Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Buckets of Ice

Several years ago while working  as a social worker on the respiratory service at a local hospital I worked with a doctor who ran the ALS clinic. When his patients were admitted to the inpatient service, I was usually assigned to work with them and their families. Usually they were not new to the diagnosis but the stage at which they were admitted was often the point at which they could not return home. For most it meant the point at which they were put on a ventilator to help them breathe. Many would walk in the hospital in crisis, never to be able to walk out again.

While I worked on many services over the 12 years I worked as a hospital social worker, and sadly saw many illnesses rob people of their abilities and their lives, my years on that service and the people I worked with there, left a lasting impact on me. I came to the conclusion that if there was a 'worst disease' to die from, ALS was it. I saw people robbed of their abilities to care for themselves, their ability to talk, their ability to walk and I saw families ripped apart from the stress and the decisions they had to make on behalf of their loved ones..

The worst thing perhaps about this illness, is that the one thing you are not robbed of, is your mind. The clinic staff would relate it to being 'buried alive' and truly, there is no better analogy.  Ethically, this illness raised many issues for the staff - especially when patients had chosen to be put on a ventilator when they could communicate but after a certain amount of time and significant deterioration, the family chose to remove it which quickly led to the person's death. It also raised issues of quality of life and how we were ill equipped to decide what quality of life meant to others. I carry with me so many lessons from those years and the patients and families I worked with and truly it shaped the person I am today.

Unfortunately, most people who knew about ALS in 'those days' were people who on some level were directly impacted by it. While 'one is too many', mercifully it does not impact people in the volumes that cancer or heart disease does so it is not talked about much, not part of the diseases that you see massive fundraising campaigns for and not something most people worry about getting. But, that was before the power of social media campaigns and talk of dumping buckets of ice on one's heads in order to increase awareness of this horrible illness.

In the last few weeks, social media has been filled with videos of people dumping ice on their heads and challenging others to do the same. I have to admit, I don't quite understand where buckets of ice relate to ALS but it is a very interesting idea that seems to have captured the world's attention. And more importantly, it has raised millions of dollars in support of this disease. I suppose, it speaks to the potential power - a positive power in this case - of social media and the significant impact it can have on the world at large. My hope is that this is only the beginning of the increasing awareness of this illness, it's impact and the need to find a cure for it.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The secret to a happy retirement

Someone recently asked me when I planned to retire. Frankly, I didn't know what to answer. I cannot imagine what retirement would 'look like' for me and the thought of not working had me wondering if I ever want to not work. We all hear the stories of people who are incredibly bored during retirement. I remember working with a woman many years ago who started counting her years to retirement 20 years before but when faced with the prospect for real, she chose instead to work part-time doing the same job she anxiously awaited not doing for years.

So, what's the secret? What enables some people to be happy and fulfilled in retirement? I started searching information on this and seem to have found a few bits of information that may be quite useful when the time comes.

It is no secret that money is not the key to happiness - we all know wealthy people who were terribly unhappy - however, being debt free and having enough saved will make life more comfortable and will afford the opportunity to do things you might want to do. With my knowledge base, I also know that having a bit of money will also allow you to pay for care you may need should you be faced with a need for it in the distant future. So while money is not the ticket, it certainly can help you be comfortable.

I  think finding meaning is incredibly important - when you spend so much of your life working, work is often a part of who you are and in many cases gives you meaning and reason to get up in the morning. Those who I know who have what they would consider a 'good retirement' spend time volunteering, working part-time or involved in activities that make them feel happy. In a sense, giving back, has that 'feel good' quality that most yearn for. As well, it keeps you socially active, meeting people, less isolated and more in tune with what is going on in the world.

Keeping physically and mentally active is incredibly important for a host of reasons. With medical advances we are all living longer. It's important that we live longer healthier. It doesn't need explanation. The best way to stay healthy is to practice good eating habits, get regular exercise and do things to keep your brain active.

Human beings are social creatures. We need people. People who spend many hours at work often neglect having a social network so when they retire, they don't have that social stimulation they have grown accustomed to in the workforce. Creating and maintaining a social network when you are younger will give you life long connections you may come to depend on in retirement. If however you don't have connections like that or even if you do, do what you can to meet new people, consider mentoring someone, join social clubs, hobby clubs, attend events, take courses - anything that will allow you to meet people who share common interests with you.

In between all of this activity, consider things that you really want to do, things that you simply haven't had the time or money to do in the past, which you might be able to do now that you aren't consumed with a work schedule. If you want to see the world, make a plan to do it, one year at a time, one country at a time. If you have always wanted to learn something new/different/unique, find out how and where you can do it.

So the secret? Ultimately, if you are fortunate enough to be healthy in retirement, take advantage of the gift of time and health - make health a priority, meet people, spend time doing something that is meaningful and plan ahead (financially) when you are younger so that you can be able to do all of the things you would like to. It is far better to look forward in anticipation than to look back with regret.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

100 years and counting..........

An article in the paper caught my eye early  this week. We are all living longer - no surprise there. However, it is estimated that in the next 50 years the number of Canadians living to 100 and beyond will jump to close to 80,000! One would expect that because of medical advances, everyone will be in better health for longer however, the cost of healthcare will also be higher. And judging from the last several years, even if we still have some sort of government health plan, what it will cover may be far more limited than what we currently have.

There is already a shift in when people retire. It seems later and later. Many people work, even if only part time, well past 65. That being said, living longer also means needing retirement income for longer. So how much will one need to retire in the future? And how long will the average person have to work in order to have enough money to 'enjoy' retirement?

There are figures on how many people actually buy (and/or maximize the use of) RRSPs and from my recollection the number is fairly low. That being said, there are many people who simply don't have the extra income to buy RRSPs and will be forced to either work well into old age or will be dependent on limited government pensions to make ends meet. The quality of life factor for people living life to over 100 in a difficult financial situation may indeed be quite limited.

Given all of this information, housing for seniors will need to change a bit as well. It seems that we will have to find creative ways of looking after our increasing number seniors who may not have the extra income to pay for care/specialized housing. One can only hope that we use the next 50 years to figure out how to ensure a good and healthy quality of life for all seniors regardless of their age or financial situations.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Yes, it's true....

 Last week, an article appeared in a local newspaper about yours truly. It was about how and why I started doing the book - the Comprehensive Guide to Retirement Living - and the website I had done the interview a couple of months back and did not know it would be appearing in print (or what the journalist would actually write) until people started emailing me about it (a link to the article in now posted on our About Us page). What I found interesting was the number of contacts, people I know, who asked if it was 'true'. They wondered if my experience as a young adult, of a grandmother who had dementia and was admitted to a not-so-nice nursing home, was actually true and if it indeed had shaped my future in that profound a way.

So, for all of you who didn't ask but wondered the same thing, the answer is a resounding yes. My experience with my grandmother happened while I was a social work student learning and absorbing and trying to understand the right way to do things as a professional. Our family felt powerless, lacked information about how 'the system' worked and had no idea who to ask for help. Decisions were made without everyone who needed to be there present and information was not properly communicated. It was a different time - more than 25 years ago - and our system has changed significantly but from the calls we get, there are still instances where people feel all of the above.The social worker I became was significantly impacted by that family experience. It just so happened that I ended up as a hospital social worker a few years later. And that I ended up working mainly with seniors who couldn't return to living independently and needed help finding a new home.  I came to understand that our family experience was not a unique one. And so, I decided that I needed to find a way to help people navigate a system that was a bit fragmented and difficult to negotiate under normal circumstances, never mind when stress levels are high.

I think our experiences shape who we become and certain experiences impact us more than others. While I never set out to become a hospital social worker who worked with seniors on a conscious level, I do believe that this experience very much pointed me in the direction that would become more of a mission than a career choice.  My grandmother had been a significant influence on me growing up. And while I do have some nice childhood memories of her, my young adult memories are overwhelmingly populated by images of her frail body in a nursing home that simply did not provide adequate care or treat her with dignity. In those last years, she didn't know us and so the recognition that the person we knew was no longer there became the context through which I came to understand how difficult it was to deal with memory loss in someone you loved.

I don't think, when I started to do the book, I realized how many people I would actually help, how long I would continue to do it or how big it would become. It was simply something I needed to do at the time when I recognized a hole in our system.  To this day,  my greatest reward is receiving feedback from people The Guide has helped. I suppose empowering others to understand what our family didn't, has helped me turn something negative into something positive.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

How important is paper?

I spend a significant amount of time discussing the value of  'paper publications' with people. It seems that for those who have grown up with computers, paper and hard copy books are no longer valued. Despite the fact that computers have opened up the world to us, there is still tremendous value for many in having specific information in one spot especially if you are older and perhaps not very tech savvy or, don't carry a computer with you wherever you go. Many older folks and even some 'relatively young' ones are still using paper. Many tell me that when it comes to researching  information on one topic (like retirement homes), they prefer it to be accessible in paper format. This is even true of professionals who, when they are not at a desk/computer, simply need a way to access information quickly. There seems to be an assumption from many younger people, that with the great volume of information online, everyone should be able to find what they need on the internet. Yet, based on the calls we get, even if relevant information is there, not everyone can find it or work with it.

I am saddened when I think about the fact that one day, libraries & book stores will no longer exist. While there are are still books and ebooks, our kids are completely dependent on short 140 character messages, social media sites and abridged information. Children in grade school no longer learn how to write in cursive - the side effect is they no longer can read it either.  While technology is giving us much, we may want to stop to consider, what it is taking away from us. If we do, we may be less inclined to discard things that gave us a deeper connection to others than our current forms of communication do.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Seniors and Technology

It seems that seniors are well on the way to embracing technology. Statistics Canada has determined that over 30% of seniors aged 75+ are online; up from 5% in the year 2000.

This is great news on several fronts. It seems that those that are online, find that it helps them stay 'socially connected', enabling them to maintain contact with friends and family who may be a great physical distance away. While some are using email and even Facebook to connect, others benefit from programs such as Skype that allows them to talk and see a person at the same time. A 'virtual visit' can decrease isolation and help maintain relationships.

As well, many find it helpful to use a computer to stay connected to the world at large when they are able to navigate websites and news feeds. And still others use virtual gaming systems that pick up movement, as a way to stay physically active especially in the winter months. Several retirement homes even have these game systems for residents to use and find that residents (and their grandchildren) love them.

Many seniors are looking at technology as as way to stay independent and with their familiarity with computers, many may be one day able to use new devices being developed to stay healthy and remain in their homes with 'virtual support' through tools that detect changes in gait or movement, medication reminders and other functions.

For those who wish to try out programs or tools but are reluctant for fear that they may not know how to work it properly, it might be helpful to speak to others who use what you are interested in trying out for some instruction or helpful tips.Start slowly and don't be afraid of the unknown. Gaining skills with technology is sure to open up a realm of possibilities!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Falling through the cracks

An article in our local paper caught my eye this morning. It was about a 72 year old woman who was evicted two years ago from her low income government housing unit because she had been hoarding. Living in a shelter, minus most of her possessions and not telling her family or friends, she is spending her 'senior years' without privacy and dignity.

It got me thinking - how is it possible that someone falls through the cracks so significantly and no one notices but a newspaper reporter? Why is it 'acceptable' that in order to 'fix' a problem - presumably this person's hoarding - our 'progressive' and 'inclusive' society and its public servants, find it acceptable to send this woman to the streets without supports, without notifying anyone who could help or anyone who cares about her?

While there are at least two sides to every story and realistically we only know one of them, it is clear that this person's issues were noticed and she had been brought before the Landlord Tenant Board before her eviction. Could more not have been done to help her before forcing her out of her home? What about society's collective responsibility to protect the most vulnerable? Do we all not deserve to be treated with some dignity and respect? While one has to wonder how for two years she could keep this secret from those who know her, how they don't ask questions or notice anything isn't quite right, one can completely understand this woman's sense of embarrassment and pride as a reason for not asking for help. She is caught between a rock and a hard place - she cannot find a new home because of her financial limitations and because she is concerned if the label of 'hoarder' is attached to her, no one will want her living in their property. And she is too afraid of the consequences of reaching out to medical professionals for help.

How many people like her are falling through the cracks? And how many more will fall, as our ageing population increases in number and more and more people require supportive housing? For some time now I have worried about the 'black hole' tomorrows seniors on basic pensions will face when they start needing care that our system cannot afford to cover. This is one more facet of that concern. Even if she doesn't need physical care, she does need help. Someone knowing that dropped the ball. The question is, who is there to pick it up again?