Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Life hacks for aging boomers’ aging parents

Many of us baby boomers have been lucky enough to have parents and relatives live long enough to still be around. As the years go by, roles shift from cared for to caregiver.

Just about everyone I know either has been there or is now going through it. Advice, resources, and tips are mouse clicks away. But because every situation and every person is different, there are no universal solutions.

Still, it’s worth sharing a few life hacks I've found in case they work for you and yours.

1)    More is less with meds
There is a pill for everything, but not every condition needs a pill – or, if it does, there's no need to take it forever. More meds mean more potential for drug interactions and greater confusion about what to take when. So I was glad when my mother’s doctor cut out medications that were “nice to have,” “could be helpful,” and “not necessary at her age and could be harmful.”

2)    Play along
The lung disease COPD has no cure, but that doesn't mean the music ends. Some brilliant person made the connection between breathing exercises to strengthen lung function and playing the harmonica. Now “Harmonicas for Health” is a program offered by the COPD Foundation and Pulmonary Education Program. (Musical talent not required.)

3)    Daily reminders
We all have asked: “What day is it?” But when it becomes a daily or hourly question, it can signal a deeper problem. External memory aids sometimes help, at least in the short term. Among the tools we’ve used in the family are big wall calendars, wooden-block perpetual calendars, digital time-and-day calendars, and even Alexa. Yes, there is an Amazon Eco Dot in my mother’s apartment. When she asks, Alexa tells her the time, the day, or the temperature—and will even play Willie Nelson for her. She just has to remember to ask.

4)    Go for the assist
When broken hips mend, flexibility can be lost. Some helpful aides we’ve found include the Carex Upeasy Seat Assist, with a hydro-pneumatic spring that slowly activates as the user leans forward to stand. Even less high tech is the sock horse for help in bending down to put on socks.

5)    Help I’ve fallen
…And I can’t get up. Baby boomers have laughed at commercials for medical alert systems for years. Now the joke’s on us, as we scramble to research the various companies to determine what’s best for elderly relatives. Is it waterproof for the shower? Does the range extend into the yard? Can it detect falls? Is it GPS-enabled? Some independent-living communities even have their own devices. While any of these options are viable, there’s a bigger issue: getting Mom (or Dad or Auntie) to wear it. After a few accidental activations, my mom resists wearing her pendant necklace. It now sits on a nearby surface, safe from being activated but very unsafe for her.

The biggest change for me at this stage is being in a position to make life decisions for those who once cared for me. I'm sure I was no picnic for them back then. When my mom says I slept like a baby, she probably meant I cried all night and wet myself. I guess turnaround really is fair play.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Just four questions?

Four questions are an essential element of the Passover Seder. This was one of the first things learned by the non-Jewish Wikipedia-skimming couple who celebrated with us this year.

The purpose of the four questions is to engage children in the story of Passover, with the youngest asking why the holiday’s customs and foods are different than those of all other nights. That’s a lot of information to convey through just four questions.

Journalists use at least six in their reporting: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

I’m not a journalist, but I do interview clients to get to the heart of a story. And I do ask a lot of questions.

In some cases, clients ask for a list of questions beforehand. And while that’s easy enough for me to generate, it isn’t always helpful. After the first few questions, interviews usually take on a life of their own. They become what I call fishing expeditions. I let the conversation go where it will so I can discover things I may not have known enough to ask about. 

Questions don’t even have to be fully formed thoughts. If there’s good back-and-forth in an interview, just mentioning a key word or phrase can prompt the subject-matter expert to respond.

Generic questions also work better than you might expect:
  • Why is this topic important for readers?
  • What are the two or three key things you want them to know?
  • What are competitors saying about this topic?
  • What haven’t we covered?
  • Is there anything else you want to add?
I might even ask “Anything else?” a few times, until the final answer is: “No. I think we’ve covered it all.

One of the best questions I’ve found is a single word: Why? By asking “why” over and over, you can drill down into any topic until the relevant detail surfaces. It’s an approach most of us used as small children, to annoy our parents: Why? Why? Why? 
As an adult asking the same question, I can see why it’s so effective. The answer either starts with “Because…” or winds up providing background or rationale that puts the content into perspective.

Questions are useful tools for acquiring information...which leaves me with a final question about the Passover Seder: Why only four questions?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sweat the small stuff, big stuff, and all stuff in between

We live in a world of “stuff.” Stuff bought in stores or flea markets. Stuff received as gifts. Stuff inherited or donated. As long as this stuff is used, loved, or valued, there’s no problem.

Eventually, however, there comes a time when everything will need to find new homes. Over the years, I have pitched in during the cleanout process as relatives have passed away or downsized from houses to apartments. Lots of stuff was pitched out or donated to charities, while precious little was claimed by family members.

Their lack of interest surprised me. Years ago, I would spend hours browsing antique shops or refinishing hand-me-down furniture. If something was old and interesting, especially with family history attached to it, I raised my hand. These days, no hands are raised when younger generations are offered their grandparents' belongings.

Apparently, it’s a trend. I read as much in “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff,” subtitled: “Advice for boomers desperate to unload family heirlooms.”  The story relates how baby boomers and Gen Xers are faced with the task of disposing of their parents’ possessions – and nobody wants them. So much for sentimentality.

Even though people love the History Channel’s “American Pickers,” PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” and HGTV’s “Flea Market Flip,” it is more as spectator than enthusiast. The lure of rusty gold or vintage collectibles doesn’t extend beyond the TV screen. After watching someone else dig through dusty barns or recondition old dressers, it’s time to visit IKEA or HomeGoods for trendier products and faux vintage stock.

My own experience helping to dispose of several households has left its mark. I now look at my belongings with a sharp, judgmental eye. If I don’t cherish it or use it, I toss it – and by toss I usually mean donate to charity. A while back, I found an entrepreneurial couple willing to comb through my vinyl record collection. I was happy when they carted away about 100 albums, but not as happy as if they’d taken the whole lot.

My husband has had some success on eBay, particularly with vintage photography equipment. His Polaroid 180 Land Camera shipped to China, his Mamiyaflex C2 TLR to someone at UCLA School of the Arts, and the Gralab 300 darkroom timer to Austin, Texas. He even sold my Garmin Forerunner 205 GPS watch, which was both cumbersome to wear and depressing, because it accurately recorded my continually slowing running times.

As much as I try to live lean, without too much stuff I don’t want or need, my house remains full. There still is stuff my mother wishes I would take after she downsized from a three-bedroom house. And she talks of thousands of photographs that were taken over the years of who knows who.

What to do with all this stuff? The good news is there are several donation centers nearby. Some even have a drive-thru. With these final options, giving stuff away has never been easier. Especially when family members don't want much more than mementos.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Falling hard for inline skating

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published August 2, 2002, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

I was sitting on the front porch the other day, watching a young couple playing in the street. They must have been twenty-something, but I still think “playing” is the right word. That’s what we always used to call it when you went roller skating around the block. I guess “inline skating” is the term now, and the skates are certainly much more upscale than those metal skates we used to tighten around our sneakers.

Watching this couple weave and turn and glide was a wonderful sight. They were smooth. They were natural. They stayed upright. I was amazed. That certainly wasn’t my experience during a brief fling with blades. The first time I strapped on inline skates, I fully expected to embrace this new sport. Instead, I found myself embracing the asphalt. Again and again and again.

Originally, I thought this would be a great cross-training activity to complement running. What a great way to build building leg strength without overstressing the knees. My enthusiasm was bolstered by a colleague who swore by skating. He even took mini-sightseeing trips on skates. He promised to teach me the tricks of staying vertical while actually moving forward.

I should have taken him up on his offer. Instead, I wanted to conquer gravity by myself. I thought I could follow the same course that worked so well in learning to ride a bicycle and drive a manual-transmission car. I went to the far end of an empty parking lot and stubbornly kept at it until I could get the hang of this new “thang.”

My first clue that this might not be my forte should have been apparent in the first 10 minutes. It took me that long just to figure out, untangle and put on all the special padding—with knee, elbow and wrist guards and a helmet. Then I had to struggle into the skates, which are sized to be snug, for support. Ever try to walk in shoes you’ve outgrown? Now put yourself on wheels, and you’ve got the picture.

Once suitably outfitted, I slowly rolled away from my car…and panicked. Even though my speed was barely perceptible, I was fearful of not being able to stop. So I fell. On purpose. Somehow it hurts less when you do this while cross-country skiing. I guess it has to do with a sufficient cushion of freshly fallen snow. No such luck with skating. Ouch.

Back to the car to consult the how-to book I had bought. The directions were clear. I understood the concepts. But once I finally got rolling, I quickly became concerned with stopping. And so I lurched around the parking lot, glad that no one was around on a Sunday afternoon to witness the spectacle. After an hour, I was pooped. I probably hadn’t gone but a half-mile, but I’d had enough.

After several such Sundays, I went looking for my colleague. Surely he would have some comforting words or practical advice. As I rounded the corner, I saw him coming down the hall. Actually, he was limping down the hall. On crutches. With his foot in a big, white plaster cast.

I might have guessed. He, too, had been skating. He and dozens of others were zooming through New York’s Central Park when the collision occurred. Skater to skater. Broadsided in broad daylight. It took months of recuperation, corrective surgery and ongoing rehab before his ankle returned to near normal.

And that’s when I reevaluated my need to take on this particular sport. I had been having trouble finding long, flat expanses where I could practice, and I certainly wasn’t having much fun picking myself off the ground.

So, I packed up my skates and protective gear and stashed them in the basement. After three years, and two housing moves, I finally got tired of looking at them. Rather, I got tired of being reminded that my roller skating days were well behind me—and that inline skating was better left a spectator sport. At least for me.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Want a lift from failure? Weight training will help

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published March 29, 2006, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

I’ve been lifting weights for about 18 months, and it just now occurs to me why I like it so much. The way to success is through failure, and that relieves a lot of the pressure.

From my years in the corporate world, I’m used to hearing, “Failure is not an option.” To fail in school always meant dreaded discussions with parents and educators. In today’s fast-paced, success-driven culture no one wants to fail. The only exception is in the gym.

Here, failure is a good thing. It’s what you strive for in your workouts. The goal is to tax your muscles to the point of failure. That’s how they get stronger.

To give in to failure is a strange sensation. The temptation is to stop while you’re still in control, but you need to push up against that boundary.

Say I’m doing a bench press, and I’ve got a little more than half my body weight on the bar. The first few repetitions are easy enough that I can still hold a conversation. Suddenly, I start slowing down. Things…get…tougher. And tougher still.

Finally, I can only get my arms halfway up. I’m stuck. I can’t finish the rep. That’s when the trainer steps in with an assist. I feel like a failure; I can’t even complete the set. He says failure is good. How could you not love such positive reinforcement of a negative result?

The funny thing is I had been avoiding the gym for years because I feared failure. I was intimidated by the svelte spandex babes and the muscle-popping he-men you see in gym advertisements. I didn’t want a lifetime membership to a big-box exercise mill. I felt that having a personal trainer would be a bit too, well, personal.

I finally found my way to a small, comfy gym by way of another kind of failure. An injury had caused my shoulder to fail, and so my doctor prescribed physical therapy. Treatment included working with a therapist and working out in the onsite gym. Once I was healed, I “graduated” from being a patient to a client, a logical next step.

I already knew and liked the staff, so staying on became a no-brainer. And that’s exactly what my workouts have been: a no-brainer. The trainer designs my workout program. He keeps an eye on my progress and suggests changes when needed. And he encourages failure. When I finally master an exercise, he hands me more weight to make things harder. I may curse him the next day when I’m stiff and sore, but I know I’m getting the results I’m after.

It’s not that I want to be a bodybuilder or a female version of Jack La Lanne, often called the godfather of fitness (although he looks great at 91). It’s just that from everything I hear, growing old is not for the faint of heart. My goal is to build up enough strength and resistance to live an active life for the next 50 years. Then that 18-wheeler with my name on it can flatten me like a cartoon character.

Until that final failure, I’ll be lifting weights like there’s no tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The road to fitness

#ThrowbackTuesday: Originally published in the November 1997 issue of the Delco Road Runner's Club newsletter, "Keeping Contact"

It’s always hard to fit a decent workout into the weekday. And it certainly doesn’t help that the days are getting shorter. So you would think that a business trip would present an ideal opportunity to fit in a few quality workouts. After all, you’re removed from your normal environment, and all chores are suddenly suspended: dog walking, cat feeding, laundry, dishes, bill-paying, cooking, food shopping and everything else that crowds the evening hours.

Once the business meetings are over, you’ve got the whole night ahead of you. Well, let me tell you about the best laid plans for fitness on the road.

BOSTON: Nice hotel, bad part of town. Okay, so I won’t run around the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll just check out the health club. Or should I say health hallway. I guess a wall of mirrors and a few treadmills and stationery bicycles constitutes an exercise area of sorts. But a 6 ft. by 40 ft. hallway is not an aerobics workout room. It’s an afterthought, at best.

ST. MICHAELS, MARYLAND: I guess it’s too much to expect a high-priced hotel that advertises a pool in winter would mean one that is heated or indoors or both. But outdoors it is and closed at that. Not even the polar bears among us can take a dip. So, forget the swimming, there’s a health club on the second floor. At least there WILL be a health club, when they’re through with renovations. Never mind.

CHICAGO: This hotel has a pretty decent indoor swimming pool. It even has a hot tub. Better yet, I have the whole place to myself. Then I see the signs. Lone individuals are not allowed to even think about getting wet unless there is another person with them. Well, I often travel alone…and the majority of other lone travelers are men. I can just picture the response if I walk up to one of them and say: “Hi. Are you alone? Would you like to go swimming with me?”

CINCINNATI:  A new twist! The hotel advertises an incredibly extensive health club. But it’s not in the hotel. It’s three blocks away. So I make the trek to find out what’s available. For a small fee, they’ll set me up with a trainer who will map out my exercise program for the next week. Well, I’m not really looking for a relationship, just a one-time fling with the Stairmaster. I politely decline the hands-on approach and ask about running trails nearby. The receptionist tells me about a great 4-mile course, but she can’t tell me how to get there. She tries, but she has no sense of direction. She draws detailed maps, writes out directions, tells me about landmarks, but it’s harder to find the course than it is getting to Cincinnati in the first place. So I stumble around town and head toward the river…and there it is. Easy. A direct shot from the hotel. And so, despite her helpfulness, I find what I’m looking for after all.

SAN DIEGO: Another incredibly over-priced hotel that charges a mini-membership for your few minutes of sweat. Maybe that’s why the perfect rows of gleaming exercise machines are so empty. Or is it the plate glass windows and “mirrors-R-us” d├ęcor? It’s both disconcerting and intimidating to be so-o-o visible to passers-by when you’re using Nautilus machines for the first time. I quickly decide to bag the “spa” and head for the pool. But I’m back within minutes to sign out a towel. That’s right. You just can’t trust guests with those thin terry rags they call pool towels. You’ve got to make them show their identification first.

DENVER: Now here’s a pool. And a hot tub. And an exercise room with a multi-station weight-training machine. So what if it needs maintenance. So what if some of the equipment is wobbly or misaligned or even loose. I figure the hotel management must know about the deplorable condition of this place because there is a big, red emergency phone on the wall. “Help! I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”

There must be a lesson here somewhere. Maybe instead of loading my suitcase down with running shoes, workout clothes, and swimsuits, I should leave everything at home. I could use the extra packing space for all those books and magazines I’ve been meaning to read. Or I could raid the mini-bar and order an evenings’ worth of in-room movies. I could even go shopping, something I never have the time or energy to do at home.

The real answer would be to consider working out a chore. With that mindset, it’s so much easier to leave exercise behind with all the other obligations that await my return home.

To borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Running clothes wear thin

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published July 1, 2009, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

If clothes make the man (or woman), then everyone I lay eyes on is a runner. At the airport, it’s all Nike, Adidas, Brooks, Mizuno—from top to bottom. People of all ages and sizes are decked out in training clothes, performance gear and running shoes.

It’s the same on the streets of Philadelphia. Ditto all around Delaware County, the state, the nation. Can it be that everyone has jumped on the exercise bandwagon? Or is active wear thought to be so cool, so comfortable, so convenient compared with regular clothing that it’s now the preferred garb?

I don’t get it. I hate wearing sneakers. They’re big and clunky and not at all flattering. I wear them to run—and then stow them away until the next time. Actually, it’s not recommended, or even budget-friendly, to use your expensive running shoes for everyday wear. Better to save them for workouts than wear them out at the Acme.

I used to have a hierarchy for running shoes. Fresh shoes were for running. Then they became dog-walking shoes. Then gardening slip-ons or painting footwear. When they became too gross to touch, they were garbage. Now I look for sneaker recyclers; I’m not exactly sure how they recondition or reuse old sneaks, but it sounds like a better option than landfill.

As for running bras, shirts, shorts, skirts, skorts, whatever—there either is or should be a limit to how many hours you spend encased in spandex. Remember the natural feel of cotton. The ruggedness of denim. The universal appeal of khakis. Does everything have to stretch and be formfitting?

For some people, wearing athletic clothes seems to fulfill their pledge to exercise. They feel fitter and ready for action when disguised as an athlete. Yet they wouldn’t dream of running, unless it’s to the bank or to do errands—and then “running” really means “driving.” I’ll bet marketers are behind this push for all-day, everyday athletic wear. But that seems short-sighted. Just as one-size-fits-all often means it fits no one all that well, having what is basically one wardrobe misses the opportunity for variety and specialization.

During a recent drawer reorganization, I took stock of all the different flavors of workout wear I’ve accumulated over the years—and how some are more suited to certain activities than others. For power yoga, I definitely need spandex tanktops or something else that stays in place when I stand on my head. For my very first yoga class, years ago, I wore a cotton T-shirt and sweatpants—and I thought I was going to die. Throughout the 75-minute heated class, my clothes became wet, heavy and totally in the way as I attempted twisting and inverted postures. I fought more with my clothes than against gravity.

For weight training at the gym, I don’t need such formfitting clothes as with yoga. What I need is coverage, so I don’t make a spectacle of myself while doing squats or hip thrusts or donkey kicks. When I work glutes, I want to concentrate on the exercise, not worry about what I might be revealing to innocent bystanders.

When it comes to running, that’s the easiest choice to make. There are fewer worries about wardrobe malfunctions. Shorts work just fine and any T-shirt will do, although technical fabrics are better than cotton for keeping you cool and dry in the summer heat. The first thing I do when I get home from any exercise is to shower and change. Yes, I could put on fresh workout clothes for whatever’s next that day—but I don’t. I like that divide between working out, when I don’t mind getting sweaty and dirty, and everything else I have to do, when I’m showered and clean.

It’s a mental thing. Or maybe it’s the persuasive power of learning by example. When I see masses of humanity decked out in running clothes, with no intention of ever working out, I don’t want to be mistaken for one of the crowd.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Don’t worry Amazon, you’ve got me

A recent headline left me bewildered. I found it unbelievable. And it had nothing to do with U.S. politics.

In late December, the Wall Street Journal reported “Not everyone wants to shop on Amazon.” The subhead read: “Roughly 22 million U.S. households didn’t purchase anything through the retailer this year.” [While the full story is behind the paper’s paywall, the headlines and link for subscribers is here.]

Me? I don’t know if I could live without Amazon. I buy from the online retailer so often I’ve made it a line item in my accounting software. I can buy from my PC and from my smartphone. I even bought an IBM Selectric II typewriter ribbon for my mother within minutes of her request, even though the machine's heyday was the 1970s. Some days I make multiple purchases from Amazon, hours apart, although I have to check the shopping cart so I don't buy things my husband parks there temporarily.

I don’t have anything against bricks-and-mortar stores, and there are a few I frequent. But I have to admit I have always been a terrible shopper. I can walk into a store knowing exactly what I want and still spend an inordinate amount of time on the purchase because it comes in a thousand shades of the same thing. A list is only somewhat helpful, because I get distracted by shiny, new products I never knew existed. If I walk into a store with just a sketch of objective – maybe something to wear for a special occasion – I melt into a puddle of indecision within minutes.

Before there was online shopping, there were catalogs. I loved catalogs. I still do. I page through them while watching TV. I know I’ve seen the same activewear every week for years, if not decades. Those fresh-faced models must be collecting Social Security by now. Yet whenever a new catalog arrives, I have to flip through before dropping it in the recycling bin.

What catalogs used to do for me, and what online shopping does now – particularly with sites like Amazon – is show me the exact items I'm thinking of buying. There are multiple views, colors, and reviews from others who bought the product. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for a lot of smaller purchases and keeps me from running around town – unless it's to the post office to mail a return.

These days shopping trips to retail stores are something I plan. I might pre-shop online to get a sense of what’s available before venturing out into the real retail world. I try things on. I feel fabrics. I look for new arrivals. I peruse sale racks. And I make a bunch of purchases.

I’m still a terrible shopper, but now I can shop terribly both online and in my local stores. I guess that’s a win-win-win all around.