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Archive for June, 2014

How Do I Know?

Friday, June 27th, 2014

This post is mostly an e-mail from my sister Kathryn Winz, retired professor and part-time caregiver to two beautiful special needs grandsons.  It grew out of a conversation we’d had the week prior about how to know when you are no longer able to do what you’ve been doing effectively.  She did such an eloquent job of bringing an even larger issue to light–that sometimes the pros who are supposed to be telling you how don’t know themselves–that I asked her permission to use her words.

You remember how worried I was, when we talked last, about installing a deadbolt lock keyed from the inside, to keep Ezra from running away in the middle of the night? I installed the lock, even though there is a chance of a medical emergency in which I won’t be able to open it.  A week later Kelly told me this while she was cutting my hair: her Uncle Jimmy, who is 42 and has Down syndrome, needs another hip surgery because he has a difficult time getting up and down stairs. He and his 85-year-old mom live alone in the big old family farmhouse, where the only bathroom is upstairs. Isn’t your family worried? I asked. They have always been this way, and they’re fine, Kelly said.

Well, I don’t think they are fine. Nobody manages forever in such a difficult situation. So I scheduled an appointment at my local counseling center to talk about how to recognize signs that age has started impinging on one’s abilities.  I asked if they had an expert on the problems of aging, and the receptionist assured me that they did.

I met lovely, fragile Gloria in the waiting room. Her long silk skirt billowed a little in the air conditioning. She looked carefully around the empty space (it was late in the day – the receptionist had gone home), going down the short flight of stairs to look near the front door. She came back toward me and said, “You must be Kathryn.”

Her office would have pleased Bilbo Baggins, or Merlin. Things were arranged four-deep on every surface. Pictures of adorable children and grandchildren, toys that I believe belonged to the kids back in the 1970s. Mementos of travel. Diplomas from everywhere, including Masters and Johnson. I was looking at a rich, full life, I knew. I tried the leather chair, and sank so far I knew I would have trouble getting out at the end of the hour.  So I moved to the couch, and sank again.

I told my story. “Don’t borrow worry,” Gloria said. “Do you have your grandsons living with you?” No, they visit every weekend, I told her, again.

“How old do you think I am?” Mid-fifties, I answered. ” I’m seventy three,” she said. “I don’t worry.”

“Your daughter must really need help,” she said after fifteen minutes of somewhat inane conversation. “Are you able to help her at all?” Yes, I said, the boys often stay overnight with me. But I don’t know how I will be able to tell if that is not safe anymore.  “Don’t borrow worry”, she responded.  I wondered if in her intro she just picked an age one year older than the client in front of her.  Maybe she didn’t even know how old she was.

I remembered my colleague who in the final years of teaching his crime lab course made his students fingerprint each other for an hour every class for the whole semester. That’s all, just taking fingerprints, even after the messy process of inking had become obsolete.  He doesn’t even recognize his children any more.

And then there was another friend and long time prof who infuriated the dean because he could talk for an hour about anything, but when the hour was done, you couldn’t pull out a single point that he had made.

How will I know? How can I tell when I am no longer making sense and providing for others safely?  When someone grabs me by my spindly shoulders and says, “Get it together!” I guess.  Or maybe I won’t know, and there will be a disaster.  I won’t borrow worry.

But this is a legitimate worry and an issue worthy of a good plan.  So what do you do?  How do you know?  She and I had another exchange of e-mail where we took it beyond “asking a professional” (who might be beyond that needed awareness personally).  Professional counseling is good for many things, but for this, you need people who have known you for some time and care about you.  People who can say, “Your driving is deteriorating.”  Or “Do you realize you’ve said that three times since I stopped by to visit?”

This is the work of the courageous and the members of that advisory council need to be carefully chosen.  We need to find them and sincerely ask for their help before it starts to become a concern.  This isn’t a way of giving someone else the authority to limit our lives.  It’s the most effective means we have of accurately seeing reality if our own grasp of it starts to loosen.

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Kathryn Winz is retired and is a delightfully diverse fiber artist.  Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more see Mary’s website.

What Can I Do About Mental Illness?

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

My youngest brother died a month ago. It was sudden. It was a shock.  But it was somewhat expected.   He hadn’t even made it to 60, but his body was giving up on him.    His mental health was declining even more rapidly.  That was an “elephant in the living room” though.  He’s been mentally ill since grade school but he did not—and would not—acknowledge that.  We all danced around it in trying to relate to and help him—with varying degrees of success and compassion.

Along with the grief and sadness of losing him, I am feeling relief.  He lived on the very edge of our common reality, and that made him vulnerable to every well-muscled redneck with a dislike of “weirdos.”  Now that he’s passed, I can let go of the worry and helplessness of not being able to protect him from 2000 miles away.

But I’m also relieved that I don’t have to try to communicate with him anymore.  It was very hard work.  That relief brings regret—I wish I had done more to make sure he knew I loved him, even if his replies sometimes came in such word blizzards that I couldn’t take them in.

My brother “made it home” without getting beaten up.  He also didn’t hurt someone else—a consequence of mental illness that we are seeing more and more.  The killing rampage at UC-Santa Barbara is just the latest example of how much is wrong for so many.  Why are disenfranchised, angry men (yes, virtually all of the rampages have been instigated by men) deciding the “solution” to their own demons and nightmares is in killing other people?

I can grasp that my brother’s disconcerting behavior was because of illness, and that it wasn’t’ something he chose.  It wasn’t something he could change.  But that didn’t solve the problem.  The illness itself made the likelihood of him agreeing to the help he needed unlikely.  The mentally ill 20-year old who went berserk on the UC-Santa Barbara campus had parents who were desperately trying to get him help.  It wasn’t enough.  What do we do with this problem?  How do we stem this epidemic?

What can I do?  What can any of us do that might make a difference?

Trying to get these individuals to change to what’s more familiar and comfortable to the rest of us does not work.  That’s like expecting a person without legs to grow them because you bought them a new pair of socks.  Getting them to take medications for illness they don’t even think they have is a hard sell.  Plus how much are the meds contributing to the situation?  Side effects can take years to manifest and what’s good for one body might not work in the next one—or the 100,000th one.

Is there a way to mitigate this that starts before the alienation becomes extreme?  Can we do anything to keep this deep, painful version of aloneness from developing?  One idea keeps coming back to me.  Perhaps part of this deluge of horrible personal atrocity starts with a lack of connection that each of us really could be doing something about with very little risk to ourselves.

What would happen if we all tried to be friendlier—even to the kid who’s looking at his shoes the entire time you talk to him?

What would happen if I smiled at strangers?  Would it help if I gave a friendly nod to people who don’t seem to be “like me”?  What would happen if we projected an attitude of acceptance in casual encounters?  Like saying “Hello” or “Hihowareya?” or “Howzitgoin?” to those we pass.  And waving to neighbors.   Maybe offering a simple kindness like letting that meek person with two items who’s behind us at the checkout go first.    Would this start to change if we were all a little warmer automatically?

This year’s commencement speaker at the University of Texas was Admiral William H. McRaven, Commander of Special Operations and a highly decorated Navy SEAL.   As part of his comments, he talked about the compounding effects of what you do to help other people.  His point: if each member of that graduating class did something to improve as few as 10 other people’s lives, they really could “change the world” over generations.  (Check out the whole speech, about 20 minutes long.)

Maybe simply noticing the people who are “not like us” and being friendly is where we need to start with changing this.  We’ll only find out if we try it.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 edition of Barbara Morris’s online newsletter Put Old on Hold.
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Mary Lloyd is a speaker and writer and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.

Savoring Summer

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

I just caught myself doing the unthinkable–worrying that summer is going to be over before it’s even started! Time for me to refocus on how to savor the pluses of the moment instead of worrying about what’s likely to come after them.

I live in the Pacific Northwest–with some of the best summer weather you will ever find anywhere. In addition, because of where we sit on the globe, we get really long summer days (balanced, of course, by really short winter days, but we don’t need to get into that right now).  We do have rainy days and cool weather as part of the overall summer pattern, but summer here is largely a matter of moderately warm, mostly dry, and more often than not sunny.

The last few days of May were a delightful hint of what my particular environment will be like for coming months–sunny with highs in the mid- to high 70’s.  As I looked out at all the gorgeous green and listened to the bird song, I caught myself in a disconcertingly negative thought though.  In 20 days, we will begin the progression of shorter days again.  Once summer starts, we’re marching toward winter.

Oh come on!

There is always a progression going on.  Sometimes we know what the next thing is going to be (drizzly gray days that go dark at 5:00).  Sometimes we just project what we’re afraid it’s going to be (boring, scary, not-fun, demanding…whatever).  The point is the same regardless:  When you fail to notice the good stuff going on right now and focus instead on worrying about something less positive that’s on the way, you are squandering your life.

Most of us learn to worry before we even make it to high school.  Noticing that something might go wrong is useful–it gives you a heads-up so you can do what’s needed to make it go right instead.  But not noticing that things are going right at this very moment makes you miss the real sweetness of life–the delight of really living those moments where “all’s right with the world.”  That is a tragic waste.

The sun is shining.  The sky is blue.  The birds are singing.  I’m on it.  I’ll worry about winter later.

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Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.