Our Aging Parents


Is A Funeral Optional?

by Christine

This past week as I was reading the obituary of the mother of a friend of mine, I started thinking about funerals and the traditions behind them. As I mentioned before my family tends to rely on black humor during times of stress and when asked about the kind of funeral I want when the day comes, I responded that I want an American Indian burial. My vision, whether historically or culturally accurate, is to be suspended high above ground on a woven mat supported by four posts. My daughter did not consider this to be a serious request given the state and local laws surrounding disposing of the dead. She won’t even discuss it.

After joking around for a bit longer, I did explain to her my philosophy on funerals. Funerals are for the living. Yes, I understand the desire to honor our loved one but ultimately, it is about the people left behind. The question is, what does the living need to do to say goodbye to a parent or loved one? I have some friends who did not hold a funeral for their father when he died. He was well into his 80s and they said that those who knew him were gone and that they did not feel the need to have a funeral. For them it was not necessary to come together as an organized group to say goodbye.

I think that would be a bit extreme for most people because ritual is important and the ritual of saying goodbye is part of the bereavement process. But a funeral doesn’t have to be a gut wrenching event particularly for those who have lived a long and fulfilling life. It can be a time of remembrance and shared stories and laughter. After my mother’s funeral, a half a dozen friends of my parents came back to the house and shared stories of my parents as people…not parents but people outside of our family and their children. We laughed and laughed at the adventures these dear friends shared with my folks. If we had not had a funeral, I know these stores would have been lost to us.

I believe rituals allow us the opportunity to come together and support one another during a time of loss and pain. What do you think? Have you planned a funeral for someone close to you? Do you believe it helped you with the bereavement process? How do you and your family say goodbye?



Foodie Friday: Popcorn, The Perfect Snack

by Christine

When I was a little girl, my dad would make popcorn as a special treat. He would cover the bottom of Mom's large Revere copper bottom saucepan with oil and yellow kernel popping corn. Dad would then vigorously push the saucepan back and forth over a red-hot electric burner until the popped corn was lifting the lid. Next he poured the popcorn into a large paper grocery bag salting liberally and then handed over the bag for my brother or me to dance around the kitchen shaking the bag to distribute the salt evenly. I love this memory because whenever dad made popcorn, it was a celebration. 

When I started to search for foods that would entice my mom to eat as her appetite-decreased popcorn came to mind. Popcorn as a snack has a lot going for it...smell, texture and crunch ability. If you air pop the kernels it is low in calories and can be eaten liberally. While I am a traditionalist when it comes to popcorn, it is the perfect "designer" food. You can create a sweet popcorn, a salty popcorn or even a spicy popcorn just by changing the toppings. Additionally, it is easy to transport in a sandwich baggy to a loved one in a nursing home and will keep fresh for two to three weeks. 

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of possible topping combinations for the adventurous. I have listed only a few below. If you are trying to entice an aging parent to eat or are just looking for a new twist on a traditional snack favorite, popcorn is the perfect choice. What is your favorite popcorn topping?  

Salty Toppings:

Cheese: Sprinkle on olive oil and Parmesan cheese to taste. If you are industrious, you can grate your own cheese but I prefer Kraft's Parmesan cheese out of the can. 

Ranch: Down South Ranch Dressing is a favorite so it should come as no surprise that it is now a favorite on top of popcorn. Sprinkle a little olive oil or butter on first and then add the Ranch Dressing Mix. 

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese: My granddaughter loves Kraft's Macaroni & Cheese even more than my homemade Macaroni & Cheese. Again, start with a little butter and then shake on the Macaroni & Cheese powder. 

Spicy Toppings:

Chili: Depending on just how much "spice" you like you can choose from a whole world of chili powder...Chili de Arbol, Chipotle, Jalapeno, Ancho, New Mexican, Hungarian Paprika or Smoked Paprika. Just sprinkle on the popcorn and enjoy. 

Wasabi: Someday I will tell you my wasabi story but for those of you who enjoy a little spice with your popcorn, wasabi is perfect for you. Start by sprinkling a little sesame oil on the popcorn and then cautiously sprinkle on the wasabi powder to taste. 

Sweet Topping:

Chocolate: Chocolate and popcorn were made for each other. Sprinkle a little salt on the popcorn and then mix in your favorite mini chocolate chips. You can change up the flavor by adding peanut butter, butterscotch or mint chocolate chips instead. 

Dried Fruit: Lightly top the popcorn with salt and then add dried blueberries, cherries or cranberries for a sweet taste. 

* If sprinkling or drizzling oil on your popcorn sounds messy, then try your kitchen oil sprayer/mister. You can add spices or powders to the oil and mist your popcorn with the mixture. 



Is The By-Product Of Experience, Empathy?

by Christine

{Early morning at the Lake}

Until you personally experience the loss of a parent, the depth of that loss is unknowable. While I was genuinely saddened by the pain my friend’s felt over the death of their parents; I didn’t understand the magnitude of their loss until I experienced it myself. Today when I hear from a friend that their mom or dad is entering hospice or has passed away, I feel I know the journey they are traveling. For many the journey started months or years before with multiple visits to the hospital or an extended nursing home stay. My sadness for my friends is now coupled with empathy and knowing that I lacked before the death of my parents.

I also know that the funeral is not the end of the sadness. It takes time to move through the grief. The sadness and grief that followed me home did not release me until almost a year after my mother’s death. Candidly, I spent a couple of weeks sitting on the sofa staring into space. I am a person who is in motion all the time so it was a bit troubling to those close to me. It was also troubling to me because I believed the funeral should be the end of the sadness.

Wisely I made the decision to talk to a trained therapist. While my friends are lovely people and would listen to me for as long as I wanted to talk, a therapist knows how to actively listen and to ask pertinent questions at the right time. The sessions have been helpful because these directed conversations helped me see that my life was forever changed with the loss of my parents. What this has meant to me is that I don’t want or can’t go back to life as it was before. I am in the process of giving myself permission to make big changes.

Many an early morning I wake to find a cloud has come down and engulfed the lake. It is dense and the world feels mysterious. As the sun rises and warms the earth, the fog disappears as it evaporates and turns into invisible water vapor. The water has transformed from liquid to a gas but it is still in the air. After a period of upheaval a transformation may need to take place to remain true to who we are.



Foodie Friday: Snacks You Will Love

by Christine


Did you know as we age we lose our sense of taste? I discovered this quite by accident when I was working as a hospice volunteer. The person I was visiting weekly was "Mary", a lovely woman who was residing in a local nursing home. Mary dressed immaculately each day and had her hair professionally done. She would be sitting in the common room in a wheel chair when I arrived.  I was always looking for something of interest to her that we could talk about when we were together.

On one of my visits I took a few slices of my Flower Child banana bread to Mary. Once seated together, I handed her the zip lock bag with the banana bread; I was surprised and alarmed to see how quickly she consumed it. I was surprised because she reminded me of a little kid who quickly stuffs a whole cupcake in her mouth so her mom can't tell her she to share it with her siblings. I was alarmed because I was afraid she might choke. Fortunately, she did not choke but her reaction to the banana bread got me to thinking about food as we age and about how our diets change over time.

In my reading I discovered that there are physical and emotional reasons our diet shifts and we start seeking high salt, high fat foods. You can read a comprehensive explanation of the physical reasons for the age-related changes to taste at the Mayo Clinic web page. I personally believe that texture also plays a big part in how much some people enjoy food as they age. When my own mother hit her 80's, I watched as she started to eat potato chips and ice cream regularly. These were foods that were never a staple in her diet when she was younger but at 80 she found enjoyment in the salty crunch of the potato chips and the cold, smooth sweetness of ice cream. 

If you have an aging parent at home or in a nursing home that you are concerned about their diet, you might try introducing a few easy snacks to their regimen. This way you can find out whether it is a reduction in taste that is driving their dietary change or maybe it is something else. Keep in mind that nursing home's prepare hundreds of meals a day for people with various health issues. Additionally we all struggle to remain creative in the kitchen and nursing homes have the same challenge. 

Below is my Flower Child banana bread recipe. You can prepare this as a loaf or as muffins. I like the muffins because I can easily freeze them and pull them out as needed. Having a whole loaf of banana bread is a disaster waiting to happen for Marty and me. The muffins are a workable solution to helping us avoid late night runs on the kitchen and manage portion control. I have a great snack idea that I am working on for next Friday. See you then.


 Flower Child Banana Bread 

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 cup of honey
1 grated lemon rind
2 beaten eggs
2 cups of banana pulp 
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of chopped nuts
1/2 cup of raisins (optional)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Grease and flour a loaf pan

1. Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
2. Mash bananas in small bowl. Set aside.
3. Blend oil, honey and lemon rind until nearly smooth.
4. Add beaten eggs to the oil mixture and beat.
5. Add sifted ingredients in three parts alternating with the banana pulp.
6. Fold in chopped nuts and raisins if desired. 
7. Pour in loaf pan.
8. Bake for 50 minutes or until toothpick in the center comes out clean.
9. Cool 5 minutes before removing from the pan. 

**I use 1 cup of white flour and 1 cup of wheat flour for a lighter loaf that still has texture. If you prefer a heartier and heavier loaf, use two cups of wheat flour. 
***I like the honey but you may also use white sugar for a lighter taste. 
****Serve with cream cheese, fresh fruit, a dab of whipped cream or plain. 
*****I found that this loaf took 65 minutes to bake.
******If you decide to go the muffin route, bake for 25 to 30 minutes.



Guidelines For Visiting A Friend In The Hospital, Rehab Center Or Nursing Home?

by Christine

{Pershing Square}

What are the dos and don'ts of visiting friends in the hospital, rehab centers and nursing homes? Based on the experience with my parents, I have a few guidelines that I follow in terms of visitation of friends and their family in these group situations. My goal is to support my friends during a difficult period but at the same time I don't want to intrude and cause additional stress.  

First, hospitals; I have learned that given today's healthcare structure, when someone is in the hospital, they are really sick or incapacitated. Insurance companies view hospitals as high cost solutions to a medical problem so they will move a patient out to an intermediate facility as soon as the patient is stable or send them home. If someone is in the hospital it is because they need a serious level of care so I would say don't visit. If you want to do something send a card, flowers or make a casserole for family members on hospital duty but don't immediately head off to the hospital. If you feel a real need to visit, call and ask a family member if the patient is receiving visitors. There are various reason that they may ask you to wait until the patient gets home before planning a visit.

If you do go, visit briefly with the patient but take longer and more detailed conversations with family members to the waiting room. Lastly, and this happened to our family twice, once with our father and once with our mother. If the doctor comes into see the patient and their family while you are there, excuse yourself by saying you will be in the waiting room. In this situation, curiosity can get the best of us but respect the patient's right to privacy. If the patient or family has no objections to you being in the room they will tell you.

Second, rehabilitation centers: when it comes to rehab centers, I would suggest give the patient a day or two to get acclimated before making a visit. The slogan of my mother's rehab centers was, "We work you out then kick you out". This was their upbeat approach to helping my mother recover from her stroke and get back home. The workout was hard and tiring but necessary to helping her gain as much strength and coordination as possible so she could return home. As a result by the end of the day she was worn out...a couple of times I found her asleep sitting up in her chair. Also she had workout sessions morning and afternoon taking up most of the day. If in doubt as to whether a visit is appropriate or not, talk to a family member to get the lay of the land or if you decide to drop by, do so after 4:00 in the afternoon and make the visit quick. 

Third, nursing homes: except in rare situations, when someone moves into a nursing home it is permanent. The nursing home is now their new residence. So by all means visit. People dread the thought of being "put" into a nursing home because they are afraid of being abandoned and forgotten. Just like someone's home, nursing homes operate on a schedule so I would build your visits around the meal schedule. Visits anytime after 9:00 in the morning and before 9:00 in the evening will work in most facilities. Lunch is served around noon and dinner between 5:00 and 6:00. The places I have visited will allow visitors to have lunch or dinner with the resident if arrangements are made in advance. While the layout of a nursing home can feel very "medical" it is still home to the people you care about so feel free to visit regularly. 

On Foodie Fridays I am going to write about taking "outside" food into these facilities and share some ideas on foods to share. In the end, we want to offer strength and compassion to those who are ill, injured and recuperating. What are your guidelines for visitation? How would you want to be treated? 



What's The Real Cause Of Caregiver Stress?

by Christine


This June it will be one year since my mother died. As I have opened up about the final years of her life, others have shared with me the difficult journey they are on with their aging parents. I watch as one-by-one my friends and extended family are being initiated into a club none of them wanted to join. They work to be kind and loving children as they navigate the healthcare system on behalf of their parents, take over chores and tasks that were once routine for their mom or dad and manage not only their own finances but the finances of their parents. In short, they double their workload while living in an increasingly emotional environment.  

As I listen to the heartbreak in their words, I want to offer comfort and encouragement to my friends. I caution them to take care of themselves because the stress they are experiencing is real and can be physically damaging. But how do you take care of yourself? There are many websites that discuss Caregiver Stress and how to manage it but it is not so easy. I lived a 1000 miles away from my mother but that did not lessen the stress. When I was in town participating in her care, I was exhausted and at times frustrated but when I returned home, I felt worried and guilty. Yes, when she was in the rehab center, the pressure was off a little. But then I worried whether she felt isolated and if she was getting good care. (Indeed her care was excellent but that still did not stop me from worrying.)

For me the real stress came from my inability to stop the mental and physical decline that my mother was on during her final years. I knew she did not want to give up driving but she had to. I knew she did not want to wear Depends but as her body started to fail, she had to. I knew she did not want to have strangers in her home to care for her but she had to. It was not easy for her and it was not easy for those who loved her.

Years ago I came to the understanding that the good times don't last but more importantly, the bad times don't last either. During particularly difficult times in my life, I have actually said this out loud as a reminder. As you walk this journey, capture those moments of laughter and joy when you can and know that there will come a day when the good times will return and your heart will no longer feel so heavy.




Nursing Homes: A Blessing or a Curse?

by Christine

{Rock Stacks in Maine}

How do you respond when asked if the glass is half empty or half full? The answer to this question is a popular culture personality test. If you respond by declaring it to be half full then you're an optimist and if you say half empty you're a pessimist. Of course with most tests in life, I make them more complicated than others seem to do. My response to this question is more like...well that is an 8 ounce glass so the reality is that you have 4 ounces of liquid. That's neither positive nor negative, it just is. But I understand the test... it is not the question in and of itself; it's your response to that question that allows people to categorize your worldview.

As you can see my worldview is rather practical. I go about ascertaining the reality of a situation and work to come up with the best solution available. I naively believed that as my mother aged, there would always be a "best solution" to her failing health issues. When it came time to discuss the next level of care for her after she suffered multiple strokes, it became clear the best solution was not only illusive but also painful to make. As we started exploring various options, we did tour multiple nursing homes.  Our emotional response to a nursing home was strongly negative and we were trying to avoid that for our mother. I have yet to hear anyone declare they want to move into a nursing home no matter how sunny and bright the facility.

I understand the negative response but it is not the place so much as what it represents. Rarely do people entering a nursing home return to the life they were living prior to the loss of their physical or mental ability. It means moving, it means a transition for the individual and their family. A feeling of failure and despair hit us as we worked to come up with a workable solution that did not include moving mom into a nursing home. But the realities of her diminished physical and mental capacity required that we consider that option. Mom was no longer safe alone at home. Ultimately, Mom did return to her home after leaving the hospital and lived out the last couple of months in her own home. 

Candidly, the reason she was able to return home was because she only lived weeks after her last stay in the hospital. We were spared that end of life decision on behalf of my mother. Our family saw clearly that if my mother had lived longer we would have needed the assistance a nursing home. My mother didn't have enough money for 24-hour care in her home on a long-term bases and the physical and emotional toll of her care on our family had already started to show. Caregiving stress has a real impact on the health of the caregiver and our family was no exception. 

Nursing homes are our society's practical response to caring for the elderly when they themselves or their families can no longer do so safely. As your parents age, you may find that you will need this group arrangements to support you as your parent's mental and physical capacity degrades. Nursing homes, as a solution is not a bad or good solution...it just is. What we rebel against is the fact that being old, I mean really old is messy and complicated and we don't want our parents to suffer that indignity. We don't want them to die. Entering a nursing home signals the beginning of the end and we grieve that end. As you and your family make this decision, be gentle with each other. 




Once Your Parents Are Gone: Time To Heal

by Christine

Off and on for the last two months, I have had periods of sadness. Nothing as serious as depression or melancholy just a bit of sadness. I recognize that my feelings are tied to the death of my mother last June and truthfully that surprises me. The last year of her life and the months after her death were difficult. Doctors, hospitals, hospice, funeral planning, lawyers, distribution of my parent's property and mounds of paperwork consumed my life and the life of my family. For months, all family conversations centered on Mom or business related to mom. But after the last document was signed and submitted to the state, I believed I would be able to return home and pick-up life as it was before Mom's end of life journey.

I arrived home with an eye to the future but surprisingly; the past keeps coming to the forefront. Turns out grief is not as easily dispensed of as the paperwork needed to sell my parents home or the tools in their garage. The process of grieving is further complicated because I am not grieving one "thing". I am not only grieving the loss of my mother but the loss of my father too. My mother was the last physical connection to my father. In my mind and heart they were a matched set, like a Santa and Mrs. Claus pair of salt and pepper shakers. Mentally the Santa may have been in the dining room and Mrs. Claus in the kitchen but they were both around. Now the set is gone. I feel I lost my father again when my mother died. 

Also, I am grieving the loss of an era. The adults from my childhood are now gone. I once heard a friend say that with the death of his parents, the only remaining people who knew him as a baby were gone. Worst yet, I find myself saying to my grandchildren how much they look like my parents or the parent's of their paternal grandfather. Bless their hearts...what can they say? Because they love me, they politely listen and then change the subject to whether Justin Bieber is a dork or not. 

One of the lessons in life I worked to teach my children was "nothing lasts...not the good times and not the bad times. Enjoy the good times and remember that the bad times are only temporary". The ebb and flow of life can be smooth or rocky but it will continue to change. I want to will away the feeling of sadness but I know it is part of the process. I just want it to move a little faster.





How To Let Go

by Christine

The proliferation of blogs both by professionals and non-professionals has resulted in a wealth of inspirational and useful information. I have learned a great deal from others as they work to navigate a world that is over-stimulated, shallow and driven to consume at a frenzied pace. As I worked to organize my closets and basement, I crafted my plan after reading how others approached culling their wardrobe to a reasonable size or discussed the pros and cons of various storage systems. The practicality of the ideas put forth is helpful as I move to embrace a life without being a slave to that, which I own. 

This past year, many of my friends had to close down their family homes. I followed with interest their process because I, too, had to close down my parent's home. Over the last couple of years, Marty and I, like many of our friends, have been actively giving away or throwing away that, which did not work in our home any longer. I was determined not to bring things from my mom's home that would undo all our progress. But the struggle became one of emotion, not desire of ownership. I found that I became sentimental about furniture, artwork or knickknacks that I had been indifferent to while my parents were alive. 

As we discuss how to simplify our lives materially, we must first address the emotional component of "things". Yes, things can be clutter but they can also hold years of memories that link us to those we love. The act of letting go of your parent's belongings and also, letting go of your spouses family things can be painful and draining. But as one on the other side of the process, I find that I do not miss anything that I left behind. The memories are real without the furniture or knickknacks. As you work to intentionally simplify and streamline your home and your life, feel confident that as you work through the process, there are rewards for holding fast to your vision.







How Do You Give Comfort and Peace to a Friend in Pain?

by Christine

I am still enjoying the warm glow of time with my family and friends during Christmas and New Year's. It was a special time. Though I do keep coming back to conversations I had with friends and acquaintances on Christmas and New Year's Day. Each conversation started the same, we talked of the holidays, of the past year, and of kids or grandkids but eventually, we came to what was weighing most on the hearts of my friends. Their aging parent.

One friend's mother is physically healthy but her mind, the essence of who she is, is disappearing. They were forced to put her in a locked down facility because she kept wandering away from her Assisted Living home. Fortunately, strangers would find her and kindly bring her back. They are grateful and choose not to think of the multiple "what if" scenarios that could have befallen their mother. My friends have taken over their mother's finances and are making the hard decisions required to acquire the money to pay for her new living arrangement. This period of their life is stressful and at times painful. 

Another friend is struggling with his strong willed mother. It has become obvious to everyone that knows her that she can not longer live alone but she clings to staying in her house. The panic phone calls from neighbors come regularly to my friend and he is trying to transition from son to...father-son, caregiver or power-of-attorney. He is still trying to find a solution that won't necessitate change on his mother's part and allow her to remain in control of her life's decisions. 

I want so much to bring comfort and peace to my friends. I have walked in their shoes and I know first hand the pain, the frustration, the fear and the sadness they are experiencing. My vision for this blog was one of a traveler or travelers on a trail who would share insights about the journey that would make it easier for those who were to follow. But sadly I am afraid the lessons I have learned won't bring much peace to my friends during this time in their life. 

How do you tell a friend that what they are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg and that today is the healthiest your parent is ever going to be again? Or how the phrase "this too will pass" keeps coming to mind but what will pass is the ailing parent. Even the positive feels unfair and negative at this point in the journey. I could tell my friends one day the panic calls will stop, you will no longer be called upon to make decisions for the ones who raised you and the anxiety of making the "right decision" will go away. One day your mind and heart will be lighter but that day is weeks or months after the funeral you planned for you last surviving parent. I have written before about embracing the seasons of your life but this period is just plain hard. So while it feels inadequate, I will do what I can for my friends, listen and pray. 

I know this is pretty heady stuff for the first Monday after New Year's but it is what is on my heart.