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Memories of a Sweet Treat With Mom

July 29, 2020

The tradition of 'froyo' at Bloomingdale's offered a respite for mother and daughter
By Candy Schulman

Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I stop for a frozen yogurt in New York City’s Bloomingdale’s. Whether I’m shopping or not, I’ll head all the way up to the seventh floor to Forty Carrots just for their swirled refreshing treat. I pass on the sugary add-ins but in summer, when fruits look local and fresh, I’ll top it off with their original flavor with berries. I don’t even have to be hungry to sit and savor, spoon by plastic spoonful, slowing down when I inevitably get brain freeze.

Surprisingly, what I’m craving is my mother. Sharing one large “froyo” was our peaceful respite, détente from arguing over what clothes I should wear, my career choices, my parenting style. For those few moments, I was a small child again, out for an ice cream cone with mommy.

On Sundays, Mom would take my grandmother out from her nursing home for an ice cream cone. Afterwards, she’d drive us home from Jersey City to Brooklyn, staring intensely into the highway, a mysterious pained expression on her face. She’d flip on WOR talk radio to fill the silence.

Stories From a Painful Time

I didn’t know that Grandma’s nursing home was on the same grounds as the orphanage where my mother had lived from age six until her teens. Mom waited until her mid-eighties, when her Lewy Body dementia was progressing, to tell me, “My mother was too poor to keep me at home.”

The Jewish Home for Orphans, where my mother grew up feeling abandoned and unloved, was eventually transformed into a facility for older adults in need of full-time care. The chapel where Mom took Hebrew classes was still there, as were the painful memories where she went weeks, sometimes months, without a visit from her overburdened widowed mother.

She learned to keep her emotions to herself. Cool, sweet frozen yogurt dulled her pain for just a little while.

“She arrived through Ellis Island from Poland at the age of 17 without money or a word of English,” Mom finally explained, sounding more like an oral historian than someone struggling with the remnants of childhood trauma through unexplained fits of rage. “She migrated to this country after a jilted love affair. She went to night school immediately, learned the language. She worked in a factory by day and scrubbed floors in an office building at night.”

My mom saw her father only a couple of times. He died of tuberculosis when she was 10. My widowed grandmother made and sold bootleg gin during Prohibition, and took in boarders for income.

“But she didn’t have room for me,” Mom told me, her voice finally shaking as her abbreviated autobiography continued. “One day she said to me, ‘You don’t love me like a child should,’ and without thinking I said, ‘How could I? When all these years someone else brought me up?’”

She learned to keep her emotions to herself. Cool, sweet frozen yogurt dulled her pain for just a little while.

A Forced Intimacy

We shared froyo before, during and after the food trend started. She’d buy me outfits she insisted would flatter me in the Bloomingdale’s near her condo in Hollywood, Fla. We’d take a break for fuel at a more generic version of Forty Carrots than the flagship location on 59th Street.

I’d return the clothes when I got back to New York, fashions nobody would wear up north. Once, I received a snarky letter from Customer Service saying I was returning too many items. I used the refund to fund another plane trip to visit Mom.

I never left the store before soothing my spirit with frozen yogurt, alone, grieving over my mother’s decline in old age, the way Jewish mourners bring sweet pastries to shivah calls after a death to dull the pain of loss.

After I insisted Mom was no longer able to safely drive, I sold her car, let her license lapse and steered her to Bloomingdale’s in my rented car for frozen yogurt. When she could no longer use a credit card, I’d pick up the tab. When she needed me to escort her to the restroom afterwards, I obliged, ignoring my discomfort.

Once she asked me to take her to lingerie. I hadn’t even bought my daughter her first bra yet, and I was measuring my mother’s bust size, selecting something soft and flattering, guiding her into the dressing room, even fastening the brassiere when she was unable to figure it out.

Our forced intimacy had become commonplace, yet it always felt awkward and invasive.

The first time I saw her breasts when I was still a flat-chested teenager yearning to be as developed as my friends, I was shocked at how large they were — she was only a “B” cup, but she looked as zaftig as my well-endowed grandmother. Now, Mom’s breasts looked droopy and deflated, surrounded by folds of skin that hung from her torso.

“Something’s happened,” she said, staring into the mirror. “You’ve become my mother.”

‘Makes a Girl Look Like What She Ain’t’

Another time, she wanted to stop at the makeup counter. A woman with collagen lips gazed at my mother through eyelashes favored by silent movie stars. So began Mom’s first makeover since the heart surgeon implanted a stent in her blocked artery. I was dubious about makeovers, but in 10 minutes the garish black smudges above Mom’s eyes were gone. In spite of being an accomplished sculptor, my mother could no longer hold her hands steady enough to apply her makeup.

“You look great,” I told her.

“All that powder and perfume and paint…makes a girl look like what she ain’t.”  Smiling, Mom was pleased to remember this phrase when she couldn’t recall my ZIP code. “Your turn.”

Reluctantly, I glanced in the mirror. “Anything to hide the dark rings under my eyes?” I asked.

“I’ve been telling her for years to cover those dark rings,” Mom said to the woman at the counter.

Ten hours of sleep a night and a vacation from the constant worry about my mother’s health might be the best prescription for the bags under my eyes.

“You need hydration,” the makeup artist said urgently, patting my skin with concealer.

In minutes. my face looked lighter, brighter, less haggard.

“Ever notice how many mothers and daughters are here, sharing yogurt?” my daughter observed.

“You both look ten years younger!” she pronounced, and that was enough for my penurious mother to consent to buying the ingredients for transformation. We left with two tiny shopping bags, a $250 tab and the doubt that we’d use these magic potions as effectively at home.

In the car, my mother kept lowering the visor so she could see her reflection in the mirror. “I like it,” she said. “What do you think?”

It makes her look like what she ain’t. “You look ten years younger,” I said.

“So do you,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful?”

A Mother-Daughter Tradition

After Mom died, it took years for me to return to Forty Carrots. Back in Bloomingdale’s, I was now shopping with my teenage daughter. Unlike my mother, I let her select her own styles. Like my mother, I taught her how to shop the sales. And we always finished up with frozen yogurt.

“To Grandma,” my daughter said, as if toasting cocktails. Her memories of my mother were less conflicted, not fraught with criticism and disputes.

Our routine continued as my daughter graduated from college, got her first and second jobs, moved into her own apartment.

“Ever notice how many mothers and daughters are here, sharing yogurt?” my daughter observed, amused, her lips rimmed with chocolate, her preferred flavor.

“Tradition,” I said, and we started humming the song from Fiddler on the Roof, my mother’s favorite show. It used to embarrass me when she’d sing this in public, but now I unabashedly belted out the tune.

These days, I dash into the Bloomingdale’s in Soho, which caters to hipper and smaller-boned women than me. I ask a saleswoman where Forty Carrots is. “It’s just been renovated!” she says in a chipper voice. “You’ll love it.”

It feels a bit too modern and stark, but I settle in with a frozen yogurt, slipping their new perk of a punchcard into my wallet, wondering how long it will take to get a free one. To you, Mom, I silently say, wishing she were here to share one with me. I can never finish it myself.

By Candy Schulman

Candy Schulman’s award-winning essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Salon and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is working on a memoir about mothers and daughters. She teaches writing at the New School in New York City.

 

OPINION: My Case for Getting Dementia Testing

July 22, 2020

Why I want to know if I have cognitive impairment
By Paula Spencer Scott

 

I lose my glasses, forget actors’ names, repeat stories to my kids. None of these slips are red-flag symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Nevertheless, I’ve had a battery of cognitive assessments, from memory screens to genetic tests and brain scans.

Why? Because the science of brain health is advancing rapidly. Given my distressing family history of dementia, I prefer to err on the side of “knowledge is power,” rather than “ignorance is bliss.”

Earlier this year, to my surprise, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) chose not to recommend cognitive screening for asymptomatic older adults, saying the “evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms.” While evidence of harms of cognitive screening is limited, USPSTF says, some studies have shown “higher stress, greater depression and lower quality of life in persons aware of a diagnosis of cognitive impairment.”

Once I discovered the growing body of evidence that it’s possible to reduce some risks of Alzheimer’s or delay onset, I had to know: Where do I stand?

I worry the net effect of this recommendation might be for people to think dementia testing is pointless — when its upside, underscored both by my own experience and experts’ insights — is huge.

Lifechanging, even.

“Cognitive screening” typically refers to brief tests like Mini-Cog, MMSE, MIS, and MoCA — the kind where you draw a clock face, recall words or count backwards by sevens to evaluate thinking skills. They’re part of Medicare’s annual wellness visit. The Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE) is a similar self-administered screen. Increasingly, people without symptoms also get other, prevention-focused tests — again, to assess status rather than to diagnose — including more detailed neurocognitive evaluations, physicals, labs and brain imaging (CT, MRI, PET).

I’ve had them all. Sadly, comprehensive testing isn’t financially or logistically feasible for everyone today. (My expensive scans, for example, were for a study I’m enrolled in.) Here’s why testing should be made more accessible and available:

To Get Clarity About Your Dementia Risks

Really: I’m no hypochondriac or test fanatic. But it’s one thing to hear of general risks and another to know your individual status. Once I discovered the growing body of evidence that it’s possible to reduce some risks of Alzheimer’s or delay onset, much the way doctors now assess cardiac risk factors for heart disease and stroke, I had to know: Where do I stand?

My mental slips made me nervous as I underwent cognitive performance tests during a brain-health educational program I attended, again at the University of Texas-Dallas Center for Brain Health and at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, where I’m enrolled in two studies.

Thankfully, I aced them. Imaging showed no brain shrinkage or amyloid plaques, both dementia precursors. Yet, other testing revealed a number of modifiable risk factors setting me up for worsening future scores, including high homocysteine (an amino acid linked to dementia that’s remedied with B vitamins), a thyroid condition, sub-optimal cholesterol and a sad fat-to-muscle ratio.

To Motivate Behavior Improvements

There’s nothing like proof of weakness to motivate behavior change. For the first time in my life, I joined a gym and hired a trainer and began brain-beneficial high-intensity interval training. (Just walking — my old exercise — wasn’t enough, I learned.) I became even more vigilant about my Mediterranean diet, took prescribed supplements, learned “brain breaks” like mindfulness and more.

Two years on, my improved cognitive scores and lower cholesterol keep me going. As does finding myself in stronger shape at 60 than I was at 40. (True, I gained several pounds…but of muscle.)

I now run every choice I make through the lens of my brain health: Is this helping or harming?

For someone else, testing might raise urgency about lousy sleep, hypertension, poor glucose control or stress. Swiss researchers have suggested that having “motivational reserve” — motivation to improve one’s cognitive health — may even have a protective effect on the course of mild cognitive impairment.

To Establish a Cognitive Baseline

Would knowing my cognitive status also be a useful comparison to future changes? I asked this of some geriatricians. Absolutely, Dr. Howard Fillit, who’s also a neuroscientist and founding executive director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, told me.

“Data shows that fifty percent of people with Alzheimer’s aren’t diagnosed until the moderate stage,” he said. “People say, ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ That’s where I really go nuts.”

The sooner cognitive symptoms are noted, the sooner that any reversible explanations (like polypharmacy, low B12 or depression) can be considered. The sooner helpful medical care can begin, too; if not medication (the current crop is unimpressive), then joining clinical trials, putting memory supports in place or managing other conditions differently. For example, Fillit’s own father, a meticulous diabetic, repeatedly landed in the hospital before anyone realized he was misdosing insulin due to mild cognitive dysfunction.

To Help My Family

Some say they’ll worry about their cognitive status down the line. Not a great plan, said Dr. Leslie Kernisan, geriatrician and founder of Better Health While Aging, an educational site on health and caregiving. “There’s a gray area when people around you are worried before you are. You’re putting yourself and others at risk, but refusing to go to the doctor, mismanaging money, continuing to drive and ferociously resisting help.”

An average of two years of this turmoil ensue between family noticing symptoms and diagnosis, according to Fillit. By then, it’s usually too late to competently take part in detailed, dementia-specific advance planning.

“If you want to spare your family the norm, get evaluated,” Kernisan said.

To Ease Anxiety

Finally, many avoid cognitive testing due to a fear of finding out. I don’t get it. Research isn’t finding increased anxiety or depression from cognitive testing, as the USPSTF noted. Many people find relief in getting clarity, one way or the other. Anyway, most of us are the worried well: 97% of those 65-74 and 83% of those 75-84 don’t have Alzheimer’s.

Worth remembering: None of these tests can definitively say if you have, or will get, Alzheimer’s. Not even testing for the APOE-4 gene variant that carries a higher Alzheimer’s risk. Yes, I welcomed this controversial test, too. Though curious, I knew it doesn’t predict anything; it’s just another bit of useful data to inform choices and plans.

Like so many, I’ve experienced dementia’s dreadfulness up close, as it haunted five beloved relatives and upended our lives. Keeping a sharp proactive eye on this specter feels far less stressful than letting it sneak up on me unawares.

(Next Avenue invites opinion pieces that reflect a range of perspectives. Doing so helps our readers learn about views from a multitude of experts.)

By Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and Like Mother, Like Daughter. A longtime journalist, she's also an Alzheimer's and caregiving educator.@

 



2020 Best of the Best

July 17, 2020

We are once again participating in a People’s Choice awards contest sponsored by the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington County – and we need your help to be nominated as the Best of the Best!

 

Please take a moment and visit www.O-Rbest.com and nominate Presbyterian SeniorCare Network in the categories of “Best Assisted Living Facility/Nursing Home,” “Best Place to Work,” and “Best Retirement Community.”

 

Voting begins TODAY -- July 16! Get YOUR NOMINATION in before the July 25th deadline.

 

Here’s how:

Visit the nomination site by clicking here (or copy and paste this link: http://o-rbest.com/contest#//). This link cannot be opened in Internet Explorer, you will need to use another browser such as Chrome or Microsoft Edge.

  1. Scroll down and click on “Health
    1. Select “Assisted Living* Facility/Nursing Home” and type in “Presbyterian SeniorCare Network” 
  2. Next, in the left hand column, select “People and Places
    1. Select “Place to Work” and type in “Presbyterian SeniorCare Network”
  3. Finally, in the left hand column, select “Home Services
    1. Select “Retirement Community” and type in “Presbyterian SeniorCare Network”

      Note – if you nominated us last year, the account you created will work for your nominations this year. Simply type in your email address. If you did not nominate us last year, you will be asked to enter your email address and to create a password.

      If there are any other categories you wish to nominate our organization in, please feel free! If Presbyterian SeniorCare Network makes it into the Top 5 nominated organizations in our categories, we’ll move on to the next round which is voting.

      Thank you for nominating – your nomination helps us to build awareness for all of the great work that happens around our Network each day!

      *Just like with our CARF accreditation in assisted living, this nomination applies to personal care; personal care communities are accepted as entries in the category.

Celebrating 65 Years of Service!

July 14, 2020

At 96 years of age, Longwood at Oakmont resident, Mernie Berger, was honored as the very, first member of the Garden Club of Allegheny County (GCAC) to achieve 65 years of active service. For that distinguished length of service she was surprised with an award on behalf of the Garden Club of America at a very special ceremony.

Normally, an award like this would have been given at the annual GCAC June Meeting, but as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions on meetings and gatherings, the GCAC planned a small outdoor group surprise at Mernie’s Longwood at Oakmont residence.

Mernie who joined the Garden Club of Allegheny County (GCAC) in 1955, was humbled by the honor and remarked, “Everyone was so wonderful and kind to hold a ceremony for me, and I was so surprised by the whole thing. I certainly don’t deserve an award, though. I’m just doing what I love and have loved to do my whole life, which is gardening.”

As both a member of the GCAC and the prestigious Carnegie Museum Women’s Committee, Mernie has supported and led countless fundraisers and events throughout Pittsburgh, including the Three Rivers Arts Festival, which she cofounded.

Mernie’s daughter and fellow GCAC member, Mary Knowles Burgess, commented on her mother’s secret to successful living. Mary noted, “I have known my entire life how incredible my mother is, and there is nobody more giving than her. She doesn’t consider her involvement as anything other than doing what she loves and sharing it with those around her. She is inordinately knowledgeable in the field as a gardener and always pitches in to do everything. She is one of the greatest examples I’ve ever had, in spite of also being my mother.”

Interested in learning more about successful living at Longwood at Oakmont? Visit www.LongwoodAtOakmont.com.

 

Take a Break

June 25, 2020

Are you a full-time caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia? A little breather may be just what you need.

Alzheimer's disease is life-changing for both those who are diagnosed and those close to them. Having a helping hand when you need it is key to keeping yourself, and your loved one living with dementia, healthy and happy.

When you need a break, consider adult day services.Not only is it good for you, but it’s good for your loved one. Adult Day Services offer people living with Alzheimer's and other dementias the opportunity to be social and to participate in activities in a safe environment.

Adult Day Services may be for you if:

  • You are a full-time caregiver: Adult Day Services can provide a much needed break. While your loved one is at adult day, you'll have time to rest, run errands or finish other tasks.
  • You work during the day: Adult Day Services can help you to balance a job with caregiving duties.
  • You want a safe, caring environment for your loved one:  Adult Day Service is a chance for your loved one to share time with their peers. It provides a chance for them to be social and to participate in engaging activities such as music and exercise programs, as well as fun outings. 

Did you know that Woodside Place of Presbyterian SeniorCare Network offers Adult Day Services at its campuses in Oakmont (412-828-5600) and Manchester Commons (814-838-9191)? We are here to help!

Taking a Familiar Walk: Dementia Amid COVID-19

June 12, 2020

A daughter experiences the neighborhood from her mom's perspective
By Laurie Matlin

My 95-year-old mother has reached the limits of her patience with the daughter in her basement. As one of her nine children currently helping out, I take no personal offense. Even for people without dementia, COVID-19 can complicate a well-planned life.

“I’m going away,” she declares one mid-spring day. “Everyone in this place has something to do but me!” My dad and I have just emerged from his office from where we ordered groceries online. She doesn’t understand this new system, and she believes I have overstepped my role.

Mom finds her wool coat and struggles with its zipper. Dad leans in to see how he can help. They turn to me, and I quickly zip the uncooperative coat.

As a power play among younger people who might wish to exert control, running away can be particularly problematic for people with dementia like my mom. Yet here we are, Dad and I both acting as accomplices as if Mom were a temperamental kindergartner bound to return before dinner.

She reaches for her hat and scarf. “Do you want the red one?” Dad asks helpfully. She ignores him and grabs the gray hat with matching scarf. Strands of frizzy silver curls slip out from under her cap, and she slides red Keds onto her feet. Wearing the same sweat outfit she has donned over the past few days, she suddenly looks more youthful.

“You can’t come with me!” she barks at me. Dad pleads for her to reconsider.

“I’m going away,” she declares one mid-spring day. “Everyone in this place has something to do but me!”

“I’m just going for the mail,” I tell her. Stay non-confrontational, I whisper to Dad.

With Dad on one side and me on the other, she manages a step from the front door, then another step off the stoop. Her eyes narrow, and she begins a steady pace along the front sidewalk.

She pauses at the driveway. “Which way did Sam go?” she says aloud to no one. Sam was my late brother with Down syndrome who regularly walked to a bus stop for his job.

Mom looks left, starts in that direction, then stops.

“There’s neighbors there,” she speaks again to herself, allowing me privileged insight as to how her mind is working.

Following Closely Behind

She glances in the opposite direction and sees a hill. “That’s too high,” she says, and I marvel how one part of her is speaking for another part to hear. She resumes her original direction, but now crosses the street.

“Hi Fran!” Pauline, the neighbor she sought to avoid, waves after watching for a bit. Mom makes no acknowledgement, her feet pattering on the pavement. Ten feet behind her, I serve as her shadow in stealth. I smile at Pauline, shaking my head and pointing to my ears to suggest Mom’s hearing inadequacies.

I follow Mom down the hill and around the bend. Tracking her requires few skills attributed to private eyes; I could have practically stepped on the back of her shoe without being spotted. While systematically on guard, she is less capable of easily turning around.

The neighbor teen on his driveway peers momentarily at this odd-looking lady who is overdressed in temperatures approaching 80 degrees. He smirks, resuming the whump, whump, whump of his basketball before pivoting in an easy layup.

From the other side, the mail truck approaches. The mailman looks at Mom as if he’s unsure how he might be of help. While swift for a person her age, Mom walks gingerly, almost like a child with autism, her big toe angling up, and it is perhaps this rigidity that alerts the viewer that something is slightly off. Mom slows at the tree, grabbing a branch. She seems to wish to wait for the mail truck to pass before resuming her plan.

It is at that moment that she turns around and finds me standing at her back. “Hi Mom! What are you doing over here?” I feign happy surprise that our paths should cross at just this moment. The ruse seems to work. “I am heading over there,” Mom points with no rancor in her voice.

I fall in line with her pace and we turn down another street. “The road is closed that way. Maybe we need to go a different way,” I suggest, pointing to the diamond-shaped construction sign. She continues past the sign. We proceed as two toddlers locked in parallel play, aware but not working at all together.

A Walk She Needed

“Where are you going?” I ask after a bit.

“Sam walked this way to catch the bus. It took him downtown,” she explains.

“And then what?” I ask.

“Who knows?” she replies without pausing. She tolerates my presence, perhaps welcoming another mind to support her if things turn rough. I marvel at the workings of her plan, as if following breadcrumbs left by Sam in a different time when buses operated because that’s what buses are supposed to do.

“Why do you want to go downtown?” I ask.

“I want to get to the railroad. Where my father worked,” she explains. She has talked recently about her need to get to her father at the train station, a commuter system that no longer exists in our town. Her father died a half-century ago.

She says she needs to rest and maneuvers herself atop a a tree stump cut at waist level. She watches the birds and feels the breeze, then eventually gets up to walk again.

“You’ve come an awful long way,” I suggest.

“I thank you for walking with me,” she says so softly I lean to hear her words. She still doesn’t look at me, but her voice conveys warmth that surprises me.

No answer.

“I wonder if we might turn around,” I probe gently.

“I’d like to get to the top of the hill,” she starts and then seems to change her mind. She turns around, like Forrest Gump who abruptly ends after running across the country.

“I thank you for walking with me,” she says so softly I lean to hear her words. She still doesn’t look at me, but her voice conveys warmth that surprises me. There is something she needed in this, I realize.

Life Is More Than Just Staying Alive

We continue silently, less fast-paced than on the outward jaunt. She rests at times, but then starts moving again. She reaches the side door to the garage.

“Do you need a hand?” Dad’s face suddenly appears at the doorway, surely watchful for her return.

“No, I can do it myself.” Her voice is resolute but without confrontation. Still, she takes his hand, then ambles up two steps.

When she turns, her eyes suggest a glimpse of a larger world. Her autonomy expanded just a little, other parts loosened from more rigid bounds. In this moment, her opinions still matter and her inner compass is shaken to new life. She looks straight at me.

“Thank you, Laurie,”she says, as if for that moment she can see me as something more than the invader in her land.

Life is more than just staying alive, her presence seems to say. Like unsteady feet on pavement, uncertainties will always arise. “Let life happen to you,” the poet Rilke wrote more than a century ago. “Life is in the right, always.”

The dual punch of dementia and COVID-19 is not easy, not even one little bit. But if we pay attention, maybe there’s still something we can learn.

By Laurie Matlin

Laurie Matlin is on personal leave from her job as a hospital and palliative care chaplain resident while she helps to care for her parents. A former journalist, she has been keeping a video diary of what she calls a sacred time in her family's life.    

Your Brain Has an Immune System, and You Can Boost It

June 5, 2020

It can help you deal with stress, self-esteem and motivation in the pandemic
By Stephen L. Antczak

You’re probably familiar with your immune system — your physiological immune system, that is. It’s the one that sends white blood cells to dispatch with pathogens. But what about your psychological immune system? This is an especially important idea to think about now, in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing.

The term “psychological immune system” was coined by psychologists Daniel Gilbert, who is probably best known for his book Stumbling on Happiness, and Timothy D. Wilson, who is known for his research on self-knowledge. But the basic concept goes back to Sigmund Freud and his ideas regarding defense mechanisms, which were elaborated on by his daughter, Anna Freud, in her book, Ego and Mechanisms of Defense. In fact, “ego defense” is, at least for our purposes, a mechanism to protect the self, or self-image, from whatever threatens it.

A good way to think about the psychological immune system is provided by Emily Rosenzweig, senior behavioral scientist at Ochsner Health, a nonprofit academic health care system in Louisiana: “A range of mental processes triggered by a threat to our sense of self-esteem, self-worth and self-concept.”

What can threaten a person’s self-image, or their self-worth? How about being referred to as a “nonessential” worker?

What can threaten a person’s self-image or self-worth? Here’s an example: being referred to as a “nonessential” worker and told to stay home, losing a significant amount of income in the process.

Positive Self Talk

Here’s where you can use your psychological immune system to help. You can tell yourself that you are valuable to society, the current pandemic situation is temporary and the lives of many others are diminished, even if just a little bit, by your absence.

You should also admit to yourself that people can still live meaningful lives without you, and that’s OK, too. It doesn’t diminish your value as a human being.

Positive self-talk can be quite helpful. However, don’t overdo it.

For example, you wouldn’t want to tell yourself that without you being there, the lives of others are completely devoid of meaning and those people are just miserable. Knowing that’s probably untrue would likely make you feel worse.

“There’s a sweet spot,” says Rosenzweig. But, she adds, “you can’t deny existing negative emotions.” If you try to completely obliterate those negative emotions, however, you’ll probably wind up feeling worse as your brain produces counterarguments that undo your attempts to make yourself feel better.

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Less-Than-Ideal Coping Mechanisms

Being aware of your psychological immune system means you’ll be better able to recognize when it kicks in.

Think about the coping mechanisms you use in a stressful situation or when dealing with the difficulties life throws at you. Do you feel better when you pour yourself a glass of wine or three? Do you avoid dealing with things by binge watching Netflix?

Avoidance is one of your psychological immune system’s tactics, even though it may not be good for you in the long run. Like your physiological immune system, your psychological immune system can opt for the short-term fix over long-term wellness.

Not that drinking one glass of wine or watching two episodes of your favorite show are counterproductive. We all need some downtime. Both are easy to overdo, however, and that undermines the effectiveness of your psychological immune system.

Once Again, Exercise Is Key

So, what can you do to bolster optimal functionality of your psychological immune system?

First of all, you need to feel motivated.

Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the bestselling book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has a suggestion: Exercise.

“Exercise reduces stress and anxiety, and promotes a better mood — all factors that go into motivation,” Ratey says.

Of course, you also need to feel motivated to exercise and in the tug-of-war between staying fit and Netflix, that motivation can be hard to come by.

Ratey suggests doing something easy, like going for a walk every day, preferably outside, even if it’s just a short walk.

Can’t go outside? There’s an app for that. Ratey suggests downloading the free 7 Minute Workout app on your phone. “It’s all bodyweight exercises, and it activates all major muscle groups.” There are many other workout apps you could try as well.

Developing Goal-directed Behavior

There’s also something you can do to maximize the effectiveness of exercise, at least when it comes to your brain and your psychological immune system: Use exercise to help you turn goal-directed behaviors into healthier new habits while making progress towards your goals.

Having a goal is a good way to motivate yourself, but also a way to focus on those behaviors you need to make progress towards that goal.

For example, getting out of debt and becoming financially solvent requires a series of smaller steps to achieve. A good first step in that direction is to create a household budget, which is something you can work on a bit each day while social distancing.

Here’s how exercise fits in: Stress can impair your ability to undertake goal-directed behaviors by making you fall back on normal habits. If your habits are binge-watching Netflix, drinking alcohol or eating cereal late at night, stress may reinforce those less-than-ideal behaviors.

But exercise reduces stress and increases motivation. So, it’s a behavior you might undertake to achieve the goal of better cardiovascular fitness, losing weight or both. In that way, it’s a goal-directed behavior all by itself. But exercising will also help you stay motivated and focused on your other goal-directed behaviors, by reducing stress and increasing motivation.

Best Friends Forever, Once Again

May 29, 2020

After years apart, three women renew their cherished relationships
By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

It’s rare for people to have friends for even a few years. In fact, a 2009 Dutch study found that half of our friends are lost after seven years.

That happened to me and my two best friends from childhood, Shelly and Lora, my “BFFs” (Best Friends Forever). Our paths diverged for many years, but we eventually did reconnect and once we did, it was like we had never been apart.

A Childhood History

I met Shelly on the first day of kindergarten. My dad encouraged a friendship since Shelly was the granddaughter of one of his best friends at work. We both met Lora in 7th grade, when our separate elementary schools merged in junior high.

We did what teenage girls do; we went shopping, stayed at each other’s houses, had slumber parties after football games, kept each other’s most intimate secrets and even raided a parent’s liquor cabinet. We all remained good friends until after our sophomore year in high school, when our interests, classes, boyfriends and part-time work schedules began to take us in different directions.

I wanted badly to see them, so what do three 40-something women do to reconnect and reflect? We planned a slumber party at my house!

By our junior year, I saw less and less of both of them. My father died suddenly in the summer between our junior and senior year of high school and I was then thrust into helping support my mother while attending college most of the day so I could keep our survivors’ benefits (I already had enough credits to graduate high school).

Shelly had a baby and after graduation, I didn’t see my friends again. It wasn’t anything conscious, it’s just that our lives, responsibilities and priorities changed.

Reunited on Facebook

In 2007, my husband Dale and I moved from Kansas City, Kan., where we grew up, to our lake home in Arkansas, five hours away. The move, and the recent loss of my mother, made me reflect on my childhood and what had happened to my friends. As I was packing, I found letters I had written to Dale when we dated as teenagers.

Several were from a week-long summer trip my parents had taken to Lake of the Ozarks in 1980. Lora had come with us and I wrote to Dale of floating on an inner tube on the lake at night, staring at the stars and talking with Lora about our dreams, and about how much I missed him.

Reading those letters, I had the sudden urge to find my two besties from school; it actually took me a year and a half. When I started looking for Shelly and Lora, neither one was on social media, so it wasn’t easy.

On Facebook, I finally located Lora through her brother. Once we connected, Lora told me the last place she thought Shelly lived and worked. And soon, we were all once again reconnected, by email and phone. Lora still lived in our hometown of Kansas City, Kan. and Shelly only lived two hours from me in Springfield, Mo.

We all seemed giddy on phone calls and in emails to reconnect. I wanted badly to see them.

So what do three 40-something women do to reconnect and reflect? We planned a slumber party at my house!

Annual Slumber Party Weekends, Pre-Pandemic

“Aren’t you a little nervous?” Rae, a friend from my present, asked about the planned weekend with friends from my past.

“Should I be?” I asked.

“Well, twenty-seven years is a long time, you don’t really know these people anymore,” she said.

I knew she was right. But I also knew the reunion felt right — and it was. We spent two days at our house laughing, drinking around a campfire (this time, it was legal and we didn’t have to sneak the bottles from our parents’ liquor cabinets) and eating good food.

We got caught up on each other’s lives, our marriages, families, the good times, the challenging times and our losses.

Shelly had married, had two more children with her husband and then divorced. Lora married a guy we went to school with and spent time with him in Japan when he was in the military.

We all brought yearbooks and photos, and took up most of that weekend reminiscing about our school days. As Shelly put it, “We caught up twenty-seven years in about the equivalent of ten minutes.”

Afterward, Shelly sent an email when she returned home saying simply, “I need to laugh like that more often.”

“Why don’t we?” I wrote back to both of them. “We can find time at least to do this once a year.”

So, we’ve done just that, visiting each other’s homes on some trips, taking excursions to regional destinations on others. Some of these involved concerts and all involve a spa day, shopping, drinks, good food and of course, plenty of laughs.

Afterward, Shelly sent an email when she returned home saying simply, “I need to laugh like that more often.”

Since that first party in 2009, our relationships have deepened. As we’ve headed into our mid-50s, all of us have dealt with serious health scares and more traumatic losses.

Lora’s doctor found a 95% blockage in the main artery of her heart, the one commonly referred to as the “widow maker,” and had a stent successfully placed.

Shelly was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. A year later, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent thyroid removal.

I began suffering severe digestive issues and underwent six surgeries in a one-year span to repair a hernia, remove my gallbladder and thyroid, among other problems. Just as I was recovering, my husband, Dale, succumbed to that widow maker heart attack that Lora thankfully avoided.

As we have gathered so many times to laugh, we gathered in unity to help each other through our difficult times. Being in different cities makes it somewhat challenging for us to physically be there when one of us needs our longest-time besties, but we try. If one of us can’t be there with the others, at least we ensure we’re there in love and support through our calls, texts and emails.

Several years ago, we began making our annual slumber party a semi-annual one. We get together once in the spring and once in the fall for those deep belly laughs that make our sides hurt; now in light of the pandemic, we will have to put upcoming reunions on hold.

As the years have stacked up, we spend less time talking about our distant past. We still share that special bond only childhood friends can have, that knowing from where we all came and what helped shaped us. But we also have a special bond of memories we’ve made as we’ve grown older. We have catchphrases and inside jokes only the members of our tribe would laugh at and understand.

There’s a meme on social media that proclaims: “If you have a friend for more than seven years, they’re more than a friend, they become family.”

My two besties from school are more than just BFFs; as Lora says, we are all “Sissy Pops.”

By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Forbes.com, AOL.com, Mainstreet.com, Creditcards.com, Bankrate.com and elsewhere.

Clever Ways Senior Housing Has Kept Residents Engaged During the Pandemic

May 26, 2020

Creative thinking from three execs in a recent webinar on the topic
By Richard Eisenberg

Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

When Senior Living Foresight, a website for senior living community developers and operators, asked if I’d volunteer to host its April 24 Virtual Summit panel: How Senior Housing Is Keeping Residents Engaged in the Pandemic, I agreed. But I was a little dubious about the premise.

After all, we’re well aware of the COVID-19 problems some long-term care communities, their residents and families have been dealing with the virus’ spread; the inability of adult children to see their parents and the temporary halt to congregate dining and activities. As Senior Living Foresight publisher Steve Moran wrote in a wrap-up of the summit:“COVID-19 is hell for senior living.”

But after hearing the session’s panelists describe creative ways their businesses have recalibrated for the pandemic to excite, entertain and energize residents  — sometimes, with real  challenges — I came away pleasantly surprised. Also, I’m hopeful that these new ways of engaging residents in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s will continue and expand when the coronavirus fades.

A quick caveat: My panelists (and many summit speakers and attendees) represented independent living and life care retirement communities. So their residents tend to be healthier than those in nursing homes.

“We decided to actually Zoom to our residents. And I’m not going to say that’s been an easy journey,”

My panelists were Sara Kyle, director of resident experience at Holiday Retirement Senior Living Communities, which house more than 30,000 people across the country; Kelly Stranburg, wellness director at Mather and Theresa Perry, corporate director of hospitality and wellness services at Acts Retirement-Life’s 26 communities (full disclosure: Acts Retirement-Life is a sponsor of Next Avenue).

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Here’s how they answered my three questions about how they’ve engaged residents during the pandemic and expect to in the future:

What forms of engagement have you implemented for your residents during COVID-19?

Kyle first talked about what she and her colleagues stopped doing. “The whole calendar activities that we typically go off of — you could basically just toss it in the trash because it wasn’t going to work anymore,” she said.

Offering virtual web chat and conferencing services, like Zoom, has become a key way to talk to, and with, residents as well as to offer them instruction and entertainment.

“We decided to actually Zoom to our residents. And I’m not going to say that’s been an easy journey,” said Stranburg. ‘You can’t force tech on people, right?”

Initially, she said, Zoom “seemed a little scary, because we were so curious how many of our residents would actually embrace this. Where were they with their comfort when it comes to technology? And what we discovered is: shame on us.”

In fact, Stranburg noted, “every single week, we see our [Zoom] adoption numbers by our residents tick up.” Now, she added, “we’re offering a variety of exercise programs, mindfulness opportunities, art lectures and poetry groups.”

Sometimes, Mather is reaching out to lecturers and performers who’d been part of its programming before COVID-19.  “We’re figuring out ways to embrace their skillsets and talents that our residents love and bringing them into this Zoom world, if you will,” said Stranburg.

Perry echoed this (Acts uses Microsoft Teams, not Zoom), adding that staffers are helping lead the way through YouTube.

“We are definitely leaping into the virtual world as well,” she said. “We have created different ways for our staff to do videos through YouTube… When you have twenty-six communities and thirty fitness staffers, the only way you’re going to connect is through videos, because of the small classes you can have.”

Perry noted that “we have reached more people through virtual fitness than we had in the past.” Some classes are live. “Now we’re taking it to the next level, using our resident portal, and we are making the fitness videos available to do anytime they want.”

One of the panel’s attendees messaged that their community’s Zoom Bingo had gone from 22 people to 100 in two weeks — 25 of the 100 were on screen, 75 played using their phones.

The Touchtown video community engagement platform came up frequently as a huge help. “Touchtown has done a fabulous job of providing us with videos that we can upload to the in-house television, which is the channel [residents] have in their homes, which is important to them,” said Perry.

Stranburg mentioned that, in certain cases, residents who’ve embraced the new technologies during the pandemic have persuaded others to join in. She called this “the power of influence.” A resident who was first resistant might say: “My friend down the hallway called me and they were like, ‘Oh you need to do this with us. It’s really fun,’” Stranburg said.

“We have to continue to explore both sides, technology as well as non-technology for our residents.”

And, she added, “I also think the influence of family has helped. ‘Cause most certainly a lot of the residents I’ve spoken with have shared that they have done FaceTime and Zoom with a family.”

For those refusing to try the technology, some communities have launched phone groups. “They’ve been having conversations, book clubs, basically anything you can think of,” said Perry.

At Mather, Stranburg said, they use “telephone topics,” where anyone can call into the general phone line at a scheduled time to talk about the prearranged topic. Coming up: “10 tips to live well.”

Also recommended: The Institute on Aging’s 24-hour, toll-free Friendship Line, for non-emergency emotional support calls (800-971-0116).

Then there are what Perry called “boredom busters” — puzzles and games her communities hand out every week that can be done in the residents’ homes. “We have to continue to explore both sides, technology as well as non-technology for our residents,” she said.

One problem, however, has been engaging residents with hearing or cognitive issues.

What are some of the best practices you’ve discovered during the pandemic?

“Well-being calls; we call it a concierge service,” said Perry. “We had not done this before. It’s all of our staff calling our independent residents on a daily basis, seven days a week. Basically, we’re just checking in to make sure they’re all right. We’re making sure they have groceries, that they have medications, that they’re communicating with their families and friends. And how we can connect them if they need any help.”

This service also helps draw residents closer to staffers. Sometimes, when a person gets the call, Perry said, “they’re actually answering the phone saying, ‘Hi, Teresa. How are you today? I’m excited that you called me again.” Added Perry: “We’d never anticipated this.”

Stranburg said: “What I’ve really taken away from [the pandemic] is the value in making sure we continue to reinforce communication expectations.”

Kyle reflected with this: “It’s interesting what you do in crisis that you think, goodness, why didn’t we do that earlier?” One of those things Holiday Retirement began is a Bridging Generations website, where volunteers across the country are matched with residents and sign up to be buddies, communicating by phone or email. The volunteers can be any age.

Also, Kyle said, “we’ve gone to hallway activities. The doors of the hallways are absolutely six feet apart, so it’s the perfect spacing. We’re finding that people who never would come down to group exercise love hallway exercise. I saw some broomball going on.”

The pandemic has also shown senior housing operators the hidden talents of some of their staff.

“I didn’t realize we had a classical opera singer,” said Perry. “She has been creating videos for us through YouTube. She explains the opera first and then she sings it. It’s gorgeous.”

When Acts delivers food to residents each night, they add notes from children to their dinner bags.

Some Acts communities have been creating a senior housing version of American Idol. “We call it Acts idol. I love that,” said Perry. After staffers compete for three weeks, residents pick the winner. Next up: “the residents will do this with their talent,” said Perry.

There have also been some successful ideas just to brighten residents’ moods — what Kyle calls “small moments of surprise and delight.”

When Acts delivers food to residents each night, Perry said, they add notes to their dinner bags. “The one thing you’ll hear from the residents is that they get excited about the dinner meal coming because there’s going to be something exciting inside,” said Perry.

Holiday Retirement puts a small flower on dinner trays, along with a note from a staffer. “We’ve had some really emotional connections between staff and residents that have come through pretty big,” said Kyle.

What do you think will be embraced and continued beyond COVID-19?

“The young lady that’s doing the opera? She says she can’t wait for the day that she can actually do it in person, in front of everybody,” said Perry. “I think that would be something we should be tapping into. And hopefully, one day, we can have an audience again and have everybody get back together.”

Great-Grandmother Makes it Home for Mother’s Day

May 8, 2020

Recovers from COVID-19 in Less Than a Month
By Presbyterian SeniorCare Network

“I could not breathe and had no energy,” recalls Carol about the excruciating painful symptoms she experienced at her Tarentum home on March 31st. “When I could no longer get out of my bed to go to the bathroom, that’s when I called out to my family that they needed to get me to a hospital quickly.”

Several days earlier Carol had been to an urgent care center complaining of flu-like symptoms, where she tested negative for the flu and was encouraged to go home, rest, drink lots of water, and take some over-the-counter medications. For the healthy, active great grandmother who was used to watching her five-year-old great granddaughter three days-a-week, the speed and severity of what followed was unbelievable.

“I remember my son saying he would call an ambulance, and the ambulance workers arriving already wearing their protective equipment and taking me to the Allegheny Health Network hospital in Natrona Heights. And then I don’t remember anything else, because I was in a coma for seven days,” she explains. “I think the ambulance workers and the people at the hospital suspected COVID-19 but I don’t remember anyone saying it,” added Carol.

Carol came to learn that indeed COVID-19 was the culprit and that her family would need to be quarantined for 14 days. Fortunately, none of them developed any symptoms, not even her ailing husband who is battling stage four kidney disease.

But on Friday, April 24th, Carol was exuberant. After leaving the hospital on April 16 and being admitted for rehabilitation services at the Presbyterian SeniorCare Network Willows skilled nursing center, she was excited about the prospect of going back to her home in Tarentum. “I’m grateful that the Willows would take someone who was recovering from COVID,” noted Carol. “I had the greatest therapists in the world to help me get back my strength and back to being myself. What I was most concerned about was the 15 steps I’d have to go up in my house. But I’m feeling pretty confident that I can do that after the steps they’ve had me doing at the Willows. I feel I can go home and be safe. They gave me exercises to do when I get home. I really feel I will be fine.”

When asked what she would want people to know about her experience, Carol was emphatic, “I experienced a lot that I never want to experience again. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. If I have to wear a mask the rest of my life, I will.” She added, “It’s a very hard thing to do all that we are asked to do but pay attention, wear your mask, don’t be so anxious to go back to the way things were. We need to be very cautious.”

Carol left the Willows of Presbyterian SeniorCare Network on Sunday, April 26th happily wearing her mask.

Editor’s Note: Per the Presbyterian SeniorCare Network COVID-19 Admissions Guidelines, Carol was not COVID positive upon admission to the Willows on April 16th. Previously COVID-19 positive candidates must meet certain criteria to be accepted for admission into our skilled nursing centers and, as an added precaution, are kept isolated in their rooms for 14 consecutive days and cared by team members who are wearing appropriate PPE. Also keep in mind that Carol’s experience may be different than others who have tested positive for COVID-19.

 
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