My Mask and I

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Last Sunday my friend  Beth and I travelled to Grand Rapids for a conference.  We took off from Ann Arbor later in the day with an encouraging  70 degree breeze.  I shed a layer before getting settled in for the … Continue reading



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I read an article this evening on one of my favorite sites: The story was originally posted by NASA today on their Science News page about the Voyager Missions.  I have known about the Voyager’s mission over the years … Continue reading


Good Morning Doves

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In early March, as dangerously sized and pointed icicles had finally melted from our south facing eaves, two Mourning Doves scouted our hanging baskets.  The baskets are a matching coconut lined pair left out all winter for no good reason.  … Continue reading

Mortal Coil

I have been struggling over the past week and a half with writing.  I was working on a post about disorientation, a common complaint and concern amongst many group members, when one of our long time Wisdom Keepers died.  I have been unable to finish the post and more focused on my experience of grief right now, once again exploring the work and love involved in saying goodbye and letting go.  He was a remarkable man with an unremarkable death, which is exactly what he wanted.  When the time is right and with permission from his family I may share some of his stories, some day.  For now, the vivid and indelible impression of his memory and last six years on the planet will reside in my heart and the hearts of so many who loved him.

I received the call he had died very shortly after his passing. It was early evening and I was listening to my voicemail on speaker in the car.  The sun was setting brightly and the air was cool.  “The sun has teeth” is what my grandmother would say.  His wife’s voice was hanging in midair along with the sunlight flooding my lap where the phone was resting.  She left me a collected message on my voicemail, sharing a few details of his final moments and her relief and gratitude for his gentle death.  I turned the car around.  My next visit was scheduled for the following day and because of her generous call I was able to visit them both one last time, in their home, as he lie in wake, surrounded by close members of his family.  Many of them had gathered only few days before to celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary.

There will not be a funeral, also his choice, but a gathering in the warm summer air under the sky in an open, natural space in the country.  If this makes your heart swell a bit, I’m with you.  Here is a couple, in the face of more than one life threatening illness, who had the courage to discuss and explore a rest of life plan.  The words  “rest of life” are far more inviting of curiosity than ”end of life.”  The latter is misleading and does not include the most vital piece of personal planning – the living part, how you hope to live the rest of your life, whether it’s one week or several decades.  From this place an after death plan takes shape naturally.   I suppose it goes without saying that this scenario is ideal.  The opportunity to talk, plan and create a personal map for living and dying.  Some may say, pie in the sky. So I ask, how many of us have a plan then?   I’ll leave this here as an open question .

The past two weeks have given me another opportunity to reflect on how fortunate I am to work in a day program for adults with memory loss.  So many of us working in health care are bound and gagged by professional boundaries.  In a clinical setting where you see your clients briefly or only once a month or twice a year at best there is potential for pronounced differences in relationship that can create unintentional divisions and superficial connections.  It is a very different reality from sharing a workspace and large portions of daily life on a weekly basis in an atmosphere that feels more like a living room than an exam or meeting room.  A gentle folding and relaxing of roles takes place overtime in a memory care setting.  In many ways we, as staff and participants alike, have adopted our most comfortable and supportive human role:  friend.

Years ago, a group member would frequently and jokingly ask “who’s in charge here?” after I had served her up a piece of pie without ice cream on the side for example, or when practicing a fire drill or when I would bring her the wrong coat from the closet.  I see her now in my minds eye with a warm open grin and comfortable familiarity with the staff and with me.  She did not know our job titles or our job descriptions and she certainly did not know I was “in charge” then, whatever that means.   It didn’t matter. I did not matter then and it does not matter now.  I was simply Laura (with name tag).

While these roles are helpful behind the scenes and in the implementation of our programming, they mean far less than our position as genuinely interested friends.   So, as friends, we ache when our friends die.  We remember and hold these memories in our work and personal lives, like vessels we continue to remember those who have passed through these doors and spend time here.  The members themselves have trouble with memory so it is important to note the difference here between memory and knowing.  Using myself as an example to illustrate: remembering my name, what I do and who I am pales in significance to the knowledge that I am someone who cares, listens, see’s and accepts them just as they are – they do the same return.  There is little room for fear, distrust and misunderstanding in this space.

I read today that Walter Breuning of Great Falls, Montana, died (Thursday, April 14, 2011).  He carried the unique distinction of “worlds oldest man” at the age of 114.  Here are some secrets he shared to living a long, enjoyable life:

  • Embrace change, even when the change slaps you in the face.                  (“Every change is good.“)
  • Eat two meals a day (“That’s all you need.”)
  • Work as long as you can (“That money’s going to come in handy.”)
  • Help others (“The more you do for others, the better shape you’re in.”)
  • Then there’s the hardest part. It’s a lesson Breuning said he learned from his grandfather: Accept death.

He went on to share, “we’re going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you’re born to die,” he said.   [Matt Volz, Associated Press]

I suppose it helps to have 114 years to get used to the idea.  For the rest of us, we shall continue to learn about living and dying from those who go before us.  I have a bag full of thank you notes to distribute on the other side.  In the meantime, I collect and place these pieces of wisdom like colorful, soft edged bits of sea glass on my own mosaic path.  And, like my remarkable friend, I hope to walk through the veil gently when it’s time, wherever it may lead, and merge with the great unknown in all its mystery. In this image I have long white hair, a bohemian dress, bare feet and good teeth.  Can’t hurt to fantasize a bit. It’s part of my plan.

Sagacious Send Off

Between April and June each year we say goodbye to our student interns at The Silver Clubs. While most of our interns are social work students we also host artists, nurses, occupational therapists, music therapists and the occasional medical student.   For the students this can be a poignant moment of taking stock in a years worth of complex and deeply moving experiences. Many have spent upwards of 500  hours in this commitment on top of class work and jobs to pay the bills and support their families.  I suppose interns in others settings are appreciated and valued, but it is hard to image they are more loved and included than at The Silver Clubs.

It has become a ritual for our elders in the programs  to impart words of wisdom and encouragement to the students.. These brief sessions are a rite of passage and powerful to observe.  All participants, including staff, have the opportunity to open up to this  ancient human tradition of wisdom sharing.   It is moving to witness the exchange of knowledge and heartfelt experience from elder to young person.  Knowing the personal guidance shared comes from elders with memory impairment makes it even more profound.  Over the years, I have been the recipient of extraordinary kindness from the wisdom keepers. They have witnessed my growth from young to seasoned social worker, allowing me to partner with them in care planning, program design and counseling. They gave me advice after my wedding engagement (“don’t wait too long”)  and their best guidance for navigating the early years of marriage (“Spend time together, don’t forget about your friendship.”).  They have responded with enthusiasm and delight at the birth of my children and in return have shared their stories of parenting and now, grand-parenting.  As a result, I have a deeper understanding of parenting as a tradition and sacred responsibility which compliments the guidance offered by my own family.  In many cases the babies they raised are now again intimately involved in their lives, all grown up and lovingly caring for their parent(s)  the way they were cared for as their children.

I have grown in the light of elders and flowered in their kindness.  Even the casual, unsolicited advice has been well-meaning. “I like your hair better when you let it wave ” or” you look like you could use some sleep sweetie” or “You look great in bright colors, wear less black”.  I feel extremely fortunate to have this opportunity and my gift in return is a conscious effort to reflect back their shiny, sagacious spirit so they can see what they may have forgotten; their greatness, their wholeness.   It is so easy to give and the benefits are immeasurable. This dimension of the wisdom exchange, listening and reflecting,  is important to acknowledge and something not cultivated well in our society.

When do individuals with memory and cognitive loss have the opportunity to share their wisdom?  How often are they asked and invited to participate in discussions and debate questions with eager invitations and patient students?  What community platforms do we have to support and encourage our elders? It is time.  It is time for all of our elders to speak loudly, share and offer guidance grounded in the knowledge of experience and remembering beyond the scope of our own youth and status as not-yet-elder.  The “Age-ing to Sage-ing” book and subsequent movement pioneered by Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald Miller  in the mid-nineties has taken root in many places, but we still do not see enough evidence of it in mainstream American Life.

I was reminded recently of the The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.  I first learned of their awakening and council gatherings three years ago after reading  an article by Spirituality and Health Magazine editor Stephen Kiesling. The Grandmothers united in 2004 by each responding to an individual call to service in the form of prayer, education and healing for Earth and all of her inhabitants.  They represent regions from all over the globe and work together in one seamless message of hope and freedom for all children of the planet, young and old.  Imagine if each elementary, middle and high school had a council of elders to hear from on a regular basis?  Or neighborhood?Gathered, organized and supported for their gifts, insight and experience.

My personal hope is to see more elders rising up in the way of The Grandmothers; intergenerational reaching out to speak up against the insanity of our times, the intolerance, violence, exclusion and hoarding persistent around the planet.  No matter how small the voice, all humans on this earth with more peace in their heart than hostility can hear a call towards community, unity and oneness.  We see this sacred connection in the pain of our earth brothers and sisters in the midst of war, natural disaster, poverty and isolation.  We see it in our own country, our cities and maybe even our own neighborhoods. When we are open to hear the call, no matter how faint, we are better equipped to sigh in the direction of love.  We may not know what to do.  We may feel more lost than guided, but we know what the truth looks like.  We can begin to relax in the knowing that all we have to do is listen.  The next steps will be clear.

During this time of upheaval on our planet I am looking forward to this year’s farewell rituals at The Silver Clubs.  In a small city in the Midwest, in a nondescript professional building off a busy road at the edge of a large University, in a quiet and comfortable room there will sit a group of elders.  They will be smiling and they will be feeling useful, appreciated, wise and admired.  And we, their students, will be taking notes.


Death’s Sister Grace

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If I refer to death as a presence then I can tell you that we’ve grown up together. By the time my childhood dog died I had lost all of my grandparents.  By the time I headed off for college … Continue reading

The Wisdom Keepers

I learned early on to notice the sacred in this work.  In the beginning it felt like a homecoming. Now, as a gentle grounding.  I continue to be humbled.  Noticing at first the dialectic of my admiration for elders as well as my own discomfort at the losses endured and the mysterious and sometimes troubled behaviors of those living with cognitive loss. Gradually, they led me to the sacred and showed me the way.  I began to understand I was witnessing grace and wisdom hidden in the small pockets our society makes for older adults with dementia, separated as they are from American daily life at this time.

I am not alone in witnessing, experiencing and knowing the greatness that is missed by most, ignored and feared by many.   I have been molded by their generosity, tutored in living and guided through what on the surface seems quite dark compared to the light that resides within.  I call them “The Wisdom Keepers”: Our earth-bound sages with one foot in the plan of constructed reality and the other in a spiritual dimension we can only intuit.  They are teaching all over the planet, can you hear them?

Beyond the layers of sadness and the imprints of our collective American fears and pity resides a glow that is not only “still here”, as Ram Dass says of his own experience with cognitive loss after surviving a massive stroke, but revealed in ways that are surprisingly clear.  This clarity is an opening, a window first carved by vulnerability, the dropping away of the ego’s scaffolding and then illuminated by presence itself.  How well this light shines depends on how it is cultivated, observed, interacted with and the environments in which it resides from moment to moment.  Ironically, we give this kind of nurturing attention, love and acceptance and love to children, but often withhold it from our most vulnerable elders.  While there is no comparison, if only in very limited ways between adults with a dementia and the children we care for, we can see these approaches side by side and notice the differences. The difference is with us, the care partners, the care givers, in our behavior.

Our behavior, our responses are the most significant determinant as to whether something grows or withers.  This is a sacred exchange between two people in relationship for a lifetime or for only a short time.   It is our light merging with another’s.  In our society and families of origin, if we are fortunate, we inherit from a young age successful behaviors for caring or learn them on our own.  Blueprints that will later guide us in our friendships or when we have our own children, spouses and companions.  Naturally and in subtle ways they are imparted and learned, shaping each of our unique approaches and responses to relationship and challenge.  As a parent and as child, I have experienced this profound bond and exchange of wisdom.

These are the wordless aspects of relationship that serve as the foundation in which all other actions are born.  This can happen unconsciously or with complete awareness from moment to moment.  It is the difference between knee-jerking reactions and thoughtful responses.  The opening for clear seeing is in the “aware-ing,”  a word I first learned from Jon Kabat Zinn and later from Toni Packer, both teachers in the tradition of mindful living and meditation.   In moments of clear seeing we are gifted with noticing any rigid beliefs and any harmful behaviors.

When someone with cognitive loss tells a story and has the details wrong from our perspective, including names, places or time, our reaction need not be invested in correcting, challenging or assuming complete confusion.  It can be a great challenge and practice to let go of our well rehearsed, programmed and refined sense of “right” as well as our keen eye and ear for order and sequence.  In American work life, these qualities (competition and right-ness) can mean the difference between receiving recognition and moving up the ladder or being pushed aside for someone considered more astute, bright or capable.  A highly competitive culture leaves little room for error.   Ironically, without awareness we fall into behaviors which most of us resent or deplore in others.  Communicating with some one who has cognitive loss can unfortunately be confused with having a free pass to behave in less compassionate ways with the belief the person will not remember the exchange later.  Even worse, the belief it does not matter at all. It matters, but not for the reasons you may initially think.

In the end and in each moment  it is not what we think that matters at all.  The Wisdom Keepers remind us it is in our presence, in the non-speaking realm of our communication where connection and understanding reside.  Whether in the stillness between us as we sit quietly or as the stillness woven in and around the spaces between our words and actions, we can experience our true selves, our whole and unseparated selves.  Being together in this way elevates our awareness beyond any rigid and incomplete definitions of dementia and loss.  There is no separation, it only exists in our mind, the illusion is ours.