A thoughtful end to ‘After Life’

I’m a big fan of the Netflix show “After Life” created by and starring Ricky Gervais. While the subject matter and profuse profanity make it a show that not everyone will enjoy, I find its take on death and the grieving process refreshing and poignant.

The third and final season debuted this month and I was blown away by one scene in particular, which felt like my mother was speaking to me from beyond the grave.

As I’ve written about extensively on this blog and in my book, The Reluctant Caregiver, my mother was reluctant to discuss any end-of-life issues, but she did give me a poem she had copied by hand and said she would like that read after she died. She didn’t want any service and she chose cremation over burial so it was left to me, her only child, how to honor her wishes.

The poem she chose is the poem that is read during a very moving scene in the final season of “After Life.” When the actress began reciting the poem, I almost jumped out of my seat and my breath caught in my throat. The poem is fairly well-known but still, what are the chances that the poem my mother chose was the one that was recited on a TV show?

I chose to honor my mother’s wishes by not only reciting the poem after her death, but having it imprinted on her urn. You can read the poem below.

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Learning more about Dad’s voyage to America

USS Theenim (AKA-63) in 1946. Source: Official U.S. Navy Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve spent the decade since my father’s death piecing together a timeline of his life. While I know my father discussed the details of his freighter trip from the UK to America during my childhood, I sadly have forgotten most of those details. It bothered me I couldn’t learn more about the ship that he was on, but my initial searches turned up dead ends.

Then I took another look at his naturalization records on Ancestry.com, and discovered the name of the ship, SS American Inventor, was printed right on the form! I don’t know how I missed that initially. At first I turned up little information with the ship’s name, but then discovered that the ship had changed names over the course of its service.

The ship was originally christened the USS Theenim and functioned as a cargo attack ship during WWII, according to NavSource. (Reports say the name was a misspelling of Theemin, a star in the constellation Eridanus.) It served in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater during wartime and earned one battle star. After being decommissioned, it began its merchant service duties where it became the SS American Inventor. The ship’s name changed a few more times before it was sold for scrapping in 1970.

It was neat to see the images of the ship on NavSource. The very last image is of the ship in New York City in the mid-1950s. My father arrived in New York in 1957, so it was really neat to see an image of the city’s skyline during that era, to have a better understanding of the first glimpses of America my father saw on the ship. What an exciting moment for my father, who was just 25 years old and about to step foot in the country he would adopt as his second home.

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Vision for the new year

I hope you had a peaceful holiday season. Mine was spent mourning my beloved cat Rosalie, but the holiday break allowed me time to honor her memory in various ways. Her urn arrived this week, and Katie Patton of Blocks from the Heart has done such a magnificent job in capturing Rosalie’s spirit.

And to usher in the new year, I took the plunge and adopted a pair of tuxedo cats named Dorian and Serena. They are young, just a year and a half. I do feel like Rosalie’s untimely passing was a signal from the universe that an opportunity was presenting itself to welcome a new energy into my home and my life. It was a rude awakening, but one that I hope will inspire new endeavors into my caregiving advocacy work. Adopting young cats is also a good lesson in letting go of routines and looking at things from a new perspective … like when a kitty climbs to the top of the kitchen cabinets!

Serena and Dorian

As for vision … I attend a monthly women’s healing circle that involves a variety of spiritual disciplines and meditations. It’s been a virtual respite during the isolation of the pandemic. Each year, the teacher draws a spirit word for each participant, and mine for 2022 is vision. I’m interested in exploring that concept.

To kick off the year, I’m taking a course in children’s book writing. I have an idea for a children’s book that would feature my rescue dog Murphy’s story and connect it to children who have also experienced trauma. I don’t know what will come of it, but I think it is good to flex the writing muscles in a new direction.

On the legislative front, I hope some of the caregiving initiatives can be salvaged from the BBB plan. I know I sound like a broken record, but caregiving issues deserves bipartisan support because it’s something that touches all of our lives, regardless of political beliefs. Caregivers, from frontline hospital and nursing home workers to family members tending to loved ones at home, have sacrificed so much and it’s well past time that we as a society support better funding so that they get the support they need.

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Farewell to a sweet soul

I had to say goodbye to my beloved Rosalie two days before Christmas. She went into respiratory distress and a large mass was found on her trachea, which was almost entirely blocking her airway and ability to breathe. Because of its location, her age, and her condition, there were no realistic treatment options. I decided to let her go while she was still under anesthesia from the diagnostic procedure so she could slip out of this world as peacefully as possible.

Rosalie came into my life at the worst of times (my mother dying) and departed during another tough period of my life. I was fortunate to get six years with her delightful spirit. She was by far the easiest cat I’ve ever cared for and very affectionate. While I’ve loved the timid cats that I’ve adopted over the years, Rosalie was not shy at all. Nothing much seemed to spook her. She lived every day soaking up the simple pleasures of life (sitting on the heat vent or napping on the heated blanket during the winter, enjoying food, being petted, knocking her favorite crinkle ball toys under the couch) and I would marvel at how content and relaxed she was no matter what strife I and/or the world was facing.

I may have jinxed her by thinking she could be my “20 year old cat,” because she had the calm and happy-go-lucky demeanor that centenarians often have. Alas, cancer claimed her just a month after her 15th birthday.

The day I adopted Rosalie I put aside my normal common sense and went with my gut instinct. It was just days after another one of my beloved cats had died and many people would have felt it was too soon to adopt another. The weather that day was dreadful and for any other event or task, I would have opted out. Navigating through violent thunderstorms, I arrived at the shelter and met with Rosalie just minutes before another adopter arrived asking about her. From that fateful beginning, Rosalie and I forged a special bond.

She taught me that sometimes rules and traditions are meant to be broken and she could have taught a master class in self-care. I will be forever grateful that the universe brought her into my life.

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Reflecting upon 10 years since my father’s death

It has been 10 years since my father’s death. So much has happened in the past decade, but I’ll never forget where I was when my mother called with the worst news of my life, in the middle of the newsroom at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I had been waiting for that awful call for quite some time, and some part of me wished for it, because it pained me so much to see my father suffering in the late stages of dementia. But of course there was no immediate sense of relief upon my father’s passing, just sadness and regret.

I do still carry feelings of regret and guilt to this very day, and probably always will. I discuss this at length in The Reluctant Caregiver, and urge others not to judge themselves too harshly. In that spirit, I am taking a look back on what my father inspired me to do over the last decade.

  • I began this blog, The Memories Project. What began as a way to document memories of my father and process my grief has become the foundation of my dementia and caregiver advocacy platform. I have also met so many fellow caregivers through the blog and am grateful for their wisdom and their support.
  • I wrote a book, which was a life goal of mine. My collection of personal essays on family caregiving, The Reluctant Caregiver, won a gold medal at the IPPY Awards. An essay from that collection won the Rick Bragg Prize for Nonfiction from the Atlanta Writers Club. A story I wrote about my father, “French Toast,” was included in the Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias collection. I know my dad, a lifelong lover of books, would be proud.
  • I finally made it to Ireland and visited my father’s hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland. This was at the top of my bucket list and has been one of the best experiences of my life.
  • The privilege of sharing my father’s story through a variety of outlets, including NPR, AlzAuthors, Caring Across Generations and the Aging in America conference.

The decade since my father’s death has been the most difficult of my life, but also the most rewarding. I hope that you can take time this holiday season to recognize and reflect upon the highs amidst the lows of your own caregiving journey. Give yourself the grace that you deserve.

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How pandemic helped motivate interest in ‘virtual assisted living’ technology

One aspect of the pandemic that could be seen as a benefit to family caregivers is the embrace and expansion of technology that assists with basic tasks in our daily lives. While some of us were already utilizing such services before the pandemic, many others learned the convenience of having groceries delivered to their home, for example.

A sandwich caregiver interviewed by MarketWatch recounted what a major benefit it was to have groceries delivered. She used to spend a good chunk of her day off taking her elder parents to the grocery store. When the pandemic struck, she shifted to grocery delivery and signed up her own family as well. Sometimes it is the simple things that can make all the difference. A caregiver reclaiming a few hours of her life each week can have a major impact on her wellbeing and those in her care.

Of course, there is always a price to pay for that convenience, and I never forget the fact that there is a human being who is picking out my groceries and delivering them, putting their own lives at risk to complete a chore for me. I always make sure to tip well.

Zoom and other video calling tools also exploded in popularity during the pandemic. While some are understandably suffering from Zoom fatigue at this point, for those families who were able to get their elder loved ones comfortable with the technology, video calls served as an important lifeline for those separated during the pandemic. Being able to check in on an elder loved one from afar with a simple video call helped put a family caregiver’s mind at ease. Of course it’s not the same as being able to hug and socialize in person, but for elders who otherwise may have been completely isolated, video calls kept the connection to family intact.

Remote tools, whether for working, socializing, or caregiving, are now receiving greater public interest, which is sparking investments from major technology companies like Amazon, who has developed a caregiving hub called Alexa Together. While there are security, privacy, and ethical concerns when it comes to monitoring technology, overall I think these tools can be helpful for the long-distance caregiver.

From my experience, I found tools such as a cellphone designed for older people, fall-sensing technology, and automated shipping of supplies to be of great help as a long-distance caregiver. As I wrote in my book, The Reluctant Caregiver, I was able to convince my mother, long skeptical of high-tech gadgets, to embrace these tools to help keep her living at home safely, versus having to enter assisted living.

As I grow older, I will be watching this growing field of technology with interest.

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New research finds potential cause of Alzheimer’s disease

A recent study from researchers at UC Riverside offers intriguing data that could lead to a better understanding of what causes Alzheimer’s disease.

Plaques and tangles in the brain have been a focus of Alzheimer’s researchers and some believe ridding the brain of the buildup will help in treating the disease. Approximately 20 percent of people have plaques detected in the brain, but do not develop dementia, prompting researchers to do a deeper investigation of the tau protein. Their results suggest that a specific presentation of the protein was linked to the development of dementia. The body has an automatic mechanism called autophagy to clear defective proteins from cells, but that process slows as we age, especially for those over the age of 65.

The researchers described the defective tau protein as “trying to put a right-handed glove on your left hand.”

If their preliminary research proves to be correct, there are drugs being tested to improve the autophagy process, which could potentially be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

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Gifting with a purpose this holiday season

Photo by Rob Laughter/Unsplash

I hope that you are having a wonderful holiday weekend with loved ones and appreciating the simple joys of being together, something that many had to sacrifice over the last two years.

Black Friday has earned a sordid reputation as displaying the worst of consumerism, but there is another notable day happening soon that may be worthy of participation: Giving Tuesday. If you have nonprofits and charities that you donate to or volunteer with, you probably are aware of the upcoming Nov. 30th event.

Giving Tuesday is a relatively new movement, beginning in 2012 as a way to simply designate a day to encourage people to do good. The movement has now spread globally. It’s easy to participate, and giving support to our elder community is one of the movement’s areas of focus. It can be as simple as checking in on a neighbor, writing a letter to an elder in a nursing home, supporting a local fundraiser, or donating your time and skills virtually or in-person.

Whether it’s Tuesday or any other day this holiday season, let’s find our own unique way to support the elders in our families and communities.

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When aging in place becomes stuck in place

A new AARP survey found that older Americans continue to have a strong preference to staying in their homes as they age, even if they have found themselves stuck at home for long stretches of time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over three-quarters of those age 50 and over (77 percent) prefer to remain in their home as they age, according to the survey results. That statistic has remained steady for over a decade, according to AARP.

However, there is another way in which older people get stuck in a living situation that doesn’t meet their needs as they age. A third of survey participants said they’d need to modify their homes in order to accommodate a physical limitation. These modifications can be pricey and not feasible for those on fixed incomes. The same financial challenges apply to moving into a more aging-friendly home or moving into a senior living facility.

When my father landed in the hospital for emergency surgery, he had a difficult recovery due to his mid-stage dementia and could no longer walk. The condo that my parents had was not safe for him to return to, so the hospital would not release him home. One had to access a staircase to get to the entrance and the rear entrance was wooded land that was not safe for unsteady gaits. Any modifications would have to be approved by the HOA, a lengthy process. Instead my father got transferred to a skilled nursing facility and then, a memory care facility an hour and a half away from home.

Another solution to these housing challenges was met with support from survey participants. Sixty percent of those polled said they would consider living in an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), sometimes referred to as a “granny pad” or a tiny house. These affordable, small-footprint homes can be built adjacent to a primary home (depending upon local permitting) and allow independence and privacy while also benefitting from having loved ones nearby for help with daily chores and activities and for companionship.

According to the AARP survey, “access to clean water, healthy foods, quality health care and safe outdoor spaces” were important considerations when it came to what communities offer those aging in place. High-speed internet service was also deemed important. Developers and city planners should take note as they build communities and offer flexible, adjustable housing options that can meet the needs of an aging population.

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AlzAuthors Caregiver Appreciation Month Book Sale and Giveaway

As many of you know, I am a member of the AlzAuthors group, which has grown over the years to include a diverse and impressive membership. I love how the AlzAuthors library represents so many varied genres, from memoirs to self-help to children’s books. We have non-fiction and fiction books that focus on Alzheimer’s and other dementias. We have books for those living with dementia and books for their caregivers and other family members, such as grandchildren. Much gratitude to the organization’s leadership, who have tirelessly worked to encourage the group to grow in membership and outreach.

In honor of Caregiver Appreciation Month, AlzAuthors is hosting a book sale and giveaway. The promotion runs through Nov. 17. It’s a good time to stock up on books that are heavily discounted, some even offered for free. These books can make thoughtful gift ideas for the caregiver in your life.

You can get the digital version of my award-winning collection of personal essays, The Reluctant Caregiver, for just 99 cents.

Please share the giveaway information with fellow caregivers.

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