Robin Williams and Getting Old

Robin WilliamsSo sad to think of this poor man suffering with the almost-insurmountable problems of addiction and depression (LATE ADD: and possibly also Parkinsons’.) He also had medical problems (and we’ve seen that heart surgery can bring on depression). On top of that, he had money problems, and Robin Williams wasn’t in his peak earning years anymore.

His death has prompted important conversations. According to this story in the Washington Post, white males die by suicide more than any other group by gender or racial demographic. The number is four times as high as for the next highest group, and it dwarfs every other demographic on the chart. 

…Aging may take a larger toll on the male psyche. Older men who value their self-reliance may find themselves less able to cope as they age, when they are no longer in their prime physically, sexually and at work.

“I often refer to them as being developmentally unsuccessful, because they’re not equipped to handle the challenges of getting older if they are so tied into their masculinity . . . and making a lot of money,” said Christopher Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” said Dost Ongur, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. . “The power you knew, the control you knew, aren’t the same.”

I want to tread carefully here; what I say next is not meant to minimize Robin’s physiological and psychological burdens. I’m not qualified to offer an opinion, but want to use the statistics as a starting point for discussion. 

Many of us, particularly men, are unable to accept have a hard time accepting the aging process and our own mortality. We’re swamped in a noxious wave of cultural messages that, at a certain age, we’re worthless, stupid, pointless…and we buy it. We look in the mirror and see the work of time, and it’s not flattering. We retire or get forced out of jobs. We wonder what the point is. What good are we?

After a lifetime of being brainwashed to believe bad stuff about old people, there’s new research that says people who believe negative things about the aging process die, on average, 7.5 years sooner. What a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Yes, physically, we’re on the losing end, but mentally and emotionally there is much to be grateful for. Here are a few tidbits worth celebrating:

  • Myelination doesn’t peak until your sixties. Myelin is a substance that coats the brain circuits and improves neurotransmission. I wrote about that here.
  • Positivity increases later in life, and you have greater control over your emotions – even though older people feel them more strongly. Something about changes to the amygdala. That’s in the same blog post, linked above.
  • Bilateralization occurs later in life. It means you use both halves of your brain all the time, instead of just the right brain for art/left brain for analysis. This adds up to deeper, more creative, more out-of-the-box thinking.  Have you ever heard this before? More here.

So we’re on the short end of the mortality stick, but from what I hear, the older you get, the more at ease you are with the prospect of death.

Robin Williams was a generous benefactor to many causes, and even now, he’s helping humanity by raising difficult subjects. I ask that you consider the positive aspects of aging, and talk about them. Give your kids, and the rest of society, a reason to feel good about the last third of life, because there is good. Why not celebrate it?

Rest in peace, Robin.

Resilience: The New Self-Esteem

We Boomers may have tried too hard to give our kids a sense of self-esteem. We stand accused of rewarding the munchkins for all manner of nothingburger “accomplishments” and fostering a sense of entitlement in Gens X and Y. Now, the tide has turned. Self-esteem is out and resilience is in.

Resilience, which allows a person to roll with the punches, is built internally, and does not rely on external validation. I’ve been trying to develop it myself, because older age can be daunting.

When I am in a situation where somebody is driving me nuts, I enjoy being able to turn it around. I consider how this crazy situation might enhance or inform my life. How might I see it differently and laugh about it, or use it for enlightenment? When bad things happen, I try to find a different, more empowered, perspective. For example:

  • One day, Bill was noticeably bummed out. He said he was missing his parents (both deceased). I said I was sorry, and he said, “I’m not. The pain reminds me that I loved them.” Way to turn it around.
  • A guy flies past me on the freeway, cutting in and out. Instead of being pissed, I imagine he’s racing to the hospital, having gotten bad news about a loved one, and sympathy replaces my anger.
  • Falling asleep last night, I was wracked by anxiety. Instead of buying into it, I told myself, “Your amygdala is on overdrive. Sleep will fix that.” It wasn’t me, it was a gland; a tired, overactive, mixed-up gland, which I could repair by nurturing my body.
  • Standing in line at the pharmacy, I’m fixated on how annoying, and annoyingly slow, everybody in front of me is. But wait: it’s actually an opportunity. I whip out my phone and resume reading a novel I started last night on Kindle. Or check my email.
  • In the same line, guy is talking loudly on his on cellphone, and I’m forced to listen. Instead of getting annoyed, I listen avidly for characters and situations I might use in my next novel. Thanks for the material, buddy!

I admit my examples are pretty lightweight, but the brain has a certain plasticity about it; what if you started small and worked your way up? Might this skill not help you when dealing with the heavier difficulties in life?

I get a real rush out of not feeling stuck, trapped, or victimized. Resilience is a powerful tool to use, and a good skill to model for our kids and grandkids.

What are some examples of resilience in your life?

Boomers Aren’t Old, Right? Right?

Remember Gloria Steinem’s quote on my home page?

To be defiant about age may be better than despair – it’s energizing – but it is not progress. Actually, after fifty, aging can become an exciting new period; it is another country.  

Many of us boomers don’t like thinking of ourselves as old. Nope, we’re in midlife (guilty – see website subhead). Age is just a number, because we “still” (fill in the blank). I mean, you can’t be old if you went hang-gliding last weekend. But if you face the reality, you’ll be happier, says Ronni Bennett of Time Goes By:

Ronni Bennett

Ronni Bennett, blogger and wise woman

On blogs, forums, commercial websites, health-related sites and more, it is amazing how many people debate this question.

Invariably, someone will say he or she (usually she) or a friend looks and acts younger than they are (whatever that means). Or someone drags out that hoary old aphorism, you’re only as old as you feel…And the all-time favorite of everyone who refuses to acknowledge the passing years – age is only a number.

The 66-year-old writing that essay refuses to accept herself as a senior because, she reports, she and her friends are active, some “still” work, others exercise, read, play with the grandchildren and volunteer. But the people at the home where the writer volunteers “are seniors for sure,” she says with some certainty, because they are “limited in what they can do.” She doesn’t say what the limitations are but it’s not hard to guess.

What she is trying to do with that statement is separate herself, as too many healthy elders do, from people of the same age who are disabled, infirm, demented or even just a little addled, never considering that there but for the grace of God…

This defensiveness is, we know, the result of fear. Fear of aging which, if you take a step back for a longer look, is just a smoke screen for fear of dying. I understand that (but)…perhaps think awhile on how much time and effort it takes to pretend you’re not old. Surely you must be exhausted from it. Surely you can imagine what a relief it would be to just – well, be.

Me? It took me years of trying to arrive at liking my old age, liking myself as an old woman but I arrived and nowadays I look forward to enjoying that achievement for many more years…

Right now, I want you to know that it’s worth the effort to shed the pretense of youth. Shed the mistaken idea of the woman above who apparently believes being old doesn’t happen until you can’t work, cook, play tennis, volunteer, exercise or play with grandchildren any longer.

But she is wrong to define old age only as the arrival of infirmity. If we are willing to be honest, old age is the natural progression of life from childhood to adolescence to adulthood and, now, elderhood.

Why waste these years trying to be something else? Do you really believe you can rid yourself of wrinkles, gray hair, a poochy belly, mashed potato thighs, saggy skin and all the other physical manifestations old age with drug store potions and wishing? You don’t need to be a Buddhist to appreciate this next thought from Buddhist writer and teacher Lewis Richmond, from his book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice.

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond

“As long as we keep comparing ourselves to a younger, better self (who may have been better only in hindsight), we shortchange the possibilities for becoming an older, wiser one.  The wisdom of adaptation begins in the willingness to let go of who we used to be and embrace who we are now.”

Lynne here. Thank you, Ronni and Lewis, for showing us a way forward into a more peaceful, powerful mindset. This last third of our lives can be more satisfying and gratifying than we ever imagined.

Amour, the Movie

imgresAmour is a difficult film to watch, but worth it. If you’re feeling discouraged about mortality, Amour will put things in perspective.

It’s a stunning film, one that stays with you. Depressing? Actually, it didn’t hit me that way, maybe because I was a bit confused about the ending, so went online to gain clarity. There I found an essay asserting this isn’t the way most of us will end our days, and the film is ageist in painting elderhood with such despair. I hope so.

The rest of this post contains some spoilage, so you might choose to stop reading here.

Anne and Georges love each other deeply and in spite of their advanced age enjoy a rich life. Then she has a stroke, at which time both of them reveal their strength and in his case, heroism.

After the first stroke, Anne reveals to Georges that she would prefer to die. She tries and fails to refuse food and liquids. Then she has a second stroke and loses the ability to enforce her decision. This is one of the main aspects of the film that resonates with me, what most of us fear – that we’ll wait too long to make the choice, or that we’ll have no choice and will have to live out our final days (years?) regardless of the impact on our loved ones.

The upside of Amour was that it put things in perspective. My aches and pains seemed laughable and my existential fears no more than childish superstitions compared to the reality portrayed in this movie. I was also left with the determination, should I ever be struck by a horrible terminal affliction, to move immediately to a state that permits me to end my life when I chose.

Did you see Amour? What did you think, and/or how did it make you feel? If you haven’t seen the trailer, here it is.

POLL RESULTS: If you’re interested in the poll results from earlier this week, click here. Thanks again for your input.

Old Age Better Than I Ever Expected

Ronni Bennett

Ronni Bennett

I never expected to feel as alive and vibrant and spirited and vital as I do at this time of my life.

These are the words with which my friend, elder blogger Ronni Bennett of Time Goes By, began a recent post. It seemed so powerful I asked if I could reproduce it for Any Shiny Thing. The following words are Ronni’s. Enjoy.

“There is little if anything in our culture that would lead me to believe I would feel this good about being an old woman. The media relate to old age almost entirely via health, poor health – and mostly about dementia.

“There are more news and feature stories about Alzheimer’s, for which no prevention or treatment exists, than reports on all other elder health issues combined.

“The New York Times publishes what is now a long-standing, daily blog about and for elders titled The New Old Age. Day in and day out over several years now, it is exclusively about being sick or frail or demented or all three at once as though there are no other states of health in “the new old age.”

“Someone ought to tell The Times that 80 percent of old people live independently until they die.

“Then there are the politicians. Elders are a big topic for them because we are more frequent voters than younger people and our numbers are ballooning.

“But the pols see us exclusively in economic terms, wringing their hands over how expensive we are, a bunch of greedy geezers who they would rather starve than allow a Social Security cost-of-living increase.

“Is it any wonder nobody likes old people?

“The only positive words about us involve freaks who jump out of airplanes at age 85, reported by the media either as a joke or as an object lesson to all other old folks to get off our duffs and climb Mt. Everest.

“As regular readers know, I think about these things a lot and frequently rail against them…

But that doesn’t stop me from being amazed at how good old age feels. This is the most interesting time of life I have known.

“It seems to happen when I’m not paying attention that a lot of former imperatives fall away, making life easier and far less fraught with shoulds.

I am done improving myself. Self-help be damned. I am what I am and so I shall remain.

“My ambitions these days are about how I might be able to contribute to my community and not the next better, higher-paying job. I’m not competing for work or recognition or awards anymore and that takes off a load.

“My concern about myself has shrunk to little more than a daily mental checklist on well-being rather than how I compare with others. I have less to prove to them and to myself.

“I’ve almost learned that there are good days and bad days, good and bad moods, and that’s all right. Each is as much a part of living as the other.

“And, as I’ve mentioned here before, I have lost my younger sense of urgency, the need to do, do, do. I still find it odd that as my days dwindle down, I more frequently say, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.”

“I still don’t understand that but it sure feels good and for a bonus, I suspect it helps keep my blood pressure in check.

“There is time now, finally, to be. Time to follow my interests and instincts, to investigate those avenues – internal and external – I was too busy for in the past. Or not. I get to choose and the freedom I’ve arrived at to do so thrills me.

“Whatever the rest of the world thinks about being old, from my vantage point of 72, it is unexpectedly better and more exciting than I ever guessed it could be.”

Lynne again: Are you surprised to find yourself happy at an age when we expected to be bummed out?

How Does It Feel to Be 82?

Dory by Sallie Bailey

Dory by Sallie Bailey

I asked my friend Sallie Bailey that question because I think the more we know about aging, the less chance we’ll waste a lot of time being freaked out when we get there. Sallie is an award-winning artist and writer (here’s a link to her website). She’s practical and smart, and she said I could quote her, so here goes.

Frankly, it’s a pain. Literally. Arthritis has taken its toll. Joint replacements help but there’s a lot that brings me up short, limiting my mobility. I’m very fortunate that I’ve dodged all the major bullets – no serious health problems. The brain still functions. I firmly believe that creativity is the answer – I think we writers/artists have an enormous advantage. It’s my opinion that our ceaseless brain activity keeps that organ healthy – keeps it young. I have more ideas than I can carry to fruition. Time can be a problem there – but it’s always been a problem.

That brings up another facet of aging well – curiosity. Many of the normal occurrences of aging surprise me. Physical changes – some small, some more pronounced. I observe and reflect on them.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been gifted with a fine sense of the ridiculous. Laughter certainly helps. My father, mother and brother lacked that. Our youngest son and my brother’s oldest daughter have it. (The niece, knowing I’m partial to art glass, sent me on my 80th birthday an art glass marble on a little base along with the note that it was to replace any marbles I might have lost!) My husband has it – actually both arthritis and a sense of humor.

Death? I don’t like the idea of dying at all. I don’t don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t like the idea of missing anything. On the plus side – people like us leave footprints. They may be lost but they’ll always be there to be found – art, writing, whatever. Another plus – at least someone else will have to clean out our dresser drawers………

I love what Sallie said about being curious and having so many ideas that time is a problem. As long as we’re hungry, life is good. I have another friend who’s in her early eighties and when we get together to talk about the novels we’re writing, we get so excited we talk over each other. We drink wine and rant about our ambitions and dreams.

Want to feel inspired? Here’s a short video interview with a 94-year-old artist who’s making money on his paintings. Thanks to David Kanigan for the lead.

Readers, I’m curious. What is it like being your age?

Claris Healthcare Responds

After last week’s unfortunate review of the Claris tablet by a magazine called FastCompany, I got in touch with Claris Healthcare. One of Claris’ people said they don’t have any control over a journalist’s choice of headings, but she was dismayed by the “firestorm” that reviewer had created. It seemed fair to offer Claris a chance to say something on their own behalf, so here is their statement from Kara Wood:

Simple is Smart

There has been quite a bit of discussion about a recent article titled ‘A Tablet So Simple, Even An Old Person Can Use It’. Claris Healthcare, the company that makes Claris Companion – the subject of the article, appreciates the opportunity to offer our perspective.

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Kara Wood, Claris Healthcare

There are a lot of older seniors that enjoy keeping pace with today’s rapidly changing technology. But there’s also a portion of the population (independent of age) that isn’t interested, or because of a physical disability, isn’t able to benefit from being online. We developed Claris Companion to help anyone connect with friends, family and caregivers by removing the barriers imposed by modern computer design.

The latest tablet is great if you want to learn all about the pages of icons, settings, menus and options.  But what if you aren’t that interested?  As my 92-year-old mother would put it, “I never had to enter a user name and password to answer the phone, or launch a web browser and enter a URL to read a letter”.

She’s far from alone. Yes, seniors are the fastest growing population of Internet users (see Sparkbeat 2012/07/03) – not to mention the fastest growing segment of the population, period – but there are a significant portion who simply don’t want to climb the learning curve to get the benefits of the Internet, or due to disease like arthritis or Parkinson’s, have trouble with devices that were specifically designed for a different demographic of users.

So our design challenge was to make a device that can engage anyone in online communications – sharing of email, text messaging and photos with family in a way that most others take for granted. And there is a much larger issue at play here. Access to the Internet is not just about photos and email; but for our aging population, it is increasingly critical to their care and wellbeing. That’s because our healthcare system simply cannot withstand the wave of aging boomers that is coming. We will no longer be able to provide prolonged care for older seniors in hospital or extended care facilities –  increasingly people will have to age at home. So effective delivery of self-care assistance and monitoring at home will be critical to successful aging-in-place.

The answer is to be sure that the immediate benefits outweigh the effort required to use the technology. The benefits side of this equation is easy –most people (including older seniors) are very happy to engage with sharing photos, email and text messages with family – and even adopting personalized self-care assistance if and when they want.

It’s the other side of the equation that is challenging – how to design something that doesn’t require any training at all to use. This is not about ‘dumbing down’ computers to make them ‘so simple even old people can use them’. This is about designing something where the benefits are much greater than the effort required to use it. That’s what we believe we have achieved with Claris Companion.

Apparently, we have found that balance for my mother. She now gets photos sent to her from everyone in the family and dashes off emails to us too. But what is even more important to me is that she has now decided to turn on the medication reminders and I get a notification each day confirming that everything is okay.

In spite of the recent issue, we at Claris Healthcare hope that by creating this product we’ll be able to open doors to people who are currently unable to access the benefits of technology.
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Lynne again: I read a statistic recently that seniors who are online are 20-28% less likely to be diagnosed as depressed. Also, aging in place is the gold standard – what we all want. If anybody can develop a product that allows seamless web access to people who are otherwise unable to access the Internet, I think that’s a product worth supporting. It’s too bad that a magazine, FastCompany, virtually slandered Claris. However, I hope this post will help clear up who was at fault here. Kara Wood will be available to respond to your comments. What a lively and vibrant discussion! I am grateful to all of you for your involvement and passion. 

FastCompany to Old People: You Must Be Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

“A Tablet So Simple, Even An Old Person Can Use It

Technology can be scary, with its buttons and beeps and boops.”

That’s the exact wording in a review by FastCompany of a new Claris product. (Update 7/6/13: the writer, Zak Stone, is not responsible for the headline.) It’s in poor taste, obviously, but it’s worse than that. I don’t think they’d ever say, “A Tablet So Simple, Even a Woman Can Use it,” because that would sound sexist. Or “A Tablet So Simple, Even a (insert ethnic minority here) Can Use It,” because that would sound racist.

But it’s okay to stereotype people due to their age, apparently.

Why FastCompany would choose to look so  unsophisticated and dense is beyond me. We’ve tried calling it to their attention. The Yo, Is This Ageist blog talked about it, but nothing changed. I thought it would be fair to email the editor, Morgan Clendaniel and tell him I planned to run this post with the above “stupid x 3″ title, hoping he’d reconsider. We went back and forth a few times and then he stopped answering, so I have to assume he’s cool with it.

Here’s what he said.

You are, I think, unfairly putting into our mouths the most offensive option for why the tablet needs to be simple for seniors to use it. At no point do we say it’s stupidity, nor–emphatically–do we think it is…it was created for older consumers who are not so-called digital natives and who may be uncomfortable with the various bells and whistles–not to mention small type and ungainly interfaces–of the current crop of tablet computers and would like something more simple.
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You should also note that in a recent Pew Survey, only 1% of adults aged 66-74 and 74-85 said they owned a tablet. Nearly half of adults aged 74-85 don’t even own a cell phone. So the idea of technology being an alienating factor for older Americans isn’t just a myth made up by some snot-nosed kids. It’s a fact that Claris reader is trying to address. I assume they think they can sell a lot of tablets to that 99% who still don’t have one, and that they think that the reason those seniors don’t have one yet is that they’re too complicated.

Clendaniel’s statistics aside, he’s missing the point:

The headline is ageist.

What is ageism? Here’s a very brief definition that cuts to the chase:

…Another common instance of ageism is in the case of older adults or senior citizens, when they are portrayed in the media as being feeble or weak-minded (from the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Clendaniel seems not to get it, but he’s not alone. Negative stereotyping of older people is the rule, not the exception. It’s so common it’s not even noticed. This concerns me; society seems oblivious. We’ve become quite knowledgeable about mistreatment of other protected groups, but not older folks. That should change, because ageism isn’t just stupid. It can lead to a waste of talent and resources from older people who can’t get hired and then have to go on the dole. That’s just one example. Ageism is discouraging, unfair,  cruel, and it can be illegal. You’d think big, fast companies would know that.

Why North Dakota? And Other Reader Questions

DSCN2213-150x150I’ve been lining up book signings and speaking gigs lately, and some of the same questions come up. As promised, here’s a roundup of the answers:

How long did it take to write Dakota Blues?

Ten years (gasp!) In the early years, my part-time job would intrude, or some kind of life challenge like surgery, and I’d stop writing for months at a time. Also, I was learning to write as I wrote, so a lot of it went in the trash. Picture a potter’s wheel, and a grey lump of clay getting fat, then skinny, then fat again as the wheel spins. That was Dakota Blues in the early days.

Another trial-and-error aspect that ate up a lot of time: I did not have a good idea of how a novel should be structured, or how (and whether) to outline it. I went through several different systems and ended up using the one by Larry Brooks (StoryFix.com) called “Story Structure.” I recommend that if you’re inclined to outlining.

Do you write every day? What’s your schedule?

I write as many days in sequence as I can, because if I skip a day or two, I forget details. But I had to find that out the hard way.

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DAKOTA BLUES is a love letter to North Dakota before the oil boom

Your descriptions seem so real. Are they fictional?

Mostly real. When I visited Dickinson, North Dakota with Mom in 2008, I knew in my heart it had to be based there. As we drove from Denver to Dickinson and back again, and all during the visit, I recorded my observations into an audio recorder. I also took pictures. It was the trip of a lifetime. Mom and I still talk about it, and I had a photo album printed for her as a memoir.

This was the farm's chicken house, where Mom as a 5-year-old collected eggs.

This was the farm’s chicken house, where Mom as a 5-year-old collected eggs.

Much of my story is really Mom’s story. The anecdotes about the ancestors coming to America, and the hardships they faced to give their children a better life, are all true. So is this quote from my people, Germans from the Banat region of Europe:

To the first generation is death, to the second generation is suffering, to the third, success.

North Dakota yard art

North Dakota yard art

Dakota Blues describes Dickinson before the oil boom hit. That lovely small town has changed, with the building of new hotels and houses, and big rigs rumbling through town 24/7. Also, the house where my main character, “Karen,” grew up was actually that of my grandmother’s. Mom took us four kids back to Dickinson every summer on the Union Pacific out of Los Angeles. We stayed at Grandma’s house at 119 First Ave. SW. Which is now gone. Only the trees remain on a vacant lot, but some of the planks, partly buried now, remain from her vegetable garden out back.

This is all that remains of my Grandmother's property in Dickinson. The house burned down in the early 2000s.

This is all that remains of my Grandmother’s property in Dickinson. The house burned down in the early 2000s.

Are you going to write a sequel?

I don’t think so. I’m not sure I could do justice to Karen’s dream life, where she **SPOILER ALERT** goes off to live life on her own terms. I have so many other stories in my head! But Dakota Blues will always be more to me than just a novel and first book. It’s a record of my family’s history and my love for North Dakota.

I see that, having included pictures, I don’t have room for more Q & A, but this was a fun reminiscence. Thanks for asking, and we’ll come back to it another time. Enjoy your summer.