Saturday, June 21, 2008

We don't want to talk about…

Last week I went to a book signing by Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, for his new book, In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, and in his remarks, he noted how supported he has been in the U.S. Episcopal House of Bishops by the women bishops and by those bishops who are people of color. The success of that support has been because they are recognizing oppression as a common cause, not as a comparative exercise. That is, the women aren't saying, well, sexism is worse than homophobia, and the blacks aren't saying, racism is worse than either of those, but together they are saying we are all beloved children of God and deserving of love, respect, and equality. In coming together they can work against systems of oppression, rather than being divided and fighting against one another about whose pain and troubles are worse. He writes that one of the reasons he suspects that there is so much focus on homosexuality in the church is that it's a way to avoid talking about sex, sexism, misogyny, and heterosexism. More on this when I've finished reading Gene's book. I started his book this morning and it's pastoral, engaging and folksy, much like Gene himself, a Kentucky native who has been a priest in New Hampshire for over thirty years.

A few weeks ago, my college alumnae quarterly sent out a note that they were going to have an article on aging and elder care issues. Since I work for an aging services agency and have an aging parent, I responded that I might be able to contribute to such an article. So, this past week I spent some time at work responding to questions about my own experience as a caregiver and family conversations about aging, and giving a broad overview of trends in elder care. As a long distance caregiver for my mother, who has been relatively healthy, my experience of confronting aging and disability and being a hands-on caregiver has not been so hard. But like varieties of oppression, experiences of caregiving and experiences of disease have some things in common. I'd like to share my responses here to some of the questions posed by the person who will be writing the article as preparation for another blog posting that I have been trying to write on the impact of diseases of all sorts on the relationship of caregiver/friend/colleague with the person who has a disease or chronic illness.

1. Did you talk to your parents or spouse about what their wishes were for their care in their later years? If you didn't, do you wish you had? And what would you talk about? How do you recommend bringing it up? Would conversations like this make a difference in your decisions about care for your parents/spouse?
When my father died at 63, twenty-five years ago, as a family we were really unprepared for that experience. It was unexpected and he had made no plans or legal or financial arrangements. Despite having a history of heart disease, he thought he'd just keep working and that everything would continue on like it always had. The reality for my mother was quite different--within two years, she'd lost her life partner, she lost her home, and she had no income except social security. I wanted to think that now we are more prepared to talk about issues of aging and death, but about five years ago, I tried to get my two brothers and my mother to have a conversation all together about what my mother's wishes were: did she want heroic measures, for example, to be put on a ventilator or life support if something happened or did she want a "do not resuscitate" order? Where did she want to live if she could no longer live alone? What things did she want her funeral to include? Who should make decisions for her if she couldn't? Who gets what? Despite making that attempt for the week while I was visiting, my older brother avoided the conversation every time I brought it up. Finally, my mother, younger brother and I had the conversation one evening before dinner. I gave my mother the Five W
ishes form to complete, which I would strongly recommend to everyone facing aging (that would be all of us). It gives a way to guide the conversation. As far as a way in, there is always something: someone dies, someone is sick, or you read something in the paper. You just need to start and have the conversation.

I suspect that this summer it will be time to check in again on all of these issues, and some new ones, when I visit. My mother has macular degeneration and says that she can see well enough to drive only when the sun is really bright--she lives out in the country and can't get to the store or to the doctor without driving. She has some significant hearing loss and can't afford hearing aids. These are different issues than the ones we talked about before. How do we help her deal now? When do we take away the car keys?

Often it is not just the big things, it's the little things. My mom lives close to my brothers and two thousand miles away from me, but sometimes I think that she tells me things that she doesn't tell my brothers--maybe it is the mother/daughter thing. She had a hip replacement several years ago, and can't reach her toes to trim her toenails, so she either has it done when she goes to the doctor to get her corns and bunions treated, or she waits for my annual visit. Last summer we had a wonderful conversation about foot washing as an inspirational rite of service while I trimmed her half inch long toenails and washed between her toes, but I also found the local pedicure shop and have bought her gift certificates for pedicures, which she absolutely loves. My older brother sees her almost every day, but she would never ask him to trim her toenails.

Of course, that also makes me wonder what she's not telling me...

2. What has been the best source of support for you during this experience?
I have friends whose parents are aging, and we talk. Because I work in the field of aging, I am fortunate to have a wealth of information in my colleagues. I think my work provides the opportunity for my friends and for people at my church, for example, to start conversations about aging, and while I'm providing information, I'm also getting support. It's important to talk about the demands placed on you as a caregiver, and the role reversal that starts to happen when you have to take care of things for your parents, or aunts and uncles or older friends, while still understanding that your parents are adults who deserve respect and the right to make their own, good or bad, decisions.

It's astonishing the number of people I know whose parents have Alzheimers, for example, and while we have a program at our agency that consults with people on what to expect, I think it's really important for family who are dealing with a disease and situation like that to talk to other people about how to deal with the day to day things, not the medical things necessarily. Aging sneaks up on us all, and many of us are thrown into crisis mode by some acute episode and don't know where to turn, but the truth of the matter is that there are thousands of our friends, neighbors and colleagues who are also dealing with it, if we just start the conversation, and lots of resources available.

3. What has been most surprising to you about this experience, something for which you wish you had been prepared, or from which you learned something important?
Perhaps it is the little things like trimming toenails that I didn't even think about, and I think that my mother just accepted as one of the costs of getting older, and didn't complain about it. I don't know whether baby boomers will complain more or not, but I think we don't have to accept these little things as a necessary part of aging, but it also takes a fair amount of energy and research, and sometimes money, to find the ways to work around and through some of the "little" things that happen. Those were things I wasn't prepared for.

The other piece is the tremendous emotional cost of the losses I see my mother having: not only the loss of sight, hearing, and mobility, but the losses of lifelong friends who are her support network, the loss of identity as the go-to person, as the care provider herself, the social isolation as she can't get out as much on her own schedule, the loss of hobbies and pastimes because she can't see as well, bend as much, hear as clearly: reading, gardening, going to church become less enjoyable.
One of my friends who has a memory disorder (undiagnosed as to cause or type) has been grieving the loss of his identity as a smart person because he just can't remember things now. He was not yet 60 when it started, and he now can't have a job because he can't remember many things in the short term. For his wife, the first couple of years were very hard as it crept up on them. Imagine living with someone who can't remember what you just said five minutes ago or whether they ate breakfast or whether they read the paper--it changes your entire relationship, and when it's a gradual change it takes time to come to terms with it for both of you.

My boss says it takes courage to grow old and to survive the losses. I took a class on death and dying for my M.Div. program, and one of the things I learned from that was that people who do better as they get older have learned to grieve better--they feel it, deal with it and accept it. My mother is actually a big support for me as I face her aging because, for the most part, she has a real acceptance of death and aging as a part of the natural cycle--that comes from living on a farm and near nature all of her life, and she has her faith which is that something better awaits her after death.

4. What do future caregivers need to know or think about before the elder care stage of life begins for them and their parents? What makes sense to work toward? What might have to be let go?
Caregiving is hard. We find that among elders it is often the caregiving partner in a couple that dies first because they are not taking care of themselves and getting help and relief from non-stop caregiving. Ask for help. There are agencies that provide services, but you don't even necessarily have to go to an agency. It might not be a big deal for your parent's neighbor to mow their lawn when mowing hers, or for a friend to get groceries when she goes to the grocery store. But people can't help if you don't ask. People don't know what's going on unless you communicate.

The average age of our clients is 85, so people are staying healthy longer. That's the good news. The bad news is that what often triggers a pretty rapid decline is one acute, and unexpected, episode and as a child who comes back onto the scene you have no idea what medications your parent is taking, who are their doctors or other professionals, where they are banking, where are assets, or who are their friends who need to know things.

So part of handling aging well is perhaps applicable to handling growing up well and handling being in the middle well: organize your stuff so that you and others can make sense of it, and communicate to your family and friends about the people and things that are important to you. Make lists of medications, passwords, account numbers, addresses, and professional service providers. Keep the list in a safe place, but let at least a couple of people know where the list is. Have a local emergency contact and check in buddy who has a house key: neighbor, pastor, or friend, and make sure your child knows who that person is. Have a check in plan: someone that commits to making a daily email or phone call, especially for a person who lives alone.

Aging does not mean that you have to give up. You don't have to let go of anything that's important to you. You might have to change the way you have done it. But one of the things that we want to do is to transform community understanding of what it means to be getting older. I have someone working for me now who is 82, and she isn't interested in retiring. She finds her work meaningful and her colleagues supportive. I have another colleague who is almost 65 and chomping at the bit to retire in two weeks because she wants to travel and do other things while she still has her health. Choices that people make as they age are as varied as people are. Some people will give it all up and sit in front of the TV, and others want to continue to work, live, learn, love, laugh, and cry.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Honeysuckle evening

There is a saying that I adhere to that God is in the details. As I was sitting outside one evening, I began to wonder how God planned the details of the first hot almost summer nights and the sultry, sensuous smell of honeysuckle as it begins to bloom.

The smell of honeysuckle is very memory evocative, as substantiated by this selection from Dr. Edward Bach, famous for the Bach Flower Remedies. He prescribes:
"Honeysuckle is for people who live in the past instead of the present. They feel that their best days are behind them and that there is little to look forward to, and as a consequence they prefer to dwell on past happinesses (or past misfortunes). At a more minor key, homesickness and nostalgia are also Honeysuckle states. The remedy helps the person in this state to learn from the past without needing to relive it, so that the person can progress on into the present and take joy from today and tomorrow."

Dr Bach's description:
Those who live much in the past, perhaps a time of great happiness, or memories of a lost friend, or ambitions which have not come true. They do not expect further happiness such as they have had.
-taken from The Twelve Healers and Other Remedies.

Further research brought up this also apt horticultural description:
"When the internet is capable of producing smells, then an article about honeysuckle will be able to do justice to this flower. The wonderfully fragrant white blossoms of Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) make up for its extremely invasive habit. After starting with a 6 inch sprig, we now have thick vines encompassing the compost bins and a large segment of fence. The plant sends out new shoots which seem to grow several inches every day, as well as ground runners that sneak around behind fences and through the grass. An interesting feature of the blossoms is that they start out white, then turn yellow as they age. Every so often, sections of the honeysuckle vines die and must be trimmed away. The woody stems can be rather thick, but they are soft and easily cut. When extra shoots are cut away from the main stems, the new growth is more profuse the following spring."

Not to anthropomorphize, but what did God intend to do with honeysuckle? Hot nights magnify the smell, and it's an almost primal reaction, perhaps at the level of pheromones. The memory it evokes does not seem like my own, but older, a tribal/race memory perhaps. Perhaps that it is one of its details: it's good to have things that connect us in kinder, gentler ways to our collective memory and past.

Beyond that, did God the Creator (God is in the details, after all...) think about the perfume, the shape of the flower, how it would fit a hummingbird's beak, the lush profusion of green with scattered white and yellow blossoms climbing up the fence? Did God the Creator consider how a hot, sweaty night might be enhanced with the smell of honeysuckle? It's an evocative flower in many ways. And as Dr. Bach suggests, can the honeysuckle essence help a person "to learn from the past without needing to relive it, so that the person can progress on into the present and take joy from today and tomorrow?"

If you have your own profusion of honeysuckle to enjoy, I hope that it brings you both memories of and surroundings for joy and a wonderful scent/sensual pleasure in creation. If you don't have your own honeysuckle, please feel free to come by my yard some evening. And then, as we inhale a deep breath of warm honeysuckle scented air, let us take joy from the day, and thank God for the details. (And hold and savor the moment for when we need it next January....)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Is this not the fast?

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Isaiah 58:2-12
A portion of this scripture was read at the baccalaureate service at Andover Newton Theological School this past weekend, and a smaller portion also appears on the ordination announcement that I just received from a Unitarian Universalist friend. Such synchronicity I believe is God's way of calling my attention to something. But what?

I happen to have been "sort of" fasting the past 36 hours—drinking only fluids in preparation for a colonoscopy appointment. For those of you who have done this, you know that the liquid diet follows several days of giving up seeds, nuts, fruits, raw vegetables, peas, beans, corn … foods that form the core of my usual high fiber diet. A day of only clear liquids also precedes taking some vile concoction designed to clean out your colon. Fasting is not a part of my low-church Protestant heritage or early farm upbringing. Celebrating the abundance of the harvest and of God's love and extending hospitality to others to share in that abundance forms one of the bases of my own theology. Thus, I had considered that this modified fasting would be just a rather curious and unpleasant medical preparatory procedure until being confronted by the prophet Isaiah. "Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?" Certainly, colonoscopy prep is humbling, giving up control over food and over bodily elimination processes.

But when I do this kind of fast, however unwilling, I am claiming my privilege of being able to have preventative medicine, food, and water. I am particularly conscious of this in the wake of the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. In those countries there are people who are fasting, without food and potable water, not by choice, not out of privilege, not with access to excellent medical care, with food waiting in the refrigerator and cupboard, and with water on tap and all sorts of beverages available. Particularly in Myanmar, they are fasting because they have been struck by disaster and that has been compounded by the kind of self-serving interests and oppression that Isaiah condemns.

What Isaiah is calling for is not really about fasting or any other show of piety, but rather the prophet calls us to look around at where we are, to understand the gifts we have, and to do something about the brokenness in the world. Perhaps we must break things to make things whole: breaking yokes of bondage may help repair and restore the buildings and streets in Myanmar. We are called to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. We are even to repair relationships with our kin.

I wrote a check for relief funds to go to Myanmar because my church and denomination both have long standing ties there. We had a visiting professor from the Myanmar Institute of Theology who came to my church and to school this week and I was able to ask him personally how his family was. The Institute's buildings and books were destroyed in the cyclone. There will be much work to be done. What else can we do to repair the breaches in those walls? But … we all have heard some variation of this before. How do we stretch ourselves beyond writing a check?

Is that all of the fast that I choose? There may be other things that will occur to me, but probably not that I can do before going to the doctor's for this exam. Short of travel to Asia immediately, however, there is one other thing that Isaiah reminds us to do: to pray: "you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am." Pray for the people of Myanmar and of China, for the fast that they did not chose, that they will get the help that is trying to get to them, that the money we can give can turn into food, shelter and clothes that the people can use. They have been and will be daily in my prayers.

So, I commend Isaiah 58 to you the next time you have a colonoscopy, and a fast that you don't really choose. It offers an opportunity to refresh one's own compassion for those in need, and reminds us to do something that is the kind of spiritual practice that really matters. Blessings on your fasting, and blessings on your knowledge of God's abundant love that we are called to share.