Senior Toronto blog

February 28, 2021

Bernie's mittens

There he sits, buttressed against the cold, wrapped up in a warm parka and mittens on Inauguration Day. The cameras are rolling, beaming this historic event around the world. Most of the participants, mindful of the cameras and the occasion, are decked out in designer outfits, coats with matching gloves and masks, carefully coiffed hair that doesn’t budge in the breeze. But this is an outdoor ceremony in the middle of January. So Bernie Sanders put on what he probably wears to pick up milk at the corner store in the dead of winter, and off he went. In case you’re one of the few people on the planet who haven’t seen the picture, you can view it here.

Of course, the media had a field day, photoshopping Bernie into the Starship Enterprise, the 1945 Yalta Conference, the Sistine Chapel, everywhere. The Vermont schoolteacher who made the mittens had her fifteen minutes of fame. Bernie himself good-naturedly joined in the fun, and then announced that proceeds from the burgeoning merchandise would go to charity. But if you’re a senior, I’ll bet you didn’t laugh. You probably took a peek at that picture and saluted it with a nod of recognition. You might have said to yourself, Well, sure, if you have to sit through an outdoor ceremony in January, you have to bundle up those old bones. Bernie dressed the way a lot of us seniors dress in winter. He looked like us.

You really can’t mess with Bernie Sanders. A self-described democratic socialist, and the longest-running independent in US congressional history, he has advocated for progressive causes since his school days. He supports single-payer health care, paid parental leave, reduced military spending, gay rights, women’s rights, labour rights, free college education and aggressive action to fight climate change. As a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential campaign, this 78-year-old inspired a youth-led movement for sweeping social change, and almost single-handedly moved the Democratic Party to the left. He can wear whatever he wants, for heaven’s sake. So the media had their fun over his mittens, but the tone was light.

What does it take to be a role model for seniors? It’s not the age-defiers, the daredevils, the curmudgeons, or the plastic surgery junkies. I think it’s the people who wear their age with acceptance and dignity, who have grown beyond seeking approval from others, who have gained wisdom with their years and found ways to apply it where it can be useful. It’s people who are still engaged in the world and respond to the issues of the day with commitment and compassion. People like Bernie Sanders.

January 29, 2021

Grasping at straws

The pandemic grinds on, carving a path of destruction through our healthcare system, the economy, and the quality of our lives. It’s a crisis, and I’m not trying to play it down. I just feel like I need a little break from all the gloom right now. You too? The pandemic hasn’t been good for much, but here are a few small things:

  • We finally learned how to wash our hands properly
  • We’ve been saving money. We just buy what we absolutely need and get it over with
  • We get to snoop into other people’s rooms and meet their kids and pets on Zoom
  • We can finally read, or reread, all those books that have been sitting on our shelves for years
  • We don’t have to worry about how our hair looks in the back. We can just run a comb around the front and we’re good to go on Zoom
  • We introverts are loving it; social pressure is way down
  • We don’t have to cook and clean for company. What’s a little dust?
  • We finally find out which deadbeat doesn’t pick up what his dog leaves on our lawn
  • We get to know our neighbours, some of the few humans we see in person. In spring, summer and fall, we can complain about the weather over the back fence or across the driveway. In winter, we can complain about the weather while we’re shovelling
  • We can procrastinate to our heart’s content. Might as well put off that nasty chore; it’ll give us something to do tomorrow

December 29, 2020

Post-pandemic life for seniors

The vaccinations have started, thank goodness. We just have to wait our turn now: the end is in sight. Or is it? What will life be like for us seniors when the pandemic is finally over?

In some respects it will be better. In just a few short months, technology has come to the rescue: virtual lifelong learning, entertainment, fitness, medical appointments, shopping, visits with friends and family. It’s sure to continue after the pandemic: we need it, we love it, it makes perfect sense. Even if we have health or frailty issues that keep us close to home, now we can survive and even thrive at home as never before.

But suppose we have a stroke or break a hip and can’t look after ourselves anymore. Would we risk going into long term care? We were all horrified by what the first wave of the pandemic revealed: a nightmare of incompetence, inadequacy, abuse and neglect. Politicians claimed to be horrified too, and vowed to take action. So, knowing that the second wave was coming, what did the Government of Ontario do? Over the summer, while the healthcare community kept urging action to prepare for the second wave, Ontario did precisely nothing. Instead, in the fall Ontario passed the Supporting Ontario’s Recovery Act, which provides liability protection to workers and businesses in a number of sectors which make “an honest effort” to follow public health guidelines and laws. In effect, it will now be significantly harder for residents and families to hold long term care homes liable for any harm caused by exposure to Covid-19. In October 2020, an independent commission investigating Covid-19 in Ontario long term care homes began releasing interim recommendations, calling for immediate changes to better deal with the second wave of the pandemic. The Ford government has focused mainly on only one of them, the recommendation that every resident receive a minimum of four hours of direct care per day. First, they watered it down from a “minimum” to an “average” of four hours per day. Then they decided to roll the plan out slowly, in piecemeal fashion, over four years. The Ontario plan offers only 15 additional minutes of care before the next election. The remaining care will take another three years. As for regular unscheduled nursing home inspections, which the Ontario government cancelled before the pandemic and which the commission report recommended reinstating, Ontario makes no mention of them at all.

How can they get away with this? You know the answer, you know it in your bones. Premier Ford has ageism on his side. Our society views seniors as a burden, and wants our care to be cheap. Politicians will not gain many votes by spending a lot of money on senior care, not even after all the revelations of abuse and neglect. Ageism is more blatant now, and more cruel. It will be affecting our lives as seniors more than ever in the post-pandemic world.

November 30, 2020

Ronni Bennett

There’s such a disconnect between our own experience of aging and the way it’s portrayed in literature and media. Most of what we read about aging is written by younger people, and it’s all about disease and decline. So back in 2003 Ronni Bennett, a retired radio and television producer, decided to launch a blog where she could explore what it’s really like to get old. For seventeen years, her Time Goes By blog was the place to go for articulate, honest, insightful discussion of the experiences and issues we face as we age. With grace, humour, compassion and uncommon candor, she covered it all: ageism, health, politics, culture, caregiving, relationships. When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and COPD, she took us with her on her journey, working through all her challenges and dilemmas with a clear eye and no self-pity. Ronni Bennett was a role model of integrity and intellectual honesty. When she passed away on October 30, 2020, she left behind a huge community of bereft readers. There’s a gaping hole in our lives now where Ronni Bennett’s blog used to be.

We’re accustomed to hearing other people speak for seniors, for better or worse: healthcare professionals, gerontologists, caregivers, journalists, adult children. It’s only recently that we seniors have begun speaking for ourselves. Blogs can be an ideal vehicle for this: an accessible, easy-to-use tool that lets us voice our opinions, combat ageism, share experiences and build community. But so far, seniors are not making good use of blogs. The internet is awash in blogs, but fewer than 1% of all bloggers are aged 65 and over. As for the elderblogs that are out there, what are they like? Well, a slew of them dish out tips on fashion, travel, anti-aging products, reverse mortgages, investment advice and the like, the same old stuff over and over. Many of these blogs are set up to generate revenue and treat seniors as consumers. Then there’s another large group that are like diaries: people sharing their day-to-day lives, with plenty of detail about family events, aches and pains, gardening, traveling, political views, dealing with the pandemic. Lots of pictures of grandchildren and pets. These can be pleasant and entertaining, sort of like chatting with a neighbour. But mostly we discover that other people’s lives are just as boring as our own.

It’s so important to hear strong senior voices speaking for ourselves about the issues affecting us, with insight, wisdom and compassion. Where are those voices?

October 29, 2020

Bursts of life

In old age, as our energy and strength wane, our world naturally begins to narrow. Now, with the pandemic, that process has been speeding up. But though our outer world may shrink, our inner world can still grow, as I’ve lately been discovering.

This past summer, the Lincoln Centre Summer Jazz Academy went virtual and free. I sat mesmerized through six sessions while Wynton Marsalis taught us multiple ways of listening to music. Using recordings of jazz and other music, across time and around the world, and sharing his own deep knowledge, he showed us how to listen to the rhythm, the creativity of a virtuoso, what’s going on under the melody and so much more. Now I listen to music differently; I have more tools. I am even learning to appreciate music I never used to like.

China has been in the news a lot lately, and I couldn’t understand most of it; I don’t have any background. So I signed up for an online course on China and the US through the Ryerson Life Institute. Olivier Courteaux, articulate and passionate, vividly creates the context and sets the stage for the attitudes and motives that are still in play today in both countries. We have to look back to China’s decline in the 19th century after a millennium of stable central rule, and its subsequent exploitation and humiliation by western imperialism. We also have to look back to the policies of American exceptionalism and America First, beginning in the early 20th century. Now these two countries, with very different political and cultural values, are vying for dominance. How can we use their complex history to understand what is happening today?

I haven’t been a fan of fantasy fiction. I guess I thought of it as a niche genre, full of dystopian visions and violence and stereotyped characters, sort of like comics for teenage boys. So I’d never read anything by Ursula Le Guin. But then a few months ago I came upon a collection of her essays, the Wave in the Mind. With deep, probing intelligence, eloquence and wit, she explores the relationship between reader and writer, prose and poetry, and the nature of speculative fiction. For her, this genre is a way of getting readers to shed their cultural assumptions and examine political, philosophical and social ideas with fresh eyes. Now I realize what I’ve been missing. Luckily, Ursula Le Guin was a prolific writer. I’ll be reading her novels and exploring her alternative visions of society for a long time to come.

What’s so exciting about these experiences is that they all help to build frameworks or schemas: new ways of puzzling out the world and fitting the pieces together. Schemas are powerful because they influence what we pay attention to, affect how quickly we think and learn, and change how we interpret new information. Our world gets bigger. Psychologists tell us that challenging our brain in this way can help stave off dementia, so it’s worth getting out of our comfort zone and stretching ourselves on that account alone. But the main reason why I like to seek out this kind of learning is simply that it’s exhilarating. You’re growing, you’re changing, you’re fully alive, even in old age. There’s nothing like it.

September 29, 2020

Senior programming during the pandemic

Younger people may be partying and hanging out in bars, but we seniors are pretty much staying put. We might don a mask and venture out to the odd store for a quick errand early in the day, but mostly we’re just trying to stay out of harm’s way. It can be frustrating and lonely, not being able to gather with family and friends, not going out for concerts and restaurant meals, feeling stressed all the time and not knowing when this will end. We need support and community more than ever. What’s out there for us now?

Most lifelong learning organizations have made the transition to virtual programming. Often there is an interactive component, so that you can ask questions, have discussions, break into small groups. For some organizations, it’s an opportunity to expand: since they’re no longer limited by seating capacity or catchment area, they can increase their enrolment. There are lots of courses to choose from. Zoom is your friend. See listings at https://seniortoronto.ca/topics/lifelong-learning.

Community centres have made a valiant effort, but the programs are much reduced. Some community centres have cancelled their senior programs altogether. Programs where groups gather closely together are mostly gone: discussion groups, social groups, board games, computer training, group dining, outings. Aquafitness for arthritis has almost disappeared. You can still find some arts, crafts and fitness classes. A few centres are offering virtual classes. Some of the community health centres and service agencies are also offering emergency food programs and assisted transportation to medical appointments. See listings at https://seniortoronto.ca/topics/community-centres .

Like the community centres, senior centres have greatly restricted or cancelled their arts, crafts, fitness, sports and social programs, or switched to virtual formats. Many adult day programs are closed. Instead, they are focusing on essential services: access to food, assisted transportation for medical appointments, medication delivery, respite care, home support. Most try to provide social or counseling services by telephone or through Zoom. See listings at https://seniortoronto.ca/topics/senior-centres.

Here are a few additional resources: