Guest Author: Marti Wright Unger

It seems these days that change means more than just loose change in a pocket.

Changes can be good……..exciting……..invigorating. But these last few years the changes in my life and the lives of friends and family seem to be more like unwanted challenges.

The biggest changes for me seem to the physical ones. The long walks are becoming less long and less invigorating. Stairs are not quite as easy to climb. Conversations seem more difficult to hear. Books seem to be printed in much smaller type. Small items seem to get misplaced more often. I’m never sure if I’m repeating myself.

And even though life’s losses are becoming more significant, more frequent and more deeply felt, I feel fortunate that the changes in my life right now seem relatively small. Others are experiencing empty nests, feeling lonely and wondering what to do to fill the new free time. Friends are experiencing major health issues, sometimes even moving from the ‘here’ to the ‘here-after’ and leaving large empty holes in the hearts of family and friends. Continue reading

Is it Worth Suffering a Brain Injury for the Experience of Having a Near-Death Experience (NDE)?

“What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it.”Carl Jung

Click book cover to see details

The term near-death experience was popularized in the best-selling book Life After Life by Raymond Moody, Ph.D., M.D.  This book was a favorite of mine and of my late husband Bill. I have always had a strong interest in NDEs because I heard so many stories about them when I was working as a Trauma Stress Specialist. People who had experienced an NDE always did so during incredibly stressful moments, moments when they were clinically dead, and yet they spoke of the wondrous things that had happened during the experience and the lasting beneficial effects the incident had on them in spite of the physical pain and suffering that often provoked the experience. One of the reasons Bill had a strong interest in the subject was that he had his own near death experience in 1961.

Drawing of a Near Death Experience

Bill’s experience began when the vehicle he was riding in hit a light pole. He was thrown through the windshield and landed on his head on the pavement. Bill suffered serious burns to his back from lying on the scorching hot pavement (It happened in Fresno, CA, on a day when the temperature was 110 degrees) and a portion of his skull was crushed. When Bill’s skull hit the pavement, he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He also ceased breathing for a period of time, his heart stopped beating, and he had to be resuscitated. The near-death experience happened while he was being taken to the hospital. Although he was successfully resuscitated within 10 minutes, the injury to his brain caused him to remain in a coma for several weeks. Continue reading

Delivering News of a Death Over and Over and Over

By the time that most people reach the age of 50, according to experts in the field, they will begin to be affected by the issue of memory loss. By the time these same people have reached the ripe old age of 75, most will suffer some degree of memory loss themselves and will have at least two family members or other loved ones who are dealing with the issue, often in its more severe form known as dementia.

For those of us in the final fifteen percent of our lives, memory loss in ourselves and our loved ones isn’t the exception: it’s the rule. I’m typical of people in this age group. In my youth, I had a very good memory. Foolishly, I was amused by people who had to make lists in order to remember what they needed to do. Today, my memory could best be described as mediocre, and karma has caught up to me for the lack of compassion I showed to people with less-than-perfect memories. Currently I have five different to-do lists, one for financial tasks, one for household tasks, one for outdoor tasks, one for work-related tasks, and one for . . . Opps, I forgot what the fifth one is. I’m now the person providing amusement for the youngsters as I work on my to-do lists. In an attempt to find humor in an annoying situation, I have a coffee mug making fun of the fact that my brain in full.

As is also typical, I have a close relative, my older brother Pete (see photo), who has serious memory issues. Pete has had Alzheimer’s disease for the last seven years and his current memory loss is severe. I also had another loved one, my late husband Bill, who suffered from moderate memory loss. What the statistics don’t mention is that most of us in this stage of life also have in excess of 50 casual friends and acquaintances who are also subject to memory difficulties.

I have always believed in trying to be completely honest. It’s a goal of mine to be able to have that level of integrity, but it’s a goal that I have, on many occasions, failed to meet. I also feel that when I’m dealing with someone who suffers from dementia, I need to be especially honest and communicate openly about everything. But I’ve been presented with several situations recently that left me struggling to try to find a way to best handle the needs of that person with dementia while still being completely honest. I’m going to talk briefly about two recent incidents that left me questioning how I could have better handled the situation and I’m hoping some of you who read these posts can offer me some suggestions on how I might be able to do better next time.

The two situations I’m going to talk about cover extremely different types of incidents: one of these incidents can only be described as tragic and the other is downright ridiculous. I’m going to start with the tragic one so that you will still have the ridiculous one coming to give you a few laughs and cheer you up. The tragic incident involves my brother, Pete, the relative I just mentioned who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. A few years ago, when Pete was still in the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s, he came to spend two weeks with my husband, Bill, and me.

Pete and Janet Bessa in April 1945

His wife of nearly 50 years had died about six months earlier after a brief illness. Pete’s eldest daughter, Lynn, was his primary caregiver and she had warned me that Pete had trouble remembering that his wife had died. She said she had to remind him of it frequently. As I learned on the first day Pete spent staying at our home, the word “frequently” was a huge understatement. Continue reading

I’m Not Single! Am I?

I had to fill out a form a few weeks ago in order to collect the death benefit offered by my late husband’s former employer. There was a space on the form for listing my marital status. These are the choices the form gave me: married, single, or living in sin. Whoops, I‘m mistaken about that last choice. It actually said domestic partnership. Only someone as old as I am would’ve made a mistake like that. “Living in sin” became obsolete some time during the 70s, I think, and was replaced by the far superior domestic partnership label.

I didn’t like my choices. Where was the choice marked “widowed?” After all, this form was an application for a death benefit. You might think the creators of the form would’ve considered that at least some of the applicants had recently been widowed. I pondered how to answer the question of my marital status for some time. I still feel married: it’s only been six weeks since my 50+-year marriage ended with my husband’s death. And yes, I do understand the part about “till death do us part.” We have parted and one of these days I might stop feeling married. But that day hasn’t come yet. Continue reading

My Life Has Changed Forever

As noted in earlier posts, until now this blog has been a joint effort between Bill and Janet Buell. Janet did the actual writing but Bill provided much of the inspiration, gave wonderful critiques, and enjoyed thoroughly hearing any feedback that occurred. And now Bill is gone and I am going to have to learn to carry on without him.

Bill first began showing signs of the illnesses that disabled him in the early 1990s. By 1995, he was forced to retire from a job that he loved by the progression of those illnesses. We spent 22 years living with his chronic illness, and that fact was largely responsible for our drive to see that life remained fulfilling in spite of the challenges. As Bill’s illnesses progressed, finding ways to keep life fulfilling required more and more initiative, determination, imagination, and a sense of humor.

By the end of 2015, my wonderful, lovable, endearing husband had reached the point where he was completely homebound, required the constant use of an oxygen supply to keep him comfortable, and couldn’t remember what he had for lunch on any given day. He had chronic pain, frequent periods of confusion, and was so short of breath he had to give up playing his beloved trumpet. But the most important of Bill’s qualities did not change during this period of time. He retained his sense of humor, his extremely loving disposition, and his ability to enjoy the simple things in life.

As he had to give up so many of the things he loved, it did become more challenging to keep Bill’s life fulfilling. As he was forced to give up riding his treasured Harley Road King and then his MadAss scooter; then lost the ability to work in his garage workshop; lost his ability to travel; and his ability to enjoy the company of friends—we had to become very creative to find entertaining and fulfilling activities. There was a certain amount of satisfaction involved in managing to have a good time anyway.

And now Bill has moved on to a new level of existence. Bill and I both felt, right up to the very last moment of his existence in this world, that our life together was still pleasurable and fulfilling. And now I have the challenge of discovering ways to keep my life entertaining with my partner gone. I had never in my life lived alone. I was 19 years old when I met and married Bill, and I moved directly from sharing a bedroom with my siblings to sharing a home with my husband. For 53 years, my life was very much a partnership with the man I loved. Now, at the ripe old age of 72, I’m going to have to learn how to go it alone. Continue reading

Getting Older by Barrie Von Smith, M.D.

Barrie Von Smith, M.D.

Barrie Von Smith, M.D.

This Post is different from my usual posts on this blog site because it is written by Barrie Von Smith, M.D.

Barrie was the Student Body President of Rancho Alamitos High School in 1961-62, the year I graduated from that high school. When our class celebrated its 50th reunion, I was overheard saying I wasn’t certain if I wanted to attend the 50th reunion because I wasn’t good at making small talk. Barrie suggested I help with an event at that reunion called Life Changing Moments. At this event, classmates shared stories of very meaningful life changing moments, definitely not small talk, and I loved being part of that event. Now our 55th reunion is approaching in September of 2017 and we are again offering an alternative to small talk called Sharing Life’s Latest. All classmates are invited to share an update on their life today and to contribute any suggestions they have on how they make life meaningful in the final fifteen percent of their lives. With permission, I will be publishing their suggestions on this blog and providing an electronic copy of everyones’ stories and suggestions to the members of the class. What follows is Barrie’s story:

Boise Idaho 2014

My eye doctor is giving me instructions following my second retinal detachment surgery: “You will have to limit your activities. No strenuous exercise, no competitive sports, and no running for the next year.”

“How about jogging an easy 6-mile/hour, a 20-mile bicycle ride, or an easy ¼-mile swim?” I ask. Certainly that would not be considered strenuous.

He emphatically shakes his head side to side. “You’re 70-years old. Do you really want to do those things? Take life easy.”

Of course I was not seriously thinking of following these instructions. But I was seriously thinking about not wanting to be blind for the next 20 years. I had always told myself that I would age gracefully. All my life I worked at being physically fit. My motto was ‘Use it or lose it’. My five senses; smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch, I took for granted – not much I could improve on there. But lately even these seemed to betray me and I was feeling helpless to do anything about it. Continue reading

We Are Not Elderly Yet, Are We?

Definition of ElderlyYes, according to most dictionaries, those of us who are over 65 are officially elderly. Read the attached list of synonyms for the word elderly to get a clear idea of what the world’s attitude toward the elderly is often like: that list of synonyms contains words like geezer, decrepit, in one’s dotage, and over the hill. I was shocked the first time I heard myself described as elderly in a memo from my health care provider. Then again, the provider was Medicare so why was I so surprised? Some days I still feel like a young spring chicken, at least until I try to climb out of bed. Other days, I’m all too aware that my joints are wearing out, my senses are becoming duller, my organs aren’t quite as efficient as they once were, and the reflection in the mirror has white hair and wrinkles. So why do I persist in thinking this stage of my life, which I have dubbed the final fifteen percent, can be the most fulfilling stage of all? Sadly, some people have told me that my blog is badly named and I’m crazy to think it is possible to enjoy being old.

I’m not blind. I know that many people are facing incredible challenges in life. But some of the people with the biggest challenges seem to feel as I do and others whose lives seem outwardly at least to be going reasonably well are among those who think I’m nuts. But I persist in thinking this stage of life can be the most rewarding of all if we just make some adjustments to our activities, our goals, and our standards. I’ve been pondering where the difference lies between those who feel it is possible to enjoy old age and those who don’t and I got some insightful communication from Betty Cadwell Barry and her husband, Bob Barry, that helped lead me to come to the conclusions I am going to express in this post.

Young and OldAs you can see from the graphic, my goals have changed since my youth.  I think it is, in part, this adjustment that helps me maintain the idea that life can be wonderful in spite of my husband’s serious illness, my own more ordinary deterioration and responsibilities as a caregiver, and the fact that my friends have been dropping off at an alarming rate recently and I can see my own mortality beginning to stare me in the face. I have had five good friends die in the last 12 months and that is an average number for a person of my age. Continue reading

The Dark Side of Caregiving

Both giving and receiving care can be highly charged subjects. As an adult, needing to receive care is often tied to a loss of independence, loss of the sense of being able to have an equal exchange with others, loss of privacy, loss of dignity, and fear of being unable to fend for one’s self. Giving care to another, whether to a child or another adult, can equal a loss of time for one’s own interests and needs, loss of independence, loss of income, loss of freedom, and a fear of failure. The feelings that are stirred up by a need to provide or receive care can be positive: satisfaction at being able to help; the warmth of feeling needed; the pleasure of watching a loved one recover. But there are frequently very strong negative feelings involved as well: grief and loss when the help is rejected or unsuccessful; depression when the need is extended and stressful; intense loneliness when the demands result in isolation from friends or pleasurable activities.

The strongest positive emotion connected to caregiving is satisfaction when the process goes well for both giver and receiver. There is possibly no other feeling more wonderful than the feeling of having been helped when the help was desperately needed or the feeling of joy that results from seeing a person you have worked hard to help benefit from those efforts. The strongest negative emotion connected to caregiving is guilt: often an overwhelming and destructive sense of guilt that can strike both the recipient of the care and the giver of the care. That feeling of guilt is often made more powerful by feelings of shame and failure that accompany the guilt.

Caregiving is a major part of most people’s lives at any stage but in the final fifteen percent of our lives, the part this blog is most concerned with, we have reached a point where on average we are losing three friends or loved ones a year and the need to be involved in caregiving is at a peak.

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Reducing Clutter or Disposing of Possessions

Many of us have had to clean out the living space of someone who has died or who is moving to a nursing home or assisted living facility. I have been involved in that task several times and I know it affects my view of how I want my own living space to be when my children inherit that task. Bill and I don’t want our children to have a huge burden when it comes to disposing of our possessions some day. I have heard many stories from others about what they had to deal with in that final “housecleaning.” A few of us might be rich enough to delegate the entire task to hired hands but most of us have to deal, at least to some degree, with the task ourselves. Some of the stories I have heard about this experience have been thought provoking and have given me some ideas for making the task easier. I am going to explain my reasons for arriving at these ideas but the characters in the “case histories” I cite will remain anonymous. After all, these stories are about friends or relations with whom I do want to remain on good terms.

Case History Number One: Perhaps the most alarming case I remember involved a wonderful couple who decided to begin downsizing many years before they actually gave up their home to move in with a caregiver. They wanted to be fair to their surviving children and ensure that each of them received some treasured keepsakes. That was a noble idea that turned, in my opinion, into a complete catastrophe in the execution stage. Here is my first tip on this subject: if one or more of your children have a hoarding disorder, do not invite your heirs to a get together where they place name stickers on the items they want to receive when you are gone. If you choose to ignore my warning, at least provide lots of stickers and retreat to a safe location before you turn the heirs loose to tag their potential bequests. The running of the bulls in Pamplona was tame compared to the stampede that ensued when this couple’s descendants were invited to move about the home placing their stickers. A compulsive hoarding disorder causes its victims to desire to own every single available item. Not a single piece of furniture, decorative item, or personal possession in the entire house was left untagged when the dust had settled.

Here are some additional tips for people who still choose to issue this type of invitation to their progeny: have referees available to settle any disputes; use name tags with strong adhesive so they can’t be ripped off by competing heirs; provide a first-aid kit for the injured; provide grief counselors for the participants who don’t suffer from a hoarding disorder and were thus too slow to successfully tag anything. It wasn’t as though this particular couple had priceless possessions worth fighting to own. I saw the merchandise before the free-for-all began and there wasn’t a single item there I felt the desire to take home with me, not that I could have in any case since I was not one of the surviving descendants. The possessions were lovely but, by middle age, most of us have developed strong preferences for what we want our own homes to look like and we are already considering the fact that we will need to downsize some time in the near future. To a person with a hoarding disorder, these facts make no difference in the desire to possess all he or she sees. Continue reading

Let’s Have a Scavenger Hunt!

The list of items that have gone missing in my household right now is a few pages long. It includes things like the following:

  • The booklet that came with my current home phone that will hopefully remind me of how to dial in and collect phone messages that went to the voicemail box that only operates when a call comes in while I’m on the line with someone already. (As opposed to the voice mail that records messages when I’m either not home or just not in the mood to answer the phone.)
  • The booklet that came with my iPhone that will explain how to use all those wonderful features that I haven’t figured out yet (this is a very large booklet: perhaps I should have called it a book). Yes, Siri, I know you are there waiting to answer my questions and I’ll talk to you as soon as I figure out how to do it.
  • The great little pan I bought because it would be perfect for cooking meat loaf for two. I’m pretty certain it is on one of the upper shelves in my kitchen: the ones that a person who is 5 feet-2 inches tall and whose available kitchen space consists of cupboards that average 6 feet-4 inches in height never sees.
  • The instructions for where to call if I need to make use of the cremation services Bill and I purchased more than ten years ago. After all, who knows when they might be needed?
  • The Christmas wrapping paper that was such a bargain right after the holiday last year: I’d better hurry on this one as the paper is in danger of being wasted (again) if I don’t find it soon.
  • The container of vinegar that I was going to use to keep the appliances sparkling clean. You’d think this one would be highly visible since it was the giant, economy size. I’m fairly certain it is hiding under one of the sinks I was planning to rinse with it.
  • The batteries for my computer mouse that I desperately needed yesterday when I had to switch to using the laptop’s built-in thingy, which I hate.
  • The contact cement that is going to help me stick back the piece of backsplash tile that has come loose again for the umpteenth time.

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