Senior Toronto blog

July 29, 2021

Quick stress busters

The lockdown’s easing, most of us have had our second shots, and we’re starting to feel hopeful about the future. But a lot of us are still carrying the burden of over a year of stress and isolation. We’re also feeling the added stress of insecurity. Because we are seniors we tend to have weakened immune systems, so what can we safely do?

If stress and anxiety are becoming a serious problem, of course you should talk to your doctor. But if you think the stress is manageable, here are some stress relievers. These are just quick fixes; they’re not therapy. I won’t mention deep breathing and meditation and exercise and yoga, because you already know about those.

  • Herbal tea, especially lemon balm, green, camomile or peppermint. I found camomile works best for me, but try them all out and see what works best for you.
  • Puzzles, any kind: crosswords, variety puzzles, Sudoku, jigsaws. They focus the mind in a restful but stimulating way. If you don’t have any puzzles lying around, you can find some online here.
  • Fix something: darn a sock, unclog the drain, pull some weeds. It makes you feel in charge again.
  • Read some good news stories. The Toronto Star has a series of them here.
  • Eat dark chocolate. Not too much, not too sweet, or you’ll give yourself new things to worry about.
  • Listen to old radio shows. Take a trip down memory lane, have a laugh. You’ll find some here.
  • Make chicken soup. It’s not hard and you’ll feel good all over. Chop an onion and a couple of stalks of celery and cook them in a bit of water or oil until softened. Add 6 cups of water, ½ cup white wine, 2 bone-in chicken thighs with skin removed, a bay leaf and some thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes. Remove chicken pieces, separate chicken from bone, cut into bite-size pieces and return chicken to saucepan. Discard bones. Add a chopped carrot or two and ½ cup of peas. Simmer for 20 more minutes. Discard bay leaf. Stir in parsley, salt and pepper to taste. If you like, add some noodles in the last 10 minutes.
  • Give yourself a massage. Even just massaging your hands can help. See instructions for different types of massages here.
  • Listen to bedtime stories for grown-ups (no, no, not that kind). You’ll see links to a few here.
  • Take a bath. You don’t need to put bubble bath or anything else in there. The hot water will do the job.

June 29, 2021

Deadbeat cooking

I’m an indifferent cook at best, trying to stay healthy on a few quick, simple dishes. But sometimes I get into a funk and don’t want to bother cooking. For those occasions, I have a few meals I can toss off with a minimum of fuss. These aren’t recipes, this isn’t really cooking. They’re just a few ingredients I can throw together and tell myself I’m still making my own meals, I haven’t stooped to a frozen pizza.

  • Pasta and sardine sauce. Cook some pasta and drain it. Open a can of sardines in tomato sauce. Add them to the pasta. Break up the sardines a bit. Heat through.
  • Pasta and spinach dip. Cook some pasta and drain it. Add spinach dip and heat through.
  • Scrambled egg on toast for one. Put egg in a cup and stir. Mix in some garlic powder, parsley and pepper. Put in the microwave for 20 seconds, stir the mixture, put it back for 20 more seconds; keep doing this until the egg is done. Toast some bread. Spread with tomato paste or ketchup. Spread egg mixture on top.
  • Baked beans on toast. Just what you’d imagine. Toast some bread, heat up some baked beans, spoon them over the toast.
  • Corn on the cob. Dampen a paper towel, wrap it around the corn and put it in the microwave for a couple of minutes.
  • Grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster oven. If you have an adjustable rack, move it down to the lowest position. Leave the baking tray inside, and turn on the oven to 425 degrees F. Get two slices of bread, and spread butter or margarine on one side of each. Put cheese in the middle, against the unbuttered sides. Using oven mitts, take the hot tray out and put the sandwich on it. Put it back in, toast for 4 minutes. Carefully flip with a spatula and put back in for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the second side is browned and the cheese is melted.
  • Baked potatoes with toppings. Preheat oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees F. Wash, scrub and dry some baking potatoes, eg Russets, or sweet potatoes. Stab them here and there with a fork so they don’t explode. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until a fork goes through easily. Slice them open lengthwise and fluff the pulp with a fork. Toppings ideas: baked beans, grated cheese, plain yogurt and chives, salsa, guacamole, chili, pesto.
  • French toast for one. Slightly stale bread works best. Cut two slices in half. Heat some oil in a frying pan. Mix one egg, a bit of water or milk and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Dip bread pieces one by one in the egg mixture, then brown for a few minutes on each side. It’s traditional to have maple syrup with this but I love it with plain yogurt and some strawberries or blueberries.
  • Tomato and rice soup. Cut up an onion, celery stalk and carrot, and sauté until softened. Add ¼ cup long grain rice and cook for 2 minutes. Add a can of diced tomatoes and 4 cups of water, sprinkle in some dried basil, and cook for 15 minutes or until the rice is ready. Nice with cheese and crackers.
  • Chicken and potatoes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Pour some canola oil into a cup, sprinkle in some garlic powder and paprika, and mix well. Cut some potatoes into chunks. Put in a lasagna pan and toss with some of the seasoned oil. Put some bone-in chicken thighs or legs on top, and spoon more oil over them. Roast for 40 minutes. Add some green vegetable, eg broccoli or green beans, toss with the oil, and put back in the oven for 10 more minutes or until everything is done.

May 30, 2021

Smart phone dumb user

I figured I must be the last senior in Canada without a smartphone. For years, I got by with a simple portable phone that you could use just to make and receive calls, and that was all I needed. My generation doesn’t live our whole life online. But then the network the phone ran on became obsolete, and the phone no longer worked. Meanwhile, the list of things you need a smartphone for keeps growing: Uber rides, emergency alerts, the contact tracing app Covid alert, self-guided walks and museum tours, curbside pickup, probably vaccine passports. So I decided to bite the bullet. I’m not averse to technology in general. I used lots of computer resources in my job, and in retirement I learned to build the Senior Toronto website using Drupal software. But I’m new to smartphone technology and, as I found out, my old knowledge doesn’t transfer over. I’m on my own with this, don’t have any handy grandson to call on. I could tell you that I’m documenting my experience for those of you who have yet to go through it, but that’s not the whole story. The fact is, I’m spitting mad, and I need to vent.

I did my homework, decided on a certified refurbished version of an iPhone that came out a few years ago and still gets good reviews. I’m staying out of stores because of the pandemic, so I checked out the prices on Amazon and Best Buy. Every time I checked, the price went up. I learned that both these sites use dynamic pricing: prices keep fluctuating based on supply and demand. These companies don’t say whether they target individual users that way, jacking up the price once you show an interest in a product, but the prices kept rising steadily. So I stopped checking for a month or so, hoping they would forget about me. When I finally went back in, the prices had dropped down almost to the level I saw when I first started looking. So I jumped through the first hoop and ordered the phone.

Next, I went shopping for a bring-your-own-phone plan to cover talk, text and a bit of data. As you probably know, Canadians pay among the highest prices in the world for cellphone plans. This is because 90% of the market is controlled by only three companies: Bell, Rogers and Telus. But they don’t want us to think we’re being hosed, so they all set up three-tiered markets, offering three levels of service, under different company names, which are sometimes called flanker brands. The three tiers are Bell>Virgin>Lucky, Rogers>Fido>Chatr, and Telus>Koodo>Public. They all operate pretty much in lockstep, offering very similar packages with very similar prices at each tier. When one of them raises its prices, they all raise their prices. Anyway, out of this phony market I picked a bring-your-own-phone plan with a bit of data from Fido, and set it up with preauthorized credit card payments. As part of the setup process, Fido always runs a hard credit inquiry on you. Hard credit inquiries automatically lower your credit score, so my score, which had been excellent, immediately went down seven points. That’s to be expected. But then three days later, when they processed my first automated payment, they ran another hard credit inquiry. This time my credit score went down another nine points. I don’t know how many more times they’ll be doing this, but it’s unconscionable for Fido to be doing it more than once, and degrading their own customers’ credit scores.

The upshot is that I was already feeling a bit bruised and battered by the time the phone and SIM card got delivered. Such an innocuous-looking thing, about the size and weight of a chocolate bar. I stared down at it and had no idea how to turn it on. There wasn’t the tiniest piece of paper in the box, not even a quick-start guide. Even my new frying pan came with a few lines of instruction. The industry claims that by now most people already know how to use smartphones, and that they don’t read manuals. I scouted around on the internet and discovered a hodgepodge of articles and YouTube videos, mostly done by inarticulate computer nerds, and rarely focussing on beginners. So I made myself a list of things I had to learn: how to turn it on, how to turn it off, when to turn it off, how to charge it, when to charge it, how to put in the SIM card, how to run through the setup program, how to place a call, how to receive a call, how to text, how to connect to email, how to use the camera, how to search the internet. Now I’m in the process of reading articles and watching videos for each one of those things in turn, and then trying them out. It’s going to take weeks. It would probably go a bit more smoothly if I could just unclench my teeth.

It turns out that I wasn’t the last senior in Canada without a smartphone. An Environics poll conducted in July 2020 found that 65% of Canadians aged 65 and older own a smartphone. That leaves 35%, or about 2,400,000 seniors, who don’t have one. I guess that group is too small and too unpromising to merit marketing and support. But the writing is on the wall; pretty soon we won’t have much choice. Attention senior centres: please provide lots of patient individual help to your clients in selecting, setting up and using smartphones. If you’re a newbie on your own, it’s a nightmare.

April 29, 2021

Who will look after us?

We all hope that when the time comes, we will die peacefully in our sleep at home, after a full and active life. But as they say, you have to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. What if we become mentally or physically incapacitated and can’t look after ourselves anymore? What if we’re on our own and don’t have family members or others to take care of us?

If nothing else gets you, frailty probably will, so it makes sense to move to a place where you don’t have to deal with stairs, yard work or snow shovelling. It could be an apartment, a condo, or maybe a unit in a retirement home, but try to set it up so that you have the option to stay there and not move into care. So make sure that there is room for a caregiver to stay overnight, or to live in if necessary. Or consider assisted living, which offers some degree of personal care and health care support.

If you become mentally incapable of managing your own affairs, can’t prepare meals, can’t handle your finances, you need to find people to do these things for you. You’ll need two kinds of power of attorney, for personal care and for property. The skills and responsibilities for the two roles are quite different, so you might want to choose two or more people. You have to arrange this while you are still mentally competent.

The person you name as power of attorney for personal care can make decisions about your health care, housing and other aspects of your personal life, such as meals and clothing, if you become mentally incapable of making these decisions. It can’t be someone you already pay for care. You need to find a person you can trust to act in your best interest. They may have to advocate for you in the hospital or care home, so they need to be assertive and articulate. You could also try to form a Share the Care group.

Power of attorney for property involves a wide-ranging set of responsibilities, including managing your finances, paying your bills and preparing your income tax. So here too you need to find someone you can trust to act in your best interest. They also must have financial expertise, because they may need to make important financial decisions on your behalf. They’ll have to know all about your finances and have access to them.

What if you don’t have a friend or family member to fill these roles? You’ll have to hire someone. I wish there were someplace you could hire professionals to act as power of attorney, but no such luck. Start looking now to find someone. They’re called attorneys, but they don’t actually have to be lawyers. You could try looking for recommendations from social workers who run information and referral services in local senior centres, or from advocacy groups for seniors, or maybe through relevant local organizations such as the Alzheimer Society of Ontario. If you have an accountant or lawyer or financial advisor, you could try asking them for recommendations. If your affairs are complicated, you could consider hiring an actual lawyer or paralegal. Whoever you pick, it should not be someone who is a beneficiary of your estate. You don’t want them to have a conflict between spending money to meet your needs while you are alive and maximizing their inheritance. Proceed with caution; you’ll be putting a lot of power into someone’s hands.

If you haven’t appointed powers of attorney, and become mentally incapacitated, the Ontario Office of the Public Guardian will assign someone to manage your affairs. But by then you’re in no position to make your wishes known. So make every effort to appoint people of your own choosing while you are still competent to do so.

Once you’ve made those key decisions, you have to turn them into legal documents. For the power of attorney for personal care and the power of attorney for property, download the forms from the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, have them signed by yourself and two witnesses, file them away and let people know where to find them. You might want to include an Advance Directive, documenting your treatment preferences in the event of serious illness. There are good resources available to help you through this part of the process, for example here and here.

The advice out there is pretty sparse and fragmented, but I’ve pulled together the best that I could find. It’s not definitive by any means. For example, I haven’t addressed the question of how to manage all these needs on a low income, mostly because I couldn’t find any good answers. You need to do your own research on the matters that pertain to you. If you have knowledge or expertise that would help guide us, please add your comments.

March 29, 2021

Reading in old age

As the pandemic drags on, I find myself spending more and more time reading. Of course, many of us seniors enjoy reading; having time to read is one of the great perks of retirement. But it feels like more than that now; it’s a lifeline. In our prolonged isolation, books have become companions. Some books help us escape and forget about Covid for a little while. Others offer wise voices that help us reflect, solve problems, cope with our situation, validate our feelings. We think of reading as a solitary activity, but actually it can be a great way to maintain contact with other people. We can share our reading interests and experiences in an online book club, or just in casual conversations. In those conversations, we can explore the issues that concern us in our lives, and cement our friendships.

But now that I’m paying more attention to reading, I also find that I’m getting more picky about what I want to read. I’m no longer very interested in stories that focus on the lives and travails of young characters: coming of age, romantic entanglements, climbing to the top, family sagas full of kids and dogs. I don’t have much patience either for thrillers or most best-sellers, often badly crafted books with wooden characters and slipshod style, written using a formula to maximize sales. If it says in the blurb that the heroine is rich and beautiful, I won’t open it. Now that I’m old I find myself reviewing my life, and trying to use my experience to make sense of the world around me. So I want to read about individuals who grow and learn, outsiders who still find their way, elderly writers documenting their experience in their own voices, speculative or other fiction that explores forms of society that work for ordinary people, books that tear down prevailing myths. I guess I’m looking for truth now, both historical and emotional, and I want books that will open my eyes to it. I want to surround myself with sane, rational, grown-up voices that are looking for truth too.

At least, that’s what I like reading right now. Maybe next month I’ll turn to horror novels or westerns, who knows? But whatever I need, there will always be exactly the right kind of books out there, waiting to be found; companions to share my journey. That’s the beauty of reading.

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.