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Diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's Disease in his late 40s, one man has dedicated the rest of his life to erasing the stigma associated with those living with this disease. Though Brian LeBlanc is in stage four of his disease, he not only lives independently but travels the country to inspire those diagnosed and their caregivers. Brian works tirelessly to create a world where those with Alzheimer's disease are empowered to not just live, but to live well. Brian spoke with Coming of Age to provide insight on his journey to acceptance both from others, and himself.
"I know you may not remember, but...," are words often said to me before telling me something or being asked a question.
"So, how's he doing?" are words said to someone when I'm standing right there. Friends, family, acquaintances automatically assume I can't understand or reply because I have Alzheimer's, so they ask whoever I am with at the time.
"You have Alzheimer's? Yeah right! I get Alzheimer's when I drink!" These words were said to me in a local retail shop when the person didn't believe I looked the part and made a joke about it.
In all of these instances, I was dismissed, I was shoved in a corner as if I didn't matter. Why is that? Because Alzheimer's is one of the most, if not the most, misunderstood diseases in the world today.
You see, we ask that you see us and not the disease. Alzheimer's DOES NOT define us. It is not who we are, it's just something that we have. I'll give you an example of what it's like living with Alzheimer's. Imagine your most obnoxious relative (we all have one) comes to visit at Christmas. Before you know it, it's Easter and he is still sleeping on your couch, irritating the hell out of you every single day! If someone should be shoved into a corner and ignored, it's that guy!
This is what Alzheimer's is like. Each day, we wake up and, like the obnoxious relative, our disease starts increasingly irritating us. It does this by causing us to forget our words, causing us to lose our balance so we fall, and causing us to the forget names of our acquaintances, our friends, our family, our loved ones.
Living with Alzheimer's is not how I envisioned my retired life to be. I had no idea that by the age of 53, I would be forced into retirement because I couldn't work anymore.
Once diagnosed, I received some very good advice about the permanence of sharing my news. I was told that "once you put it out there, you can't take it back." When I started telling family and friends about my diagnosis, they started to disappear.
Phone calls stopped coming in and weren't returned; it was like I had the plague. My two oldest brothers even accused me of faking my disease. Of course, they didn't say that to me; they told my sister, who passed it along to me. I didn't understand why I was being shunned.
Lisa Genova, the author of Still Alice, wrote the following in the forward of a book written by a very good friend of mine, Greg O'Brien: "We're all terrified of Alzheimer's. This fortress of fear, shame, stigma, alienation and isolation that surrounds Alzheimer's today is not unlike what we saw with cancer 40 to 50 years ago. We didn't even say the word 'cancer.' Instead we called it 'the big C' in hushed voices. But something changed. We began talking openly about cancer. We began wearing ribbons and walking to raise awareness. Now, we have treatments for cancer, we have cancer survivors. Right now, we have no Alzheimer's survivors!"
These words resonated with me because I had a front row seat as it took my grandfather away. I also watched as it took his daughter, my mother, away. Now, I have a disease that I'm going to die with because there's no way to slow it down or take it away. But, I'm okay with that, and I've made peace with it.
Now I fight against my disease. I may not be a crime fighter, but I am a stigma fighter. I don't fight with physical force. Instead, I use my words to bring Alzheimer's awareness and education to anyone who is willing to listen. Whether it be to just one person, 100 or 1,000, my message is the same: don't count us out!
I now live a life where I take care of myself. I know several other people who also have Alzheimer's who, like me, are living by themselves and they do it quite well. This is something that the majority of society doesn't understand. People ask me, how can someone with Alzheimer's live alone? Two words: quite well! When you have no other alternative, you make it work.
Don't count us out just because we have a disease that affects our brain and makes us forget things. We're still us inside. We may not be able to remember things from the day before, but we can still live in the moment with you. We can still enjoy life, laugh, go out to dinner, go to a movie. We're still alive so instead of disengaging from us, engage us. Empower us. Enable us to be present with you.
I only have one life - this life. It's not exactly how I envisioned it, but it is what it is. It may sound strange, but nothing happens by chance. I firmly believe I was meant to live this life to call attention to this incredibly misunderstood disease called Alzheimer's!
I thank you for reading my words and I hope you too feel empowered to erase the stigma. I have vowed in the memory of my grandfather and my mother to continue my advocacy for as long as I am able. When I reach the point where I can longer advocate effectively, I know that I will pass the baton to a newer and younger generation.
In the meantime, don't try to shove me in the corner as if I didn't matter. If you try, I won't let you, because nobody puts me in a corner!
My name is Brian LeBlanc and I have Alzheimer's, but it doesn't have me!
Former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator, Bob Graham is a public servant for the ages. In his four decades of elected public service and over a decade of citizen political involvement, Bob Graham has tirelessly fought for the citizens of Florida across a spectrum of issues including education, the environment, the elderly, water conservation, civic engagement and more.
Born and raised on a dairy farm in South Florida, Graham jokes that he was born into politics attending his father's political rallies while still in the womb and being born on November 9, 1936, one week after his father was elected to the Florida Senate.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Graham returned to his home in what is now Miami Lakes and won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. A lifelong Democrat, Graham was part of a progressive group of Democrats who focused on civil rights, the environment, public education and more. Those same principles endured and even guided Graham as he served as the 38th governor of Florida from 1979 to 1987 and a United States Senator from 1987 to 2005.
A signature element of his 1978 gubernatorial campaign was Graham's work days during which he trained and worked 100 ordinary jobs, laboring at everything from changing bedpans and cleaning invalids in a nursing home to wielding blowtorches as a steelworker and going without sleep as a long-haul trucker. Graham continued the workdays as governor and then as a U.S. Senator, working more than 400 workdays in his political career.
As a U.S. Senator, Graham focused on domestic issues like Everglades restoration, immigration and off-shore drilling and was considered a leading expert on foreign policy and intelligence. During his last term, he was named chairman on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2010, Senator Graham served as Co-Chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Graham's passion for public service is evident in his work with the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, which serves as a training ground for the next generation of Sunshine State leaders.
Graham has been married to his wife, Adele for nearly 60 years. They have four children and 11 grandchildren, with whom they enjoy spending their retirement. Their daughter, Gwen Graham, is following in her father's footsteps - she is running for Governor of Florida in the 2018 elections.
Coming of Age had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Bob Graham about his upbringing, his accomplishments, and the importance of public service.
COA: A lot of people know about your political achievements and we will talk about those, but first, I wanted to know a little bit about your upbringing. I understand you grew up on a cattle farm in south Florida. What was your boyhood like?
BG: Well, if I could start a little earlier than that even, my mother whose name was Hilda Simmons was born in Freeport in Walton County and grew up in DeFuniak Springs. Her father was a country doctor. As a teenager, automobiles were still in their initial stages. She used to be the one who cranked the car and was the amateur mechanic for her father when he needed to get to his patients who frequently lived in remote rural areas of the Florida panhandle. She married my father in 1936. My dad's first wife had passed away from cancer and they had three children. The understanding was that my mother would raise the three children and they wouldn't have any children together. Well, that lasted about 40 days. She got pregnant and I was the happy result of that. My father was in the cattle business and was having a lot of difficulty. Primarily, he was in the dairy business and later he got into the beef cattle operation. He was having a lot of trouble with a group in Hialeah that was beating up his truck drivers, stealing milk and doing other things like that. He came to the conclusion that the only way to deal with that corruption problem was to run for the state senate at a time when the legislature had virtually complete control over all local government. He was elected and my mother said my political instincts came from her spending her whole pregnancy going to political rallies - I got a womb affliction for politics. Anyway, dad was elected and he served for eight years. One of the things he did was abolish the city of Hialeah, which was where most of the corruption was located. Then, he reestablished the city of Hialeah. He named the mayor and all the members of the city council in order to ensure they were honest people and they cleaned up the corruption in Hialeah. That was one of his proudest accomplishments. I grew up in a family that was both in the cattle business and in politics. By the time I was college age, the town had grown out close to our dairy pasture and we decided to try to develop our land as a new town, which is an English-Scandinavian design concept where you develop a total community for people to live, work, and have their religious, educational and commercial activities. So, we have been working on the new town, which is called Miami Lakes, since 1962 and we're very proud of it.
COA: So would you say that's the first planned community in Florida or were there others before that?
BG: There were others. For instance, not far from Miami Lakes there's one of the earliest planned communities in Florida called Coral Gables, but we are one of the late 20th century new towns. We are one of the newest and probably one of the largest.
COA: As a student in high school you were very successful - you won best all-around boy from the Miami Herald and served as president of the student body. What motivated you to be a successful student?
BG: Well, I'm certain it was the expectations set by my parents. I can't ever remember my parents saying, "Bob, we expect you to be a good student," but they set their own personal example - my mother had been a school teacher before she met my dad and my father was an engineer. They were both well-educated and they sort of let me know that I was expected to be a good student. I enjoyed school. I ended up going to school in that town of Hialeah and then I went to the University of Florida, where my two older brothers had attended and graduated. While at the University of Florida, I was aware of what was going on and wanted to be actively involved in the development of Miami Lakes. I was convinced the best graduate education would be to go to law school, so I went to Harvard where my older brother had also gone. To the extent that I could, I emphasized city planning in my legal studies and then came back in 1962 after I graduated and have been involved in the Miami Lakes business to the extent I could. I was very involved up until the time I was elected governor in 1978. I have been less so since that time. While at the University of Florida, I met a beautiful brunette and we started dating and fell in love. During my senior year and her junior year, we were married. After I graduated, we moved up to Cambridge and lived there for our first three years of marriage. We now have four daughters and the oldest of which, Gwen Graham, is a member of Congress for the second congressional district, which is basically Panama City to Tallahassee, and she is now running for governor. So we are very excited and doing everything we can to help her achieve her goal, which I think would be a very positive step for Florida to have its first woman governor and one who is as talented as I know her to be.
COA: How involved are you in your daughter's campaign?
BG: I'm doing whatever she asks me to do. I do media visits - in the last ten days, I've been on three or four radio or television shows and visited editorial boards. I have also been involved in fundraising. I have some connections that go back to my political years that have been very supportive of Gwen's campaign, but whatever Gwen asks I try to do.
COA: It would be interesting to have a woman in the Governor's office.
BG: I think it's more than just a gender issue. I believe women have something in their DNA that makes them less strident and more willing to try and find common ground. That's what democracy is at its best; people who bring their own life experiences and expectations to the table and out of many comes a common set of directions that become the way we operate our public schools, the way we protect our environment and the way we increase economic opportunities for our people. All those are the result of compromise and I think women are better at it than men.
COA: We need compromise and understanding in these political times.
BG: I said at the beginning of our conversation that we're undergoing some really major changes in who are as Americans. We have a population that's growing older and more diverse. For a long time, Americans have defined Americans as being Caucasian, but within your lifetime, Caucasian will be a plurality but not a majority. So we are learning to live with a much more diverse population. All those things are going to require government to help us get through this transition - from what America has been to what America is becoming and we haven't done a very good job of it, in my opinion. We're going to need some people, and I think many of them will be women, who can help us maneuver this very significant transition to a new America.
COA: Can we go back now and talk about your "workdays?" I just love the idea. What inspired you to do that and what did you learn from them?
BG: First, let me say that Gwen has also picked up that part of our family tradition and she has done almost 60 workdays. I think she is finding them to have the same value that they did to me. Workdays were the result of a series of accidents. I was in the state senate in the 1970s and was chairman of the education committee. In that position, we were holding our pre-legislative session in schools around the state. I became aware that civics was frequently not taught and even more frequently, if taught, was not taught very well. I gave a speech to a group of civic teachers about my observations. They were not happy about what I said. One of the teachers got up and said, "I'm sick to death of you politicians telling us how to do our teaching better. You don't know what you're talking about, and the only way to find out is to actually go in the classroom see what it's like to deal with indifferent students, parents who won't show up for parent-teacher conferences, overly bureaucratic school administrations and all those laws that you people pass that we've got to follow." She also said, "I challenge you to come in the classroom and see what it's like." Thinking she had in mind a couple hours on Tuesday afternoon, I said yes. Well, when she called me back, she had a different idea. She asked me to come to Carol City Senior High School, which was an almost inner-city school, on the day after Labor Day and report to room 208 at 8 o'clock in the morning. "You will be teaching 12th grade civics for the next 18 weeks," she said. Well, that was a little more than I had signed up for, but I figured I had accepted her challenge and I was going to do it. So, with the help of a young social studies teacher at Carol City, we developed a curriculum built around the question, "What does a citizen need to know to make democracy work for them?" That is the topic that we taught for 18 weeks. It was a life-transforming experience, as the teacher had said it would be. It changed my understanding of what it was like being a teacher in a big urban high school. I also learned the importance of learning by doing. It's a much more impactful experience if you are learning as you are actually engaged in an activity, such as teaching, and I got the idea that there were probably a lot of other things I could learn about Florida by working directly. I couldn't do it for 18 weeks, but I could do it at least for a full day. That was the beginning - that was work day number one and I did a total of 408 over a 30 year period. It was one of the most important parts of my life because it shaped so much of the rest of my life. I think it's a great preparation for public office because it puts you directly in contact with the people who are affected by the decisions you make and it's a tremendous exposure to the real world.
COA: Tell me about the Community Care for the Elderly program that you helped to create. Why do you have a passion for helping seniors and what do you think are the most important issues facing seniors now?
BG: I will have to give a lot of credit to my wife Adele. Her father, who passed away in the late 70s, did not have a good period of life at the end. One of the reasons was because what he really wanted to do was to be at home with his wife in surroundings that were familiar to him, but he wasn't able to be independent. He needed help with dressing, feeding, all the requirements of life, and his wife was not capable of doing that. So, he ended up in a nursing home. My wife came away from the experience that she had with her father and her mother with a feeling that there should be another alternative. She thought that alternative should be that older people who aren't fully independent should be able to live in their home and have the kind of support that they need come to them in their home, rather than they have to go into an institution. That was somewhat the genesis of the idea for Community Care of the Elderly. When I was governor, it became one of my highest priorities. The legislature adopted it in the early 80s and it was a very flourishing program. One of the commitments that Gwen has made in her campaign is that, as governor, she will restore a strong and expanding Community Care program that will provide those services that allow seniors to have the dignity of living in their home, but give to the caregiver in the home the support that he or she needs in order to carry out the activities that the senior is no longer able to do.
COA: How do you feel about the current status of Democratic policies in both the state of Florida and the nation?
BG: If you mean Democratic policies such as expanding Medicaid, I and Gwen are strong advocates for that. It's hard to think of a reason why Florida should continue to be one of the holdouts to a program that has been 100 percent financed by the federal government. Now there is going to be some state financial involvement, but it will still be overwhelmingly paid for by the federal government, which means our tax dollars are going for the programs and yet Floridians are not being given the opportunity to take advantage of expanding Medicaid. This is particularly important for older citizens because the largest segment of Medicaid in Florida is services for older Americans, such as programs like Community Care of the Elderly or, if necessary, various forms of institutional care. For elderly who were well prepared for retirement, then they had the good fortune of living so long that they used their retirement early and have reached a point where they had to have some help in order to be able to either have assistance in their home through Community Care or be a resident in an institution.
COA: How about on a national level? Where do you see the Democratic Party currently and what do you feel the Democratic Party needs to do in order to win back the American voter?
BG: I think the whole country is undergoing a major transition. Americans are getting older. In Florida today, one out of five is over the age of 65. The nation will look like Florida in the next 25 years. I think that the Democratic Party needs to focus on those things that will ensure opportunities. That means education quality - education from kindergarten through high school, then the opportunity for affordable access to higher education either in skills training or an academic degree. That's going to be a major challenge for Florida.
COA: How do you feel about young people's engagement in civil discourse, especially recently with the students from the Parkland school shooting in Florida?
BG: Parkland goes back to that experience at Carol City High School where I have been a fervent advocate of civic education for a variety of reasons. Civics education was virtually stripped from curriculum not only in Florida but across the country in the 1970s and stayed that way until recently. In 2010 Florida adopted what's called the Sandra Day O'Connor Act, which restored civics throughout the K-12 curriculum, with particular emphasis on the middle school grades. Students have to take a formal course in civics in either the 7th or 8th grade. It's interesting that those students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had been in the first group of students when they were in the 7th and 8th grade to have taken civics. They went to a high school that also had an active civics program and I believe the way they responded to that tragedy reflects that. In a number of other school shootings, students grieve and show their sadness, but it didn't result in any actions that might actually improve the safety of students. At Stoneman Douglas, they had enough confidence in themselves based on what they knew were effective techniques that citizens could use to make government work for them. The Florida legislature, for the first time in many years, took the first step to make guns safer in Florida. You now have to be 21 to get access to a gun and they tightened up the background checks and other things that will be respectful of the second amendment, but at the same time recognize that there are legitimate and constitutional steps that will make students in school and the public in whatever place they find themselves safer from the kind of savagery that hit Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day. When I retired from the Senate and was thinking about what I was going to do next, I decided that one of my three or four priorities, with frankly my first priority being to spend as much time as I could with my eleven grandchildren, would be to try to restore civics to the public schools of Florida and the country. To do that, I've written two books on effective citizenship. The current book is called America the Owner's Manual: You Can Fight City Hall and Win, which is being used in a number of schools today. Second, at the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Service, we are training the next generation of citizens how to be effective and hopefully encouraging some of those students to think about public service as a major part of their life. So, those are some of the things that I'm doing in the area of civic engagement.
COA: You're also the chairman of the Florida Conservation Coalition. Tell me about your work with that organization and why it's important?
BG: The FCC, the Florida Conservation Coalition, was the result of what happened in 2011. Florida, beginning in the 60s, had started to develop some very effective policies on both water and land use. We're nationally recognized as a leader and we should be because we are facing such a constant growth in our population. In my lifetime, Florida has gone from a state of about one million to a state of now almost 21 million and in the 2011 session of the legislature, most of that structure designed to protect our land and water was abolished. Many of us felt that was a major mistake and decided that rather than the environmental organizations each working on their own, which had shown to be an ineffective strategy, that we should create a coalition of organizations as well as individual Floridians who were concerned about this. The outgrowth of that was the Florida Conservation Commission. Our greatest accomplishment to date was in 2014 when we put on the ballot a constitutional amendment to restore the states land acquisitions program, which had been an important part of that period from the 1960s up until this century. The state had been supporting it at a level of about $380 million a year and some of the most beautiful parts of the Florida panhandle that are now available for public use were the result of the funding available through that program. But, it had been just about shut down by the actions of the legislature in 2011. We went to the people and by a 75 percent vote, Floridians restored the land acquisition program. We've been working since then to get the legislature to do what the people demanded that they do. We struck out for two or three years and finally this year, in 2018, the legislature appropriated $100 million - still well below what it had been historically at the end of the 20th century, but at least better than the zeros that had proceeded it for most of the period of Governor Scott's administration. We hope to build on that success in future legislatures and again my daughter is fully committed to restoring the environmental programs, particularly the land acquisition program, to where they were in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and the first part of this century under both Republican and Democratic state governments.
COA: How do you feel the Florida State Legislature has changed since you've served and maybe the state of Florida in general?
BG: First the legislature - I served there for 12 years and my father before me for eight, so I had a lot of experience in and around the legislature. I don't think that some of the institutional changes that have occurred have been beneficial, particularly the term limits. When I went into the legislature in 1966, there were a number of people who had been there for 10 years or more. People like Reubin Askew, who represented Pensacola, within the state senate at that time, people like Verle Pope from St. Augustine. They helped to give a balance, bringing with them their own personal experiences in how the state had evolved and how the legislature had reacted to that evolution. I think the current legislature misses having that group of experienced people to help guide and mentor the younger members. I think another thing that concerns me is there are some important issues in Florida that require the legislature to look beyond the specific district that they represent to what's in the statewide interests. One of the most important of those is our education system, which requires a statewide vision of what's important.
COA: You were the cochair of the National Commission for the BP oil spill and offshore drilling. What are some basic things you think need to happen to protect the Gulf and Florida from things like this?
BG: First, it's easier to say things that shouldn't happen. There should not be drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico adjacent to Florida. From virtually the beginning of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf, Florida has rejected it and has done so because there was an awareness that our future was going to be in areas that were in conflict with offshore oil drilling. In the panhandle, it's not only the tourist industry, which comes in large part because of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but also the military. The military uses the Gulf as a very valuable training place for both the Navy and the Air Force. And those activities are more important for Florida and the nation than whatever might be gained by pumping oil off the coast of Florida. The second thing is because we are so close to states that do sanction drilling off their coast, it's important to us that offshore drilling is done with the highest standards of safety. We saw in the BP oil spill, something that occurred off the mouth of the Mississippi River, and what state ended up having the most economic damage from the oil spill? Second only to Louisiana, was Florida. We're kind of the downstream state for oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, so we have a big interest in avoiding those spills by seeing that the drilling is done at the highest standards of protection and safety. As we speak there are proposals to roll back many of the safety measures that were adopted after BP precisely to implement the lessons we learned from BP, so I'm concerned. We need to vote to continue to avoid drilling off the coast of Florida and second, to ensure that when our neighbors allow drilling, it's done at world-class standards of safety.
COA: What is the one thing the average citizen can do to really be involved at the local level and make a difference in their community?
BG: One is to be aware of what's happening around them, which means among other things accessing media like your magazine, the newspaper and local television stations. These outlets alert citizens to what's happening in their communities, their schools and their universities. If so alerted, people see something that they find unacceptable, then they need to have the skills of effective citizenship in order to do something about it. Frankly, that's what the book America the Owner's Manual is about. It gives a step-by-step discussion using case studies of where other citizens have encountered a problem that they wanted to solve or an opportunity they wanted to take advantage of, and explains how they went about doing it.
COA: Is there anything else you are working on that our readers might be interested in?
BG: Well, I mentioned that when I retired I thought through what I wanted to spend my time on and you've touched on three of the things. One is grandchildren, second is civics education and third is the environment. The fourth item - I had been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the 9/11 tragedy and I felt because of what I knew, what I know, there was a lot of information that has not been made available to the American people that should be made available. So I've been working to get as much of that released as possible. There was a document that became kind of a symbol of information that had been withheld called the "28 Pages," which was basically about the Saudis' involvement in 9/11, in particular, the funding. I've spent a lot of time in my retirement working to get the federal government to give the American people more information about an event that has shaped much of America since it occurred in September of 2001.
COA: Do you see the release of those papers as likely?
BG: Eventually it'll happen. I don't think we should wait. It's been 17 years and I don't think we should wait another 17 years. There are several places where that information might be made available. I'm involved with a Freedom of Information Act effort to get information about a situation that occurred in our own state, where hijackers and Saudis had apparently collaborated. The FBI has stated that there were many connections between the hijackers and the prominent Saudis, but they, the FBI, have been unwilling to release the details of what that many connections meant and what steps are being taken to see that it won't happen in the future.
COA: You've been married for nearly 60 years, is that correct?
BG: February 2, 2019, will be 60 years, yes.
COA: What do you see is the key to a successful marriage? How do you make a marriage last for 60 years?
BG: You have to understand that you and your partner are both undergoing constant change and be sensitive to that and accommodate that. I think that the period in the last 10 years has been one of the best 10 years of our 60 years of marriage, and I expect the next 10 years to be even better.
COA: Is that because retirement gives you more time to be together?
BG: I guess more time and more opportunity to do things with your spouse. As I say, one of my priorities is to spend time with our 11 grandchildren, who are scattered up and down the east coast from Boston to Miami. That's been a tremendous source of joy and happiness.
Yoga and meditation offer a variety of benefits for seniors ranging from aiding with arthritis, improving cognitive health for those who suffer from, and preventing in the development of dementia. It also offers individuals a way to stay active more easily without threat of serious injury as is prevalent with traditional exercise.
Arthritis requires individuals to stay active to reduce joint pain and stiffness, however, exercise can seem like a daunting task when suffering from such an ailment. There is also the concern of sustaining an injury or worsening joint pain while participating in traditional exercise. Yoga can help alleviate these symptoms without causing the practitioner to undergo any strenuous physical activities. With poses such as "Forearm Downward Dog," an arthritis-friendly take on a classic yoga pose, and "Cobbler's Pose," a pose that opens the hips and allows the individual to take the time to massage their feet. Yoga also improves the individual's flexibility reduce inflammation.
The benefits of practicing yoga extend to dementia as well. Chronic stress and the associated hormones negatively affect brain structure and increase the likelihood of developing dementia and Alzheimer's. Yoga reduces stress hormones and inflammatory factors while helping individuals learn how to cope with stress. Yoga poses help individuals focus on breathing, movement, and concentration. These "brain exercises" help the brain form new connections and repair from injuries by stimulating neuroplasticity. Meditation can also aid in the improvement of connectivity. Yoga and meditation have been used in programs to improve symptoms for dementia sufferers, along with other exercise and music therapy. Poses such as the previously mentioned "Cobbler's Pose," which can aid in concentration, and "Bird Dog," which aids in concentration as well as helps the individual utilize the abdominal and back muscles, are some of the many poses that can help with dementia and Alzheimer's, as well as their prevention.
Breath Yoga and Wellness Center, local to Pensacola, offers many classes that can help seniors with health issues such as arthritis and dementia. Chair Yoga is offered weekly at both locations and is recommended for seniors and individuals recovering from surgery, injuries, etc. Yin Yoga is another class that would greatly benefit seniors without requiring a lot of rigorous physical activity. Yin Yoga is offered weekly at the downtown location and three times a week at the scenic location.
Creating stories together crafts a unique experience between two people or, in some cases, two people and a large audience. Improvisational theatre is a form of spontaneous and unscripted storytelling. Improv can be a tool used for actors to play and grow within their characters while rehearsing for a play or can be a standalone performance act. These comedic performances can include a variety of improv games, from mining and guessing mysteries, to incorporating wacky audience suggestions into new scenes. Though there are no lines to learn, actors in an improv troupe must put in a great deal of work to build strong relationships and scenes together.
Debi Dunkerly worked in the social work field for many years and has ran Pensacola's local improv troupe, Improvable Cause, for the past 20. According to Dunkerly, the principles that guide the improv experience are almost identical to the tools and tips suggested for caregivers of Alzheimer's patients. Improv's golden rule is that if you work to make your scene partner look good, the scene will work out and you too will look good. Caregivers, in a similar way, focus on providing muchneeded care for their loved ones so they can feel good and have a higher quality of life. Dunkerly shares that many of improv's guiding principles have a place in the caregiver's toolbox.
The first rule of improv that an actor learns is to always say, "Yes, and." This rule states that the actor must always say yes to what his scene partner has presented and build upon it. This simple exercise can look like this:
First Actor: I had a sandwich today.
Second Actor: Yes, and it smelled amazing.
First Actor: Yes, and it tasted great, too!
While this exchange is simple, the "Yes, and" instinct is a vital one for all improv actors to have. It empowers the actors to be confident in knowing that what they have to say will be accepted and useful for someone else. Using this practice in conversations as a caregiver creates a positive environment in which the loved one is confident in their conversations, at a time in life when that is vital.
Without a script and plot mapped out, it can be difficult for your scene partner to determine what emotion or idea in the scene you may be working up to. Newer or even advanced actors may aim to make an angry face, just to be told, "You don't have to be sad." A practice that actors may use in an improv scene is to label the emotion that they are acting out verbally to make it easier for their scene partner to pick up on and work with. Those with Alzheimer's may battle managing and expressing different emotions both within themselves and others around them. Labeling that emotion and saying, "I know you are mad about this..." or, "I am sad because..." helps your loved one identify the emotion to begin to work with it.
During a game asking for audience suggestions to set the scene, someone in the back row may shout out that the actor's home has been destroyed by a tornado. The scene could open on the actor wallowing in the terrible news and lamenting at his bad luck. While this may be realistic, it is not a lot of fun for the audience to watch. A good improv actor will reframe the problem and add an interesting twist to allow the scene to change and grow, such as, "I am so glad my house was destroyed by that twister and I found all of this gold buried underneath." The reframing of different details creates space to have fun.
With Alzheimer's, managing one's emotions and reframing unfavorable situations is not always possible in the moment. A caregiver's role often includes stepping up in these moments not to agree that the situation is frustrating, but to help reframe it. By acknowledging the situation and adding positive comments on it, the caregiver can calm their loved one and empower them to take control of the situation.
An improv scene consists of a few people who have no idea what is going on that need to work together creatively to build something special and memorable. Two actors in a scene are actively reaching out to each other with new ideas. If one actor says, "My dog grew a third ear after eating my TV remote," and the other responds with, "That didn't happen to your dog," or even, "You don't have a dog," there is an awkward freeze. The first actor, blocked by the denial, has nowhere to go from there, and the audience can sense the tension while he is embarrassed and looking for something else to say.
Those living with Alzheimer's disease feel frustration and disappointment with their lack of memory. Loved ones correcting them and becoming upset at this causes even more grief at their condition. As a caregiver, blocking and rejecting your loved one's stories or clearly untrue details can be hurtful and confusing.
Accept New Realities
An improv scene about a husband and wife can go from the two of them arguing at the dinner table to the husband slaying a dragon to show his wife that he can protect their treasure when they move to Mars. If the actors work together to find a beginning, middle and end to their story, anything is possible. The mimed dragon fight could be a rousing and Oscar-worthy performance, and the audience never would have seen it if the scene partner refused to accept the new reality. If she had shut down the actor's outlandish ideas, this art would not have formed.
Reality is a difficult concept with Alzheimer's disease. It can be incredibly hard to accept that a spouse or parent is losing precious memories. For someone living with Alzheimer's, reality can shift and change. Your loved one may come out with things that seem silly and impossible, but avoid shutting those ideas down. Instead, jump into their reality and keep them company in it. If your father insists he was a general in the Civil War, ask him to tell you about his favorite battle he fought and accept the reality that is currently true to him.
Avoid Asking Questions
One improv principle that caregivers should differ from is to avoid asking questions. To ask a scene partner what they did last night puts them on the spot to come up with something and can be unfair, as suddenly your scene partner is doing all the work. Likewise, vague openended questions may be frustrating for someone with Alzheimer's. However, it is encouraged to ask leading questions. Dunkerly suggests not just coming home and asking, "What did you do today," but adding on to the question with details; for example, "Did you see anything good on television today? I saw a story on Neil Diamond. Do you have a favorite Neil Diamond song?" Add details to the scene until it sparks an idea for your loved one to add to. Asking leading questions allows them to participate in the conversation while having somewhere to start.
Dunkerly suggests engaging your loved one by challenging them to a storytelling game, with the caregiver acting as both the audience and supporting scene partner. This exercise can be tailored to fit any stage of Alzheimer's. The story can be about anything, from asking your mother to tell you about the day she met your father, to asking your wife about her favorite childhood fishing trip with her brothers, to asking your dad about his first time going to a jazz concert. Adding details to the prompt is key to engagement. Feel free to ask clarifying questions along the way that include guiding comments such as, "Wasn't there a broken fishing pole?" While you should help guide them in the storytelling, it is important to listen intently to pick up on any cues that may be important. The structure of the story is vital, but not the accuracy. The most important part of this exercise is to accept their reality without correcting or blocking them. The goal of this exercise is to simply tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, without getting lost somewhere along the way.
Doing this exercise daily will give you a good idea of the coherence level and progression of your loved one. More importantly, the exercise will open a dialogue and create a stronger bond. The fluidity of this exercise can bring up incredible stories of your loved one's life that you may not have thought to ask about.
Another exercise Dunkerly suggests is a simple process miming game. As Alzheimer's progresses, a person may struggle to remember old processes and procedures, such as cooking or even handwashing. A miming activity game can be created for any type of process with steps, as simple or as complex as you see fit. You can work together, with step one of handwashing, asking them to mime turning on the water with you, and labeling it as you do it. The next step would be to both announce that you are running your hands under the water and continue miming each step. You can even mime the steps and have your loved one guess what you are doing. This activity helps those with Alzheimer's grasp activities that they may be losing hold of. By practicing different daily processes, your loved one may feel more confident in their ability to retain knowledge of the tasks.
One thing improv actors must be wary of is losing sight of the relationship between the two characters. A scene can feature stand-up worthy jokes, but without an interesting relationship between the actors, the audience loses interest and it falls flat. The relationships between the actors in the scene are what drive the plot and provide a vehicle for stronger comedy. These improv principles can be used by caregivers to facilitate meaningful and fun interactions with those with Alzheimer's. Being a caregiver comes with a great deal of difficulties while working in an unknown new realm with a loved one. With caregiving, this is a unique time in the lives of you and your loved one. Focus on the special relationship that you have and together you can build beautiful scenes and even find comedy along the way.
Ashton Applewhite is a writer and activist who has spoken out against ageism and the culture that fosters it. Her book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, and TED Talk earned national acclaim for her argument that implicit and explicit prejudice on the basis of age is the least visible and last socially acceptable -ism. Discrimination, self-doubt, and industries built around the idea of hiding the physical effects of aging are the real problems, Applewhite argues, not the aging process. As she says, aging is living and living is aging. She talked with Coming of Age about what ageism means for society and the individual, and what we can all do to combat it.
You talk about how ageism is the last remaining socially acceptable form of prejudice. In what ways are older individuals discriminated against?
Let me first say that because we all age, ageism affects younger people, too. But because we live in a youth-obsessed society, it affects older people more, I would say age discrimination is most evident in the workforce, where it is rampant. It is often the first form of discrimination that older white men encounter. AARP recently released a study that two out of every three older job seekers report age discrimination of some sort. That is an alarming statistic. Women experience a double whammy because ageism and sexism intersect. This hits them hard because they are not only judged by age but also by appearance. There is this presupposition that if you look your age, somehow you are less valuable and less attractive.
There is a form of ageism that I think we are all hostage to, which is internalized ageism. Most of it is unconscious. One of my favorite responses to my book is, "I didn't realize how ageist I was! And how it affects my view of myself." But that's okay, because we can't challenge bias until we're aware of it. We're all ageist and we all need to do better. No judgement here.
Seventy- and eighty-year-olds have had an entire lifetime of being surrounded by negative messages about age and aging: that old people are incompetent, or ugly, or less interesting or valuable than young people. If we never challenge these stereotypes, it's easy for them to become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, as we get older we tend to blame every ache and pain on our age. And you know, maybe that ache is arthritis, but it could also be because you cooked dinner for 10 people, or moved some heavy boxes. We have to move beyond every bad thing being a function of aging.
How should our elders reengineer their minds to take pride in their aging bodies?
Well, we should set ourselves an easier goal, first off. It's a long journey from fear and denial of aging to being proud of getting older. I remember hearing about the disability movement years ago, how they were taking steps to combat ableism, and I thought it was just fantastic that they were celebrating disability as a valuable and critical part of their identities in a culture that prizes physical perfection. Disability pride! Some time later, it dawned on me that age-pride should also become a rallying cry.
So first, try to dig yourself out of denial. Accept it: we are all aging. America's hyper-capitalistic society wants us to think that every problem can be solved by buying stuff. That's what fuels the market for things like wrinkle creams and "brain games," paired with the denial-based desire to "stop the clock" at middle age. Think about how you think about aging, and why - and who benefits when aging is framed as a problem or a disease. We're all going to age, no matter how much we try to intervene with measures like hormones or surgery. And that's okay. Ask yourself if you'd rather be young all over again, if it meant you couldn't bring your memories with you and you couldn't know what you know now. Everyone says no. Even the most terrified among us has to acknowledge that we are a product of all our experiences so far, and that aging enriches us. Look, I'm not a Pollyanna about aging. There are many real challenges. But we need to be conscious of the benefits. How do you feel about being your age? What are the benefits? Would you go back? We know that there are good and bad aspects to every stage of life.
How can we help make aging more joyous experience for our older friends and family members?
All social change starts in each of us, whether you're 12 or 112. One very practical step is to make and keep friends of all ages. Age segregation is a tremendous problem. Very few Americans have close friends more than 10 years older or younger than they are - which isn't even half a generation! The most important thing you can do is to deliberately age- integrate your social circles, especially older people because our social circles tend to shrink over time. Find a younger or older person who shares your neighborhood or your hobby or is a fan of the same sports team. It'll enrich you both, enlarge both of your worlds, and reduce age discrimination in the process.
How should seniors react to explicit or implicit aging discrimination in the workplace or in other aspects of life?
Nothing changes unless we call discrimination out when we encounter it. That can be difficult if you're worried you'll lose your job if you bring it up, I get that, but age discrimination is illegal. Look at what's happening with the #MeToo movement right now. A few brave women spoke out and eventually, more and more came forward and said, "Sexual harassment has happened to me forever, it's been happening forever, and it has to stop." It became obvious that these cases of assault and discrimination weren't isolated events that women were somehow to blame for, but the result of entrenched systems of sexism and structural discrimination.
Every time someone speaks out, it gives courage to someone else. It has to start somewhere, and as awareness builds, eventually a broad social movement emerges. Change the culture. The laws will follow.
Have you seen any communities or countries that really embrace the natural aging process?
There are religious traditions around the world for which ancestor-worship is a foundation. They embrace the transient, circular nature of life and the inevitable transitions of living and dying. In India, for example, over 80 percent of people over 65 live with their families. It is just assumed that people will care for family members from birth to death, so there's no stigma around needing help, even around toileting. Imagine that! These transitions are natural and the obligations are shared and communal. But where you have consumer-driven societies where the value of an individual is tied to their conventional economic productivity, it's hard to admit that you need help or seen as shameful to depend on your family.
What do you most enjoy about aging?
I feel like I know myself better. A lot of women describe aging as liberating. You're less worried about how you appear or whether you're conforming with how you "ought" to be and you're more in tune with who you want to be. Dozens of reputable studies from the US and around the world have established that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. It's called the "U-curve of Happiness." Imagine what that curve would look like if we lived in a less ageist world, and were less brainwashed by fears that are way out of proportion to the reality. Whether or not you care about ageism, all kinds of prejudice are ascendant now. Whatever the cause that's most important to you - whether improving education or going to Mars - make sure your team is made up of both young and old - in addition to diverse colors and genders. That's not politics, that's tactics, because it will make your team more effective. And no matter what your goals happen to be, you can dismantle ageism organically by working with people of all ages to achieve them.
As our technology has become more and more advanced, it is becoming easier to combine new 'smart' technology with older tech in order to improve people's lives. One of the more common ways is in the fields of medicine and health, which has always stayed on the cutting edge of what's relevant. Coming of Age has gathered some exciting developments in senior health care that will make living your golden years even easier.
Sensor and Health Monitoring
Some health issues, like heart disease, often require constant monitoring that can be draining on its users. However, cloud based technologies have made it easier for healthcare professionals to monitor your health 24/7 and act if needed.
The company Preventice Technologies produces BodyGuardian, a non-intrusive body-worn heart monitor. It records data about your heart's activities constantly, and stores it on an Android device. From there, it uploads the information to a cloud that allows your physician or cardiologist to monitor your health. This allows your doctors to constantly monitor your treatment and health, and also allows them to act quickly should something change.
Smart device enabled monitoring and tracking is also becoming more popular. GrandCare offers a simplified touch screen computer, which allows owners to track reminders, medication, communicate with family and loved ones, and even access web-based entertainment. The GrandCare System can also be linked to other smart devices like phones or smart watches so caregivers can monitor activities, environmental sensors and more for their loved ones.
Health Apps and Trackers
With smart phones, smart watches and tablet computers becoming more common, there are hundreds of thousands of apps for any occasion - and countless ones related to health for seniors.
For seniors looking to maintain an exercise regiment, the choices are endless. Apps like My Fitness Pal, Map My Walk and Pocket Yoga help you keep a regiment, track your progress and work towards self-set goals. Combining this with a fitness tracker such as a FitBit allows you to monitor your heart rate, your calories burnt and your progress automatically - and since most smart watches are Bluetooth enabled, they work across the spectrum of smartphones.
There are also other tools that are available on the various app stores. Medisafe helps keep track of your medications, set reminders and create reports on how well you stuck to your regimen. For those who are at risk for sudden falls or other unexpected issues, Life Alert has a mobile app that allows those with Life Alert service to easily alert one of their operators if they ever need their assistance should an emergency strike.
Though it may seem handheld tech is leading the way in the health sector, traditional implanted medical devices have also made leaps and bounds due to rapid progression and integration.
Cochlear implants are becoming much more effective, and though they require minor surgery to implant, the results help alleviate hearing loss leaps and bounds past what a hearing aid can accomplish. According to Jan Janssen of Cochlear, advances to cochlear implants include dual microphones which adjust the sounds based on different listening environments; integrated wireless technology that can link to wireless microphones or smart devices; as well as hybrid electric-coustic devices that allow the benefits of both implants and hearing aids. These implants are even becoming more effective to those born with hearing loss, especially small children.
Pacemakers are also evolving, mostly thanks to the advancement of miniaturization technology that allows for device components to be produced smaller in size. The Micra Transcatheter Pacing System, made by Medtronic, is 93 percent smaller than normal pacemakers. It is so small it can be implanted directly into the heart without using any lead wires, which helps reduce the chance of infection and complication. The procedure itself only needs a catheter and does not require open- heart surgery, cutting drastically down on recovery time as well.
Technology is constantly advancing and helping improve people's lives along with it. These health technologies are only the tip of the iceberg, and even these easily accessible advances will allow seniors to live longer, healthier and happier lives.
When P.C. Wu says it's the people that make Pensacola such a wonderful place, one can't help but think that he perfectly exemplifies his own point. Truly, one of the nicest people you will ever meet, Wu is also incredibly down to earth. Born the son of Chinese immigrants, Wu grew up in Savannah, GA working in his father's Chinese restaurant for much of his young life. The first of his family to go to college, Wu really made it count, earning a bachelors, masters and doctorate from Florida State University. Wu and his wife Judi moved to Pensacola in 1977 and since then he has contributed untold hours of community and volunteer work to the community he calls home. A member of the Pensacola City Council since 2004 and a man of many accolades, Wu counts his marriage of more than 50 years, his children and grandchildren, and the impact he had on his students while teaching at the University of West Florida among his greatest achievements. He and his wife have two children, Christopher and Ashley and two grandchildren, Kai and Claire. They are active members of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church where Wu has been a chalice bearer for many years. Coming of Age had the opportunity to talk with P.C. Wu about his life, his family, and his thoughts on a life well-lived.
Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. I understand that your parents were immigrants and they had a Chinese restaurant in Savannah, GA?
I was raised in Savannah, Georgia and my father opened a Chinese restaurant there in 1930. My father came over when he was seven years old. He didn't speak a word of English. He tells me he had 25 cents, but I don't know how in the world he even had 25 cents. He came by himself. He had relatives that were already in Jacksonville. He learned how to cook. He started as an apprentice and ended up opening the first Chinese restaurant in Savannah. It was open from 1930 to about 1993. It was a long time. He ran it until he retired and then my sister and brother ran it for a while. It was a very hard way to make a living. In the early days, he was open at least 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The only two days he closed was Christmas and New Year. It was very hard work. They cooked on woks - they had three of them and he was the only cook in the beginning. The kitchen wasn't air conditioned and the woks were gas fired, so imagine cooking on those three woks for 14 hours a day. I look back at it and I'm amazed how the man did it. Back then, if you didn't work, you didn't eat. My father came from Canton and the restaurant was named after the city.
My mother was from Shanghai. She came in the 50s. She came over to marry my biological father and he passed away. So, she was a single mother raising me. Single mothers are absolutely amazing. You have to picture that this woman didn't speak English very well and so everything was harder for her. She moved to Savannah when she remarried - to my adoptive father. She worked in the restaurant with him, but her hobby was helping about 100 to 150 people legally emigrate to the U.S. She did that sitting in the restaurant after it closed with her Chinese-American dictionary looking up every word she needed to fill out the forms. She did this for so many people and she did it all without ever charging anyone a penny. She did it mainly because she loved this country so much and she wanted other people to have the same benefits that she felt like she had gotten. She was given a gold medal from the DAR, the Bar Association of Savannah gave her a Liberty Bell Award, and if you go to the federal district courthouse in Savannah, there is a bronze plaque in her honor hanging there.
I spent a lot of years working in the restaurant. I worked in the back prepping food and mopping floors, busing tables, you name it. People now ask me if I get tired with everything that I do and I say, "No - not after having that background and working like that, nothing has been really hard after working for my father."
What was your boyhood like?
As a little child, the first thing I discovered was the public library. It was about five blocks from the restaurant. The library to me was like getting a key to the world. You're able to get a book and the next thing you know you are traveling the world and you are learning that other people have difficulties and hard lives as well. One of my early joys was reading. One thing that had a tremendous influence on me when I was young was that I joined the Boy Scouts. I absolutely loved the Boy Scouts. I became a member of the Order of the Arrow. It's a group within the Boy Scouts. They take you out and let you spend a night by yourself and it's based on Indian rituals and they do Indian dance. I became an Eagle Scout and I look back at those days and I think that had a tremendous influence on how I developed. When I was young I also joined DeMolay. They are part of the Masonic group. I later became a Mason and a Scottish Rite Mason and then ended up being a Shriner and 32nd Degree Mason.
How do you think growing up the son of an immigrant shaped your life?
The interesting thing is that the early part was a little rough - being a little different and everything. That ended when I went to high school. From high school on, it was smooth sailing. I was Presbyterian and I was sent to a Catholic school. Back then, probably a quarter to a third of Catholic schools were Jewish. My best friend was Jewish. One day a week I would go to the Presbyterian Church and drink grape juice, the next day I'd be singing a Gregorian chant in a Catholic choir, and the third day I'd be eating a kosher meal at one of my Jewish friend's houses. I grew up thinking everybody had that experience - that people move within religions. I found out later that the world is not like that and it's a shame. People get locked into their group and it's their group against the other group instead of their group with the other group. As a result, I'm very comfortable no matter what group I'm with. I look back and I'm very thankful that I had that. The high school I went to was started in 1912 by Benedictine monks and it was a military school. The monks had permission to hit us if we misbehaved. We had M1 rifles and we dressed in military uniforms. We'd get demerits - if your hair was too long or your shoes weren't polished, you'd get a demerit. If you got over five demerits, every demerit was an hour on the parade ground marching with your rifle.
You received your bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees from Florida State University. What did you study and why did you choose Florida State?
My bachelor's degree was in Political Science and I liked math so much I took math classes as electives. I was one the few people who took calculus classes as electives. I also met my wife at Florida State and last year was our 50th anniversary. I was the first person to go to college in my family and my wife was the first in her family. She's Irish, by the way. We were going to stay in Tallahassee, so I could either teach or work for the state. I was hired to teach math at a middle and high school. In order to continue teaching, I had to take classes in the college of education. A friend said, "If you are taking classes you might as well get a degree in education." So, I got my masters in educational leadership and my doctorate was in educational administration.
I was honored in 2013 by the College of Education at Florida State. They made me distinguished alumni in the area of government and community service. At that time I told them that the reason I ended up at Florida State was that I had applied to the University of Georgia and they did not accept me. Somebody asked if it bothered me. I said, "Well, I met my wife who I've been married to for 50 years, and I ended up with a doctorate degree. I should be sending the University of Georgia a contribution for not taking me." I think the simple answer is that Florida State took me and Georgia didn't. Why didn't they take me? It was 50 or 60 years ago; it was a different time. Did that have anything to do with it? I don't know.
Tell me how you met your wife.
At Florida State, I joined a fraternity called Lambda Chi Alpha. My wife was at a sorority called Sigma Kappa. There were probably about three Chinese students at FSU at the time. I was one and my cousin was another. What was strange is that my cousin was in Sigma Kappa and my wife was my cousin's sorority sister. At Florida State, I didn't have a lot of money. One way I fed myself was that different sororities hired fraternity guys to serve the meals. So, we would have to go to the sorority and we would have to enter by the back door. We had these nice little white jackets and the girls would ring the bell and we would go over and they would say, "Can we have ketchup or salt or gravy?" We would go get it for them. The rule was you could not date the girls in the sorority if you worked there. They didn't want a breakup to cause any bad vibes. So, I tell people that I didn't date anybody in the sorority; I married somebody in the sorority. I remember the first time I met her because she wouldn't go out with me. There was a hurricane coming and they were having hurricane parties. I invited her to one of the parties and she very readily suggested some alternate people that I might invite. So, I thought well, I don't know if this is a good sign.
How did you win her over?
I would say persistence. It must have worked, because like I said, we've been married for 50 years. We were married in the place where she grew up - Sanibel Captive Island. It's like a tropical island. It's like going to the Bahamas without leaving the country. There's only one stoplight on Sanibel. About 80 percent of it is a nature preserve. So we got married in an Episcopal Church on Sanibel in 1967 and we were so poor - it was three years later before we could have a honeymoon. We went to Saint Thomas Virgin Islands and we ran out of money at the end! I was only making $4,600 gross a year teaching.
How and when did you end up in Pensacola?
I came to Pensacola in 1977. I ran a program called Teacher Centers for years. The state mandated that teachers had to have in-service training. So, the University of West Florida would contract with all the districts between here and Tallahassee to provide in-service. I was a conduit between the counties and the people at the University. When the Teaching Center ended, I went into teaching full time. I taught educational leadership in the graduate school. The Santa Rosa County School District superintendent, Tim Wyrosdick, is a graduate. The principals of Escambia High, Washington High, and Pensacola High are all former students of mine. Norm Ross, the Escambia County School District deputy superintendent, is also a former student of mine. It's a marvelous feeling. I drive an 18-20 year old car because teaching is not the most lucrative business to go into, but I tell people looking back, I'd pick the same profession because nothing has been more rewarding than to see my students go on and accomplish what they have.
What did you think about the community in 1977 and what made you want to stay here?
Everyone will probably tell you the same thing - they fall in love with the place. They fall in love with the place for two main reasons. The main reason is the people. They're just nice, down to earth, warm, caring people. Not only in Pensacola, but I was teaching classes all over Northwest Florida and the people are just wonderful everywhere you go. One reason that I got into politics is that the community has been so good to my family that I just wanted to repay that somehow. I look at being in politics as a way of trying to repay. The other thing that Pensacola has is the beaches - they are just visually beautiful - especially in 1977. When people come here, I say welcome to Paradise. You've found a hidden gem.
How many children do you have and what careers are they pursuing?
We have two children - a son, Christopher who lives in Tampa and a daughter in San Diego. We have two grandchildren with my daughter. My daughter is a speech pathologist.
What do you like best about being a grandparent?
The nice thing is watching them grow. We go out to San Diego about twice a year together and the wife goes more often on her own. They are sweeties.
You're involved in numerous civic organizations and charities, including the Council on Aging board of directors. What interested you in serving on the Council on Aging board and what do you see as the important issues facing seniors?
I have always had a lifelong passion for seniors and part of that stems from the fact that in the Chinese culture, the older you are, the more respect you are given. I even know of Chinese folks that will lie about their age to make them seem older. It's almost the reverse of our society where everyone wants to be young. So, I've always had a great love for seniors from a cultural standpoint.
My love for Council on Aging is that it does so much for people who have done so much for others. We are talking about our parents, our aunts and uncles and so on. What I also love is that the Council on Aging hits almost every aspect of aging you can think of. I love the Meals on Wheels program. By the way, Congress is thinking of doing away with a lot of programs and one of them is community development block grants, which provides a lot of funding that ends up in programs like Meals on Wheels. The program takes care of the physical needs in terms of nourishment, but we also have things like congregate meals where people can come together for community because a lot of times seniors end up living by themselves and they have no interaction with people. One of the things about Meals on Wheels that is so great is that it provides someone to bring the meals, so not only are they getting nourishment, they are getting interaction with the person bringing their meal. Another aspect is that it is an opportunity for the person bringing the meal to check on the senior and make sure they are alright. The other thing that Council on Aging has is senior daycare, The Retreat. You can drop a senior off and they have activities for them. The people in the daycare program get to enjoy each other's company, but it also gives relief for the person who has dropped a senior off because they may be the primary caregiver and they get a little break.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
My children and grandchildren. My marriage of 50 years. Being the first to go to college in my family. Being the first elected official from Pensacola to be elected president of the Florida League of Cities. I'm also proud of being in my second term on the board of the National League of Cities. Every year, the Northwest Florida League of Cities selects an outstanding municipal official. Several years back they named the award after me. When they did, I asked if they knew something about my health that I didn't because usually you get something like that posthumously.
As a son of immigrants, what do you think about the current attitude toward immigration in this country?
Let me start off by saying that one of the activities I do that I get the most fulfillment from is to speak to newly minted immigrants. I don't know if you've ever been to a naturalization ceremony, but there are few things in life that will move you as much as seeing somebody who has spent their life somewhere else and on that day becomes an American citizen. I think we have a Catch-22. On one hand, despite problems here and there, we've made this the best country in the world and as a result, everybody wants to come here. So, you can't fault anybody for wanting to come. The dilemma we find ourselves in is that there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. So, even though you can't blame somebody for wanting to come, I think what you need to do is follow the rules that we have for coming in and doing it the right way. In terms of immigrants, the bottom line is that other than Native Americans, we are all immigrants. When you get to legal versus illegal, it's another area. We are a country of laws and it's hard to say you obey some laws and not others.
How did you become involved in rotary and why is rotary so important to you?
I became involved in rotary through John Fogg. When he was mayor, there were several shootings at several clinics. John Fogg put together a top notch committee to discuss how to reduce violence. On that committee you had the president of the junior college, the president of the university, the sheriff, the newspaper publisher. I don't know how, but I ended up on it. I noticed that a good number of people on this committee were Rotarians. One day John and I were driving somewhere and I asked him about rotary. The next Monday he took me to his rotary. This was probably 1995. I loved it from the very first moment. There are probably about eight rotary clubs in this area. The largest one is the Pensacola Downtown Club. They have about 275 members. My club is Five Flags. We are capped at 150 members. One great achievement was getting to be rotary governor for our region. The reason I like rotary is that one of the mottos is service above self. So what Rotarians are trained to do is serve others and to think of ways they can help people. My club has probably done at least 12 Habitat Houses and I've personally worked on 27. I cooked at Loaves and Fishes once a week for five years. I've been a bell ringer for the Salvation Army for 16 years. We look at how we can make the world better and how we can help people. There are things we do globally and things we do locally.
What's on your bucket list?
One thing that was on my bucket list was to be the president of the National League of Cities. I ran last year and did not win. Personally, I've been so blessed that there are not many things that I can think of that I've wanted to do and been unable to do. Number one, to have a wife who has tolerated you for over 50 years and to have beautiful children and grandchildren. To have a parent who came over with a seventh grade education and for me to have the opportunity to earn a doctorate degree and teach graduate students. To run for politics and to get on city council and to become president of the Florida League of Cities and to serve on the national board. I'm so extremely blessed. I've never put much stock in the material stuff, so on my bucket list, I don't want to have a BMW. I don't want to have a yacht. I don't want a gold chain. All those things in the money realm don't appeal to me. What appeals to me is seeing people do well. On that note, the whole time I was in administration, I had three secretaries. I hounded all three until they went back to school. All three ended up getting their bachelor's degrees. I lost them to better jobs once they got their degrees, but even knowing that I still hounded them. That's one of my crowning achievements.
You are known as one of the nicest guys in town and for your positive outlook. Have you always been that way?
I believe so. I think partly I heard a long time ago that one of life's most important lessons is to be grateful. Start looking for things you can be grateful for - the fact that you are alive, that you are breathing, that you have people who love you, that you have food and a roof over your head. It shifts us away from what we don't have. We all have problems, but I try to focus on the fact that we are all blessed.
What's your secret to staying spry of mind and body?
Part of it is that I'm a workaholic. I think you have to like what you do, otherwise it's hard to bring enthusiasm to it.
In addition to the therapeutic benefits of daily writing, studies have shown that keeping a journal can offer a handful of benefits specifically helpful to seniors. Journaling can be a great way to document special moments or events in one's life, while combating memory loss, reducing stress and staving off dementia.
Many seniors are navigating a sea of changes in their daily lives - from changes in medicine and activities to possible new living situations or dietary restrictions - a journal can also help keep track of these new adjustments and provide a sense of stability in one's routine.
In contrast to the day-to-day documenting, a journal can also serve as a time capsule for family memories and stories. Seniors often worry their lifetime of experiences and knowledge may be forgotten. Many choose to write about specific past events so their children or grandchildren will have a written account of special family moments to reference - like the day they met their sweetheart, bought their first home or graduated college. Writing out details of life events is a great way to leave a written family history, while stimulating the mind and enjoying the writing process.
To get started with your journal, first choose a medium you feel comfortable with. Some people prefer the simplicity of a notebook and a pen, while others gravitate toward a laptop or a typewriter. Once you've decided on the best method of documentation that fits your daily life, prepare to set aside a certain amount of time for writing. It might be once a day, once a week, or once a month accompanied by a loved one or family member, but decide on a schedule that seems realistic for your lifestyle.
Types of Journaling
Most senior journaling experiences fall into one of two categories: a journal for yourself, of your daily thoughts, ideas, schedules, reflections and goals, or a memory journal for your family, made with the intention of someone else reading it and finding value in the information and stories. Keeping a journal to give to your family can also be a way to record the details of your life that perhaps you'd never think to share or they would never think to ask about.
You can keep a mix of either kind of journal, or you can choose to pick just one or the other. However, many people have said setting an intention for the journal helps them decide what to write about.
Prompts for Journals
When first starting out with a journal, many people find themselves at a loss for what to write. They become overwhelmed by the need to write every memory and story, or they can't seem to think of something worth writing at all. Sometimes a simple prompt is a great way to melt away writer's block and get a few ideas flowing.
Suggested prompts for personal journals provided by the National Writing Project:
Suggested prompts for memory journals provided by the National Writing Project:
Benefits of Journaling
The American Psychological Association (APA) found that expressing your thoughts through daily writing can bring significant improvements in your mental health and psychological well- eing. The study indicates that expressive writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory, which can be particularly beneficial to seniors struggling with memory loss or dementia.
Additional studies show senior journaling can improve dexterity, help track daily routines and redefine a sense of purpose in their daily lives.
Journaling is an accessible activity that requires few materials and can be done almost anywhere. Whether you choose to write daily or weekly, keeping a journal can offer powerful mental health benefits while simultaneously creating an unforgettable, tangible legacy for you and your family to treasure for decades.
For many seniors, retirement means the opportunity to travel and see the world - meet new people, learn about different cultures and explore some of the world's most interesting sights. Although sightseeing and relaxing are much needed aspects of a vacation, many seniors are turning toward volunteer travel or voluntourism as a way to make their travel benefit the places they visit.
While local church and civic groups often offer missionary or other volunteer trips to far off lands, a growing number of global nonprofits are also adding volunteer travel opportunities to their roster of giving options.
Seniors make perfect volunteers because they bring a wealth of experiences and knowledge from their careers and rich life experiences. These skills can prove to be invaluable to people and communities in need.
Many experts recommend sticking with nonprofit groups in order to be sure specific community needs are met and that funds go directly to the projects being worked on. Here are a few nonprofits with good reputations for providing meaning volunteer opportunities around the world.
Earthwatch Institute www.earthwatch.org
A global nonprofit that offers one- and two-week expeditions that focus on environmental conservation and field research projects all over the world. On an Earthwatch Expedition, volunteers help find solutions to some of today's most pressing environmental challenges. Volunteers work with respected scientists in the field where they're investigating critical environmental issues and make hands-on contributions to research while experiencing the cultural and natural wonders of places around the globe. Expedition themes include Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in Kenya, Mapping Biodiversity in Cuba and more.
Globe Aware www.globeaware.org
The nonprofit Globe Aware develops short-term volunteer programs in international environments that encourage people to immerse themselves in a unique way of giving back. Globe Aware offers one-week volunteer vacations in 15 different countries. Chosen projects meet several key criteria: safe, culturally interesting, genuinely beneficial to a needy community, and involving significant interaction with the host community.
Global Volunteers www.globalvolunteers.org
Offers a wide variety of two- and three-week service programs in 18 countries - including the U.S. Volunteers help deliver essential services while contributing to the physical health and intellectual development of the world's future leaders - its youth. Global Volunteers works with high level organizations like the United Nations and UNICEF to offer international volunteer service opportunities that work to protect children's security and welfare and address hunger, poverty and educational needs around the world.
Habitat for Humanity www.habitat.org/volunteer
Habitat for Humanity offers a variety of house-building trips through its Global Village Program and RV Care-A-Vanners program. The Global Village program has opportunities in more than 40 countries abroad as well as in the United States. The RV Care-A-Vanners invites anyone who travels by recreational vehicle to make Habitat part of your journey, or even your destination. Both programs give volunteers the opportunity to get to the families and the communities in which they are assisting with home building.
Cross-Cultural Solutions www.crossculturalsolutions.org
Cross-Cultural Solutions offers cross-cultural service trips that improve the health, education and economic opportunities for vulnerable women, children and elderly. Cross Cultural Solutions creates longstanding relationships with local organizations who communicate real- ime needs and objectives to the CCS team. This community approach was specifically designed to make sure CSS programs generate sustainable impact.
Peace Corps www.peacecorps.gov
The Peace Corps is a service opportunity for motivated change-makers to immerse themselves in a community abroad, working side-by-side with local leaders to tackle the most pressing challenges of our generation. Depending on the volunteer program you choose, your service can last from three months to two years. You can even choose what country you want to serve in, the type of work you do, and when you depart. While many people consider the Peace Corp an opportunity for young people, the nonprofit also welcomes seniors with open arms.
Art at its most basic is a way of understanding and interpreting the world. While a painting or a piece of music can be inspirational, moving, sad, motivational or all of the above, the process of bringing those things to life can be equally meaningful. As we touch brush to canvas, mold clay or capture fleeting moments, we are experiencing life even as we are preserving it. That act has many benefits beyond just the emotional; creating art can improve cognitive abilities, preserve memory, connect us with others and so much more.
Oft-cited features associated with successful aging include a sense of purpose, interactions with others, personal growth, self-acceptance, autonomy and health. Creative activities contribute in some way to all of these features.
A sense of purpose
Painting, knitting, writing and other forms of expression do so much more than just quell boredom. By regularly engaging in these activities, elders feel a sense of purpose associated with the task at hand and a sense of accomplishment when complete. More so than just watching television or lying in bed, art allows seniors to contribute to society and to their own wellbeing while making an indelible mark on their world and others. There is now a reason to get out of bed, to eat, to continue in their lives.
Interactions with others
As we socialize, our brains are activated. We are listening, comprehending, formulating responses, and so much more. Art as a communal activity gives older individuals an excuse to get together, discuss the latest news, share tips related to aging, discuss their children and grandchildren, and even wax nostalgic for the "good old days." When reunited with their caregiver after the activity, the conversation can turn to the project. The art becomes a point of conversation and bonding.
Turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks! Every day, there seems to be a new story of a 70-year-old who took up music for the first time or an 80-year-old learning to draw. These new skills activate parts of our brain that can easily go dormant when being a passive participant in life. Learning things is exciting, encourages us to share with others, and improves mental acuity.
With age often comes various impairments. It can be difficult to accept these new limitations in life, especially for those who were active in their younger days. However, slowing down can have its perks. As some seniors may be forced to take it easy, they find that they are capable of excitement in a new and different way. Composing music may not be as exciting as running a marathon, but it carries with it new challenges that can lead to self-acceptance and even self-love.
At Council on Aging's adult day health care center, The Retreat, we had a day of fun painting rocks for the Pensacola Rocks phenomenon. Many of these individuals live with Alzheimer's and dementia and can no longer perform basic life functions by themselves. They seemed to understand, however, the fun involved with touching brush to stone. Without any assistance, many of them created collages of color or recreated memories that they got to keep. This autonomy leads to greater confidence and, of course, greater health outcomes.
Mental and physical health are probably our primary worries as we age. And while art may not have a direct impact on physical health, it does help with hand-eye coordination, concentration, memory and so much more. Using art to engage with memories, like creating a collage of childhood photos, can even reinvigorate longterm memory and excite the pleasure and memory centers of the brain.
Many community organizations offer great opportunities for those looking to get started in the exciting world of art, including Pensacola State College.
"The College of Continuing Education offers a large variety of classes for people of all ages," said Marianne Arroyo, an instructor at PSC. "I teach Drawing and Painting classes. The classes that I offer range from beginner to advanced with an emphasis on traditional techniques, as I believe, one must learn to walk before running. Students learn about different materials, brush techniques, composition and color theory. Students get to work right away because often the biggest obstacle that they face is fear."
For those reluctant to start a new creative chapter of their lives, Arroyo recommends that they listen, learn and then jump right in. She reports that oftentimes her older students are surprised by how well they are able to draw and paint.
"Working with adults is extremely gratifying," said Arroyo. "My students come from various backgrounds and different life experiences. They are interesting and have unique perspectives. Age doesn't limit the need for continued learning. For many of my students, this is the first time in their lives that they have the freedom to choose what they want to do with their time. They've had careers and they have raised families. It's often a transitional time and the ideal time to experiment with various classes and discover something they love; something they can devote their time to. Additionally, it provides social interaction which is important as we age. I've seen many friendships develop as a result of these classes."
As we age, it is very easy to stay in a comfort zone. Trying something new may lead to a new hobby or even a new professional pursuit.
"I like to quote theartist Frederic Whitaker," said Arroyo. '"A painter seldom makes his mark until middle age - and sometimes a great deal later. Many artists have done their best work after 70.'"
Please help us provide seniors in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties with the programs and services they need to live healthy, safe and independent lives in their own familiar surroundings. These program and services, which include Meals on Wheels, adult day health care and caregiver support, enable seniors and their caregivers to face an uncertain future with the dignity they deserve.
Coming of Age Magazine is the only senior - oriented lifestyle publication in Northwest Florida. Locally produced and published in Pensacola, Florida by Council on Aging of West Florida in partnership with Ballinger Publishing.
Summer 2018 - 6/22/2018
Coming of Age summer 2018
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