January 29, 2009

Simple Pleasures: Some Thoughts on Growing Old

“The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.” - Madeleine L'Engle

This past week, one of my classes featured a guest speaker, Dr. Michael Cheang, who is an expert in the field of aging and gerontology. While he certainly could have used his time to deliver a scholarly lecture or powerpoint slide show full of data, Dr. Cheang chose to engage the class with a series of interactive role-playing activities to help us future social workers understand some of the challenges faced by the elderly, often due the ignorance of their own family members.

When I hear the term “elder abuse,” my mind immediately jumps to images of negligent nursing aides in a care home who fail to take proper care of Grandpa or sinister con artists who steal Grandma’s identity over the phone. Interestingly enough, it’s actually the people who are closest to you who are most likely to be guilty of elder abuse, not unlike domestic abuse and violent crime. I was astonished to realize how often families make life-changing decisions for an elderly parent without even asking the parent for permission or taking the time to find out how they feel about the change. In the rush to "fix" the situation, it seems everyone forgets to ask the elderly what they want.

Too often, assumptions are made about medical conditions, nursing homes and end of life decisions that are based more on fear than fact. If a teenager loses his glasses, we conclude that he is irresponsible. If 45-year-old can’t find his glasses, we reckon he must be very busy. But if a 70-year-old loses his glasses, the best explanation is that he’s probably senile. We assume that being forgetful is the same thing as memory loss. But it’s not. We assume that since Grandma can no longer drive or hear the phone ring, she needs to be placed in a nursing home. But she doesn’t. We assume that Grandpa wants a feeding tube to prolong his life. But he doesn’t. This is no way to treat our kupuna.

Instead of viewing the elderly as a population that can offer wisdom, perspective and sense of humor, we unfairly characterize them as out of touch, unattractive and objects of ridicule. “Humorous” stereotypes of grumpy and clueless grannies from movies and TV commercials haven’t helped either. Young is good. Old is bad. Wrinkles and silver hair are seen as flaws that have to be minimized or concealed, especially for women, who are expected to look a certain way in order to be taken seriously.

Our society is afraid of aging.

If this is true, we won't be able to hide from our fears much longer. By the time I retire, the life expectancy in this country is projected to be at 85 years or more. One out of every five Americans will be over 65. Close to one-third of the lifespan will be spent post-retirement. The number of elders who are 85 and older could quadruple over the next 50 years. These dramatic demographic shifts will certainly create daunting challenges: soaring medical costs and demand for long-term care, heavier tax burdens on the workforce, caregiver shortages and the depletion of Social Security. At the same time, my hope is that these realities will also force us to acknowledge, respect and value our elders, whose dignity and wisdom are assets to society, not liabilities.

One of the most memorable parts of Dr. Cheang’s presentation was when everyone in the class was asked to create a list of 5 simple pleasures they currently enjoy as part of their routine: brewing coffee every morning, reading the paper, sitting in a favorite chair, playing with a pet, gardening on the weekends, etc. If you must know, mine were 1) checking sports box scores and recaps online, 2) listening to NPR in the car, 3) eating jello before bedtime, 4) reading scattered chapters of unfinished nonfiction books and 5) watching Jeopardy on the days I make it home in time. These are the simple pleasures I take for granted.

Once everyone had written a personal list, Dr. Cheang instructed us to cross out the first three things from it. He informed us that a day will come when we will no longer be able to enjoy these things in our old age. Moans and groans erupted from all corners of the classroom. What??!! No more internet access, NPR or jello? It’s difficult to imagine survival without these necessities, but this is what happens to the elderly as many of their most treasured activities are taken from them. It should not be a surprise that elderly folks actually want the exact same things that are valued by the rest of us. Dignity. Respect. Companionship. A sense of home. The freedom to make independent choices.

And of course, the ability to enjoy life's simple pleasures.

January 21, 2009

Words to Ponder: My Favorite Snippets from the 2009 Inauguration Ceremony

Best snippet from Rev. Rick Warren's invocation:

"When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us. And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes--even when we differ."

Best snippet from President Obama's Inaugural Address:

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect."

Best snippet from Dr. Elizabeth Alexander's poem:

"What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance."

Best snippet from Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction:

"Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream."

January 14, 2009

Still Learning to Blog...

As of today, it's been exactly 10 months since I started blogging. Since then, I've ruminated on topics ranging from China to Coldplay, correction tape to capital punishment and consumerism to Calvinism. There's always a lot on my mind, but that's just the problem. Blogging has been a way for me to collect my thoughts long enough in order to make some sense of it all. In addition to organizing my ideas, the goal has been to stretch my creativity, improve my writing and therapeutically reflect on the meaning of life, all at the same time.

Along the way, I've discovered that blogging is a lot harder than it looks at first click. At the Looniverse's dawn, I didn't think I would ever be at a loss for something to say, but these days, it's all I can do to post something three times a month. The art of a good blog post is very difficult skill to master, especially with any regularity. Choosing the topic is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Should I choose something from the news and give my take on it or would I rather reflect on the words of an old hymn? Do I stick to what I know or explore new ground? Should I strive to offer a balanced sampling of diverse viewpoints or would it be better to just pick a soap box, climb aboard and start ranting from the heart?

One of the most basic rules of effective communication is to show and not tell. I will now proceed to blatantly break this rule by describing my ideal blog post instead of actually writing it. The best blog posts are those that are substantive, but not too long. Perceptive, but not presumptuous. Catchy, but not (too) superficial. Playful, but not careless. Opinionated, but not heavy-handed. Informed, but not lofty. Thoughtful, but not dead serious. Vulnerable, but not soul-baring. There should also be a main point, when possible, but it can't be too obvious. It has to go down smooth and easy, like a firm cube of jello. Preferably green jello.

It's also nice when there's some sort of anecdote or personal angle that draws you in. Don't ask me to give an example because I'm not very good at this part. I'm just telling and not showing, remember? I read my fair share of blogs on a regular basis, sometimes to be entertained, sometimes to be challenged or to simply to stay up to speed on the issues I care most about. My favorite posts are those that are in sync with current events, but not so time-sensitive that they become obsolete within 24 hours. Since I'm only a part-time, on-call, volunteer freelance blogger, I don't post very often, which means I have to bring out the flavor to make each one last. Like a chilled spoonful of jiggly green jello.

Needless to say, I still have a lot to learn about blogging. I would love to someday arrive at the point where my skills are good enough to crank 'em out once a week with the regularity of a newspaper columnist. For now, my posts are too long, too irregular and too topically scattered to be very reader-friendly. Besides an audience, this blog also lacks a clearly defined theme or area of interest: current events? politics? evangelical Christianity? social work? local news? theology? basketball? I sure could use a niche. A snazzy slogan and a slick logo wouldn't hurt either. But let's bring it back to reality. I have a day job, a wife, a toddler, a baby on the way and a master's degree I'm supposed to be working on.

I think I hear them calling me.