Counting the Dead

How many will show at the 60th nursing reunion of St. Peter’s School of Nursing at Cape May, NJ?

Ruth and I are counting the dead. Ruth counts 13. I have 11. “We should count anyone who didn’t respond to the invitation as ‘dead’,” she jokes over the phone. I can’t help but laugh. Maybe I’m laughing off the somberness of such a task. 

We are putting together a directory of Saint Peter’s School of Nursing, in New Brunswick, NJ, class of ’62 to pass out to the attendees at our reunion next week in Cape May. It’s bizarre that Ruth and I don’t share an accurate list of our fellow classmates who have passed away in the last 60 years!

I have three lists of information in front of me. Ruth, Joan, and Alice had split up the directory from the last reunion in 2017. They attempted to contact everyone who wasn’t on the dead list. I volunteered to collate the results. Ruth and I are trying to sort out those who responded versus those who didn’t versus those whose addresses are unknown versus those that we are sure are dead. I had phoned a few of my classmates to verify the information I was given, and to be honest, to reminisce. Many had moved in the last five years to be nearer to family. Many stopped driving. I heard of their illnesses and of the illnesses of husbands, if husbands were still alive, death of grandchildren and grown children. With each phone call, I heard the warm voice of an old friend. 

I don’t remember how many women were originally accepted to Saint Peter’s School of Nursing. No men, married, or God-forbid, pregnant women were welcome. Forty-four young, mostly Catholic women completed the program. We spent three years living together in the “nurses’ residence” under the eagle-eyes of around-the-clock housemothers. We graduated in our early twenties having bathed the dead, birthed the babies, assisted in surgeries, cared for toddlers, and the mentally ill. We were left in charge of a whole ward during the night shift until a nursing oversight organization told the three-year hospital programs (not just Saint Peter’s) that student nurses shouldn’t have that level of responsibility until after graduation, and then, of course, with pay.

The class of ‘62 has met every five years since the school closed in 1987 and the yearly reunions organized by Saint Peter’s Nursing School stopped. I had attended each reunion except for the time I was getting worked up for breast cancer in ’97 and the time when one of the then organizers rescheduled the reunion forgetting I would be in Ireland. I had volunteered to write our one and only newsletter which included the “save the date” that didn’t count after all. To be fair, that organizer moved the date so that I could travel to NJ from North Carolina the day after I got back from Ireland. As luck would have it, I caught a bug from my fellow travelers. I missed the 50th reunion.

The directory is done and ready to be printed. Besides the dead, (the death count turned out to be 13), there are two who dropped off the face of the earth after graduation, some who have never bothered to attend a reunion but are still alive, and others who would attend except for their, or their husbands’, ill health. There are six who Ruth, Joan and Alice couldn’t contact, and we’ll keep them on the list until we hear otherwise. All in all, out of 29 who we believe to be alive and kicking, or limping, only eight will travel to Cape May this Sunday.

When A Compliment Is Not A Compliment.

I’ve written many posts about ageism. What I’ve not addressed is how older persons could react to the “compliment” that we look or act so “young,” as if youth is the gold standard and “aging” is undesirable. (Notice I did not say SHOULD since I’m not giving advice but laying out my thoughts on ageism) 

Until aging is recognized as the normal trajectory of life and not as a state to be ignored or disparaged, an older person will continue to be thought of as persona non grata. Accepting the “compliment,” the older person might also accept that youth is desirable and internalize feelings of negative self-worth. 

Old is not a dirty word.

How can we oldsters redirect the “compliment” by acknowledging the fact that we are indeed old, and our old status is just part of life?

One of the best responses I have come across is Samantha White’s. Her comment is in response to Katherine Esty’s post: Ageism: The tragic spoiler of old age.


Samantha White

Jul 17

Katharine, I cling to my position that it is up to us, the elderly, to stand up and be proud of our age. I HATE it when people tell me I’m not old (I’m 84), and so I reply with, “I AM old, and proud of it! Don’t take my years away from me, I worked long and hard to GET old.” People are usually confused by my position because they thought that “not old” was a compliment.

When people tell us we’re not old, or don’t look old, we need to respond with a positive take on being old. It’s possible to do it nicely, and with pride. The real compliment is when I tell people that I have a host of age-related medical issues, and they say, “One would never suspect it!” THAT’S the compliment! I’m active and productive and upbeat. I use an upright walker that people tend to not notice, because I stand up straight and walk rapidly, rather than shuffle. I wear compression hosiery to keep the swelling in my legs and feet down, and I wear clothes that fit my body. I give life my best shot.

My productivity is no more than half what it used to be, because of my medical issues, and I feel myself to be on the decline physically. Even mentally, I’ve noticed that I’ve lost the ability to do math in my head (algebra, specifically). But I’ve learned to use a computer and a smartphone, which compensate for my declining mental agility, which I don’t deny. I can’t do a lot of things I used to do well (dance, ski, kayak, hike, memorize, travel, to name a few), but I do new things, such as art printmaking, and consulting. I went back to school in my 50’s and changed careers to one in which life experience is an advantage.

We need to support each other in admitting to our age and being proud of it. Thanks (to Katherine Esty) for raising our awareness and giving us this forum.


What do you think of Samantha White’s response?

Getting the Message the Second Time Around

Amazing insights to aging by Twyla Tharp.

I read the book before. My husband had been impressed with dancer, choreographer, and author Twyla Tharp’s interview on the car radio and bought her book for me: Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life. It was motivational and I breezed through it. Afterwards the book sat on our coffee table. I picked it up a few days ago and randomly opened to page 123 where Twyla talks of breaking a bone while she is teaching a group of children to dance. As she demonstrates a position, her foot collapses and she cracks the metatarsal bone in her toe.

Here’s what she says:

            “This was a fairly common, unremarkable incident really, except I was sixty-nine years old and this was the first major injury of my career. Until that moment, I’ve never done bodily harm to myself. Never twisted an ankle or torn a muscle or broken a bone. An impressive winning streak, only some of which I attribute to luck.

            Perhaps something like this has happened to you. Your moment probably looked different: your reached for a book on a high shelf and felt a sharp twinge in your back. You wrestled with a tightly screwed jar and, in defeat, asked stronger hands to open it. You hesitated before jumping down from a high stool at a restaurant, worried about the shock to your knees, then chose a safer route back to earth. If so, you appreciate the significance of that first moment when your body breaks its contract with you. You can no longer entertain the illusion that you are among the immortals, those who throw themselves delightedly after perfection with childlike intensity because they can. You begin to morph into a mere mortal.

            You may not have even realized you were under the illusion of being an immortal, but while mortality can appear at thirty, forty, or fifty, be assured it happens to us all sooner or later. It is the moment when you start to doubt whether you have control over your body after all. You resign yourself to aging.” (Emphasis mine)

Tharp, Twyla. Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2019.

            Now it may sound ridiculous, that at 80 I hadn’t resigned myself to aging. When I sustained a knee injury soon after my 80th birthday, I did what I am best at: denial. The first two weeks afterward, I somehow “forgot” the physician assistant at the urgent care told me to always wear the leg brace. I wasn’t going to let this injury limit me, so I walked around the house without it. Only when I went outside did I put it the brace on.

            When I finally saw the orthopedic surgeon, he pointed out the injury on the MRI: a torn anterior cruciate ligament and fully severed medial collateral ligament. Looking at my knee x-ray, he discussed the arthritic changes and osteopenic bones in my knee. He reminded me that I needed to wear the brace constantly except when sleeping. Leaving the office, my husband said, “That was good news, you’ll get better in six to eight weeks.” I didn’t hear that. I was too busy focusing on the degenerative changes in my leg. I had been so proud to race up a flight of stairs, avoid elevators when possible and walk all day while sightseeing in New York City. I was in denial that my body was aging.

I asked at the end of one of my recent posts: what will I learn from this injury? I didn’t realize what a profound question that was until I opened Twyla Tharp’s book for the second time. There on her pages were examples of other aging persons who use their years of experience to forge new paths toward quality of life. I, on the other hand, was hoping to keep the status quo.

 Twyla’s book is so different from the usual books and articles I read on “successful” aging that focus on scientific studies. Twyla mixes common sense, creative motivation, and lots of interesting anecdotal stories about famous folks, mostly in the arts, such as writers, dancers, painters, music composers, singers, musicians; some still alive, some long dead but all demonstrating a lesson that moves us to be better as we age. (I must confess my eyes glazed over the description of how the professional boxer and heavy weight champion, George Foreman, affected a comeback at 45 years old.)

What Twyla does best is to show how to circumvent the limitations of aging by abandoning old stereotypes. She says that “. . . chasing youth is a losing proposition.”  Forget the past, reinvent yourself. Keep reaching. Keep moving.

What did I learn? I learned that successful aging is not trying to keep constant the same level of ability. In using the wisdom we older folks have accrued, we can refine the path we take as we go forward on our aging journey. This journey is ours to define and enjoy.  

Torn ACL or How things can change in a New York Minute. Take 2

Over two weeks ago I slipped while doing a lunge—part of my exercise program to stay strong and flexible now that I have reached my ninth decade. The following day at an Ortho Urgent Care, I found out that I had injured both my Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and my Medial Cruciate Ligament (MCL). Definitive diagnosis pending.

What follows is one of the many examples of having a mobility problem as an older woman.

One morning, a week ago, I fell out of bed. Well, I just slid out of bed as I attempted to wipe up water from the floor with a bath towel. I had spilled the water out of a bottle with a spout that could be closed just in case I tipped it over from the bedside table it wouldn’t spill. (that only works if I close the spout in the first place.)

I didn’t want to slip on a wet floor and harm my already injured left knee, so I called my husband to bring me a bath towel. Of course, my husband could’ve wiped up the spill, but I am always in a rush to get a job done. While I leaned over trying to soak up all the drops under the bed, I stretched out too far. I couldn’t pull myself back onto the bed. I had no choice but to slither to the floor taking care to keep my injured knee straight. There I was on my stomach. On the floor. Parallel to the bed. Face down. After I managed to roll over, my husband bent to pull me up. No way would I allow him to do so. He might damage his back, or worse. I lay for a few moments trying to figure out how to get up from the floor. Scenarios danced in my head: 911, fire department, neighbors, grandchildren, embarrassment. Finally, I bent my good knee, crawled over to the bed, and pulled myself up. Gazing at the ceiling, I felt lucky as an 80-year-old that I had the strength to wiggle out of a tight situation without injury to me or my husband.

Thank goodness feet first

Yesterday, I had an MRI and today I will see an orthopedic physician to find out the extent of the damage and, most important, what I will need to do to heal the injury. Will the exercises I have done (thanks to Dr. Google and YouTube) show an improvement to my knee? Now I only wear the leg brace and use a cane when I am outside. More recently, I have managed to climb up and down the stairs of our 2-story townhouse.

This injury is teaching me to listen to my body, find ways to keep up my strength and flexibility as I age, and to slow down to smell the flowers.  There are probably more lessons for me to learn as I move forward.

I can hardly wait.

Alphabet Challenge: E

I’ve signed onto The Blogging from A to Z April Challenge 2021.

The challenge is to blog the whole alphabet in April and write at least 100 words on a topic that corresponds to the letter of the day. 

Every day, excluding Sundays, I’m blogging about Places I Have Been. The last post will be on Friday, April 30 when I finally focus on the letter Z. 

E: Eckhart Apartment

In the mid 80’s I worked in a clinic on the tenth floor of a subsidized building for the elderly on the west side of Chicago. The twenty-story apartment building proved to be a training ground for me: an inexperienced nurse practitioner and new to working with older people.  

I learned:

            that older folks were generally accepting and forgiving. That they enjoyed sex.   Some of them drank too much, hired prostitutes, carried guns in their purses, and chewed tobacco. Some sold their medicine for street drugs or money. Some were abusive and some were abused.

            that not all families wanted to care for their older members. That loneliness was the most pervasive condition among the group. I learned that family members, who suddenly showed up when someone was dying, might not be family. 

            how to plan a funeral, hand over firearms to the local police precinct, how to put folks in a nursing home, transfer them to an emergency room, and commit them to a psychiatric hospital.  

            to listen to a person’s story before I examined her. And that making a home visit told me more than I could ever learn from an office visit.

            that I didn’t need the support from a highly educated and professional staff but from people who were caring and didn’t walk away from a problem. And I learned that a sense of humor was a requirement when working with the elderly.

An Unethical Question

You May Be Only as Old as You Feel was a thought-provoking read in the New York Times on Tuesday October 22nd by Emily Laber-Warren.

Warren noted that studies show “(W)hen scientists ask, ‘How old do you feel, most of the time?’ the answer tends to reflect the state of people’s physical and mental health.”

Therefore, folks who feel younger are usually healthier than those who feel their age or older. Not surprising. On a lark, I asked Helen, whom I wrote about in my last blog, how old she feels. She just turned 80 and looks much younger, is exercising, and now doesn’t need her blood pressure medication anymore. She said she feels 50! Again, not surprising.

Then I felt guilty asking Helen that question because Tracey Gendron, a gerontologist, questions subjective age research. She thinks that asking the question is perpetuating our cultural bias that aging is fundamentally negative.

The essay stated that in some “cultures where elders are respected for their wisdom and experience, people don’t even understand the concept of subjective age.”

Furthermore, Dr. Gendron suggests that “the study of subjective age may be inherently unethical.”  She goes on to say, “I think we have to ask ourselves the question, are we feeding the larger narrative of aging as decline by asking that question? Older age is a time that we can actually look forward to. People really just enjoy who they are. I would love for everyone to say their age at every year and  celebrate it”

I agree with Dr. Gendron. There are so many subtle “beliefs” in our society that undermine positive aging. I revisited a past post of mine Rethinking How to Handle this Age Issue. I wrote that post not only to promote being proud of our age—at whatever age we are, and as a reminder not to support the premise that old age means decline.

I listed on the Rethinking post a wonderful resource that I will again cite: Old School: An Anti-Aging Clearing House that educates about ageism so we know ageism when we see it.

images-7

images-5

images-4

images-1

Update on Tom and Helen

There are many good things about getting older but unfortunately our society holds aging as an inevitable downward spiral. That’s why I like to post about the positive when I find it. Tom and Helen are wonderful examples of a happy circumstance.

I have written two posts about them. After the excerpts below, I will give you an update.

 

 

 

1/10/2018

Dream Deferred

My friend, Helen (not her real name), called me a few weeks ago. Without salutation she said, “I am in love.” I knew she was taking about Tom, a friend of more than 30 years.

Helen and her husband, and Tom and his wife, were friends back in California. After Helen and her husband moved to North Carolina, both couples sent Christmas letters over the years. Tom and Helen were the scribes. Helen called to give her condolences after Tom’s Christmas letter noted the tragic loss of his beloved wife after a brutal battle against Alzheimer’s. Soon the two were reconnecting and updating their lives. They found they had much in common.

“I’m going to tell him that I am not interested in a relationship,” she had told me. And then her phone call.

Their frequent phone calls and messages erupted into deep emotions. Tom flew from California to North Carolina for Christmas, leaving two days after the New Year. He stayed with Helen in her one-bedroom apartment. They laughed constantly. Sang familiar songs. Finished each other’s sentences. Fell into a routine as if they had co-habited for years!

And the sex was great!

Helen will visit Tom the end of this month. Both in their seventies, they are investigating on which coast they will live—together.

 

 

8/15/2018

New Love in Old Age

. . . Then there is my writing friend I call Helen who found true love with Tom. Longtime friends, they both lost their spouses and reconnected to find a “spark” that ignited “true love.”

I have heard from Helen recently. She and Tom are now living together in California.

“Tom and I have ten children and stepchildren between us. His live on the west coast, mine on the east coast. And he has a fulltime job in California. We haven’t figured out how to navigate these difficulties yet.”

Recently, they traveled to the east coast to attend one of Helen’s grandchildren’s graduations. “Thanks for making my Nana so happy,” her fifteen-year-old grandson told Tom during that trip.

“Our love is truly a miracle for us both,” Helen writes. “Tom is one of the nicest people I have ever known, and there is an ease and flow to our days.”

They work out at a gym several evenings a week and they both swim a quarter of a mile most nights. Both have lost weight—fifteen pounds each–and leave the gym “energized and with a sense of relaxed well-being. Not bad for almost seventy-nine.”

Helen ended her email by writing, “We have trouble letting go of the evening and going to bed, like two little kids. I joked recently that we need a parent. But all is not lost — we do still brush our teeth.”

 

Tom and Helen now live in Florida. She turned 80 the week before we met. Tom is a few years younger and just recently retired. They came to Raleigh last week to see Helen’s daughter and granddaughter.

During their visit, I had lunch with Helen at a Thai restaurant. Tom dropped her off so we could have some “girl-friend” time together.

Helen filled me in on her life with Tom for the past two years as her vegan noodle dish cooled in front of her. Happiness lit up her face when she described their partnership filled with respect, trust and intimacy.

As impressed as I was over the psychosocial gains their relationship provided, the gerontological nurse practitioner side of me rejoiced in the physical gains, too.

They continue to swim three times a week, reaching a mile at least twice a month. With the exercise routine that Tom developed and a new interest in ping-pong—they bought a table and take private lessons—both have lost weight. Helen no longer needs to take blood pressure medication.

Sitting next to them on a park bench near the Thai restaurant after lunch, I observed the obvious affection they hold for each other.

Getting older isn’t always a bummer. There are truly magical moments. I have witnessed one.

PF-Elderlybridge_1201447c

Rethinking How to Handle this Age Issue

I’ve had second thoughts about my last post: “How to Handle this Age Issue,” where I decided that the best way for me to deal with being an older woman was to ignore my age.

That decision nagged at me so I did a little research.

I reread an essay that I had saved from the New York Times on April 30, 2019 written by Paula Span titled: “Ageism Is a ‘Prevalent and Insidious’ Health Threat.” Span listed research studies that show that believing in negative stereotypes can have an effect on an older’s person’s health and function, such as an increase in dementia. However, older folks who have a positive attitude toward aging “experience less depression and anxiety. They live longer.”

She goes on to say that “(i)t’s not always easy to find the balance between shrugging off offensive messages and counterproductive scolding . . . .” when speaking against agism. I can certainly relate to that. I describe, in my last post, how I reacted to an ageist comment by a Weight Watcher representative. Definitely counterproductive.

Paula Span gives us a great resource: Old School: An Anti-Aging Clearinghouse.

I found this two minute presentation while visiting Old School that now convinces me that I will tell my age.

How to Handle This Age Issue

The woman who was interviewing me asked my age. She was apologetic. “My boss wants me to get ages.”

I was ready for her.

“I am 76,” I said. “Not a problem to ask. I think it’s good that folks realize that older people can still be productive.”

“That’s one way to handle it,” she said, flatly.

Handle what, I wondered? But I didn’t ask just in case she would think I was being snarky and end our conversation. She was a columnist from a newspaper published in my old home town, calling to conduct an interview about me and my first book, a memoir.

Quite a few years ago, when I was dipping my toe into the writing life, I heard a local cookbook author being interviewed on a radio program. When the interviewer asked the author her age, she said, “I never tell my age. There are too many ageist readers out there.” I was floored. How would ageist beliefs disappear if those who are successful and of a certain age don’t sing their own praises? I wanted to reach into the radio and shake this woman. Since then I had been on a mission to tell my age. That was the way I was handling the age issue.

Once I stopped into a Weight Watcher’s storefront to get help in dropping the ten pounds that I have habitually lost and gained over the years. The helpful clerk was promoting the additional support one could find on the internet. “There is a Weight Watchers’ Blog,” she said, eyeing me before she continued. “Do you know what a Blog is?”

I immediately assumed she thought that I was too old to know what a Blog was. Since I had just recently set up my own Blog following advice on how to promote my future book, I huffed and puffed and said rather haughtily, that I have my own Blog, thank you, then turned and marched out the door. Only later did I recognize that was the wrong way to educate the clerk. Now she knew I was not only older but super sensitive. I should have just laughed and told her I had a Blog as if it were no big deal. Then she would be impressed by my age and my poise.

Since it is obvious that I am older, my new tack is to just be me and disregard any real or imagined mannerisms of others that are demeaning. While I don’t shy away from confrontation, and in some instances enjoy the battle, I would have to make an extra attempt to be cordial. Why call attention to my age? Let my actions and accomplishments speak for themselves. Yet another way to handle the age issue.

Now you can see that I am conflicted. Tell my age or not call attention to my age?

A week ago, a woman contacted me via email. She had seen my memoir on the publisher’s website. Could she talk with me about the indie publisher I had chosen? She finished her first memoir and now was exploring options. The memoir was about her grandmother who had sold alcohol during prohibition to support her family. The woman told me that she had written a few professional books and self-published a fiction story. We spent almost an hour discussing the pros and cons of self-publishing versus using my indie publisher.

During our conversation, we never mentioned age. Afterwards, looking over her website, I discovered that she was 82. I was impressed with her vitality, and enthusiasm to get her memoir published and promoted. Oh, to be so cavalier about one’s age! I now know how I will  handle this age issue.

Just ignore it.

 

decisionsright

A Long Overdue Thank You

I had finally decided to clean out my office closet. I started with the stuffed cardboard Unknownfile box. The first thing I reached for was a frayed manila envelope. The stack of typed pages spilled out onto the floor. After I read the first two sheets—an early attempt at documenting my nursing life—I knew I was doomed to sit on that floor by the open closet door until I had scrutinized every page. One story especially held a surprise.

In the early 70s, after my husband completed his degree at the University of Chicago, we moved to the far south suburbs where housing costs fit our tight budget. My first job was at a community hospital. Soon after I started, I found out that my salary was the same as a new graduate nurse who had never even done a simple urinary catherization. I, on the other hand, was an experienced ICU nurse. I wrote a letter of complaint and while the Director of Nursing of the hospital commiserated with me, I wasn’t offered a raise. I quit.

I decided to apply for a job at a close-by nursing home in spite of the fact that I thought I was overqualified and working at a nursing home felt demeaning to my young arrogant self. I eventually learned differently.

I wrote about this experience in my memoir:

 

. . .I had worked in a nursing home—a well-run home

with low staff turnover—for a short period of time, but long enough

to savor the slow pace after being an intensive-care nurse for years

before. The residents bestowed many hugs and an occasional slobbery

kiss as I passed out medications on the evening shift.

I had forgotten that experience the day my academic advisor and

I talked about a master’s thesis. In 1979, like most of my classmates, I

wanted to study women—women of child-bearing age. Why did she

think she had to ask me again: “What group do you REALLY enjoy

caring for?” That’s when I remembered the hugs in the nursing home.

At the end of the version of the story about working in a nursing home that had sat in the manila envelope for over 15 years, there was an added comment about Eva Harrison that I hadn’t remembered writing.

Eva Harrison, the nursing home DON, had offered me a salary higher than the one I received from the hospital. She ran a warm and caring facility, valuing her staff and residents alike. I know she felt sad when I left after only six months but a new clinic opened. At the time, I believed that this new job was more prestigious than that of pill pusher in a nursing home.

What I had written was that I wished I had gone back to tell Eva Harrison that my time at her nursing home had so influenced me that when I graduated as a nurse practitioner a few years later, I had declared geriatrics my specialty. Working in a nursing home, Eva Harrison’s nursing home, set me on a career path that would both challenge and reward me.

Thanks, Eva.

%d bloggers like this: