The Plague of Elders

I don’t mean that we Elders are the plague; I mean an awful lot of us Elders are afflicted with the same “plague.” It’s called There are lots of kinds of insomnia and there’s no cure for any of them.   There are a host of “remedies”, however, and I have tried all of them (see the end of this post), to no avail.  So had the author of a book I read several years ago, Insomniac, by Gayle Greene.  The book was published in 2008, and you would think there would have been some progress made since then with a treatment that works.  I contacted Greene last year to see if she ever found a way rid herself of insomnia  Basically, she said no; all she could do is schedule her life around it when she can, take sleep meds when she has no other choice, and keep looking for a solution.

Here’s a review from The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine Insomniac, by Gayle Greene, provides an interesting perspective and offers support to those with treatment resistant insomnia. It also offers a fresh perspective to readers who are also medical providers. The author defines insomnia in a way that sets the stage for the discussions that follow, as “Insomnia is when you can’t get the sleep you need to feel good, for no reason other than that you can’t.” By the end of the third chapter, the reader has a very clear understanding of the problems faced by insomniacs.

Greene’s book is both a memoir and a research paper. If you don’t read the book, read the whole review.  Here are some of the facts she shares in her book

A third of the American population suffers from insomnia enough to complain about it; in people over 65, estimates are as high as 60 percent.

⇒  Sleep has little part in medical curricula today, when doctors get an average of one or two hours’ instruction in sleep and sleep disorders.  The patient with a chronic complaint of insomnia will usually be referred to a psychiatrist.

  With all due respect, this is so ass-backwards, Greene states. The reason I want more sleep is so that I won’t feel depressed.  I need sleep not to avoid my life, but so that I can live it.

  This is what she learned from interviewing a range of sleep researchers and experts (all given citations in her book).  We do not know….the nature of the basic neural mechanisms underlying primary insomnia.  Nor do we know the identity of specific neurotransmitters that might be involved, or even whether specific neurotransmitter systems are involved.  The genetics of the disorder are also not known.

 The behavioral model (change your attitude, change your ways) has had, perhaps the unfortunate consequence of discouraging research into the neurobiology of the disorder.

 Insomnia is a subjective state..  There’s no blood test that it shows up on, no biopsy or x-ray that picks it up, and it doesn’t even show up on the EEG….. How much easier it is to tell us, as many clinics do, that we have “sleep disordered breathing,” or apnea.

  Exercise helps some people, but not all. “In order to make a difference, it has to intensive, enough to raise the core temperature (inside body temperature) to two degrees Fahrenheit for about twenty minutes, which happens with twenty to thirty minutes of aerobic exercise….. Since only people who are in shape can sustain vigorous exercise for twenty minutes or more, they’re the ones whose sleep is likely to be improved.

  Some billionaire who has a relative with terrible trouble sleeping…should endow a private foundation. There should be patient advocacy groups for insomnia, but they’ll need to stay independent of the pharmaceutical companies.

I wish every sleep doctor would read Greene’s book, which explores the various and complex reasons why folks have insomnia, including the gut-brain connections and the individual ways that insomnia manifests itself.  For example, I have the kind that prevents me from even falling asleep, from having my brain trigger what Greene calls the “sleep switch.”  I get relaxed and tired, but that last step evades me.

At the end of this month, I will have a sleep study.  I am going to give the doctors there a copy of this post.

Of all of the remedies I have tried for my insomnia,  I have to admit that I like the effect of medical marijuana (and I like the buzz I get before I fall asleep).  But trial and error has proven that I need sometimes 4 times the recommended dose to have any effect on my sleep.  That would cost me several hundred dollars a month, and I can’t afford that.  CBD helps with my daytime energy and mood, but has done nothing for my sleep issues.  And it’s not cheap, either.

I even bought some EMF fabric shield to cover my electronics at night. At my age (80), doctors will not give me prescription sleep meds.  Hell, I’m 80.  What’s it going to do, kill me?  Not sleeping is killing me and is depriving me of having any kind of satisfying life.

I no order of chronology or non-effectiveness, here is a list of what I have tried.
  Soto Bio-tuner; hypnosis; environmental changes; behavioral modification; yoga breathing; every pain and sleep-associated OTC on the market; a range of herbal, amino acids, and other supplements (sometimes combined); oxycodone (I’m running out of my old dental RX; I only take it when I can’t take the sleeplessness any more); binaural beats; relaxation, meditation, and music tapes; hot showers; massage (when I can afford it); decades of depression meds; tapping……..

Badly arthritic knees and a troublesome torn rotator cuff preclude me from doing the kinds of exercises that might tire me out enough to crash into sleep.

“Set your alarm and make sure you get up every morning even if you are tired,” they tell me.  Yeah, sure.  After finally falling asleep at 3 a.m. or so every night, I’m not about to get up at 9.  Maybe 11.  Sometimes noon or later.  When I finally sleep, I often sleep deeply and have great dreams.  But I miss half of the day.

There are still no advocacy groups for and by insomniacs to help spread the word and urge researcher and doctors to keep digging to discover the biological insomnia triggers and causes. There are plenty of support/forums for patients, but all those do is give us more places to complain.

It’s Just Another Christmas Eve

How different my holidays are from when I was a child, part of a large extended Polish family, for whom Vigilia (Christmas Eve) was a major event, with all of the traditional foods and traditions.

The only thing I have left is one ornament that says Merry Christmas in Polish.

After I got divorced, since my kids would spend Christmas Eve with me and Christmas Day with their Dad, we started our own food tradition. I let the kids choose. They wanted a meat fondue. And we continue that tradition today.  Having to wait for our chunks of protein to simmer until ready means that we have to sit around the table for a while (unlike our usual “eat dinner together and then go our separate ways”).

 We tend not to eat beef, so we usually have chicken; but this year we broke with tradition so that Lex, my grandson, could try beef. (Which, unfortunately, he likes.)

We did manage to make and decorate some cookies — from Baby Yoda (which Lex devoured rather quickly) to the wreath “painted” by my art-major son-in-law. (I have to say that I love that Lex wears the “Jughead” hat I made for him all of the time.)

My daughter has successfully installed replacements for the traditions I left behind. Over the past week or so, she has cooked dinners from the various ethnic traditions of our genetics — German, Swedish, Lithuanian.  We often have Polish and Italian food, so there was no need to repeat those.  And it’s a Christmas Eve tradition for us to watch Polar Express together after dinner while we have dessert.   I decided to forego yet another watch and retired to my computer to struggle with this post.  (I am still have problems using this new fangled WordPress platform; but I’m intent on figuring it out; I have been at it for three  hours  now.)

Somewhere in Yonkers, my younger cousins are feasting on their home made pierogi, carrying on the old traditions,using recipes that have been handed down for generations.  I have yet to find store-bought peirogi that come anywhere near those our mothers made.  I’m too lazy to do all of the work to make my own.

I don’t know if they sing Polish “kolendy” (Christmas Carols), but I know they get their families together and share old memories.  I’m not in touch with them these days because he is their president, and he’s not mine.

I have fond memories of those Polish Christmases as a child.  I probably don’t remember them the same way that my cousins do.

I’m a poet.  I am all Eye.

December 24, 1948

There is no mistaking this immigrant clan
for anything but a matriarchy,
bringing from its Polish homeland
the fundamentals of family, earthy foods,
a deference to the will of the grayest female.

The men earn hard money, revere their vodka,
as it was on the farms of the old country.
The rest is woman’s right and work.
So, when the magical time of Vigil Eve draws near
the men disappear into their smoky enclaves
to share sad fatherland memories,

while the women gather in her kitchen,
a determined lineage of daughters,
by birth and marriage, armed with
the culinary legacies of generations.

For days, they roll, flour, fill, and pinch,
while we children sit on the floor, eye level to legs,
playing with scraps of pasty dough,
lulled by the soft humming of female voices,
the steady rumble of snowy urban streets.

The night flows with prayers and feasting,
as families gather at the gray lady’s call,
reviving ancient rites of pine and light,
singing the language and history of their people
carried across oceans of fear and hope.

They sing of homeland yearnings for freedom and faith,
of the tears of mountaineers displaced and despaired,
of the battles of heroes to free the heart’s land,
of mystical mothers and magical births.

Generations of voices in harmony
drift through the lace-curtained windows
open to the cold winter night, that night
when animals talk, wishes are granted,
and ancient rituals forge the primal bonds of blood.

The Eyes Have It

I crave the cosmic and the common,
refusing to sever half my soul.
I choose to grow in all directions:
to grow both fruit and edible root;
to glory in the ground and desire the sky;
to stretch roots across acres
and reach for the bedrock;
to rejoice in the changing shapes of the seasons.
I eschew the single minded vision.
I am all Eye.

I wrote this when I was in my mid-thirties, when life was an adventure. At almost 80, my life now is a different kind of adventure.

These are my eyes as of last week,  Something going on with with the right eye.  The eyes don’t have it any more.

And it’s more than the eyes.  The WordPress I used more than a decade ago is a different animal.  I’m on a very slow learning curve.  But they say that learning new things is good for the brain.  Maybe so, but it’s not always good for the stress..

As I get older, I need things to be more simple. Only nothing is simple these days.  Even though the “Ayes” had it in Washington and voted to impeach the Big Orange Turd, it’s still complicated, and it’s not going to be easy.

Those Relentless Sands

“It was fun while it lasted.” I guess I could say that about many periods of my life, especially when it comes to relationships with men.

I am thinking about that as I read Jack’s obituary. Our relationship lasted about three years, back in the 80s, and it was fun while it lasted. One of the legacies of that relationship, oddly enough, is friendships I formed with a couple of the women whom he dated after me. He had a knack for seeking out smart, creative women.

I kept in touch with Jack on and off over the decades. When, after he moved to Portland OR and my pedestrian son needed a ride from the oral surgeon’s office, I called Jack and he took care of it all. He was a good, imperfect guy. I am glad that I knew him and sad that he is gone.

More than ever, these days, I am painfully aware of the relentlessness of time – which really does seem to accelerate as one ages. And, here I am, at age 78, still trying to figure myself out as those relentless sands continue to carry me along.

It is all about the journey. Slogging through the sands of time. It’s all about the metaphors. Baba Bogina. The Raven. The knight with the swan helmet crest.

My Jungian therapist often uses “sand play” to stir and spur our conversations. I find that I intuitively pick out figures for the sand play without consciously knowing why. And then we work on the why.

I am still pondering why I chose the warrior with the swan helmet crest. It is the only figure I chose that was not obviously either male or female. Its face and body are covered with armor. Its stance can be interpreted as aggressive, defensive, or protective. It is blocking my path. Welcoming? Warning? And then there’s that anomalous spread-winged swan sitting on the top of its head.

My therapist did some searching before I had a chance to, and she send me a link that explained: a medieval tale about a mysterious rescuer who comes in a swan-drawn boat to defend a damsel, his only condition being that he must never be asked his name.

Does that help or not. I don’t know. I will need to ponder this a lot more as I wait for some synchronicity to spark an epiphany.

Is there someone on my path waiting? To lead me to the authentic “me”? To accompany me for a while on my journey? Or is it me in there, under the armor, my wings wanting to escape the hold of the protective helmet.

This is what my “journey” looked like in sand play.

Adrift in Archetypes

The ancient Hanged Man is the center of attention, oddly modern in straight lines and upright, bloodless repose.

I am at a funeral mass in a church that is a testament to privilege, from the pale polished wood of vaulted ceilings to the delicate stained glass windows, graceful allegories of allegiance and ardor.

My dead friend rests in a simple urn among flowers and photos. I am here to honor him, but the incense filled air and steady droning of apocrypha ease me into images from my past life.

I am in fourth grade, sitting next to my classmate, Stanley Szymanski, enthralled by the drama and special effects of a Black Friar production of the “Stations of the Cross.” As our bones vibrate to the crashes of recorded thunder and our hearts flutter to the rhythmic flashes lightening that signal the death of that Hanged Man, Stanley reaches over, grabs my hand, and whispers “Let’s get hitched.”

I am somewhere in my pre-teens, standing next to my father, who smells vaguely of Old Spice and who subtly hums along with the inspiring choir. He is tall and strong next to me, and, for the first time, I feel stirrings of some kind of desire. Someday I will learn about Electra, and I will take courses in psychology, and I will understand.

When I return home after the funeral service, I finish reading a book I requested from its author because, these days, I am even more fascinated by death and the processes of dying than I was as a child growing up above the viewing rooms in my father’s funeral home.

I also am a fan of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, so I tend to have an affinity for archetypes, and Polishing the Bones by Jungian Analyst Penelope Tarasuk tells of a journey that embraces both of my passions.

It is a unique story – one that can only evolve between two very creative, introspective, and unique individuals as they embark upon a shared journey to unravel and understand, first, who they are as patient and therapist and, finally, as companions on a final pilgrimage.

Tarasuk invests eight years in partnering with her “client” to prepare for the inevitable, which comes later than sooner and provides a richness of inner growth for both.

Theirs is not an experience that can be easily duplicated, but it does offer tremendous insight into how it is possible use the limitations of mortality to spark creative energies and insight.

More than 25 years ago, I was fortunate enough to pair with a therapist who used Jungian and Shamanistic techniques to help me explore my own dreams and demons. I wrote about it in an essay that was published in 1990 in a psychotherapy journal, Voices.

If you are interested, you can read it here: shadows2

Death With Dignity

The case for “Death with Dignity”

I have a unique relationship with death. My father was an undertaker, and we lived in an apartment above his business. Contemplating death and dying — my own and others’ — has been a part of my life since childhood. I have sat vigil during the hours and days of the deaths of both of my parents. At the age of 77, I am closing in on my final years. I have no control over when or why I will die; but I am learning about the choices I have about “how”. What I have come to believe is that it doesn’t matter what one believes about an “after-life”; what is important is to live fully while embracing the fact that we, after all, are all “terminal.” Those individuals whose religious beliefs preclude them from participating in such a process can follow the dictates of their religions, but those of us who have different beliefs should be allowed to make our own choices.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is once again considering a Death with Dignity bill. Modeled on the Oregon law, H 1991, Compassionate Care for the Terminally Ill Act, would give terminally ill people more freedom, control, and peace of mind at the end of their lives. It is called “The End of Life Options Act”. I noticed that both the Northampton City Council and the Amherst Town Meeting passed resolutions in early November that called on the legislature to enact “The End of Life Options Act” (H1194 and S1225). I urge other municipalities to become familiar with the intent of this bill and take action to lend their support.

Seven out of 10 Americans who support the end-of-life option allowing qualified terminally ill people to end their lives through physician-prescribed medications support having a process to enable terminal patients to choose how they want to die. Such laws have enacted and practiced successfully in other states. I believe this bill has strong safeguards to ensure that no one – including people with disabilities, the frail elderly, and the low-income –could be coerced or pressured to end their lives rather than live longer or seek continued treatment for their terminal illness.

This is NOT assisted suicide, but rather an option to give people the right to choose to end their suffering (and that of their family) when faced with a prolonged and painful dying process.

I support this bill because I have sat by the beds of both parents as they suffered through their last days and hours of pain before death took them. When my father was in the last stages of pancreatic cancer in 1984, thankfully, we were able to use the services of Visiting Nurses (this was before Hospice was available) to give him drops of morphine while he lay in his bed, gasping for air and enduring a level of pain I can’t even imagine. It took him three days to finally die.

My mother, who died at the age of 94 in the “Comfort Care” unit of a hospital, hung on for a week with renal failure, until I finally insisted that the doctor increase her morphine dosage. A “Death with Dignity” Act would have spared both my parents painful deaths that, at that point, were inevitable anyway.

Please join me in contacting the co-chairs of the Joint Public Health Committee:  Sen. Jason Lewis (jason.lewis@masenate.gov, 617-722-1206) and Rep. Kate Hogan (kate.hogan@mahouse.gov, 617-722-2130). Urge them to pass H1194 before the deadline in early February.

For more of my musings about a better way to die, see my blog post: http://www.kalilily.net/2011/10/22/dealing-with-that-disturbing-d-word-being-a-midwife-to-the-dying/

An Ode to Hecate

My assignment to my writing group was to write a ode. Here’s mine:

Ode to Hecate

Even though you exist only
in the deepest shadows of our psyches,
your warnings persist in the stories
that drive our most ferocious dreams.
Rise, Hecate, rise.

Claimed by countless cultures,
re-created across eons of fear,
you resist easy efforts to define you
as other than the maternal primal force.
Rise, Hecate, rise.

I sense your counsel in the stirring of autumnal oaks,
hear your sorrows in the howling of midnight dogs.
Those who fear their longings, call you witch;
those who live your bounty, call you Crone.
Rise, Hecate, rise.

Isis, Kali, Lilith, Astarte, Brigid, Hecate.
You are who I need you to be,
standing with me at each challenge of choices,
listening for your call to wonder and power.
Rise, Hecate, rise.

You are who we women need you to be,
relentless truth-teller, fierce warrior,
stand with us at this dangerous crossroads.
You are what we need to be.
Rise, Hecate, rise.

Grace and Frankie Use the “M” Word.

For those without Netflix, Grace and Frankie is into its third season as a comedy about couples in their seventies. (Warning: this post includes “spoilers,” but I don’t think they will take away from any of your enjoyment of the series.)

Frankie (Lily Tomlin) and Grace (Jane Fonda) are two very different women in their 70s living together at a beach house which they used to share when they were married to their husbands (who have come out as gay).

I will get to the “M” word eventually, but first I want to comment on the beautifully developed elder characters that the two actresses portray. They are feisty, quirky, impatient, forgetful, caring, independent, irreverent, maternal, and forgiving. They are the Golden Girls for this oldest generation of the 21st Century.

While very few women in their 70s are as wrinkle- and cellulite- free as Fonda (who looks and dresses like a model in a Neiman Marcus ad), she is believable as a traditional retired businesswoman. Tomlin, with graying hair, a few wrinkles, and outfits that must come from the Gudrun catalog, is an ex-hippie artist – about as opposite from her housemate as possible.

Sally Field & Penelope Wilton

There is a part of me that would rather have had someone play Grace who is less physically “reconfigured” than Fonda – like maybe Sally Field or Penelope Wilton, who, although not yet in their 70s allow themselves to realistically portray elder women wrinkles and all.

However, Fonda has won me over, despite her almost flawless skin and size 2 body. She and Tomlin play off each other with excellent timing and consistent characterization.

Frankie smokes weed and gets Grace to admit she MASTURBATES. Yes, that’s the “M” word that brings the women together to invent and produce a vibrator for elder women, whose arthritis often impedes their pleasure.

Grace and Frankie hilariously find ways to deal with just about all of the emotional and physical challenges faced by women over 70. There are three seasons available on Netflix, and it’s the only contemporary series I have found that is appealingly honest and charmingly irreverent about life in its last quarter.

Sheen and Waterston

While I am focusing on the female characters, they are given a run for their money by their gay ex-husbands (a sweet, believable, and delightful pairing of Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen).

We need to insist that Grace and Frankie start a trend of movies and series about elder women.

Kate Burton in “Grimm”

After watching the last episode of Grimm, in which the eldest female of the Grimm family (played by Kate Burton) pulls a sword from her cane and lops off a piece of the monster, I am rooting for a character like that in a new fantasy series.

The Crone’s time has come.

The Dilemma of Choices

Because this blog focuses on the lives of American elder women in the last quarter of our lives I will not try to be overtly intersectional in specifically mentioning people of color, of poverty, with physical challenges, and who seek gender equality, because, in truth, “elder women in the last quarter of our lives” is intended to include all marginalized women in that age bracket. So, when I speak here, I speak from my own – somewhat privileged – experience. After all, I am white with a limited retirement income that I should be able to live within (with, granted, limited but livable choices).

Access to unlimited funds pretty much gives you unlimited choices because it eliminates one of the prime restrictions to making a choice: the money to pay for it and whatever consequences result. For 98% of us, that’s a crucial restriction, and we try to live within our means. That means we live with limited choices.

The Equal Rights Amendment did not get approved because it was not ratified by ¾ of the states. That Amendment to the Constitution would have benefited all kinds of people, but because of the options it would open for women, it remains controversial, with religious conservatives opposing it because of their pro-life stance. They continue to work toward limiting many women’s choices by demanding that we restrict ourselves to their choices.

While women, in total, make up more than half of American citizens, it is mostly men who are in power to make the laws that limit our choices. Take, for example the (thankfully unsuccessful) effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. A wonderful recent piece by (of all things) the United Church of Christ blog covers this issue beautifully, ending with

All this new-found talk of “choices” is a mockery, a betrayal of Christian values, a scheme designed to lull the most vulnerable into supporting a health care law resulting in worse coverage for them, at greater personal expense, to the benefit of the wealthy who will continue to enjoy Cadillac care for less.

Again, this is an example of our predominantly male (and conservative) lawmakers giving us “choices” that do not really give us much choice.

Somewhere between oligarachic patriarchy and total anarchy there has to be a system that will minimize the limits of our lawful choices. “Lawful” is the key word, here. From wearing a hijab (or not) to getting an abortion (or not), these are choices we women should be able to lawfully make for ourselves. And the folks making our laws do not understand the meaning, the importance, and the social structure necessary in making choices that minimize negative personal consequences.

I am a democratic socialist, which means that I would like to see America evolve into a system of a modified form of socialism, achieved by a gradual transition by and under democratic political processes. There are responsibilities to its citizens that every democratic government has. The piece on this page written by Alok Pandey, a young man from India, says it better than anything else I came across.

He ends with this. And so will I.

If it isn’t for people, what good is it for anyway? Now when I say for people, it doesn’t necessarily means doling out freebies to poor and giving a carte blanche to the rich. Any method is good if it is consensual and is in the better interest of the people. A democratic government must seek the approval of the common masses and later should be ready to receive the feedback for its acts.

Bad knees, can’t march. Now what?

There are about 2.5 million women in America whose challenges of aging makes it difficult for us to participate physically in many of the RESISTANCE activities. As a 77 year old who doesn’t drive after dark (and so can’t attend any evening meetings), has bad knees and can’t march, I am limited in how I can contribute. We send letters and faxes and postcards. We make pink pussy hats for marchers to wear. And we agonize on Facebook and among ourselves about how we will be able to survive this last quarter of our lives in a nation with an administration made up of individuals who have no empathy for anyone who is not rich and powerful? How can we make our collective elder voices heard?

I believe that we need to get angry. Very very mad. Nasty. Irreverent. We need to embrace our nature as wise, experienced, intelligent elder women. CRONES. It’s not a bad word. It’s a powerful word because there’s both mystery, and fear, and respect, and — even — awe, historically associated with the image of a sword-wielding, gray-haired woman, with a crow companion. They once called us witches, but we know better. CRONE. WITCH. WISE WOMAN. We need to figure out how to make ourselves visible and heard — because, indeed, elder women are virtually invisible out in society. (Unless they are rich and powerful, and even then, they cannot expect to be treated with respect and admiration.)

I invite all progressively-minded elder women, all Crones tired of being ignored and marginalized, to come here and rant with me. We care. We care about fighting for the rights of people, of animals, of our endangered planet. We care about adding our issues and voices to those of all of the other marginalized folks in our American communities. What can we do to add our strengths to further the Resistance?

Use the comment option to suggest topics to rant over (your lazy doctor, the disrespectful bus driver, the impatience of store clerks…) I do not delete expletives because I use them myself. And also suggest ways we can join our significant talents and creativity to fight the powers that are destroying all we have worked for all of our lives.

I moderate comments, so trolls will be ignored.

Spread the word among the Crones you know and love. This is one place where you can let your power growl and rant. A place to gather and share what we know, what we hope, what we demand.