Category / Stress

Easing the Isolation During the Coronavirus Crisis

April 3, 2020

Stay-at-home orders can make isolation even worse for many
By Liz Seegert

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has much of the world sheltering in place. While it may be frustrating and challenging for many of us, this increased isolation is especially hard on the mental and physical health of older adults — the same group most at risk of getting the virus with and severe consequences of infection.

About 28% of older adults in the United States, or 13.8 million people, live alone, according to a report by the Administration for Community Living’s Administration on Aging. While many older Americans say they’re not usually lonely or socially isolated, they now find themselves suddenly cut off from in-person contact with friends, family and activities that help keep them engaged. This increases anxiety and fear and potentially leads to long-term negative consequences, say mental health experts. But there are ways to ease the isolation.

Research links social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death, according to the National Institutes of Health. People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility and lack of transportation are at particular risk.

Now, we can add COVID-19 mitigation measures to this list.

One Crisis on Top of Another

“What I have seen in my clinical practice is that disruption in routine and the unknown is very anxiety-provoking,” says Eve Byrd, a nurse-practitioner with expertise in geriatric psychiatry.

Byrd, who directs the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, says one key strategy for maintaining good mental health in the current climate is limiting exposure to what’s on television. However, TV or radio may be the only sources of distraction for older adults, if poor eyesight limits their ability to read, knit or enjoy hobbies that require visual acuity.

“What I have seen in my clinical practice is that disruption in routine and the unknown is very anxiety provoking.”

What concerns Byrd most is that without people coming to visit or regular interactions with others in the community, it’s hard to know how well an older adult is truly functioning. Things can go badly very quickly.

“When that routine is disrupted it’s very, very scary, because they may not have the wherewithal to be able to reach out, especially if they’re in a building that doesn’t have any kind of services or isn’t checking in on people,” Byrd says.

So, some older people may become depressed, and begin to feel hopelessness about their situation. Some fear going out for groceries or to the pharmacy. They may stop preparing meals or taking their medication. Fortunately, service providers in many communities recognize this risk — and hundreds of volunteers have stepped forward to deliver meals, conduct wellness checks by phone or just leave a note on an older person’s door to let them know they’re not alone.

Our Commitment to Covering the Coronavirus

We are committed to reliable reporting on the risks of the coronavirus and steps you can take to benefit you, your loved ones and others in your community. Read Next Avenue’s Coronavirus Coverage.

Easing the Isolation

For older adults who suddenly find themselves homebound, there are numerous ways to cope, according to Byrd.

“Scheduling their day, if they’re able to do that, is really important,” she advises. “It’s a technique we use in psychosocial services called ‘behavioral activation’. And what that means is really being very intentional of thinking, what are the things that you enjoy doing, and then adding more of those to your day.”

It’s not about just turning off the television. It’s thinking of things that you enjoy doing, and then adding a couple of those activities to the day just so it’s less monotonous, Byrd says. It can be simple pleasures, like writing letters to friends, sitting on the front porch for 20 minutes, calling a grandchild, looking at an album of family photos, or at a magazine. It’s not as easy as it sounds, Byrd admits, but it really makes a huge difference.

“You have to kind of think of those simple pleasures and try your best to keep those routines up and stay really intentionally thinking about what are things that make me feel better versus sitting and kind of obsessing over these things that we don’t have control over right now,” Byrd says.

How to Be Alone, but Not Lonely

There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely, according to Ruth Finkelstein, executive director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at Hunter College in New York City and a professor at Hunter College’s School of Urban Public Health. Finkelstein is also a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.

She recently wrote about how social distancing can not only save lives, but can also be an opportunity for those of us who have access to social networks, information and resources to help those who do not.

“For lots of people, getting out and doing errands is an important part of their socialization,” Finkelstein says. “I’ve characterized it as their spiderwebs; it’s in a lower level than a social network.” We can help our older relatives, friends or neighbors figure out how to keep those networks active.

“We need to be more committed in our actions as far as older adults, and we need to look for signs long after the crisis is over.”

If the older adult has internet access, you can help them sign up for services like grocery delivery, even if they normally go out to shop. Regular check-ins from multiple family members can be very helpful, especially if you can conduct Zoom or FaceTime chats. “But sometimes, technology just adds more anxiety,” Finkelstein says.

She suggests older adults even become “virtual” volunteers themselves, perhaps making phone calls to others who may feel isolated and alone. Many senior centers, places of worship or settlement houses welcome the participation.

“It would say to older people who are able, that ‘I’m helping, participating.’ Feeling like you’re contributing is a good antidote to the messages that are making you feel like you have a problem,” Finkelstein says.

The New York Academy of Medicine has compiled this list of additional ideas on how we can help our older neighbors who may be anxious about venturing out or have no one nearby to help.

Even when this public health threat eases, the mental health needs of older adults need to remain in the spotlight, Byrd says. Depression, anxiety and other issues are often overlooked as just something that happens to people as they age.

“We need to be more committed in our actions as far as older adults, and we need to look for signs long after the crisis is over,” she says.

By Liz Seegert

New York-based journalist Liz Seegert has spent more than 30 years reporting and writing about health and general news topics for print, digital and broadcast media. Her primary beats currently include aging, boomers, social determinants of health and health policy. She is topic editor on aging for the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including Consumer Reports, AARP.com, Medical Economics, The Los Angeles Times and The Hartford Courant.

Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse

January 14, 2020

The financial topic is one couples hate to think about, but should
By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

When my husband, Dale, passed away at age 57 from a sudden, massive heart attack two days before Thanksgiving in 2018, the last thing on my mind was the finances. This quickly changed, however, when I realized that as a relatively young widow of 54, I had just lost our second income.

To exacerbate my situation, due to my age and not having dependent children at home, I was ineligible to draw even partial Social Security income until turning 60. Nor could I withdraw from our retirement funds without heavy penalties and taxes until age 59 ½. On top of all that, my sole income from my freelance writing business would be subject to the higher single-payer tax bracket the following year.

However, I had learned an important life lesson from my parents when I was just 17; it proved invaluable after Dale’s death and could help you if you’re married and under 60.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age of widowhood in the United States is a surprisingly young 59.

When I was 17, my father also died suddenly of a massive heart attack at 58, and my mother was thrown into a similar situation. So, when Dale and I got married, 32 years before he died, we bought term life insurance policies. And we always carried extra life insurance through his job.

Those decisions saved me financially.

An Emotionally Draining Time

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age of widowhood in the United States is a surprisingly young 59. That means there are many women who fall into the “donut hole” of not being able to draw Social Security benefits and who may have lost an income that had been essential for paying the bills.

Women are more likely than men to lose their spouse. And due to income inequality, they’re also typically more apt to be in a worse financial position if their spouse dies before they’re eligible for retirement benefits.

“Losing a spouse is a horrific event and if it happens unexpectedly, there is absolutely no time to plan,” said Michelle Brownstein, a Certified Financial Planner and vice president of private client services with Personal Capital in San Francisco.

One of the key ways to plan for this tragic possibility is to ensure both spouses have life insurance.

“Life insurance can really be that income replacement,” said Brownstein. She recommends owning term life insurance. “The earlier you purchase it, the better term life policy you can get and this will allow your spouse to continue to pay the bills without changing his or her lifestyle.”

Understanding the Household Finances

Another key component to being financially prepared in case a spouse dies: ensuring that each person in the relationship understands the couple’s finances and the way the household is run.

“After a marriage, one person typically takes the lead,” said Brownstein. “If that person passes, and the other doesn’t understand how the household functions day to day, it can make a very stressful time even more stressful.”

Rachel DeCarolis, wealth manager for Northstar Financial Planning in Windham, N.H., said although it may be an uncomfortable topic, spouses also need to discuss how the finances would change if something unexpected happened to either of them.

“Talking about how the income would change and how expenses would change could mentally get you in a good place,” said DeCarolis.

What One Couple Did and Didn’t Think About

Barb and Grant Froman didn’t necessarily plan for such an event before Grant died from a sudden massive heart attack at 54 in June 2018. However, the couple had been planning well for their financial future, with the idea of retirement in mind.

They had life insurance and investments, mostly from an inheritance Barb received from her mother’s estate. They carried no credit card debt and their home and vehicles were paid off.

“You pay on the life insurance year after year, never really thinking about it until something like this happens. And I suddenly looked at it and went, ‘Wow. Thank God for this,” said Froman, 55, who lives in York, Pa.

Although her only routine expenses are for things like utilities and food, Froman said she hadn’t thought about some other costs.

“There were a lot of things Grant could fix that didn’t require us spending money to pay someone, such as oil changes, carpentry, electrical and plumbing that I am finding has to be done by someone else,” said Froman.

Froman said she’s been helped by the assistance of an excellent financial adviser. Working with one when you are married can let you see whether you’re prepared for the worst and what to do if you’re not.

“Find a financial adviser that is a fiduciary, not one who is trying to sell products,” said Brownstein.

4 Recommendations for Widows

Here are four recommendations for women who are already widows:

Ask your adviser where you stand on drawing survivor’s benefits. Same-sex couples who are legally married and have been for more than a year are eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual couples. If you have a child at home age 16 or under, you’re likely eligible to draw Social Security benefits for the child.

Talk with a financial adviser or an attorney if your spouse had debt that you did not jointly own, as well as any outstanding medical bills. Depending on your state, you may or may not have to pay off that debt.

If your spouse was a veteran, see if you’re eligible for VA benefits.

Look into joining the local chapter of the Modern Widow’s Club, if there’s one where you live. The 20 chapters of the Modern Widow’s Club (10 more are coming in 2020) seek to empower widows, including providing financial advice from professionals.

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.

Balancing Your Career and Your Aging Parents

September 17, 2019

Advice for women from "Working Daughter" author Liz O'Donnell
By Richard Eisenberg

It often isn’t easy to balance holding down a paying job and being a part-time caregiver for a parent. In a new Home Instead survey of 1,100 employed people who also care for a parent or in-law, 59% felt they must choose between being a good employee and a good daughter or son; that’s up from 47% in 2017. Liz O’Donnell, author of the new book Working Daughter, knows the struggle well — personally and professionally.

A Boston-based marketing executive, in recent years O’Donnell helped manage care for her late mother with ovarian cancer and her late father with Alzheimer’s. In 2018, she became a caregiver for her husband, Kevin, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; he died in March 2019. These experiences led O’Donnell to write the useful book and launch the supportive, content-heavy Workingdaughter.com site and 2,291-member Working Daughter Facebook community group.

“When you go to websites that say ‘It’s a blessing to be a caregiver,’ you feel like you are the only one having terrible thoughts.”

I interviewed O’Donnell to hear what she learned from the elder care attorneys, hospice nurses and working daughters she interviewed for the book and to get her guidance for women — and men — juggling care and career:

Next Avenue: Why did you write the book?

Liz O’Donnell, author of ‘Working Daughter’

Liz O’Donnell: I was seeking help because my parents needed more and more care. I had stress insomnia and was waking up at 3 in the morning, looking in Google to find how to balance career and care. The web sources were either sickly sweet — saying things like, ‘Just convene a family meeting,’ which is fine for the perfect family, but how many of us are in one? — and the government websites said: ‘Click here for assisted living.’ I couldn’t find what I needed.

So, I started to build a working daughter website and then a Facebook group for women to ask each other questions and vent and cry. And then I wrote the book.

I wanted caregivers to know they weren’t alone and that there was help available even for people whose families weren’t perfect. And I wanted caregivers to know that it was perfectly normal to have thoughts like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ or ‘I can’t take it.’ When you go to websites that say ‘It’s a blessing to be a caregiver,’ you feel like you are the only one having terrible thoughts.

Why is the book called Working Daughters and not Working Daughters and Sons? Women aren’t the only one balancing jobs and caregiving.

I was working full-time and caring and had to focus on what I knew. And I’d always written to a female audience. Also, I wanted to focus on issues that women face, like not earning the same salary as men due to taking off time for raising kids or scaling back hours to care for parents.

Would your advice for men be any different than what you advise women?

Some of the issues that come up are universal, like making space for your life and figuring out what matters most to you and balancing your career with that.

How difficult is it for women with paying jobs to do their work and also provide caregiving for loved ones?

It’s really challenging. I hope the more we talk about it, the easier it might become.

When you have a child, you know roughly when you will be out of work and you can set up for that time with maternity and paternity leave. You know when your child will go to preschool and for how many hours. You know what time the bus is coming, and you know when summer vacations are. With elder care, the phone could ring at work at any moment.

And there are so many factors for elder care that are different from in the past. Families are often dispersed, and people are having fewer children, so the caregiving responsibility often falls on one person.

What are the biggest challenges?

The unpredictability, and learning how to exit with grace [during the day] with all your work covered.

Another thing I hear in the working-daughter community is the mentality that caregiving has interrupted their lives and put their lives on hold. I went through that myself. One of the messages I try to share with women is we have to accept our lives as they are.

It means staying networked even if we’re not at work, so when we’re ready to go back, we’re still connected to people who can help us. And it means staying relevant, so we’re up-to-date on technology and on what’s happening in our industry, even if we’re not active in it.

Your first chapter is called ‘Accept.’ What do you mean by that?

I’m the youngest of three daughters and didn’t feel suited to be a caregiver for my parents. I had this attitude of: ‘Why me?’ Eventually, I shifted from resisting. The only way to go through the caregiving experience is to deal with it.

Another chapter is ‘Prioritize.’ What do you mean and how should women do it?

One of the things that exists in abundance in the working-daughter world is guilt. I get it. There’s always more you can be doing.

It’s important to say to yourself: ‘What are the parts of my life that really matter to me?’

Which are you going to prioritize and where are you going to glide? Don’t feel bad about stuff that takes a back seat.

How well do you think employers deal with employees who have family caregiving duties?

They want to do the right thing. Where I see it break down sometimes is at the line manager perspective. It’s important for companies to make sure caregiving policies are part of their culture and that middle managers are trained to work with employees around their care lives.

Another thing is training employees to say things like: ‘I need to leave Wednesday at three and here’s how I’m going to cover and when you can expect me back.’ As opposed to: ‘My mother’s sick. Do you mind if I leave?’

Are employers getting better at this?

Elder care benefits are on the decline, which is alarming.

What I’m hearing anecdotally from the working-daughter community runs the gamut from ‘My employer is cold-hearted and doesn’t get it’ to “I have the most amazing boss and that’s what makes it possible for me to do the caregiving.’

Do you see any reason to think employers will do better in the future for employees who are also family caregivers?

I’m hopeful.

By Richard Eisenberg

Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow him on Twitter.

Memory Café: Savoring Special Moments

September 6, 2019

Respect for our elders is a canon we all try to be mindful of, but in today’s society, older adults with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias often find themselves isolated from mainstream society as they lose their ability to follow “customary” social rules.

This often results in loneliness. Trips outside the home go from fun shopping trips and visits to a favorite restaurant, to only a trip to the doctor to address their disease. The fun seems to disappear and the individual living with the disease, and their caregiver, do not get enough interactions with others who genuinely understand their journey.

The good news is that there are places created specifically for these older adults and their caregivers to connect with other people who are on the same path. Where? At a Memory Café. These Memory Cafés provide important social interaction in an environment that everyone can enjoy.

Coming Together

In 1997, Dutch psychiatrist Bere Miesen introduced the idea of a place where those with Alzheimer’s and related dementias can intermingle and enjoy life in a warm and safe environment. The concept of Memory Cafés spread throughout Europe and were so well received that they eventually made their way to the U.S. In 2008, nationally renowned Alzheimer’s specialist Dr. Jytte Fogh Lokvig opened the first Alzheimer’s Café in Santa Fe, NM.

What is a Memory Café?

Those affected by memory loss and their care partners gather to talk, share and take a much needed break from the disease in an accepting, casual environment. Cafes are made up of a group of like-minded individuals run by compassionate volunteers and/or those who work in the field of dementia care. As of 2013, more than 85 Cafés are helping people enjoy more special moments together throughout the U.S., and that number continues to grow.

Although these Cafes all share the same fundamental goal of providing a fulfilling, enjoyable experience, no two Memory Cafés are exactly alike. That’s because each Café is a grassroots effort organized, operated and maintained by the people who attend them, giving every Cafe its own personality and flavor!

For instance, Memory Cafés offer a variety of fun, stimulating activities, from singing to crafting. Laughter, camaraderie and relaxation are mainstays, all to provide support for both caregivers and those who are cared for.

While each Café is different, they all serve an important role in our society today. Alzheimer’s diagnoses are multiplying annually, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In the U.S., there are already more than 5.4 million people living with the disease today. While it can severely affect the individual with the diagnosis, memory loss also touches the lives of their caregivers and all of those who love them.

Find out if there is a Memory Café near you!

Presbyterian SeniorCare Network hosts free monthly Memory Cafes in three locations. These Cafes are designed exclusively for individuals with dementia and their caregivers and feature a casual, supportive environment full of conversation and meaningful connections.

Washington area

  • Where: Eat’n Park, 320 Oak Spring Rd, Washington, PA 15301 (reserved room)
  • When: Held on the 3rd Saturday of each month starting May 20
  • Time: 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
  • RSVP not required – just pop on in! Coffee and cookies provided.

Oakmont area

  • Where: Somma Pizza, 380 Route 909, Verona, PA 15147 (private area)
  • When: Held on the 2nd Wednesday of each month starting June 14
  • Time: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • RSVP not required – just pop on in! Snacks provided.

Erie area

  • Where: Lincoln Community Center Library, 1255 Manchester Road, Erie, PA 16505
  • When: Held on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month (hosted in collaboration with the Alzheimer's Association)  
  • Time: 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
  • RSVP not required – just pop on in! Snacks provided

For more information, visit www.SrCare.org/cafe.

This Activities Program Engages and Calms People With Dementia

September 5, 2019

It tailors activities to each individual's abilities and interests
By Melba Newsome

For people with dementia, having nothing to do can contribute to agitation, frustration and a feeling of loss of control and well-being. It is a situation family caregivers often encounter.

Laura Gitlin, distinguished professor and dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has spent more than three decades developing non-pharmacological behavioral approaches to helping adults with dementia age in place.

“It’s important to assess not just what the person can’t do, but also what they can do.”

Gitlin’s most recent approach, the Tailored Activity Program (TAP), has been shown to help manage critical behavioral symptoms in people with dementia while reducing the caregiver’s burden.

Assessing Abilities and Interests

TAP is an individualized, family-centric program that provides people with dementia activities tailored to their abilities and interests. TAP also includes training for both formal and informal caregivers on how to use activities as part of daily care routines.

“Engagement is an enduring need throughout the disease process, but there hasn’t been a protocol for using an activity-based approach before,” says Gitlin. “TAP is very oriented and focused on how we can improve engagement and meaningful activities at any stage of dementia.”

In randomized clinical trials, TAP improved quality of life for people with dementia by reducing behavioral symptoms, improving their engagement in activities, and providing caregivers with an effective tool. TAP can help with behavior issues, such as agitation, aggressiveness, irritability, restlessness and apathy.

Activities for Different Disease Stages

As dementia patients decline in mental abilities, they often experience challenges in cognitive function that increase negative reactions to their environment.

Many times, family caregivers overestimate or underestimate the capability of their loved ones with dementia. When this happens, they may prescribe activities or communicate in a way that falls below or above their loved ones’ abilities, which can lead to frustration and upset for both parties.

“It’s important to assess not just what the person can’t do but also what they can do, as well as their interests, and set up the environment to support that person,” Gitlin says.

TAP identifies patient interests and evaluates their abilities to perform activities tailored specifically for them. This provides a way for them to positively re-engage with their environment.

The program is delivered or supervised by occupational therapists and can be integrated into home care, or used as part of other caregiver support programs in care settings. The program involves three phases:

  • Identify the capabilities, physical functioning and previous and current interests of the person with dementia
  • Develop “activity prescriptions” for the person’s capabilities, an activity schedule and specifications for setting up and effectively engaging the person in the activity
  • Train caregivers to use these prescribed activities

The activities could be physical — such as balloon toss, chair aerobics or a walk with a companion — crafts or games, but they should be of interest to the person.

“We have a protocol to help determine what could be most meaningful to that person and how to set that up,” explains Gitlin. “We use the same approach regardless of the type of dementia for those who have challenges with executive function when interacting with their physical and social environment.”

Success Stories Using TAP

Gitlin gave an example of how TAP worked well for one woman with dementia who lives in a memory care facility. Because the woman was frequently agitated, it led to some disruption at the facility.

Through a TAP assessment of the woman, the caregivers discovered that she had worked in a laundry business before she developed dementia. Using that knowledge, the caregivers provide the woman with a basket of clean clothes or towels to fold when she becomes agitated. The prescribed activity calms her, puts her at ease and she seems happy.

Karyl Chase is the director of the Senior Companion Program funded by the Corporation of National Community Service in Ogden, Utah. Her agency first employed a version of the TAP program as a way to help their volunteer companions feel more comfortable visiting people with dementia. Once they were trained in the TAP practice, volunteers became more open to taking clients with dementia.

For example, before the training, one of the volunteers spent most of her visits with a dementia patient watching television, during which the patient would often doze off.

After an occupational therapist assessed the patients interests and abilities, the volunteer and patient began playing a dice game together. While this particular activity is not connected to anything the patient did in the past, it shows the value of engagement.

“The client lit up and became more engaged, especially when she won,” explains Chase. “The volunteer noticed how much more enjoyable the visits were for both of them. The client is more alert and active during the visit and their time together goes by fast.”

As the disease progresses, people living with dementia will require different kinds of support. Therefore, they should be reevaluated at each juncture to make sure they’re meaningfully engaged and that the activity fits their current mental status.

Dissemination of the Program

TAP continues to undergo trials in the U.S. and several other countries, including Australia, Brazil, Scotland and Chile. Some countries are further along than others in implementing it for dementia care for their particular health care systems.

Widespread dissemination of TAP throughout the U.S. remains a work in progress. While TAP merits further evaluation to establish efficacy with larger, more diverse populations, it shows a lot of promise as a nonpharmacological approach to manage behavioral symptoms, Gitlin says.

“Our mantra is that we can make life better for the person living with the disease and the family member caring for them,” she says.

By Melba Newsome

Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Oprah, Playboy, Reader's Digest, Time, Good Housekeeping and Wired. Melba also is a frequent contributor to such online sites as NBCNews and Healthline.

When a Parent Dies: Ways to Help Yourself and Your Surviving Parent

August 13, 2019

A grief-support expert shares a letter she wrote to a grieving friend
By Amy Florian

Not too long ago, a dear friend’s dad suffered a major heart attack and died. At the funeral, there was little time for more than a brief exchange of words.

But, given my background in grieving support and education, I wanted to offer some advice to help her and her mom through the grieving process. So, that evening I wrote her a letter. I’m sharing it here because I believe it can be of help to anyone who has recently lost a parent and wants to help their surviving parent through the grief. Here is what I wrote:

Dear Katie,

The way-too-soon and totally unexpected death of your dad has hit you hard. It was clear at the services that your family is reeling, trying to comprehend what happened to you, to understand the enormity of this loss, and to figure out what to do now.

Leave behind the well-meaning compulsion to cheer each other up or keep looking on the bright side.

I’m glad I was able to attend the services to celebrate his life and mourn his death together, and I also know your grief has only begun.

I remember after my husband’s death, a few of the letters that people wrote were extremely helpful — not the ones telling me the writer’s own story of grief, as if I was supposed to experience the same thing and handle it in the same way, but those that contained hard-won wisdom from grieving people.

In that vein, I offer you some input that may be helpful to you and your mom, gleaned from my many years of providing grief education, facilitating grief support groups and counseling grieving people.

If any of this does not apply in your case or is not helpful, then set it aside. Everyone grieves uniquely and you don’t have to meet my (or anyone else’s) expectations.

Grief hurts. We don’t want to face the pain, the loneliness and the void that will never be filled in the same way again. But if we don’t, we won’t heal.

Grief that is suppressed, denied or ignored does not go away. It stays there, it festers and it will find a way to come back out and bite you in physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional ways.

But it also helps to try to set the grief aside sometimes, as if in a box on the shelf, and let yourself smile or enjoy life for a bit. Those times will sustain you.

Don’t be afraid of bringing up your dad, saying his name and telling the stories. Will it cause tears? Yes, sometimes, but that’s not because you brought it up. The tears are there anyway. It is healing to allow them to spill out, whether you are alone or especially when you share those tears with someone else who also loved him, whether it’s your mom or supportive friends who will let you cry with them.

Did you know that there are physiological chemicals in tears that relieve stress? Tears are our natural stress-relief mechanism when we are sad — that’s why we call it “having a good cry.” So, when you cry, you help yourself heal.

One final thing about tears. People often say they can’t start crying because if they do, they will never be able to stop. Do you know that has not happened in the history of humankind? No one has ever not been able to stop crying. Allow the healing to happen, facilitated by allowing tears when they are there.

As you support your mom, remember your job is not to “fix it” or to make her feel better. Your job is to be her companion, to be there for her whatever she is feeling.

Leave behind the well-meaning compulsion to cheer each other up or keep looking on the bright side. Instead, just keep checking in. Ask what kind of a day it is today — feeling up, down or all over the place?

Talk about when you miss your dad the most. Share your stories about things people say that are helpful, and the well-intentioned things people say that are not! Share what you each wish people knew about what you’re going through. Keep the lines of communication as open as possible, so you can pour your experience out to each other and gain comfort.

Keep in mind that grief takes a very long time. Expect to hit sad periods of time again weeks or months after the death. This is especially true when those “marker days” hit: his birthday (and yours), the wedding anniversary, Father’s Day, the holidays, the monthly and yearly anniversaries of his death.

You will be sad over and over again. You will be happy over and over again, and eventually the happiness will predominate. But expect a roller coaster of emotions — some hours and days will be better, and some will feel like disasters. Hang in there. As long as you continue doing the hard work of grief, you are healing, you will heal and you will get there.

Another word about those “marker days.” Your dad’s absence will be huge, and yet the tendency of most people around you will be to talk about anyone and everything except your dad.

The intention is good — they want to keep you from feeling sad. Yet, these are the times it is most important to say his name, share the memories and keep his legacy alive.

His life and the lessons he taught you are with you forever. His love is with you forever. You are a different person because of him, and no one can ever take that away from you. Keep his name, his stories and your memories alive, even as you let go of all the things that can no longer be.

These are just a few things that I hope can get you on the path to healing. My most fervent hope is that your family may heal, carrying memories and stories of your dad’s life with you even as you move into a future that will be different than you had planned.

I will check in regularly, just to see what’s happening and how you’re doing. I am here for you for the long haul, no matter what.

I hold you and your mom close to my heart. In these crazy, turbulent days, I wish you moments of peace, an occasional smile and continued healing.

Love and hugs,

Amy

By Amy Florian

Amy Florian is an educator, author, public speaker, and Founder/CEO of Corgenius, the first professional training firm to focus on life transition support. With a style that combines grace, good-natured humor and rock solid science, Amy travels the country teaching financial advisors and other business professionals how to better serve clients experiencing loss, grief, and transition. She also educates clergy, hospice staff and volunteers, social workers and others who work with the grieving. Amy serves on the advisory board of Soaring Spirits International, a nonprofit organization that provides support for widowed people around the globe.

What to Do When You Inherit a House

July 30, 2019

How not to lose money when your parents leave you their home
May 13, 2019

Recovering boat owners often say a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money. Much the same could be said for a house you inherit.

When a parent or other relative dies and you take possession of his or her house, it can be easy to think you’ve hit the jackpot. But another casino metaphor might be more appropriate when you go to sell an inherited house: Your goal should be to leave the (closing) table with money in your pocket.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of ways to lose money along the way. To avoid making big mistakes after you inherit a house, here’s advice from longtime real estate professionals Doug Myers, a broker with Semonin Realtors in Louisville and Kes Stadler, a broker with Atlanta Communities Real Estate Brokerage:

  1. Dealing With the Stuff in the House

The first, and most emotionally draining, step in selling a house is dealing with the contents.

“People tend to overestimate the value of the furnishings,” says Myers. “The house is usually filled with stuff that has a tremendous sentimental value to only a few.”

Stadler counsels his clients to first remove items with significant sentimental or monetary value. Then, he says, hire a company to conduct an estate sale. Insist that whatever that business can’t sell it then take to a charitable organization, so you won’t have to deal with it.

Before a house is emptied, says Stadler, get a photographer to shoot pictures of the furnished rooms (assuming they show well). That way, when you’re ready to list the house for sale, posting the pictures will help prospective buyers visualize the home with furniture in place.

  1. Controlling Ongoing Expenses of the Inherited House

While you’ll want to cancel unnecessary services like internet access, cable TV and telephone, it’s important to keep the electricity, gas and water on. People touring the house will need them. So will pre-sale inspectors.

Be sure to watch for spikes in utility bills, which can happen in vacant houses.

“If you have workers come over and do anything —say, lay carpet — they’re going to fiddle with the thermostat,” Myers says. That’s one of the things he checks on his regular visits to his vacant properties, a service any real estate professional you hire should provide.

Water is a special case. In colder climates, you may want to winterize the house by turning off the main valve in the basement or crawl space. That will prevent frozen pipes. But doing so can also create a problem if an agent or contractor uses a toilet and can’t flush it.

“When you come in two days later and the whole house smells like a cesspool, your buyers are going to instantly walk out,” Stadler says. So, he advises, “if you’re going to winterize the house, you’ve got to make sure you tape the toilet seat lids down and let everybody know it’s been winterized.”

He also recommends cancelling alarm-system monitoring if the house is empty, to prevent false alarms. If you do so, however, it’s doubly important that someone — you, your real estate pro or a neighbor — check the property on a regular basis.

  1. Deciding on Repairs and Upgrades

Virtually every house needs some work done before you can plant a for-sale sign in the yard. That can be especially true for one that hasn’t been updated in decades. Deciding what to fix and how much to spend is perhaps the biggest financial challenge sellers of inherited homes face.

Myers recommends a fresh coat of paint and new carpet, as well as simple repairs to things like doors.

To avoid overspending, Myers says, take a look at Remodeling’s 2019 Cost vs. Value report site. It shows how much money sellers are likely to recoup from popular upgrades like a kitchen remodel or a garage door replacement. (Spoiler alert: It’s almost always less than what they’ll spend.)

When redecorating, keep things simple and appealing to all prospects. Stadler recommends “boring builder beige” for walls and carpets. “If you have walls that have any kind of color to them, you’re going to chase off some people,” he says.

How much to spend to fix up the house depends on local conditions. You may need to pay more to entice buyers in a slow housing market; in a hot market, you might not need to do anything at all.

“We have certain areas here where people are buying the homes to tear them down,” Stadler says. “If you put in carpet, wallpaper and this, that and the other, they’re just going to tear it down and you threw away money.”

  1. Managing Your Expenses

Since maintaining an inherited house and preparing it for sale can cost you a lot of money (don’t forget the cost of travel, meals and lodging) if you live far away, look for ways you can cut corners.

Instead of spending money for a car hauling china to antique dealers or dropping off clothes at a thrift store, consider holding a yard sale. You’ll thank yourself.

By Mark Ray

Mark Ray is a freelance writer who has written for Scouting, Eagles’ Call, Presbyterians Today, Kentucky Homes & Gardens and other publications. He has also written, edited and/or contributed to a dozen books for the Boy Scouts and the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches.

The Many Colors of an Artist’s Life

July 23, 2019

Creating art is always on Marilynne Bradley's mind
By Patricia Corrigan

Daffodils — that’s the assignment on a recent evening at “Wet and Wild Watercolors,” a weekly class at The Green Door Art Gallery  in a suburb of St. Louis. In a back room, 10 students, including regulars and drop-ins, choose seats and settle in.

Watercolor artist Marilynne Bradley, 81, is the teacher, and she has provided a vase of the yellow flowers for inspiration. “Each week, I present two examples on a theme: one painted the traditional way and one rendered in a simpler way, and I specify techniques that will make all the students successful,” Bradley explains later. “I try to reach each person, get them to relate, teach them how to see.”

Bradley isn’t new to teaching. For decades, she has led classes and workshops for art institutes, galleries, watercolor societies, colleges and high schools and through city parks departments. Some of her students have become well-known artists, Bradley says, and others have used their gifts to teach.

“My art doesn’t look like anybody else’s because I’ve experimented so much.”

Over the past five years, Bradley’s students at the small gallery have ranged from age 10 to 80-plus. Jane Killeen, 71, has shown up to paint every week for more than three years.

“Marilynne has a distinctive background, with her work known all over the world,” Killeen says. “My style is different from hers, but you can learn from somebody so well versed in painting. Also, I so appreciate her input and personal guidance, and the class offers a real sense of camaraderie.”

‘My Whole House Is a Studio’

Each year, Bradley’s work is accepted in about 20 major national juried competitions. Her watercolors also are on display in many galleries and museums and are included in major corporate collections in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Australia and Tahiti. Bradley has illustrated books and brochures, received more than 50 awards and has been featured at some 150 solo exhibits.

Artist Marilynne Bradley at home in Webster Groves, surrounded by her artwork. She likes working seated on the floor and is currently creating work that has a geometric pattern.

“My art doesn’t look like anybody else’s because I’ve experimented so much. My work is more intense, brighter,” Bradley says. An experienced draftswoman, Bradley often incorporates architectural design elements in her art, particularly evident in her 600-plus paintings of iconic landmarks past and present in metropolitan St. Louis. Many are featured in her book, St. Louis in Watercolor: The Architecture of a City.

Bradley’s studio, filled with natural light, is off the kitchen in her two-story home in suburban St. Louis County. On one wall is a beautiful rendering of the zigzag bridge in the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Additional artwork is stacked among file boxes and folders in the rooms on the ground floor. “Actually, my whole house is a studio,” she says, laughing. “I paint too much!”

Bradley’s two grown children have inherited her artistic abilities: one is a graphic artist who teaches art and the other is a theater set designer.

Growing up in Rockford, Ill., Bradley was a child prodigy on the cello. Many years later, she performed with the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra, but her career plans never included music.

“My junior year in high school, I had a part-time job in the pathology lab at a local hospital,” Bradley recalls. “A doctor writing a book needed sketches, and though I had never taken an art class, I did them. That was fun, and I remember thinking that maybe I would become a medical illustrator.”

A Winding Path from Music to Medicine to Art

Instead, she enrolled in pre-med courses at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was awarded a scholarship in chemistry and recruited as a cellist for the school orchestra. There, Bradley took her first art class and discovered an affinity for painting, so she went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She received a Master of Arts in teaching from nearby Webster University and later, a Master of Fine Arts from Syracuse University in New York.

Marilynne Bradley takes time to show Mary Phelan how to do Sumie, the art of Japanese calligraphy, during class Wednesday night at the Green Door Gallery.

Bradley’s first job was in architecture illustration, which required perfecting watercolor painting. At the time, watercolors were still viewed as sketching tools, but Bradley enjoyed the medium and has stuck with it, painting many a landscape and still life. Her style has evolved over the years, and 30 of her newest works reflect a new direction.

Pointing out a painting of boats in a marina, Bradley says, “I’m painting what I call geometric transformations. I’ll take a photo and transpose the image into lines and transits, kind of an evolution of Piet Mondrian’s work.”

She adds, “The lines cause the eye to go into the picture to a point of interest. I’m using color techniques that relate to lights and darks, and that also leads you in.”

On any given day, Bradley may be painting something new, packing up her work for exhibits and shows all over the country, fulfilling a commission, entering or evaluating others’ work for a juried show, gathering illustrations for a new book, evaluating manufacturers’ new art supplies or some combination of all that.

“Work is on my mind all the time,” she says. “I’ve always got something I have to get done, a goal to meet.”

Credit: Karen Elshout

Artist Marilynne Bradley at home in Webster Groves, working on a painting. A close up of her paints that she prefers.

By Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a journalist and the author of numerous books, including a guide to San Francisco that expresses her great joy in her adopted city. Visit her blog here.

Video Chats With Family and Friends Offer Mental Health Boost

July 2, 2019

A new study says Skype and FaceTime provide more than just conversation
By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

Anne Whitley lives 800 miles from her grandchildren’s home in Florida, but she still sees them daily. On her iPhone’s FaceTime app, Whitley catches up with her five-year old granddaughter, Cairo, who might show off a new toy, and her year-old grandson, Garvey, who enjoys practicing his latest words.

All it takes is just a few minutes each day to bridge those miles between them.

“I don’t want them to forget me in between visits,” said Whitley, 83, a retired teacher in Clayton, N.C., who sees her grandchildren in person a couple times a year. “That keeps us connected.”

Whitley’s main concern is staying in touch with her grandkids, but there’s another reason older adults may want to consider dialing up their loved ones by video chat platforms like FaceTime and Skype. to connect with A recent study from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland found that the use of video chat with friends and family also may be an effective way for older adults to dramatically reduce their risk for depression.

Fending Off Depression With a Video Chat

The study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, used data from the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study, which surveys older Americans every two years. Researchers looked at Americans age 60 and up who used four kinds of communication technologies — video chat, email, social media networks like Facebook and instant messaging. Then, they examined their symptoms of depression two years later.

“It gives my dad and me a more immersive, more interactive experience.”

Researchers found that older adults who connected with their loved ones through email exchanges, Facebook posts or instant messaging sessions had about the same rate of depression compared to those who did not. By contrast, those who communicated through video chat cut their probability of depression by nearly half.

“We need to get beyond a discussion of technology being good or bad,” said lead author Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science’s School of Medicine and a researcher at the VA Portland Health Care System. “The conversation we need to be having, and I hope that this study helps move forward, is what ways should we be using our technology and what particular types of platforms might be the most beneficial for our health and happiness.”

Not Just About Preventing the Blues

Studies show that depression and social isolation can be problems for older adults. While the majority are not depressed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates can rise as high as about 12% for those who are hospitalized and 14% for those who need home health care. And as many as 32% of people older than 55 feel lonely, according to the National Institutes of Health. Both depression and loneliness can have consequences beyond feeling blue and include links to poorer physical health and a shortened lifespan.

“People literally die earlier when they are lonely,” Teo said.

Teo’s research didn’t examine why video chat might be the better technology, but he can make an educated guess after years of treating patients as a psychiatrist and researching ways to help them. When we’re able to see the emotions and expressions as we talk to our loved one, we have a more intimate exchange, said Teo, who now makes the effort to video chat more often with his father, 82.

“It gives my dad and me a more immersive, more interactive experience,” he said. “We can be tempted to just shoot off a quick text message … but this study is a reminder that we shouldn’t settle for that all the time.”

The findings ring true with Kim G. Johnson, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, who was not involved in the research. She said she regularly hears from patients about their video chats with their grandchildren.

“It’s almost the next best thing to being there,” she said. The trick now, she said, is to make technologies like video chat more accessible to older adults.

4 Ways to Incorporate More Video Chats Into Your Life

Here are four tips on how to see your loved ones’ faces more often:

Get familiar with the technology. If you’re not sure how to use video chat, Teo said, figure out the barriers and get help. Some, like Whitley, get guidance from tech-smart children or grandchildren. Whitley’s daughter gave her an iPhone and showed her how to use FaceTime. “I won’t ever know how to use it as well as she does, but what I do know is good for me,” she said.

You also could sign up for a technology class at your local senior center or search online for tutorials. TechBoomers offers YouTube videos for how to use both Skype and FaceTime.

Switch it up. Daily or weekly video chats may need to be scheduled, but not every session has to be on the calendar, Teo said. If your granddaughter posts a prom picture on Instagram, instead of just posting a comment, contact her on Skype to ask her about the dance. Take the initiative to add more virtual face-to-face chats to your daily life. “Change up the mode of communication when you can,” Teo said.

Look in their eyes. During a video chat, make the effort to appear to be looking at the other person, Johnson said. That means you’ll need to look directly into the tiny video camera at the top of the screen from time to time instead of the screen where your family member’s face is. It’s an important way to help build rapport during your conversation, she said.

Still get together. Video chat and other forms of online communications should never replace your in-person get-togethers, where you can hug and hold and be present with the ones you love, Teo and Johnson said.

“But when you don’t have the option of being in person,” Teo said, “video chat is probably best.”

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a North Carolina-based journalist and freelance writer specializing in family, health, technology, small business and entrepreneurship topics.

Take a Break

June 20, 2019

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!

 
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