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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Health Matters: An Interview with Gail Owens, RN

Background: Gail and I know each other through my long-time friend and her new wife, Lisa. They live in Madison, WI, but get down to Chicago at least once a year. On their last visit in December, I asked Gail--who is a community nurse in southern Wisconsin--if I could interview her about the work she does with older clients.

She graciously agreed.

What is your professional title and training?

"Registered Nurse BSN," Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

What is your current position?

I’m an RN with Home Health United/Xtra Care based in Madison Wisconsin.

I travel to area community/senior centers and provide community nursing services: diabetic/non-diabetic foot care; blood pressure screenings; and influenza vaccinations.

How long have you been working with older people?

I've been a hospital nurse for 30+ years, and older demographics have always been the largest inpatient population then and now. This is the first time I’ve worked in a non-hospital setting.

What interests you in working with this population?

I think my interest started at a young age. Growing up, I was close to, and spent a lot of time with, my paternal grandparents.  They were retired and, with both of my parents working full time, they watched my brother and me when we were little. From this experience, we both came to respect and love our grandparents, to treat them kindly and with respect. 

And over the years, I've grown to appreciate older folks even more: their life skills; survival through life tragedies and loss; their resilience and toughness. Also, I find that age group to be better listeners and storytellers. Many, too, have maintained a sense of humor, which I love.

Many demographers now break down the term "old" as follows: young old: 65 - 74; old: 75-84; old/oldest old: 85+. Of these three categories, which have you/do you mainly work with?

All of these ages in my past hospital career, but now fewer of the "young old" and more of the "old" and "oldest old."

In your work with people in those categories, what are the major chronic health problems you see in this population? Especially those you think are related to lifestyle?

Obesity, diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, joint problems, loneliness/isolation. And while we can’t say that the causes of these conditions are 100% related to lifestyle—some chronic illness is genetic—there are some correlations.

So based on correlation as a factor in chronic illness among the old, what changes in lifestyle would you recommend as people enter their 50's?  In other words, what can they be doing now to ward off or at least minimize the chronic health problems you see in your older clients?

In general, staying engaged, active, and eating healthy, including the Mediterranean diet and whole foods. 

Specifically: exercise, including walking; yoga or some type of stretching routine/class; keeping weight down; staying connected/socially interacting with friends, etc.; reading and other hobbies; and working at least part time for as long as possible in a job you enjoy.


With many thanks to Gail for sharing what she's learned in her long and fulfilling nursing career, especially as it applies to those of us post-50. Because we all want to live a healthy long life, not just a long one.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Mabel & Marilee Aging Well

At 102 years old, both Marilee Shapiro Asher and Mabel Sawhill are still working, one of the “secrets” of aging well that Petula Dvorak suggests in her article “Meet two amazing women who are still working at the age of 102. Yes, 102.”

Marilee is an artist, currently doing digital photography, a medium she pursued in her late 80’s when working with large sculptures became too physically daunting. One of her self-described secrets to aging well is the dedication she had to her art during two marriages and while raising two children. 

“I had to be selfish in order to keep making art,” she told Dvorak.

Mabel is a caterer, a profession she took up full-time in 1983 when she was 70 years old and recently retired from a government job. She now works approximately 100 events a year, including the usual weddings and funerals.

In fact, she catered her own 100th birthday party and, when almost twice as many people than expected showed up, she recalls: “I ran out and started cutting the meatballs in half.”

Her self-described secret to aging well? “I never married.”

Now as much as I love the idea of learning “secrets” to doing anything well, including getting old, I was more struck with two comments these women made during the course of the interview.

First Marilee, describing her photography: “I’ve always been afraid of [experimenting with] color,” she said. “So I’m working on that right now.” Now, I just love that idea—facing one’s creative fears at 102, knowing that there are still things to learn about one’s craft, and that the learning will inevitably involve some risk.

As for Mabel, she’d been a school teacher during World War II, but then moved from her home in Iowa to take a government job in Silver Springs. Why? Because, she said, “everybody was doing their part, and I thought I should do something for my country.”

Did that decision to engage in a cause bigger than herself have something to do with her longevity? Quite possible, I'd venture.

So, perhaps, it’s not just our work that helps us age well.  Maybe it’s also a willingness take risks, and a desire to contribute to the public good that keeps us vital, still in the mix, no matter how old we are.

To read more about these pretty darn interesting women:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Muddling Through Mid-Life

I just googled “when is middle age” and up came a couple of different answers, though most sources place it somewhere after 40 and before 65, give or take.

The fact that middle age is no longer fixed shouldn’t surprise us, especially as old age now comes in three different flavors:

                                    young old (65 – 74)
                                    old old (75 - 84)
                                    old/oldest old (85+).

And, who knows, ten years from now even those categories may change. The demographers have their hands full with so many people, especially in the West, living so much longer; in such relatively good health; and less likely to follow the rules for aging, including retiring.

But I’m not much interested in how the numbers—especially the ranges—are determined; I’m more curious what people think about themselves and their lives as they age, despite the labels, and in how they act based on those thoughts.

I’m also interested in how Boomers on the youngest end of that generation—those turning 52 this year—might be experiencing middle age, aka, the last stop on their way to official old age.

Are these mid-lifers happy, or at least satisfied, in the choices they’ve made in their lives so far? In love, work, money, family, their physical and emotional well being? Is middle age anything like they imagined it to be? Especially from the vantage point of their 30’s?

Some of what I’ve been reading lately tells me that many mid-agers are a bit stressed these days, especially as they attempt to manage the demands of both work and family. I see some of that in my younger friends, family members, and writing clients.

They have a lot on their plate and the times they live in are uncertain; technology and globalization continue to accelerate change for all of us--and not all of it is positive. I wonder if that sometimes falls hardest on those in the middle of their lives than on either end of it.

But, luckily, it turns out, all is not doom and gloom for our mid-lifers. In fact, there is room—as Stuart Jeffries writes in The Guardian (3 Feb 2016)—“to be cheerful when you’re middle-aged.”

Of the 20 reasons he lists, here are a few of my faves:

Ridicule, as Adam Ant argued, is nothing to be scared of
There’s a bloke who works in my library cafe. He wears a tricorn hat and a possibly silk frock coat. He must be about my age and he gives off a superb “nuts-to-whatever-you’re-thinking-about-me” vibe. Sir, I salute you. Remember when you were young and didn’t wear stuff that might attract peer-group disdain? When you’re middle-aged, those days are over. Score!

You can pretend to be a technophobe
The other day, some lovely Danish tourists asked me to take their photo with their phone outside the British Museum. I did, then blew on it and shook it like a Polaroid picture. They walked off chuckling, no doubt, about the old fart who had lost the plot. Which, in a sense, I have. But, still, the joke was on them. Which cheered me up no end.

You know how to take your pleasures where you can get them
I was at yoga the other night with some very attractive women. “You have a lovely bottom,” said the French instructor. I looked round – in a room full of lithe youngsters, she was talking to me! I’ve still got it, I thought happily. “But,” she added, “would you point it away from my face?” Then I noticed everybody else in the room was doing their cat’s pose with their bottoms pointing the other way. I was 180 degrees to the room. Did I feel depressed at being the Corporal Jones in this scenario? No – I felt cheered by a French lady praising my bottom. Albeit ironically.
You’d be really miserable if you didn’t have that well-developed sense of irony hardened from years of exposure to life

Hair: the unbearable truth
Bad news! I haven’t got much hair on my head. Good news! I’ve got loads growing from more interesting places! Indeed, the only reason I got into social media was to post pix of my nasal hair on Instagram. Don’t look sniffy: I’m trending right now. Albeit under a pseudonym.

You’ve got so much to look forward to
If you are unhappy in middle age, there is some good news: you won’t be for long. According to Professor Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London: “If, as we suspect, happiness is beneficial for health, it follows that people who are less happy may not survive to such an old age. The oldest age categories will therefore include a greater proportion of happier people.” So if you do survive into old age, you may well be happier because the miserable gits who used to make you unhappy during your middle years will have popped off. That’s got to cheer you up, hasn’t it?

To read (and enjoy) the entire article, click here:

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

My Political Campaign

I’d already started today’s blog post when I became hugely distracted by news of the Iowa caucuses; it was being live broadcast on every one of my four radios—each placed strategically throughout my little apartment.

Now, I’m not sure I’m a political junkie, but I am a news junkie, always have been, hence all the radios, each alternately tuned to NPR or WGN, and for large parts of most days.

There was that one time, though, when I was knee-deep in politics, working for an Illinois gubernatorial campaign in the spring of 1982. However, it wasn’t politics that drew me to the job; I was also knee-deep in a state of unemployment.

With some edits, here’s how I wrote about it in my book:

In April 1982, having quit yet another mind-numbing, soul-destroying job, I was hired as the word processor for a gubernatorial campaign. Democrat Adlai Stevenson III was running for governor of Illinois against the Republican incumbent James “Big Jim “ Thompson. 

It went like this: Days after leaving my job, I’d accidentally run into Stevenson’s campaign office manager—a neighbor friend—and told her I was looking for work. She said the campaign needed to hire someone who knew how to operate an IBM word processor, the latest in advanced technologies.

During our interview a few days later, I neglected to tell Susan that I’d really never used a word processor; instead I emphasized how fast I typed; what a good Democrat I was; and how badly I needed the job.

When I arrived at campaign headquarters on my first day of work, I suddenly got very nervous. I’d never used anything more complicated than an electric typewriter, and had no idea how to operate the big bulky thing—and all its component parts—that sat dead center on the desk in my tiny office.
But the techno-gods smiled down on me that first day: the printer had arrived broken and couldn’t be replaced for a week. That gave me the time I needed to plow through Book I of the enormous two-volume instruction manual. Even better, I used those life-saving days to become fast friends with every one of the tech support staff on the 1-800 help line.
Once I figured out how to work the damn word processor, which actually didn’t take all that long, I could then really pay attention to the campaign itself: the intense pace and day-to-day drama: the highly structured and endless campaign events; the media interviews; the missteps and headaches that often followed those interviews; the relentless fund raising; the professional politicians who daily worked for and/or regularly visited the campaign office; the phone calling and door knocking and polling.

For me, tethered mostly to my machine, typing position papers and fund-raising letters and every one of the many thank you notes that Adlai personally wrote and signed, mine felt less a job and more like a field internship, one that would come to an end shortly after the election on November 2. Which wouldn't be the case, I soon learned, for most of the other staff, those who'd made or wanted to make politics a profession.

And so I soaked it all in, discovering a world I’d never even imagined, enjoying the enthusiasm and energy among the staff, making new friends, working late nights, eating bad food, feeling the thrill of the chase.

But then, irony of ironies, it turned out that my job was not only not over in November, but was one of the few retained when Stevenson challenged the election outcome and demanded a recount. He had lost to Thompson by just a little over 5,000 votes.

And so starting on November 3, 1982 and well into January of the next year, I remained on the job, typing furiously away, now mostly incomprehensible legal stuff. Not surprisingly, the energy of that campaign office had been replaced with a lawyerly urgency that never quite engaged me. 

Then on January 7, 1983, Stevenson finally conceded the election, having failed to convince the Illinois Supreme Court to order a recount. It was time for both me and Adlai to move on.

For anyone who's interested, here’s a link to the Chicago Tribune article that I used to remind me of the timing of events in late 1982-early 1983.