Archive for the tag “aging”

Good-by Bailey

old Bailey Puppy Bailey copy

Sadly, I am writing this blog about deep loss. This week I said good-by to Bailey, our old yellow lab who lived 16 long years (and a few months). Larger breed dogs often live 10-12 years so we were very lucky to have Bailey with us for so long.

We think she lived as long as she did because she was so easy going. Bailey never rushed or even exerted herself. We had another lab, Mudd, a chocolate lab. He loved to retrieve anything. If you pulled out a tennis ball, you should be ready to invest some time and energy because Mudd would chase it for an hour. Bailey on the other hand might retrieve the ball once and would only trot to get the ball and then walk back, drop it at our feet and go lay down. She was easy to train because she didn’t pull on the leash—that would require too much effort. We rarely had to ask her to sit or lay because she was in repose most of the time.

But time finally caught up with her. She had terrible arthritis in her hips and shoulders; she had a benign tumor that was the size of a puppy on her side making it hard for her to lay on one side (vet said it was too dangerous to remove at her age and it would grow back); she had almost no muscle development in her hindquarters; her sight was bad though she wasn’t completely blind; she was mostly deaf and was becoming incontinent. Lately we had an increasing in incidences where all four legs would splay out and she’d go down and was not able to get up on her own so we couldn’t leave her alone. In spite of all of these aging challenges, she continued to wag her tail, loved seeing the grandkids and she never lost her appetite. With physical help and lots of love, we helped her maintain some quality of life. Still, I knew the time was near but I wondered how I would know when it was time to let go.

The vet told me I should trust myself and that I would make the decision at the right time. Given how long she lived in spite of great physical loss, I doubted his advice. Yet on Tuesday she did tell me. Most days Bailey would get up in the morning, eat, go outside to relieve herself and come back in to nap for hours. She’d go outside again around 1 pm and then sleep until dinner. But on Tuesday, she followed me around the house all morning. I work from home so I spend time in my office and between calls and projects, I rush around picking up the house, doing laundry and washing dishes. Following me rather than resting was completely out of character.

Finally I sat down next to her, put my arm around her neck and buried my face into her soft, warm neck. Tears slipped from my eyes as I immediately realized what she was asking. I said “OK Bailey.” She looked at me, licked my face and then she walked to her bed and was finally able to rest. Later that day our vet helped Bailey move on to her next life.

With great love comes great pain. I ache physically, emotionally and mentally from the loss of Bailey. I have had a headache for 24 hours and my stomach is in knots. Yet it is this intense pain that forces me to think about Bailey and the manygifts she gave me and to realize that the person I am today better for having Bailey in my life. She taught me the joy of just “being” and of non-judgmental love. I pray that she will watch over me and look for me when it’s my turn to make that journey.

By Susan Cain McCarty



Aging with a Dog Blog

By Susan Cain McCarty

I plan to write a few articles about aging with a dog, a topic I’m passionate about since I am aging and have two Boston’s, Chester who is 3 and Bruin, 5 and a very old yellow lab, Bailey, 16 ½. I’ve not only owned several different breeds of dogs with very unique dispositions and personalities but long ago I groomed dogs (way of earning money while in school) and I trained level-one obedience.

There are several important social and safety issues to consider. From a social perspective, you may want to consider not only your long-term living needs but those of your pet, particularly if you have (or plan to acquire) a young dog and especially if it’s a smaller breed that may live a long time and even outlive you. Also, you will want to consider whether your pet can move with you if you decided to change living environments and if not, what arrangements can be made for his next home. Some assisted living residences accept pets but many don’t. Similarly there are a few adult foster care homes that will accept a pet. In a future blog, I plan to write more about the social aspects of selecting and living with a dog into our aging years.

This blog will focus on safety for you (and somewhat for your pet). Some people agree with and enjoy Caesar, the Dog Whisperer, and others think his methods are too strict. Having worked with many types of dogs, I find his style and methods work quite well. If you watch one or two of his TV shows, you can learn his approach without watching all the other shows: 1) Be the boss or as Caesar expresses it, “the pack leader” 2) Every day, approach your dog calmly and with compassionate authority. If you are anxious or insecure, your dog will sense this and training and your relationship with your dog will suffer.

Those are the keys to a successful relationship with your dog. Oh and one more point—dogs are loving, kind and loyal but they aren’t human. Don’t humanize them. You can’t change dogs into people. They are meant to live in packs and have a leader. They can be your helpmate and your best friend but they are not human and they are not your child. Respect their need to have a leader and be that leader. If you don’t accept that role, they will be the leader and the result is often an axious dog and an aggressive dog. Neither is suitable as an ideal dog. Treat them with respect, consistency, fairness, love and always be the pack leader and you will do well.

One of my biggest concerns is teaching your dog how to be safe in the house with you and when on a walk. Some dogs—often small ones—will circle around you and weave between your legs or jump on you, particularly when excited (perhaps waiting for dinner or for you to attach his leash). This is very dangerous. As we age, our balance becomes impaired and a dog that is underfoot is a tripping and falling hazard.You can end up with a broken arm, leg or hip or at a minimum a bad strain or several bruises. As we age, any physical damage can mean a long recovery. So teach your dog not to run around at your feet nor cross in front of you. You can use your voice, hands or feet to train them to keep their distance until they are called to your lap or to your side.

Some people think it’s abusive to push a dog with your foot. It is if you kick them but not if you are using your foot and leg to gently push them—it’s simply an extension of your arm and you don’t have to bend over. Whether you use your arm or leg, when you push them away, give a one or two-word commandor a noise such as clicking as you are pushing. If you do this often, eventually you can give up the physical “push” and instead use the command or noise (a click or a command such as “move” or “away”). Whatever command and/or noise you use, use it consistently. I click to my dogs just like I did to my horses when I had them and that works fine. Other people think I’m strange and they are probably right but it works for me.

My husband likes to speak in sentences to the dogs. He might say, “Move away you are too close and I’m going to trip,” and he will actually expect them to obey. I’ve told him—remember Peanuts—all they hear is “blah, blah, blah.” Use one or two word commands and you can even use a different language just for fun. But be consistent and they will learn.

Going for a walk

Having a dog when older often means lots of walks—that’s great for you and wonderful for the dog. However, I consider every single walk a training opportunity for myself and the dog.

First and foremost—don’t put the collar on or attach the leash if the dog is jumping and excited. People tend to talk in a higher voice with a dog—a more excited voice or “baby talk” saying, “Want to go for a walk? Walk? Let’s go for a walk”. It’s no wonder the dog is anxious—your voice and probably your body language are axious and excited.Instead, use a calm and assertive voice.

We like to camp with our dogs and when camping, we take them on several walks each day since they can’t roam free. I put the leashes on only when they are calm and not jumping. I then drop the leash on the floor, make them sit and then I open the door and exit. I stand at the bottom of the motorhome stairs and they cannot get up from a sitting position until I say “come” (or “release”—whatever works for you). Once they come to me I immediately pull back gently on the leashes to remind them “I’m the boss and you will start the walk calmly.” They then begin the walk in a relaxed frame of mind and they are listening to me. Whether camping or at home I follow this process. No walk or exiting the house until they are relaxed and following directions.

Second, NO pulling.Maybe you took your dog to obedience training and he will heel but I see few dogs exhibiting such training. So here are simple tips: When your dog pulls on the leash, click or use whatever noise you like and a command like “no pull” while pulling back on the leash (don’t “jerk”—that’s hard on their neck and shows anxiety). There are many devices to help you when walking a dog including different types of collars. Some collars are more like a bridle on a horse and they circle the noise; some are choke chains (never found these helpful and find them cruel but that’s one opinion); some have spikes that push on their skin (they aren’t as gruesome as they look but I’ve never found them necessary); some are a chest harnesses; and some are plain old collars. I think what you use is less important than consistent training techniques. I personally use a mesh harness that puts pressure on the chest;however,what works for me and my dogs and may not work for you. I wouldn’t ask your vet or the person at the pet store for advice—unless they train dogs they probably won’t have the best advice—I’d do some online searching and find qualified trainer advice.

In the beginning, you may need to pull back on the leash with some strength, but if you are consistent, by the third walk using consistent training techniques, your dogshould understand what you want from the gentlest tug on the leash. Do this often—don’t let them pull really hard and for a while before correcting. As soon as they are at the end of the leash and you feel any strain, correct them. Never use more force than is necessary to get the desired result. I keep pressure on the leash with my pinky finger and pull gently with that. That’s all it takes most of the time. One word of advice on leashes—don’t use the retractable ones that typically extend from 16 to 26 feet. That’s too much freedom and you aren’t training the dog to walk close and calmly. More important, I don’t feel it’s a safe choice for the dog (or you). If a dog is extended 16 foot in front of you and something catches his eye and he’s not on his best behavior, he has 16 feet of room to go in any direction including the street or someone’s garden. I use a six-foot leash and find that works great for walks.

Have a plan about how you want to walk your dog. Do you want him to be allowed to pee at several bushes, fire hydrants and car tires? If so, that’s OK but decide whether you will allow this early in the walk or at the end of the walk but after 5 minutes of that, they must “walk on” for the remainder of the walk—no stopping unless you decide to take a break. There’s no reason they have to continue to sniff and pee. So give them a few minutes for that but then the rest of the time they must walk by your side or in front of you but never pulling at the end of the leash.

Don’t let your dog cross in front of or behind you. I have two Boston’s and my daughter has two. I like to walk three or four at a time (one of them is lazy and I like to walk for about four miles so sometimes it’s just three dogs). When I walk with them, I assign a “side” and all must stay on the side they are assigned. They can’t switch places or dash to the other side because something smells beautifully rotten. Again, I use my foot so that I can correct immediately rather than bending over. With the front or side of my foot, I gently push them back into place on the correct side and again using a “click” or voice command. Eventually you should be able to use only one: the voice command, click or gentle push.  HOWEVER, if using your foot causes you to feel off-balance, don’t use this technique. Use your hand and/or words.

I never allow our dogs to smell other dogs (unless I know them and the dogs are “friends”) or bark. I am very attentive to other dog walkers. If I see a dog approaching that is in a highly anxious state—pulling on the leash, barking, jumping or growling, I move to the other side of the street. It’s not because I can’t train my dog to behave but I don’t want to put my dog or myself in a situation that could result in danger to either of us.

Finally, if you want to walk your dog but feel you can’t train him to be safe, bring in a trainer but remember—you must be trained as well.

Dogs are such important companions. I encourage those who love them to have them up until the day you die if you enjoy them and they enhance your life. My mother-in-law is 92 and she lost her beloved “Candy” last month. While she mourned her greatly, she also realized that having Candy was critical to her well being given she could no longer drive and most of her friends had passed. Wisely she wanted and acquired another dog that was older but healthy and well trained.

However, the topic of selecting a dog matching your needs, age, and physical condition is a topic for another blog…

If you have an experience to share relating to this topic or any topic about aging that is of interest to you, let me know. You can reach me at or 408-393-4794.


Susan Cain McCarty spent over 25 years in high-tech marketing and is still consulting in that role today; however, she acquired a late-in-life Master’s in Interdisciplinary studies focusing on Gerontology. She now has a second careerconsulting as a Geriatic Care Manger helping elders and their loved ones plan for aging.



Judy Zehr Shares Her Journey With Her Mom

Blissful + Kind-Hearted, October 2013
(full version found at

Hello dear ones,

Autumn is change; dying back, cooling down, tuning within. Autumn is sky. Autumn is clouds.

My Mom passed away this Autumn. Her ashes were spread under the yellowing Maple leaves behind the church we attended as children, where my Mother and Father were married, where we kids were baptized, where I sang in the choir until I became too cool for church and family and singing hundred year old hymns.

My Mom had become ill with c.diff., a superbug created from our over-use of antibiotics. C. diff isn’t so bad for healthy folks, but it can kill infants and the elderly or people with compromised immune systems. Within 6 weeks my Mom went from walking, going out to lunch, shopping and laughing to wheelchair bound, mumbling, unable to lift her head or complete sentences. She could no longer feed herself, or use the restroom. 

I learned so much trying to help my Mom through this, and I don’t want to assume this will be interesting for all, so if you click on any of the linked blue words throughout this text, you will be able to read one of my lessons. That way, you can skip them or pick and choose what has interest for you. The whole list of lessons is at the bottom of this newsletter.

Of course it is the natural course of life to say goodbye to our parents. My Mother had Alzheimer’s, and she hadn’t really known my husband or children for over ten years. The last couple of years she only had a vague recollection of me. But none of that mattered at the end. Love and forgiveness. That’s one of my lessons, when it boils down to this transition, all you can feel is love and forgiveness. As blessed a transition as birth.

ButterfliesFamilyNature. Death is a great companion, a beautiful mediator, a most powerful guardian, a kiss-blowing spiritual sender- off.

When we experience death and loss we are facing, what we call in Emotional Brain Training (EBT),  an “essential pain” of life. When we face these essential pains, heart open, awake, feeling our real feelings and staying in our body (without numbing, avoiding, hiding, distracting, diverting, etc.) we begin to open up to the earned rewards, or silver linings of life. This is at the heart of spiritual and emotional growth, of our own development, of our personal journey.

I continue to be amazed at how helpful the EBT skills are in traveling through life’s challenges staying in relative balance, connection, and awareness. I found these skills  lifesavers in helping my Mom, family and self through this transition.

This season, I am offering an EBT and Beyondtele-group for advanced participants, and a beginning EBT tele-group for anyone new to the work. I am also offering an EBT providers-only tele-group too. If you are interested in more information or signing up, please email me

This too was one of my lessons, stay true to what you love, be real which means flawed, imperfect, broken. Cherish the falling apart, the aging, the dying. Feel, breathe, sing.

May your Autumn be filled with love, song and what’s real,


P.S. I found some very nurturing and supportive tools during this time that I’d like to share with you. Click here and you can see some of the books, meditations and practices that seemed to hold me through this transition.

My Lessons:


My Mom was born and raised in the Midwest, as was I, right near Lake Michigan. There was something so compelling about the big sky, the big lake, and the glorious clouds that showed up season after season and seemed to prompt us to play, explore, believe. Here in Portland, the sky seems small as we have so many hills and huge trees.

If you are a cloud lover like me, and you haven’t seen this TED talk on clouds, please do so ASAP! What an amazing speaker and group dedicated to clouds. It’s title? Cloudy, with a chance of joy.


Both my parents were cremated and had purchased small “plots” under a “Remembrance Wall” behind the church they attended. One of the most difficult moments was seeing my brother put the ashes down into the ground. I’ve heard the same from friends who witnessed a body’s burial … the sinking of the casket into the ground, the first shovels of dirt dropped upon the casket ….the most devastating, breathless moments.

I realized that for me, there’s secret joy in death – the freedom from the body’s pain, the rising of the spirit, beyond the limits of our senses and perceptions. It seems that death is a great uplifting, and for me, spreading my ashes to the wind and sky feels more nurturing and joyful. Have you thought of your last moments, how you want to celebrate and let go?

C. Diff.

“Illness from C. difficile most commonly affects older adults in hospitals or in long-term care facilities and typically occurs after use of antibiotic medications. However, studies show increasing rates of C. difficile infection among people traditionally not considered high risk, such as younger and healthy individuals without a history of antibiotic use or exposure to health care facilities. Each year, more than a half million people get sick from C. difficile, and in recent years, C. difficile infections have become more frequent, severe and difficult to treat”.

What to do about superbugs? My Mom went into the hospital with a simple UTI, and came out with this virulent bacteria. She never licked it, even after rounds of antibiotics.

One thing we learned, she was not given the strongest antibiotics at first. She was treated with several rounds of ineffective antibiotics, antibiotics that physicians said work in 75% of cases, and are cheaper, so are first defense. If my Mom had received the stronger antibiotic, the one that costs more money and is not the first line of treatment, would she have been able to survive this superbug? Who knows, but what we did learn, for certain, our elders need advocates. My Mom needed the stronger antibiotic. She was in the 25%. She didn’t get it for months, and by the time she got it, she was beyond repair.

Information and advocacy. We all need it, and need it even more as we age.

Help my Mom

Honestly, it’s my Mom that is and was helping me. At her service my brother, sister and I shared some of the stories, values and “Mother wisdom” passed down from my Mom. Here’s what I shared:


How lucky we are to have grown up with a Mom with such a big heart and strong character.

One thing Mom and I shared was a love for Winnie the Pooh. In fact, she taught me to read with Pooh books. So when Mom was ill I pulled out my old books and started to read. It had been almost 50 years. You can imagine my surprise as I realized Mom and Pooh Bear had amazing similarities – their philosophy of life, their wit and their big heart.

I have four quotes, straight from Winnie the Pooh’s mouth, to show you what I mean:

1. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.

Mom lived in, and had a deep appreciation for, the present moment. In my generation, where I live, out west, people pay big bucks for fancy retreats to try to learn the Betty Zehr style of living – Be Here Now. Even as she aged and lost her memory, caregivers would tell us how much they loved our Mom, how she taught them to notice and appreciate the little things – the cherry tree blooming outside the window, or the pretty cloud in the sky, as if seeing these things for the first time. 

2. It’s more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “what about lunch?”

Mom had a simplicity about her. She didn’t like to analyze things, she didn’t like to get all bothered by ideas, politics, deep discussions. I remember Alison and Dad getting into arguments over politics, economics, society, almost everything, but Mom would always just shrug. She had a “que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be”, approach to life, asking everyone to please calm down, let’s look on the bright side, let’s not worry about that now.

… and what’s for lunch?

3. Love is taking a few steps backward, (maybe even more) … to give way to the happiness of the people you love.

Maybe this describes all Moms, all Dads, all Families. Mom was big on selflessness for the greater good, for family, for community, for nature and life. She put up with cigar smoke, non-stop football, four loud and busy kids, a smorgasbord of pets, I can’t tell you how many wild and other animals I brought home to try to rescue and she’d always help me find a box, or heating pad, or a little eyedropper to try to feed the baby bunny or bird or frog. She rarely raised her voice. She rarely became ruffled. She almost always took a few steps backward to give way to what we loved.

4. I have one more quote, and this final pooh quote really reflects everything I think we are all saying here, with so much love and gratitude for our Mom, and also for our Dad.

How lucky we are to have someone that makes saying goodbye so hard.

Say Goodbye

“Every life comes with a death sentence.”   – Walter White, Breaking Bad.

“I don’t know how you say good-bye to whom and what you love. I don’t know a painless way to do it, don’t know the words to capture a heart so full and a longing so intense.”  – Laura Weiss, The Way It Ends
Sigh, my simple lesson here is that there is no good goodbye. Perhaps you’ve experienced a perfect good bye where all words were said, all feelings felt and shared, all peaceful and whole. For me, I learned that expecting this is unreasonable. My goodbyes always feel inadequate, half baked, tongue tied, marginal.
The heart so full, the longing so intense. Breathe. Maybe breathe together. Maybe curl up one last moment in a shared breath, a syncopated heartbeat. Touch warm skin. Breathe.


When my Mom began to lose her memory, first not remembering my husband, then her grandkids, and finally my brother, sister and me, I made the big mistake of following her lead and I began to lose my memory of her too. I know it is cliché, but I tended to become impatient, hurried when around her, focused on the “to do” list and slightly annoyed.
I didn’t pull out pictures and reminisce until she was very ill with the c.diff. Pulling out the pictures, making a slide show, sharing photos with my family, all brought my Mom back to life and began the extraordinary wave of love and forgiveness.
And that was my lesson. Pull out the photos of your elders and hold the memory, as they lose theirs. Just because they forget, doesn’t mean you have to. Remember the good, the moment of joy, and rejoice in the remembering. Relive it, and it will be a balm for an impatient and annoyed mind.

Love and Forgiveness 

I know we all have constraints on what we can give to and do for each other. But what I learned is that when I nudge myself to give more, to take a more selfless path if possible, the returns are immense. OK, yes, deep fatigue maybe. Maybe it will take a while to get back on my own track, but the love and forgiveness that comes from a bit more selfless path is so worth it.
It sounds so cliché, but “what can I give?” is a much more satisfying question than “what can I get?” And it’s that deep, rolling satisfaction that feels like swinging in the sun, laughing alongside a river, walking barefoot on soft grass.


What do you know to be true? What are you not certain about, but have a hunch? I was pondering this one morning as I walked to the hospital to visit my Mother. I realized that I’m not an atheist, but I’m also not a believer in a theistic universe as depicted in any religions I’ve studied. I’m not an agnostic, although I can empathize with that point of view. It’s studying science that fills me with so much wonder and mystery, so much longing and possibility, that I feel certain that there is something greater happening than the simple structures of our every day lives.  In other words, I was thinking about God.
Here is what happened. I was pondering all this, at 6 am on a beautiful summer morning, walking to the hospital. Suddenly, a very large black and blue butterfly flew out of a bush right toward me. I grew up in the Midwest, and I have never seen a butterfly like this before. It looked like it belonged in the Amazon. It flew right up to me, and then circled around me. I spun around watching its flight. Time seemed to stand still and it’s large glistening wings flapped in slow motion. I stood breathlessly still as it flew away, in a leisurely, curious way, as if to say ….what was it saying?
A butterfly, a symbol of transformation, of the struggle in change and loss and letting go and the stunning beauty, the lightheartedness, the joy of becoming.
So maybe it’s simple. May we move through this life becoming. May we welcome death as another transformation into more profound beauty and mystery.

And every common bush afire with God; 
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries


A deeper love and devotion, a wider, more inclusive net. That’s all I can say.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.

                                    – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I know this sounds redundant and simplistic, but almost everyone I work with mentions the joy and comfort found in nature. Some people love walks in the forest. Others love the tides and drama of the ocean. Some love their pets, their backyard birds and gardens. When we ask, what brings you joy, almost everyone mentions some part of nature that they truly love.
My Mom loved nature. She had a passion for her garden, birds, rocks, water, trees. Once again I realize am nothing without this stunning green planet to hold me and carry me through. (Have you seen the movie, Gravity, yet?) Time to get off my couch and do what my Mom did, volunteer to support the planet and the nature I love, contribute to organizations that are honoring, saving and respecting nature, wake up and speak up — be a voice that will help make a difference for generations to come.


“This is how it is not. It is not that we have a meeting with death somewhere out in the future. But rather we are on a pilgrimage here on this planet and death is our great companero, our great companion. It was She who cradled and protected us as were being born from our mother’s thighs. She steps every step we step, sings every song we sing and weeps when we weep and it is She, death, the best friend, who will midwife us again in the second birth at the end of this life, the birth into the next world.”  – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Radiant Coat

EBT and Beyond Groups

EBT, Emotional Brain Training, is a comprehensive program which teaches you the skills to retrain your own brain: the way you process stress and the way you cope with challenges, your mood, behavior and focus. EBT was life saving for me, and transformational for so many of my clients. Why? We learn to move away from numbing, negative emotions and moods, addictions and excesses, and move toward feeling, expressing and experiencing life with joy and balance. Participants find results with all sorts of challenges: weight, depression, mood, anxiety, spending, clutter, relationship problems and addiction.
I have beginning and advanced telegroups available. Call or email if you have questions.


One of the things we did at my Mom’s bedside was sing to her. She seemed to recognize many of the old songs we all loved. If nothing else, we got great joy from singing together and sharing those moments of love and loss. We have begun to “sing our grind ins” in EBT, which means sing to ourselves our new expectations, positive, powerful thoughts, affirmations, new beliefs. Sing to ourselves our hopes, dreams and possibilities. Research suggests that we are more likely to remember, and be moved by, a song than simple words.
We had a bagpiper at my Mother’s funeral (she was very Scottish) and we had a guitarist play the Beatles song “Blackbird”. Here’s an audio version of this haunting song with lyrics. (covered by Sarah McLachlan). Enjoy.

Books, Meditations and Practices:

The Radiant Coat: Myths and Stories about the Crossing Between Life and Death – Clarissa Pinkola Estes  (borrowed from the wonderful Jeanne Tyler)
Reiki Relaxation by BronwenSteine — for some reason this was the only meditation CD that helped me feel better.

The Way To Love by The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello

When I Grow Up I Want to Be Wise


I asked my 8-year old granddaughter, Sofia, what she thought “wise” meant. Her response: An older person who is smart and makes good decisions. I guess I would say that at age 8 she is wiser than most of us.

I then began to wonder if we aren’t wise at a young age and for some, again in older years. In between, we are deeply focused on gaining experiences, power, possessions and love, creating a false sense of wisdom.

Why “false”? Because true wisdom as Sofia tells us is not only being smart (“experience” smart, not intellectually smart) but also “making good decisions.” Believing that life experiences and success alone leads to wisdom is not a good decision.

The wise elders I’ve known have had a broad range of life experiences—some held powerful positions and were wealthy but most were of lesser means. Some were religious and others more spiritual. What they have in common is a believe in another power because they know that we can’t get through this life alone and the ability to incorporate life experiences at a “soul” level—a place where we can listen, see and “be” without all the layers of judgment that we learn throughout our life.


Why is wisdom easier in youngest and oldest years? In younger years we haven’t yet incorporated all the taught and lived family and social biases, prejudices and expectations of power and possessions that become the basis for how we view ourselves and others. In older years, as losses accumulate, we realize any success or power or position is fleeting. At that time, the wise elders focus on incorporating all that was good and “not so good” in their past, realizing that all that has happened has made them who they are today and that even in oldest old years we continue to learn, to change, to wake up to a new opportunity to improve and focus on what truly matters in life.

However, choosing a path towards wisdom doesn’t come to everyone. Many become bitter as they view the past as “the best time” or as a time when they made too many mistakes. Meanwhile they exist in a present filled with loneliness and losses—loss of independence, of friends and family, of power and possessions. They may see this as a loss of self and as a time when their God has forgotten them.

Living beyond such tremendous losses and into wisdom that frees us from the weight of a judgmental, power-seeking life is a spiritual journey requiring tremendous faith and forgiveness of self and of others regardless of the injustices we may have experienced. Until we see ourselves as one with all others—those we knew and those we didn’t and one with the universe and with God, wisdom will be elusive.

Finally, wisdom and peace is also about accepting that we aren’t traveling alone. God—whomever that is to each of us—is not only at the center of this journey but is next to us holding our hand, above us watching over each step and beneath us holding us up when we are certain we can’t endure another loss.



Lessons from cooking


I love to cook and always have. I learned to cook by watching my mom and as a youngster, the hardest part was patience—putting ingredients together correctly and slowly and waiting through the baking and cooling time. Today as I made a cake from one of her favorite recipes, I reflected on her patience. The recipe required that I fold in beaten egg whites “until there are no white ribbons running through the batter.” When I was younger—perhaps 40 and below, I would rush the process and usually move on to the next step before the whites were fully integrated. Now I take my time. I enjoy the process of watching the small stripes of white become one with the batter.

At 64, I experience life as a time to move more carefully, slowly, living in the “now” and letting the fullness of each event, each word spoken, settle into and become a new bit of “me”. I fold in the whites of day-to-day experiences more completely.

Of course, I am not always able to live in the present—I still worry about the future—the health and happiness of our children and grandchildren, my husband’s and my health as we age, and affording retirement.  These thoughts lead me to the “what ifs”—what if I hadn’t moved or had stayed in that fulltime job rather than starting my own business, etc.

However, increasingly I realize the futility of worrying over the future, or judging past actions and words of myself and others. I find I am able to move out of distracting and often negative thoughts and back into the present. This new ability to live in the moment, to walk away from unimportant thoughts, to forgive myself and others quickly is a gift of aging. In younger years as we rush through daily life to constantly seeking power and success, living in the now is nearly impossible.

I’ve noticed that our older adult clients—many who are in their 80’s and beyond are considerably more expert at living in the now than I am. Like many life lessons that make us better, stronger, and more adaptable, the many losses of later years are balanced by the gift of forgiveness, tolerance and hope of what is yet to come. I am thankful for my clients and for myself that the gift of now is available as a buffer to loss.

Meanwhile, if you want to watch the ribbons of egg whites disappear as you reflect on integrating your life stories, here’s my mom’s recipe for German Chocolate cake that she probably wrote down in the 1940’s when she was a young housemaker and my Dad was in the war.

German Chocolate Cake

4 ounces German Chocolate if you have it otherwise semi-sweet baking chocolate is OK

½ cup of water (I changed this to ½ cup of coffee—coffee enhances the chocolate)

2 ½ cups cake flour (or 2 ¼ cups regular flour)

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt (I use ½ tsp because I use unsalted butter)

2 cups sugar

1 cup margarine (I always use unsalted butter)

4 large eggs separated

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup buttermilk

Heat oven to 350. Grease and flour three 8 or 9-inch round cake pans. I put parchment paper in the bottom as well.

In small pan (I do this in microwave), heat water (coffee) and add broken up chocolate. After it’s melted, let it cool.

Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a bowl and set aside. Beat room temperature margarine (butter) and add sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolks one at a time incorporating before adding another. Beat in chocolate and vanilla.

Alternately add in flour and buttermilk beating until smooth after each addition.

In a small bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold 1/3 of eggs whites into the batter until you can’t see any ribbons of egg whites. Then folk in remaining egg whites completely and quickly. Divide the batter into the three pans and bake. If you can’t fit all three pans in the oven, put the third one in the fridge.

Bake about 20-30 minutes testing for doneness. The cake should spring back when you touch it gently or test with a toothpick.

Coconut-pecan frosting

1 can condensed (sweetened) milk

2 eggs

1 cube margarine (unsalted butter please!)

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla

1 ½ cups of coconut (best if you lightly toast this in the oven or in a pan on the stove in advance)

1 cup pecans chopped (I also toast these lightly)

In a medium sized sauce pan over a low flame, slowly heat butter, condensed milk and eggs, continuously stirring. Let come to a slow boil for a couple of minutes (stir carefully so it doesn’t burn on the bottom). Remove from heat, add vanilla, coconut and pecans.

When the cake is completely cooked, assemble the cake, spreading frosting between the layers and on the top of the cake—no need to do the sides unless you want to. The frosting is very sweet so doing the side of the cake can be overwhelming.


At Disneyland with Tonsillitis


Unable to sleep at night, anxious with anticipation, I was days away from my first trip to Disneyland at age 8. Then, a day prior, I woke up with tonsillitis. I didn’t tell my parents because I wasn’t about to miss out on the Magical Kingdom. Although my throat was on fire, the pain was more tolerable when I walked through the gates and into the make believe world full of characters I had only seen on TV on Saturday morning.

Pain—whether emotional or physical—is often with us throughout our lives and we often tolerate discomfort by focusing on something external similar to my childhood trip to Disneyland. As adults, this is often a materialistic reward—a new dress, piece of furniture, a vacation or a new car.

As we age into oldest years, both emotional and physical pain from illness, loss of independence and death of loved ones surrounds us each day. Tolerating these injustices by looking forward to diversions is more difficult as we are limited in what we can do or experience.  We can’t plan a day at the park or a visit to a friend if we don’t have transportation. We can’t “buy” our way out of pain if we are on a fixed income.

Yet, according to research, while most older adults will admit to multiple illnesses or physical limitations, they also claim to be happy and in good health. Why is that? Fortunately, for most, they have given up the false comforts of materialism and instead, they enjoy reflecting upon an inner strength that allows them to live in a state of hope and purpose that helps them tolerate pain. Many older adults and researchers refer to this inner strength as spirituality.

Spirituality for some is about a structured religious experience; others reflect on their inner strength that comes from a God that they have defined; others look to nature to provide meaning; and for others, their inner joy and healing may come from the experience of their creative selves.

In working with the oldest old and I am touched by the heroic efforts to mitigate the pain and loss that is present for most. Their simple, pure expression of spirituality gives joy, hope and purpose. We all have the opportunity to call upon this strength but it requires a conscious exploration of what spirituality means to each of us individually.

Often, we find the time to explore our inner strength only when the artificial diversions that come from a materialistic life are removed. No Disneyland, no trip to the mall, no trip to the Caribbean; just the quiet to explore the strength within.

~ Susan

Grasshoppers Took the Sunshine Away


While visiting my 87-year old Uncle and going through boxes of old pictures, we came across a letter that my Great Uncle Adolph dictated to his daughter, my mother’s niece. The letter spoke of their trials and tribulations and the hope and promise of migrating from Germany to Nebraska.

He spoke of trading one set of hardships for another. In Germany they were poor and had little hope of improving. In Nebraska, they had more opportunity to improve their lives but times in the 1930’s were tough. There was famine, poverty and for a while, the grasshoppers ruined the small crops that had survived.  He told his niece, “The grasshoppers took the sunshine away”—a poignant comment that stuck with me because it says much about the overall state of the struggles we all face in this life.  There are desperate, dark days when we think we will never see the sun again.

I think that aging for many is one of the toughest trials we face. The good news is that nearly all of us have survived and learned from a lifetime of difficult and sometimes devastating times. These challenges may be painful but they do leave us with tremendous coping skills that will serve us well when the going gets tough as we lose some of our independence through cognitive or physical loss.

Last week I met a woman in an assisted living facility who was confined to a wheel chair and her sight was nearly gone. Her hearing was marginal.  Yet she was a joyful, lovely person. I asked her what brought meaning and purpose to her at different times during her life and she said, “Oh it doesn’t change. I may not be able to dance a jig but my purpose was never about how I looked or what I did. It’s about enjoying every day the Lord gives me and realizing the beauty of this world.”

I pray that I that I use all my gifts and skills to help me age as gracefully as she is aging.  I doubt if the grasshoppers blocked her sunshine for any length of time!

Ten Minutes

Tired from a turn-around trip that began with a 6:15 am flight out of Portland, I waited at San Jose Terminal B, gate 23 for my return flight on Southwest. I had spend much of the past week preparing for the new business meeting that took me to San Jose. As I sat in the terminal following the meeting, I contemplated business, the slow economic recovery, money and retirement. Looking up from deep thoughts, I noted an older man, somewhat disheveled walking unevenly and tentatively toward the gate counter. With shaky hands he withdrew his ticket from his shirt pocket handing it to the gate agent, “Am I in the right place?” She responded automatically, “Yes” and offered nothing else. He looked around and walked towards the empty chair next to me. Knowing he was uncomfortable, I wanted to make up for the insensitivity of the gate agent.

I began, “Hi, are you flying home to Portland or visiting someone?”

“I’m going to visit my son. I haven’t flown in a very long time and I feel so unsure of myself.”

“It’s fine. Together we can listen for the boarding call and then I can show you where to line up. Has it been a long time since you’ve seen your son?”

Tears filled his eyes as he replied, “No, he and his brothers and sisters have visited me often recently. Their mom died three months ago after being on life support for too long.  It’s an awfully hard decision to know when to say “it’s time’ after more than 60 years of a life together. I just couldn’t let go and I think I made her suffer too long.”


Filled with his pain, I offered what seemed like empty platitudes, “There’s no way to know when the time is right and no one can guide that decision. It’s something you worked though, and when you were ready and you felt she was ready, you let her go.  There’s no timeline for letting go of the person you’ve loved so dearly.”

His smile of appreciation felt undeserved.

“I’m John.”

“Hi John. I’m Susan. It’s so nice to meet such a brave man.”

With a weak chuckle he said, “I’m not brave. In fact, I know this will sound bad but I’m not sure I will choose to stay around much longer. That must sound awful to you, but each day when I begin to wake and reach over to the empty place on the bed, I can barely breathe. I lay in bed sometimes till afternoon. Just waiting for the pain to leave, for her to talk to me, for something…I don’t even know what. I’m so empty inside.”

Frozen in grief I couldn’t find words, and I knew that nothing I said could answer his need.  Still the energy connection gripped me. His heaviness was now mine as well.

Slowly and painfully I offered, “I don’t judge you. I have told my children that I when I’m done, I’m done. My father died recently—he was 95 and he very much wanted to die for the last two years of his life. It hurt me terribly to watch him. He even asked me to help him die and I could do nothing.  He thought he wanted to die when he was about 85 and my mother died. The first year was the worst.  After that he began going back to church, getting out a little more, and he found he had more life to live. Meaning and purpose may shift for you too.”

“I don’t know. I can’t see beyond today. I don’t really want to visit my son although I love him. It takes so much energy and I’m exhausted. I’m hoping that if I force myself, I might find some relief.  Traveling is hard on me. I’m uncomfortable asking for help or directions. I feel like people look at me like I’m just a helpless old man. I’m getting forgetful—happens when you are old.”

“John, I’m forgetful and I’m 63. I don’t know when this “forgetfulness” started for you but it started for me in my 20’s when I had four children!  It’s not exclusive to being older. It comes about because we accumulate years and years of to do lists, of birthdays, of 85 years worth of schedules and memories we want to hold onto.  People think so many things are old age related when in fact aging begins the day we’re born.”

He laughed and his hand grabbed my hand and he simply said “Thank you.”

The gate agent called for A boarding—my group. I asked John to move closer to the lines and told him that when they called for B boarding he would line up in the first column pointing to where he should stand. Noticing a seat near the line I suggested he sit until it was time to line up. As we walked together, I noticed a young woman making her way toward the seat. Touching her arm I asked if she’d mind if John sat. She nodded to him and said, “Of course not.”

John looked at her slyly and said, “Or I could sit and you could sit on my lap.”  Pleased with himself he lit up and we all laughed.

I was hopeful as I boarded the plane that his momentary joy might be a brief peek into a life of renewed purpose. He is such a beautiful soul and to have him leave this world early would be a loss for all those whose life he touched, including me. Ten minutes with John and my life is forever changed.

Susan Cain, Sometimes weary but recently enlightened life course traveler

Enjoying the Gifts of Aging


In our last blog, we wrote about the challenges of aging that can include significant loss but also comes with important gifts. In this blog, we explore how to find those gifts through reflection.

Reflection in older years, for most, is more than reviewing an event or a lifetime of events—it is an integration of all that one has experienced, of moving beyond the labels of “good” or “bad” and into a sense of comfort that, overall, we are complete.  In Aged by Culture, Margaret Morganroth Guelette’s beautifully speaks to the process of integration and the gift that comes:

If, in telling our state-of-being, we find some co-identities disliked but admitted; some discarded or defunct;    some unchanged; some improving; some in flux of new importance; some about loss and some about gain—all in all, the storied identities feel like possessions. Mine. Achievements of my telling and of my aging. Such achievements deeply and rightly matter to people.

English: Portrait of old woman sitting by a wi...

So if this “gift” is so available to all, why might older adults miss this opportunity? It’s not an issue of training or education—researchers have found that the desire to spend solitary time in reflection happens naturally for most. Yet, the compression of losses that often accompany oldest-old years can create a barrier to thoughts of anything beyond the very present pain and sadness that can accompany physical, emotional and cognitive decline.

As a loved one, friend or care provider, you can’t force anyone into seeking or walking the path toward integration. However, you can help create opportunities to connect with the deeper more soulful self that can lead to renewed spirituality and purpose.

It’s important that quiet time older adults spend reading, reflecting, and praying is respected as growth and not disparaged or seen and referenced as “living in the past” or labeling the older adult as depressed and withdrawn. Allow as much time as desired for the older adult to review, reflect, and rest in the quiet of contemplative thought.  If the older adult is open to talking about their past, ask questions and listen, listen, listen. If you are close to this older adult, your memory of an event may be different—avoid telling your version or offering any contradiction or correction, and instead embrace the process and the potential.

Some older adults connect to their integrated self through a more active participation with friends, relatives or others exploring and recording their autobiography. This can be approached informally by taping or writing either by the older adult or the stories can be told to someone who can transcribe the interview. Additionally, there are experts who can help create this opportunity including personal historians: and Guided Autobiography ( ), also known as GAB. Some senior centers offer “narrative aging” groups. The Q Center in Portland offers such meetings led by fellow gerontologist, Susan Kocen.

elder kondeli yogi

Whether quietly reflecting over ones life or writing or telling one’s life story, the end result is often the awareness of one’s wisdom that comes from an accepted, honored, and integrated life. Recognizing wisdom that comes from a long lived life is not only a healing process leading to renewed purpose, but sharing that wisdom creates good will and connects generations that are often separated.

~ Susan

Changing The Discussion From “Age As Loss” to “Aging With Gifts”

Aging into “older” years is often feared and imagined as a sad time primarily marked by losses. The losses begin slowly—for most in their late 40’s: The graying and loss of hair and development of hearing and vision issues; loss of our ideal body image as we lose muscle mass and gain unwanted fat; loss of roles in leadership and power positions within the community and workforce. These may seem significant yet they pale in comparison to the losses yet to come: Of loved ones who precede us in death; of independence as we give up our driver’s license; of dignity as we find ourselves relying on others to help us overcome limitations caused by physical and/or cognitive losses; of our image of “home” as people move into our home to care for us or we move to assisted living facilities. The Government and science dwell on these losses. The Government worries about how to address the wave of Boomers that will all too soon become “needy” for financial support. Science sees dollars and interesting challenges in improving and prolonging life.

Interestingly, at any age or developmental stage, we can measure life by losses rather than gains. Our 30’s—a time of infinite possibilities for many—often includes tremendous loss as we begin our families: Decreased expendable income resulting from the medical bills, day care and education; the concern of childhood illnesses; increased expenses, demanding careers can leave us worried and sleepless. In our late 40’s we are often “empty nested” and find ourselves financially struggling in order to pay for college; perhaps we must downsize our home. Nevertheless, most see this time not in loss but rather as new opportunities to travel, to re-engage with our spouse, to identify a new lifestyle, to get back to a healthy body.

Why is it we aren’t as willing to embrace the opportunities of late life as we are in our younger years? Perhaps because in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s we have so much life ahead to change our direction, to make new decisions, to experience “more”. Life abounds with external opportunities to prove our limitless selves. In our 70’s and 80’s and beyond, the runway is getting shorter and we become a science and we re bombarded with messages of “age as loss”. Nevertheless research has shown that there are tremendous gifts available to us in our older years that are unavailable to younger adults.

These gifts include the beauty of solitude: of a time when we can spend long hours reflecting on the meaning and purpose of our lives, explore our creative selves, participate in the joy and promise of spirituality. Older adults tend not to dwell on “what if” or “if only”, nor do they become stuck on the “not so good decisions” they made in younger years. Instead life shows itself as a rich integration of each and every experience—the good and not so good decisions. They come together to make us who we have become. This quiet time of reflection, of letting go of the materialistic and even power over our own bodies is a gift that can bring comfort and peace to guide us through the challenging terrain of aging into our final years.

As with any developmental stage of life, this path to an enlightened older self isn’t a direct path and it isn’t automatic or even easy. There is no denying that those experiencing older years will suffer physically and emotionally. However, as we give up control and power, we attain the ultimate gift: the wise spiritual self who is now freed to imagine and embrace that which is yet to come.

The older adult may need support in finding this time as “gift” rather than loss. But that is another blog. If you want ideas about how to support the enjoyment of being an older adult or how to support your parents’ opportunity in older years, watch for my next blog: “Enjoying the Gifts of Aging”.

~ Susan

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