Cindy La Ferle on April 8th, 2013
Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” — H. Jackson Browne
Feeling like your second chance is long overdue? From time to time, everyone “burns out” or gets stuck in a familiar rut. As I learned several years ago, a midlife career crisis can be an opportunity for personal growth or a chance to explore a hidden talent.
My new column in Michigan Prime magazine also includes tips on reinventing your life from Birmingham life coach Betsy Hemming. To read “The Art of Reinvention” online, click on the Oakland County edition, then flip to page 6. Click here to get started.
If my column inspires you to dig deeper, look for these guides on burnout recovery and career reinvention at your favorite bookstore or public library:
Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck. (Three Rivers Press)
Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. (Hay House, Inc.)
Getting Unstuck: A Guide to Discovering Your Next Career Path, by Timothy Butler. (Harvard Business Press)
Cindy La Ferle on April 3rd, 2013
Caregivers are forced to let go of a loved one little by little, again and again, sometimes over a span of many years.” — Leeza Gibbons, Take Your Oxygen First
Crafted from fine cotton yarn, the black cardigan sweater became a staple in my spring wardrobe after my mother bought it for me 10 years ago. Rediscovering it in the back of my closet last week, I suddenly recalled a happier memory of Mom – a time when I wasn’t overwhelmed by what social workers describe as “caregiver burnout.”
And then came an unexpected flood of tears.
It’s not like me to fall apart over a sweater while I’m reorganizing my closet. Usually, I welcome the chance to shove my winter-weary woolens back into storage and replace them with the lighter fabrics of spring.
But then again, my mother hasn’t been herself for several seasons, either.
Things began to unravel after my son left for college — just when my husband and I earned the freedom of our newly emptied nest.
First, we noticed Mom was repeating her favorite stories more often than usual. Then her friends would call to report that she’d forgotten to show up for club meetings and lunch dates. She’d drive herself to the ER during her panic attacks, which started occurring with alarming frequency. Not long afterward, her doctors told me to confiscate her car keys.
Mom was 79 and had been widowed for 16 years when she was officially diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2009. She was also battling heart disease and severe hearing loss.
Her only child, I was handed full responsibility of her medical care along with a checklist outlining her worrisome diagnosis.
“Start researching senior housing with memory care – now — so you’ll have choices,” her primary care physician advised. The doctor also asked if I had durable power of attorney (which I did) and reminded me to get all the legal documents in order.
At the time, Mom lived alone in a condo near my house. She refused to consider any type of senior housing, regardless of the fact that she’d been in and out of William Beaumont Hospital half a dozen times, and averaged 45 medical visits annually for countless illnesses, real and imaginary. (I took her to every single one.)
Facing the reality
More than anything, I wish my mother would have helped map the course of her own future. But no matter how tactfully I approached the topic of assisted living — and offered to schedule tours of the best facilities — she’d look at me as if I’d asked her to move to the Outer Hebrides with nothing but a toothbrush.
Regardless, I researched several senior housing options on my own. And just as the doctors had predicted, the decision was made for us — after yet another trip to the ER with Mom in December of 2011.
The research I’d done earlier made our next step a little easier. While my mother recovered from heart surgery at the hospital, my husband and I put a deposit on a studio apartment at an assisted living residence near our home. We moved her there the day she was released from rehab.
By this time, Mom’s dementia had progressed to the point where she couldn’t remember that she’d had surgery and spent weeks in the hospital. I tried to preserve her dignity while sugar-coating the progressive dementia issue. I reminded her that her health and safety were our biggest concerns. Through it all, she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home.
And how could I blame her for denying reality? Lately, I wish I could rewrite the whole scenario, too.
The grieving process
Saddest of all, dementia robbed Mom’s interest in almost everything she once enjoyed — Early American history, needlework, reading, lunch with friends. And clothes shopping.
In her prime, Mom had elevated bargain shopping to an art form, taking pleasure in scouting for gifts for people she loved. Even when I reached middle age, she’d insist on purchasing a new item of clothing for me whenever the seasons changed.
Which brings me back to the black sweater I mentioned at the start.
Ten years ago, Mom knew I’d been hunting for such a sweater — a classic black cardigan that would bridge the seasons. I’d shopped at several stores in two malls — but with no luck. I’d nearly given up when I discovered a T. J. Maxx shopping bag hanging from the side door of my house one afternoon. In it was the perfect black cotton sweater, which Mom had found on sale at one of her favorite haunts.
When I rediscovered it last month, my unexpected tears released a tsunami of mixed emotions.
Until then, I’d been raging inwardly at the dementia that had devoured my mother’s mind and rendered her incapable of making her own decisions. I hadn’t fully realized that I was grieving the loss of my “real” mother — the woman who had shared her wisdom and recipes, encouraged my career, babysat my son, and took delight in buying me new clothes.
Facing the unfixable
The ongoing nightmare of dementia is hard to explain to others who haven’t walked through this dark tunnel with a parent or a spouse. Whether you’re talking about Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, helping a loved one with a memory loss disorder isn’t the same as nursing a heart condition or a broken limb.
“With memory loss disorders, there is no comfort to be found in hoping for future recovery or improvement,” writes Leeza Gibbons in Take Your Oxygen First, an excellent guide to caring for a loved one with memory loss.
“If we don’t grieve for what we have lost, we can’t experience what we have now,” Gibbons goes on to explain. “In the end, life isn’t about choosing what happens to us; we only get to choose how to respond to it.”
As I write this, Mom is in a nursing rehab facility after fracturing her back at her assisted living residence last month. Her team of physical therapists can’t determine, at this point, if she’ll learn how to walk again. She is twice as fearful and confused. I do my best to remain strong for her, though I’m often exhausted, hopeless, and resentful — and ashamed for feeling that way, too.
In my better moments, I learn everything I can about my mother’s health problems and advocate for her 24/7. I’ve also learned to guard my own health — and my time — knowing that I’m not the only one who depends on both.
Meanwhile, the black sweater serves as an emblem of my mother’s best years; a tangible reminder of her former self. But I doubt that I’ll wear it again. It doesn’t wrap around me as well as it did when Mom first gave it to me — as if to remind me that I’m not the same woman I was 10 years ago. – Cindy La Ferle
For tips on dealing with caregiver stress from the Mayo Clinic, click here.
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Cindy La Ferle on March 29th, 2013
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” ~Henry David Thoreau
To my Facebook friends: I’ve temporarily deactivated my Facebook account this week.
As many of you know, my mother fell and fractured her hip recently. She’s recovering in a nursing center, and I’m often called on to advocate for her. Meanwhile, I’ve received many thoughtful (private) Facebook messages that I’ve neglected to answer — and I apologize for those oversights.
At stressful times like these, I tend to function best when I pull back, turn down the noise, do a reality check, and spend some quality “face time” with my posse.
This isn’t the first time I’ve deactivated my Facebook account. Last year I wrote an article about taking time off from Facebook, and was surprised by the hundreds of positive comments I received. That three-month break turned out to be one of the healthiest and most productive periods I’ve experienced in recent years — which is why I recommend short “retreats” from social media to everyone, from time to time.
But back to the present. When time allows, I’ll post a few essays here on the topic of dealing with elderly parents who suffer from dementia, knowing that many of you can relate to this ongoing midlife challenge. Thanks for your understanding — and I look forward to catching up soon. – Cindy La Ferle
Cindy La Ferle on March 27th, 2013
Digging through my clip file last week, I unearthed an old Easter essay I wrote for the op-ed page of The Christian Science Monitor. A tribute to hats, it was originally published on March 28, 1997. I’m reprinting a shorter version here. Happy Easter! — CL
On Easter Sunday, There Were Always Hats…
Along with impossibly shiny patent-leather shoes, my childhood Easter wardrobe wasn’t complete without a brand-new hat. I remember one in particular: a white straw number with satin flowers lining its brim and a long satin ribbon streaming down the back.
In those days, my mother always wore a hat to church, as did my proper Scottish grandmother. My favorites from their collections were fashioned from delicate tulle and feathers, reminding me of the birds’ nests I’d find in my back yard. No doubt, those hats would be highly collectible at our local vintage clothing shops today.
In his lyrics for “The Ladies Who Lunch,” songwriter Stephen Sondheim asks, “Does anyone still wear a hat?” These days, hats aren’t nearly as popular unless you are under nine or over 90. Which seems odd, and a little sad, considering that it wasn’t so long ago when men and women weren’t considered fully dressed without them.
“If, as the saying goes, clothes make the man, it might also be said that hats make the woman. Over the centuries and over the world, hats have provided a quicker way than clothes to identify a woman,” writes Nancy Lindemeyer in The Romance of Hats (Victoria Magazine/Hearst Books).
Veiled or wide-brimmed, tilted above one eye or pulled down over the brow, a hat lends an air of mystery. The protection it provides from the elements is of secondary importance.
And I can’t think of remarkable people without thinking of remarkable hats. Scarlett O’Hara’s coquettish garden hat. Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox. Leslie Caron’s picture-brim in Gigi. Diane Keaton’s floppy fedora in Annie Hall. Charlie Chaplin’s dapper bowler. And, of course, the endearing Harpo Marx’s battered topper.
Earlier this year I hosted a “Women of Many Hats” tea party, hoping to get better acquainted with my neighbors while chasing the winter blues. On the invitations I asked my guests to wear “silly or serious hats” — only if they wanted to — just to keep things from getting too stuffy. Surprisingly, the majority arrived wearing hats — beautiful hats, crazy hats, lushly feathered hats, vintage hats. Just as I’d hoped, the hats lightened the mood of the party and launched some lively conversations.
One guest said she wondered why we didn’t wear our hats more often.
“We’re victims of what’s in fashion,” another answered. “Not many people are wearing hats now, so I just don’t feel comfortable putting one on.” I knew how she felt, as I own several hats but rarely gather enough courage to wear one unless I’m attending a costume party.
The fact that few of us wear hats, I think, is another sign that Americans have lost their flair for romance and mystery. These days, we have no problem baring our hearts (and sundry other parts) in public. Choosing comfort over formality, some of us even wear shorts and blue jeans to church.
In honor of Easter Sunday, though, I might muster the nerve to wear one of my vintage hats to church. For old times’ sake. – Cindy La Ferle (March 28, 1997)
– Top photo: One of several vintage hats from my collection. This one reminds me of the ones my Scottish grandmother wore in the 1960s, and is one of my favorites. Photo by Cindy La Ferle –
Cindy La Ferle on March 10th, 2013
Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” ~From “The Wonder Years”
Several years ago, I decided to write a St. Patrick’s Day column about my mother’s beloved Grandpa Finney, the son of an Irish immigrant.* I knew he was a moderately successful watercolor artist — and one of the most eccentric characters perched on our family tree — but I needed more material for my piece.
Turning to Mom for help, I asked her to jot down a few memories of her grandfather. Thrilled by the invitation, she gathered a handful of vintage family photographs and got to work. Her four-page letter recounted poignant stories of how Grandpa Finney struggled to make a living as a commercial illustrator during the Depression, working such long hours that he’d often fall asleep at his drafting table.
I only wish I had asked my mother to do this more often. In recent years, vascular dementia has robbed or altered most of her memories, and she has no living relatives to share any family anecdotes left untold.
Since then, I’ve come to believe that our life stories are the most valuable legacies we can leave our loved ones — and that it’s never too early to start writing them down.
Once you commit to the project, you’ll want to create a “memoir file” in your computer. Inspiration is unpredictable, so make a habit of keeping your favorite pen and a notebook handy, too. But before you begin, it’s important to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.
“Memoir isn’t the summary of a life, it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph is selective in its composition,” William Zinsser explains in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial).
In other words, your autobiography would document your entire life, starting with your earliest memories and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, such as the summer your uncle taught you how to operate his tractor before you were old enough to drive, or the year you were diagnosed with breast cancer.
I encourage students in my writing workshops to choose memoir over autobiography. It’s much easier to write about one key experience at a time, whether your goal is a book-length memoir or a series of short personal essays.
Here are a few tips to help you mine some memorable treasure:
- Make a list of life-changing events, large and small. Put a check by the ones you’ll want to write about first.
- Hush your inner critic and give yourself permission to write freely. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after you’ve written a first draft.
- Explore your stash of souvenirs and heirlooms. Choose one, then write an essay about how you acquired it and what it means to you. (If you plan to pass the item along to a loved one, include a copy of your piece.)
- Use a family recipe as a prompt and delve into the memories it stirs. Your Italian grandmother’s spicy eggplant Parmesan, for instance, is redolent of old-country stories and celebrations.
- Grab a box of colored pencils and draw a map of your childhood bedroom. Write about your favorite toys and the pals who visited.
- Interview the elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a love song to a war story. Record the interview.
- Be a master of detail. Use proper names and employ all of your senses when you write. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles.
- Avoid aimless rambling; make a point and arrive at a conclusion. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts your wisdom, advice or a life lesson.
As Saul Bellow once wrote, “Memories keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” When we commit our stories to the page, we’re often surprised to discover that our “ordinary” lives are richer than we’d realized. We renew our appreciation for everything we’ve inherited, earned, or lost along the way – including our eccentric relatives. – Cindy La Ferle
– This column was originally published in Prime magazine (formerly Michigan Senior Living) last year. My column appears bimonthly in the magazine. Watch for the next issue in the April 7 edition of the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. –
*The St. Patrick’s Day column, titled “My Wild Irish Relative,” is included in my essay collection, Writing Home. Photo shown above: A watercolor painting by Russell P. Finney, given to my parents on their wedding day.
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