By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

We all want to be happy. We pop our heads up now and then to measure how happy we are. We buy things that will “make” us happy. We devote quite a bit of time and emotional energy searching for this seemingly allusive state. Don’t we have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? So when we don’t feel happy, something must be wrong with us or our lives, right?

As a reporter for The New York Times, John Leland decided to write about the experiences of the oldest old, which must certainly be a sad tale about the downward spiral of old age, illness and death. This can often be our perspective as well. But the stories became his book, Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old. In them, John talks about how he went looking for depression and loss, and found people focused on happiness instead. Could this be us, too?

John recently spoke to a large group of caregivers at our annual Caregiver Summit. He wears a shirt with the names of the people he interviewed who are all age 85 and over. Each person made an impression on him with their resilience and positive outlook despite old age, illness, and yes, even death.

Ping Wong had worked physically demanding jobs her entire life – standing on her feet for years. As an older woman who was now physically worn out without much income, she qualified for some home care services – an aide to cook some meals and clean. She was astounded at her good fortune that she was now the care recipient!

The stories John collected each feature someone who can’t help but be happy despite their circumstances. When he realizes that they are happy, not because they are lucky or everything is going their way, but because they choose to be happy, he decides he would like to be more like them. I think this was my biggest take away – how he had internalized the notion that happiness is something we all really can choose. And why not? This type of reframing is exactly what we teach in our Stress-Busting program for caregivers. We can’t change other people or our circumstances, but we can change how we react.

We all want to be happy. What if we counted our blessings every day: The love we feel toward people in our lives, the change of the seasons, soft sheets on the bed, the companionship of a cat or dog. Rather than spending time wondering how to be happy, what if we choose to let go of the worry for things that we can’t really control anyway? What if we made it a goal to find a memory that makes us smile at least once a day? We might even write it down, so it’s easy to find again.

Choosing to be happy isn’t really a new idea. But if it’s us doing the choosing, and it’s our lives that are changing – because we want to feel better and let go of the anxiety and anger, then it’s new to us. I could see the John was serious about reacting differently and living his life differently. What if we choose happiness too?

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

Have you ever done something that seemed completely frivolous just for the fun of it? Have you done something frivolous since you became a caregiver? For most of us, caregiving is serious business. We’re dealing with serious illness or disabilities, medical appointments, long hours, and a load of emotions – doing something just for the fun of it doesn’t always come to the top of our list. That’s where Lincoln comes in.

Last week, I was speaking with a friend and colleague who had missed a conference call we had set up. He informed me that he had just enrolled his mother in hospice and some things were falling through the cracks. It turns out that his mother has been caring for his father who has Alzheimer’s for a number of years. In her eighties, she has literally worn herself out caregiving.

But the hospice story takes a magical turn.

It turns out that his mother had an IRA that no one knew about. Because of her age, she is required by law to take out a certain amount of money every year or pay a penalty. When asked what she wanted to do with the money taken out of the account this year, she said,” You’re father’s name is Lincoln. I think we should buy him a Lincoln car.”

My friend reminded his mother that Lincoln has Alzheimer’s disease and can’t drive. “Well,” she said, “then he should be driven in a Lincoln. Couldn’t his caregivers drive him around in his car?”
The more my friend thought about this frivolous idea, the more he liked it. The morning his mother had a long doctor’s appointment and was out for about 4 hours, he went down and rented a Lincoln and returned to pick her up in the new car. She was delighted!

He purchased insurance that allowed for his paid caregivers to drive Lincoln in the lap of luxury of his new car. Soon, Lincoln and his wife were going everywhere in style.

My friend’s mother is very frail. A few days ago, her hospice workers reported that they couldn’t get her out of bed. She wouldn’t take a shower. My friend called his mother and asked if she
wanted to go for a ride in the Lincoln. She immediate got up, showered, and was ready to go. The idea of splurging – of spending time, money or energy on something that really is just for
fun can make no sense at times. Renting a Lincoln for Lincoln makes no sense – and yet it makes all the sense in the world. He either always wanted one or his wife wanted him to have one.

I’d like to think that a guilty pleasure would actually relieve some of the guilt of being an imperfect caregiver. We might not be able to get a luxury car, but we could splurge on a triple decker scoop of our favorite ice cream. We might buy lunch from that favorite deli down the street that we used to go to all of the time. We might take a taxi or Lyft around the lake, around our old neighborhood, or just around town on a pretty day with the windows down.

I like the think of Lincoln and his wife sitting in their Lincoln smiling at whatever is going by. They may be on their way to a dreary medical appointment, but life is good on leather seats.

If you’d like to drive along with Lincoln too, see if his new website is up and running at LincolndrivingLincoln.tv. I know I’ll be looking out for him and smiling just for the fun of it.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

Caregivers sometimes have to make tough decisions – literally decisions of life and death. It doesn’t matter if we knew this moment was coming. It doesn’t lessen the intensity of the decision if the person is very old or in poor health. The question will be asked: What do you want to do now? But that’s not really the question, is it?

When we are making decisions about surgery, ventilators, feeding tubes, Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders, or even a decision to go for the full code – to try everything humanly possible – it’s not really a question of what we want to do. The real question is what does the person wants to do who is facing delicate surgery, life-prolonging interventions, or even death.

Hopefully, we have had the opportunity to have these discussions with the person for whom we are caring. Knowing clearly what the person would want if they can’t communicate for themselves is a lifesaver for us. Any discomfort we may have in starting the conversation about death with a loved one – of any age really – will become a great source of strength and comfort in a dark hour when we know what they would say.

It’s important to repeat this conversation as our loved one gets older, gets sicker, is in greater pain or, in the most likely outcome, is deteriorating. A person might make a different choice if the pain becomes too great or the effort to stay alive doesn’t equal the quality of life.

The question is not what we want. The question is do we know what our loved one would want at this time and in this situation. We have to step back from ourselves and be their voice – no matter how difficult and no matter how much we might want to disagree.

We might have to stand up for a decision we know our loved one would want against the loud voices of other family members. We might have to summon all of our strength to say, “Please just make them comfortable” knowing that comfortable means allowing our loved one to slip away.

The matriarch of our family, my 97-year-old great-aunt, recently passed away. In addition to her many other interests, she had formed a death and dying “club” where she and her older friends talked about what they wanted at the end of life. We all knew exactly what she wanted even when she could no longer say the words. When her time came, her friends and family came to her apartment in a steady stream for three days – holding her hand, brushing her forehead, whispering words of love and friendship. It was an amazing ritual.

We are not all going to be so “lucky” as my aunt, but she created this possibility. Embracing difficult conversations about life and death, and respecting these final wishes mean that we can all live life, up to the last moment, on our own terms.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

How many family caregivers have sacrificed their financial futures through the act of caregiving? That was the question that ran through my mind as I listened to Elizabeth White, author of “Fifty-Five Unemployed and Faking Normal.” She eloquently described how a well-educated, middle income, professional woman fell into poverty. She was also middle-aged, meaning that she was unprepared to fight the sinking economy of the last recession and ageist forces that permeate American culture.

She wasn’t a caregiver, but she embodies the plight many family caregivers, particularly women, will face. When a woman quits her job to care for a loved one, she reduces her income over a lifetime by over $300,000 in lost wages and retirement earnings. She was already paid less than her male counterparts. She was already less likely be promoted, because she was a woman who might get married, might have children and might need to take time off to care for a family member.

The chilling truth is that most baby boomers, male and female, live either in debt, or paycheck to paycheck. Elizabeth quoted a statistic that most of us can’t raise more than $400 in an emergency. Of course, caregivers never find themselves in emergency situations.

Her most haunting comment was that Americans didn’t really want to hear about her slide into debt. People don’t have much sympathy for others who don’t manage their money. I wonder when two-thirds of an entire generation are financially failing in their old age if we will assume they did something wrong. Or, as she stated, will blame them for drinking too much Starbucks.

Elizabeth talked about the people she became aware of — while she was pretending to be okay — who were faking normal too. Caregivers do that all the time. We’ve got everything under control. We don’t need any help. As reticent as we are to admit we’re physically and emotionally exhausted and are hanging on by a thread, caregivers are probably even more
hesitant to admit they can’t make ends meet as well.

I thought of family members and friends who are just like Elizabeth. They’re single without retirement income other than Social Security and perhaps a little savings. Some have grown children. And many are caregivers.

What if we do everything right and still fail? We return the love of our family members with the care they need. We sacrifice our time and talents that were paid for with years of education or opportunities we turned down to be closer to home. Will others not care that we were the ones who did care?

Elizabeth talked about the importance of getting off of our thrones and admitting that we need help. This might be a true financial restructuring. But it could also be admitting to our siblings that we can’t go it alone. It could mean planning now for life post-caregiving to try to improve our odds in retirement. For me, it means seeing through the mask of faking normal in the faces of the people around me. And raising my hand to support those of us who really are caring.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and immediate past Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

The poet, John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” As caregivers and persons receiving care, many of us wrestle with the notion that we may become dependent on others. We find ourselves struggling mightily against acknowledging that we need help. But John Donne’s words remind us that perhaps we were never intended to be independent of other people. Choosing to stand alone, come what may, runs counter to the reality of being human.

I find comfort in John Donne’s words. If one person needs assistance then it’s okay for any person to need assistance. The ideal of independence is an illusion. But do I have the luxury of feeling comforted, because I haven’t reached the point where I am dependent on others?

For years as a professional in the field of aging, I have wondered how we make it okay to accept help. How do we make it okay for caregivers to get the help they need over the long run? How do we make it okay for older persons and persons with disabilities to receive assistance? Finally, how do we make it okay for ourselves?

I recently had the privilege of seeing Richard Turner, the self-described “card mechanic” and one of the world’s greatest card trick artists. He performed at a local charity event with amazing card tricks that were invisible to the eye as they were projected on large screen monitors around the room. The 2017 documentary titled “Dealt” follows him for a year as he is nominated for the Close-Up Magician of the Year Award from the Academy of Magical Arts. Interestingly, what Richard Turner might tell you is the least important aspect of his life, and his accomplishments, is that he is completely blind.

Richard Turner has attempted to live his entire life as if he is not blind. That means that he didn’t learn braille, didn’t use a cane or a seeing-eye dog, and relies on family members to support his independence in a manner that makes his blindness almost invisible.

Richard’s younger sister suffers from the same rare eye disease and is also blind. His influence on her was strong growing up, so she lives most of her life without adaptive equipment just like him. The turning point of the story (spoiler alert) comes when she decides to get help, to use a cane and a seeing-eye dog. She then discovers that being willing to let others see that she is blind gives her greater freedom than she has ever experienced.

Richard slowly realizes that he might be placing a greater burden on his wife and son, because he doesn’t accept traditional tools for the blind. His sister becomes a mentor to him, and he too begins to embrace his own blindness.  Like John Donne, Richard discovers that he is not an island separate from his blindness, but that it is a part of him that has always influenced and shaped him – and perhaps even made him the great card magician that he is today.

In the end, I think that Richard gives me the answer for which I have been seeking – an answer that he has taken his entire life to find:  How do we make it okay for ourselves and others to give and accept assistance? Richard states, “Something I’ve learned is to accept your weaknesses and to accept help from others. We all have weaknesses. When you accept that, then you can move on with your life. Believe you are special. You have to love yourself.”

In accepting our weaknesses, we give power to our strengths and to those around us who can help do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Two heads are better than one, and an extra set of hands, eyes, ears and legs may do the trick. With the support we need, we can move our focus to the next thing we wish to accomplish. Perhaps accepting help is really not a trick after all; it’s the magic that changes everything.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and immediate past Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.