Sunday, August 31, 2008

Journey to The Clare: It's the Uncertainly that Bothers Me Most

I've been writing since this blog began (in 2006) about my coming move to The Clare at Water Tower, a new highrise senior community at Rush and Pearson in Chicago. When I began, the building was not yet even a hole in the ground; by now it's a nearly complete 53-story building. In the meantime, I've visited the building site from time to time, photographed it (before the building got too tall for my small camera to capture well), attended meetings of future residents, and mused about the plusses and minuses of a decision I made back in 2004.

Today, I'm still waiting. I've not yet been promised a move-in date, although I now asume it will be sometime around the end of 2008 or the beginning of 2009. My Old Town condo is on the market now, suffering from the drop in the real estate market. I'm older and increasingly disabled by arthritis, although I still get around when I can. I'm beginning to consider knee replacements, but the uncertainly of my residential situation makes such plans nearly imposssible. I feel like I'm in a state of limbo.

I'm still happy about my decision to move. With few family members, none of them in this area, it's up to me to decide where to spend the rest of my so-called "golden years," and I love city living. I hope to move into my lovely two-bedroom apartment on the 35th floor, with the comfort of having assisted living and nursing facilities available in the same building, should I need them later.

So am I contented and calm? No, indeed not. I have a feeling of waiting for something to happen. Will I get an acceptable offer for my condo? The only one so far was much too low, and the price has already been reduced to a realistic level. Will I get a move-in date soon? What if my condo doesn't sell in time?

I've been promised, and I've received, lots of advice and help from moving coordinators and organizers and others provided or recommended by The Clare, but could I really handle, either physically or financially, a temporary move and putting my goods into storage? There are too many unknowns here. There's no one to blame, but I hate this uncertain feeling. Stay tuned as I blog my way toward The Clare and hope for a happy ending.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Photo: The Clare in June, 2008. Borrowed from The Clare web site.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Aging, Life, and Death: A Book Review

A review of Where River Turns to Sky, by Gregg Kleiner (Avon 1996; Perennial paperback 2002).

This novel about aging, life, and death is strangely compelling, a book I could hardly bear to put down when other matters interfered with my reading.

The story is told in alternating chapters by George Castor and Clara Paulson, both mentally active eighty-somethings. George is an Oregon farmer who can do anything and fix anything, or so he believes. Clara is a wheelchair-bound stroke victim confined to a nursing home. She is a former singer and pianist who misses her music, her cigarettes, and her drinks; she can no longer speak, let alone sing.

Both George and Clara are haunted by their pasts: George by memories of his wife's and only son's deaths and his youthful tendencies to flee difficult situations and Clara by sad memories of abandoning her only child, Amy, to be adopted at birth. She never married.

George and Clara meet at the Silver Gardens Nursing Home, where George's dear friend, Ralph, another stroke victim, lies in silence. George promises Ralph that he'll not die alone at Silver Gardens, and visits him often. However, he returns from a short fishing trip to find that Ralph has died and been buried during George's absence.

That unfilled promise fills George with guilt and regret. He decides to atone. George's fantastic scheme to abolish nursing homes in favor of communal living for old folks provokes derisive laughter, but with the help of money he inherited from his dead lawyer son, he follows his dream in a big house, painted bright red with yellow trim to the dismay of his small town neighbors.

Assisted by Grace, an elderly mystic, perhaps a witch, with a fondness for candles, George assembles a motley crew of old people, essentially by raiding Silver Gardens.

The group's adventures and ways of coping defy belief, yet when George develops a baseball field and forms a team of his housemates, when he saws through three floors with a giant power saw to install a primitive elevator for the wheelchair-bound, when he crafts beautiful caskets for everyone, including himself, when he plans and holds his own elaborate wake while he's still alive but fading, the reader laughs in disbelief and cheers him on. Meanwhile, Clara provides a voice of reason about the situation, gradually accepting it and supporting George, her rescuer.

While George's vision of putting nursing homes out of business, replacing them with "farmhouses and apartment buildings, old barns and converted warehouses, all of them painted bright red, all full of people just like us, living together. Living it up" seems fantastic and unattainable, this book and its amazing characters remind us that life is a circle, from birth to death, from river to sky. These are elders to listen to and things to think about.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Clare Lifestyle Committee: Active Seniors

No, this is not a photo of the Lifestyle Committee or of future Clare residents; it's a collage of active senior photos that seems to represent many of the myriad interests represented by those I met at the first Clare Lifestyle Committee meeting yesterday.

This small meeting of approximately ten future residents, led by our Director of Life Enrichment, Stephanie Berlin, produced quite a variety of concerns and suggestions for our future lives at the Clare.

I met excercise enthusiasts, political junkies, people interested in travel, cooking, swimming, dancing, grandchildren, bridge: just about anything one could think of. This is an impressive group, indeed.

Of equal interest are the backgrounds of the participants: the graduate degrees, career accomplishments, personal and family achievements, and current activities are extensive. Of course I was there to represent my main interests in books and writing. That's why I joined this committee.

While I was a bit intimidated by the perceived athletic abilities of some of the members, the ability to do things long impossible for this arthritis sufferer, I was comforted by the variety of interests represented. My earlier fears of being urged to participate exclusively in activities like bingo and bridge and shuffleboard (not that there's anythiing wrong with such activities), have been dispelled, and I was assured that there would be many choices and no pressures. For a basic loner, this meeting opened possibilities to get involved in things that might interest me, with interesting people. It also assured me that residents will be listened to, rather than treated as passive inmates.

Except that some had a tendency to be long-winded (I'm a woman of few words myself), these were people I hope to learn to know. Never underestimate active seniors! Forget the stereotypes. We're a capable, interesting group.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Elder Disintegration and Nursing Home Horrors: A Book Review

A review of As We Are Now, by May Sarton (W.W. Norton 1973)

This is not a new book or a cheerful one. When it was first published, I was not aware of it, nor would I have been interested then, more than thirty years ago when I was in my early forties.

This is a book that should still be read by anyone involved in or concerned about the care and treatment of elders and by any senior citizen who dares to explore what wasting away in an old-style nursing home might have been like for a thoughful, sensitive old woman. We can hope that senior care has improved, but somehow, this little 133-page novel still rings true and stirs understanding and concern.

This fictional journal follows 76-year-old Caroline (Caro) Spencer, who, after a heart attack, is placed in Twin Elms, a small, isolated rural nursing home, by her older brother, who can't care for her. She's a former teacher and rugged individualist. She remembers and admires a non-conformist gay college professor aunt. She dreams about a long-ago lover. She never married.

Her fellow Twin Elms residents are elderly men, mostly demented and hopeless, relegated to a shared charity ward. Caro is happy to have her own room. Her perceived enemy is Harriet, the owner and chief caregiver, who seems to treat her harshly and strive to remove all remaining shreds of dignity, or at least that's how it seems to Caro. "I am in a concentration camp for the old, a place where people dump their parents or relatives exactly as though it were an ash can," she writes two weeks after arriving.

What interests me most in this book are the things that have meaning and the power to relieve Caro's depression, at least temporarily: music, poetry, the rural view from the window and occasional opportunities to venture outside, the cat who isn't allowed in, but sometimes creeps into her bed, and most of all, three people who offer hope and kindness. They are a minister, his college-age daughter, and Anna, Harriet's temporary replacement as a caregiver.

Caroline finds comfort in these things and people, but her most reliable sources of hope are her secret journal and her plan to destroy her "prison." Is she driven to madness? Perhaps, but somehow her ultimate protest makes sense.

We can hope that places like Twin Elms and caregivers like Harriet do not exist, but there are lessons here: the importance of human understanding, kindness, and listening to elders; the need to allow old people pets and their favorite possessions; the importance of personal writing.

This book reminds us of the inevitability of aging and death and the immensity of the caregiving responsibility.

Belgian-born May Sarton (1912-1995) published 53 books before her death at age 83.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Story of an Elder Achiever

An 112-year-old African-American man who has lived about half his life in Alabama mental health centers sounds like the subject of another sad tale of senior suffering, doesn't he? However, I was elated to read, in an Associated Press story by Kate Brumback, published in the August 12 Chicago Tribune, that this man, Frank Calloway, is about to have his work included at an October exhibit at the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. How wonderful to read about yet another senior citizen following his passion and contributing to society!

It seems that Calloway uses ballpoint pens, markers, or crayons on sheets of butcher paper to "turn visions from his youth into lively murals." He draws colorful pictures of rural agricultural scenes, "with buildings, trains, and vehicles straight out of the early 20th century." Two years ago, the Kentuck Museum in Northport, Alabama, hosted a monthlong exhibition of his works. The works are described as representations of a rural, agrarian South in times gone by.

At the nursing facility where he lives, Calloway, usually wearing bib overalls, draws all day. "That's what he loves to do," said the facility director. Calloway, whose formal education ended in third grade, credits a long-ago teacher for getting him to draw, but it took an art class in the 1980's to get him drawing again.

Still getting around on his own and joining in nursing home excursions and restaurant outings, at 112, Frank Calloway seems to shatter conventional wisdom about older seniors. He plans to attend the Baltimore art show opening, his first airplane ride and probably his first trip outside Alabama. How proud and happy he must be!

Mr. Calloway is an amazing example of the possibilities for elders to follow their passions and remain connected to the world. Perhaps that's the secret of long, active lives.

Photo: by Dan Meyers. Courtesy of American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fighting the Three Plagues of Elders: A Book Review

A review of In the Arms of Elders: A Parable of Wise Leadership and Community Building, by William H. Thomas, M.D. (VanderWyk & Burnham 2006).

As a lover of fiction, including some science fiction and fantasy, I was pleased to discover this book. In our world where, to quote Dr. Thomas, "The truth is all wrapped up in rules, regulations, dollar signs, and self-pity," where "the modern obsession with finding and proclaiming the difference between what is real and what is imagined conceals as much as it reveals," fables and parables may not be generally appreciated, but they have a lot to teach us.

This is a fable about thinly disguised versions of the author and his wife, a Geriatrician (physician), Bill, and a Gerontologist (social scientist), Jude, who collaborate to create "the comprehensive book that would successfully integrate medical and social research on aging." This young couple think they have discovered everything about the care and treatment of elders through their research. Feeling good about their book, but fatigued from their efforts, they decide to rent a boat and spend a month in the Caribbean.

A stormy shipwreck takes them to a strange, unknown land called Kallimos. In this primitive, idyllic society, the elders are the leaders; all the scientific knowledge that the shipwrecked couple bring from the "Other World" is useless there. All their ideas about society and community roles are overturned as they learn how the Kallimos community comes together to protect the elders from the three plagues: loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. The elders are thus freed to pass on their experience, wisdom, and knowledge of life to the community.

With the help of two elderly women, Hannah and Haleigh, they come to understand and appreciate their new community, losing their desire to return to the "Other World." They take on their assigned roles, he as a goat herder, she as a gardener, reluctantly at first, since these tasks seem so foreign to their natures. Eventually, they vow never to leave this simple paradise.

Fate, or some supernatural power, brings another storm a year after their arrival in Kallimos, and they are transported back to their old lives, which they no longer want. Eventually, they accept Hannah's challenge to use their new knowledge to transform elder care in their own world. They discover the sad state of elder care in a nursing home where Bill accepts a job and resolve to improve it.

Thus was born the Eden Alternative, part of "an emerging national struggle to remake the daily realities of long-term care for staff and residents alike." One project involves "Green Houses," small residences for no more than ten elders each, with collaborative decision-making and a more human approach than is usually found in nursing homes. The last chapters of the book are devoted to the realities of using the Kallimos lessons to change and improve society.

I have little knowledge of nursing homes, and I'm not a geriatrician or a gerontologist. Still, I was fascinated by the fable that fills most of this book, and I recommend it to anyone thinking about the problems of aging and caring for the aged. To me, as to Bill and Jude, the revelation of the three plagues in itself was enlightening. As an elder, I'm beginning to recognize loneliness, helplessness, and boredom as things to fight against. And of course I like the idea of treating elders with respect and listening to what we have to say.

See Dr. Thomas' blog, Changing Aging, at

Here is some intormation from the Eden Alternative website at

"The core concept of The Eden Alternative is strikingly simple. We must teach ourselves to see places where Elders live as habitats for human beings rather than facilities for the frail and elderly. We must learn what Mother Nature has to teach us about vibrant, vigorous living.

"The Eden Alternative shows us how companion animals, the opportunity to give meaningful care to other living things, and the variety and spontaneity that mark an enlivened community can succeed where pills and therapies fail. It also shows us how real leaders can create a warm culture that is characterized by optimism, trust, generosity and people working together to make a better world for our Elders."

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, August 09, 2008

We Need "Bread and Circuses"

I'll admit to being old and jaded, to having a "Been there, done that" approach to life. I seldom get excited about anything these days, especially celebrity antics and other "events" in popular culture. I must also admit, however, that once in a while something catches my attention and stirs my imagination. It's usually discovering a new book that seems to speak to me, or seeing some famous sight like the Parthenon or St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow or China's Great Wall for the first time (and it's been quite a while since those personal "Wow!" moments).

This morning I watched a rerun of yesterday's opening ceremonies from the Beijing Olympics. I was amazed, astounded, and fascinated. Yes, I know that China has a deplorable human rights record, and I can't defend the country's politics. But I'm still naive enough to believe in the idea of all nations getting together in peace for sporting events. My 2001 visit to China, when this year's Olympics was merely the subject of promotional billboards, proved to me that China has much to offer the world.

Still, the surprising thing was how affecting the opening spectacle was. And I find it positive that basketball star Yao Ming, who earned fame and fortune in the US, serves as a sort of bridge between our two countries. I won't be watching many Olympics events; I'm not enough of a sports fan for that, but I can understand the appeal of the games. It makes me think of "Bread and Circuses." We all need our national pride and identity, even though no country, including ours, is perfect (I've never found another that I'd prefer, however).

According to The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 3rd edition. 2002, this is where the term "Bread and Circuses" came from and what it means:

"A phrase used by a Roman writer to deplore the declining heroism of Romans after the Roman Republic ceased to exist and the Roman Empire began: 'Two things only the people anxiously desire—bread and circuses.' The government kept the Roman populace happy by distributing free food and staging huge spectacles (See Colosseum).

“'Bread and circuses'” has become a convenient general term for government policies that seek short-term solutions to public unrest."

I suspect that no matter how jaded we become, we still need to have our hearts stirred by events like the Olympic games and elaborate inaugurations and festivities of all kinds. The costumes, the pyrotechnics, the spectacles: in a sense, that explains the continued popularity of the British monarchy and the various events that can still stir our hearts.

In a world inundated by serious problems, it's refreshing to know that a few things can stir our hardened hearts. For us elders, watching on TV may be the only option, but that's all right. We still need our Bread and Circuses, and I'm happy to discover that I can still appreciate them.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Why I Write

As anyone who reads either of my blogs knows, I love to write, and both blogs occasionally feature mentions of my three books. So is this about making money? Hardly. My books are self-published (POD) books, and that makes them immediately suspect in some circles. Anyone aware of the current state of publishing will understand.

Anyway, my books are hardly best-sellers, and my blogs are not well-known producers of advertising revenue. So why do I bother writing? I suppose it's partly because I am old and retired and have a lot of free time, but there are other reasons. First, I was overjoyed to discover the power and joy of writing, and I want to share my enthusiasm with my fellow seniors. I've made it my mission to encourage everyone to write his or her life story, not necessarily for the public, but for family and friends. Whatever your wealth or social status, you can leave a legacy of your valuable experiences and memories.

Then there's the matter of recognition. Since I have no children or grandchildren and few relatives, I sometimes feel disconnected from the world. I suspect that's a common feeling for seniors, at least for those of us who live alone. It's easy to wonder whether anyone knows we're still alive.

Yesterday, my email contained a really encouraging acknowledgement that I had reached someone. My online friend, Lydia, of the Writerquake blog, (, wrote this, in part, about my first book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor (Infinity 2006):

"[It's] an exciting travel adventure, a real love story, a condensed but highly interesting autobiography, the wisdom of a professor, a frank discussion of aging – especially concerning a woman alone – and a frank but vulnerable glance from a breast cancer survivor. [There are] picturesque descriptions of condos and classrooms, a neighborhood bar and long thoughtful walks, quirky cats and the value of poetry and writing, tours on every continent, and the expectations for a final residence, where, any careful reader would assume, a framed needlepoint picture of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage will make its home."

At the risk of sounding egotistical, I'll say, "What a wonderful, well-written summary!" Thanks, Lydia. It's great to be recognized and appreciated. I guess it's the hope of receiving such feedback (or any at all) that keeps me writing. Let me hear from more of you.

To see Lydia's complete message, go to

Update, August 12, 2008:
Another blogging friend, Barbara J. Kirby Davis of The Senerity Room, has just reviewed this book. Here is an excerpt:

"I've just finished reading Reinventing Myself, Memoirs of a Retired Professor by Marlys Marshall Styne and LOVED IT!!! Her book was a pleasant surprise--filled with honest accounts of a life well-lived."

For more of Barbara's review, go to

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Tyranny of "Stuff"

I attended another Lifestyle Event for my future residence, The Clare at Water Tower, yesterday. The purpose of the meeting was to present information on temporary housing choices in case our current houses or condos sell before The Clare is finished.

Considering the current real estate market, I doubt that I'll have that problem, but I learned a lot, just in case. My preference would be a short stay in a luxury full-service hotel, but I couldn't afford that, especially with storage fees for my worldly goods.

Anyway, listeners' questions quickly segued to matters of storage at The Clare. The mention of storage bins measuring only 3 x 3 x 5 feet brought dismay and complaints. As I listened, I began to think about "stuff" in general. Why were people so upset? Surely highrise residents won't be storing lawn equipment or major power tools or auto parts. A few pieces of luggage will surely fit into that small bin. Everything else I need should fit into my apartment's small closets.

I suppose prosperous owners of large suburban houses face big downsizing challenges, but a fellow condo resident offered a more optimistic view similar to mine. Why worry? My question is, do we really need so much "stuff"? I admit I hired organizers to unclutter my closets and kitchen cabinets, and I've not missed a single item that went to charity or to the trash bin.

Perhaps one of the challenges of aging that many of my future neighbors haven't yet faced is the need to simplify life, to concentrate on what's really important. Does anyone need 100 pairs of shoes or twenty evening gowns? With the possible exceptioon of film stars and TV personalities, I doubt that anyone, especially anyone over 55, does.

There comes a time when comfort and convenience trump style and pride of ownership. I've reached that time; apparently some of my peers have not. I suppose it's none of my business, but I'd advise those complaining about lack of storage to prioritize, downsize, and relax. You'll never regret resisting the tyranny of "stuff."

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne