Monday, December 10, 2012

Patricias Thoughts on Aging, Death Dying: Interview 26/100 ...

PATRICIA FOSTER HAINES (Smith College ?67;?Ithaca, NY) serves as director of the non-profit organization ? the Level Green Institute ? that she founded in 2000?as part of late-life PhD studies at Cornell University. Delighting in this ?freedom stage? of life (eg no career ladders, children grown, Social Security), her passions include gardening, grandchildren, and calling on the arts as catalyst and venue for community events building bridges across boundaries of age, gender,ability,?income, education, race and culture.?

RT: What are your thoughts about aging and getting older generally?

Patricia: I?ve never really spent much time thinking about it other than occasionally when my knee hurts or my doctor reminds me I?m 66 not 30 and I might not hold myself accountable for doing as much as I?d like to be doing.

I do pay attention to physical changes that happen with aging, recognizing that I have fewer years to accomplish and contribute what I?d like to be leaving behind me. So I focus better which is a good thing.

RT: Was there a point in time when you had that realization ? that you had fewer years left?

Patricia: Well, let me think about this. It crept up on me. Part of it was when I went back to graduate school in my 50?s and I realized that there was a lot that the world needed that I could contribute to and I had a blast at graduate school.

But I had to be realistic about the fact that I would be over 60 when I would finish my degree and that getting a job in academe was not going to happen so I wasn?t going to even look at that. Getting any kind of job at that age that would be satisfying and enable me to contribute what I wanted to wasn?t going to happen.

Part of that is ageism and part of that is the reality of the work world. So when my colleagues and I came up with the vision of creating a non-profit organization, it was a no-brainer to make that commitment, to make that my life focus. I don?t get paid in money but I get paid enormously in satisfaction, pleasure, fun and making a difference.

So those kinds of thoughts had to do with I suppose you could call aging, but not in any conventional way.

RT: What does old mean to you?

Patricia: I don?t know. I don?t really have a working concept of old. I?m deliciously involved with a man right now who is 12 years older than I am and turning 79 this year. When we first started seeing each other he described himself as an old man, but he?s still working full-time and he?s very vigorous and very interested in life. And he has stopped talking that way. We?re having a lot of fun. But it was a state of mind more than a physical condition. I know people whom I would call old who are in their 30?s.

RT: What about them makes them old to you?

Patricia: They?re not reaching out to learn new things. They are dissatisfied with their life but not doing anything about it. They complain about aches and pains. It?s really a state of mind, it?s an attitude and fear, living in fear, a deficit mentality that I?m never going to have enough for the life I want and I?m never going to get the life I want. I don?t spend much time with people like that but I do know people like that, at all ages. That?s distressing for them and distressing for the world.

RT: You speak very freely and comfortably about your age. Have there been situations that have made you feel less comfortable sharing your age?

Patricia: No. Part of that I think is whatever 66 should look like in some people?s eyes. I look a lot younger so it doesn?t come up. Younger people are always surprised when I say how old I am. I just don?t think of 66 as old at all and my dad was very vigorous until he slid into dementia two years before he died at 89.

I had a great-uncle who died at 99 and 8 months. He had been walking 5 miles every day until he broke his hip at 99 and 4 months. And decided he wasn?t going to go walking and wasn?t going to stay around.?He made a big impact on me. He was just engaged with life. He was reading, talking, listening to music.

You have to really pay attention to your health. That is one thing, in terms of aging, that I am much more conscious and intentional about now.

RT: When did you start to pay more attention to that?

Patricia: It was during graduate school. I had had jobs that got my kids through college and I sort of enjoyed but it was like a waiting pattern. I was in my 50?s before I was doing what I really wanted to be doing with my life.

And in order to do that I? knew I had to lose weight, I knew I had to exercise more, I had to meditate regularly, I had to take up Tai Chi. I had to really watch my blood pressure and cholesterol, things I never had to think of before.

I had a lifetime experience with on-and-off severe depression and anxiety and I hadn?t really taken it that seriously. Once I realized that this is really what I wanted to do with my life and I didn?t want anything to slow me down, I started paying more careful attention and that included diet. And it included not spending time with negative people.?It meant making much clearer choices rather than floating through life.

RT: When you say that you were clear about wanting to pursue it, what was it that you wanted to pursue?

Patricia: Well the Level Green Foundation that I described in my bio was the framework for becoming more socially active and in a more focused fashion. I had always been involved in community organizing and was involved in things like helping the women?s park get started and a number of peace-related things in Haiti but that was all side-line enthusiasm.

With Level Green and the Doctoral program, I had the opportunity to focus my life in a way that was an immeasurable joy rather than doing the things that I really loved on the sidelines of my life.

RT: So this new purpose gave you reason to stay healthy?

Patricia: I have to say another thing that happened was that because I was relatively unemployable in the position that I was willing to take on, I sort of scrambled until I reached Social Security age. I accessed my social security early knowing that I would get less in the long run. I used my Cornell retirement money to buy the Level Green farm.

For the first time, I had a steady income. It?s small but it?s there and it?s enough. That?s why I call this stage of life the Freedom Stage.

I am lucky that my kids both chose directions for their lives that they really love, that they have families and they?re basically happy so that?s part of the freedom. My son is an investment banker in Tokyo and my daughter is a physician in Florida so financially they?re going to be fine and they love their families and have stable marriages and that?s part of the freedom and they don?t need me.

There?s the financial freedom that comes with social security and I was already used to living at a low-income level and liked to live very simply. And that?s another level of freedom.

I keep encouraging people to think of the later stage in life as the time when you can be creative in your choices and you?re free to follow your dreams. It?s a way of thinking that has enormous delight and energy in it.

RT: You started to talk about people in your life who have influenced your attitude and ideas about aging?

Patricia: Yes, as I said there was my uncle who walked until the day he broke his hip. Another was my dad. When my mother died after 40 years of mental illness and alcoholism, my dad met this amazing, beautiful woman in the bereavement group and they got married six months later. So when he was 79, he married the love of his life and they had a ball! They went on trips, they went on cruises, they walked around hand-in-hand like teenagers, they bought a house together, they decorated. I mean it was just a joy to see.

They had 9 years together that were happier than most people ever have in their whole lives. My dad has always been the person who, even though he was the full-time caretaker of my mother, was very positive, loved hiking, loved his family, laughed a lot and sang a lot. He was just a spark plug for everyone around him.

So he was very important to me. And even when he married again, I didn?t think they were old. I didn?t even think of it. They were both beautiful, strong and active. She is now 93 and still teaching water aerobics. Even though my father is gone, she talks to him everyday in her heart so he?s not really gone, she still has the same spirit of embracing life and not spending time in negative thinking or fear or feeling sorry for herself.

Now there was the negative influence of my mother who became mentally ill when I was three. She was a very unhappy person and was very difficult to grow up with. She had a negative attitude that didn?t have anything to do with age.

RT: So you learned some things from your mom about what you don?t want to do as you age?

Patricia: Yes, it was from watching her be in a wheelchair and be on full-time oxygen for 20 years. I was called to her death-bed four times ? it was not a life. What I saw from a very early age, even before I was a teenager, was that we get to make choices and we can choose the attitude.

More recently, as of 2000, I got involved with Landmark Education and have been taking the seminars. They keep me honest with respect to integrity. There?s an emphasis on choosing, on being the creators of our own lives and on being responsible for the quality of our lives and our relationships. That framework has nothing to do with age. I think the oldest person in our seminars was 92 and she?s there all the time and very vigorous.

RT: Have there been any other influences ? media, culture, colleagues, peers??

Patricia: I know that I find Vanessa Redgrave much more beautiful now than when she was young. I find Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Robert Redford more appealing now than when they were young. Those are the gorgeous men. I find the young, supposedly beautiful, actors to be rather vacuous and not very interesting. There?s a depth and an intriguing quality to older cultural figures. I really enjoy working with young people but I get impatient with the superficiality sometimes. It is depth that comes with maturity and experience.

One of the people I most admire in Ithaca, Natasha Tall, is in her late 80?s I think. She still teaches French and Spanish, writes poetry, performs in films and plays, and that?s the kind of person I?m attracted to because I love the vitality. I don?t find many young people who have that vitality.

Part of it is that the world is a fearsome place these days. Because I?m involved in the sustainability movement the young people who I meet through that are very aware that it?s their generation that?s going to have to deal with climate change and the dramatic challenges that we all face. There?s a determination and commitment but a lot of fear as well.

I used to carry all of that around with me, that I?m responsible for everything that goes wrong in the world, and I no longer do or feel that. That?s a huge relief actually to really let go of feeling that I have to be part of the huge solution. Instead I feel very free to choose contributing in my small way, in a focused way, and not carry the rest of it around in my gut and my conscience. And let the next generation deal with it.

RT: Is there anything you fear about aging?

Patricia: I don?t like the idea of becoming debilitated and having to have someone else take care of me. I do believe in assisted suicide and the right to choose but I know that I couldn?t. I?m just not courageous but then I don?t have terminal cancer and I?m not in constant pain so I can?t say.

I used to be very afraid that I?d be like my mother and my body would break down but then I don?t smoke 4 packs a day and drink as much as she did.

I?m not afraid of losing my new beloved but when that thought starts to appear in my brain I look at it and try to let it go and not dwell on it, not have it move from concern to fear.

RT: It sounds like you?re doing a lot to prepare yourself for getting older in so many ways.

Patricia: Yes, I am and even to the extent that when I bought the Level Green farm in 2001, one of the reasons it was appealing was that it?s handicapped-accessible, it?s wheelchair-accessible and I could live very well on the first floor in a wheelchair. It would be comfortable for the rest of my life and I was very aware of that.

My partner is living in a three-storey home and he can?t live there forever ? he has 45 steps to get to the bedroom! He has agreed, however long it takes him to deal with the thousands of books and the thousands of boxes that have been sitting in rooms for 45 years, we will go to the Level Green farm where I will know that if somebody fell, it?s accessible and easy. I?m grateful to have that resource.

RT: That?s very forward-thinking! You?ve spoken a bit about ageism. Have you experienced ageism personally?

Patricia: Umm, when I was finishing up graduate school, I applied to approximately 30 jobs in the Cornell area. I got one interview. Part of that may have been that I was known, I?d been in Ithaca for many years and the jobs were fairly lower level so it was not a good place to be looking for employment. Then being around 60 didn?t do me any good. To that extent ageism was an issue in the work world. But that was the only time, the only thing.

RT: Has your work or career been affected by aging?

Patricia: It opened up. I?m no longer on a career ladder and I?m not ambitious to be moving ahead in a career. I?m not after the money and I finally get to do what I love.

RT: So is the freedom stage your version of retirement?

Patricia: Well it?s the opposite of retirement.

RT: What is retirement then for you?

Patricia: I have no idea! I can?t imagine it! I look at my partner who at 79 is working full-time for an academic journal and he loves it. It provides structure for his days and he doesn?t ever want to leave it. Retirement for him is a terrifying thing because it would mean leaving the thing that gives his life meaning and structure. So he doesn?t have anything that he?s going to.

I do know people who either embrace retirement as an opportunity to take up something they?ve always wanted to do or fear it. Particularly if they have a spouse and if the spouse is male and has been in the academic or work world, they sit around, grouse and get in the way all the time.

RT: Is there anything else you want to do or try in this stage of your life?

Patricia: It?s funny I?ve never been terribly interested in money but now I wish I had more because I would love to travel, I would love to take my partner to places that are beautiful, I would love to try gliding, I would love to go to the Caribbean and scuba-dive, I would love to take my grandchildren to have wonderful experiences.

My partner and I may have ten years if we?re lucky. I would like it to be longer. It?s really an extraordinary thing to find love at my age. We?ve only been together a year and a half.

I was very cheerfully solitary. I dated but I never lived with anybody for 30 years. I just really liked a solitary life. There are challenges getting used to be part of a couple when you?re used to being on your own and in charge of your time. Sometimes I think it?s worth it and sometimes I don?t but that?s how relationships are.

RT: So what?s the most challenging transition you?ve had in your life?

Patricia: After my ex-husband, who was an alcoholic and very abusive, after he left I was in a state of learned passivity with a 4-year old and an 8-year old and no money. Creating a viable life from there ? that was the greatest challenge.

RT: What helped you through it?

Patricia: Ithaca is a town that has a lot of single parents so we helped each other. I was fiercely committed to my children?s welfare and the fact that I had children to get up and take care of everyday was what got me through it, as did many other women I know. Otherwise you huddle under the pillow and give up. You struggle on and do the best you can.

It took me years to forgive myself for all the mistakes I made. I don?t know that my children will ever ?unforgive? me for some of the mistakes I made but now I?m much more at peace with the fact that we do the best we can given what we?ve got.

It really sucked. I mean it was really awful. I can?t tell you how we get through something like that but we just do. A friend of mine who was dying of cancer said to me, ?You know the worst part of it is that I have to get up every morning and brush my teeth anyway.?

Having my kids to get up for every morning was an external purpose. Our extended family was quite close and family meant a great deal to us. I wanted my children to have a family that they could count on and I knew I wasn?t going to be able to do it on my own. They had cousins, and aunts and uncles, and grandparents, and to this day there?s a sense of family. My son comes from Tokyo with his family to be with the extended family for New Years ? there were 30 of us and it was wonderful. I knew that I wanted that for them so it was a lodestar.

RT: So what do you know today at your age that you didn?t know when you were a young adult?

Patricia: I?m better at sorting out what?s important and what?s not. I?m freer of the scripts that were imposed when I was young like being a parent you?re supposed to do this, when you have a house you?re supposed to do this, when you?re a wife you?re supposed to do this, and I was very rebellious about all of it.

I didn?t feel that I was living in choice during those years. I was living according to what I was supposed to be doing. I followed all the rules and the rules didn?t work. So you have to make up guidelines for your life that do work and that took me many years.

I?m much happier now than when I was younger. I mean if someone gave me a million dollars I might go back and be twenty again but I?d hate (?Oh My God!?) to have to go through all of that again.

RT: What are the harder things about getting older?

Patricia: My body doesn?t work the way I?d like it to. My knee hurts, I?m dependent on medications, I don?t have as much energy as I?d like. I think I have more energy than when I was in my 30?s but I get tired more easily which means there are things I like to do, like climb mountains, that I won?t do anymore.

RT: What have you learned from your parents and your family about death and dying?

Patricia: The first family death I experienced directly was when my mother?s sister was dying and in a coma. Everyone in the family came; my daughter came from college, my son came from his job, we each took turns for 5 days so she was never alone and when she passed it was peaceful and a release, and a time for the family to come together and coalesce.

And the same thing happened when my mother died, finally. The quality of her life had been the pits and she was miserable. When she died, we knew it was a release for her, and it was a release for us. Everybody gathered from all over the place and we basically had a 3-day party. We went through photographs of her life and we created an exhibit for her memorial service and we laughed, and we cooked, and we went for hikes in the woods.

It was really a re-affirmation and over the years, I have totally forgiven her for all the abuse, I mean she was worse to herself. And I was really terrible to her too ? that?s taken me harder and I?m still working on forgiving myself for that.

After she died, this is going to sound funny, I felt she was around more and watching me more than when she had been alive. I actually said one night, ?Mom, go away! You?ve got your own stuff to work on. Leave me alone!? That slowly just dissipated.

When my father died, everybody gathered. He had had a terrible form of dementia. The quality of his life was horrendous. We loved him and we hated that he wasn?t going to be there. I still grieve and he died 5 or 6 years ago. We all were at his bedside ? there must have been 20 people gathered ? and again we had the memorial and went through the photographs and we cooked and sang and cried. So it was a combination of deep loss and joyousness, affirmation of the family.

I have a dear friend in Ithaca who is 86 and finds out today the results of her tumour biopsy. She and I are part of a women?s breakfast group that has been meeting every week since longer than 1987 when I joined them. If she does have cancer, if the biopsy shows malignancy, we?re all going to be facing that together. We?ve actually talked about it and it?s going to be rough but it helps when you?re not going through it alone and have a spiritual faith.

I am not churched, I was raised Episcopalian but I no longer am part of the faith community. In part because the faith community that I was involved with fell apart. I do believe that there?s life beyond this one and I do believe that we have a purpose in life and for myself, I?m not afraid of being dead. I?m a little leery of dying.

RT: What is it that you?re leery about?

Patricia: Dependency, injuring other people by having them ?have to? look after me or being sad about losing me, the pain.

RT: Other people?s pain or your pain?

Patricia: Both. I am not a good sick person because I don?t get sick very much and I get impatient. I would hate people waiting on me. I?ve never been comfortable asking for help. So those kinds of things concern me. I would rather be hit by a truck!

RT: Yeah, well I was going to ask you how would you like to die? Maybe that?s one option!

Patricia: Yeah, and not very pretty, but slipping away in my sleep of course would be the best way. I guess you have to have a disorder unless you have a heart attack. I?d like to go suddenly however I?ve talked with my daughter about that and she says, ?No, no, no.? I guess that death is harder for the people left behind.

RT: It sounds you?ve been thinking about this a lot. Have you started to prepare yourself for dying?

Patricia: Actually yes. I have the health proxies, I have the will, I?m intentionally clearing up debts, cleaning out stuff in my house. I don?t want my kids to have to go through all that stuff. I mean I?m being very intentional about clearing out my life so that if I do go, I?m not leaving debris behind.

And that affects what I do with Level Green. I want it to last beyond me so I know there are certain steps I have to take. This is true for any founder-driven non-profit and I?m working towards a more active board of directors and having them gradually taken on a lot more decision-making and working towards raising the funds to have a paid director and all that kind of stuff.

It will take around 10 years so I have a big map on my wall at home. There are steps I need to be taking and I tend to get drawn off into enthusiastic organizing instead of doing the long-term stuff. But I know that it?s the long term stuff that?s essential to not leaving debris behind.

RT: Wow that?s very thoughtful!

Patricia: Well, but to be honest, if I died and my friends inherited the land they?d have a good time and it would be fine. And we would have made a difference.

RT: Yes, you already have!?

Patricia: Yes, it?s sort of gravy and I?d like to leave more long-lasting behind but it?s not urgent.

RT: Sure, sure. So if you were to share a piece of wisdom or advice about the experience of aging to help others, what would it be?

Patricia: Make peace with your past, forgive yourself, forgive others. I think that?s at the core of everything and part of that is taking responsibility for your choices.

RT: Yeah. That?s a big one.

Patricia: And it?s hard work. I also recommend that people take up Tai Chi!

RT: Yes! So what?s it like for you to be interviewed about your experience and thoughts on aging?

Patricia: Well it?s fun! I thought ahead of time whether I wanted to do any writing about it and decided not to but I do value the opportunity to reflect on my life and why I do what I do. I think about these things deep inside but I don?t very often bring them to the surface or certainly don?t often have the opportunity to think out loud and share them. I thank you for the opportunity.

RT: Well thank you for contributing! It?s been spectacular!!

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