Putting Pen to Paper in the Time of COVID-19

Putting Pen to Paper in the Time of COVID-19

To write a letter is human, to receive a letter, divine
—Susan Lendroth

Four years ago, I downsized. Living in an apartment house, I am now part of a community, not a formal one, but one with a passing hello in the lobby or weather conversation in the elevator. However, it was my relationship with our fifth-floor neighbor that went beyond the hello and the weather. Meg was of an earlier generation, there was no computer in her home and only the most basic of cell phones. In lieu of these items were plenty of paper and pen.

Given the generational gap, Meg was a woman of notes. Invariably, they would be slipped under our kitchen door. They varied in nature, telling us she would be visiting family, wishing us a happy Thanksgiving or my favorite, letting me know how much she enjoyed looking at my hanging geraniums that she could see from her living room window. In our three years as neighbors, I left my computer and iPhone behind. From my side of the hallway, it was a note thanking her for taking in our newspapers or a holiday card with an accompanying note. There was something so special about our across the hall communication. These notes were acts of thoughtfulness. Sometimes on a random piece of paper or other times on a real piece of stationery, especially when Meg’s birthday rolled around. The common characteristic that each of our exchanged notes shared was gratitude.

As much as I delighted in having Meg across the hall, I knew that a woman approaching her ninetieth birthday with an array of minor health problems, should not be living alone. Her children, also knew this. Meg would tell me in her soft voice, that while she understood the logic of a move to assisted living, she was saddened to leave her beloved New Rochelle where she was born and raised her family. Inevitably, acceptance trumped resistance. We had said our good-byes many times, voicing how fortunate we both were to have each other as neighbors. I returned home one day, the wreath that changed with the season was off Meg’s door and Meg was gone.

In the weeks following Meg’s move, I sent a note, bringing her up to date on what was going on with my family and inquiring about how she was doing. In return, I received a lovely card from Meg. A few brief sentences, with her ever-thoughtful sentiments.

Quoting Phyllis Theroux, a writer based in California: “to write a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.” In these times of COVID-19, where going anywhere is done with an abundance of caution or not at all, a note not only moves the heart but let’s those we care about know they are remembered.

The Art of Listening: Achieving Successful Communication

The Art of Listening: Achieving Successful Communication

As Aging Life Care specialists, we are called upon to provide an assortment of services. The needs are as varied as the families we are helping. We continuously strive to be experts in our knowledge of homecare, entitlements, senior residences, elder law attorneys, and providing skilled and supportive counseling. But we are only effective if, throughout our dialogue with families, we listen. Effective listening combined with effective communication sets the foundation for successive and successful outcomes.

The art of listening, sometimes referred to as “active listening” requires two essential tasks. First, that we as care managers, listen, making a mindful effort to hear the words that seniors and their families are saying. Second, we must concentrate on what is being said establishing a virtual stop sign that leaves no room for our own assumptions and prejudices. We cannot assume or anticipate conclusions. With these two tasks as starting points, our listening is enhanced by four other components.

We listen mindfully, putting aside any distracting (as opposed to professional beliefs) thoughts. We listen without having an inner dialogue that will have an automatic response to a situation that is verbally evolving.

We listen without interrupting, knowing it may disrupt a client’s train of thought, especially if the person is cognitively compromised. A semi-smile (think Mona Lisa) or an encouraging “uh-huh,” lets the person know we are with them, we are listening.

We ask for clarification at the appropriate time. Siblings may finish telling of their conflicting feelings about what they each think is best for mom, and we reply: “So let me make sure I understand.” It is that clarification that allows for modification and affirmation.

Finally, after all information has been shared, the Aging Life Care specialist summarizes what has been said and listens for what has not been said, the latter perhaps a clue to the issue at hand.

Our listening skills remain strong as we adapt to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 virus. Historically, families have sought the guidance of an Aging Life Care specialist as they pondered whether a parent would be better served in assisted living or remain at home with help. Now, families are asking our guidance as they question if a parent should return home or remain in their senior residence. Whoever would have thought? Thru this crisis, we will stand strong with our families, listening deeply and fully, a north star during uncertain times.

Social Distancing-Social Engagement in the Age of Covid-19: What We Can Do

Social Distancing-Social Engagement in the Age of Covid-19: What We Can Do

I live in New Rochelle, New York, a city whose fame is rooted in the Petrie’s of The Dick Van Dyke show. That image of a suburban family living on a quiet tree-lined street changed dramatically on March 10. New Rochelle became the first COVID-19 containment area in the United States.

On that date, I was visiting a client. Twenty minutes into my visit, the governor made his announcement. Although I felt fine, after checking with the caregivers to make sure food and medications were in good supply I left. Not yet knowing what a containment area meant, I shamefully headed to the supermarket, one thirty minutes away from the city where I have lived and shopped for forty years.

For people over 60, of which I am one, the instructions, even before this declaration, was to stay home. I had not taken the directive seriously. But the time had come. So instead of home visits, the telephone has become my link to clients. My weekly tutoring sessions at a local elementary school stopped. The library where I volunteer closed. My world had narrowed. Like the icon I tap when I take that occasional selfie, I now had to reverse my focus, making sure that my social engagement trumped my social distancing.

So, what have I learned that we can all practice and share with adult seniors? First, is the heightened importance of staying in touch. Communication whether it be by phone, emails or the use of video conferencing is paramount. But sadly, the oldest of the old are the least technologically savvy. This is where letters, especially with a photo enclosed, and cards and drawings from grandchildren will go a long way. Also, contacting a senior’s house of worship can result in congregants phoning members to fill the void created by COVID-19. Local aging in place organizations have volunteers who are also calling community members.

Beyond communication, the significance of a daily routine is important. For older adults who were going to senior centers or adult day programs, their regular schedule has been disrupted. Taking a walk has both mental and physical benefits. Combining this with in-home activities such as watching The National Park Virtual Tours or The Georgia Aquarium Live Cams can lessen the isolation and provide mental stimulation.

Is there a “What not to do?” Definitely. Dr. Laurie Archbald-Panno a geriatrician at the University of Virginia suggests a “news diet.” One news viewing in the morning and one in the evening. That’s it.

Our seniors have seen much in their lifetimes. They have lived through wars, TB and Polio epidemics and some, the Great Depression. Our government has assured us that at some point the COVID-19 virus will pass. But who better to give us this reassurance than our true survivors, our seniors. Let’s help them as they help us.

New Help in Choosing a Nursing Home

New Help in Choosing a Nursing Home

Selecting a nursing home here in Westchester County, or beyond, is filled with a myriad of emotions. Sometimes the decision is made easier by the fact that the complexity of care needed can only be met in a nursing home. Other times, it is the exhaustion experienced by the caregiver that necessitates entering a nursing home. And still, other times it is for rehabilitation and the stay is short term.

Regardless of the scenario, the process of selecting a nursing home can be daunting. Many times, the person is in the hospital and the discharge planner will hand a family member a list of nursing homes and ask them to select three. You may well know three great Italian restaurants in the area, but nursing homes are a different story. Over the years, as an elder care consultant, I have learned the good, bad and ugly about the residences in Westchester County and have guided families accordingly.

In conjunction with my assistance, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) provides a helpful guide in the form of Nursing Home Compare. This five-star quality-based system, not unlike how hotels are rated, allows a person to compare various factors that, in their totality, lead to a better level of care and consequently a higher star rating.

Enhancing the need for consumers to learn as much as they can before selecting a nursing home, in October of 2019, CMS announced that it would add a new icon which is a red circle with a white stop hand in the center. This icon, seen below, alerts the researcher that the nursing home has been cited for abuse which has caused resident harm within the past year. Their star rating will be capped at two stars and only if the facility goes without an abuse citation for one year will the icon be removed.

While the abuse icon is another step to motivate nursing homes to look at the quality of care they are providing, experience has taught me that the absence of an abuse icon does not necessarily mean the absence of abuse. Visit at off-hours, smell, observe and talk to staff and residents. A difficult decision can be made a little easier.

Nursing Home Abuse Icon

 

End of Life Decisions: A Broken Promise

End of Life Decisions: A Broken Promise

As a geriatric care manager, in the early part of my journey with senior adults and their families, I ask about advanced directives: a living will, power of attorney and a health care proxy. There will be one of three responses: 1. No, my mother refuses to talk about these documents. 2. We are planning to go to an attorney or 3. Yes, there has been a designated POA and health care agent.

If you fall into the number three category, it may be with relief that you have these documents in place. As the health care agent, you have had the “discussion” and understand the wishes of the person you will represent. You are certain that you can march forward through the complexities of end of life decision making. Yet for some, when the time arrives, that confidence becomes clouded by doubt. It’s not unusual. Such was the case for Lorraine, Anne’s daughter.

Anne, my client of nearly five years, confided in me with weekly regularity that she wanted to die. She knew she was losing her memory and was humiliated by what was happening. Other indignities followed. An extremely anxious person, the only comfort she took was that Lorraine knew her wishes and would do right by her.

Lorraine did not visit her mother with any frequency despite living just over the Westchester County border in Connecticut, a thirty-minute trip. Watching these meager visits and equally few telephone calls, I was sure that when Anne’s doctor called Lorraine to suggest hospice care, she would readily agree. To my surprise, Lorraine would not acquiesce. She acknowledged to me that she knew what she was supposed to do as her mother’s agent. The problem was she could not bring herself to make those final decisions about stopping advanced medical treatment, nutrition, and hydration. “Who am I to make those decisions?” she said to me. I wondered, was it unspoken hope or unease?

Anne lingered with time becoming the final decision-maker. In the days before Anne’s death, I said to Lorraine, with no suggestion of judgment, that she would carry with her whatever decision she made. I recognized that those who generously take on the role of health care agent do so with a full heart. But sometimes, good intentions can be superseded by last-minute questioning. Doubt fogs the road we thought we could readily take.