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yoga exercise abstract

     Meditation, in all its various colors, has hit the mainstream.   It used to be just the hippies and alternative people who flocked to a room somewhere back in the 60s and 70s to learn transcendental meditation. I was one of them. My friend was one of the “alternatives” and invited me to a session that he was attending. Sounded interesting. I was given a mantra and taught how to relax my mind and silently repeat that mantra over and over again. When my mind wandered, gently bring it back to that nonsensical word and continue to silently and effortless repeat it. We were taught to practice that for 20 minutes twice a day. I did, and have been for years. Now it’s 30 minutes once a day about 5 times a week. During my college years I lapsed and had intermittent on/off periods during my high driving career years. But for a number of years now it’s been a regular practice, not “TM” but rather insight meditation has taken its place. That practice has made a major impact on my patience level, sense of peace and contentedness, clarity of thought and abiding sense of internal joy. Medical research now proves the physical and mental benefits of an ongoing meditation and mindfulness practice. Dozens of articles have been written about it and books extolling its benefits include its step-by-step process. But few have the emotional impact and first person case study that prominent neurosurgeon Dr. James R. Doty’s has in his memoir Into The Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. Wow is the superlative that comes to mind.

     Dr. Doty is now a professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University. But, as he tells it, it’s a fluke that he actually attended college at all, not to mention become a successful and prominent neurosurgeon. He doesn’t use the word fluke he calls it magic and weaves a compelling tale of being a young boy and meeting a woman in a magic shop who seduced him by promising the ultimate magic trick that would change his life. He was to spend his 12 weeks of summer vacation with her learning the trick. And if he practiced the trick, even at home, he could have anything he wants in life. That would be truly amazing since he came from a very poor family with a drunken father who couldn’t keep a job and bedridden, clinically depressed mother who had to continually pack up the family and move when they got evicted from apartment after apartment for not paying the rent.

     The trick, as Dr. Doty relays, was learning to meditate and then manifest his dreams. With regular practice and a deep, sincere desire for those goals to materialize along with visualization and the trust that they would – his life could change. Would change. This book tells that story of how his dreams came to pass. Along the way he shares the step-by-step process that this woman, Ruth, taught him. His abiding hope is that others will learn the way too.

It’s a profound read that is hard to put down.

 

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Who knew that bringing in the newspaper Monday morning would change my life. It was just an ordinary morning, arriving home from my daily dog walk and reaching into the newspaper receptacle as I do every morning. What looked like an innocent stack of leaves instantly turned into a sled on top of slick water once I stepped on them. They were still damp from periodic rains we’d experienced, much appreciated after our 7-month drought. Today, for some reason I lost my balance and toppled onto the street, twisting my ankle on the way down. Crack. There it was, loud and clear. And in that instant I fractured my fibula.

brokenankle1

As a child I broke my ankle after falling off of somebody’s shoulder on the playground and lived in a white cast for weeks, I think. The only thing I remember about that experience was the extreme immediate pain and then total inconvenience for, what seemed like, an eternity.

brokenankle2This time, a boot stuffed with soft fleece and fastened by super Velcro will live on my lower right leg for 6-weeks. Can’t put any weight on it or drive for the duration. What a difference life can bring when living on one leg.

Our first floor has been rearranged. My bathroom is now downstairs and handicap equipped. The guest room is now my sleeping quarters and pants that can fit over a big boot have become my clothes of choice. Rugs have been rolled up. One slip on shoe with a rubber traction sole is all I can wear. Getting in and out of bed as well as on and off sofas and chairs are new challenges to be mastered. This boot is heavy and lugging it around over a broken ankle is not for the misty eyed. It’s a lead weight so I’m learning to flex my foot, charge my thigh and engage my core before lifting that leg. Who knew?

After day one I was convinced those nasty crutches were not my solution to getting around. So ingenuity had to prevail in a number of ways.

Aha! The rolling chair in my office could serve as a make-shift wheel chair with my left leg as the engine and my arms as the navigators. Multi-tasking is a must. So when I go to the kitchen I envision everything I’ll need for a meal, dump it on my lap and wheel to the counter. When I strategically position myself, I can stand up and reach 80% of what will be necessary for that meal. Sometimes a couple of chair trips will finish the task. Believe it or not, it exerts a lot of energy to stand up, sit down and motor around on one leg – all day. I’m “feeling the burn” as they say, in my left thigh and glutes as though I’m working through leg rotations in the gym. But on just one leg.

As a yoga practitioner for many years I understand correct body alignment and the need for stretching to avoid injury so I’ve figured out how to stretch my hamstrings and do hip openers. On both legs! Extra precaution is taken on my right side to keep my lower leg stabilized. But, surprise, I can also do thigh lifts so I’m not too weak when I get that leg back. I want this sucker off as soon as possible – with my knees, thighs and back aligned and intact!

Bathing is now mastered, while also keeping that durn right boot dry. Laundry was my new challenge today. My husband helper brought all the dirty clothes fit to be washed to the laundry room. The rest I can do! Wheel, stand, wheel, stand – load, unload and fold, slowly. In fact everything now is much slower. It takes twice as long to accomplish tasks I took for granted on two legs. As I write I’m sitting on our back deck enjoying a 50-degree, beautiful sunny day. All by myself I’m proud to say. How? Ha! Loaded everything I needed onto my lap grabbed my crutches and wheeled to the patio doors where I stood, lifted one wheel at a time over the runners and sat down on the other side. Whee! I have my chair outside and my crutches inside the door – just in case I happen to need them. Victory!

I’m learning that slowing down is not a bad thing. Reading for longer periods at a time is good for my brain. More frequent meditation is healthy for my soul. Taking late afternoon naps to restore energy used up in my daily motoring is refreshing. I’ve read that slowing down inspires creativity. It does.

I also have utter empathy and compassion for all the long-term disabled people whose lives were also changed in an instant. I’m lucky, in 6-weeks I’ll have two functioning legs again. Those people won’t. I’ll resume hiking, walking my dog, practicing yoga, enjoying water aerobics and driving my car again. Most of those people won’t. I feel accomplished when mastering new methods for mundane tasks. Their challenges far surpass mine. And yet those people often master extreme challenges exerting much more effort than I have to.  I’m most fortunate.

Now, though, it’s time to maneuver back into the house, through the living-room, down the hall and into the laundry room to unload the washer and load the dryer. Wheel, navigate, stand. Wheel, stand. Wheel, stand. And this is day 4. But who’s counting?

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MY 94-year old father was released from hospice care today because he’s just doing too well to qualify for that designation. His life in the nursing home will continue as usual, only now there’s no extra nurse, aide or social worker checking in. I get it and I’m actually rather hopeful that the doctor is adhering to the rules of Medicare and the spirit behind those rules. Although nobody can predict how long my dad will actually live, they also can’t limit it to the 6 months required by the Feds. I’m hopeful because the news is filled with too many stories of Medicare and Medicaid fraud it worries me that the health care marketplace is fraught with tricks and loopholes to bleed money from the government and us taxpayers. It’s nice when I see the law adhered to.

So my father is off hospice but still stuck in the nursing home he hates. Now I’m talking about a gold star nursing home with amenities to match. Book clubs, sports groups, activities, musical concerts, religious services and beautiful grounds that he can see from his private, spacious room. He’s stuck because that’s how he sees it. He’s no longer able to walk to the parking lot, get in a car and drive home. And none of his kids will do it for him. He doesn’t participate in any of the activities other than services and the periodic entertainment.

He’s been there for more than a year and I really don’t think he hates it anymore. He’s adjusted, knows the people, enjoys some of the food and complies with the regimens. He’s clean, is well groomed, has gained weight and is the epitome of robustness for a 94-year old man who’s been disabled by a stroke 25 years ago. Left to his own devices, which he desperately yearns for, none of that would be true. It’s the rules and the regs that bother him the most. He feels like he’s in prison, and he’s right. He’s being held somewhere against his will and that’s the ultimate in lack of control, especially for a very controlling person who’s quite macho and has always been in charge.

He’s sad a lot and lonely and that makes us, his children, equally hurt for him. We can’t fix it. We’ve sent in a social worker and rabbi to see if they can help him adopt a different attitude. Sometimes it helps but only temporarily. We’ve explained how he requires the care of skilled people more regularly than he can receive at home. And how he’s actually less lonely than he was in his bedroom where he interacted with many fewer visitors and just his TV for entertainment.

My father thinks his daughters have betrayed him, that we’ve turned our backs on him now that he needs our help. That he financially and emotionally supported us as children and provided a comfortable livelihood so we could enjoy what we were provided. He is unable to consider different points of views outside himself. His heart won’t allow it and his pride won’t release. As he sees it, he is the rooster and we are the eggs and we need to do what he wants as he did when we were children.

That makes us sad too for we haven’t betrayed him. Quite the contrary. Each of us plays a role in my father’s life at the nursing home. One sister closely monitors his care there and takes care of his domestic needs. One overlooks his finances. The third sister researches the law, his business history and gives him feedback and the last cheers him up, makes him laugh and brings him her delectable dishes. He knows it, and doesn’t notice it. That’s just a given; we’re his daughters.

It’s a learning experience for us all. He has to accept life as it is and we have to live with the knowledge that we’re keeping him where he doesn’t want to be and doing our best for him in the background.

Sigh …

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housebegoniasI sit here on my deck amidst dense trees and window boxes lush with flowering red begonias. The wind is blowing gently and there’s a faint rustle in the air. Life is good here in the woods. I’ve missed you.

Gone is the endless hustle bustle of the city. The traffic racing past, cyclers, skate boarders, runners, horns blowing, sirens shrieking – whew! The sounds of nature once again fill my psche and renew my soul. I’ve become a country girl. 20 years of living like this has changed my constitution, literally. Everything inside me has slowed down. I can once again hear myself think, sense my intuition and feel joy. I’m not racing anymore.housewoods

Some people thrive on the hectic and energetic lifestyle of a city. I used to. Back in the day when I lived in Pittsburgh I longed for a more active environment. When asked if I liked living there I’d say I don’t intend to die there. I was after more action. And later in Chicago I got it. Though we didn’t live in the city I was there every day and many evenings after work. I loved Chicago. It was rich in all categories: sports, theater, food, shopping and entertainment.

woodsneighborhood1Moving to Knoxville, TN was a culture shock – for years. But we bought the right house in a perfect neighborhood and it’s been home for 20 years now. And I’ve come to realize that it’s the woods that my body craves. It’s very much alive in different ways than the city. There are birds that sing and insects that talk and squirrels that bark if you get too close. woodsneighborhood3And the rain sounds delicious, rather than bothersome. I’m home here, and though I truly love Boston, I’m not home there anymore. I used to be. I used to get off a plane, smell the salty air and smile from ear to ear. I still love that city and the whole of New England.woodsneighborhood2

But one thing I now know for sure. Though I don’t have to always live in Knoxville, I do need to live within nature. It’s become who I am. Ahhhh…. I’m home.

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Pat SummittToday was a day of national mourning that Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt died, succumbing to her horrible Alzheimer’s Disease. She was one of the greatest women of our time coaching 38 consecutive women’s basketball victories – the most winning-est coach ever. She was a strong, tenacious and fierce, yet loving, leader who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Men, women and children can learn a lot from her examples of leadership. Her players loved and respected her. Fans adored and revered her. And she leaves a legacy that few mortal people can touch. Not just as a coach, but as a person who helped build strong young women for tomorrow.

Yet she was fallible, as we all are. Death will befall us all. And death by Alzheimer’s Disease is a particularly insidious affliction that affected her family as much, if not more, than her. You see, after a while, it stole her memory and her identity, ultimately leaving the shell that “used to be” the famous and very personal Pat Summitt. I have no intimate knowledge of her days with the disease and without. I do, however, have first hand experience with Alzheimer’s – from afar.

My perspective is different than most. Certainly I knew of Pat Summitt. Everybody knew who she was and what she accomplished during her productive lifetime. But as a former hospice volunteer whose last patient lived 10 years with that disgusting disease, I watched a person diminish and a family devote their waking hours to making her comfortable and trying to engage her. Cajoling her to eat, to walk, to converse, to show some semblance of the wife and mother they remembered. Ultimately, this patient became mute and bedridden for the last five years of her life. I saw her blank eyes stare into space during the hours she didn’t sleep. She was as close to a vegetative state as I’ve ever witnessed. The photographs of the woman she used to be didn’t even resemble the woman I visited. She was no longer that person. Her husband was “trapped” (my words) in a marriage to a woman he’d lost years earlier. Yet he was fiercely devoted to her care. He talked to her as though she might answer. Cracked jokes. Reminisced. Showed her photos of the travels they’d taken in their RV. Offered a litany of his day. Prepared meals he thought she’d enjoy. Scrupulously cleaned her, lifting up her dead weight out of the bed and onto a toilet or the tub or the chair. Delicately, lovingly, devotedly.

He was housebound until I came to relieve him once a week to shop, run errands or, with my prodding – have some fun with family or friends. His wife showed no signs of life except breathing in and breathing out, eyes sometimes open and staring and sometimes closed for sleeping. That was his life. For five years! Five years before that he’d gone through the stages of Alzheimer’s progression. Unpredictable behavior, walking out the door to head somewhere though she didn’t know where, unexplained outbursts of anger and tears. Life had been a roller coaster. Until she finally, thankfully, succumbed. He admitted he’d lost his wife years earlier. He didn’t know who this woman was that she’d become. Yet he lived on memories and devotion until she was freed. And so was he.

From my perspective, it’s a blessing that Pat Summitt died. Her diagnosis five years earlier had been her death sentence. There is no cure. There is only disintegration. I say she’s free. Free to be the Pat Summitt we all loved and respected. No more pity, no more tears, no more wondering. She’s free. May the great and unparalleled Pat Summitt rest in peace. Her legacy lives on.

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It started most recently at our Thanksgiving gathering of 22 members of my husband’s clan and celebrating the 33rd birthday of one niece, the 2nd pregnancy of our niece-in-law and cajoling my 93-year-old father-in-law out of a recent bad dream. There was that nagging sense that time is flying by. That we are now the age of our parents when they hosted these family get-togethers, back when our nieces and nephews were the infants and toddlers.

Back then my father-in-law played the invisible stair game with those little ones as the rest of us went looking for the “missing” kiddos, searching the house and carefully stepping over giggling youngsters on our mission to find them on the 2nd floor. Today they’re grown and invent games for their babies at this holiday gathering while we “oldsters” prepare dinner. Whew!

Left to my own internal clock I’m in my late 30’s with a healthy body and exuberance for living and no children to mark the passage of time. I’ve discovered yoga, hiking, biking and healthy eating and, so far, my body hasn’t betrayed me. My 60th birthday left me scratching my head and thinking about time. That more of it is behind me than ahead. When did that happen?

We’re now entering 2015. Friends and siblings are grandparents! GRANDPARENTS? My dearest childhood friend died from cancer last year. A woman in my jewelry class just suffered a massive heart attack that ended her life. She was 66. Other close friends are experiencing serious health challenges. Three of our pets are senior citizens. My father is 91 with health issues.

These are things that weren’t part of my world in my 20s, 30s and 40s. Life had so many years ahead. I was ensconced in a vibrant pulse of daily tasks with no thoughts about the beginning of the end.

Is a changing perspective part of the aging process?

Today I’m called ma’am everywhere. Ads no longer target me, neither do TV shows. Everyone at work is younger. My idea of social media is Facebook. Have no idea about the myriad other ways younger folks communicate. Evidently not much happens face to face anymore. And my silver hair is no longer novel. Now it’s expected!

And guess what? I don’t care. I DON’T CARE!  Now life is so much richer with understanding how precious each day is. Everyday I wake up and feel good is a day to celebrate and appreciate. Friends are more important. Work is much less important. I don’t have a yearning to acquire and strive to greater things. My testiness threshold is greater, I’m more easily satisfied and I’ve discovered how hobbies foster creative growth.

I’m joyful, content and at peace – most days. And I know I’m gonna die at some point. And that’s why each day, with its inherent challenges, is to be appreciated and lived without regret. It’s a miraculous gift to live this human life. That fills me with awe.

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Alzheimers ribbonThe last time I saw Martha everything seemed status quo even though it had been a month since my last visit.  Her head was resting comfortably on a pillow, mouth was wide open as usual and she was sound asleep.  She was usually sleeping when I arrived and when I left, and her husband said she now spent much of her time asleep.  It was getting more difficult to awaken her for meals.  That was the sign we’d been waiting for.

Martha has been uncommunicative for 5 years, in hospice care for 4 years, and in a vegetative state for about a year.  She’d been living with “end stage Alzheimer’s Disease” during those same 4 years and living with the disease for about 11.  Doctors said she’s the first person they’d met to live “like that” for so long.  Most patients die sooner.  For some reason she’d been hanging on.

Martha finally died several days ago and I seemed to be the only one relieved – for her sake and for her husband’s who’s devoted the last 11 years of his life to her care.

Some background …

rainbow01As a hospice companion volunteer I function as an impartial friend to the dying and to the family who cares for them.  The adage “when a person is sick a family is sick” is true.  Illness can drive a family apart because of a shared history – or together as a united force.  In Martha’s case the bond grew tighter.

When she was diagnosed her husband promised to take care of her until the end, as she did for her mother who finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s years earlier.  He took that pledge seriously, and literally, essentially becoming hostage to his house unless he could find someone to “sit” for her on occasion.  That’s where I came in.  Three years ago I became that person who “babysat” as he called it.

True_Friendship1Over time hubby and I have become fast friends, visiting together before and after he ran his errands.  Eventually I persuaded him to include others in his life, people vibrant and leading healthy lives.  Hubby started going to Bingo at the senior center during my weekly visits.  He made friends there.  Continued gentle prodding inspired him to invite them over during the week for pizza and card games.  Slowly the twinkle returned to his eyes, he laughed again and regaled me with stories from his week’s events.  I got him books to read, movies to watch and together we went through his photo albums of happier days when Martha was his wife and not the living corpse in the bedroom.  He giggled about a couple of the “old ladies” at the senior center seemingly flirting with him just because he helped them on and off with their coats.  He was starting to feel like a man again – all the while – feeding, bathing, toileting, dressing, transferring and giving meds to his wife in the next room.  And he spoke so lovingly to her – calling her his pet names, rubbing her cheek, whispering in her ear as though they were sharing a secret from yesterday.  She laid in bed, mouth wide open and eyes staring blankly, not moving a muscle – while her chest went up and down with each breath.  “She knows it’s me,” he always said, “I can tell by the look in her eyes.”  Really?  It looked like the same blank stare I saw each time I was there.

Probably two – three weeks ago Martha turned a corner.  She slept almost all the time and her breathing became shallower.  Then she refused the spoon he continually tried to put in her mouth with food.  Then she wouldn’t take the thickened water.

And then – finally – she died.

At Martha’s memorial service hubby was drowning in his sorrow, unable to contain the tears that insistently ran down his face.  And his grief remains intense today.

Kozzi-broken-heart-shape-cartoon-772x673His world has a gaping hole in it.  There’s nothing he has to do and nobody who needs his care.  Martha isn’t there anymore.  He’s not sure what he’s going to do.

So my relief for her peace and for his freedom is misguided.  While she is, hopefully, at peace he’s not yet free.  Love’s tentacles run deep.

I have much to learn.  And that’s why I do hospice work.

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