Is it possible to live emotionally well if you’re facing a serious illness? It may be counter-intuitive, but the answer is yes. Here’s my latest blog post for Sixty and Me on the subject.
I wonder if Madonna, 60, thinks of herself as old.
I’m guessing probably not, but maybe she should. Think of how much she might contribute to the discussion about what it means to age, to grow older well, and how we can facilitate that for all of us, not just for a privileged few.
This thought might never have crossed my mind except for having read Louise Aronson’s extraordinary new book, “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life,” and having the opportunity to interview her about it. Aronson is a geriatrician and professor of geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco.
In the book, an amalgam of facts, patient stories, tales of Aronson’s own education and medical experience — as well as references to history, anthropology, literature and scientific studies — combine to shine a light on the necessity to rethink aging itself. Bonus: reading it also provides the great pleasure of following the path of a unique and invaluable mind and heart.
In some ways the book is an indictment of our medical system, which recognizes that chronic illness and aging are a major health challenge, but often treats those who experience it or the specialists who treat it as second class citizens. And she has a number of recommendations for changing the system. Among the many reasons why the need for change is so compelling: People who are 65 or older represent 16 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 40 percent of hospitalized adults; with a few notable exceptions, hospitals as they are designed and operated currently present a great many challenges for elders.
“Elderhood” is also a road map for those of us who are aging to tap back into our boomer activist genes and insist on better care as we go forward, not only from the health care system, but also from policymakers who have a big impact on how that care is provided and paid for. As for ourselves individually, it’s time to discard the clichés and stereotypes of aging we may have internalized over the years.
“Elderhood is life’s third and final act; what it looks like is up to us,” Aronson writes. “This third act is not a repeat of the first or second. More often it is in life what it is in drama: the site of our story’s climax, denouement and resolution.”
The book dispels a number of myths about what aging looks like. “Old age is only partially determined by biology. It’s long, varied, relative and relational,” she writes, noting that “a good part of the suffering in old age is manufactured by our policies and attitudes.”
Owning Our Elderhood, in All Its Substages
Elderhood comprises a number of substages and in Aronson’s view we need better language for those substages. As an example: at 55, she has taken to referring to herself as old when she teaches her medical students at UCSF (who, she said, amused, most likely consider her “old” anyway).
“The more we own it, the better. We reform it,” she said. Much as the LGBTQ community has taken back the word “queer” and succeeded in taking the awful sting out of it, we can “reclaim, create or repurpose simple words to redefine themselves and their place in society,” she writes.
Aronson stresses that the numbers of elders who find satisfaction and purpose in their lives and consider their health excellent – despite having to contend with a variety of ills – are legion. Studies have shown, for example, that anxiety rates fall around 60. In their 80s, she has found, for the most part people are quite satisfied, more so than in their 40s and 50s.
“Adaptability is a huge defining characteristic of elderhood,” she told me.
In her elderhood clinic at the University of California San Francisco, Aronson treats people ranging in age from 60 to 102. (Fun fact: The World Health Organization, among others, defines people aged 60 and up as old.) So, she points out, there are at least two generations within this group.
“It’s time for elderhood to take its rightful place alongside childhood and adulthood,” she writes. That includes the “young-old” and the “old-old” and all the stages in between, under the umbrella of elderhood.
Aronson explained that in her clinic, dealing with the “whole human being” is of first and foremost importance. She focuses on functional status because “that’s a better predictor of whether [patients] will wind up in the hospital or not.” Together, she and her patients discuss preferences and goals – not just medical, but goals of life. She also wants to know about “who’s in their world?” In other words, how does the person live, who is available to be supportive, what obstacles or barriers lie in the path to a better quality of life and how does the person actually feel about aging. “That impacts recovery,” she said. The clinic practices what she calls the four “P’s”: prevention, purpose, priorities and perspective.
“Failing to fully acknowledge the ongoing human development and diversity of older Americans is bad medicine and flawed public health,” she says, noting that “we can only make aging good if we make it good for all of us.”
I could go on quoting Aronson, but I won’t. Instead, I encourage you to read it to discover the many gems to be found.
Maybe Madonna should read it too.
Because June is LGBT Pride Month, I wanted to talk about an issue that rarely gets the attention it deserves. It certainly has not been raised in the midst of the discussion following the Supreme Court’s decision over a baker’s right not to bake a wedding cake for two men.
The fact is, when advanced illness strikes, elders who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming face more challenges than their heterosexual peers. They are likely to have more complex health conditions than their heterosexual peers, made worse by postponing or not seeking care. Social isolation is a major issue as LGBT seniors are three to four times less likely to have children, twice as likely to live alone and twice as likely to be single. And they may be in poorer financial straits. Going back into the closet out of fear of neglect, disapproval or abuse, is not uncommon.
Their fears are not unfounded. In Spring 2011, six organizations who advocate for elders and for the LGBT population published a study: “LGBT Older Adults in Long-Term Care Facilities: Stories from the Field.” Among the highlights: Only 22 percent said they could feel open about their sexual orientation with staff at a nursing home, assisted living or other long-term care facility. Of those who lived in long-term facilities, or cared for those who did, the most frequently reported problem was negative treatment from other residents, followed by verbal or physical harassment by staff. Moreover, 51 percent reported staff refusing to provide basic care (such as toileting, bathing or feeding.
Some respondents shared a litany of sorrows and stories of lives derailed, couples separated by family members who had legal authority over the facility resident; feelings of loneliness and isolation because of disapproval by other residents or staff; having aides attempting to get people to “repent” for their sins; choosing to go back into the closet for fear of neglect or harm.
For those living with HIV, there are associated issues to worry about, including cardiovascular disease; cancer (non-AIDS); liver, kidney and neurological diseases; osteoporosis; and frailty. Up to 30 percent of people living with HIV have abnormal kidney function, which, untreated, can be fatal.
And if contending with serious illness is a challenge for gay and lesbian people and those living with HIV, it presents even more hurdles for transgender individuals. Owing to a combination of mistrust in the health care system and experience of rejection, discrimination or simple lack of medical knowledge by health care professionals, transgender individuals are at a higher risk for long-term diseases.
But in the midst of this sorry state of affairs, many people and organizations are working to make LGBT elders’ lives better: to make them feel more welcome in senior housing and long term care settings; to train direct health care workers to treat them more equitably; and to address their needs with expertise, kindness and compassion.
One example is Garden State Equality (GSE), a large LGBT organization in New Jersey, where Bianca Mayes, Health and Wellness Coordinator, heads the organization’s Pledge & Protect program. The program is designed to educate all health care providers, including nurse practitioners, doctors, therapists, dentists and other direct service providers, as well as staff in long-term care developments. It also urges service providers, organizations and long-term care facility owners to pledge their commitment to advancing equitable treatment.
Three levels of training are offered, and training covers four general elements: an exploration of gender identity terminology; an overview of historic and current discriminatory practices; general health care disparities and needs (lack of insurance, transportation, poverty, homelessness, lack of legal protection, lack of cultural competence); and recommendations, including ways to design intake forms to be inclusive.
Why focus on intake forms? They are a person’s introduction to a care setting and they can either make that person feel welcome, or alienate and intimidate him or her. Garden State Equality has designed a template for an inclusive intake form, which it shares with trainees. (You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy.) That has been particularly well-received because, as Mayes pointed out, the intake form “is their Bible.”
Mayes told me that “People want to do the right thing; they just don’t know how.” For example, most people – LGBT or heterosexual — aren’t asked about their sexuality, orientation, history or gender identity. She stressed that “if you apply these practices to everyone, it’s not uncomfortable anymore.”
Mayes started implementing the program in November 2017. It has reached more than 125 health care professionals. GSE has also sent out information to seven sites in two counties in New Jersey. This coming weekend, Garden State Equality and the Green Hill senior living development, will hold a one-day LGBT Senior Housing and Care Expo that will include speakers, panels, vendors and a networking lunch. It will be free to the public. This summer GSE plans to host 10 focus groups serving all 21 counties to help produce a statewide needs assessment.
GSE estimates that there are some 100,000 LGBT men and women over 55 living in New Jersey. Mayes’ biggest hope is that more health care providers will reaching out to the LGBT community.
“They’re not necessarily going to come to you and their needs are dire,” she said.
Happy National Healthcare Decisions Day! Actually, it’s a whole week, starting April 16. The Day was created to remind all of us of the importance of having a conversation with our family and friends about what kind of care we’d want, if we couldn’t speak for ourselves; and of having a written advance care directive and a health care proxy to speak for us.
And, in honor of the week, my book, “Last Comforts: Notes from the Forefront of Late Life Care,” is now available in all e-book venues – Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo and more — for the new low, low price of $5.99!
It’s a good week to think about your bucket list, too, which I wrote about in this Sixtyandme.com post.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the idea of coming up with a bucket list. At heart, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, my clear preference is to focus on the less spectacular but just as satisfying smaller pleasures of daily life. And being grateful for the sometimes unexpected joys to be found there.
The photo accompanying this post is a good example of what I mean. I’m sure that seeing the Grand Canyon is probably atop lots of bucket lists. My husband and I were fortunate enough to be able to visit the South Rim a couple of years ago and of course, it was breathtaking. But here was my favorite moment (although the photo doesn’t do it justice). We had emerged from lunch around the same time as a heavy rain had stopped and there – so close you could practically reach out and touch it – was a rainbow. An unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime vision.
But my bucket list skepticism changed before I read about research conducted by the Stanford Letter Project at the Stanford University School of Medicine. As Dr. VJ Periyakoil, founder of the Stanford Letter Project, pointed out in a compelling opinion piece in The New York Times, it’s important not only to write down several things you’d like to accomplish, experience, see or share – and update your list from time to time as your feelings change – but also to share this with your physicians.
Why? Because they need to know what’s important to you if they are going to provide the best possible care for you, the individual.
If you’re having a problem identifying three to five main goals, Stanford has come up with a handy toolkit to help you. So share the list with your doctor. If you have a chronic illness, the toolkit advises, “Ask your doctor what you need to know about your health and illnesses and if they will prevent you from reaching your goals. Especially ask them about if any treatments they are proposing will prevent you from living your life as you wish to.”
Rethinking the bucket list question, I considered another reason why sharing your list with physicians is an excellent idea. The truth is, so much of thinking about advance care planning and preparing advance care directives has to do with what we don’t want. CPR, yes or no? Feeding tubes, yes or no? Mechanical ventilation, yes or no?
The bucket list, on the other hand, is a clear roadmap for our loved ones and physicians to understand what we do want. So it can be a lovely, positive complement to the admittedly sobering and potentially unpleasant work of envisioning our end-of-life care preferences.
When you’re sitting and waiting in your doctor’s exam room, are you thinking of yourself as a revolutionary? Victor Montori, MD, wants you to.
Dr. Montori, physician and researcher in the science of patient-centered care at the Mayo Clinic, has spent considerable time addressing other physicians and physician groups about the failings of what he calls “industrial health care.” That it fails to notice patients – in the sense of not listening to patients, not understanding nonmedical events in our lives, not paying attention to what we value most. That it standardizes practices for patients like this, rather than caring for this patient.
But in short, he believes it is time for a patient revolution led not by physicians but by the public. Health care reform – itself no easy feat to accomplish, much less debate – is not enough, he says: “It is time for a patient revolution not only because it has patient care as its goal but also because it believes citizens — healthy people, patients who are not too sick to mobilize – must lead the way.”
If there is a manifesto for this nascent movement, it is Dr. Montori’s book Why We Revolt. The book’s essays describe what is wrong with our health care system, how it has corrupted its mission, how it has stopped caring. It does not get into the weeds of national or state public policies, or explore alternatives to the kind of financial incentives that help perpetuate our current system, but it does propose “a revolution of compassion and solidarity, of unhurried conversations and of careful and kind care.”
A few nuggets from the book:
“If completely successful, care should enable patients to be and do, minimally hindered by illness and treatment.”
“What actions to take depend on the patient situation, the options available and what patients value. For most people, the situation they face is never simply medical.”
Minimally disruptive care focuses on “advancing the human situation of each patient with the smallest possible health care footprint on their lives. It calls for patients and clinicians to shape care to respond well to each patient’s situation in a manner designed to fit easily within chaotic lives.”
“Shared decision making is an empathic conversation by which patient and clinician think, talk and feel through the situation and test evidence-based options against the patient’s situation. [It] is a human expression of care.”
“Care is a fundamentally human act, one that manifests in the dancing art of conversations…A revolution of patient care must harness the power of conversations.”
In 2016, Dr. Montori founded The Patient Revolution, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to arm people to tell stories; stories about their lives, stories about their capabilities and limitations, and stories about what risks, benefits and trade-offs look like from their point of view. We want people to tell these stories in exam rooms and hospital rooms, in their communities and in the rooms where decisions get made.”
The Patient Revolution is a multidisciplinary team of collaborators with backgrounds in clinical practice, clinical research, design, health policy, and storytelling. The team, which has spent more than 10 years developing tools and programs to help patients and doctors communicate better, have done extensive work in shared decision making and minimally disruptive medicine.
I spoke with Maggie Breslin, director of the organization, who was also part of that team at the Mayo Clinic. She said that the Patient Revolution’s aim “is for patients, caregivers and communities to drive change. It feels like what health care is supposed to be about.”
The team’s focus right now is on reaching out to individuals at the community level. Currently they are partnering with communities in Minnesota, to co-develop issues around health care access. “It’s still early days,” she noted.
Useful Communication Tools
It’s said that political campaigns are conducted in poetry, while governance is conducted in prose. The same might be applied to the Patient Revolution. While Dr. Montori may have the soul of a poet, the organization’s website offers very practical prose guidance to help us navigate our conversations with our physicians.
For example, here are five questions they encourage you to think about, write responses to and practice how you’ll ask them:
I want to talk about…
It is important to me because…
It might help you to know…
I want this conversation to lead to…
I’m nervous this conversation will lead to…
Also useful are tools to help you frame that conversation with your doctor by talking about your life and your values. For example:
What is one nonmedical thing about your life that you think the doctor should know?
What is one thing your doctor is asking you to do for your health that is helping you feel better?
What is one thing your doctor is asking you to do for your health that feels like a burden or feels harder than it should?
Where do you find the most joy in your life?
As the late poet, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote, revolution is not a one-time event. But if you’re starting to feel more like a health care revolutionary now, and you want to find ways to advance the movement in your community, you can find ways to get involved at http://patientrevolution.org. You can also order Dr. Montori’s book there.
Tomorrow, May 4, I’ll be testifying at a public hearing about the “Needs of Older Adults in Bergen County.” I’ll be talking about innovations that combine at-home health care with nonmedical supports, as well as home care. Here’s a look at my testimony: