What a long strange trip it still is – aging better together and the power of community

Auntie Jeannie is standing on the right end next to my mother. Alison is sitting second from the right, Alison's sister Leslie is being held by Auntie Elsie.

Auntie Jeannie is standing on the right end next to my mother. Alison is sitting second from the right, Alison’s sister Leslie is being held by Auntie Elsie.

I got a call from my cousin, Alison, yesterday. These days, whenever relatives call, there’s generally some sort of family emergency. This time, Alison told me her mother – my Auntie Jeannie – had passed away. She had a stroke while sleeping and didn’t wake up. My condolences go out to my cousins Alison and Leslie and her sisters Carol Lou and Janice.

I’ve been attending funerals lately. Last week, it was for Eastern Shoshone tribal elder and one of my mentors Starr Weed in Fort Washakie.

It was my first open casket wake. I don’t know what I expected, but it was solemn and heart breaking. One of Starr’s grandsons, Layha Spoonhunter, was one of my Wind River Tribal College film students. His class project was an oral history of Starr. I felt for him and his mom, Wilma, who is married to my former boss, Harvey, and his aunt Elaine who organizes the Gift of the Waters Pageant in Thermopolis.

A month or so ago, my Uncle Rich died. He had quite a few home health care workers supporting him after he returned from the hospital. He was a 442nd war veteran and in Army Intelligence. He was too small in stature for combat. I also learned after he died, my Aunt Sadako was moved to an assisted living place in Cheyenne.

I live in the Silver Sage Village senior cohousing community in North Boulder. There have been murmurs about it, but just recently the community began discussing “aging in community” which has been on my mind quite a bit, lately.

I’m making a documentary movie about my and my neighbors’ experiences of growing old in cohousing and their thoughts about the future. I’m also helping produce a national conference on the topic that will be held next year May 19 to 21 in Salt Lake City.

My movie won’t be anything earth shattering, but hopefully will give others wanting to start up an intentional community some insight into what to expect. These discussions are about the first ones we’ve had in the five years I’ve been living at Silver Sage Village where the topic has been about something more substantive than maintaining the buildings.

A bunch of people are reading “Being Mortal” by a doctor named Atul Gawande. His basic premise is that modern medicine is good about keeping people alive, while not knowing when it’s time to allow us to die not in a hospital but at home.

Gawande says that in the past, 80 percent of people used to die at home and 20 percent died in a hospital or medical facility. Now that number is reversed with 80 percent dying in a hospital and 20 percent dying at home.

Back to Auntie Jeannie.

I also learned that at 77, she was one of the primary care givers to my Auntie Elsie, well into her 90s. A few months ago, she broke her hip and Jeannie got her settled into a rehab / hospice center as well as helping Sadako get settled into her assisted living apartment. I surmise that what happened was Uncle Rich’s home care workers also did more for Sadako than anyone realized.

I imagine with all this care giving Jeannie was a bit stressed out.

Elders providing care for other elders is becoming common place anymore and a problem.

I can see myself in that boat particularly since my immediate family is strewn all over the place with their own lives and issues and I have no kids.

Like in Jeannie’s case, the work takes more out of the care giver than the patient.

Cohousing is a way to spread some of the load.

Jeannie was married to my Uncle Jake who was the youngest son on my dad’s side that had 13 total kids. It was a very strong extended family and everything revolved around my grand parents house.

Mainly during the summers, everyone would gather various places in Cheyenne and along with the rest of the Japanese community. On Memorial Day there were big picnics and on the 4th of July we all went out to Jeannie’s parents who lived out in the country and blasted off fireworks.

Back then, all the cousins were close, and all the aunts and uncles were close but there was a big diaspora after the grand parents died. We all became adults, had our own lives and lost the closeness we shared as children. Social media has helped keep us connected, but it’s still not the same as it was.

How do more seniors get engaged as caregivers for one another?

I had a brush with death and had a visit from the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come and got a glimpse into my future. What if I couldn’t walk, feed myself, or breathe on my own, flat on my back in a hospital bed?

I can tell you it was lonely.

The hospital was 20 miles away and the rehab place 40 miles away in Denver. I didn’t broadcast that I was laid up but a few neighbors and friends managed to find out and dropped by. I thought it would be a good time to catch up on some editing.

I didn’t realize how doped up I was. A guy can only watch so many “Pawn Stars” reruns before boredom sets in.

I’m happy that I got a second chance to do things differently the next time around. I am grateful to be living at a place like Silver Sage Village. At the urging of Diana Helzer, we sold a place nearby with too many stairs in favor of Silver Sage Village that is on the ground floor with no steps and is fully accessible.

I really didn’t know much of anything about cohousing but am lucky to have neighbors who helped out by bringing by food and helping Diana with some of the care giving like transport in the dead of winter.

The downside of living in cohousing is antithetical to any care giving.

There are many conflicts about the day – to – day management of the place that arise and escalate, some cause hard feelings, but that’s part of life anywhere and shows how fragile community living can be among a whole variety of personality types. The differences seem more pronounced since everyone also is trying to get along.

In my experience, those sorts of relationships have been more work related, but much of living in cohousing is work related and I’ve had to learn how to separate out my personal life here from my business life here.

When I returned to Silver Sage Village after six weeks of hospital and rehab stints, I don’t know how it happened, but neighbors brought by meals and offers of help. I don’t know if neighborliness can be “organized” but however it came about was greatly appreciated. That, along with the layout of the fully accessible condo, was important in my continuing recovery.

It takes a village to raise a child but also takes a village to move an elder towards the end of life.

I don’t expect my neighbors to help me into the shower, or wipe my butt, but I hope they’ll continue to mostly be around.

Gawande talks about the importance of hospice that helps a person be comfortable and provides ways to navigate life.

Do I want my friends and family to be hovering over me out of some sort of self serving sense of duty when I’m delirious and out of it? Is that quality time to be with someone at the last breath?

I’ve put myself into self-imposed hospice now while I still have plenty of breaths left and want to be comfortable in my house living life to it’s fullest. I’d rather be around family and friends while we still have our wits about us.

Here I thought I was out of the event planning business.

Look out for the “Getting the Band Back Together Tour” truckin’ into a town year you – the Cousins Reunion; Cheyenne, Gillette, Lander, Boulder and points in between.

What a long strange trip it still is!

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Confessions of an upward facing dogie

BOULDER, CO - SEPTEMBER 2: Lindy Cook and Alan O'Hashi pull weeds from the garden of the community with other residents September 2, 2015 at Silver Sage Village. The active adult cohousing community for those 55 or older is setup like a usual condo community with every person having their own place, but the sense of community is what is unique. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

BOULDER, CO – SEPTEMBER 2: Lindy Cook and Alan O’Hashi pull weeds from the garden of the community with other residents September 2, 2015 at Silver Sage Village. The active adult cohousing community for those 55 or older is setup like a usual condo community with every person having their own place, but the sense of community is what is unique. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

A month or so ago, Denver Post reporter Claire Martin caught wind of the documentary I’m making about “aging in community”. The principle photography is done, but there are a couple stories that need updating and I’m gathering up some photos for extra coverage.

The movie is based on my “aha” experiences and perspectives learned after being pretty sick to the point of having the “end of life” and drastic “heart lung transplant” conversations with my doctors back during the summer of 2014. My colleague Maryann Williamson interviewed some of my Silver Sage Village neighbors about their perspectives about aging in an intentional community like cohousing.

The Denver Post article came out yesterday – the beginning of Labor Day weekend. There’s another chapter in this saga which marks the one year anniversary of me taking yoga classes.

In this town, that shouldn’t be too earth shattering at all. For a Wyomingite, it’s not the usual way to while away the hours. There’s an advertisement to attract former Wyoming people back to the state that says something to the effect that “we have latte’s and yoga” which are why an expat like myself should move back.

Yee Haw – git a long little downward facing dogie!

A "dogie" is a neglected calf that is eventually rescued and looked after.

A “dogie” is a neglected calf that is eventually rescued and looked after.

Over the past 10 years or so, one of my annual missions is to take footage of all the entertainment along the Bolder Boulder route. The 2014 acid test was whether or not I could complete my usual task and finish the 10K. All went well, but I needed to take a swig of O2 going up the Folsom Street hill into the stadium.

A month later, I was given the okay to put the supplemental oxygen aside while weaning off of the prednisone. My chest xray in June wasn’t that great, and my lung doctor wasn’t very optimistic at all. That’s when I also started with aggressive treatments at the Southwest Acupuncture College Boulder Campus. I attribute my miraculous recovery to that, which is another story.

In retrospect, the Bolder Boulder probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do, since my percent of oxygen was around 80 percent, which was pretty good, considering a couple months earlier it was in the 60s and 70s. I had gained back some of the 37 pounds I lost laying in the hospital for a month and half and I noticed the lost weight right a way since my inner knees didn’t ache.

Anyway, I was still very weak and had trouble lifting the milk jug out of the fridge and still not very stable on my feet, having taken a tumble on the step going into Silver Sage Village. I finally could push the clutch pedal on the Eurovan and I started driving, which also wasn’t a very good idea.

My occupational therapist had me trying to do push ups against the wall and half push ups on the floor. I couldn’t do either. Sit ups were painful because of the scarring from the leaky intestine ulcer that was also repaired. I didn’t want to lift weights or go to a gym. The OT couldn’t do anything more for me. When I relearned how to walk and my gait was straight, she turned me loose.

I was picking something up at McGuckin Hardware on the Sunday afternoon before Labor Day. I noticed the The Little Yoga Studio next door. There was a woman inside working on the computer at the front desk. They were closed, but she told me to take a schedule from the box by the door.

Being a Boulder guy, I wasn’t a yoga guy. Many years ago, Comcast used to have Core Power Yoga on TV in the mornings. I did that for awhile, then the practice started to include weights and equipment, which seemed out of context.

That gave me some knowledge and experience with the basic poses. Since my body was totally out of whack, I thought yoga would be more balanced than going to a gym, plus I only needed a mat – although I had sticker shock when I saw mats cost as much as $85. I needed to get stronger and more flexible. Shortly after Labor Day I made my first visit.

I really didn’t know what to expect since it was my first time in organized yoga practice, I thought it was more meditative, but I have come to learn that the Americanized versions of yoga are very different from it’s 5,000 year old traditional roots in south Asia. I was also surprised to learn that yoga in America is an 18 billion dollar a year industry. The yoga industrial complex includes, clothing, mats, equipment, food. In Boulder, you can’t turn around without your water bottle whacking into a yoga teacher.

Ronald McYoga

Ronald McYoga

I got a deal for yoga at one of the other studios in town. Turns out that was part of a yoga franchise – McYoga. It was a huge place with showers, a store with branded merchandise. That wasn’t for me – some of the same teachers work there, too.

My initial reasons for going to yoga class a couple times a weak were totally health and medical related. Some of the teachers give little dharma lessons at the beginning of the class. At the beginning of one class the teacher gave a bit of a rant about how westernized yoga moved away from the traditional tenets, which wasn’t a good thing. and that there should be more attention paid to the original teachings.

That brought to mind an NPR radio story I heard six or seven years before, about a group in Fairhope, Alabama that wanted to take the original spirituality out of yoga and replace it with Christian spirituality, since they liked the asana part – physical aspects – of yoga, but not the meditative part.

At the time, that struck me as odd.

Now that I have more of an interest it really strikes me as odd.

I also remember this story because I mnemonically link it to a former basketball player from Fairhope who played at Wyoming named Quentin Higgins.

Afterwards, I talked to the teacher about this, and turns out there’s quite a bit of information out there about the topic of non-yoga yoga. I watched a documentary called “Yoga, Inc.” which was mostly about the lawsuit between yoga mogul Bikram Choudhury and some of his teachers about unauthorized uses of his yoga pose sequences.

Om

Om

The yoga classes are helpful for me physically. I was going a couple times a week with a day of recovery time in between. I now try to get there four or five consecutive times with a couple days of rest between. But also, I want to be around the practice more which is insightful. My journalistic curiosity always gets and best of me and I’m now researching American yoga for another documentary project.

I’m learning that horse has left the barn and there must be some other angle that hasn’t dawned on me yet about putting yoga back into yoga. I’m talking with my pal Ravi Dykema about it next week. I’ll take a meeting with anyone who has a perspective on this.

Meanwhile, I’ll be continuing to “age in c(OM)unity”.