Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Life Legacies of Senior Companions

On Tuesday morning, I had the privilege of speaking about ethical wills to our local Senior Companion volunteers. This lively group of 75 or so people are seniors in our community who are providing support and companionship for over 700 other seniors and disabled adults throughout Lane County.

As I looked out from the podium at the women (and a few men) in the group, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for this generation of people who are willing to serve and make a difference in the lives of others. With their presence, they reduce social isolation of seniors. With their talents, they get things done that need to be done each day for the well-being of people they serve.

During my talk, I ask the audience to reflect on a couple of questions that are helpful in starting an ethical will. They quietly write their individual responses for 5 - 10 minutes. Then I invite them to share their reflections with another person. Each time, a wonderful "buzz" of talk begins ... and grows ... and grows ... "buzzing" along until I have to bring their conversations to a close.

It's always a joy to see groups of seniors quickly get to the heart of what has been important in their lives. And most people are willing to generously share their life learnings with others at their table. So much wisdom in one room! Will our culture ever take time to hear what our elders have to say? Will we ever learn from their wisdom? Maybe, someday I'll be able to get two or three generations of people into the same room to listen. Just listen. And experience the wisdom of elders entering every heart in the room.

After my talk, the director of the program was inspiring with her words of encouragement to everyone in the room -- to honor our unique, one-of-a-kind selves by acknowledging and sharing our personal life legacy with others. Not to wait. Not to "think" that what each one of us has to say and do doesn't matter. She challenged us, saying: "Our children are not our future. We are creating the future for our children ... and our grandchildren ... 'til our last breath!" Bless you, Jean, for being an inspiration to me and so many others with your teaching and your life!

If you know people (over 60 years of age) who would like to be a companion to seniors and disabled adults in Lane County, I encourage you to contact the program at 683-8043. They have scheduled a training for new volunteers starting July 10th.

Here's a link for more information about the Senior Companion program:

Senior Companions

(NOTE: If your organization, church, or service group would like a program about personal legacies and ethical wills, please contact me via e-mail (click the "envelope" icon below or write to me at:
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Friday, June 23, 2006

The Greening of Aging

Most of the people I've worked with to create their own ethical will have been elders (or "boomers" headed towards elderhood). Among their "hopes and dreams" for future generations that I've heard is for a world that provides loving care for every person throughout their lives -- and, especially, for children and the elderly.

That "hope and dream" came to mind when I found an article on "American Leaders" in U.S. News that featured a doctor who is leading the way to revolutionize the nursing home industry. If you've ever spent time visiting (or working in) any of today's many decades old facilities, I'm sure you'll be pleased to learn about the Eden Alternative and the Green House Project.

Imagine giving every nursing home resident a parakeet, populating the place with dogs and cats, and plowing up the facility's manicured front yard for an organic garden. "Are you nuts?" The results were a 71 % drop in daily drug costs per resident, a 50% decrease in infections, and a 26% drop in nurse's aide turnover! Not so nutty after all!

Here's a link to the article which also describes plans for Eldershire -- a multigenerational "intentional community":

The greening of aging; William Thomas

May you come away from reading the article feeling more hopeful about the future of eldercare ! I certainly did.
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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Celebrating A Life: Going to a "Living Wake"

A week ago on Saturday afternoon, I attended what can best be called a "living wake" for a 95-year old man I've known for over 15 years. The gathering of family and friends was called "A Wake for Jake". It seemed to me while I was there that the occasion had many of the elements of a celebration for sharing an ethical will with your loved ones.

Jake had decided that he wanted a celebration of his life while he was still alive. No need to wait for death to celebrate this man's life! With Jake's attitude about life and way of being in the world, it was just the right thing to be doing for a man who has touched so many people with his presence in their lives.

After some sharing of food and drink as people gathered in a local bookstore Jake loves (even becoming an investor when the independent store was on the verge of closing its doors), a women read some of her favorite "Jake poems" and a couple sang two songs for the special occasion. Then, with two men at his side and cane in hand, Jake slowly made his way up the two steps to the stage. He had been sitting in a recliner next to the stage before the festivities began, having quiet conversations with individuals who came up to greet and speak privately with him.

Once he was settled on the stool on stage and the microphone adjusted for him, Jake expressed his gratitude to everyone who came to celebrate his life and began speaking about what has been most important in his life. In his deep, gravelly voice Jake said that at his age people often asked him, "What's it all about?" He tells them, "Life's a dance. You've been given a birthday gift of a trip on Spaceship Earth. She's a sturdy vessel, but she spins and twists and turns as she makes her way through time and space. What you need most is a sense of balance. When you're up on deck you're expected to join in a dance of contradictions where every action has its opposite and each act's a game of chance. I tell them that I manage to keep my balance by the way I do my dance."

As he continued, Jake spoke of the importance of trusting yourself and speaking from your heart -- of using words with care instead of chattering on to hear your own voice. He spoke of keeping the joy of learning alive in your life . . . of exploring and discovering something new each day . . . of the importance of art and poetry to enrich your life . . . of the "magical" nature of every human being.

Jake talked about the value of playfulness and asked us to remember to play ... to dance and sing to the music that is our lives ... to fully express our unique selves. And he asked us to work for peace by speaking from our heart to people we meet as we travel the world -- letting them know our desire for peace and that the words and actions of our government do not represent the true heart of the American people.

Jake asked his son to come on stage and read a poem from his collection, A Bird in My Mouth: Poems to Wake Up To. I was moved to tears by Jake's heartfelt words of fatherly pride in the life and accomplishments of his son (while sensing some of my own grief over never hearing such words from my father). After hearing Jake's poem, his teenage grandson came on stage and read his own "I am from ..." poem (receiving an enthusiastic response from the audience). Father, son, grandson ... three generations celebrating life together ... sharing words that had both heart and meaning to each other and us all.

What followed was a stream of people from the audience coming to the stage to express their gratitude for a well-loved man who made a difference in their lives. Both women and men, ranging in age from late 30's to late 60's, spoke with their heart's voice about Jake's importance to them and his influence on their "thinking and doing" of their lives.

When I took my turn at the mike, I recalled (with Jake's help since I had earlier spoken privately with him) how we first met at one of the men's gatherings I initiated in 1991. My memory of the gathering was one of feeling incredibly blessed by the presence of a male elder -- a rare "old man" in a group of mostly "mid-life" men.

Jake remembered a large circle of men sitting stoically -- waiting for something to "do" (something we did lots of in those first gatherings!). He finally got up and went to the center of the circle and silently "did his dance" -- crouching to the floor and gathering energy from the earth with his arms, then slowly, slowly moving to a standing position, stretching his arms to the heavens. I don't remember what the rest of us men surrounding him did -- but we most likely "gave him a hand" -- perhaps even a standing ovation!

Jake interjected, telling the celebration audience that he had then suggested that the men split into two groups and go off to separate rooms to "create our own dance" -- and come back together to perform for one another. So we did. And from that night on, many of the men gathered in similar men's circles, men's support groups, and men's gatherings -- becoming part of a "men's movement" that lasted nearly ten years before quietly passing away without a "wake" to celebrate its amazing -- but far too short -- life. (But that's another story for another blog).

I stepped away from the microphone after telling Jake and the audience how blessed I had felt by his presence at that first men's gathering and what a blessing it was to be here to celebrate him today. Later, when the spontaneous sharing by audience members had ended, I went to say "good-bye" to Jake who once again, was relaxing in the recliner next to the stage. We didn't say much ... just exchanged a kiss ... and looked into each other's eyes ... both knowing that this could be our last, living moment together.

Afterwards, as I was thinking about this "living wake" experience and its relevance to sharing an ethical will, I recalled Jake's poem, Dancing My Dilemma, in which he writes a "Chorus":

So let's go / get off the stool!
Do your own creative dance
While you still have the chance
Take your life in your hands
Find the meaning / to your being
And the balance / to your life
With the power and the skill
Of your own / creative will
Trust your heart / and DO YOUR DANCE!

Thank you, dear Jake, for trusting your heart and doing your dance with us on Spaceship Earth!
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Friday, June 09, 2006

Life Tapes & Legacy Videos: "Dignity Therapy"

Yesterday's Oregonian had an excellent article in their "Living"
section on the value of audio and videotaping your personal
legacy for your loved ones and future generations of your family.

The article tells a touching story of a 40-year old mother with a
terminal illness who videotaped the life lessons she wanted to
impart to her 5 and 9 year old daughters. It also describes how
some hospitals,
as part of their palliative care for dying patients,
are doing "life tapes" -- recordings of the meaningful aspects of
people's lives.

According to Dr. Harvey Chochinov who was quoted in the article,
"For many dying patients the ability to leave a clear record of
what mattered in life is just as important -- if not more so --
than other aspects of end-of-life care."

Here's a link to the whole article:

"Fond farewell" by Gabrielle Glaser

A sidebar to the story describes Dr. Chochinov's study which
found that dying patients "felt a heightened sense of dignity
and purpose, as well as decreased depression and sense of
suffering" when they could give their relatives transcripts
of extensive conversations they had with therapists who
interviewed them about their lives.

Here's is a link to the sidebar:

"Dignity therapy" by Gabrielle Glaser

While the story focused on people at the end of their lives,
the matter of our personal legacy is "alive" for every one of
us, every day of our lives. Death is always just one last heart
beat away, one last breath away.

Doing an ethical will in written, audio and/or videotaped form
-- and sharing it with your loves ones -- offers many of the same
"dignity and purpose" outcomes as an ethical will.
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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Writing Your Epitaph for An Ethical Will

In the last paragraph of Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, Dr. Gordon Livingston suggests that every written will should include one's personal "epitaph". I think writing your own epitaph is an especially worthwhile endeavor as you create an ethical will.

If you'd like to include your epitaph in your ethical will (and/or your legal will), complete this statement:

"I would like my epitaph to be ....."

It may come to you instantly ... or take days (or weeks!) of pondering. I recall doing this exercise back in the 1990's in combination with writing my own obituary and planning my life celebration -- all of which are helpful for contemplating one's mortality and uncovering fears of death that inhibit living your life fully.

At the end of his book, Dr. Livingston shared his own epitaph which, much to my surprise, was the same epitaph I had chosen for myself nearly ten years ago. From the words of Raymond Carver in his collection of poems, A New Path to the Waterfall:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.

And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

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