Locals talk about what works-and what doesn't
by Larry Eiler
From the June, 2019 issue
Death made me confront aging. Three years ago my wife, Sandy, was killed in a one-car auto accident. I have since learned about grief, frustration, mercy, listening, honor, truth, crying. Most of all, caring.
Our seven grown children had scattered across the country, though son Sean was nearby in Canton. When he invited me to live with his family to assist my life-changing transition, I sold our house of thirty-five years on the west side of Ann Arbor and moved in with his young family. They built out an entire basement suite for me.
I stayed about two years. When I felt I was starting to recover, I moved to an independent living facility nearby. It was my way to get the help I needed, including housekeeping and daily meals, while allowing my son to resume a normal family life in his home. I am forever grateful for their support during my life transition.
After Sandy died, I closed the communications business she and I ran for thirty-four years. As I approach eighty, the signs of aging are evident. These include forgetfulness, slips and falls, regrets about goals not achieved and relationships long gone, and worrying about almost anything that comes to mind.
But new opportunities are present, too. I teach, take classes, have an active social life, and work on book projects. And I'm learning a new subject: aging. Not in professional terms, but in the lives of people I encounter. Like me, they are studying it firsthand.
Hazel and brown eyes dance around a meeting room at the pleasant residential complex where I reside. These two handsomely dressed women, one in her nineties, the other in her eighties, were eager to discuss their advancing lives when I asked. They both agreed: "We're lonely without our husbands."
Losing companions is one of the harshest aspects of aging. "Physical intimacy gets replaced by people talking and sharing stories," one says. "So I'm always looking for things to discuss with
people who want to learn."
I point out that even when approached, many older people are reluctant to respond. How does she bridge the gap?
"I will talk to someone on anything to get a discussion started," she says--current movies, restaurants, families.
But "I don't believe in talking about politics or religion," she adds. And she never talks about other people.
We have a neighbor, an aging man, who is mostly blind and does not hear well. Some avoid him, tittering like schoolchildren when they see him wandering the halls.
I thought that was wrong, so I spent some time asking about his work and hobbies--what he feared and what he loved. Then out popped his interest: Native American lore, especially the Crazy Horse Memorial, the mountain sculpture-in-progress not far from Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He'd even been to the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow at Skyline High.
All people have interests. Perhaps you can try to pull them out and help the person reconnect to others. Give it a shot. What can you lose?
I ask Millie Danielson for her advice on engaging isolated seniors. "Discuss satisfying experiences," she suggests. "Whet their curiosity on possibilities for them. Exhibit enthusiasm."
Danielson, ninety-six, has no trouble exhibiting enthusiasm. A striking, eclectic fiber artist, she still lives at home, still uses her seven looms to create attractive, masterful pieces of cloth, metal, wire, and wood. In her diverse work and offbeat methodologies, she prefigured the contemporary "maker" culture.
No one reaches their nineties without losses. "My husband was in hospice for a month before he died," she says. "No pain; he just ebbed away; it was a gentle way to complete his journey."
She tells the story when she thinks it might help others "realize that their own personal feelings can bolster their messages and attract others.
"The family was there constantly as he marched toward death, so we knew he felt he knew he had prepared us for his passing," she says. "I still look back on what a splendid life we had shared."
How can the rest of us stay as engaged as she is? "Investigate ideas," she suggests. "Use your ingenuity as part of who you are and what you do.
"If you're systematic and organized, learn how to be creative and intuitive. Or vice versa. I like to think of how to solve a problem. Not what the problem is--but what can I do to fix it?"
When I arrive for my daily workout at Imagine, a fitness and yoga studio on W. Liberty, an orange fat-tire bike catches my eye. It turns out to belong to Paul Cartman, seventy-eight.
The retired DTE computer specialist allays aging by emphasizing exercise and mental acuity.
"There's more to life than worry," he says, "and I like to use my mind as a good friend and treat it well by training it like I always do my body.
"Probably the easiest way to get started doing something for yourself is turn off the TV and get out of the house and walk around your neighborhood block," Cartman suggests. "Talk to people you see, especially new and young neighbors. They usually have refreshing and positive ideas--and realize that they will run the world in a few years.
"You may find that some like to garden or go to a gym or group dancing ... and it could pique your interest to try. Study-group activity is always fun too.
"Anything that can be done without jumping in the car is pretty rewarding. Maybe walk to the local bus stop and take the bus to a destination. If you're a senior, it's free!"
Al Storey has engaged in vigorous activity all his life. Now approaching a century in age, he's been involved in a plethora of sports, including volleyball, basketball, racquetball, intramural track, 10K runs, and fast-pitch softball.
"Playing all these sports was a way to keep feeling good and involved," explains Storey, ninety-seven. He's also an active Rotarian and speaking coach for students who address University of Michigan graduations.
He's only recently given up paddleball, a sport he excelled at. Once, after beating me 21-16 and 21-13, he kindly offered me a lesson. At the time he was in his early eighties!
When Lois Jelneck and three partners organized Individualized Home Nursing Care and Hospice forty years ago, few Americans had heard of hospice. But they welcomed the option of in-home care over long, lonely in-hospital stays, especially at the end of life.
"Being in a hospital was a death sentence for many patients," Jelneck recalls, "so we moved into the emerging hospice market by treating people at their homes."
There were "real problems at the start," she says, "because the medical community did not yet know of the treatment-at-home movement and often thought this meant less work for them." But "families were very receptive."
Individualized Home Nursing merged with Hospice of Michigan in 2002, and Jelneck is retired from patient care. But, she says, "I have never stopped my hospice work."
She still hears from people "as they are available for home care or need it," and makes referrals to bring them together. "I will never stop responding to calls while I am able to help and have my wits about me," she says.
One of Jelneck's own secrets of successful aging is "never sitting more than ten minutes." She also stays involved in community activities, including Rotary and the First Presbyterian Church choir--where she's one of four members in their nineties.
One of the toughest parts of aging is deciding what to do after retirement. Do we spend the week's 168 hours doing something, achieving some goal, or do we sit idly by while time grinds inexorably along?
At the end of 2017, Dave Brudon retired as head of marketing for Michigan Medicine. He'd remade the fight song "Hail to the Victors" with strings and a xylophone rather than the traditional strident brass and used it to accompany images of patients in their beds post-treatment or surgery or amputees learning to walk again.
Now, when he's not preparing his house for sale, he's driving for Uber and Lyft. "I keep both apps open when I'm available to drive," the sixty-seven-year-old says. "When one connects, I turn the other off, then reopen both when one ends.
"It keeps me busy, but only when I want to be available," he adds. "No weekends. No late nights. Usually, mid-late afternoon. I make myself available only when I want and for the time I have. It gets me out and moving, and I have some enjoyable discussions with patrons."
Alhough he doesn't have to worry about money, he says, "I make a few bucks." And he's declared himself "CEO of Happily Retired."
Art Tai dealt with aging first as a physician, through his patients. Now it's personal. At seventy, he is reducing his in-office time while beginning some new activities, including cross-country skiing and child care. Far from being bored, he says, "days fly by, and I wonder where they went and what I did."
Tai is a cautious and thoughtful listener, always smiling. After working with a wide age range of patients for some forty years and hearing a passel of ideas on everything medical, he has some observations:
"Everyone needs to recognize their sense of self-worth," he says--how what we do earns us the regard of others.
"When we retire, we own our life," Tai says, "and that ownership becomes more challenging with age. People who embrace their lives do best and recognize that parameters change through time.
"Those who fare the worst seem to mostly express regrets for risks not taken, opportunities lost, and disappearance of family and friends. How we manage that is the key to going forward.
"Most people, regardless of aging, find comfort in talking to those they trust ... family, friends, clergy, physicians.
"That's the value of cultivating friends. I have had many former patients who started teaching or contributing in their communities. They recognized they still had much to offer, which was invaluable to their own value system."
Father Dennis Dillon never had to face that loss of purpose, because at eighty, he's still working: he is a pastoral associate at St. Mary Student Parish.
Dillon has been helping people deal with the issues of aging for more than fifty years as a parish priest. He offers a few observations.
"As we age, we only become more so," he says: "Habits become firmer. That means if we practice good habits in life, we have the things we want in mind later in life. And vice versa.
"At twenty, we are concerned about what people think of us. At forty, we don't give a damn about what people think of us. At sixty, we realize they never thought a whole lot about us anyway."
Where does that leave us in our sixties and onward? Father Dennis believes these Robert Browning words apply: "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be."
The place I reside has a spacious xxxxxxxxand comfortable library withbooks, trivia games, and a piano. I rarely see anyone reading or playing the piano or games.
Some residents take advantage of the daily activities, exercises, movies, games, discussions, day trips, the many opportunities for learning and teaching. Others simply eat, sit, sleep, and pass on the latest of whatever they heard. Or they wander the long hallways, which almost always also are patrolled by others, watched by the facility's helpful medical workers or the ever-present closed-circuit monitors that scan public areas of the buildings. All are wondering when the next "news" will occur or why mail is not delivered the same time each day.
If I ask why they aren't more active, they'll say they're "not feeling well" or are "too tired right now." Those seem to be synonyms for boredom among perhaps two-thirds of the seniors I have encountered since moving into this new phase of my own life.
Social contacts tend to decrease as we age for a variety of reasons, including retirement, the death of friends and family, and lack of mobility. Regardless of the causes, the consequences of isolation can be alarming. Managing loneliness is a struggle for many older people.
Two recent studies on aging by British medical institutes led to this comment from Dr. Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Aging at the University of Birmingham: "Much of what we previously thought of as inevitable in aging is in fact preventable."
Yet "[e]xercise among adults in the Western world is rare ... Only about 10 percent of people past 65 work out regularly," reported the New York Times.
Perhaps Robert Hill, a Salt Lake City psychologist, said it best in Jane Brody's Times column: "Positive aging is a state of mind that is optimistic and courageous, and able to adapt in flexible ways with life's changes."
Aging is given. What we do with it is up to us.
This article has been edited since it was published in the June 2019 Ann Arbor Observer. Millie Danielson's age has been corrected.
[Originally published in June, 2019.]
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