Gratitude

Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays.  I love the time with family, the fact that it is a secular rather than a religious holiday that all Americans are able to celebrate no matter our backgrounds or beliefs, I love the turkey and stuffing, and most of all I love the reminder to stop and reflect on all there is to be thankful for.

The past year has been a rough one in many respects – the challenging political environment, Don’s struggles to adjust to retirement and both of our struggles to adjust to the realities of his aging, the deaths of family members and friends…

But there is also so much to be grateful for.  Despite the age-related issues that Don faces overall our health is actually really good.  We love our home and our beach lifestyle.  We’ve enjoyed some fabulous trips, and good visits from and with family and friends.  While we are not fabulously wealthy, we are financially secure enough that we will be able to sustain our current lifestyle after I retire next year.  We have family that we love, and a wide network of friends.  In short, life is good.

Happy Thanksgiving to anyone reading this!

 

 

 

Aging, Reflections

Perspectives

We returned Tuesday evening from a short trip to Vancouver Island for our niece’s wedding.  The outdoor wedding was lovely if a bit chilly, we really like our new nephew-in-law, and we got to spend quality time with family, including extended family members that we rarely see…all in one of the world’s most beautiful places.

For me the trip was also a bit of a wake up call, starting with my airplane reading on the flight from LA to Seattle – a book called Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade.  Our therapist recommended that we revisit the ideas in a book called The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, which  has really helped me understand some long-standing dynamics in our relationship, so I was excited to see a book that applies the love languages concept to relationships where one person suffers from cognitive impairment.

I was glad I read Keeping Love Alive, and am sure I will go back and re-read it more than once, but it was also a sobering look at the reality we face if Don’s currently mild cognitive impairment progresses.  It contains some beautiful stories about couples facing this challenge, and more than once I had to turn away from Don to hide the tears streaming down my cheeks.  I read the entire book in one gulp on the 2 1/2 hour plane trip, and by the time I finished I was both scared and hopeful about what the future might hold.  Scared because I had an insight of this future from the perspectives of what the book calls  “care partners” (as opposed to care givers), and hopeful because I could see how love persists even in this most difficult and challenging situation.

With all of this fresh in my mind I was given another dose of reality and another perspective when, without them saying a word, it became obvious that family members were seeing more of a decline in Don’s abilities than I have been seeing.  Nobody said anything directly, but there were veiled comments to me, and a solicitousness towards Don and towards me that was a new, even from family members that we had spent time with just last Christmas.

I am with Don every day, and I think that in that circumstance you adjust incrementally to incremental changes and don’t have a good sense of the cumulative effect where someone who only sees a person once in a while can see the changes much more clearly.  I had a similar experience when we visited our family in New Jersey in June and our niece commented on how much I now do for Don  – which is true, but something that has happened gradually and over a long period of time with the result that I have not really been aware of how much of the burden of managing our daily lives I have come to shoulder.  From this perspective, I think the “decline” our family sees when they are with Don only once or twice a year is accurate because they have a different benchmark than I do.

At the same time, because I am with Don every day I think I also see more of what he is still capable of  – things that people who only see him once or twice a year do not see – and it is a lot.  He is still a capable driver, participates in and enjoys his exercise classes at the gym, socializes with our friends, does all of the daily housecleaning and most of the laundry, cleans up after our meals, gets dinner started many evenings, participates in social media, programs the DVR to record his hockey games, remembers to take his medications….pretty much everything that goes into normal living.

I also think that he is “better” at home with our daily routines and familiar surroundings, and without the stress and drama that being with family brings…especially family that is as loud, opinionated, and intense as mine can be.  Even people with no cognitive or other issues who didn’t grow up in that environment get that “deer in the headlights” look when our family gets going, and Don’s hearing impairment doesn’t help the situation.

The end of our trip was marked by the Route 91 mass shooting.  One of my key staff members was at the concert and narrowly escaped with her life, bringing this tragedy very close to home.  She is safe, but the whole situation reminded me that to a large extent life is a crap shoot.  It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself because your partner is demonstrating the frailty of aging when you see so many beautiful lives cut short, and so many people wounded both physically and emotionally, by a random act of violence.

The reality of Don’s condition is probably somewhere between what our family seemed to see and what I experience every day – it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that we are both still here, still loving each other even after 30 years of marriage, and still able to enjoy doing many things together.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Gratitude, Reflections

Expectations and Gratitude

“The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.” Ray Wylie Hubbard

This was posted on The Hammock Papers today and it literally took my breath away when I read it.

One of the things I struggle with most is my expectations – of how things should be, of what other people should do and how they should be, and of myself – and my reactions when those expectations aren’t met.

The self-inflicted hurt of unmet expectations has had a particularly corrosive affect on my marriage over many years, and this is at the top of my list of things to work on.

I’ve found a quote from Johanne Wolgang von Goethe to be particularly helpful in this quest – so much so that I write it in the front of every journal as I start a new one to remind me of its message:

“I have come to the frightening conclusions that I am the decisive element.  It is my personal approach that makes the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous, I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of  inspiration.  I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and person is humanized or de-humanized.  If we treat people as they are, we make them worse.  If we treat people as they ought to be, we make them become what they are capable of becoming.”

This has proven true time and time again, and never more true than when I reflect on how I react when my expectations aren’t met.  When I react in hurt and anger, I escalate the situation and make myself and everyone else involved miserable.  In treating people as they are (at least as seen through the distorted filter of my expectations), I make them worse.

When Don does not meet my (almost always unreasonable) expectations I’ve been trying to develop a practice of taking a deep breath, putting things into context by asking myself if it will matter in five years (or even five weeks or days or minutes), and then reminding myself that whatever it is, he didn’t do it on purpose, and consciously thinking about all the things that I love and appreciate about him.  This helps we me see him as he is capable of being, and I can almost feel the pressure being lifted from both of us.

This sounds straightforward, but it is really hard to put into practice.  It’s even harder when I am tired, frazzled, and stressed, which pretty much describes my life these days…and harder still by the reality that sometimes what used to be reasonable expectations are no longer reasonable as Don ages.  Suffice it to say I fail more often than I succeed.

Thanks to Mr. Hubbard I have a new mantra.  When I start to get angry or hurt that something or someone hasn’t met my expectations I’m going try to remind myself to “keep my gratitude higher than my expectations.”  I’m pretty sure that if I can do that, we too will have some really good days ahead.