Aging

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The Bright Side

The Bright Side

Twelve Months, Three Heartbreaks, and One (Maybe) Miracle
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Happily Ever Older

Happily Ever Older

Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

 

I write this in the middle of a pandemic.

There is much that we don’t know. Scientists are still racing to create a vaccine. Immunity from a second round of COVID-19 remains unclear. The virus’ timeline in our lives remains a mystery, although public health officials say it could last a few years.

Here is what we do know.

When COVID-19 landed in North America, we had already witnessed its death march through seniors’ homes in Italy, Spain and France, killing thousands: retired teachers, accountants, electricians and bakers. The parents and grandparents of Europe.  

We knew that elders, winners in the lottery of long life, were vulnerable.

When the virus appeared, in cities large and small, nursing-home deaths surged and soon, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles became COVID hotbeds. In Canada, infections decimated long-term care, but not before a young geriatrician tweeted a warning: seniors’ homes will blow up like a tinderbox.

Dr. Samir Sinha was right. So were countless others, from the American Association of Retired Persons to the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, all telling governments to focus on COVID in nursing and retirement homes. Give all staff masks, test everyone, not just those with symptoms because as we soon learned, the telltale signs in older people were as innocuous as an upset stomach or, nothing at all. The virus used stealth.

Those were the infection control actions but the bigger crisis, the spark to the tinder that Dr. Sinha cited on his Twitter account, is the system that controls seniors’ homes. For decades, the long-term care system has operated on a tight budget, limiting the life pleasures of the people who reside within while devaluing the work of staff, forcing many to seek employment in two or three homes just to make a living wage. This is how a virus spreads, from one home to the next. 

As I write this in May of 2020, we still don’t know how many elders will die.

We do know that the COVID-related deaths of older people are forcing the industry and politicians to confront reality, even though it was there to see all along. Going into the pandemic, governments mostly viewed nursing homes as a second-tier health system for people with similar frailties to those in acute care units in hospitals.

It remains to be seen if these flaws laid bare will lead to improvements, but the suffering will not soon be forgotten. Families were banned from visiting, rules meant to keep residents safe, yet workers unintentionally brought COVID inside, infecting the people in their care. They infected each other. As weeks passed and staff grew sick or terrified, families realized that parents and grandparents were dying, alone.

There will be a generation of adult children who will live with the trauma of knowing that their mother or father died, with no one to hold a hand or speak the quiet words of love that ease death.

As a journalist with the Toronto Star, I spent the pandemic writing about seniors’ homes, speaking to families that were emotionally destroyed by the experience. People who had the means to employ private caregivers for a father in a privately operated retirement home, now had to go begging for a worker, anyone, qualified to go inside. And still parents died. Some didn’t have COVID, but withered, with extreme loneliness. What sad deaths they had.

Suddenly, the loneliness of elders was a talking point.

Physicians who spent their careers warning about the impact of isolation on older people now had a wide audience, listening to their warnings. And while I’m reluctant to claim that the emotional fulfillment of older people will deflect a virulent virus, most of the homes I visited for this book, all focused on individualized care, did well in controlling COVID. There were many reasons, including a bit of luck, but the homes all shared a philosophy that placed the interests of the resident at the at the top of their organizational pyramid.

Early in the crisis, the home I visited just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, wrapped itself in a bubble, asking staff volunteers to “shelter in place” by living inside the home, blocking infections from the outside world.

In a Saskatoon home, the daily buzz in the art studio or wine-tasting club was silenced as people isolated in their ‘neighbourhoods,’ although activities continued inside, with safe distancing.

As the weeks turned to months, it became clear that there is a deep desire for new ideas. The stories told in this book offer the inspiration needed for a system exposed, desperate for transformation.

Nothing will change unless citizens push to their governments and long-term care operators for true innovation, creating a new approach to the way we live in our older years, focusing on friendship, purpose and late-life potential.

 

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The Joyful Caregiver

The Joyful Caregiver

8 Steps to Prevent Caregiver Burnout
edition:Paperback
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Moments of Glad Grace
Excerpt

 

The customs officer has the face of a merry alcoholic who also enjoys his pie. His friendly eyes flutter when I tell him the purpose of my trip—to help my father with some gynaecological research—but he doesn’t ask any further questions. Just stamps my passport and says Welcome to Ireland, love, which feels like a moment of sanity in an otherwise crazed world.

 

I have come here to help my father with some genealogical research. He’s quite serious about it and has been at it for years, but a few months ago he mentioned a desire to revisit Dublin’s libraries and archives, adding that he would prefer to do it with the help of a research assistant. Count me in! I’d said immediately, though we both knew I fall asleep at the mere mention of genealogy, a word I am forever confusing with gynaecology, particularly when saying it aloud.

 

Still, we’re here. And a bit of boredom in the archives seems a small price to pay for the chance to spend ten days in Dublin with my dad. He’ll be eighty in a few months—he’d say he’s 79½—and is so fit and active I have wondered if I’ll be the one scrambling to keep up. But he also has incipient Parkinson’s, a disease that has begun to possess and hammer him, and I jumped at a chance for time together, now.

 

My father does not appear in the collage of tired faces watching a slow parade of suitcases file past. Having bought our tickets separately, we weren’t sitting together on the plane, and I didn’t see him in any of the lines at Customs. I park myself in a visible spot and pass the time by trying to conjure a border experience which includes the phrase Welcome to the United States of America, love, but no matter how many times I attempt to lift that small kite of words into being, I am unable to keep it aloft.

 

When most of the bags are claimed from the belt and there is still no sign of him, I notice that when a parent is about to turn eighty, a child’s reflex changes from where the hell’s he gone? to what if something’s happened? I walk and peer and swivel and conclude that he must have headed out of the arrivals area without me. And indeed, on the other side of the exit’s automatic doors, I spot him, looking bored. The moment I wave, however, he becomes animated, fluttering a hand to his chest and panting in theatrical, exaggerated relief while running through a breathless explanation: I didn’t see you in there so I came out here but then I realized you must have been back there but then I wasn’t allowed back in so I just had to stand here wondering how long you’d stay there waiting for me! He is giggling now, shedding so many layers of relief and excitement that I pause to wonder if the airport cleaning staff ever feel they are mopping up excess emotion in addition to casual grime. Relieved, my dad goes off to find the toilets while I stand guard over the suitcases. As I watch him disappear, I decide to begin our father-daughter escapade by creating a running list of qualities I adore about him, flipping to the back of my notebook and creating the heading Things About Dad, before printing How Often He Giggles.

 

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