Monday, February 12, 2018

The Yin and Yang of Men's Wisdom Works

“This must be tough for you”.  Those empathic words of concern were softly spoken by my friend Richard.  He leaned in when my men’s group talked of a mutual friend who passed away in October of last year.  Then, Richard added, “You must know every Men’s Wisdom Works member who dies”.  I stroked my brow as I reflected, and without much of a pause I replied, “Yes, it is difficult losing these men, but there is a yang to that yin.  I’m able to see the impact MWW has on our 150 members and their loved ones while we’re still strolling above the ground."  As our members continue to age, Men's Wisdom Works supplies the shelter for sustaining meaningful friendships.  Our bonds lay the groundwork for living a good life during the latter stages of life.

Since Richard’s supportive statement three more men of MWW have passed away.  The toll grows heavy as I’m asked to speak at the memorial services for these deceased members.
To witness the love and presence our members share with our ailing brothers seems like a mirage when you consider our male-patterned conditioning to keep our feelings at bay.  Men are wired to hold back emotions and move on.  But the depth of friendship, bonding and social engagement within MWW groups changes that worn out paradigm.  As we lose fellow MWW members we cry together, remember together, and celebrate the life of our deceased brothers.  Then we move on as one.

The man who was the first man I asked to join MWW 2009 passed away early January.  Dave cleverly stated that he only joined the first group because he did not want me to be alone in this social experiment.  Dave became the heart of our group, always bellowing that “It is a great day to be alive”.  We made our loving presence felt as we comforted Dave, his wife and their family, week after week as his life slowly ebbed away.  Now, we leave an empty chair when we hold our bi-monthly meetings, so we remain forever honoring his memory and our friendship.  Dave’s widow, Kaaren, knows she is part of our extended group of men and our loved ones

This devotion to a sick or dying member of MWW certainly is not limited to my group, Group I.  The men of Men's Wisdom Works drive our ailing brothers to appointments.  As a brother's illness worsens, MWW group members make frequent visits to the three H's:  homes, hospital and hospice.  We develop schedules for visitation and food delivery.  One of our members even accepted the role of executor for a fellow member's estate as his friend's life wound down.  All 150 of us are there for each other in good times and “not so good” times.  That's what brothers do.

Perhaps our experiences with loss of aging friends may serve as an example, maybe even a role model, for older men losing friends via the ceaseless actions of the grim reaper.  The choice is clear.  One may choose to isolate himself and have loneliness as his sole companion when he rounds third and head for home.  Or, an aging man may choose to surround himself with friends, especially male friends.  The latter life choice offers a living antidote to depression, anger and early death for a man who otherwise would languish as an island in his later years.

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, cites the following stats concerning loneliness and life span:  One analysis of 148 separate health studies found that people who cultivated a wide network of social networks had a 50% lower early mortality risk than those lacking friends and social relationships.  In fact, Coontz tells us that having a substantial network of friends gives older folks better protection against early mortality than death due to smoking or obesity.

Research of 28,000 people in nearly 100 countries by William Chopik of Michigan State University found that among older adults, relationships with friends are a better indicator of good health and happiness than relationships with family.  A 2017 study found people who often socialize with good friends have partners reporting fewer depressive symptoms as do study subjects.  The evidence supports what the men of Men's Wisdom Works experience daily in our retirement.  
That positive yang I spoke of earlier is the lifeblood for the MWW groups.  Our membership grows.  In that spirit of renewal, our 15th MWW group forms tomorrow.  How does MWW sustain its expansion?  The many stories of the impact on the lives of those of us in MWW seem to go viral in our city of 89,000.  For older men in Asheville, our stories broadcast messages of hope and joy to men in search of meaning in life's third stage.

The members of the newest Men’s Wisdom Works group already understand the uniqueness of MWW. Each man expressed his desire to join by telling me of his eagerness to develop bonds with other older men.  Like the rest of us they’re eager to build a community of male friends.
So, as we mourn our losses, we continue our mission with a growing roster of members and groups.  Here’s a toast to members we’ve lost and to the new members we gain, and to the joyous and meaningful life 150 older men and their loved ones enjoy today.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

In Memoriam

Change is inevitable, but changes can sometimes prove difficult for people as they age.  I’m no different.

I’ve learned the skill of acceptance when it comes to changes within Men’s Wisdom Works.  I’m certain that the same holds true with other areas of my life as well.  The toughest change for me to navigate as the founder of Men’s Wisdom Works is the death of our members.

Today, I want to shine the light on the life of a member of MWW who died November 29th, Nick Jordan of Group 5.  This post includes a reprise of Nick's blog post from four years ago.   You'll find it below highlighted in red.  My post today pays tribute to this most generous man and his MWW group who served as Nick’s “Band of Brothers” from the day the group formed until the day he died.

I first met Nick when I volunteered to join SCORE, formerly known as Service Corps of Retired Executives.  Nick was the chapter president for the Asheville chapter of SCORE.  Nick encouraged me to participate as the training director.  I witnessed increasing signs of growth and strength in our local chapter of SCORE via Nick's leadership.

In 2012 Nick joined the then newest group, Group 5.  He disclosed his terminal diagnosis at the first meeting of his group.  His courage helped solidify this group unlike any other I've witnessed.  Besides his numerous volunteer activities and his devoted membership to his MWW group, Nick gave of himself in the most noble of ways.

Upon joining MWW and OLLI/UNCA Asheville and knowing of his terminal diagnosis, Nick created a special program at OLLI fittingly titled the "Gift of Time".

Nick’s "Gift of Time" program helps folks, no matter their current state of health, understand all of the work and planning one needs so family members and loved ones avoid the many sensitive issues that often arise near the end of life.  Participants learn the value of writing these directives, and sharing the papers and plans with family members well before death becomes imminent.

Thus, the burdens and angst over handling and distributing personal affects, financial matters, medical decisions, and even the details of memorial service planning become clear.   The Gift of Time’s contribution is that tough decisions and possible disagreements between family members will not afflict them during a time of high stress.  That stress easily can grow out of control with emotions ranging between grief and pain, and when the likelihood for conflict within a family rises to a new potential high.  Nick’s gift to us all will stand as a legacy and a loving tribute to Nick.  

At the bottom of the blog is photo taken with Nick's dear friend and companion, Betty Doll.  Their smiles reveal their joyous perspectives on life and the happiness they shared in lives together.

Nick's post was the second ever post on this blog.  Here is the reprise of Nick’s blogpost from November 15, 2013:

"I joined one of the MWW groups about 18 months ago. I was interested in meeting new people and exploring topics that could be shared in confidence and with honesty. Over these past months through the dialogue within the group, I have come to not only respect the different personalities within the group but to care about them as individuals with very different life experiences than mine. Through that sharing there have been insights I have gleaned about myself. I have been given the opportunity to talk about things I would not ordinarily share.

There is laughter, humor, pathos, moments of silence as you know you are listening to a very important sharing from someone else. Bonding is a hackneyed word and greatly overused. But bonds of friendship have been formed and I believe if I said I was in trouble and asked for help, the 10 other men in my group would each respond by saying 'what can I do for you'. 

None of us would give up the group meetings, the informal breakfasts we have, some volunteer work we do as a group. This is one of best things I have ever done for myself. All one needs to do is be willing to keep confidences and to open and share as you feel appropriate." 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Discuss-Participate-Contribute without Prescribing Solutions

     In the 6 yrs that I’ve been a member of MWW.  I have submitted only one blog. That’s because I don’t write unless I have something to say. Now, again, I do.

     Our meeting of August 14 reaffirmed all the reasons that I first joined MWW and why I am so committed to it. In the short space of 2 hours we managed to talk about the following subjects  - not just talk but discuss, each of us participating; each of us contributing something; none of us prescribing solutions or presuming to suggest what someone ought to do or how anyone ought to act. The result of this atmosphere and our respect for these norms is that I’m pretty confident in saying that we each took something away from the meeting, whether it was new knowledge, or a new way of looking at a problem, or even a new way of looking at ourselves; and that this is often how we feel when a meeting ends.

     The range of topics included these:

✦ A painful change in relationships in the family

✦ The dilemma of being so active in retirement that choices need to be made when the timing of some of those things we are now free to do clashes with our meetings

✦ The effect the current political atmosphere has on us – our concerns for the future, our physical and psychological well-being, our determination to “do something”, tempered by our frustrations about the limited impact we feel capable of having

✦ The outbreak of the first world war – inevitable or accidental? - which we got to from the previous conversation that in turn lead to the cyclical theory of history (and climate change)

✦ Our joys and concerns, which continue to be the foundation of our check-in, unfailingly yielding fruitful topics for discussion or perhaps something to think about away from the group

            What particularly struck me about this was how the conversation moved easily from one subject to another – each thought triggering a question or idea that made sense in the moment – and how seriously engaged everyone was. I couldn’t have known it would be like this when I joined, but as our membership has stabilized over the years and, together with other activities we share – breakfasts, the occasional ball game, social activities that include friends or family – the place this group holds for me in my life has taken on great importance.

         Now, a few observations about some of the topics I mentioned.

✦ On the issue of family, a number of us had relevant experiences, but regardless of how we handled it we recognize that every such situation is unique in its agony. That’s why advice would be inappropriate, except to say what works for me and to offer comfort, hope and empathy.

✦ Choices in retirement. It was both understandable and comforting to me that many of us seem to be more active in retirement than when we were working, and that the place of this group in the order of things has such high standing.

✦ The current political atmosphere. Going back as far as the last presidential campaign, a number of us have acknowledged how deeply we have been affected by the tone and outcome, and how repercussions extend to constitutional questions (the place of the electoral college, provision for removal of a president, gerrymandering, to name just a few of the subjects to which the election gave new life).

✦ Clearly, the topic of World War I (known at the time as The Great War, since a replay was unthinkable….except for those who foresaw that the Versailles Treaty contained the seeds of the next war) arose from consideration of the present political atmosphere. Brief though our focus on this topic was, it did raise the question of “inevitable or accidental”. My feeling is that it was both. The alliances didn’t make it inevitable, but their obligations to come to one another’s aid created the condition for the chain reaction that took place upon the assassination in Serbia. That same obligation is the heart, and the entire point, of contemporary alliances.

✦ Finally, on the cyclical theory of history, I do believe there is a tendency to repeat errors, but of course since the circumstances of each are different, and arise in different cultures, it is fairly impossible to recognize at the time, not to mention the difficulty of stopping it even if we were able to recognize this tendency. However I also believe progress is made from one disaster to another. For me though, the jury is still out on whether it’s one step forward two steps backward, or two forward and one back. Either way, the progress is incremental…and v e r y  s l o w.

          It feels good to return from a meeting so filled with recollections and ideas, and stimulated to commit them to paper. That didn’t happen every day that I went to work!


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Crossroads for Boomers and Beyond:  Aging and Technology

Aging for baby boomers appears as polar opposite to the aging and retirement of our fathers and grandfathers--by miles.  Demographic numbers back-up this fact.  Current research findings indicate the following statistics about aging:

  • In 2000 the aging demographic for people over 60 years of age stood at 16.5%.  By the year 2025 that number grows to a whopping 25% of the American population.
  • Americans who are 65 years or older surpassed 50 million for the first time in 2016.  Researchers predict that number will hit 71 million by 2030, and 83 million by 2050.  M.I.T.'s Age Lab confirms that there are 77 million Americans born between 1946-1964.  The report continues by telling us that 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, and are likely to continue that trend for the next 19 years. Now members of the boomer generation pass age 65 at a rate of nearly one every 7 seconds.
  • People are living longer--life expectancy at birth grew by 10.5 years between 1950-2010.  People who are 65 today may live roughly about 20 more years.  The Census Bureau said almost 90% of that cohort wish to remain in their home as they age.
        Boomers believe life should continue for their generation in ways never before experienced by previous generations on their life's journey.  Are boomers realistic about aging?  Yes, thanks to technology. Technology npw being developed mostly by millenials may well be the link between boomers and a higher quality of life for the "never-say-die baby boomers.
         Boomers created the World Wide Web, tablets, smartphones, Microsoft, and Apple.  Now, as this massive generation ages, technology translates into new research, gizmos, and apps to make life in the "golden years" safer and more enjoyable.  This adds up to potentially newer and easier ways to exercise expected freedoms and independence that boomers see as a must for modern aging.  You may ask, how is this playing out today and tomorrow?  A new world lurks within your smartphone, and computers spurred on by Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the app development talents of millenials.
         Scientists are developing everything everything from mattress sensors that monitor heart rate, to smart walkers that look for obstacles, to belts that deploy air bags if someone is about to fall. Researchers work hand in hand with tech companies to fight the indignities of aging and to help people live longer and better in their own homes.  "Aging in Place", still in its relative infancy, is driven by tech savvy boomers who hate the stigma and reality of getting older, both for themselves and their elderly parents.  Millenials provide the engine to empower boomers to put that stigma to rest.
         Active Protective, a Philadelphia based company, developed a "smart belt" that's able to sense when a person is about to fall.  Small airbags deploy offering protection to that person's hips.  The National Council on Aging said that 2.8 million Americans are treated in emergency rooms for falls each year, and that 800,000 of those patients end up hospitalized.  Falls contribute to roughly 27,000 death per year.
         Tech giant Google--a bastion of youth--has come to realize that baby boomers may well be early adopters of self-driving cars in development.  Other businesses are making it easier for people with arthritis or tremors to wear small, specialized monitors that provide real-time tracking of their health vitals.
         Virtual reality research on aging at San Diego State's Neuromechanics and Neuroplacticity Lab places sensors on a person's brain and other parts of the body as test subjects over 60 experience different scenarios while immersed in a VR environment that turns a lab floor into a virtual reality of a narrow plank 60 feet in the air.  Data collected will assist in creating algorithms to predict when a person is about to fall.
           Ocuvera, a start-up based in Lincoln Nebraska, employs 3D cameras, and advanced software to analyze the body language of patients in hospital beds.  M.I.T. fosters related work producing WiGait, a small sensor that studies a person's gait to observe signs of stroke or Parkinson's Disease.
          An estimated one-third of Americans 65 or older live alone.  That figure jumps to 50% by the time a person hits 85.  Scientists and physicians posit that living alone can cause a profound sense of loneliness and isolation for some people which in turn can lead to health complications--notably depression, substance abuse, and high blood pressure.  Studies continue to show that loneliness can also contribute to dementia and early death.
          Safety and loneliness well provide the hurdles for boomers aging in place, and there's a major shortage of professional caregivers who make in-home visits.  Here comes technology offering significant help for the aging U.S. population.
           People who live alone or feel detached from social engagement also can connect to others through devices such as Amazon Echo/Alexa and Google Home, both of which are voice activated personal assistants. The Echo can be used for person to person phone calls, while Amazon recently added a video screen called "Show".  The competition to Amazon (Samsung, Google and Apple) is developing similar technology to Echo Show.  For older folks with hand tremors and other physical limitations voice activated assistants can be a reasonable improvement to the swipe and wipe features in smartphones. If only Amazon Echo or Google home would remind our kids to call or visit.
           GreatCall markets a network of tiny sensors strategically positioned in the homes of seniors choosing to "age in place".  Sensors monitor whether these folks are going about their daily activities, such as getting in and out of bed, preparing meals, and using the bathroom.  This network of sensors looks for worrisome changes in a person's daily routines, and alerts off-site caregivers if such changes occur.  This technology gives a holistic picture of in-home activities for caregivers.
            One can imagine the awestruck suspicion that parents and grandparents of boomers would give at these "newfangled" approached to aging.  I guess they'd react with their heads a shaking to find "The Clapper" and "Life Alert" to be already obsolete technology for Baby Boomers.

Have to run.  My Echo calls.