A Response to Canada Day: Do Something Good for Others

In light of the discovery of even more unmarked graves at Canada’s residential schools, it is difficult to know how we should mark Canada Day this year. How do we respond to evil?

By way of an answer (and I realise that this response is still wholly inadequate), perhaps the best thing we can do is to listen to the stories of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. The other thing we can do when bad things happen is to commit ourselves to doing good.

Like Leon. Andy Langford, Mark Ralls, and Rod Weber tell his story on page 163 of their book, Beginnings. The Spiritual Life:

“Leon was a successful businessman, helping run a textile mill and then buying and selling commercial real estate. Although Leon was active in his community throughout his life, his retirement truly unleashed his potential to serve. Leon cooked meals for the homeless, built Habitat for Humanity homes, added wheelchair ramps to the homes of the elderly, and visited older members in his community who had been forgotten. When Leon was seventy-seven years old, he risked journeying to Bolivia to help build a new church facility in the Andes.  For two weeks, Leon worked at 13,800 feet above sea level, digging holes through the rock for the foundation of the new building. After two weeks of work, Leon and his friends had dug twelve large holes that would be used for the foundations of the projected facility. Leon never saw the finished building; the facility took several more years to build. But Leon dug the hole for the foundation; and that foundation has since changed the lives of children, women, and men that Leon never met.”

What good things can you commit yourself to in the second half of life? As Baby Boomers and older adults, we all have many talents and a lifetime’s worth of experience to share with others. What better way to mark Canada Day – or any other day, for that matter – than by resolving to do something good for others.

Three Steps to Trauma Recovery Can Also Aid Us in Older Adulthood

Recently I had occasion to read a summary of the three steps to trauma recovery as expounded by Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, a Harvard psychiatrist. These steps can be helpful those who have experienced some trauma in their lives, such as physical violence or disaster, which has left them with PTSD. Even those who do not suffer from PTSD, among them older adults, can benefit from these steps, especially if they have suffered the death of a loved one, or serious physical or mental illness.

The first step is to regain “a sense of safety”. This includes helping people to understand why they may experience jumpiness or panic attacks, or why they have particular reactions to certain circumstances. When we begin to understand the symptoms, then they become far less frightening. When this happens we can start to gain some control over our situation. For example, an elderly person who fears suffering from another fall, can reduce the feelings of being unsafe and gain some control over his/her/their situation by starting to go for walks again, perhaps accompanied initially by a friend. Healing, then, is literally small steps away.

Another step to healing involves retelling our story. For PTSD patients, this means going over the details of the traumatic experience we suffered, and putting the entire memory into words so that we can then begin to mourn the loss that the trauma brought. For all of us, particularly older adults, it is well known that life review is of great benefit to people suffering from depression. This is significant because we know that the rate of depression in those over the age of 65 increases by at least 25% over that of the rest of the population.

Several recent scientific studies have shown that talking about our life experiences lowers blood pressure and strengthens the immune system. Plus, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence in the published scientific literature that affirms that “life review” is of tremendous help to people experiencing grief. Not only does it lower levels of depression, but it is also found to increase problem-solving skills and self-esteem while assisting in the grief process.[1]

For those who are engaged in caring for an elderly relative, life review can be a powerful tool in assisting the one who needs care. This is what Rabbi Dayle Friedman calls “sacred listening.”[2] By listening to another’s story, you honour that individual. Such listening also goes a long way toward creating a safe space for both the caregiver and the one receiving the care to express emotions without feeling that they are being judged. It is natural to experience some distress when we watch the decline of those we have loved and looked up to all our lives. Inviting them to share their story with us can provide an antidote to the sorrow we may feel by allowing us to consider what in this person’s story we can hold on to and focus on the blessing their life has been. What is their legacy to us?

The third step to healing is reestablishing a normal life. In this stage traumatic remembrances do not erupt out of the blue or threaten our sense of equilibrium or self-control. We are able to re-visit them when we wish and lay them aside just as easily. We can begin to trust our relationships, gain some sense of mastery over our world, and find new meaning.

[1] James Pennebaker, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997.)

[2] Friedman, Jewish Visions for Aging, 120–123, 135.

The Medical Benefits of Caring for Your Emotions

Many people develop Type II Diabetes when they enter the second half of life. My mother was unfortunately one of those who was diagnosed with this disease when she was in her 58th year. She battled this illness for many years. One thing I noticed, however, was that whenever she was under some form of emotional stress or experiencing excessive worry, her blood sugars rose and her physical health diminished. She later developed heart disease, which eventually took her life, not an uncommon outcome for people who suffer from diabetes.

I have since learned that my mother could have been greatly helped if, in addition to the medical care she received, she had also been given counselling to help her cope with the anxiety and fear she was facing. In research that has emerged from a study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine with more than a thousand men and women who had suffered a first heart attack, those women who went on to suffer a second heart attack were marked by high levels of fearfulness and anxiety. Subsequent studies have shown that women (and men too) who were offered personal counselling or taught relaxation techniques were not only able to handle their turbulent feelings better, but they also experienced some reprieve from their illness, in many cases lengthening their life and enhancing the quality of their life.

Daniel Goleman, whose work on Emotional Intelligence is well known, suggests that a good preventive strategy in dealing with the physical challenges that people face in the second half of life would be to teach them emotion management. He says that, since emotional well-being is one factor that determines whether an older person declines rapidly or thrives,  those entering into retirement, or already in retirement, could benefit greatly from regular sessions with a personal counsellor or therapist. Certainly, the scientific evidence shows that, just as we need to care for our physical health, so also we need to care for our mental and emotional health, and that both physical and emotional health go hand in hand. Our emotions can and do affect our ability to recover from surgery or cope with chronic illness.

Reflections on PRIDE Month: Gay and Aging

As we begin the second week of Pride Month, it behooves us to pause and consider what life is like for most older adult members of the LGBTQ+ community. Studies show that many seniors suffer from loneliness and isolation as they age; but these factors are heightened for LGBTQ+ seniors.

For example, close to 50% of LGBTQ+ seniors do not live in conjugal relationships and many have no children or certainly fewer children than most heterosexual seniors.

According to the Government of Canada[1], other significant factors put LGBTQ+ seniors at greater risk than their heterosexual siblings. While all seniors can and do suffer from loneliness, loss of social network or interactions, or fear the loss of autonomy due to illness or disabilities, there are additional factors that contribute to the sense of isolation many older adults who are LGBTQ+. Here are just a few that the government identifies:

  • Having to conceal sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Fear of discrimination
  • Past or current discrimination
  • Stigmatization associated with discrimination based on age, sex and ethnocultural community
  • Fear of going into a private seniors’ residence or long-term care facility
  • Lack of support or feeling unwelcome at programs for seniors
  • Lack of opportunities to contribute to the community and perform volunteer work
  • Housing discrimination
  • Heterosexist or homophobic culture within society and within organizations that provide care and services
  • Being HIV positive or having developed HIV/AIDS
  • Difficulty that others have in accepting gender reassignment or transition
  • Interpersonal difficulties and rejection by family, social network or broader community

Clearly community centres for seniors, senior residential communities and residences need to do a better job of making it known that LGBTQ+ seniors are welcome. Staff need to be trained to understand and promote healthy, inclusive attitudes and should be held accountable if they do not. Films that include members of the LGBTQ+ community need to be shown and discussion circles developed to help break down the barriers of prejudice and discrimination. Opportunities for LGBTQ+ individuals to tell their stories – if they wish – should also be made available.

There is much more that we can do to build trust and affirmation between and among all seniors, and indeed among all generations. There is a very great deal still to be done to create a healthy aging environment for LGBTQ+ seniors. Please share your ideas and experiences. I would love hear from you!

Happy PRIDE Month!

[1] https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/corporate/seniors/forum/social-isolation-lgbtq.html#h2.5-h3.2