Another day: another challenge

That’s what it feels like, sometimes…..but, another day also means new opportunities and possibilities. And upon the death of a loved partner, another day can sometimes also mean facing a raft of new challenges!

A Melbourne writer, Muriel Porter (Muriel Porter – Wikipedia) recently wrote an informative article which eloquently encapsulates some of the daunting aspects she encountered following the death of her husband after years with Alzheimer’s. Her experience makes compelling reading, regardless of our present circumstances, so I will give you a link where you can see for yourself:

Before my husband’s death, I thought we had our affairs in order. Now I’m dealing with a nightmare of administration – ABC News

There, I’ll bet that article helped you to find a few things that you may need to attend to!

I’ve written earlier on this site about some of the unexpected pitfalls and problems, and the more joyful years, too, as my wife proceeded along the Alzheimer’s road. So, I won’t add any more to this note; but if Muriel’s topic has encouraged you to consider examining and arranging some of your affairs, then you are not alone! Please send that link on to a friend. It’s never too early to get our ‘house in order’, even if both partners are well!

Although, regrettably, I don’t personally know her I have read many pieces she has written regularly over several past years for The Melbourne Anglican (The Melbourne Anglican).

Always an insightful writer, often with a great sense of humour, and succinctly to the point, I’m sure Muriel would be delighted to know her words of wisdom have been helpful and would be happy to know I referred you to her most recent topic.

(Thanks to our son, Paul, for alerting me to the above link to Muriel’s writing!)

Another New Start!

What I like about calendars is they enable us to live our lives in bite-sized chunks!

And it gives us a sense empowerment to make momentous decisions once a year: to eschew the wasted efforts of the past, to learn and to build on the best aspects. The irony is that we can (and should?) do that every day! There is a road paved with good intentions….

However the new year does provide an excuse, indeed a reason, to think about where we’ve been and consider where we‘re going. And it’s also a good time to remember others: our families, our friends and neighbours, and those who’ve had a tough year – – for a multitude of reasons: personal health issues, fire, floods, bereavement, and other trauma.

Sometimes, even trivial events in our past year can seem like a personal burden and we need to be resilient and forgiving; to be sensitive and sympathetic to the plight of anyone we know who has been emotionally hurt on any level, even ourselves….

Facing reality in life can sometimes be daunting, certainly dealing with Alzheimer’s presents a real-life dilemma. I can never forget my family Christmas, years ago now, when our family agreed that Mum’s condition was worsening and she needed a different kind of care than I could manage. My world was changing, yet again, that year. So, at this time in particular I think of others like me back then, and I feel for them as they face a new year with a different view – and lifestyle.

As we close off any year, it is a useful time to review how we coped, or triumphed, or failed, and then resolve to start off with a new perspective on life. Some folk will just quietly and internally meditate or maybe will feel the need to verbalise or set their intentions down in writing. Others like me will attend at a Church service and thank God for past mercies and blessings, and for the given strength of prayer to help us be steadfast.

Whoever, whatever and wherever you are, if you are reading this and seriously wondering how you are going to cope with a new year and are floundering, please seek some help. Start with family and move on through to your doctor; if you’re in doubt and troubled, make a phone call to one of the help lines, like: Get mental health support – Beyond Blue or call a Counsellor on 1300 22 46 36.

The chances are, if you are reading this, that you are a self-starter and all you need is to take a little time-out to think through ‘where you are at’. Now is always the right time to take stock!

As you close off this year, whether a Carer or not, remember to look after your own well-being! Be kind to yourself; only then will you be able to be a blessing to those who you care for, and to those who care for you.

So, be kind to yourself: that’s my wish for us all, no matter what our circumstances.

‘Tis the Season..…

……….to be merry’. And for some of my readers with a partner experiencing Alzheimer’s being merry has no less importance! I remember that my wife Dorothy, in her later years, wasn’t always able to show her recognition of the ‘difference’ of this time of year. But we all need this annual jolt to ‘refresh and renew’ us and find a way to use this time of the year to cheer each other up!

The very last time our extended family met (other than at Dorothy’s funeral) was at a specially arranged Christmas camp in Northern Victoria some years ago. That was a bitter-sweet time which only now I can remember without the sadness and despair I felt at the time. With those thoughts spinning in my mind, I am thinking of my readers who are grappling with their partner’s Alzheimer’s. My heart is with you.

I am fortunate to still have a loving family many of whom will be holidaying with their families and I will be joining my daughter and her family this year. What a joy it is to have a family! But I recognise that many people, maybe some of my readers, by choice or because of illness or other reasons, can’t have the experience of a family Christmas – and to them I send my greetings and the wish that love will find a way to enliven and strengthen you and you will feel refreshed, ready for next year.

As I mentioned in my last piece, I have been away for a whole month, on a cruise ship (Queen Elizabeth) alone, but with thousands of others. Yes, there was some Coronavirus on board but the crew managed us all better, I think, than had we been in some other places! All passengers and crew were frequently tested and, of course, all had to wear masks all the time except for eating and drinking. I certainly had a thoroughly delightful time: no shopping, cooking, washing-up, cleaning, or bed-making – heaven! And heaps of live entertainment, never a dull moment;, and most days I walked 5K around the decks; haven’t been that fit for years! It was a wonderful recuperative time for me, and before I left the ship I tested covid clear. Then I lowered my guard, so to speak, and travelled home overnight from Sydney to Melbourne by rail, then public bus to where I live, with hardly a mask to be seen (and only on me briefly, stupidly). You guessed it: within four days I tested positive and I am still in isolation, hopefully clear by the 25th!

Now, after a couple of days of slight symptoms, I am feeling better each day and certainly well enough to pen these few words to wish all my friends and readers a Happy and Holy Christmas with the hope we all have for a better, brighter, and peaceful New Year!

Living in the past….

Living in the past: that’s almost as bad as ‘dwelling on the past’. Both are, figuratively speaking, possible and each are just as likely to bring as much pain as gain! Perhaps, like me, you occasionally indulge in both and know  how depressingly destructive that can be; life’s like that: yesterday, today and tomorrow – but the one to pay heed to is today and to use that as the springboard to plan for tomorrow!

Today is the important, possibly the most important day of my life. What I am as a person today is the product of all my yesterdays and all the people who helped to shape and fill them, at work and at play. Remembering past times is still possible for me but for folk affected by Alzheimer’s the past is most often lost or distorted. If, like me, you can remember your ‘yesterdays’ that’s a blessing to be valued and cherished. The flip side is that some memories will be sad or hurtful; the trick is to not let those aspects become dominant and destroy our wellbeing or, worse, disturb those around us.

One of the ways I cope with my present lifestyle is to avoid living in the past with its hurts, worries and wrongs so that it alone doesn’t define me. Of course I can still indulge or even revel in some recollections and they often help me to be positive and to live in the moment. My trick is to ‘turn the page’.

Long ago when I worked in corporate dispute settlement I learned to accept the inevitability of ‘differences’ in relationships and to seek for answers that provided a safe and secure journey ahead for all the parties. I learned that words spoken ‘in transit’ were not always meant to be ‘inked-in’ but used to fashion a solution for the future. Then, as now, we are shaped by past encounters but not entirely formed by any one of them in isolation.

So, most of us move on to each day; we look for a new opportunity to be of help to someone, to be happy for what we have, for what we have become and, hopefully, what we might become. It is good to be able to remember; but it’s not good when we live in the past. Let’s seize today, to live and hope and pray….and always plan….for tomorrow!

Postscript: I wrote most of the above notes before I left home to take a holiday break and will upload it from Fremantle in West Australia!

Health & Wellbeing

The word “wellbeing” wasn’t in use when my son’s “Concise Oxford Dictionary” was published! It’s commonly used these days and it is aptly descriptive and understood and neatly encapsulates the wholeness of our mind and body.

Recently I visited a friend in a Rehabilitation centre and unexpectedly discovered another friend there, both recovering from falls. As I was leaving, yet another surprise as I spotted a neighbour there, rehabilitating from a serious heart problem. Finding three people I knew esconced there, two as a result of falls, was a stark reminder of our fragility as we enter our eldermost years.

Perhaps we (me, anyway) don’t always recognise or admit the increased brittleness of our bones as we age – until it’s forced upon us with examples like that! Especially since then, I can see the necessity for my walking stick, my ‘friend at hand’, on my daily walks. Now, after seeing my friends with plaster casts and having to suffer the stress of lengthy and exhausting recovery exercises, it has amply reinforced the need for my trusty stick! Bone and muscle take a very long time to repair and recover when we have a few years under our belt….

That word ‘vulnerable’ describes us and all our resources, bodily and otherwise, as we age. In a flash, ready or not, our lives can change. Our hearts can ‘break’, too, not just our limbs – moving safely is only one aspect of our vulnerability. Recently we were reminded that our personal details, even our financial resources, could be at risk on the internet. And then there’s inflation which tends to erode and steal our capital savings anyway. Yes, we’re vulnerable in lots of ways.

I am always aware of how many people and families are affected by Alzheimer’s and how it robs us: it takes away those precious remembrances which otherwise could enrich our later years. Those vast storehouses of memories that most of us can recall at will, are valuable beyond words. And when that option fails, as it did with my wife, who has now passed away, I console myself with the thought that now, today, is the day that counts –  tomorrow can wait till I’m ready!

I know that unless I take firm, positive, creative steps – including writing these epistles to myself – I will fall, metaphorically, into a state of mind where nothing seems quite right anymore. When that happens, and sometimes it does, it saps my energy and my worth, and it’s only by the grace of God that I find the way out and up again. That way also includes walking, listening to music, reading a book, watching an interesting TV show, visiting someone, writing these notes and oh, yes, making a cuppa tea, whilst plottting for my next adventure. I did start writing about wellbeing, didn’t I?

P.S. Sweet sherry in tiny doses is also good.

Connections

Now there’s a word with a multitude of meanings, connection! But in the personal sense it simply means not being alone. Sometimes it doesn’t much matter whether we are connected to a person or a device. But I reckon, to be meaningful, it is a relationship with another human being – in the flesh, so to speak.

Of course, there is value in being a part of a worldwide web, but that’s not an option, anyway, for thousands of older folks who for many reasons, were never able to quite come to terms with this ‘modern technology’. And it is difficult to enter that world from scratch! It also means you need, at least, a Smartphone – “but the characters are SO small”; or a Tablet – not the kind you take three times a day with water, but a device – like an iPad. Or maybe you need a Notebook – not the ones used for notes – but the fold-up thing often called a Laptop. See, we’ve only just started and I’ve confused you!

Being connected is most important when it refers to the personal link we have with another human being, and that link is clearly lacking for lots of us oldies, especially when we are not even slightly computer literate.

Recently I attended a gathering where a small group of mixed gender older people were encouraged to explore and identify what is involved with “Social Connection and Participation”. Now there’s a can of worms! (Actually, that was only one part of the day-long consultation; I’ll talk about the other topics at another time). The social needs of older folk like me clearly extends way outside an internet connection; it’s as varied as the stars in the sky! So, I was interested to hear how each person in the group valued their available range of connections, and to discover that most participants were keen to “belong”. Of course, the most-wanted connection was to belong to a family. When that was not possible, for a myriad of reasons, the lack was felt profoundly, and the resultant isolation felt even more acutely when the person was immobilised.

The absence of family or a buddy is more than a disconnection. In discussion we all agreed how some friends and family sometimes don’t quite have that perspective. Many elders outlive their partners and erstwhile friends and that’s why it’s vital to encourage them to belong to community groups for fellowship, friendship, and some fun. That need is often met by club memberships or attendance at local council activities and libraries, all of which are a rich source of support.

The lack of transport, especially personalised, is a barrier to connection and participation, indeed a deterrent. Our gathering also identified the importance of encouraging our less-mobile friends to extend their interests and past hobbies, and that socially based groups can fill many needs, both online and in person. We all need to recognise what could/must be done to achieve those ‘unwired’ connections for our friends and neighbours.

Renewal

Renewal is a word that presupposes something has lapsed and needs a restart. It’s a word that becomes a yearning, for us when we become tired or jaded. Renovation is a similar word that describes our aspiration for a new beginning after the isolation of COVID and all the other changes we’ve endured over recent years. Whether you prefer renewal or renovation doesn’t matter; both words will resonate equally as a worthy objective as we emerge into a rapidly changing world.

Recently I was able to make an interstate trip to visit the second addition of a Great-grandchild to our family. A fine young man in the making, a cousin to my first Great-granddaughter. It was a real treat, a joyful and happy encounter with the newest part my loving family. And then it was such a thud to come home to a cold, empty house. Seeing the vibrancy and the joie de vivre of my children and grandchildren and their young progeny has heightened the lack of that quality in me! It was a pleasantly busy time as the family ensured there was something to keep me on the go each day. Reminiscing now about the joy of that visit is wonderful and serves to remind me that we need to make our memories, not just imagine them.

Daydreaming is pleasant but doesn’t usually achieve or promote any physical activity, such solitary mental gymnastics can easily lead to lethargy; a state of mind and body that’s neither good for me nor those with whom I have contact. Often, we need something else to jolt us out of feeling introspective and miserable, particularly after all the isolation periods of the last couple of years. Certainly, I seem to have lost my youthful spark, my mojo, as they say these days. Don’t want to get up in the morning, can’t be bothered doing anything much at all…. every little chore is a challenge. As my readers will be aware, my prayers to a caring God continue to sustain and strengthen me, so parts of my psyche are well nourished. However, and despite my daily dedicated walking regime, there remains the need for some other mental, physical, and social rejuvenation, so I’ve been thinking on how to achieve that.

Clearly, I need to spice up my life a little, while I can. I console myself with the belief that to enliven myself is not selfish. I have convinced myself to make a justifiable attempt, while I am well enough, to be a person with a better and hopefully happier disposition. Now, having just had that tiny taste of travel again, I am hungering for a more comprehensive personal overhaul, a sort of remake. What’s more, I have determined to do something about it

Now, having convinced myself of the need to invigorate my surly self, I have begun to plan a longer break. Yes, I know that might be a bit risky in these coronavirus days, but I will press on and look for a possible ‘escape’, a time away from where I live. Dorothy, my late beloved wife, was not only a wonderful cook and soulmate but also an excellent home finance manager. The result of our combined frugality now enables me to afford a diversion from the grief of her loss, and the means to escape the solitude of the last few years. I’m on the hunt for a holiday! I may well discover most of our Australian vacation venues are overbooked for this year, but – nothing ventured, nothing gained. Or maybe next year….

I realise that many of my readers are fully occupied in caring for their loved one and cannot easily take that kind of timeout for a holiday, almost at any time. And I also know that it would probably then be a solo break accompanied with some feelings of guilt; I remember that, too, only too well. Separation can be hurtful for you both, but the fact that you still have each other and can be together is the consolation. You are using the time you have, now, to reinforce your love and to share whatever you can. But do take a break, just a few days might suffice – some space is critical for you both! That’s not being selfish, it’s helping your partner, too, because when you are in good spirits and more placid, only then you can be a blessing to them and others who share your life-space.

Maybe you, too, could consider reinventing or rehabilitating yourself to become more valued to those who love you. Don’t let yourself relapse – take a break of some kind, do your best to renovate and renew!

Real Estate?

As a child I could never quite see why those two words had to be together! Separately, they had a recognisable meaning, I knew what ‘real’ meant and later, understood what an estate was, but wondered why those words were constantly joined together.

Pairing the right words to make sense is much the same as joining two people for the same purpose! Finding the right partner makes sense for even more good reasons. Alone we could easily become lost on our journey but it’s far less likely when we are together with the right person. Indeed, it is truly amazing what can be achieved together; that’s how I think of my marriage to Dorothy. It’s fine to talk about the power of one but, let’s face it, most of us need to be ‘paired’ to walk the road of life without too many wobbles. What a difference when a load (or a joy) is shared!

Thinking about the word ‘real’ lead me to consider relationships and how we need to face reality in our lives. It is so easy to drift into a way of life that becomes self-centred with little or no regard to others, even a partner, and sometimes we need a jolt to face reality. Like real estate we are all different. Even two identical houses will not be the same, each one furnished, heated and cooled differently and used for different activities. Like us, they will also need different maintenance.

As Dorothy’s Alzheimer’s intensified and became more complex I struggled with the reality of it. For a long time, I refused to accept it was anything other than just getting older and, like me, becoming more forgetful. Our children could see it from afar. I was so close it was not apparent in the same way. And the consequences meant a heavy toll on my ability to cope. Over time, perhaps like you, my reader, I ultimately recognised that our lives had become more complex and finally accepted that we both needed help.

Thus began my journey with Dorothy as a different person to the girl I’d married sixty years ago. In the beginnings of those last years there were, nevertheless, many happy times and we were able, albeit fleetingly, to re-live some of the many wonderful experiences we’d shared earlier. We could communicate with each other, even in those last days, sometimes with a giggle, a smile – even a hearty laugh or a hand-squeeze, or simply by sitting together. But progressively those joyful moments became more rare and there were times when she didn’t even recognise me.

I treasure, and always will, the precious memories of earlier years when we were able to share a total awareness of each other. Those days were the ‘real state’ of happiness for many of us who can still remember!

Focus

To do any job, to drive a car, cook a meal, to help someone, in fact to do everything we need a degree of concentration – and focus. When that focus is centred only on our loved one it can become constant and intense, virtually an obsession that ‘blinds’ us to other aspects, to the bigger picture.

In earlier times when I was caring for Dorothy at home, I developed a kind of alertness that could be called a ‘single or narrow focus’. I was switched-on and alert all the time, twenty-four hours a day. For ages, I didn’t realise that I was virtually excluding everything else from my mind and my life. As a result, I could never then quite see beyond the immediate scenario; captive to a restricted lifestyle. I was constantly tired, even lethargic, and certainly less able to be a stimulating companion. It was hard, sometimes challenging work, but a labour of love.

Other people, our friends, our family and medical staff, each with their own unique perspective are more able to focus on us and see our total lifestyle. They see the bigger picture easier than we can manage – they have a ‘wide-angle view’, one that as carers, we can fail to see or understand. Only when we consciously step back, take time out and get some help, can we properly and safely assess the whole of our circumstances.

It took me quite a while, too long, to realise that Alzheimer’s had crept into our lives and we needed to seek help; then later, as a carer, to see the need to periodically take a break – to become refreshed and better able to cope. It is so important for carers to stop and smell the flowers; to pause from routine, to step outside the circumstances of the day, even of the moment.

Caring means so much more than kindness or concern, it encompasses a vast range of actions and emotions. It’s true we all care for something or some person, and care requires a commitment. It’s more than just work or love, and we apply ourselves to it in various and complex ways; it’s what defines us. But it always requires the carer to be ‘fit for purpose’. Simply put, that means we’re no good for anything if we don’t care about ourselves. So, I’m writing this for you, my reader, to remind you of that fact!

It is often said that ‘variety is the spice of life’ and I think we’d all agree. And it’s especially true for those who have the care of someone at home (and for the staff at care homes). Being in the same place and repeatedly doing the same regular routines can take its toll. There is certainly a place for familiar routines but, over time, the constancy and repetitious sameness can become depressing and debilitating. It can affect a whole family, indeed a wider circle of friends, not only of the person being cared for but, importantly and especially, the carer and their family and their circle. Constantly and consistency are not good bedfellows over time!

That’s why all of us, carers or not, need to re-charge our wellbeing batteries sometimes. A particularly vital role for all carers is to recognise and know when to re-energise. Then how to arrange a regular substitute carer – for an hour or two, or for a week or more. It is absolutely critical to plan and arrange that ‘me-time’. At least try to set aside some personal time each day or each week, no matter what your circumstances. Don’t give up caring for yourself! Have you noticed how tired you’ve become lately? If that’s so, then you simply must make an effort to get help. The time-out, for you and/or for your loved one, is respite time and without it you simply can’t effectively care for both of you, even with love. Families are often not able to provide that kind of help, so you might need to look for a respite carer yourself. Check out some of the available resources right here on this website (see above: ‘Links to useful sites’). All of us, including those who work in care homes, need to look after ourselves, mentally, physically, and socially, and ensure our diet is wholesome, too! Maybe you need help with meals, cooking, shopping, cleaning, and other things, and those links might help to get you started.

I well remember my ‘battery-charging’ event when I was able to place Dorothy at a nearby local facility for a whole week (MannaCare). She had her own bedroom, was involved in carefully managed joint activities every day, and was fed well-prepared meals. I visited her there during the week and had a meal with her. Good for her, good for me. It was also (although not planned at the time) an excellent chance to see how she coped in that environment. Later, I arranged for a whole-day session each week so I could have some regular me-time. Ultimately, as Dorothy’s Alzheimer’s progressed, I had to place her in full-time residential care at BlueCross Box Hill, where she was able to have excellent round-the-clock care and I could visit at any time (in those pre-COVID times!).

So, while you still have your partner at home, please make time to be a better carer/parent/friend – don’t become a worn-out drudge who’s no fun at all to be with! Keep your eye on the whole of your lifestyle. Like these new-fangled phones with whizzbang cameras, we need a ‘wide-angle focus’ to see the whole picture and get the exposure just right!

Giving you the drum…

“Tight as a drum” is an old saying, easily recognised by my readers as meaning ‘all tensed up’. Drummers will tell you the golden rule: ’Over-tightening will only stress and damage the instrument’. I have learned that the same rule also applies to us!

Recently I attended a small group session on-line when we were encouraged to recognise and avoid the consequence of ‘over-stress’. It’s quite normal that we feel stress in every aspect of our lives, and that’s OK. Some stress can sharpen our minds and, like a violin string, produce a beautifully correct outcome! It’s the ‘over’ part that’s the problem! Constant over-worrying, sadness, depression, or just being miserable is not only detrimental to our health it is also socially disastrous. Who wants to be in the company of someone full of misery about themselves? At times we all need to find a way out of that abyss when we can only see and feel worthlessness and insecurity; but it’s not easy, is it? That’s why I was heartened to think ‘outside the square’- or that bottomless pit! Because it’s true, isn’t it, that when we are feeling down it feeds on itself, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and we become trapped there: the sadder I feel, the sadder I get.

The session suggested what should be obvious: that we learn to stop and take time out. To find a way to still our mind by simply concentrating on something outside of ourselves, to focus on an object or a space; to concentrate and visualise – anything. Try it! It does require a mental effort and a mindful step. I took that first step when I joined a small group of like-minded people and accepted some professional guidance. The result is that I now have a simple technique that helps me regain and restore a degree of normality, or at least sociability, when otherwise I might feel like crawling under a rock!

The method is like a self-administered tonic. No drugs, no pills. The key word is ‘stop’. Stop and clear your mind; stop every internal and external thought and current influence and simply focus on some ‘thing’ or object close by, or outside through the window. Sounds easy, eh? Stop frowning, clear your mind, and try it! So easy, and it works! Now you know my closely guarded non-secret, you can do it! Just stop. Sit comfortably and relax. It’s like taking your mind on a holiday, away from imagined pressing realities and necessities. The world kept spinning didn’t it?

With a settled mind and optionally with your eyes closed it becomes possible to ‘visualise’ – and that’s the key word. What you visualise in your mind’s eye can be anything – your choice. In my case, with eyes open I focussed on the gently waving tips of a nearby gum tree. Another participant explained later they thought about (with closed eyes!) the seashore, the smooth sand, and gentle breakers. Our facilitator used that scenario to then verbally take us down deep into the ocean, to a place where the surface turbulence was stilled, where it was peaceful and quiet. After we’d totally relaxed, and with a clear mind, we could take control of our upward journey again, back to reality. Refreshed and calm, not frowning and tensed. Maybe that won’t last…but we can go back, any time…..…..

That mental exercise demonstrated how we are totally capable of being in control; that our muddled minds can be gentler, relaxed, and competent, not mentally compromised, and certainly not stressed. We simply need to be self-aware. Aware of the destructiveness of tension and stress, which only feeds on itself.

So, from this point on I will try to not be a ‘frenzied friend’ who is no fun to be with. I’ll try to remember that a drum is a necessary part of a band and works best, like us all, when it’s not over-tight! I also learned at that session to value the ‘sounds of silence’……..