Sunday, May 20, 2018

Steve's Response to Sam's Question

Steve at Musee de L'Orangerie

I am following up on Judy’s answer to our grandson Sam’s question, “Why do we travel?”

Like Judy, my family did not travel much when I was young.  There was a trip to California when I was 4, which I mainly remember through photos, and again when I was 8, when we moved to LA, but we stayed only a few months, before moving back in Chicago.  When I was out of the house, my parents took some adventurous trips, including Europe, Israel and South America.  

Like Judy, I had a formative trip to Europe after college.  I took a cheap charter flight, and ventured out on a 3-month trek that started in London and ended up in Athens.  The dollar was strong, and I made $600 last the whole 3 months.  The sights, sounds and experiences were amazing. In London, I saw Lawrence Olivier (who was amazing!) on stage for a ticket that cost 45 cents at the exchange rate back then.  In Paris, I was in awe of the beauty of the city. Two friends and I shared a hotel room in the attic of a left bank hotel that was steps from the Seine.  Every morning, the owner, who was blind, carried breakfast up 5 flights to our attic room with fresh warm croissants, hot chocolate and wonderful coffee.  Each place I visited was poorer than the US, but rich in traditions and history.  So there wasn’t hot water in some of the hotels and hostels I stayed in.  But there was a vibrancy in daily life.  

For Judy and me, the trip we took to China in 1981 whet our appetite to travel more.  Several years later when the kids were older and we were financially better off, we were able to take advantage of the opportunities that began to arise through my work for us to travel abroad.

The most important opportunity was the connection I made to the Gerontology Institute in Jönköping, Sweden.  Boo Johansson and his family had come to State College for a few months in 1989—he and his wife Grazina were using some of the family leave time following the birth of their second daughter, Frida.  This was an eye-popping idea—paying parents to stay home with infants, and so we decided to visit Boo and Grazina in Sweden that summer.  With Matt, who was 7, in tow, we did a little Scandinavian tour, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, spending time in Jönköping. Boo and his colleagues showed us around, including taking us to care facilities for older adults and telling us about social policies from parental leave to preparing immigrants for the workforce, to 5 weeks of paid vacation every year.  The Swedes clearly had a very different approach to wealth and welfare than the US, and I wanted to learn more about it.  

Over time, I learned a great deal about the Swedish care system, and even taught courses there where American students could see for themselves how Sweden handled health care and old age care. Like everywhere, there can be problems, but I still believe it would be better off to be old in Sweden than in the US.  

So Sam, part of the answer about why I travel is to learn about how people live in different places and how they do things.  There are many good things about this country, but we have a lot that we can learn from other places in the world, about their culture, their food, and how they manage things like health care.  It is perhaps clichéd to say this, but when we get to know people from different countries, we are less likely to have misunderstandings or conflict.   It also makes it more difficult to live with myths like we can’t afford universal health care or can’t pay a living wage, or can’t provide decent care for older people.  Or can’t give people 5 weeks of paid vacation a year!

Our travel has allowed us to feel comfortable and confident in other countries.  Many people say they want to travel when they retire, but it can be formidable at any age to manage the complexities of international travel when you are doing it for the first time.   So take time to travel when you are young, and then it will be easier and more fun when you are older.

Why We Like to Travel

The Seine

This week, while giving Sam and Lucy a ride home from school, Sam asked, "Grandma, why do you and Grandpa like to travel?"  I thought for a moment, then responded, "Because the world is full of different people and places and food, and we like to see what they're like."  A good six-year old's answer, but hardly the full story.  It made me think about myself at six, when I hadn't traveled at all, and probably preferred the familiar to the strange.  However, my parents gave me the gift of a first plane ride at age 7, from Oakland airport to Santa Rosa, where my grandparents lived at the time.  I remember being very excited and loving the thrill of flying, even then.

My family did not have the means to travel with a family of six, so our vacations were more of the driving and camping variety.  My next plane ride came when I was 24, when my (then) husband had an internship with IBM, and we flew from San Francisco to New York on one of the brand new 747s. So new that one of the crew accidentally activated the emergency chute before we took off, so we sat in the sun for several hours because nobody knew how to fold it up, and we had to wait for a new one.  My memory is that the flights that summer felt like a getaway for me.  I got to take a leave from my less than thrilling job (I was junior management in a department store), see places that I'd read about (New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston) and that I had longed to see.  We went to museums, ate varied and interesting food, and met new friends, so it felt like an extended vacation.  I was struck by the differences in architecture, the constant background noise level of cities, not to mention the absence of beautiful, fresh California produce.

My next adventure came about 3 years later, when my ex had the opportunity to do some work in Rotterdam.  We decided to take Michael, aged 18 months, and started in London, on to Rotterdam, then Paris, then Brugges, and then home.  Memories include the 14 hour flight from Los Angeles to London, where Michael was high as a kite on the Benadryl that was supposed to sedate him, and some very challenging hotel room situations with a small child, but mostly I was just thrilled to be in Europe, seeing the places I'd only read about in books.  We went to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Kensington Garden, Harrod's, the British Museum, went on a canal cruise in Amsterdam, the Eiffel Tower, Luxembourg Gardens, Versailles, another canal ride in Brugges, and so many other things I no longer remember.  My travel skills were still pretty rudimentary, so I brought way too much luggage, we were severely challenged in our map skills so got lost frequently, but our umbrella stroller saved our lives, and in all, it was again, a wonderful break in routine.

When Steve and I got married, travel became an integral part of our life, in part because his family is in Chicago, but once we moved to State College, my family was still back in California.  In fact, our honeymoon was a three week trip to China in 1981, right after they opened the country to the West, a fascinating (and delicious) journey.  Once in State College we initially relied on a jolly travel agent named "Brandy," but as the internet evolved, we became adept at finding our own itineraries.  Plus, Steve had several meetings a year in various parts of the country, and in time, all over the world.  He has definitely logged many more thousands of miles than I have (most of them to Sweden), I tagged along whenever I could.  We've made good friends all over the world, and will be visiting several of them in a few weeks in England and France.

The other thing that has been a driving force behind our travel has been my interest in cooking, and particularly in foreign cuisines.  When I was a child in the Bay Area, my parents would regularly take us to Chinatown in San Francisco, largely because my always frugal father would order for us at Nam Yuen, and be able to feed all six of us for under $20.  They also took us to Mexican restaurants in Oakland and Alameda, where the gold standard was to see someone hand-making tortillas in the kitchen.  Over the years, the restaurant scene has undergone many transformations, but the most obvious one is that there are a wide variety of very authentic ethnic restaurants in every city in the U.S.  When we moved to State College, there were not many ethnic restaurants, and certainly not the quality of food that we had enjoyed in Los Angeles.  So I started learning how to cook our favorite dishes.  That led to learning about ingredients, techniques, and equipment, and eventually to travel for cooking classes.  I've learned that food never tastes the same in the U.S. as it does in the country it originated from, where the ingredients and techniques have evolved over centuries.  So now, wherever we go we sample local specialties, we collect the ingredients we can take home, and then figure out how to source them if we can't find them in the U.S.

I would say that we are much better travelers now, but it has taken years.  We're better at dealing with jet-lag, better at not over-packing, better at having resources at hand so we don't get too lost, and better at selecting routes to travel.  What remains the same is the excitement that comes a few weeks before a trip.  We both love airports (although we will complain about the amenities at times), the excitement of getting on an airplane and leaving our regular life behind for a while, and then landing somewhere new or exciting.  Now we have places we like to visit in cities we've been to frequently (London, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Hong Kong, Florence, etc.) but I'm always collecting names of new food purveyors and restaurants to try as well.  When we get home, Steve will compile a photo book of the trip to remind us of what we saw and experienced.  And we come home with fresh eyes to look at our life at home, where the familiar can tend to fade into the background and not be appreciated.

So, Sam, that's the long answer to why we love to travel.  And we'll miss you terribly while we're away, but will be ever so excited to see you when we get back.



Thursday, May 10, 2018

What Do You Do All Day?

 PPG Place

Yesterday my six-year old grandson asked me this question:  "What do you do all day?"  My reflexive thought was "very little," which I think came from comparing my days now to how much I could accomplish back in the days when I was working, or comparing my days to his parents with their complicated schedules.  I didn't give him an answer then, but I will the next time I see him.

Every day this week, Steve and I have been to the gym for an hour every morning, walked to our local coffee shop in the afternoon to get some air and run errands, and after dinner, we have taken walks in the surrounding neighborhood admiring the stately and well-kept homes along with the ones that are struggling a bit.

Yesterday, after the gym, we went to our favorite bakery to buy a baguette for dinner and some treats for lunch, and then on to Whole Foods to buy food for the dinner we would be making for our grandkids and their parents.  We came home, and I immediately started cookies for dessert and preparing the meatballs since there wouldn't be much time later on.  We picked Sam up early so he could help me make pasta (he chose spaghetti), and then he played Yahtzee with Steve until dinner was ready.  His dad and sister joined us for dinner, and Mom showed up right at the end due to traffic.  Then we all went across the street to Sam's school for the Spring Choral, and watched Sam thoroughly enjoy singing with his classmates.  Lucy lasted through about half of it.

Today, after the gym, we went to check out the first Farmer's Market of the season at Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh.  We have started taking longer routes when we can, so we can see all of the different neighborhoods.  Many of the neighborhoods remind me of Oakland, California, when I was growing up, especially the architecture and the structure of the shopping districts at the heart of each neighborhood.  We parked near PPG center in downtown, with it's multi-spired super modern architecture, but across the street was the Benedum-Trees building, a historic landmark from 1908.  It's early in the Farmer's Market season, but there was a little produce, baked goods, local honeys, and some interesting looking Greek food we may try another day.  We chose a different route home, because in Pittsburgh streets meander and turn and you suddenly find yourself with yet another amazing view from a hilltop.  After a stop at Target (yes, we have to be practical sometimes), we went home to try out some of our goodies from the market, the "San Francisco Sour Dough" bread that was a little disappointing, and the apple strudel, which was not.

After living our lives in a "be as efficient as possible so you can accomplish as much as you can mode," it is not easy to switch gears and begin taking the time to look around at the scenery and appreciate it.  It is especially hard not to have a schedule, and to find a balance between busy-ness for it's own sake and really accomplishing something.  I'd say that each day I have several things that are on my agenda, but there is very little that simply must be done that day, so if something more inviting comes along, it's okay to postpone it until the next day.  There is time now to evaluate which things mean more, so a household chore will always lose to time with the grandkids.

So I think the answer I will give Sam is that when we were young like he is, we went to school, too.  And then we went to college, where we both went to classes and worked at jobs.  After college, we got jobs and then had children, and we worked just as much as his parents do.  Now that our children are grown, and we no longer have jobs to go to everyday, we finally have time to decide for ourselves how we want to spend our time.  And we feel very, very lucky to have the time to make dinner for he and his family, and to go to the program at his school.

Benedum-Trees Building

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Greetings from Squirrel Hill




Moving to a new community after 32 years in the same place has brought about an upheaval in all our routines and the relationships we formed over the years.  Not only do we have to learn our way around a city with streets that are more a maze than a grid, we need to find doctors, dentists, optometrists and hair cutters.  We have had some success, but we have taken to asking strangers who make the mistake of striking up a conversation with us if they can recommend a dentist.

The area we live in, Squirrel Hill, feels like a vibrant community.  Most of the restaurants and businesses are locally owned, and we have found a friendliness in them.  It’s an old neighborhood and many of the commercial buildings and homes date back 80 to 100 years. Rather than writing about our adventures and misadventures, we thought we would introduce you to our new neighborhood with photographs.

A welcoming sign (above) and a squirrel-shaped bicycle rack.  At least we think it’s a bicycle rack.



How nice it is to be able to walk to a bookstore!  There’s also a newsstand, several tailors who do alterations, a yoga school, 4 coffee shops and 3 tea rooms, and a patisserie, with excellent éclairs. Sorry there is no photo.  We ate the éclairs too quickly. 



A bank that looks like a bank.  We admit we have only used the ATMs and haven't actually been inside.




A gem of a shoe store. The staff know how to fit shoes properly and they have an extensive inventory in seemingly every size.




Squirrel Hill is a veritable bazaar of food choices.  Here are two of our favorites so far, Everyday Noodles, with excellent soup dumplings, potstickers and other delights, and Bagel Factory, with excellent bagels and deli food.  We have also had very good Turkish, Thai, and Szechwan food, and wonderful subs from a local place called Uncle Sams.




There are wonderful old houses.  We go for walks at least once a day to shops or meandering on the side streets to look at the houses.






And historic town houses next door to where we live.





Across the street from us, our grandson, Sam’s, school.  Our granddaughter's pre-school is just a few blocks away.  









Sunday, April 29, 2018

Seeing Your Reflection

This goose caught our fancy on yesterday's walk in the neighborhood

We met one of the new owners of our house yesterday.  She was so excited about the house and all of their plans about how to use the space.  She and her husband have busy medical-related occupations and two high school-aged children, one who will be graduating in a few weeks.  Her son is taking a "gap semester" before college, and she could even envision him living at home at various junctures in the future, just as our oldest son did.  While she was talking I felt a wave of nostalgia sweep over me.  She could have been me twenty years ago.  I could envision the next decade or two for them, filled with high school events, college visits, graduations, children getting launched into their careers, relationship drama, eventually weddings and grandchildren.  There would be unexpected pain and heartache as well, since life is more of a roller coaster than a sea cruise.

Our house would be the backdrop for many of these events, just as it was for us.  As we stood talking, I suddenly saw myself as she was seeing me, and I felt suddenly, old.  I could remember being her age and how I saw people who were retired and whose children were grown and whose greatest joy was spending time with their grandchildren.  And now I was that person.

I shared this perspective with my dear friend Heidi yesterday, with whom I share belly laughs at the absurdity of life, and her response was, "I can assure you, you are still quite immature at times."  And that somehow made it better.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Goodbye State College


Our New Home

We are moving, downsizing, taking the first step at doing something we talked about for years with clients, students, friends and family—moving in recognition of our age and stage in life.

We realized that the house we loved and lovingly shaped to our aesthetics and preferences was too big for us. Seven bedrooms, six and a half baths for two people is a bit much. it has been a gathering place for our family and friends, and we've loved being able to accommodate and cook for them over the years.  We made it warm and welcoming, and we will miss it.  

It is not without some trepidation that we take this step. State College has been our home for 32 years. We have enjoyed the slow pace, lack of traffic except on football weekends, easy access to anything we need (not to mention Wegmans).  When we were both working, it made raising children and focusing on careers manageable.  Now that we have let go of those roles, we found ourselves wanting something different.  We both grew up it cities, Steve in Chicago, and Judy in the Bay Area, and, in fact, we met in Los Angeles.  So there is something familiar about moving to a city with a faster pace and more going on.  

We are not, however, moving to a retirement community. We have rented a townhouse in the middle of a busy Pittsburgh neighborhood to be near our youngest son, Matt, daughter-in-law Jenna, and grandkids Sam and Lucy. Their lives are busy, and we can help with the kids. In fact, we are  babysitting as I write this. (The little angels are sleeping in this morning). It will also be easier for us to see our other kids and grandkids. We can access non-stop flight to where they live, rather than waiting, waiting, waiting for connecting flights.

It feels like a fresh, exciting start. We found an apartment that is a short walk to shops and more than 20 restaurants of varied cuisines. There is a JCC across the street with a large gym and 2 pools and we have already joined. And the apartment is walking distance to our grandkids’ schools. In fact, Sam’s school is right across the street. And then there is the wider city—restaurants, international food in markets in the Strip District, museums.

We face the challenge of downsizing from over 7,000 square feet to about 1,500. We are leaving behind most of our furniture. Sorting what goes with us or goes to Goodwill has been a bit mind bending, but we are nearly there. We will learn to live without tchotchkes and some conveniences. Looking over our cozy apartment, it’s not fancy but we hope to make it comfortable. As we look over the still empty apartment, It almost feels like we are back in college, moving into a new apartment with an empty slate to draw on and lots of new things to explore and do.
One of the biggest challenges has been to find apartment-sized furniture...because we still want to welcome friends and family from time to time. 

It is surprisingly freeing to live in a smaller space and to have eliminated extraneous "stuff."  We challenged ourselves to figure out what we really need to have now that there isn't space for everything.  It's too easy to say, "I might use that someday" and hold on to much more than you can use in a lifetime.  While we certainly haven't denied ourselves anything important, having so much less space made us able to evaluate the value of each object in a different way.  Each thing had to earn it's spot on the moving van!

So here's to a fresh new start in a new place.  We'll let you know how it develops.

We also want to mention that you won’t find us on Facebook anymore. The Cambridge Analytica fiasco was the last straw for us. So be sure to sign up for notices when we post here—although you probably have done so already if you are reading this column.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Traveling Halfway Around the Globe to Find Good Dementia Care



Some of the cabanas

So much Alzheimer care is mediocre at best that it is always stunning when we come across a program that gets it right. Following up on some old newspaper stories about an Alzheimer care facility in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we tracked down Peter Brown. Brown was appalled at the poor care his mother had been receiving in the UK and brought her to live in the resort in Thailand that he and his wife run. When his mother responded well to the setting and the Thai caregivers, Brown began taking in other people from the UK and USA with dementia, gradually converting the facility into a residence for persons with Alzheimer’s disease.

The setting is idyllic—cottages spread out on a large property with winding paths, lush greenery, and a couple of pools. But as Brown explained, the key to good care is simple. Treat people with Alzheimer’s disease with dignity, allow them to live as they want, and have enough caregivers to give them help with the things they cannot do.

The staff to resident ratio is an unprecedented 1 to 1. If a resident wants to go out of his cottage, instead of being blocked by a locked door, the resident can walk out freely and a staff person follows along. If a resident needs help with something, a staff person is there, doing what’s needed but not taking away independence for the things the person still can do. There is no infantilizing, but rather respect and understanding.

Residents can do what they want to do. If they don’t want to come out for meals, their food will be brought to their room. If they want to socialize, there are opportunities, but no one will force a resident out, just in the name of checking a box on a form for “socializing.” We observed two residents sitting together in a shaded area, occasionally conversing and watching activities, human and animal, around the pools and lake. It was a natural event, not contrived.

Brown knows the importance of allowing residents to feel autonomy. Residents live in their own cabanas. There are no roommates, except where a spouse or other relative might share the space. Residents have keys to their cabanas and can lock the door, whether they are in the room or out and about. Staff have backup keys, if needed, but the goal is helping people feel safe and secure with their own personal space. Staff are taught never to walk into a resident’s space without knocking and being invited in first. This type of autonomy was intrinsic to Sweden’s wonderful experiment of group dementia homes, which unfortunately was dismantled for all the wrong reasons, primarily cost and bureaucratic obtuseness,

Why would someone travel halfway around the world for care? Brown has found that families may spend a total of two weeks visiting the dementia patient, spread over a year in the UK, and those visits may be very stressful depending on the setting.  He has family cottages (really luxury Thai resort-style rooms), where family members can come for a relaxing vacation while they visit with their loved one. Some very organized families spread out visits, so different family members come for a week or two every other month or so.  These visits tend to be much more enjoyable for everyone. 

There are other individuals who seek out this type of arrangement, far from home, because they have some awareness of their decline, and they do not want those they care about to see their diminishing abilities.  They are content to be in a very pleasant setting with all of their needs attended to by people who did not know them as they were before.

And then there are the quality issues. The Thai culture is very family-centered, and there is respect and love for those who are elderly.  For those most part, this is a Buddhist culture, where doing the work of caring for those who cannot care for themselves is seen as an honorable occupation that allows the worker to live their beliefs. For this they expect to be rewarded in the afterlife. 

And finally, the cost for this compassionate care in this idyllic setting?  Only $2400 a month.  Really.  Little wonder that almost half of the people in the facility are from the United States, where in most urban areas, a dementia care facility can easily run $10,000 per month.  And prices are comparable in Europe as well.

 Clearly, this is an alternative that will work only for a select group of people. But It is an example of what can be done by putting dignity and respect for residents first. Over the years we have seen some excellent examples of care. It’s often in small facilities where there’s a director like Peter Brown who has a vision of what care should be like, and makes sure staff understands that, too. In the for-profit sector, making money pushes aside concerns about quality and the regulatory agencies are focused on safety (as well as rules for their own sake) but don’t have a clue about the quality of life of the person with Alzheimer’s. So let’s raise a glass to salute Peter Brown and the other people around the globe doing this hard work and translating their vision of what they want for their families and ultimately themselves into doing Alzheimer’s care the right way.