Saturday my husband and I tooled over to Queens, near CitiField, and spent the day walking around Maker Faire 2012. We’ve known about Maker Faires, but this was our first time seeing one up close, and we had a blast! There were all sorts of home made inventions and contraptions, and almost everywhere you looked there were 3D printers or objects that had been made via a 3D printer. The Faire was family friendly, indeed it was designed to inspire kids to create.
We also attended two talks, one by Seth Godin and the other a conversation with Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine, and Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot.
With age, comes wisdom.
Attribute to that line whatever you like. I choose to attribute it to the wisdom that comes from having lived a long enough time to be considered living in elderhood, that stage of life following adulthood. William Thomas, author of What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World, believes in and advocates for elderhood living environments intentionally designed to promote a sanctuary where elders thrive. These are not merely places where elders survive, but places where they can remain vibrant participants in their own lives and the lives of others, regardless of their physical or cognitive capabilities.
Thomas denotes several “Principles for Elderhood’s Sanctuary”:
- Warm – radiating human warmth and developing “the practice of doing good deeds without the expectation of return”
- Small – keep the scale small
- Flat – keep the hierarchy flat
- Rooted – have a “deeply rooted belief system”
- Smart – use of technologies that support the well-being of elders and their care takers
- Green – sustainable places that provide a “connection with the living world” through gardens
With the above principles in mind, Thomas developed The Green House Project, with implementation support from ncb Capital Impact and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Below is a “documentary short” about the project.
John Zeisel is another author who has created a nursing home alternative. I have read his book, I’m Still Here, and blogged about him a few times, so was pleasantly surprised to see he was referenced by Thomas as a resource when Thomas was researching design possibilities for The Green House Project.
William Thomas goes on to paint a picture of elderhood where each person is able to give and receive loving care. He behooves us to reconsider the lives of the oldest of the old as another developmental phase in the life of a human being:
…to see old age as part of the ongoing miracle of human development. It offers a perspective that connects all elements of the human life span from birth to death.
Mostly what Thomas advocates for is a reenvisioning of the last phase of our lives with a return to respect for old age and the wonders it has to offer, and an acknowledgment that how we craft this last stage (including, but not limited to, physical buildings, guiding principles for care, opportunities for participation, equal respect for the care takers and the cared for) will make all the difference in how it is lived.
William Thomas is the most optimistic advocate for aging I have yet to encounter. He believes in the power of the oldest of the old, and has called that phase of our lives “elderhood”, the natural successor to adulthood.
Old age has richness and complexity that, when appreciated, provide a powerful counterweight to the measurable, progressive, steady decline in bodily functions. In old age, the body instructs the mind in patience and forbearance while the mind tutors the body in creativity and flexibility.
History & Culture of Aging
What Are Old People For? is Thomas’ treatise on old age, beginning with a brief history of the hunter-gatherers and continuing thru to old age’s transformation by modern culture. This was the first time I heard the word “senescence“, defined as “growing into old age”, as compared with adolescence, which is “growing into adulthood”.
The upper limit of longevity may be defined by human genetics, but the experience of living into old age is defined almost exclusively by the customs and mores of one’s culture. An individual’s ability to live a long and bountiful life depends, most of all, on society’s aptitude for making such a life possible.
If you take a look at the various media cultural artifacts (television, magazines, newspapers and the like), you cannot escape the many advertisements for anti-aging products and multiple medications, all being marketed to a very large baby boomer generation that has fully entered adulthood.
Not only are adults impacted by this swath of advertising, but there is a huge trickle down effect, whereupon youngsters and teenagers are inundated with messages about staying young. Modern culture does not embrace the distinctive lines of age – the wrinkles that appear as a banner to living long. There is a huge market for medicine and medical procedures designed to eradicate any banners of aging.
Long-Term Care Environments
From discussing culture, Thomas goes on to describe the “plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom” that accompany oldsters who are relocated, by choice or against their will, to “long-term care environments”. Rather than sit by the sidelines, William Thomas and his wife, Judith Meyers-Thomas, have created an approach to eldercare living called The Eden Alternative. You can read more about it here or listen to this 2002 PBS NewsHour interview: Nursing Home Alternative.
Thomas quotes a passage from Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums, where Goffman lists five traits that define a “total institution”. It is a scathing description that, as Thomas notes, can be equally applied to life in prisons, state psychiatric hospitals and concentration camps. Alas, concludes Thomas, this list is also applicable to our long-term care facilities.
While the intention of these organizations is clearly different from that of penitentiaries, they share a common, rigid division of people into the guardians and the guarded, the therapists and the sick, the staff and the residents.
My Dad lived in assisted living, followed by a nursing home, for a combined seven plus years. My Mom was hospitalized several times within the span of six months, followed by a three week stint in a rehab facility, followed by round-the-clock care at home for several weeks. I know first hand of what Thomas describes.
But all does not have to be glum! The full title of Thomas’ book is What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World. Stay tuned for that second part!
for more on William H Thomas:
There is a hearty conversation going on around Michael Wolff’s A Life Worth Ending article in the May 28, 2012 issue of New York magazine. I have already commented once (you can see that in my previous Neurons Firing post) and just this morning added a second comment, which is copied below.
We first heard about Five Wishes from my brother-in-law and his wife, Pat. Pat happens to be a nurse practitioner and clinical coordinator in pediatrics at MIT, and is a former director of nursing at Children’s Hospital Boston. I point out her credentials by way of saying that a medical practitioner gave us our first copy of Five Wishes. I have since purchased additional copies to share with my brother and his wife.
Some form of health care proxy and living will is crucial for family members to have when they find themselves in the position of caring for not only an elderly family member, but for anyone in their family who is of age to be considered an independent adult. Rather than be put off by having conversations about end-of-life care, it is my hope that people will see these conversations as a way to more consciously provide the love, care, respect and dignity that hopefully accompanies the relationships between the cared-for and the caring-for.
I previously commented about my Mom and her use of Compassion & Choices. Now am sharing about the organization Aging With Dignity - http://www.agingwithdignity.org/index.php - which provides a form called Five Wishes. This form helps people begin the conversations about their end-of-life wishes. When filled out, the form provides guidance to family, doctors and other medical personnel as to the wishes of the prospective patient. My husband and I are using this form, and I have ordered copies for my brother and his wife.
Timing is everything! Just yesterday I spent the bulk of the day with my Aunt (my Mom’s sister), and she gave me her May 28, 2012 issue of New York magazine. The cover highlights Michael Wolff’s article, A Life Worth Ending, which prompted me to high tail it to New York magainze’s website and add a comment to the already 370+. You can follow the comment stream here, and I’ve posted my initial comment below.
Oh, and why is timing everything? My Mom’s 83rd birthday would have been this coming Friday, June 8. My comment is a timely tribute to her courage.
My 80 year old Aunt gave me her copy of the May 28 issue of New York magazine expressly so I would read this article. On the cover, my Aunt wrote “Don’t EVER let this happen to me“. She and my Mom have always held the philosophy that when your mind goes, you should go with it. They saw their own mother decline in a nursing home and vowed never, ever, would they follow that route.
My Aunt is still going strong, though not without bits and pieces of her body falling apart. My Mom died in October, 2010. And this is the part I hope readers of this article and these comments will take note of. Dying does not have to be an agonized, drawn out, horrific experience like the one that Van and her family is experiencing.
My Mom had a stroke in August, 2010, that left her paralyzed on her dominant right side. Unable to play her treasured piano (she had a masters in music composition), unable to use her valued computer to communicate with the world, and unable to care for herself with the basics of dressing and toileting, she invoked what she always said she would do if such a circumstance occurred. She contacted Compassion and Choices. http://www.compassionandchoicesofny.org/ Compassion and Choices is a phenomenal organization that exists to help people make quality of life decisions by offering them choices. My Mom opted for VSED, voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. She made this decision while perfectly competent, but even had she not been able to make this decision, it is one which she had shared with her family over and over for years, so we would have known what to do had she not been able to do it for herself.
VSED requires the participation of a doctor who will prescribe palliative care, which means medicine to alleviate pain and discomfort, and morphine towards the last day or two, and a round-the-clock aide to assist with diaper changing and other functions of care, but not of feeding, as no food or water are taken in during this time. It is a special person, indeed, who opts to provide aide care during this time – who can soothe and calm, clean and comfort. We had the benefit of such a person, thanks to a recommendation from our contact at Compassion and Choices.
My Mom had a soothing, almost spiritual final 11 days, filled with sunshine in her ground floor apartment, loving children around her and a compassionate aide to care for her. She died peacefully, on her own terms, in her own apartment, in her own way.
Some months I am prolific, other months rather quiet. For awhile there were some wonderful folks who were regular commenters, but I let down my end of the blogger’s bargain – I stopped commenting on other people’s blogs!
My threads have included the physiology of the brain, thoughts about schooling, professional development for faculty, human anatomy, workshops on: learning-the brain-the arts-yoga, posts for SharpBrains.com, and more recently, the aging process.
In several weeks I will begin a new tack for my teaching career. For the past 30 years I have thought of myself professionally as a computer teacher and facilitator of professional development for faculty. Beginning in June, I will take on the role of lower school STEM Integrator, focusing on the “T” – technology. (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Math.)
I am excited to switch mental gears to become part of a new community of learners, and to explore learning from a different perspective.
Yeehah! It’s been five years, and the next five are wide open for discovery! To anyone who has stopped by to read and ponder for a bit, thank you for visiting. I hope you’ve gone away with something to nourish your ideas or answer your questions.
(First post: April 4, 2007 – Calendar)
John Mortimer may have started his career as a barrister in England, but he is equally, if not better known for his literary career, topped off by a memoir in three parts. The last part, The Summer of a Dormouse, Mortimer wrote while making the most of his mid-70s, almost a decade before he died.
While life has its inconveniences for him, Mortimer certainly gives the impression of living life to the fullest while he has any say in the matter. That’s not to say he doesn’t think about death and dying. Towards the end of his book is a chapter that begins:
I that in heill was and gladnèss
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
Timor Mortis conturbat me.
That last line, written by William Dunbar, Scottish poet, is Latin and translates to “fear of death disturbs me” or “the fear of death confounds me”. Mortimer notes how “Dunbar was especially worried by the fact that death seemed to have it in for writers” and lists stanzas from a Dunbar poem wherein each stanza had a rhyme about an author or two coming to an end, the stanzas ending with “Timor Mortis conturbat me.”
Here is Mortimer on Dunbar:
For me Dunbar, the good-time monk, got it right when he thought of death not as a mysterious love object but as a vague, unexplained anxiety. Timor mortis, like arthritis and failing eyesight, sets in around seventy and becomes acute after seventy-five. There are, however, if not cures, at least painkillers, placebos and periods of remission.
Love, the opening of a bottle of champagne or the act of writing sentences to fill a long sheet of ruled paper can banish timor at least temporarily. The cure is to be found among the living, not dwelling with those good fellows, Rowll of Aberdeen and Rowll of Corstorphine, reduced to an asterisk by death and the editor of an anthology.
[The Rowlls were authors, and in a reprint of Dunbar's poem, an editor deleted their names and replaced them with an asterisk!]
Humor was certainly Mortimer’s method of understanding life. And in his final sentences, having embarked on an annual picnic, wheel chair among his companions, he leaves us with what I hope guided him through his next decade.
I feel neither old nor in any way incapacitated. Everything is perfectly all right.
In early April I shared my recent foray into literature about aging, as seen through the eyes of those older than I. The Summer of a Dormouse is book number two, and I have just made a discovery that, although entirely fitting, has me somewhat indignant. But first, some background.
Turns out that my local library only had access to one version of this book, the large print version. Having never seen a large print book, I was curious to know if it would make reading easier. What I discovered is that the text overwhelmed the pages. A bit more white space or leading between lines would have made a positive difference; better yet, access to a standard print size would have been greatly appreciated.
John Mortimer is the author, and he already had one claim to fame with me as the writer of Rumpole of the Bailey, a PBS series about an English barrister, lovingly portrayed by Leo McKern. In The Summer of a Dormouse, Mortimer entertains while sharing reflections on a year of his life in his seventh decade.
Now for the indignant portion, of which there are two! Only this morning, in checking out various amazon.com versions of the book, did I discover that The Summer of a Dormouse is “the third installment” of Mortimer’s memoirs. Am wondering why that isn’t noted anywhere on the book’s back cover blurb. But here is the stronger reason for indignancy – the title is off! In the concluding paragraph of the New York Times obituary (yes, alas, John Mortimer died in January, 2009 at the ripe age of 85, and here is The Guardian’s obituary), Mortimer is quoted from this book – The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully. Why is it that the second part of the title was left off of the large print version?
Well, disgraceful as it may be to switch titles on different publications of a book, Mortimer’s memoir is anything but disgraceful. Mortimer reminisces on politics, writing, socializing, family, building a theatre, and finding a statue to sit on an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, among other topics. In his humor and seriousness, he shares a healthy approach to aging, seizing it for all it is worth and making the most of his time. What especially struck me was Mortimer’s statement on old age.
The real trouble with old age is that it lasts for such a short time.
All worthwhile projects are investments in the future. … After you’re seventy, it’s probably too late to establish another career, create a mature garden, or discover a new way of writing. The old, grabbing time by the forelock, have to go for immediate results.
Worst of all, there’s not time to see a child grow up. [Mortimer is talking about his youngest child, a daughter who was born when he was 62.] … For me life becomes insupportable, and inoperable pomposity is liable to set in, unless there’s a fairly young child about the place. Having such a child makes it essential not to die until it’s absolutely necessary.
Prudential is a large insurance company that has a brilliant marketing scheme, which just happens to also be a wonderful testament to retirement.
The Day One project consists of photos and videos documenting the very first day of retirement for each of hundreds of people across the United States who retired in 2011. I do not know how it is that the specific people in this project were contacted, but their stories are interesting, touching, inspiring, and a vivid reminder that – barring circumstances beyond one’s control – we will each eventually reach that ripe point in time when change is ours to make; when we may leave our jobs and craft an adventure; when we redefine how we spend our time.
What is retirement? Last year my husband left his job of twenty-seven years. He was successful at what he did, highly liked and admired by colleagues, and on the younger side in terms of typical retirement age. People figured he was retiring, or taking a sabbatical. He replied that he was taking an adult gap year, for sabbatical implies returning to one’s position, and he was definitely not returning. He absolutely did not want to retire; he simply wanted a change.
Synonyms for retirement, according to one online definition, include retreat, seclusion and withdrawal. Yikes! These couldn’t be worse prescriptions for one’s long term cognitive health! Take an aging brain and induce it to retreat, seclude itself and withdraw, and you have a recipe for old age decline.
So what did my husband do? He is taking courses at Yestermorrow in Vermont, focusing on a sustainable building and design certificate program. He is teaching AP Computer Science online. He is engaged in experiments revolving around his sustainable architecture practicum, which involves a curved roof system. He is reading books, both online and in print. He is tweeting. He is writing a book. Well, more accurately, he is taking a book that he hand wrote over part of a year, rereading it one chapter at a time, editing it and posting it online. He is thinking about ideas. He takes daily long walks. He has time. He makes his own time. And the stress lines are gone from his face. And he’s dropped a few pounds. And he cooks dinner every evening.
I’d describe this as retooling or retreading, but not retiring. And perhaps there are even more apt words to describe this next phase of life. When the time comes for you, what will you call this phase?