Monday, 23 March 2015

No Words

My mind has been occupied the past couple of days with thoughts of a tragedy that occurred in Brooklyn, NY over the weekend. A family with 8 children, lost 7 of them to a house fire. The mother and one other child are in critical condition and don't yet know how their world has changed forever. And a father is left to bury 7 kids age 5 to 16. An appliance was left on that malfunctioned and caused the house to go up in flames in the middle of the night. Only one smoke detector was found in the basement while the family slept upstairs. There are no words to help make sense of this. No words that can ever hope to comfort those who mourn this loss. No words to justify.

As with so many horrible tragedies, questions with no answers abound. Would smoke detectors on all the floors have prevented the tragedy? Would they have saved some, if not all lives?  Why were there not more smoke detectors in the house? How did the fire spread so fast trapping all of the children? How does a family and a community deal with so monumental a loss? How does a parent carry on? A sibling? Grandparents?

I suppose what makes it so difficult to comprehend is the preventable nature of it. And the size of the tragedy - though one death would be too many. All we can do is do what we can to prevent something like this from happening again. Check your smoke detectors & make sure you have enough. Talk to everyone you know and ask them if they have detectors and when they last checked them. If you have seniors in your life, take the initiative and check theirs. Check appliances. If they don't work properly or seem to be damaged in any way, get rid of them or fix them. Do the same for people in your life who can't do it for themselves.

Fire and Water. Both can be our friend but both can destroy and be unforgiving. We owe it to ourselves and those we love, to make sure we protect ourselves from their dangers.

Monday, 16 March 2015


Last week I gave a lecture to a group of people who, although 'middle aged' seemed to have not given much thought to what their retirement might look like. I think, we all have a vision of a perfect existence when we no longer need or want to work. We all would like to 'write our future' and know that we will live healthy and active, able to travel with no financial or health concerns until one day we close our eyes and simply don't wake up. The hope is that the 'one day' that happens will be very far in the distant future when like a machine, our body simply stops working. I once had a professor who asked us to write our own obituaries - that was the scenario most of us imagined but we were quickly told, it was a rare occurrence.

After discussing some real life scenarios, and the realities around cost factors and possible care needs, I think many in the group were busy assessing their own life situation. In doing these sorts of lectures, I always try to balance reality with practicality while not creating hysteria. No one knows what their future holds however, to bury our heads in the sand and not think about what may be, only serves to potentially delay conversations and as a result, reduce options available to us if we do need care or alternate accommodation in the future.

We all know people who died young and were not able to enjoy retirement; and others who lived to a ripe old age and were grateful for savings and investments. How do you know which you will be? Do we 'throw caution to the wind' and live our lives to the fullest not worrying about retirement or do we scrimp and save when we are working to ensure that we have enough money to live comfortably for 30 more years? There are no crystal balls. And so, I advocate a bit of both. I think its important to enjoy life while you are healthy. Travel, enjoy time with family and friends, work at something that gives you happiness and save a bit every month which over time, will add up to a nice nest egg that hopefully you will use in your lifetime. That, I think, is the balance to aim for. Even when the days seem to last forever, the years simply slip by. Balance is the key to no regrets,,,,,,, and a nice retirement.  

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

A Night at the Movies

I recently saw the movie Still Alice. Its about a 50 year old well-educated woman who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. So, it got me thinking. About how many people I know who have been touched by this horrible disease. About former clients. About my grandmother. And about how it must feel for the person going through the disease progression knowing that their mind will likely go well before their body. I would imagine that it must be a very scary experience and a very lonely one. There were some interesting ethical questions as well; but Hollywood being what it is, doesn't dwell on them. Still it got me thinking. There were a couple of really interesting scenes in the movie - one where the main character gives a speech about having the disease; and the other when she tells her husband that it would be better if she had cancer because people 'wear ribbons and go on walks for you' or something to that effect. It alluded to the fact that there is still stigma around 'mental illnesses' that there isn't around other diseases.

I think, the more we hear about well-known personalities with dementias and mental illnesses and the more they speak out about it, the more normalized it will become and by extension, the more support those afflicted with it will feel, because it will be okay to talk about. I think these sorts of movies help things along - provided they get the publicity they should and people go to see them. Surprisingly, despite the recent Oscar win for the main character, the theatre was empty. I wondered if the subject matter scared people away or if it just had been in the theatres too long.

There are subjects that people simply try to avoid - or at least most people do - some are afraid of doing a Will, giving a Power of Attorney, talking about certain illnesses or pre-planning a funeral. Yet all of these things are so very important and so much a part of life. I used to think it had more to do with superstition than anything else but maybe its more about the discomfort these topics hold coupled with the fear of the inevitable, that has some people avoid conversations for as long as possible. The reality is, avoiding them doesn't mean they won't happen - it just means we won't be prepared when they happen. So maybe movies like Still Alice will get people talking - as sad a story as it is, for so many it isn't a 'story' but a part of life.....

Monday, 2 March 2015

Lessons from the Past

I read an article today about a woman who survived the Holocaust over 70 years ago. The article spoke of how she was a child during the war and had a special doll that she believes saved her from sure death. Apparently the doll 'told her' to run away from a place of safety where soon after, the children there were killed. She has had this doll with her for over 70 years and has now decided to donate it to a museum/archive of sorts so her story can live on.

It is interesting, to hear a survival story such as this. I would venture to guess, during such a time, there were many stories that were similar. That she attributed her surviving the war to an inanimate object may not be any different from people attributing their survival of any life/death experience to a 'vision of a dead relative'. How much of a role sheer luck played in any of these stories is unknown as is the number of people with similar stories who did not survive. Perhaps needing to 'believe' is the theme that ties these stories together.  I think, in the face of tragedy, we all look for answers - why something happened or why it didn't can often not be explained by logic and so, we reach for something more - for a sign of divine intervention and failing that, for a 'hero' who saved us.

I have seen several Holocaust memorials in different places; while they are all very emotional to visit, the one that always send shivers up my spine is the Children's Memorial at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem. Simple in its design, it is so very poignant in its message. It is a simple structure you walk through, a separate building to the main museum, with mirrors, candles and names of the dead announced in a never-ending loop over the PA system. It truly gives meaning to the reality of generations lost and lives cut short by such a terrible time in the world's history. One can only hope, that civilization learns lessons from the mistakes of the past and finds ways to peacefully ensure that it never happens again.

Over 70 years have passed. One day, in the not too distant future, the survivors will be gone and the history books and museums will be all that is left to teach us and remind us of all that was lost. The interviewer asked the woman with the doll, why she didn't give it to her children and grandchildren. Her answer had more to do with the best place to keep her story alive than anything else. While the legacy of the doll may have some immediate meaning to her family, in the end it will become family lore and be forgotten, watered down or embellished. But clearly, she sees the bigger picture; her story is not about one person's legacy to their family. It's about bravely telling they world about a terrible time when humanity was almost lost. It's about the one, and the many, stories of survival. It's about teaching the future generations. It's about 'Never Again'.