This is the fifth in an occasional six-part series on how to plan for and talk about our — or our parents' — aging. Not only must we plan for our aging as we grow older...
This is the fifth in an occasional six-part series on how to plan for and talk about our — or our parents’ — aging.
Not only must we plan for our aging as we grow older, but we have to talk about our plans and preferences with our families and friends. Why? Because we’re living decades longer than previous generations, and many of us are “bending but not breaking” — living years beyond our capacity to care for ourselves. If we want a say in how we live — and die — we need to think about our choices, then let others know what we want.
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Most older people won’t initiate these conversations, so it’s left to adult children to start the ball rolling. And it can be tough!
So, imagine my delight when I learned about a group of older people near Hood Canal who have been meeting since 1990 to plan for, and talk about, their aging. Now 88 and 80, respectively, Ray and Patt Hanson were instrumental in the group’s beginnings.
The Hansons had been thinking a lot about dying and what they wanted done. They were fierce about wanting to stay at home as long as they could, “forever, if possible,” says Patt. They searched for a group with the same outlook — but found none. So they started their own, calling themselves the “Fiercely Independent Elders,” FIE for short.
The group has had 11 members, each living within a 25-mile radius. Four have died, and of the remaining seven, each is 80 or older.
From the beginning, it was an experiment — there was nothing to guide them. It took a year to get organized, and they eventually registered as a nonprofit with the state. All members are on the board, and they take turns being officers.
“A wise man once wrote in his diary,” the group’s statement of purpose begins, ” ‘Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man.’ Our purpose is to do a great job of growing old!”
They meet monthly for a luncheon business meeting at a local hospital. A secretary keeps minutes. They have a physician assistant on retainer who offers tips on healthy aging. She also sees members in their homes twice or more a year, to keep up with how they’re doing. Although each member has a doctor, the physician assistant has been “wonderful,” says Ray. If anyone has the sniffles or lacks energy, she takes care of them.
She also meets their kids, who have a group called the “Wannabees.” Originally the adult children wanted to join FIE, but the parents said, “When you retire, start your own.” Families receive a copy of the minutes by e-mail, so everyone keeps up with what’s happening.
The business meeting has an “organ recital”: going around the room, each person tells how he or she feels. Most say, “I’m fine,” but when someone knows otherwise, they probe. Soon, the person feels comfortable talking about their real aches and pains.
They’ve done the basics — each person has a living will and durable powers of attorney. They’ve talked some members into getting hearing aids who didn’t want to wear them. They’ve researched giving up their cars and how to hire someone to drive when the time comes.
They even encourage members to have dogs (there are four dogs in the group). Why? “Patt and I’ve been married 61 years,” says Ray, with a twinkle. “What do we have to say to each other? But we have plenty to say to Lady, our dog — she keeps us social!”
The group has gone through rough times together. When one member had Alzheimer’s, her husband brought her to the meetings. They learned about dementia from her, and he felt good bringing her to a group that accepted her. When one member became blind and deaf, another helped her figure out how to cook. They recently lost Harvey, who had lung and heart problems. At the meetings, he’d huff and wheeze, describing what he was going through.
Then, every Thursday, they kick up their heels for “Open House” day. Anyone age 55-plus can come; they have speakers, wine and snacks. Over the years, candidates for city council have attended, as have people running for the school board. Recently someone talked about his job history — to relay to his kids. A former UW football player read his poetry. Sometimes the members read plays, taking turns at the different parts.
“We started as friends,” Ray says, “but now we’re family.”
FIE has improved communication within members’ families about difficult topics such as wills and dying. “We couldn’t talk to our kids about our preferences when we started,” Ray says. “They didn’t want to hear about it. But now it’s out in the open. Plus, they have a structure for looking out for us. We don’t want to live with our kids. This way, we have our independence, but everyone knows what we want when the time comes.”
For information on Fiercely Independent Elders, you can reach Ray and Patt at 360-898-2316.
Liz Taylor’s column runs Mondays. As a specialist on aging and long-term care, she consults with individuals and teaches workshops on how to plan for one’s aging — and aging parents. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. You can see all of her columns at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/.