Saving and savoring daily

Kathy Laurenhue
Kathy Laurenhue
I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world 
and a desire to enjoy the world. 
This makes it hard to plan the day.
~ E. B. White

That statement by Mr. White has long been one of my favorite quotes. Ah, the dilemma: to save or savor? Why not both? But let's begin with savor.

E. B. White is perhaps best known by children as the author of such books as Trumpet of the Swan, Charlotte's Web, and Stuart Little, but I know him as an amusing nature-lover who wrote endless essays for The New Yorker, many focused on everyday life on his Maine farm. Nothing was too insignificant to escape his rhapsodizing. He went on for 15 pages about a raccoon that descended from a tree each summer evening for nighttime foraging, noting, “[A] man is lucky indeed who lives where sunset and coonset are visible from the same window.”

E.B. White's remarkable capacity for wonder – his ability to savor – is something worth cultivating among residents and staff alike. Furthermore, increasing opportunities for savoring nature is an especially worthwhile cause. More and more studies are confirming its benefits related to lifting mood, calming restlessness, improving sleep, and absorbing UV rays for bone health. As Mr. White knew well, nature nurtures.

But it is easy to underestimate older adults' capacity to savor. I was reminded of this recently while on an assignment in Australia, when I visited with a charming woman who had lived with multiple sclerosis for 22 years, the last six in severe pain. Although Kathleen's hands were now deformed and shaky, she had taken up painting some years ago and continued to create nature scenes from photographs. Positioning herself just so in her specially designed wheelchair, she was able to hold a paint brush in her (non-dominant) left hand and support it well enough with her less-shaky right hand to dip it onto her palette and transfer color to the canvas.

She has been unable to find an effective pain-killer (many drugs do not work against nerve pain), and found that distraction was her best remedy. In addition to painting, her husband picked her up from the nursing home each day, and took her home to their garden to putter and plan. If someone as seemingly incapacitated as she is could find beauty and satisfaction in being outdoors, why deny anyone the potential joy?

Kathleen had especially asked to speak with me because she is an expert at opening gifts wrapped in barbed wire. These are the presents that look most unappealing – disease, disability, discomfort – but when the “barbed wire” ribbon is untied, reveal surprising treasures. In her case, she wanted to tell me how grateful she was for the MS -- how it had made her marriage more loving than she could ever have imagined. “You rely on that person for everything; I never would have dreamed the things Mark would do for me. The MS drew us closer together.” And that wasn't all. “You have days when you say, ‘Enough is enough,'” but then she remembers. “It's lovely – so many people go out of their way to be kind.”

Kathleen married Mark in 1959, having met him in the insurance office where they both worked. He was an émigré from South Africa where he was appalled by the injustices of apartheid, which perhaps explains his current sensitivity toward Kathleen's needs. He would continue his work in the insurance agency, but she went on to a career as an adult day care coordinator and someone who helped older adults find housing. When her foot began dragging, it was suggested that she either had MS or a brain tumor, and she was “quite pleased” to discover it was MS, because she was still mourning her daughter who had died of a brain tumor just a year earlier.

Kathleen sleeps with a huge special pillow ring that encircles her body and helps ease her pain. Aside from the slight arm and hand movements she makes to hold a paint brush or touch an iPad game, or to work the joy stick on her wheelchair, she is almost completely immobile. Most people would look at her and call her helpless and perhaps hopeless, but she is not. She paints with difficulty, but determination. She visits her garden every day. She enjoys coffee with her husband. She has learned how to savor.

For more than 20 years I have admired the beautiful grounds of hundreds of long-term care communities and bemoaned the fact that no one is outside enjoying them. So many lives could be improved by an outdoor venue for the activities now held indoors for convenience. And when one must absolutely remain indoors, there are means of bringing the outdoors in. For example, any exercise class can be enhanced by providing the feel, via a large screen TV, of hiking on a woodsy trail or along a beach. World Nature Videos at www.WorldNatureVideo.com is one terrific resource for this.

But as E.B. White taught us, there is also saving.  Another concept that is popular in Australia is the Men's Shed. Apparently it is a longstanding custom for English Commonwealth men to have a backyard shed that is a simpler version of an American man cave. Now more than a thousand long-term living residences throughout Australia have developed their own versions, which are not only savored by the men, but have been a saving grace for them and others. More on that next month. In the meantime, enjoy May's "Just a Bite" with activities for your residents.

Kathy Laurenhue, M.A. heads Wiser Now, Inc., a multi-media publishing and staff development company focused on wellbeing in aging that aims to be practical and lighthearted in everything it produces from books and online courses to downloadable brain games in the form of 75+ MindPlay Connections™ titles and Mood Elevator™ posters.   


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