Category / General

The Second Year After a Loved One’s Death

December 7, 2018

Moving forward while learning lessons about grief and living with the loss
By Jackson Rainer

For more than 25 years, I served as a psychology professor and researched grief and bereavement. I consulted and taught individuals, couples and families to meet the demands that chronic illness exacts, to build safety nets and resilience in the presence of stress, and to create space for the problems that the loss of a loved one brings. I was widely published, including a well-received book (Life After Loss:  Contemporary Grief Counseling and Therapy), and produced professional audio and video recordings on end-of-life and palliative care.

Throughout, I struggled with the truth that my wife lived with a genetic cancer syndrome causing chronic health concerns, including multiple presentations of vicious cancers over the course of 33 years. She was as well-educated as I; we met the challenges of her illness with state-of-the-art treatment and care, including two decades of participation with the National Institute of Health’s research projects related to Lynch Syndrome.

Then She Died

In the summer of 2016, she began to fail for no apparent reason. Her research teams and physicians had no explanation, nor could they offer any further course of treatment. As she lost energy and strength, I became more alarmed.

The principal investigator of her study told me, “Jack, she has outlived this disease longer than any of us ever expected. She is a medical marvel and there is nothing further that we have to give. It may be time to call in hospice.”

One of her gifted practitioners, a neurologist, suggested that her body “just had enough,” which he termed idiopathic metabolic myopathy, diagnosed when the body unexpectedly stops translating nutrients into chemical energy.

They were right. Her body was exhausted and said “No more!” She died over the course of five weeks as an in-patient in a local hospice, attended to by personal and loving friends with whom we had worked over the years.

The Process of Grief

I arrogantly thought I was ready for my wife’s death. But it took me no time to realize that the experiential nature of grief is very, very different from academic study or clinical facilitation of others through the process. My spouse, lover and favorite playmate was gone. For years, I had taught that the process of grief does not change a person as much as it reveals another part of the self. What I quickly learned is the understanding of myself as student, professor and scholar had little relevance to living as a 61-year-old man whose wife of 38 years had died.

There Are Benchmarks

Much has been written about the natural process of grief. Those in the presence of loss are taught to stay in motion, however that looks personally, and to talk about their feelings of the impact caused by the absence of the deceased. Much is made of the first year following the death of a loved one. There is such focus to understand and explain the loss and come to terms with voids created by the absence of the deceased.

Meeting the markers of the “firsts” such as holidays and birthdays are places for attention, coupled with the erroneous belief that getting over such hurdles will lead to an easier acceptance of the loss.

Little is discussed of the second year, when those who grieve begin to assume a new identity reflecting new circumstances of life. The second-year experiences surprise us in that our loved one will always be absent, yet somehow present. Personally, I became uncomfortably aware of the discrepancy between the world that is now and the world that was.

The Sadness of the Second Year

Sadness is more than an abstract feeling. It penetrates the source of a person’s being and emerges when there is nothing, nothing, nothing to do except live with the loss. It is about resignation and invites one to turn attention inward, to take stock and to adjust.

For me, sadness continues to fine tune my memory in order to tolerate the good, bad, and ugly of my marriage. Over time, sadness has become a bass note to the day-to-day music of my life.

Time has a different meaning. Like all of us, I rely on chronological and sequential time to stay in the rhythm of the day (I have a young friend who calls this “the default world”), but in this second year, I live in what I’ve learned is kairos time, when an hour can be forever, a year a moment. I don’t understand this very well, but trust that time as we typically know it is not real. It is neither an event nor a thing, but a human-mind interpretation of a sense.

For some strange reason, I believe that I can simultaneously grasp the past in memory, the present by attention and the future by expectation. This is the oddest experience and more than a little squirrely.  Life goes on in a linear way, so for many of us grieving the loss of a loved one, the second year forces us to face the harshness of loneliness because the social support of others fades.

What to Do?

In grief, it is never a good idea to curl up into a ball and wait for the will to live to pass away, as appealing as this thought may be. Better, acknowledge the loss and the truth that things do change.

Companionship counters loneliness. While I miss the companionship of my wife, I want the company of others. Such proximity allows an honoring of her spirit, rather than focusing on my intellect. The presence of others bears witness to the struggles of life.

Realize, with “real eyes,” as Rockland, Maine spiritual director Deirdre Felton says, “Doors are opening. Doors have closed. Take a breather and spend time with the new chrysalis that will hatch in its own time, with a new version of yourself, still who you are, but now somehow different.”

By Jackson Rainer

Jackson Rainer is a board certified clinical psychologist who practices psychotherapy with individuals and couples at the Care and Counseling Center, Atlanta.  He is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology with the University System of Georgia.


Doing your homework before joint replacement leads to a better recovery

December 6, 2018

Meeting with a physical therapist and educating yourself before you have joint replacement surgery can help you to have a quicker, less stressful recovery.

Patients who meet one-on-one with a physical therapist (PT) and educate themselves prior to knee or hip replacement surgery feel better prepared to leave the hospital and report less pain and joint stiffness during recovery compared to those who did not, according to a study by Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). The study evaluated the effect of a face-to-face counseling session coupled with web-based education on patient satisfaction and functional outcomes.

The goal of the education session was to manage patient expectations of the surgery and recovery before undergoing the surgery—rather than after the surgery, when they might be dealing with fatigue, pain or anxiety—so they were able to better absorb and retain the information. Researchers followed 126 patients who underwent knee or hip replacement for osteoarthritis.

All patients attended a group education class before surgery—the standard of care for those scheduled for joint replacement at HSS. They were then randomized into two separate groups. In group one, 63 patients attended the one-on-one education session with a physical therapist in addition to the group class and were granted access to an informational web portal featuring videos. The control group of 63 patients attended the standard group class and received a booklet about what to expect after joint replacement—with no further education.

Using patient satisfaction and patient-reported scores to measure pain, joint stiffness and function both before and after surgery, researchers determined that the patients who attended the extra one-on-one PT counseling session indicated they were better prepared to leave the hospital after surgery and were overall more satisfied with the preoperative education they received. Almost 97 percent of these patients accessed the informational web portal, and all of them said they would recommend it for patients undergoing the same procedure.

Almost 70 percent of patients from the group that did not receive the supplemental educational session or web portal access believed they could have benefited from additional education before surgery. Patients who received one-on-one counseling also needed fewer physical therapy sessions in the hospital before discharge and met PT discharge measures sooner, including being able to get out of bed, walk with or without an assistive device and go up and down stairs independently.

The upshot of this research is that, if you are considering joint replacement surgery, ask to meet one-on-one with a physical therapist BEFORE your surgery if that is not your doctor’s standard approach. And take advantage of any and all learning materials your doctor may give you—specifically online videos and information.

The more you know, the better your recovery may be.

Filling the Halls with Music!

December 5, 2018

Allie Overly, pictured sitting at the piano, found her way to Presbyterian SeniorCare Network in 1950 after visiting with a local church as part of the founding members of the Auxiliary. Now, nearly 70 years later, Allie still regularly volunteers at our Oakmont campus a few days a week. While she helps out wherever she is needed, Allie can most often be found creating musical moments at the piano in the lobby of The Willows, the skilled nursing community at the Oakmont campus. Allie plays, from memory, fun and inspiring tunes that are heard not only in The Willows, but also from the connecting hallways of Westminster Place, the personal care community at the Oakmont campus.

Pictured with Allie is resident BJ Crockett; BJ holds sheet music and sings along as Allie plays.

What a great bonding moment – and its music to our ears!

The Benefits of Connecting With Young People

December 4, 2018

A chat with Longevity Innovator and Teeniors CEO Trish Lopez

By The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging

(Advances in science and public health are increasing longevity and enhancing the quality of life for people around the world. In this series of interviews with the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, 14 visionaries are revealing exciting trends and insights regarding healthy longevity, sharing their vision for a better future. The Longevity Innovators interviews highlight new discoveries in biomedical and psychosocial science, as well as strategies to promote prevention and wellness for older adults. This is the sixth in the series.)

Trish Lopez founded Teeniors™, a multi-award-winning startup that includes tech-savvy teens and young adults who help older adults learn technology through one-on-one, personalized coaching. In an interview with the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, Lopez, who is also Teeniors’ CEO, explains the impact of intergenerational connections and how companies can change the future of aging.

Why did you start Teeniors?

The idea that became Teeniors came to mind because of the way I see older adults marginalized and somewhat alienated in our society. My mom, Lillian is an example — she’s 78 and loves technology. She likes reading CNN on her smartphone, checking out Facebook photos of our family. She also hates technology.

There are several times a month when my brothers or I get a phone call. She loses her password, loses documents and has trouble understanding some technologies; the reality is, we can’t always be there to help. It turns out, of course, that we’re not alone in this problem.

There are millions of Lillians out there. For these people, and those of us who love them, we created Teeniors.

What surprising lessons have you learned regarding intergenerational connections?

The first surprising lesson is how this program benefits the kids and young adults just as much as it benefits the seniors. We hear quite a bit from the teens who work with their parents about the significant impact it’s had on their own lives, mostly in the way of developing higher self-esteem and self-confidence, especially for those who are shy, introverted or socially awkward.

We’ve also learned how ignorant our society is of the way we isolate and disregard people as they age. The discrimination older people face is horrible; the isolation and loneliness that aging people experience cause profound emotional and health issues. On the other end of the spectrum, many young people who crave human connection can find friendship and great wisdom from older adults.

Older adults who are happier and healthier help our society becoming happier and healthier. They are more valuable and engaged in entering the workforce, volunteering and taking care of young relatives or others.

The greater diversity in our society, the better it is for all of our communities. That diversity does not just come in the way of race or gender; it comes in including people of different ages, cultures, skill sets and special needs. The more we can see this diversity in our communities and recognize its value, the better off we will be.

Trish Lopez, founder and CEO of Teeniors

Apart from adapting to the digital world, what other benefits do older adults receive from intergenerational connection?

There’s a human connection element for sure. One example happened between Terri, an older adult, seeking help during one of our first ever group coaching events, and a new teenior, Katie.

Terri wanted to learn how to access her boarding passes online. When she had finished her session with Katie, I walked up to do my usual customer feedback review. Terri burst into tears and said: “For someone who’s alone, who has no young people in her life, you all have given me hope. Someone will help us and not yell at us? You welcomed me the moment I walked in. You didn’t make me feel stupid or condescended to. I hope you realize the impact of what you’re doing here for people like me.”

That conversation, both for Katie and me, was so meaningful that it was one of the things that inspired me to keep going with this project for the rest of that first year. I somehow knew exactly how she felt.

In our youth-obsessed culture, is it possible for intergenerational connections to have a large and lasting impact?

Yes. We’ve seen it. We’ve had clients and coaches who’ve become friends and stayed to talk to each other past their “work time.” And every single coach we’ve had, and nearly every client we’ve had (over 1,000), has provided us feedback about the impact this has had on their lives.

How can companies work to challenge conventional wisdom and change the future of aging?

Simply ignore the conventional wisdom. If what is conventional wisdom to you about older adults is the same that was conventional wisdom to me (like the older you get, the less you “get it”), ignore it. Change that conventional wisdom by acting as though that boundary, that limit, that generalization does not exist.

Create things for human beings, not for age groups.

What do young people gain from working with the older adults? Moreover, how do the older adults contribute in their own ways? 

Young people love this work. That’s what we have seen. Why do they love it? Because they immediately go from being underestimated, to the most valued person in the room.

They’re respected for their knowledge, and they’re appreciated for their help. One example of that appreciation is the Terri story, and we have dozens more like that.

What do you say to those who are not aware of the power of intergenerational connections?

My response would be similar to any other question of a lack of awareness about anything. Whether it’s the power of intergenerational connections, diversity in who you spend time with, open-mindedness in thought — it’s all a matter of educating yourself about things you don’t know about.

If you choose to do that, you can live such a richer, fuller life.

By The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging

The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging aims to improve lives and strengthen societies by promoting healthy, productive and purposeful aging.

When You Are Shamed for Moving a Parent into a Care Center

November 30, 2018

How to cope when other relatives don't understand your decision

By Rachael Wonderlin

Beth came up to me, tears in her eyes.

“My cousins came into town,” she lamented. Normally this would not seem like a big deal, but Beth’s cousins were diametrically opposed to the idea of her moving her mother — their aunt — into a long-term dementia care community.

“They think I shouldn’t have moved Mom…they think I should have just kept taking care of her at home,” Beth sighed, dabbing at her eyes. “Maybe they’re right. Maybe I should just take Mom back home with me.”

More3 Surprising Things That Raise Your Dementia Risk

I would love to tell you that this was the first story of a family member getting shamed for moving their loved one into a care community, but it is not. I am the director of Memory Care at an assisted living community, and I’ve been working in dementia care for five years. I hear this kind of thing all the time.

Harsh Judgment

We’ve all heard of “shaming,” a phrase that seems to have picked up more popularity recently. We have seen everything from “body shaming” to “middle class shaming” in articles online. I’ve become very familiar with another type of shaming: shaming people for moving their loved ones into long-term care communities.

Although it would be very nice if everyone could take care of their aging loved ones at home forever, this is just not the case for many families. There are many factors involved: where the family lives, what jobs and responsibilities the family members have, what type of care the aging adult needs, financial concerns, nutrition and health concerns.

Most complicated are mental health concerns for the aging adult. Taking care of anyone at home is challenging. Taking care of an adult with dementia at home is particularly difficult. For example, if you are caring for someone with dementia in your three-story house, you cannot explain to that person that he or she should not attempt to use the stairs if they are home alone. People with dementia have trouble remembering facts, following directions, or understanding risks.

I cannot tell you how many people have had to move their loved ones with dementia into an assisted living or skilled nursing facility because of a major fall.

A Limited View

I explained all of this to Beth. I also reminded her that, no matter what her cousins from out of town had to say, they were not the ones caring for her mother. They didn’t come visit her every single day. They hadn’t been taking care of her at home for the past two years, watching her dementia progress and her falls become more frequent.

These cousins hadn’t retired early, just so they could help care for this aging woman in her own home. They weren’t taking time away from friends, other family, and vacations to bathe, clothe and feed this woman.

More3 Ways to Work From Home and Be a Caregiver, Too

Beth’s cousins had absolutely no idea what it was like to take care of another human being at home without much in the way of other help.

It’s Different With Kids

When you are raising children at home, there’s a community that rallies around you. You host big birthday parties, invite other parents and their children over to your house, plan nights out, call up babysitters, and, although you are probably exhausted, you feel joy in watching your children learn and grow.

From what I have seen, caring for an aging parent is the complete opposite. There is no sense of community. There is no joy in watching them grow and learn. There is only guilt, sadness and panic as you watch them descend deeper into physical and mental disability. There aren’t birthday parties, family gatherings and babysitters to lend you a hand.

A Common Theme

I offer a phone call service for caregivers who have questions about dementia care. While I always help these caregivers troubleshoot their dementia-related issues and provide advice about care communities or care at home, we always end up talking about guilt. All of these caregivers feel guilty, even the ones who are taking care of their loved ones at home.

They don’t give themselves time off, they don’t get paid, and they certainly don’t let themselves off the hook about mistakes they feel that they have made.

“Mom fell the other day,” one told me. “I left the room for 20 minutes to do her laundry, and I should have put the phone next to her — she could have called me for help! This was all my fault.”

‘Clean, State-of-the-Art’

Choosing to move a loved one into a care community is a personal decision. Care communities are also not the awful places we read about decades ago. “Putting someone in a home” does not carry the painful weight it used to carry.

Many of the care communities I’ve visited are clean, state-of-the-art buildings that offer social activities and outings. Sure, care communities are not perfect, but caring for people is an imperfect science. Choosing to move a loved one into assisted living or skilled nursing should not be a worst-case scenario. Sometimes it’s the best-case scenario for aging adults and their families.

My hope is that, as our population continues to age, our society will begin to understand the need for all types of care. The U.S. prides itself on being made up of many types of people and families. Yet we lack the progress and understanding that comes with accommodating different types of caregiving. You can care for a loved one from across the country and still be a fantastic caregiver. There is no shame in choosing the best possible care situation for you and your loved ones.

All Ages Make a Difference

November 28, 2018

Submitted by Haley Chiusano, dining services aide at Longwood at Oakmont

I have been around older adults my whole life. When I was born, my Mom was the Director of Recreation at the Presbyterian SeniorCare Network Oakmont campus. When she would go to work on the weekends or on a holiday, I would go with her. From summer picnics to trick or treating at Halloween to Thanksgiving dinners and of course, Christmas caroling, I was right there enjoying my time with the residents. Being that I was little, I did not understand what was actually transpiring or why my Mom took me with her, but I was having fun so I didn’t mind.

My favorite memory from when I was little was every Fourth of July, the band Dr. Zoot would play outside before it got dark enough for the fireworks. I would stand in between the band and the residents and do cartwheels and flips until I was so tired I could not stand anymore. To this day, which is about 12 years later, when I walk through the halls, there are still a few residents that know me as “the little girl who did the flips.”

When I got older, my Grandma moved into Westminster Place at the Oakmont campus. Anytime I was home with my Mom and she had to go into work, I would ask to go along to visit with her. I would spend hours in my grandma’s apartment playing Sega and pulling YouTube videos up on her computer, singing and dancing around the room for her. When it was time to go to dinner, I loved going with her. She lived right across the hall from the café, so as soon as she opened her door and the other residents saw me, they all got very excited. Whoever was there that day would sit at my Grandma’s table because they liked when someone new was there to talk to (especially someone as young as I was). We would sit in the dining room for hours after dinner, just talking about what I did for fun and how school was going. My Grandma and I always dreaded the “time to go home” phone call from my Mom. It came too soon every time.

When I turned 12, it was a big deal. I was finally old enough to volunteer! I had this project in school called the “Pay It Forward Project.” The project meant that I was supposed to do something good for someone, and then that person was supposed to something good for someone else and so on. So I decided to make this project a bit bigger. Instead of just me going to volunteer, I took some friends with me. That summer, myself and four of my friends would go all day every Wednesday and help in the Recreation Department. We did things such as rewrite special events on the whiteboards in the resident neighborhoods and take residents to the Corner Store. Our favorite thing to do was B-I-N-G-O! Sometimes, we would host three different Bingo games in one day. There was one resident in particular from The Willows who just loved us, and we loved her too. She never missed one of our bingo games. She would help us set up and take down, and she would even bring snacks for us and the other residents attending. Every time, right before a game would start, my friend Shannon would say “Okay, we are going to get started, is everyone ready?” And she would say, “Ready for Freddy!” We do not know where “Ready for Freddy” came from, but it made us laugh every time she said it!

When I started sixth grade, my Mom became the Administrator at Woodside Place of Oakmont, a specialized dementia care community. I remember being a little nervous to go help out there at first because I was not used to interacting with residents living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. My Mom and I talked about the disease and she reassured me that I would be fine with my social skills, and as soon as I walked in, I was. The Woodside Place residents soon became some of my favorites.

In my ninth grade Civics Class, we had to have at least an hour of volunteer work each nine weeks. All my friends would ask to come with me to Woodside Place to get their volunteer hours completed. They were nervous at first too, but I told them they would be fine, just like my Mom did for me. They all ended up loving the residents right away, just like I did.

Right after I turned 17, I applied for a job as a Dining Services team member at Longwood at Oakmont, the Presbyterian SeniorCare Network independent living community in Plum. Working three to four times a week, and spending an hour with them every time, the residents started to remember my name. This was a big deal to me. Whenever I would volunteer and hear a resident call a nurse or an aide by their name, I would get a little jealous because I always wanted them to remember my name too. But, being there only once a week and not seeing all of them every time made it hard. Now, at Longwood, most of the residents know my name, because after they have finished eating, we will have conversations while I clean up. We talk about anything and everything. One resident told me about how he and his wife started a business. That business did so well that when they retired they were able to travel the world together. Every night at dinner he tells me a different story about the incredible adventures they went on. He reminisced about their long nights in Brazil and their hot days in Cairo. It is amazing to me how he can recall any detail from any city. I look forward to these stories and it is still one of my favorite parts about my job.

I believe that intergenerational partnerships are so very important. Even though we have different lifestyles, we can still enjoy things as simple as sharing a conversation. I have learned so much from our seniors over the years, and I’m sure I have taught them quite a bit too. I enjoy going to work to be with my residents every day, and honestly, isn’t that is what it’s all about?

If you are like Haley, and want a career where you can spend your days bonding with our residents, explore careers at Presbyterian SeniorCare Network! 

Next Avenue Readers Find Happiness and Connection in the Arts

November 27, 2018

The results of a Vitality Arts survey highlight the impact of creative pursuits

By Julie Pfitzinger 

“Because it makes me happy.” This was the top response to a question in a recent Next Avenue Vitality Arts survey on why our readers value participating in a favorite pursuit geared toward the arts.

With the 10-question survey, posted in August on the Next Avenue Facebook page and distributed in our weekly Next Avenue newsletter, we wanted to find out not only why readers find themselves drawn to the arts, but how they participate. We also wanted to discover if, through Next Avenue’s Vitality Arts reporting, they have developed more awareness about the positive impact the arts can have on aging.

Many Types of Arts Activities

Next Avenue readers are an active group. From bowling to book clubs and from choirs to comedy classes, more than 60 percent participate in group activities on a regular basis. Specifically, 53 percent engage in the arts in some way — examples include dancing, painting, acting, writing groups, playing music and more.

And if they don’t know, or want to learn more, about a specific facet of the arts, 73 percent indicated they have considered taking a class with an arts focus.

During the past year, Next Avenue has featured several stories on classes and workshops offering opportunities for older adults to learn about a pursuit they’ve long found intriguing and are now ready to try, such as How You Can Overcome Opera Phobia, Older Adults Paint En Plein Air Where It’s 19 Degrees, and Beating Those Music Beginner’s Blues.

Some readers are already taking action. “Learning to play the piano (on my bucket list) at age 74,” one wrote.

Benefits of the Arts

In addition to the happiness factor, Next Avenue readers believe there are other important reasons to participate in the arts, including the value of connection (“because it’s a good way to meet other people and make friends”) and feeling “a sense of purpose” which speaks to the desire to stay active and remain engaged in a particular area of interest.

One retired reader said, “I am doing a variation of the activities I did in junior high school; i.e. saxophone in the school band, mountain dulcimer in dulcimer jam group, and am currently in a watercolor group. Retirement is like going to day camp with all new friends. I love it.”

Another reader revealed, “I sing in two groups and love it. Was a great way to meet new people when we moved to D.C. from Louisiana to help with our grandsons.”

Like the previous respondent, this reader also values participation in more than one artistic endeavor, adding that “painting landscapes and seascapes have been good for my brain, too.” (For more on the impact creative pursuits can have on the aging brain, read Scientists and Sopranos Partner Up for ‘Music and the Mind.’)

Overcoming the Challenges of Age

One other area we were interested in learning more about was whether our survey respondents believed their age impacts their participation in the arts or other activities.

When asked if they ever felt stereotyped because of age, two thirds responded ‘yes.’ And 53 percent said they felt they’ve been discriminated against due to their age. Just over 60 percent believe that people underestimate their abilities or talents due to age.

To help combat this, one reader indicated that developing a broader social circle has had a positive impact, saying: “Try new things and be open to younger people as friends. I have friends who are 30 years younger who are a delight to me.”

However, we learned that other people’s perceptions are not an obstacle to participating in something new, according to the majority of the Vitality Arts survey respondents. When asked, “Have you ever decided not to try a new activity because you were worried about other people judging you negatively because of your age?” more than 70 percent said ‘no.’

One of our 2018 Influencers in Aging, Dominic Campbell, the co-founder of Creative Aging International, addressed this topic, saying, “Attitudes are influenced by ‘story;’ the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the ones told about us by others. We become the ‘old’ we have in our mind’s eye.”

Concerns about Program Costs

In response to our survey, some readers indicated that financial constraints can affect their ability to participate in the arts or other activities.

“Some classes are priced way too high, a lot more than I can afford. Example: At my local arts center, classes run from $100 to $400, most in the $150 to $200 range. For 6-8 weeks of classes, how many seniors can afford to take even one class?” noted one respondent.

In our Vitality Arts reporting, we’ve discovered several low-cost options for a variety of activities, including classes and events at local public libraries. We’ve also featured several stories on creative and inexpensive alternatives to pursuing a passion, such as 8 Tips to Become a Painter at Any Age and The Easy, Inexpensive Way to Make Your Own Movie.

The Value of the Arts is Ongoing

Whether trying something new or returning to a former passion, our readers value the opportunity to enhance this time in their lives by including the arts. Here’s a sampling of what we heard:

“I am trying new things, taking classes, meeting new people. My senior years have been a great way to explore, bring purpose to my life, and just grow!”

“I have always been curious and love learning. I am grateful for retirement so I can spend time on my true passions.”

“Arts have been a rich part of my life since childhood. I don’t expect I will ever stop participating.”

By Julie Pfitzinger

Julie has worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years; most recently she was a managing editor for the community lifestyle magazine group at Tiger Oak Media in Minneapolis, where she also served as editor of Saint Paul Magazine. Julie can be reached via email at    Follow her on Twitter @juliepfitzinger.


Keepers of Stories, Builders of Relationships

November 26, 2018

How our Chaplains Connect to Purpose in our Care Communities

“This day, this illness, whatever is troubling a resident, is not who they are as a whole person. Spiritual care or compassionate care involves nurturing the whole person, especially the spirit,” says Susan Blank, director of pastoral care at our Oakmont campus. “This may take the form of organized religious practices, or even non-religious based emotional support. We are here to help the spirit, the emotional and thinking self, which ultimately improves outcomes in life and in health,” she continues.

Susan is one of a group of chaplains that serve all of the campuses around our Network. Their unwavering mission is to provide spiritual support to residents, families and even our team members. Pastor Gary Gibson, the director of pastoral care at our Washington campus explains that the mission of the chaplain is “to care for the soul of each person by nurturing faith and spirituality. We work to find meaning and purpose as it has the potential to play a vital role in the aging process.”

Finding meaning and purpose is not something you can do by sitting still. You will rarely find one of our chaplains in their office – they are all active members at our campuses and are out and about offering their services. A typical day for one of our spiritual counselors can range from leading worship, to one-on-one conversations with residents to offering faith counseling and reassurance to a resident in a time of need. We have residents of all faiths at our campuses; so our chaplains help to organize various types of services and communion so that we are able to serve residents regardless of faith. Our chaplains even review resident census and medical materials to be in the know of resident in need or in crisis.

“Our help comes from getting to know our residents and their families so that we can meet them where they are, not where we would like to take them,” says Gary. What Gary is explaining is how spiritual care fits right into our person-centered culture.

Being Present and Journeying With Our Residents

“Person-centered, I just love that term! Person-centered is what we are all about in pastoral/spiritual care. Each time I visit with a resident, I truly go in with an open heart prepared to listen to each person and their needs. We talk about love, forgiveness, self-worth and so many other topics of importance,” Susan says. Everyone has a need for meaning in life, for self-esteem and belonging. Our spiritual programming facilitates all of those things. Here’s how.

Building Relationships

At the core of all of our chaplains is a selfless sense of service. Chaplains are often requested when times get tough – when a resident is actively dying or in a health crisis. But the relationship they build with a resident starts shortly after arrival on campus.

“I’ll often wait a day or two before introducing myself to a resident; the admission process can often be overwhelming and I like to arrive after that part is already over,” says Susan. She continues, “Our residents are in our care communities because they have some sort of need, so it is important for us to build a relationship with them, early on, that consists of caring and trust. That way, when a time of difficulty arrives, our residents and their family members feel comfortable calling on us for guidance and support.”

Needs vary from resident to resident and are often dependent on where the resident is in their journey. But part of spiritual care, and our person-centered culture, is to meet residents where they are, with what they need at the time.

“I remember Miss Norma, who resided at Southmont, our skilled nursing community in Washington. Norma would tell me that she wanted something to do and she often said to me that she could cook and clean as well as any of our employees. It didn’t matter to Norma that we took care of all of that for her – she was seeking to contribute in her new home,” reflects Gary.

Norma was wheelchair bound with severe arthritis in her knees, but that didn’t stop her from requesting a broom and dust pan one morning when she spotted some dry cereal on the floor after breakfast services was over. This was the new beginning Norma had been looking for. She knew what her job would be and after each meal; you could find Norma with her broom and dust pan cleaning the floor to be sure it was all ready for the next service.

Gary continues, “You know, to some, cleaning the dining room might seem like a menial task, but to Norma, it was purpose and duty that gave her life meaning; she took pride in her job.”

By listening, addressing and making meaningful connections, our chaplains build relationships with our residents to help find the best ways to provide both meaning and purpose in their lives.

The Life Review

“The favorite part of my job is that I get to be a keeper of stories,” shares Susan. One of the ways that our chaplains help residents reflect is through a Life Review. “Many, many residents who are facing advancing years or illness benefit from a life review. This can be in the form of their personal reflection; of talking with me or someone else, or even through a written review.” Through the reviews, our teams help residents to reconnect with memories of their families and of life’s adventures and achievements. For some, they connect with our belief in a higher power.

Susan explains that the life reviews are therapeutic for our residents and that the conversations are very personalized with each individual. “I find the life reviews to be very beneficial to helping our residents re-learn their self-worth. Some of our residents are prone to feel less useful, and sometimes even feel they are a burden to others when they no longer do the things they used to do. These reviews are invaluable to sustaining purpose and meaning in life and the reviews are often done when the residents may be feeling vulnerable.”

To further enhance the life review process, Susan held “Spiritual Autobiography” classes for residents at Westminster Place, our personal care community in Oakmont. “We wrote stories of our past experiences, the things that made us into the person we are today, the things that have molded us and shaped us on our journey of faith.” The participating residents found that themselves writing short stories about their lives, and now, more than a year later, one resident continues to write about the people and events in her life.

Susan shares, “I love a particular quote by Madeleine L’Engle who said, ‘The great thing about growing old is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.’ Part of my mission with the life reviews and the spiritual autobiographies is to ensure that no one loses any of the ages that have been – those memories are part of the whole person.”

Enhancing Worship and Services for All

Worship and faith in our dementia communities is strong; just because memories are fading, that doesn’t mean that our residents cannot engage in worship. Susan says, “I adapt worship for our residents at Woodside Place of Oakmont. Many of the residents find the hymns familiar, and because music is one of the last things our residents living with dementia are able to hold onto, we do a lot of singing. For those who still like to follow along, I have created a color coded hymn book. Rather than asking them to turn to a certain page number, which is often difficult, I ask them to turn to the yellow page or the green page. Colors are easier, which makes worship more fulfilling.”

Across our Network, the chaplains have teamed up with our Information Systems team to explore new ways for technology to enhance worship services. Some of our communities are equipped with broadcasting equipment in the chapel; they are able to live broadcast the service and show it on our in-house television station. Residents who are unable to make it to service can watch worship in the comfort of their own room or apartment. With the help of the information services team, they are working to share available broadcasts with other communities around the Network.

Support at End of Life

“Believe it or not, the favorite part of my job is visiting with residents who are having a health crisis or who are actively dying. I am grateful for the opportunity to help make a sacred place where residents and families can receive prayer and comfort,” Susan says.

She continues, “There is an expression, a good death, and I firmly believe that reflective practice brings us peace.” According to, by most standards, a good death is one in which a person dies on their own terms, relatively free from pain, in a supported and dignified setting.

Susan emphasizes that when visiting at the end of life, it’s about reminding families that they have provided good care for their loved ones and that their family bonds will not be broken. Susan will help families find comfort in telling stories and reminiscing about the good days. “I find this exercise reminds family members that each person in their life is unique and precious and has made a lasting difference in the world.”

Get by with a little help from Presbyterian SeniorCare Network

November 26, 2018

Get by with a little help from Presbyterian SeniorCare Network
Alzheimer’s support services are available across our Network

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 little help or an ear to listen, support services are available.

Support groups

Often times, caregivers say they are looking for support from people who "really understand because they've been there." An Alzheimer's Support Group offers just that – a place for caregivers, family and friends of persons with dementia to meet and develop a support system.

Support groups offer a place to:

  • Exchange information on caregiving problems and solutions
  • Talk through challenges and ways of coping
  • Share feelings, needs and concerns

Presbyterian SeniorCare Network, in affiliation with the Alzheimer’s Association, holds support group meetings in various locations:

We hope you'll join us! 

“Bouncing” to a Different Beat

November 23, 2018

For 25 years, Ralph Phillips woke up each day, put on a suit and tie, and went to work at an investment management firm, of which he was the proud owner. However, after his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that all began to change.

Ralph’s father battled Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years, and towards the end of his dad’s life, Ralph became more involved in the medical and day-to-day aspects of his father’s care. From doing things like taking vitals, administering medication and drawing blood samples, Ralph not only learned that he had a knack for providing care, but that he enjoyed that type of work. This realization changed his life. To spend more time with his father, Ralph sold his practice and some years after his dad’s passing, Ralph made another life changing decision – he decided to become a certified nurse’s aide (CNA).

“I wanted to find something that I thought would be particularly meaningful and useful, so I decided to become a CNA,” said Ralph.

In order to begin his new career, Ralph needed to properly prepare for the job, so he enrolled in the CNA Training Classes offered at Presbyterian SeniorCare Network. After completing the course and graduating, he began working at The Willows, the skilled nursing community at the Presbyterian SeniorCare Network Oakmont campus, where he has been part of the team for almost one year.

Since his career change, Ralph has found his life’s purpose, easily recognizing the importance of the work that is done by Presbyterian SeniorCare Network employees, noting, “We have a real opportunity to fundamentally affect the lives of our residents and their families, and to improve their quality of life.”

He believes that working as a CNA is both a rewarding and impactful career, and he wishes that more people would recognize that and consider a job as a CNA. “Be compelled to help others for a living,” urged Ralph. “Our residents have lived through and experienced so much in their lives - they deserve the best care that we can possibly give them.”

Perhaps a bonus that ties to Ralph’s decision to sell his business and help care for his dad – he was able to coach girls basketball and volleyball, both sports in which his children play. Ralph says, “My dad's sacrifices when we were children made it possible for my brothers and I to participate in sports. When I sold my business, I was able to share my love of sports with my children by volunteer coaching.” The basketball he tosses is signed by all of the Mary Queen of Apostles girls he coached in 2014 – a very sentimental heirloom.

Ralph’s life has certainly changed over the last few years, but he’s not slowing down. His passion for caring for others and his love for the job led him to the decision of returning to school to become a registered nurse. He begins school at UPMC St. Margaret on September 4.

As he pursues licensure as an RN, Ralph is reflective of his work and how he got to this point in his life. “Peace of mind is a very important part of this work. I’ve been in their (the families) seat, so I know what it’s like to have to try and manage care for someone that you love,” said Ralph. “You lose perspective when dealing with your own loved one. Here, I get to keep perspective and make a positive impact on the residents and their families. That’s why I love my job.”


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