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'.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Lessons learned from tragedy

A year after that devastating fire in a Quebec seniors' home that killed 32 seniors, the coroner has made recommendations. The one that made the news: mandatory sprinklers. I am wondering why it took a year to come up with that recommendation?  Why did their government not immediately legislate something around sprinklers in the wake of the tragedy? And how long will it take to institute this and other recommendations across the province of Quebec?

This is not the first time that fire in a seniors residence caused the loss of life. The 2009 fire in an Orillia home resulted in legislation in Ontario and as of 2014, automatic sprinklers are mandatory in all retirement homes. I suppose because senior care is under each province, legislation specific to retirement homes and long-term care, depends on the province and it seems, depends on what each learns from their own mistakes and tragedies. I am wondering why there are some things that are just not National and why, when avoidable deaths occur, we don't do things to prevent more of them, even if the disaster happened in another part of Canada. There are always more questions than answers when I read news items like this and in fairness, there may be far more to this and the need to go through an inquest in order to create necessary legislation, then the general public realizes.

I am very glad that there were significant lessons learned from such a horrible ordeal - I only wish so many didn't have to die, in order to protect others in the future. For the families and community that lost loved ones, I am certain that inquest findings do not lessen their grief . And I wonder how many other tragedies have to occur before every province recognizes that we as a country, have to do a better job of protecting our seniors.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Better Late than Never

Last week, a group of men, were finally given the recognition they deserved. The USA awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to a group of vets known as the 'Black Devils' or the Devil's Brigade. They were a joint American-Canadian team who assisted in liberating Europe and were the precursor to the Special Forces Units that came to be in both countries years later. Originally 1,800 men, very few are left now  - and about 50 in total attended a ceremony in Washington on February 2, 2015.

This story fascinated me for a couple of reasons; one of the men honoured is the father of a long-time friend. I have known him most of my life but it never crossed my mind that he was quite literally, a war hero. In fact, until I started reading the articles about this group and their award, I had no idea what his role was in the war. Secondly, the story of this group of young men, who used 'unconventional' tactics, to help win the war under cover of darkness is frankly amazing. They had the ability to to create fear in the Germans and have been the subject of movies and books.

Seventy years after war's end, there are 46 Canadian vets left who were part of that elite group. It's a shame that it took this many years for the American government to honour these men - though at the very least it was done while some were able to feel that their efforts were recognized and appreciated. The Canadian government bestowed their award a few years ago.

Part of the ceremony was aired live and I was glad to be able to witness this special piece of history. I think those of us in North America often take our freedoms for granted. Most of us are very far removed from war and what occurred 70 years ago. If not for the brave people who were willing to risk their lives, (and in many cases, lose their lives) at that terrible time in history, the world would be a very different place than it is today.

Thank you Devil's Brigade. Your award was most well-deserved and you have forged a place in history that will not be forgotten.

Friday, 6 February 2015

February - All About Hearts

February is here - and I'm not quite sure where January went. Anyway, besides snow, thanks to Hallmark, February is always associated with matters of the heart. Smartly, someone clued into this and also made the disease of February 'Heart Disease'. 

I already know about Valentines Day (though I am a bit confused why you would by a card for 'Baby's First Valentine's Day' or cards from your dog or cat and, to your dog or cat) so I decided to do some reading on Heart Month. It seems that everyone I know, knows someone with a heart issue so it's not surprising that "nine in 10 Canadians over the age of 20 have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Four in 10 have three or more risk factors."  and  "More than 1.4 million Canadians have heart disease. It is also one of the leading causes of death in Canada, claiming more than 33,600 lives per year." (from: With the growing societal concerns about obesity in children these numbers will only get worse unless we find ways to curb the risks people take with their own health. The impact of this on individuals, families, employers and our health system will be significant if it isn't already. 

So what can we do to make things better? How can we decrease our chances of becoming a statistic of this growing concern. Here's the thing - this is one disease that we might have a bit of control over - unlike others that strike regardless of what we try to do to stay healthy. And while doing all the right things may not prevent us from getting some form of the disease, it may assist in prolonging our healthy years and allow us to be a more viable candidate for treatment in the event that we can't escape a hereditary predisposition to it. If we ever hope to change the statistics we need to start by looking at risk factors that we can change. Smoking - this is a 'no brainer' - seriously, what good ever comes from smoking? Diabetes - some people are predisposed to this, while others develop it later in life for various reasons - one of those reasons is related to yet another risk factor - obesity. If we can ensure a healthy diet with some exercise, we not only can reduce our chances of heart disease, but also of other illnesses including diabetes which itself leads to a slippery slope of other potential issues. High Cholesterol and High Blood Pressure might also be hereditary and if it is, early detection and intervention would be the key to reducing risk. However, things like a poor diet and lack of exercise can also contribute to it. So again, it may be an issue of lifestyle that helps reduce the risk for some. And then there is stress. Something we all have to a certain degree but some of us handle it better than others. I suppose the key here is knowing how to decrease stress levels and taking the time to de-stress. Much easier said than done. I suppose most important factors impacting change are an awareness and then a desire to stay healthy. Ultimately, eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, staying social, not smoking, going to your doctor for regular check ups and taking breaks from stress and work will all contribute to a healthier life not only by reducing heart disease risks but also through its positive impact on a host of other illnesses for which the risk factors are the same. We can only hope that the 'healthy lifestyle' message spreads and is adopted by our population soon - before our health care system cracks under the pressure of chronic preventable diseases.