discovered that her HCG levels were unusually high. High HCG levels are normal in pregnant women; high levels in a non-pregnant woman can be an indicator of ovarian cancer. She will get her test results later this week and her friends and family are cautiously optimistic that she will get a clean bill of health.

Then, just the weekend, I called a friend that I’ve known since grade school regarding an upcoming get-together. She told me that her attendance was up in the air at this time because her husband was recently diagnosed with severe Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS), a bone marrow disorder. In general, the prognosis for patients with advanced MDS isn’t encouraging, but she is doing her best to maintain a cautiously optimistic perspective for her husband and her family.

Hope

These four medical challenges are not the only ones faced by friends and acquaintances; I know a few who have battled cancer and won (at least for now) and several others who are living with MS and other long-term health issues.  But, these are the most recent and I can’t shake the feeling that there seems to be an uptick in the number of serious diagnoses received by friends, friends of friends, and their family members – all close to my age.

In general, when we reach retirement age, we are focused on our finances and our emotional well-being. Many also realize that it is important to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. When we think about the future, our concern is often how to ensure adequate care in our advanced age. I don’t think most of us put a lot of thought into facing an early death – of either ourselves or our loved ones.

A recent article in the New York Times titled Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer discusses how cancer is slowly overtaking heart disease as the number 1 cause of death. Due to an increased focus on the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet, and the availability of medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease is less likely to affect someone between 55 and 85. Because of the way cancers develop (over time, due to errors in cell evolution), just the fact that we have lived a long time makes us susceptible to these cell mutations.

Although there have been a lot of strides made in the treatment of some cancers, preventing it in the first place seems to hold the most promise. Governments do this by improving sanitation, regulating and banning certain toxins, and promoting research and the development of vaccines. On the individual level, we can make sure we pay attention to what we eat and get plenty of exercise to keep our weight at a healthy level, stop smoking – and if you don’t smoke, stay away from second-hand smoke, and avoid excessive sun exposure. Of course none of this is a guarantee: not one of the four friends mentioned at the beginning are overweight or have poor eating habits, they don’t smoke, and none of their cancers resulted from too much sun exposure.

I’m not sure what the takeaway from all of this is. I don’t want to live my life in fear of what could be waiting around the corner. I am fair-skinned but I love the being outdoors, so I slather on SPF 50 and go out and enjoy myself. Although I’d love to be able to encase my husband in bubble wrap when he goes on one of his routine 50-mile bike rides, I know I can’t. We both try our best to avoid unhealthy food but, sometimes, something bad is just the thing that makes us feel so good.

So, we do our best. We try to get as much out of this life that we can, love the people who we hold close as hard as we can, take as good care as we can of our frustratingly aging bodies and minds, and always strive to treat others with patience, kindness, and respect.

We remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

59 Candles

I hate my birthday. Actually, it’s not so much my birthday – as a child, I loved the attention and getting presents – it’s the month that my birthday falls in that I dislike.

Growing up, I was always so envious of my friends who had birthdays in late spring and summer. They got to have beach parties, and pool parties, and parties in the park. Because my birthday is in January, my parties always had to be held indoors. It was cold outside and sometimes wet; not exactly party weather.

HB4Not only is my birthday in what is often the coldest month of the year, it is in early January… just days after the holidays. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard a version of this joyful birthday greeting: “Oh great, it’s your birthday. Jeez, we just had Christmas and now I have to think about your birthday?” Um, sorry?

 

Fortunately, my parents always made a big deal about my birthday, just as they did for my two brothers. I never had to open a combined Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday gift or was made to feel that the timing of my birthday was inconvenient (after all, it was kind of their fault, right?). In fact, it was the year they forgot my birthday that I knew something was terribly wrong and my brothers and I needed to step in and become their vigilant care givers.

In just a few days, I will enter the final year of my fifties. The year I turned 29, 39, and even 49, didn’t have much significance for me. Those 365 days ticking down to my next decade didn’t seem like they were leading to anything terribly transformative. For some reason, 59 feels different.

According to several dictionaries, “middle age” is considered to span between the ages of 40 and 60. Before turning 40, a person is considered to be a “young adult.” Once that person turns 60, according to the definition, he or she has now reached “old age.” OLD AGE?? I can’t speak for everyone in my age range, but I certainly don’t feel like I’m just one short year away from being of “old age.” I have a lot of friends who are several – some who are many – years older than I am and I don’t consider them to be of “old age” either.  Some are still working and some are retired. They travel, they volunteer, they are involved with their families, friends, and their community.

I wonder if we need to create another definition for the years after 60. I’m not in denial that, at some point in the future, “old” will be an apt description of my age, but it sure isn’t what I’d define myself as being now, or a year from now, or, I hope, for many years to come.

Over the next 365 days, I might put some thought into coining a new phrase to describe the years following my 60th birthday. Even better, I think I’ll just continue to be active, engaged, creative, and connected, and let my reality define my age.

Construction Zone

Our living room has been in disarray for a couple of months as we’ve been working on our latest home improvement project: removing our old fireplace, reframing the wall, installing a new fireplace, tiling the surround, and installing new cabinets. While working on this project, we have completely reconfigured our living room and dining room furniture to get it out of the way of the mess and allow room to work. We hope to be done with everything before the end of the year.

The toilet in our master bathroom is currently sitting on its side in the middle of the floor. Also, all of the items that usually reside under our kitchen sink are now out of the cabinet and in the garage.

Lovely, huh?
Lovely, huh?

Although the living room project was planned, the toilet and kitchen sink were a complete surprise. When we returned home after being away for several weeks, we discovered water where it shouldn’t be; first around the toilet, then under the sink… totally independent, totally unexpected, and totally not what we need right now. Although there wasn’t a lot of water, any water where it shouldn’t be can’t be ignored.

It seems like my husband and I have at least one home project in the works almost continually. Sometimes big, sometimes small, but almost always it (or they) becomes a focus in our lives for far too much time. After the living room is done, there are at least two more good-sized projects I can think of waiting in the wings. This doesn’t include the normal house maintenance projects everyone has (our water heater should be replaced, the living room needs repainting, bushes need trimming, etc.).

We claim that we don’t want to keep taking on these projects, yet, for some reason, we do. We say that our idea of a fulfilling retirement includes more focus on fun, travel and hobbies, and less on construction, dust, and upheaval, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

One of the problems is that we (and by “we” I mean my husband) are pretty skilled at do-it-yourself projects. And, because we (my husband) know how to do these things, we like them to be done a certain way. In addition, we (that would be both of us) are relatively frugal and have a hard time justifying paying someone else to do what we can do ourselves.

Upon returning home from our latest trip, we walked into the living room we left. The one wall was still just bare studs; the brown craft paper was still taped to the floor; the furniture was still topsy-turvy. We didn’t expect HGTV to visit our home and finish everything while we were gone, but the contrast of where we just were (on vacation: pure leisure for three weeks) and what was in front of us was striking. It was good to be home – we love our home – but we had a hard time facing the work we still have to do.

We’ve recently talked about our habit of taking on too much and agree that we need to make some changes in our approach to large household projects. We want to be more realistic about what REALLY needs to be done and, if we decide the outcome is worth the effort and expense, be more open to paying someone else to do the work. Then, after receiving a tradesperson’s bid, the (usually shockingly high) estimate needs to be evaluated against the physical and psychological costs of doing the work ourselves. Are we willing to have our retirement filled with days (weeks, months) of labor? How about the little quarrels that often occur when we are tired and stressed? And then, of course, there are the aches and pains we most likely will suffer because we are no longer 30… or 40.

When we take everything into consideration as we compare one cost to the other, I expect that often the value of freeing up our time will be worth the expense.

Words Escape Me

Literarily.

I can be having a perfectly normal conversation with a friend when suddenly the next word I want to say will just vanish. Gone. When this happens, I flail around for a moment (hoping my friend won’t see the look of panic on my face) and then usually come up with another word or two that will more or less substitute for the one I’ve lost.

Or, I might be writing a letter, email, text, or blog post (or a report, back when I was working). Things are going great. I know what I want to say and I’m putting together a string of words that convey my intent and that are clear and coherent. Everything is flowing along. Until it stops.

Damn, what is that word I’m looking for?

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Often what I have lost isn’t an especially completed word. It could be something like “inclusive,” or “detail,” or “standards.” It’s often a word that I’ve used hundreds or even thousands of times with no problem. A word I’ve been familiar with since grade school. A word that just seconds earlier I could have effortlessly found floating among my brain cells. But, now, at the moment I need the word, it’s not coming to me.

If this happens when I’m writing, I’ll just type a big red X in its spot so I can come back to it. Usually, a few minutes later when I revisit what I’ve written, I can easily retrieve (OK, I momentarily lost that one) the elusive word, replace the X, and move on. No one is the wiser. Unfortunately, when I’m speaking, my transitory vocabulary lapses aren’t as easy to cover up.

I’m not too concerned that this affliction indicates an early-onset of dementia or other age-related brain deterioration. Although it has gotten a bit worse over the years, I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember. I’m sure it’s one reason I’ve always preferred writing to speaking. It’s much more comfortable to deal with a big red X than it is to experience the embarrassment of becoming suddenly mute as my brain goes searching for the word I’ve lost, or, failing that, to find a reasonable substitute.

braincogs2

Possibly related, but not quite the same, is my tendency to get “right” and “left” mixed up (best not to ask me for directions) or, sometimes, “yellow” and “pink.” I am fully aware of what each word means, I just say one when I mean the other. Or, I routinely forget the name for something. When I was working I had a brain stall every time I tried to find the words “case study.”  It’s a term used often in my profession but one that, for some reason, I had trouble with.

Now that I have retired and no longer need to make public presentations or utter the words “case study,” I have found that this personal peccadillo has become less of an issue for me. Fortunately, many of my friends are retired too and are less of a hurry to get anywhere. They are perfectly content to pause the conversation while I go rummaging around my cranial attic for a word that has escaped my grasp.

I, in turn, smile and nod when they go on to tell me the same story they told me last week.

Resiliency

Even those who deny climate change (or, at least the impact we humans have had) must have a hard time ignoring the wild swings of weather conditions the United States—and the world—has experienced over the last several years.

Those of us on the West Coast are in a severe, multi-year drought while those in other areas of the country have endured record cold temperatures. Now, I’m reading news stories about torrential rain and flooding on the East Coast.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Here in San Diego, fire crews are just finishing battling nearly a dozen individual wild fires that burned around 26,000 acres and required over 125,000 people to evacuate. Although California has had wild fires throughout the state’s history, this mix of low humidity, triple-digit temperatures, and hot, dry Santa Ana winds in May is most unusual… and troubling. No one is naive enough to think that we’ve seen the worst of it. This is just the earliest start of our fire season in decades. What we used to brace ourselves for in September and October could now be a threat year-round.

Our home was well away from the fires, but, along with so many others, we watched the scenes of the firestorms on the TV; cheering the heroics of the fire fighters as they battled the blazes in their attempt to save homes and lives. Because of their efforts, “only” around 70 homes were destroyed and no lives were lost (contrast that to 2003, when 2,232 homes were destroyed and 15 people died, and 2007 when 1,500 homes were lost and 9 died).

Now that most of the fires are fully contained the focus has switched from fighting the fires to mopping up and surveying the damage. It is heartbreaking to see the bewildered faces of people standing in front of what once were their homes. It is the same look seen after the devastating hurricanes, super storms, tornados, earthquakes, and so many other recent disasters we’ve witnessed.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

As I look at photos of the fires’ destruction, I wonder how the people who have lost their homes will be able to bounce back after such devastation. Most of them say—and it’s true—that it’s only “things” and they are lucky to be alive, but I know how much all of the “things” that are in a home can make us feel safe, connect us to our past, and help us define who we are.

A word that I am hearing more and more in the aftermath of these disasters is “resilience” as it relates to systems, nature, and people. Andrew Zolli, the author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back described resilient systems as being able to “sense and respond to their own state and to the state of the world around them, compensate or dynamically reorganize themselves in the face of novel shocks, decouple themselves from other fragile systems when necessary, fail gracefully, and have a strong local self-sufficiency.” I think much the same thing could be said of people who are resilient.

I don’t believe that we either are or are not resilient. Some who are perceived as fragile by others can exhibit great resilience when faced with a personal challenge or devastating loss. Others, who may appear to be strong and stoic on the outside, might not be able to bounce back as well. Not everyone reacts in the same way to traumatic and stressful life events, but there are steps we can take to become more resilient in the face of adversity. A resilient person will still experience difficulty or distress, but their resilience can influence their ability to recover, persist, or even thrive amid disruption.

We all experience traumas in some form, whether because of a natural disaster, the loss of a loved one, the ending of a relationship or a job, or because of health challenges. What is important is to develop the tools—behaviors, thoughts and actions—now that will help us when we are faced with adversity. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), these attributes can be learned and developed by anyone. In order to increase our ability to be resilient, the APA suggests that we foster these important personal foundations*:

• Cultivate caring and supportive relationships, both inside and outside the family
• Nurture relationships that create love and trust, provide role models, and offer encouragement and reassurance
• Develop the capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
• Maintain a positive view of one’s self and confidence in our strengths and abilities
• Develop skills in communication and problem solving
• Learn to manage feelings and impulses

We all will face increased challenges as we age; the death of loved ones, decreased physical capacity, perhaps a serious illness or even a natural disaster. Building our resilience now will help us better respond and adapt.

heart2

“If your heart is broken, make art with the pieces”

– Shane Koyczan

* This list paraphrases a list from the APA’s brochure The Road to Resilience.

Life’s a Beech

Beech5

Recently, my husband and I met with an attorney to draft our living trust, wills, durable powers of attorney, and advance health care directives. We wanted to get these done now while we are both in good physical and mental health. Over the last several years, we have witnessed the rapid deterioration in the health of some family members and friends. We do what we can to stay healthy but we don’t fool ourselves into thinking it can’t happen to us. Even if we live to 90 or beyond, these documents will be necessary to assure that our wishes are carried out.

Creating these documents is serious and time-consuming. There are a lot of uncomfortable details to think about and financial decisions to be made. I found the most enjoyable part of the process to be determining where our assets will go once we were both gone. Since we have no children, we happily specified a few charities that are near and dear to our hearts. What I found the most difficult was deciding what I wanted done with my remains. Although cremation is a given, where do I want my ashes to go?

When my mother passed away in 2000, I was relieved to discover that she and my father had made funeral arrangements many years previously. Because of this, my brothers and I weren’t faced with the burden of trying to guess what she would have wanted. It was a generous and loving act that we appreciated again when my father passed away several years later. Their ashes now lay side-by-side in a columbarium overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Since meeting with the attorney, I have done some research and I think I’ve found the answer to my dilemma: tree urns. Planting commemorative trees is a practice that has been around for awhile, but now there is a way we can actually become part of a tree once we are gone.

Bio Urn
Bio Urn

I found several options: Bios Urns, EterniTrees, Spirit Trees, and Peotrees, and I’m sure there are others. The prices vary, but the concept is the pretty much the same: one’s ashes are mixed with planting soil, nutrients, and a tree seed. And, since ashes contain phosphorous, they contribute to the healthy growth of the tree. How great is that! I have always considered myself a tree-hugger, but now I can actually provide nourishment to the tree! Rather than becoming post-consumer (as in me, the consumer) waste, I can contribute healthy Co2 to the atmosphere for many years to come.

Most of the companies that sell these urns offer a choice of tree seeds. Maple, oak, ash, and beech are a few of the options on one of the websites. Living–and most likely dying–in southern California, I’d probably choose a tree that’s drought resistant, or maybe a citrus. A lime tree, perhaps, so my juices could be blended into pitchers of margaritas or my slices muddled to make a mojito.

Since we are pretty sure we can’t take it with us, my husband and I intend to spend most of our assets having fun in our retirement (sorry, designated charities), leaving just enough for a heck of a Celebration of Life party for our friends. Although I’d like to think we will leave the world a better place, most likely our names won’t be remembered by generations far into the future. They won’t be engraved on a plaque or noted in a text.

I will ask that my ashes be used to propagate a tree planted in our back yard. Becoming a tree, a symbol of eternal life in many cultures, will allow me to live on, providing some beauty, a little shade, and perhaps adding a refreshing zest to the drinks of future homeowners. Maybe they will raise a toast to my memory.

Opening Our Minds to Skepticism

All too often, we read stories about people who are duped by scammers. Sadly, the victim is often elderly and, tragically, large sums of money – money that they can’t afford to lose – are frequently involved.

As my late father’s physical and mental health started to decline, I worried about him falling for the various come-ons he received in the mail and on the phone. He had a good, analytical mind when he was younger, but I could tell that his aging brain was becoming less and less able to discern fact from fiction. Fortunately, I was able to protect his bank accounts and credit card before anything happened so he and his finances were safe.

Scams_Computer

Scammers continue to devise more sophisticated and devious ways to separate people from their money, but there are still plenty of victims responding to notices of large lottery wins, promised riches from Nigerian princes, and a variety of phony phishing emails. My innate skepticism will help protect me from falling for these scams now, but I worry that when I am much older, will I still be able to avoid being taken advantage of?

The same critical thinking skills that make me disregard offers that are “too good to be true” lead me to question much of what I read on the Internet and in social media. I can always count on a handful of “friends” posting items on Facebook or forwarding me emails (along with protestations of outrage) with a story sent to them by some equally outraged person. Most don’t pass my “smell test” and, after a quick search on various fact-checking sites, the stories turn out to be just that, stories.

I don’t think these people are stupid or especially gullible but when they read something that fits very neatly into their political or ideological mindset, they tend not to question its authenticity. This is how hate, lies, and rumors are spread; one unquestioned falsehood at a time.

Tennis Shoes

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” Mark Twain

We live in a society of people who self-select their news. If one source’s slant doesn’t lean in the right direction, simply choose another that does. We also tend to socialize, and even live in communities, with like-minded people. That way we don’t have to question our beliefs or, God forbid, alter them in any way. I guess this makes us feel smug comfortable in our convictions, but does it make us better citizens? Does listening to only one side of a story before deciding on its merits support our intellectual integrity? I think most would agree that it does not (although we still do it because, really, it’s others who need to open their minds, not us… right?).

Non-critical thinking makes us more vulnerable to scammers. If we trust a source so completely that we never question its accuracy, why would we question the authenticity of an “exclusive offer” from the same source (or one of its advertisers)? Even better if the offer is also couched in language that supports our biases. If we are distrustful of something or someone, are we not more likely to respond to something that reinforces our paranoia suspicion?

Less incendiary, but maybe in some ways worse, are the “innocent” but untrue items that are re-posted virally. If the poster had done some quick research or applied simple logic, they would have realized that the story doesn’t make any sense. In this category are those emails/posts that promise riches/good luck if you continue the chain (and usually include dire warnings if you don’t), and urban legends like entering your ATM PIN backwards will summon help. Although new myths are being created all the time, many have been around for years and are repackaged and posted over and over again.

When we get in the habit of using magical thinking in place of critical thinking, we make ourselves more vulnerable to hoaxes and fraud. Best case, we just irritate our friends and end up looking stupid, but worst case, we open ourselves up to scammers and thieves.

Recent studies have shown that changes in the brain as we age make the elderly more trusting. The negative “gut feelings” a younger person might experience aren’t felt as strongly by an older person. For this reason, we must be alert when caring for an older adult to protect them from unscrupulous individuals and businesses.

Fortunately, there are things we can do as we age so we aren’t as likely to become victims. We can actually practice our critical thinking skills, learn to be more analytical, and train our brains to question when something just doesn’t ring true.

The enemy of scammers and hoaxters is common sense, questioning, and research.

Be their barricade, not their bridge.