Friday, October 25, 2013

Together in Spirit.

Like the ocean that remains calm in its depths even when waves rage over its surface, and like the sun that continues shining on high even during storms, we can at each moment create value and develop our state of life, enjoying our existence to the fullest in times of both suffering and joy. -- Daisaku Ikeda

Me and my father.
Today is my father’s 81st birthday. Tonight we will have cake in his honor, and chant for his enlightenment and eternal happiness.

In my earliest memories, mother and I would bid father goodbye at the train station as he left on his business trips. Fearing that he wouldn’t return, I would cry and beg him not to leave. Seeing me cry would always make mother cry. Thus, it was a happy reunion when father returned home. When he passed away over three years ago, I used to imagine that he would walk through the front door and announce that he was home. I would also visit places we used to frequent, and hoped that he would appear. It took awhile to get used to the reality that he was no longer here.

My father was a kind, sincere man. He came from a family of six boys, and he was very pleased when I was born. A doting father, he encouraged me to pursue all my interests. I was fortunate to have had many opportunities because of my father, and the best way I can show my gratitude is to live the happiest, most contributive life.  

Looking back, I think about the hardships father must have faced as an immigrant in the U.S.  Early years were filled with financial instability. Being a Japanese man, he was not in the habit of expressing worries and frustrations, and I never realized the depths of his struggles. Regardless of difficulties, father made sure we had everything we needed.

As my father aged, he grappled with various health conditions along with vascular dementia.  As an effect of the dementia, father became openly emotional and no longer held back his tears. For example, I remember thanking him for being such a wonderful father. Hearing my words, he was overcome with emotion and started to cry.

Although the latter years were challenging, my father and I had the opportunity to spend lots of time together. This was a rare gift, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. These days, I believe that my father is with me in spirit. Knowing this makes me feel braver as I strive to overcome life's challenges.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

When the Onion Ring Betrays You.

Health food may be good for the conscience but Oreos taste a hell of a lot better. -- Robert Redford

In a recent class assignment, we conducted self-experiments to understand age-related changes to the senses and to mobility. One particular exercise that stood out for me was the eating simulation where I tried to eat unsalted crackers without using my teeth.  I put the cracker in my mouth and tried to figure out how to break it down in order to swallow.  It took awhile for the cracker to become soft enough to swallow without choking, and by the third cracker, I became impatient and tried to “chew” using the roof of my mouth and my tongue.  This was not a fun experience, and it made me realize how frustrating it must be when age-related changes affect activities that were once pleasurable.  In older adults, eating could also pose potential hazards such as choking.  A second exercise was to simulate the changes to our senses of smell and taste. While being blindfolded and having my nose pinched very tightly, I ate different types of foods.  Everything tasted similar and dull, and I couldn't differentiate between an apple and a potato!

These exercises made me empathize more with older persons who profess to not enjoying eating.  When senses are duller and eating is cumbersome due to dentures, tooth loss, and/or reductions of saliva (and a host of other reasons), I would probably feel the same way.  Having a nice meal, however, is important to the soul.  When unable to fully savor food, life can become lackluster.  More importantly, you could miss out on important nutrients.

Mother holding a sleepy infant.
While on the topic of food, eating and cooking are among my mother’s greatest sources of joy.  Now aged 85, she is beginning to experience physical difficulties when she eats foods that her body can no longer process.

For example, mother had a gout flare-up last Friday.  She is normally active, but having gout makes walking a miserable, nearly-impossible ordeal.  Mother is not a big meat eater, but she loves fried foods! The neighborhood burger restaurant makes the best onion rings (crispy fried batter, and the perfect amount of salt!), and it is definitely a favorite.  Unfortunately, eating too many onion rings made her body rebel.  Her physician (often) tells her to give up certain foods, but she giggles and gives him a look of innocence.  I have been monitoring what she eats more than before, but I don't enjoy being the food police.  To hasten the healing, I made sure that mother ate a clean, simple diet of mainly grains and light vegetables.  

By Sunday evening, mother broke down and cried hysterically.  She was frustrated and accused me of not letting her eat anything. Actually, she was eating food…just not the kind she often craves.  Nonetheless, I felt like a mean daughter.  On the one hand, I understand her frustration – I would be upset, too.  On the other hand, eating certain foods can lead to painful consequences. Is there a winning resolution?

I don’t want to pretend to be the “expert” because I have yet to experience significant age-related changes.  Hopefully mother will forgive her daughter, the tyrant.  Now, I am curious about you.  Have you had any noticeable changes to your senses or physical functioning with age?  Has it led to a greater understanding of what elders before you may have gone through?  As always, I appreciate your comments. Thanks so much for reading my blog!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Connection between Disparity and Well-being.

“The community which has neither poverty nor riches will always have the noblest principles.” – Plato

Recently, for an Aging and Social Policy class, we were assigned to view various TED Talks and reflect on the messages contained in these presentations.  One particular presentation by Richard Wilkinson titled, How Economic Inequality Harms Societies, made me reflect deeply on how inequality connects to health and wellness.  As I had mentioned in an earlier post, the usual factors that contribute to wellness in aging include social support, diet and exercise, stress management, and genetics.  But, Wilkinson reveals data suggesting that economic inequality within a country affects a host of issues including literacy, health, mental illness, crime, infant mortality, and life expectancy!  We don’t often discuss the far-reaching effects of inequality in everyday conversations (although I believe more people are discussing this issue today).

Watching Wilkinson's presentation made me think about a cultural anthropology project in school from two years ago.  For the project, I interviewed an American elder and a Japanese elder to understand cultural differences in experiences and attitudes toward life, aging and happiness.

When I asked the Japanese elder, Chika* (75 years old), what she believed was a vital ingredient to happiness and well-being, she answered, “Not having many differences in financial status is the most important aspect to well-being.”  This was not an answer I expected to hear, but it left a lasting impression.

My mother and my brother.
Chika elaborated by stating that financial disparities lead to both real and perceived social disparities, which is one of the greatest sources of unhappiness for people. Chika was an atomic bomb survivor from Hiroshima and talked about how everyone was extremely poor after the War, yet there was unity in spirit.  Position and status mattered very little.  In discussing her present circumstances, Chika expressed gratitude for being able to live in Northern California, an area rich with a wide variety of resources.  She stated, “There are so many problems in this world, but we are all very lucky to be here.” Nonetheless, Chika believes that the growing income gap between people in the U.S. is contributing to an unhappier, unhealthier society.  

Her comment makes sense to me today as I study aging and social policies in school, and work with older adults who live well below the poverty level.  Thus, I see the adverse effects of inequality in the lives of many older adults.  So…I would like to know what you think about this topic?  Do you agree that inequality is as damaging as suggested?  Would love to hear your thoughts, and as always, thank you for visiting my blog!

*Chika is a pseudonym