Do you feel marginalized as you age? I do.

Perhaps you’ve heard about a new article in The Atlantic by Science journalist Ed Yong entitled:

“The Final Pandemic Betrayal.” Mr. Yong won the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting for this “series of lucid, definitive pieces on the COVID-19 pandemic that anticipated the course of the disease, synthesized the complex challenges the country faced, illuminated the U.S. government’s failures and provided clear and accessible context for the scientific and human challenges it posed.

The subtitle of Mr. Yong’s latest article from April 2022 is:

“Millions of people are still mourning loved ones lost to COVID, their grief intensified, prolonged, and even denied by the politics of the pandemic.” I saw an interview with him this week that really hit home for me. At least nine million of us have lost someone we knew and cared for and yet it seems we just go on, ignoring the tremendous losses to so many. In just two years, COVID became the third most common cause of death in the U.S., which means that it is also the third leading cause of grief.

“Each American who has died of COVID has left an average of nine close relatives bereaved, creating a community of grievers larger than the population of all but 11 states. Under normal circumstances, 10% of bereaved people would be expected to develop prolonged grief, which is unusually intense, incapacitating, and persistent. But for COVID grievers, that proportion may be even higher, because the pandemic has ticked off so many risk factors.”

In his recent interview, Mr. Yong discussed what is for me the most important aspect of this horrible loss of life. The groups hardest hit were “marginalized” sections of our society. Who are they? The elderly, those chronically ill, the weakened, the brown, the black and low income groups who have less access to decent health care.

My experience in the past eight years, as I grow older and my own health declines, has been a movement from a “normal” person to one who definitely feels marginalized. First with the aging process we slowly become invisible in our culture, or worse, someone who should just get out of the way of the younger and more vital. Yes, it’s true some help me with doors and seem to feel some compassion for my difficult circumstances, but I have experienced a pulling away from others as I have become more disabled. I have found it almost impossible to make true friends in this rural area. It seems just about nobody believes I am worth their time and energy. I don’t think I would have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

In this way I have learned what “marginalized” means in this country. We have always put an emphasis on being healthy and able-bodied, and when I was also healthy I rarely noticed what happened to those who are not. Yes, I do have financial resources unlike so many Americans, but I do not live by bread alone. Thanks to those of you who have made an effort to welcome us here. And to the rest of you, I hope you don’t ever become elderly and need a friend.

The Power of Healing Relationships

In my past work, many asked me if I believed that we can change emotionally or are we just stuck with our upbringing and personality traits. Can we change? Yes, but two factors were essential. The feeling of hitting bottom with little left to lose, and access to healing relationships.

I have been lucky in my adult life. I have had a number of positive experiences with truly healing relationships. The first came in my early thirties when I finally met a therapist I could learn to trust and rely on to have my best interests at heart. I know now that I would have had a very different life if I had not met this woman when I did. It took a few years, but I eventually found her completely trustworthy. I let her re-parent me in a caring, loving way, showing me that some people are worth trusting. Later I learned that she had taught me quite a lot about providing my own self-counseling in difficult situations by teaching skills of self-analysis and motive.

A few years later I studied for a M.A. degree in counseling psychology where I learned even more about trusting the wisdom of my own intuition. Your gut has decades of experience in choosing what is good for you and those ideas and people to avoid. Trust it.

All of these tools are not useful, however, if you are still second-guessing yourself, like I did with my first marriage. I knew marrying that man was a mistake, but I did it anyway. Of course, that did not end well, so by the time I hit 49 I was divorced, jobless and depressed as hell. Living on unemployment and severance provided the time and space I needed to re-imagine and re-frame my life. I spent months writing, reading my old journals and other books on self-esteem. What was next for me?

I decided that the only thing that meant anything to me at that point was to find love. Unless there was a loyal, trustworthy, generous love for me in this world, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in living the rest of my life. My priorities were clear. I started my own local, non-internet-based dating service to prove to myself and others that love was an “intriguing possibility” for all of us, even over age 50 or 60. Thus began my own proof of something I completely believe in:

“What you focus on grows!”

And, sure enough, I soon met the partner I had always dreamt of, except he certainly didn’t come in the package I had imagined! Mike was an engineer and electrical technician, not a university type at all. He wanted to learn how everything worked and fix it, plus he was also a sculptor and artist. On paper we did not match at all, but in real life we were so well-matched and happy!

After our marriage at age 50, he subsidized my search for an alternative career and then supported my new work as a free-lance writer. He gave me what we all need at some point in our lives, someone who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. Believing in myself as a writer was difficult for me in spite of fact that I had always been an avid reader and writer. I had been a university librarian for decades with three M.A. degrees at that point, and yet I needed a lot of support to become a research writer.

One factor which I’m sure has played an important role in our relationship over the years is that both of us have suffered from chronic illnesses, him when I met him, and me recently. This experience teaches us compassion for self and others, because that is the only way to survive the daily challenges of an illness that others can’t understand or cure. I often think now about how easy it used to be to walk everywhere without supplemental oxygen, and go just about anywhere I wanted to. Remember, your health will not last forever.

Since we met, over seventeen years ago, Mike has played a gigantic role in my own self-love and self-healing process. I am so grateful for his love. He shows me everyday how smart, strong and worthy of love I am. He is my best cheerleader.

To me, now, that is just about as much as we can ask from life or love!

The Pros and Cons of Writing an Autobiography

“Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself : ‘How alive am I willing to be?’” – Anne Lamott

Whether to create an autobiography is my latest writing dilemma. I go back and forth almost every day. I kept a journal from Junior High School on, so I certainly have the material to work with. I also have lots of pictures from my past. Don’t get me wrong. My goal is not to punish anyone. I just want to write something that some might enjoy reading some day.

PROS

I certainly don’t want to get stuck in my past, but on the other hand, wouldn’t it be interesting to see where my mind was at in 9th grade? In college? In my 30s in comparison to my 60s? As a psychologist I would love to study my own transition from my early beliefs as a naive youngster to what I now like to call older and much wiser. Perhaps a study of how a liberated woman’s mind developed, starting in the mid-1950s.

I like to believe my life had meaning. One way to pass on that meaning is to write about it. As a member of the transitional, mid-Baby Boomer generation, from the conservative, sexist 1940s and 50s, to the 60s, 70s and beyond, I wish to acknowledge how much our country changed especially in terms of women’s lives and roles. I lived a non-traditional life of first building a career and delaying marriage. I chose not to have children, choosing instead to get to fully know myself before I brought anyone else into my life.

I lived most of my adult life working and single, enjoying the freedom that brings. I experienced a divorce (at age 45), which at least half of Baby Boomers have been through. I also spent a few years studying the trends in Baby Boomers in my 50s, and then wrote a book about them.

I have a graduate degree in psychology and studied midlife love for a few years after my divorce. I also opened my own version of a dating service in the early 2000s. That’s how I met husband number two, while trolling for matches for my women clients… My second book tells this story: How to Believe In Love Again.

I feel I have lots to share with other Baby Boomers and their children and grandchildren, eventually!

CONS:

What a lot of work! Do I have the stamina at this late date?

I certainly don’t want to get stuck in my past. As far as I’m concerned, I have already spent too much time thinking about what happened ‘back then.’ It seems to be one of my obsessions, and yet I do appreciate all the enticing memories I have from so many trips abroad and a few great love affairs. (You know who you were!) I find my trips down memory lane to be fantastic entertainment for when I’m sick and stuck in bed for days… It just seems like this is the right time to set the record straight in my own mind (before I lose it…LOL!)

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

And then there’s the whole question of seeing the past honestly and calling an asshole an asshole. On that topic I’m afraid I agree with my hero,

Anne Lamott: “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

As Anne says, acknowledging and telling our truth is what aging is all about!

But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.” – Anne Lamott

Aren’t we all a little lost in ‘Nomadland’?

I know, I get the movies a lot later than most of you. I borrow them from La Veta Public Library, such a lovely, friendly place, where everyone knows my name 🙂 It’s so much more personal than streaming…

In the first few minutes of watching the film ‘Nomadland’ I thought about my brother John, who was homeless until about a year ago when we helped him find a home in Walsenburg. I thought, here we go, this is going to really make me appreciate the fact that I have a lovely solar home on a ridge overlooking the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo range, and yes, it certainly did that. But as I got deeper into the daily life and choices of Fern, the roaming nomad in this film, I understood the metaphor presented for all of us to relate to. Questions like: Do we need to work to feel adequate? Do we look down on the nomads we meet and should we? What about all the homeless in towns like Walsenburg whom we see sleeping in doorways and down by the river? What about them?

Nomadland was unique in some ways because all of the characters were mobile, moving from place to place for jobs, or help from others, or whatever suited them. The freedom of being mobile was important to who they were. They also found great fellowship with other nomads by camping together for long periods of time. Not everybody wants to be alone all the time, or around others much of the time. I got their lifestyle and their choices. I loved the honesty with which these folks spoke of end of life choices like choosing not to die in a hospital, and their own celebrations of life when one of their members died.

Many of them were depressed and why not? How many of us wonder everyday about our world and where it’s headed? Past a certain age, loss is a major factor for all of us. Loss of abilities, health, independence, loved ones, stability and sanity. The characters here deal with all of that day to day in an honest way, like we all must to some extent.

Pretending that life will not change or that this will not end soon is hopeless. We may all be lost in our own version of ‘nomadland’ and this film might help you accept that.

Are all illnesses caused by our minds?

You cannot control how other people receive your energy. Anything you do or say gets filtered through the lens of whatever they are going through at the moment, which is NOT ABOUT YOU.

I met a new person this week who has me quite perplexed. After speaking to her for only a few minutes, she offered me quite a bit of advice. She diagnosed my problems as, “You need to get out of your head to attract good health and healing.” Her swiftness and certainty was disturbing and mildly annoying considering the fact she does not know me at all. She apparently believes all physical ailments are simply a manifestation of emotional problems. Solve those and the illness disappears. This left me wondering, if I told her I have lung cancer, would she recommend better counseling?

To deal with my confusion I spent some time today talking with my favorite health professional about my exchange with this self-defined “healer.” She first emphasized to me that there is no certainty in the field of medicine. That is why they call themselves “practitioners.” Even what may seem like a perfect diagnosis after months of testing and analysis still has no certainty. So for someone who describes herself as a “healer” to decide after just a few minutes of conversation that she knows how to “fix” me is absurd. That same health professional I once told to “Walk a mile in my shoes!” when she suggested that she knew how it felt to be constantly out of breathe while dealing with a severe head injury. Since then my friend has read and recommended the book: “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” by Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.D., who experienced a massive stroke at age 37. Now I believe my friend has a much better understanding of what I deal with every single day.

Blaming the victim?

I never forgot an image from my counseling internship at a rehab hospital 25 years ago. I went in to speak to an elderly lady and the first thing she said was, “Why is this happening to me? Doesn’t God love me anymore?” In other words, what did I do to deserve this illness? First of all, we all will die of something. I do not believe we “cause” everything that happens to us. Did Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, cause her own stroke? Did I choose or cause myself decades of bronchitis and extreme breathing difficulties? Did I somehow choose to almost die numerous times from hypoxia? What about genetics, air pollution, and my choice to live a stress-filled life in a number of foreign countries?

What do we hope for when we make ourselves vulnerable to others?

What I need from others when I tell them about my difficulties in breathing and concentration is caring concern, non-judgment and, most of all, compassion. I crave exactly what David Richo lists in his book “How to Be an Adult in Relationships.” Drawing on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, David recommends we offer others our attention (observing, listening, and noticing the feelings at play), acceptance of them just as they are, appreciation of their gifts, limits, longings and affection.

After a lifetime of carefully observing how others respond to pain, I was disappointed with this recent acquaintance. Some run away from pain or change the subject. Others immediately try to “fix” me. When they suggest that they have simple answers to complex problems I have been dealing with for decades, I know they do not know of what they speak.

Please prepare now for unexpected outcomes

I’m sad to learn that my friend Rena Kaplowski died yesterday, even though she went the way she wished, in her sleep. Her passing has been a bit of a wakeup call for me and perhaps should be for millions of us. Rena had just turned 67 when she suffered a devastating stroke. Weeks of unconsciousness and intensive care followed, and she had just been moved to a rehab center when she passed.

Rena had not signed an advance directive form like Five Wishes which allows each of us to guide important medical care decisions that might be made if we should become seriously ill, decisions like whether we would like to be given life-support treatments. You may think that your loved ones and doctors will know what you want when you are very ill, but in reality, everyone has different wishes and it’s important to make them clearly known. Expressing your wishes in an advance directive helps to empower your family and other loved ones, and your doctor to make the best decisions when the time comes, and avoid disagreements about what to do next. Completing a form like “Five Wishes” can help you and your loved ones gain peace of mind around difficult end-of-life decisions.

The best time to fill out an advance directive form is now, before you face a health crisis. Because life is unpredictable, it’s best to be prepared. Anyone over the age of 18 can use the “Five Wishes” form. It is also a good idea to review and possibly update your Five Wishes advance directive when you experience significant life events like marriage, divorce, having children, or being diagnosed with a major illness. “Five Wishes” was written with the help of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law & Aging and is used widely in all 50 states. Federal law requires medical care providers to honor patient wishes as expressed.

Remember, you will always make your own health care decisions if you are able to talk with your doctor and understand what is being said. This directive only takes effect when you are too ill to understand or communicate. If you are unable to make your own decisions or speak for yourself, an advance directive and the person you chose to be your healthcare agent, can help direct your care with your doctor.