Thursday, 2 October 2014

Friends Forever

Yesterday I had the great privilege and honour to be part of a fantastic event. V!VA Pickering (Retirement Community) hosted a contest called "Friends Forever" where people could enter by submitting a story about a valuable friendship. Open to people 65+, participants had 250 words to tell a story which often encompassed a lifetime of memories. I was asked to be one of 3 judges. The hosts narrowed the submissions down to 9 and had us rate each story across several categories. We then came together and figured out a 'winner'. I have to say all of the stories were remarkable and it was not an easy job coming up with a winner.

We heard about friendships that were a lifetime long, some 50 or 60 years some less but as intense. Each story was unique, touching and special in its own way. The person who wrote it, read it and their friend was there to hear them read it. You could see how visibly touched people were - I think we often don't realize the impact we have on others and for some, their friend was their lifesaver.

The stories captured shared travel, moments of great happiness, shared experiences and in some cases, sadness. The common thread in all was not the specifics of what was shared, but what was underlying all of these great relationships - caring, love, compassion, being a confidant and lifeline, knowing each others needs and acting on it. One entrant said their secret was 'don't sweat the small stuff'' and really, when it comes to sustaining a lifelong relationship, that is likely the key.

People come in and out of our lives for many reasons. The ones that stay a lifetime are incredibly special. Finding one that will last a lifetime is truly a gift and all of the people yesterday, recognized the importance of what they had - Forever Friends.

I walked away feeling absolutely wonderful to have been part of such an event, and to being a 'witness' to such amazingly special stories. It really didn't matter who 'won' - they all won - they all had the best gift anyone could ask for - friends who will stand by you through thick and thin. The afternoon was inspiring and uplifting. Thank you V!VA Pickering! And congratulations Dianne and Lynne!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

National Seniors Day - October 1, 2014

Today is National Seniors Day in Canada. An opportunity to recognize and celebrate the contribution of seniors across the country. Events are being held in different areas but a search of the internet, leads one to think that there are many areas where this day is going unnoticed. I suppose there are several 'national days' that the government creates and I wonder if because of that there is a bit of 'collective apathy' around acknowledging such days. Perhaps our lives are too busy to stop and 'celebrate' all days, or we are just unaware of so many. I have not noticed articles or much publicity at all about October 1 and I am 'in the senior business'. If you are not, then you may simply not absorb the information if you see it.

While I think it's great that we have a seniors day and seniors month (as an aside, since both are government created, why are they not in the same month?), unless we publicize it better and encourage all communities to do things to acknowledge seniors, there is little point to declaring a celebratory day. That being said, I wonder why we need a national day at all. Shouldn't we make it a priority to recognize people who have contributed to building the country we are blessed to live in? Shouldn't every day be Seniors' Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day and virtually any day that celebrates the importance of every person who touches our lives?

Friday, 19 September 2014

Have no fear..............

I just read a fascinating article. A woman who turned 90 celebrated her birthday by piloting  a Cessna. Nothing new for her. When she turned 80 she went skydiving and when she turned 85 flew a glider. This is not the first time I've read about a senior doing something daring to celebrate a birthday.  One wonders what it is though, that makes a 90 year old want to fly an air plane or skydive?

When I was young, very young it seems, I had no fear of roller coasters - I looked forward to going to any fair that the scariest rides so I could try them out. But somehow, I grew older and developed a distaste for them. I have decided that its a fear of plummeting to my death - a fear kids evidently don't have - that takes it off my list of favourite things to do....... and I wonder, when I read articles like this, if as I get older, the fear will dissipate and I will be brave enough to try what is now to me, the unthinkable.......... bungee cord jumping!

I wonder too if as people live longer and are healthier for longer we will hear more stories like hers. People do seem to be active far longer than in the past and now it is not uncommon to see older seniors regularly going to a gym to exercise. By extension, does that mean that more will take up flying, skydiving and hang gliding in years to come? Or is it just that some people crave excitement, and danger and never quite grow out of it? Will 90 become the 'new 50' before long?

For whatever its worth, I think its fantastic that a woman of 90 learned to fly a plane. And tried skydiving and everything else this brave 'young' woman has the 'stomach' to do. I suppose in time I will discover if I will be a forever chicken or adopt a 'now or never' attitude. Until then, I will happily enjoy reading about others who actively seize the day!

Monday, 8 September 2014

Thoughts about Alzheimer's Disease

            September is World Alzheimer's Month. I read an article the other day about a family impacted by this horrible disease and it got me to thinking about my own family. For those of you who follow this blog, you will know that my grandmother had Alzheimer's Disease well over 20 years ago. I watched as it stole her from us piece by piece. As her dignity disappeared. As the person we knew, no longer existed. Yes, her body was there, but how horrible that the essence of her as a person we knew, was no longer. On some level, one wonders what disease is better or worse to die from - one where you know what is going on or one where you don't? That being said, no disease is 'good' and all diseases take with them the hidden victims that are rarely accounted for in the statistics we are so often presented with - those who love and look after the afflicted person.
          My window into illness, as a former hospital social worker, has given me a perspective on many diseases. I have watched many people struggle with issues around death and dying and witnessed families bind together or pull apart because of disease. This sort of stress can bring out the best or the worst in people I suppose. At the time our own family went through it, I was not yet a social worker but I do believe that the professional I became, was in large part shaped by that life experience.
          I think, what makes Alzheimer's so difficult a disease to witness, is the progression. There are people who can live many years with it. And in some cases, at risk of wandering which necessitates them being institutionalized in a 'secure unit' for their own safety. How horrible it must be to visit your loved one in such a place!  Knowing they will never be well. Watching and waiting for them to die. I remember meeting a woman whose husband had early onset Alzheimer's in his 40's, and lived for many years with it. She said in the early years they never knew what was wrong with him but in the end, they lost everything because of his inability to work for so many years. She is one of the statistics of people living off basic pension but it is only because she was dealt a 'bad hand' in the game of life. My heart went out to her as I tried to imagine how someone like her managed to raise a family and care for a sick husband for so many years.
             With our increasing aging population, I worry about what the future holds for our seniors of tomorrow. Will we have the resources to cope with the many people afflicted? Will the dollars spent on research give us a cure or at the very least a means of delaying or diminishing the impact of the disease? Will we find better ways to provide care for those greatest at risk? It's fitting that the symbolic flower the disease are 'forget me nots' however, the irony is that for any family that has witnessed the disease first hand, the last thing you can do is forget the person or the disease that led to their slow demise.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Childhood Memories

Recently we took our children to the annual exhibition that comes to our city for 3 weeks every summer. I recall as a child going with my parents. There was always excitement and anticipation leading up to the day of our visit. The visit itself was full of sights, sounds and smells absent from our lives throughout the year. Everyone had their favourite treat, their favourite ride, their favourite game. The ground to cover seemed immense, the day went too quickly and the illusive prizes were cherished if we ever were fortunate enough to win one. I recall one year, going with a cousin who happened to luck into the giant dog prize and it stayed in her room for years as the colour faded and the neck sagged. The way in which she won it became folklore in our family. I think most kids today are so inundated with technology that the joy of what was simple but so very special to kids of the past, has been lost.

For this reason I continue to make that annual pilgrimage to the place that I have such fond memories of with the hope that one day, my children too will have the same special memories. With several years under their belts now, each has their favourite thing to do and special treat to eat. While a few things have changed over the years, it is mostly the same as I remember. There is still nothing quite like a fair at night, with the lights glowing, the rides moving, the people at the games calling out and asking you to take a leap of faith and part with your money for the chance to win a stuffed toy. My kids truly seem to look forward to and enjoy their visits there......still. I hope that the memories we make annually will be carried with them throughout their lifetimes. There is nothing quite like warm childhood memories to take you back to a simpler time and give you a smile when you most need it. I wonder if they too will ensure that they carry the tradition forward and take their kids when they have them.  It's an interesting thing, this annual fair. In some ways it is a bridge for me - a link between my past, my present and hopefully, my future.

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.