Category Archives: Senior Viewpoint

Senior Viewpoint: The Heart of the Brain—Losses & Gains

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Are you concerned your brain’s ability may decline as you age, or that it already has?

If so, you’re far from alone. This is one of the most common current concerns about aging.

The Cedar Tree Institute of Marquette recently presented Heart of the Brain, a four-hour workshop addressing the unique nature of individual brains, and the impact of this uniqueness on one’s everyday life. Participants gained insights into the roots of memory and problem solving at different stages of life, with practical techniques and specific practices to improve mental functioning and decision-making.

Heart of the Brain, a unique program created by Layne Kalbfleisch, M.Ed., Ph.D., is an amalgam of psychology, neurology, pediatrics, behavior modification, education, art, prayerfulness, and intuition. Kalbfleisch designed this program to help participants learn basic principles about the brain’s function and plasticity–how it adapts, remembers, creates, and imagines in childhood and across life; the difference between good and bad stress; and new skills to keep it healthy, enhance memory, and support skills and talent in the individual.

Usually aging is seen as loss.

However, that’s not necessarily true. The brain, with its principle of plasticity, over time brings a tradeoff between declarative memory (names, dates, and other straightforward facts) and non-declarative memory (recollection of how to do things automatically, such as drive, swim, bike, etc.). With repetitive structures to daily life in place, elders may bring more openness, and approach their lives more creatively.

Cedar Tree Institute Executive Director Jon Magnuson notes, “I’ve seen this with people I’ve worked with in counseling—the ability to see options one hadn’t when younger, coming to a different way to look at one’s life. In the faith community, I’ve found it’s your children and elders who are the most creative, and that those in the middle age range are more likely to have become hardened and rigid.”

Kalbfleisch’s years as an educational psychologist, cognitive neuroscientist, and educator give her a unique background to approach brain function challenges from several perspectives at once. She is the founder of 2E Consults ® LLC, and works with doctors, psychiatrists, educators, physical therapists, and other professionals to help them function as a team to solve problems and ensure support from all sides for her clients.

“Teachers, doctors, psychologists, scientists–they all live in separate universes,” Kalbfleisch said.

“I bring information from learning science into people’s lives, uncover the root of problems, and help people understand them and find ways to work on them. The evaluation processes are standard, but I use the results more holistically to target change,” she said.

Kalbfleisch studies the relationship between talent and disability, and how the human brain supports ingenuity and problem-solving throughout a lifetime.  “I work across the lifespan,” she said. “I work with young children through those suffering from age-related changes to memory.”

Kalbfleisch helps clients use their natural assets to solve problems. She looks at the client’s weaknesses and strengths in functioning, and helps them understand and change unwanted behaviors. “Natural resources can be disguised as a burden,” she said.

Here are some of Kalbfleisch’s recommendations to help optimize your own brain’s function:

Make Music 

People who have training in music and who engage in music on a regular basis are being shown to have brains that are more resistant to distraction. Don’t play an instrument? Sing! This helps your brain to integrate and exercise, powerfully impacting its abilities.

Sleep Well

Deep, REM sleep lets your brain rest, sort, and sift, providing hygiene for your brain. Have trouble sleeping?  Fit more zzzs in with a nap. Research is showing naps support better cognitive processing.
Exercise – Staying active helps keep the parts of the brain that facilitate memory from aging as fast as the rest of the brain, so find and continue the forms that work for you.

Exercise

Staying active helps keep the parts of the brain that facilitate memory from aging as fast as the rest of the brain, so find and continue the forms that work for you.

Engage Socially 

Having a social life and engaging with others supports the aging brain by protecting against inflammation and supporting the processes that allow you to grow new brain cells in response to social experiences and activities. For bonus points, talk about your feelings. This exercises your ability to empathize, a key factor in connecting with others, which in turn improves your quality of life.

Kalbfleisch is affiliated with Pediatrics at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., and in the College of Education at Northern New Mexico College, Espanola, NM. She has been featured on CNN with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, SiriusXM Doctor Radio, The Coffee Klatch – Special Needs Radio, Rhode Island PBS ‘School Talk’ and as a columnist writing on brain science and education for the Fairfax County Times. To learn more, visit 2E Consults at the2e.com. Layne Kalbfleisch can be reached at (505) 316-0285 or 2econsults@gmail.com.

Thank you to article contributors Layne Kalbfleisch, Vicki Londerville, Jon Magnuson, and Roslyn McGrath.

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2019 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2019. All rights reserved

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Senior Viewpoint: Navigating the New Give-and-Take, John Olesnavage

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We spend a lifetime learning how to be independent and self-sufficient. We are taught to rely on our own wits and resources to take care of ourselves and those we love. Forget Spiderman and Batman, MacGyver is the real American hero! Give him a stick of gum, a can of paint, or a roll of duct tape, and he can conquer any obstacle.

As we mature, we take pride in standing on “our own two feet.” Then time marches us along into the “golden years.” We may start losing our car keys and forget about that doctor’s appointment we needed to keep. A few short years later, we may find ourselves standing on the corner of Main St. and Vine, gripping our cane tightly, not sure we can make it across the street before the light changes. A man stops his car, gets out and stands there like a crossing guard until we safely make it across. Head down, resolute, we shuffle forward, not daring to look up at the light or the traffic. We nod at the man as we shuffle past him, and mumble thank you, but what we feel is diminished and somewhat ashamed. So much for being self-sufficient! We are more likely at the mercy of our own failing body. How do we reconcile or make lemonade out of this lemon?

We have a choice. We can resent growing old and in need of help, or we can see the strength and power in letting others help us. Let’s look at how that works.

It starts with understanding the co-creative nature of a helping relationship. Co-creative means that both parties are stretching beyond what is expected and giving of their time and talent. We know the gift/assistance we have received, but what do we, the receiver of this generosity, give back?

We give the gift of helping someone else feel needed, appreciated, and in a real way, powerful. That is why resenting their help diminishes not only their gift, but they themselves. Doing so is missing a life-affirming connection. Did you ever give someone a gift and see them never even take it out of the box? I did, and felt hurt for a long time.

When we give the gift of letting someone help us, we are also co-creating some new space. That space is quite magical. It has the power to transform a mundane act such as holding a door open into an act of affirmation, maybe even healing. We are receiving while we are also giving. This is “Co-creation 101.” It means letting go of pride, yes, but it also means bestowing some pride on someone else. It calls for some vulnerability, yes, but also a realization that something bigger than a door being opened is going on.

And, while we are making that giver-of help feel powerful and good, who has the greater power? It may well be the person gripping the cane, or, could we call it a wizard’s wand? Eat your heart out MacGyver! But, remember, that wand works best with a light touch. Too much power (or pride in what you can do for the other person) will also diminish the gift.

We are taught to be self-sufficient, but the real strength is in knowing how to form co-created relationships.

John Olesnavage, author of Ask* your Powerful Question, is a psychologist, educator, and author who follows his own Powerful Question “each-and-every-day.” John also wrote Our Boundary, a book describing his ground-breaking, boundary-based approach to counseling.

Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2019 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

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Senior Viewpoint: Your Personal Legacy is Happening Now, Heather Mlsna

hand-1549399_1280A personal legacy isn’t something static that appears or is bequeathed when we die. We are continually creating it. Our everyday actions, emotions, and behaviors combine into a series of good and bad experiences that result in our individual life history.

When considering the legacy we are leaving behind, it’s helpful to take an honest look at our lives—from our earliest memories to present-day experiences. Chances are, as you take time to reflect, you will recall events that made you feel all sorts of emotions.

Often, these feelings move us to want to write about our lives, perhaps even more so as we move into our later years. We may feel a need to “set the record straight” by clarifying words and actions from our past. This sort of project can be comprehensive or narrow in scope, and can take the shape of a letter, memoir, journal entry, conversation, poem, etc. Legacy writing can take many forms, but the first step always begins with personal reflection.

How do we tell our story? One way is to create a personal legacy document. The exercise that follows is an example of how to write about a life event in need of remediation. However, the process can be used to describe any of your experiences.

A personal legacy document is defined as any narrative that describes or explains a period of time in someone’s life.

If you are unsure where to start, reflect on your individual history, and make two columns on a piece of paper. It’s sometimes helpful to look at old photo albums to aid your reflective journey. Start with your childhood, and systematically move through your history to the present. In one column, list the deeds of which you’re proud. In the other section, record anything you’ve done that you regret.

Take a look at your list and identify which negative memory causes you the most pain. Circle it. This is your starting point. Here is where you identify your audience, or the wronged party. Write the name of the person, place, or thing involved in this recollection next to the circled memory. This is who you will be addressing in your document.

Next, on a new page, record everything you can remember about this unsettling life event. Make three columns labeled: before, during, and after. Write down the concrete and abstract details of what happened in the beginning, middle, and end of the experience. Remember to include feelings, intentions, your temperament that day, and personal circumstances at that point in your life. Try to identify all the existing verbal and nonverbal communication going on at that moment. You are not creating a document here; you are brainstorming, so don’t worry about creating sentences. Get your ideas on paper in any manner that is functional to you.

These pieces are the elements you’ll use to construct the story of what happened, a graphic organizer or outline to guide your writing process. If you don’t have enough information in any of the three columns, go back to brainstorming and look harder at the situation. Add some sensory details to your lists so you can show – and not just tell – your reader how you feel. For example, “Right before I saw you, my brother called to say we needed to paint our parents’ house. My arthritis was so painful that day that the thought of doing that plunged me right into a funky mood.”

Now you are ready to write. It’s important to remember writing is a process. What you put down on paper initially will not be perfect, and you shouldn’t strive to make it so. Write, and do it fearlessly, so you can find your inner truth and voice, and then convey this to others.

What you have created thus far lays the foundation for plotting your story. All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. These are equivalent to the before, during, and after columns you’ve just created.

The “before” represents the exposition of your story—the explanation for what leads to the negative interaction you are trying to remediate by writing. But before you get to the part where the trouble explodes, you need to show how the exchange built up. If you’ve brainstormed adequately, these essential pieces will be in the “before” and “during” sections of your outline or graphic organizer.

Although it takes time to write these details, they are a key part of the process, helping you to illustrate what brought you to the moment of harm (the climax). This allows for the expression of your humanity – right or wrong – and to tell your side of the story, giving the reader an opportunity to connect with your state of being, and perhaps find insight into your thoughts and actions.

The person or people being addressed won’t need help recognizing the climax and what came afterwards for them. However, you will need to tell them how it has affected you. This is the “after” of your story, illustrating the falling action, or what came after the life event.

Finally, we arrive at the point of resolution, where you get to apologize and attempt to make restitution for your actions or words. It’s the most important part because without a thorough and honorable admission of your misdeed, you cannot ask for a reprieve. You have to be crystal clear about what you are owning, and what you are asking forgiveness for. Better still, describe any life lessons you learned and carry with you.

Your first draft is now complete. As you go back to revise and edit it, you can decide on your vehicle of delivery. Will you make this document into a letter? Will you deliver the information personally through conversation? Will you compose a short story and offer it to the transgressed? Will you keep it as a diary entry for yourself? (Sometimes the latter choice is the only one available if our audience is deceased.)

Read your finished first draft out loud to yourself. Note information or descriptions to add, and scratch out anything that doesn’t make sense. Rewrite to include omissions and additions, and make sure there is unity in your document so every sentence advances your story. Do this over and over until you are satisfied. If you are feeling brave, have a friend or relative read your story and offer a critique.

You can repeat this process any number of times. These same steps can also be used to describe wholesome, nourishing pieces of your history, or the history of a relative or friend. Doing this can support the flow of your life into the future, knowing you have done your very best to be a good person.

Creating a legacy document can open doors of communication you thought were closed. It can illustrate a life that was previously unknown, stand as a memorial to a deceased person, aid in remembering favorite trips or adventures, help heal relationships, figure out our place here on earth, or be thematic and pull memories from various corners of your mind. Chances are, as you move through the process of writing there will be an element of self-discovery. Your life – your living legacy – may be enhanced with this unveiling.

Heather Mlsna is a professional writer. Her business, Last Letters/No Regrets, seeks to promote healing and remembrance through writing. It serves individuals seeking to express themselves on paper who need help getting started. Heather can be reached at lastlettersmqt@gmail.com. (https://lastlettersnoregrets.com

Excerpted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Winter 2018-19 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

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A Senior’s Viewpoint: Women’s Rights through the Years by Karlyn Rapport

Our parents worked to make things better for the next generation. Are we?

In the late ’60s, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique raised awareness of inequities women face. At that time in Marquette, women could not have a library card, a credit card, or a loan in their name.

Changes have occurred, but women do not have equal rights. The 14th Amendment of the Constitution states men are guaranteed equality under the law. Women are not included. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) says:” Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Congress overwhelmingly approved ERA on March 22, 1972. Thirty-five of the needed thirty-eight states ratified this amendment, but we were unable to obtain the needed three states by the 1982 deadline.

Recently, Nevada and Illinois ratified ERA. A third state is likely to follow. Congress needs to pass legislation extending the deadline, recognizing the ratification of three additional states. It is unlikely this Congress will do so. In view of hard-fought gains, is it necessary? The ERA would clarify for all that sex discrimination in employment, reproductive rights, insurance, Social Security, education, and more is a violation of our constitutional rights as Americans. Legislation, court victories, and presidential executive orders against sex discrimination are not permanent. The ERA places the burden of proof on those discriminating instead of those fighting for equality. Now men have rights, but women have to prove they have rights.

In the ’50s, women could be teachers, secretaries, clerks, waitresses, and nurses. I was the first teacher in the Ishpeming school system allowed to teach while pregnant. The fact that I was one of three speech pathologists in the U.P and Ishpeming was sorely in need of my services helped. Now women can enter any field. However, women are confronted by a glass ceiling, a gender pay gap, a motherhood penalty, and worse. Pay inequity is a loss of family income. Each diminished paycheck affects future Social Security and retirement income as well. The 2012 Census revealed 17.8 million women or 1:7 live in poverty; low-paying jobs, lack of access to reproductive healthcare, and unaffordable child care trap them.

The Affordable Care Act allowed access to contraception, reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions. These rights are in jeopardy. Access to reproductive health care is sex discrimination. Women and only women are denied control of their reproductive lives. Roe vs. Wade is under threat by a conservative Supreme Court. A woman’s financial security and her right to make the decision whether or when to parent a child is in jeopardy. In 1959, a dear friend suffered tragic losses of her husband and 3-year-old daughter due to carbon monoxide. She miraculously survived. She was 6 weeks pregnant. Two obstetricians and a psychiatrist recommended termination of the pregnancy, but the University of Michigan Hospital would not perform this medical procedure. I travelled with her to New York, where she paid a prosecuting attorney to protect herself from being charged with a crime. I know of others who died as result of illegal abortions. Recently an Arizona woman tried to have her physician’s prescription for an abortifacient filled because the fetus she was carrying died in utero. The pharmacist would not fill it. States have adopted 833 measures restricting women’s reproductive rights since 1995.

Violence against women remains pervasive. There are 1.3 million women victims of physical assault reported yearly. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates this is one quarter of the actual numbers. One in 6 women have been victims of attempted or completed rape.

In the late ’60s, a serial rapist attacked women on the bike path in Marquette. Houses posted red signs in their window indicating this was a place to run for safety. The perpetrator was eventually apprehended. The Women’s Center developed a team of trained advocates to assist women through the process of dealing with this trauma. The hospital began using forensic rape kits. The Women’s Center continues to offer support for survivors of sexual violence.

As a speech pathologist at MGH, I treated several patients who suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of domestic violence. Family members were afraid to provide shelter fearing reprisal by the assailant.

Members of the Marquette Branch of AAUW assisted me in bringing a Spouse Abuse Task Force together of people and agencies trying to help survivors of domestic violence. The Women’s Center, law enforcement, and the prosecuting attorney’s office were at that table. The Spouse Abuse Shelter, now Harbor House, is a product of this task force. The Women’s Center, its Harbor House program, and the Blue Print for Safety Program through the Prosecutor’s Office continue to assist survivors in rebuilding their lives and are focusing efforts to hold the perpetrator accountable.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is up for reauthorization. This legislation addresses domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence. VAWA supports and funds essential services for survivors and their families. This bill improves health care responses, and provides housing protections crucial to improving safety when survivors flee abuse. Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and their children. Urge legislators to co-sponsor this legislation and adequately fund it.

The Me Too movement gives me hope. Sexual harassment and violence persist. Now some perpetrators face consequences. Will such egregious behavior be tolerated?

The Equal Rights Amendment could provide remediation. All need to work for equality for all. Will we continue to allow women to be treated as second class citizens? My advice: Do research. Learn what the job is worth. Learn to negotiate an equitable wage. Work for ERA. Above all, vote on November 6 as if your life and the lives of your children and grandchildren depend on it because, in fact, they do.

Karlyn Rapport, founding mother of the Women’s Center’s Harbor House, is the Public Policy Representative for the Marquette Branch of AAUW and Michigan AAUW’s Public Policy Committee. She was Marquette County Commissioner for 6 years and is currently on Marquette County’s Board of Health.

Excerpted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Fall 2018 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

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Senior Viewpoint: Hands of Time, by Esther Margaret Ayers

“Do wrinkles hurt?”

The eleven-year-old boy asked it suddenly as we sat together on the piano bench. I had asked the student to observe my hands on the keys, showing him the proper position: curved fingers, the wrist forming a level bridge from hand to forearm.

“What?” I was caught off guard, unable to think of a simple reply. With three fingers and a thumb, he stretched the thin skin on top of one of my hands. It obligingly yielded, rising in a pale tent of tissue. He released it, and the tent slowly collapsed. “Old people have such cool skin,” he murmured.

“Okay, buster,” I retorted, gently batting his hand away. “Your turn to try this.”

I was thirty-two years of age at the time. I certainly didn’t accept the notion of myself as old. This was the first occasion a student had even hinted at such a thing. After his lesson was over, I briefly contemplated my hands, then set the moment aside. I was, after all, a young wife and mother, a teacher, a graduate student; I had no time to think about Time.

In my forties, a single parent, I continued to teach piano in addition to my full-time job as a vocal music teacher. My students continued to teach me, too.

One student, in her fifties, studied with me for eight years. She had grown up in a poor rural family, but had always wanted to play the piano. Over the years she mastered the basics, learned to play hymns and popular songs of her youth. Yet she loved the classics and we began to learn the much beloved Adagio Cantabile from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. She learned the notes and rhythms readily, but neither of us could understand why certain passages were so difficult, why it didn’t sing. We labored in some frustration until one day she sighed, “Maybe it’s my hands. You’re still young; you wouldn’t understand. But I’m getting older.”

I tried to brush it off. “Oh, we all have different hands. You’ll be playing in your seventies.”

“No, look at my hands. I think it’s the arthritis.”

I looked—really looked—at her hands, seeing them for the first time. I saw the swelling and redness. I had been so focused on the music and the instrument, I had been looking right past her hands. How could I have been so blind?

I took her hands in mine. She encouraged me to feel the knobs forming at her joints. “It’s probably from the laundry.”

“Laundry?”

“Yes, that’s what the doctor thinks. I was the oldest of nine kids. My job was to hang wet laundry outside on the line. He thinks it’s a miracle I can play the piano at all, but says it’s good for my hands.”

I closed my eyes, picturing the little girl in the woods near Big Bay, her bare fingers freezing in the winter wind as she pinned up the family washing.

“Shall I play it again?” she asked.

Yes, please. Tears ran down my face this time as she played the timeless melody.

It’s been twenty years since the woman with arthritis suggested I was too young to understand, and 30 years since that boy cast me as an ‘old’ person. I still work full-time: mornings are for writing, afternoons for piano teaching. Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of students of all ages, all with something to teach me.

This fall, a new student began lessons with me, a professional woman in her forties, with a good ear and a ready laugh. She took lessons as a child. As a yoga instructor, her posture is already perfect. Her fingers curve beautifully over the keys. However, when she plays the Arabesque, I hear a brittle, tense tone. I observe how her wrists and arms are locked.

I say, “Watch me play for a moment.”

“Oh,” she exclaims, after a few measures. “You make it look so easy. Your hands move so naturally.”

“Here.” I pat the bench of my piano. “Come sit beside me. Let’s draw some circles with our wrists and elbows.”

It’s true my presbyopia makes me fiddle with myriad sets of glasses, which amuses my young students. But I wouldn’t trade the eyes I have now for anything; I see more clearly, with more openness.

It’s true my ears don’t work as well as they once did, especially that left one. But I hear my students better, for I have finally learned how to listen to them.

And even I will admit I have “old hands.” But these hands are still learning—from my own teacher, now in her mid-seventies, who guides them in making even more beautiful the music I still desire.

Esther Margaret Ayers (known to her students as Esther LaVoy Barrington) lives and writes in Marquette. She has taught piano from her home studio near McCarty’s Cove since 1983.

Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Winter 2017 – 2018 Issue, copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

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