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This Week in Elder News: 28 February 2009

In this regular weekend feature you will find links to news items from the preceding week related to elders and aging, along with whatever else catches my fancy that I think you might like to know. Suggestions are welcome with, however, no promises of publication.

Saturday elder news is a haphazard proposition and I was lazy in keeping up with reading these past few days, so today’s post is heavy on video from Time Goes By readers who have been particularly active recently in sending along good stuff.

This is a cleverly written video done for an AARP video contest in which it took second place. Obviously done by a young person, it is fascinating for its construction. (Hat tip Melinda Applegate) [1:44 minutes]

Although I have reservations about Google’s apparent goal to take over the world, it is amazing all the useful things I didn’t know Google can do. In his Thursday technology column in The New York Times, David Pogue highlights some of that company’s lesser-known, free services. Read about them here.

When my doctor first prescribed a statin several years ago to control cholesterol, he told me that the drug is so effective for other conditions that if he had his way, everyone would use it. Now, a new study of 18,000 people from 26 countries found “that the cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor reduced the risk [of heart attack] by 47 percent in patients with low to normal cholesterol levels but high levels of C-reactive protein.” The researchers believe the results would apply with other statins too. Read more here.

Darlene Costner of Darlene’s Hodgepodge forwarded this video of an 80-something salsa dancer. It starts out nicely enough, but really gets going at about two minutes in. [4:44 minutes]

Just in case you had any doubt or had forgotten already how evil and stupid the unlamented Bush administration was, read this extraordinary story from Barbara Ehrenreich about how a satirical piece on bomb-building she co-wrote in 1999, landed an innocent man in the depths of the U.S. torture machine for years.

On Wednesday, the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on the effect of the economic crisis on retirement. The next day, President Obama released his budget which included some items on Social Security and Medicare which are causing consternation in some circles and will be loudly opposed as the debate continues before Congress votes. Here is the testimony of Barbara Kennelly, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, at the Senate hearing. [6:56 minutes]

The stock market crash last fall devastated the savings of many retired elders and those who are approaching retirement. There hasn’t been much news coverage about these people who have few means to recoup their losses at their age. This story from CBS News reports on a 90-year-old who lost every penny to Bernie Madoff and now works at the local supermarket. While I dislike the overly feel-good sensibility of the piece that elders can all just go get a job and that everyone is capable at 90, at least it showcases the problem a bit. (Hat tip to Jan Adams of Happening Here) [2:17 minutes]

Watch CBS Videos Online

This 88-year-old has been mayor of Mississauga, Ontario, for 31 years, retained in office through 11 consecutive elections. Maybe that can be explained by the fact that the city is one of few on the entire North American continent that has no debt. Oh, and she was once a professional hockey player. (Hat tip to lilalia of Yum Yum Cafe) [6:32 minutes]

Brain-Boosting Drugs for Elders?

category_bug_journal2.gif In an opinion piece in the December 11 issue of the British science journal Nature, seven authors including scientists, ethics experts and the editor-in-chief of the journal, called for the right of all healthy people to use brain-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall (usually prescribed for attention deficit hyperactive disorder) and Provigil, a sleep disorder drug.

[Because Nature is a subscription-only website, I am relying on an AP story about the article published in The Dana Foundation’s monthly print newspaper, Brain in the News.]

Although it is illegal, American college students have been using these prescription drugs for years to boost their brain power and concentration.

“’We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function,’ and doing it with pills is no more morally objectionable than eating right or getting a good night’s sleep, the authors wrote.”

Personally, I don’t believe pharmaceuticals can be equated, in their moral ordering, with a healthy diet and sleep. An ethicist who is not involved with the Nature group sees this advocacy as nothing more than another avenue to enrich the pharmaceutical companies:

“It’s a nice puff piece,” said Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics, “for selling medications for people who don’t have an illness of any kind.”

Maybe so, although the authors claim no financial ties to drug companies. Nevertheless, I am intrigued, especially for old people.

Perhaps some TGB readers have been mildly disturbed, as I have, by an occasional lag time between conceiving an as-yet unarticulated thought and finding the words for it. This gap is only some number of nanoseconds – like a hiccup of blank space - but it is enough to call attention to itself and I don’t recall it happening until the last few years. Before then, the thought and the words appeared simultaneously – or close enough that I didn’t notice any slippage.

To be clear, this lag time isn’t connected with memory lapses like forgetting where the car keys are or wondering why I opened the refrigerator. In those cases, I forgot something I knew a short time earlier. This new-ish brain phenomenon is about a new idea traveling from thought to language more slowly than in the past.

If that slowdown is a function of an aging brain, it seems to me that brain-boosting drugs, which are good for increasing concentration, would help sharpen elders’ declining cognitive function.

Messing around with the brain in any manner can be dangerous business and the authors are not calling for immediate approval of existing drugs for this off-label use. They are urging research into it and they mention several areas for study: risk of dependency or addiction; policies to guard against coercion to take the drugs and to protect against worsening socio-economic inequality.

That last point is critical unless we are interested in giving a few people an unfair advantage by turning them into a cognitive elite - mental equivalents of A-Rod and Barry Bonds.

Also, although not noted, it would be important to know exactly how the drugs affect what parts of brains and what side-effects there might be – especially in elders. It is known (although not widely enough) that standard dosages of some drugs affect old people differently from mid-age people.

Although no drugs specifically created to enhance brain power yet exist, one bioethicist interviewed for the AP story lauds the authors for making a convincing case that “we ought to be opening this up for public scrutiny and public conversation.” One of the authors told the AP reporter:

“I would be the first in line if safe and effective drugs were developed that trumped caffeine,”

I wouldn’t go that far. Oh - well, maybe I would. Maybe it would depend on whether that lag time is going to expand as I get older. What do you think?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Sydney Halet tells the story of Zayde’s Cat – and in the reading, you’ll learn a little Yiddish too.]

GAY AND GRAY: Outing Age

category_bug_gayandgray.gif [EDITORIAL NOTE: Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here.]

Last month, I attended the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference. This huge annual event brought together some 2500 gay activists of all ages, races and persuasions in downtown Denver for four days of meetings, workshops and communal celebration.

Yes, it was a little overwhelming. I was sent by an employer; such a circus is probably not something I'd jump into on my own. But once there, I could hardly pass up several workshops on aging. Here's a report on one:

Laurie-Young-NGLTF-web In a workshop called "Outing Age," Laurie Young, a Task Force researcher, and Karen Taylor of Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) described their forthcoming update of the 2000 report of the same name. (The old edition is still available for download here.)

They reported that when they approached senior centers and other places where many elders come together to ask about gay and lesbian elders' concerns, they heard the same responses they had gotten years ago: "We don't have any of them here" and "We treat everyone the same."

But they document that gay people do face somewhat different experiences from our heterosexual age peers as we age.

  • Most U.S. elders rely on their children for some forms of assistance as we age. Gay people are twice as likely not to have children as heterosexual elders.

  • Gay and lesbian elders are more likely to retreat into isolation than heterosexual elders. In part, this is in response to ageism in the LGBT community. But also, getting older pushes LGBT elders into a world of social services which they may have avoided for fear of rejection when they were younger.

    These researchers identified with the story of the 93-year-old man who froze to death in his home during the week of the conference. His disconnection from his community recalled for them the social isolation they see too often among LGBT elders.

  • Above all, the unavailability of legal marriage, combined with the federal "Defense of Marriage Act”, penalizes gay elders. These legal barriers mean they cannot receive Social Security survivor benefits. They are not protected by a spousal exemption from having to sell a residence in which their partner has half ownership if they need to "spend down" to be eligible for long-term care under Medicare. President Obama says he want to repeal DOMA; we can hope.

I can't say I enjoyed feeling the subject of social science research in this workshop. I might have been a lot more comfortable if the researchers had been older gay people -- but they weren't, yet. They certainly had the interests of elders at heart, but as so often the case, I think we need as much as possible to speak for ourselves.

Just for the heck of it, here's a short video about how one man is making provision for gay elders in Gujarat, India. The question of where gay elders go is not just an American one. [1:50 minutes]

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Chester Baldwin recalls a Long Ago Summer.]

The Curious Dynamics of Blog Friendship

blogging bug image Elderblogger Steve Sherlock keeps at least two blogs: his personal blog, Steve’s 2 Cents and Franklin Matters, which is Steve’s “public service effort to share information on what’s important” in his home town of Franklin, Massachusetts.

A couple of months ago Steve, who is in his mid-50s, became one of millions of Americans slammed by the economic crisis when he was laid off work. He is tracking his job search activities and reporting job search tactics for everyone in a special section on his 2 cents blog where he has made compelling use of nature photos to illustrate his story topics.

No matter how diligent anyone is in running a job search, however, there is always extra time and Steve has made his unemployment an opportunity to do things he wouldn’t be able to when working full time. Among those, last Friday, he rode the Downeaster train from Boston to Portland, Maine to visit me.

SteveSherlock Steve and I have known one another through our blogs and email for nearly five years and on Friday, lunching on home-made pea soup and cute little pastries from a good, local bakery, we set about getting acquainted in person. Over the course of the afternoon, we pretty much solved all the problems of the world and I drove Steve back to the train in the early evening.

Not counting dozens of mostly younger bloggers I’ve met at conferences, Steve is about the 15th elderblogger I’ve spent time with in person. It is a treat when that happens and invariably it does not feel like a first meeting. By the time two bloggers get together in the same physical space, they already know a lot about one another. There is none of the awkward conversation there often is between strangers who have just met as they search for common interests.

The nature of blog friendships is a fascinating phenomenon. We come together by chance from around the world and through only the words we write, some people we meet this way become as close and dear as anyone we know in person. After five years of blogging, about half the people most important in my life are now bloggers. I can no longer imagine life without this particular kind of social relationship.

As I have written here in the past and in the Wall Street Journal, I believe blogging is a near-perfect pastime for elders. It keeps us socially engaged at a time in life when, in retirement, we no longer have the daily camaraderie of the workplace, our children have their own busy lives, mobility can become an issue and old friends (and spouses) die. In addition, blogging is an excellent mental exercise that helps keep brain cells active and our minds nimble.

With all that, I still haven’t entirely parsed blog friendships. Our in-person friendships can be described in concentric circles from the closest, inner family and tightest friends to the outer fringes that include regular encounters with, for example, store clerks, favorite restaurant wait people and such.

Those circles translate well to our blog relationships, but it doesn’t explain how we come to love those in our closest blog circle whom we’ve never laid eyes on and in many (most?) cases never will. It is a new, 21st century development that doesn’t fit any of the social groups known throughout the history of mankind.

It doesn’t really matter whether I understand the dynamics of blog friendships; I’m happy for them with or without explanation. And it is such a lovely compliment when a blog friend goes out of his or her way to visit, as Steve Sherlock did last week.

The Coming Attack on Social Security

category_bug_politics.gif In his first address to Congress this evening, President Obama will explain his economic policies and legislative agenda. He may or may not discuss Social Security – there is some argument within and without his administration on whether that program is too much to take on at the same time as the housing, credit, banking, auto, unemployment, health care and other crises.

Nevertheless, an assault on Social Security is planned and you need to know about it. Today's post will give you some context if the president does mention Social Security tonight and prepare you for what's ahead.

Back in 2004, when President Bush tried strenuously to privatize Social Security, I wrote a long series of posts tracing the history of the program and its remarkable success over 70 years, refuting every point of Bush’s disingenuous sales pitch. If you remember, it was his brilliant idea to allow workers to invest about half their Social Security contributions on Wall Street. It doesn’t take any imagination to know where those investments would be today if he had succeeded.

President Bush is gone now, but his fellow travelers have not given up their goal of looting Social Security and even eliminating it altogether. The low-level rumblings about Social Security that could be heard during the debate on the stimulus package are now being revved up for a full-bore attack in what journalist William Greider calls a “fiendishly clever grand bargain.”

“…an impressive armada is lined up to push the idea,” he writes, “Washington’s leading think tanks, the prestige media, tax-exempt foundations, skillful propagandists posing as economic experts and a self-righteous billionaire spending his fortune to save the nation from the elderly.”
- The Nation, 11 February 2009

[A reading of Greider’s easily digested full story will give you a clear and detailed understanding of the forces aligned against Social Security.]

That billionaire is 82-year-old Peter Peterson who made his personal fortune working at the shadowy Blackstone Group and he has undertaken a media blitz to hoodwink the country into accepting his devious plan to impoverish retirees.

The plan, in its simplest explanation, is to use the $2.5 trillion Social Security Trust Fund surplus to recover the money spent to bail out the banks. The result, obviously, would be to drastically reduce future retirees' (our children and grandchildren who will be old one day) benefits.

“Since the early 1980s, Peter G. Peterson has been warning that future entitlement deficits would crash the economy,” writes Robert Kuttner. “Yet when the crash came, the cause was not deficits but wild speculation on Wall Street.”
- The Washington Post, 23 February 2009

Complicating the public discussion of “Social Security reform,” which you will be hearing a lot about in coming months, are those ill-informed journalists who routinely reference the program’s “looming financial shortfall” as The New York Times blithely assumed in a political story last Sunday with no source or explanation. This morning, in a story about its latest public opinion poll, The Washington Post refers to the "runaway" costs of Social Security also without source or explanation.

Let us be clear: Social Security faces no imminent crisis. Nor is it “broke” as President Bush tried to make us believe. That $2.5 trillion surplus, confirmed by Social Security’s trustees in 2008, will continue to grow for few more years. There is no danger to benefits until 2041 when only 78 percent of obligations can be met. But that can easily be fixed, especially if we start now, with only minor changes to the program.

Among the better proposals that emerged during Bush’s privatization campaign are gradually raising the age at which full benefits are paid and eliminating or raising the salary cap on which the Social Security payroll deduction is imposed - currently at $107,000 annual income. These are both feasible moves that would ensure Social Security for years beyond 2041. The latter, of course, is opposed by fiscal conservatives - Peter Peterson, et al.

While it is true that the Trust Fund monies have been borrowed by presidents going back at least to Ronald Reagan for other purposes, the treasury bill IOUs sitting there in place of the dollars are legally binding obligations (with interest) of the government.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama indicated support for raising the income level on which FICA deductions are calculated, but the pressure on him from Peter Peterson’s group, Republicans and blue-dog Democrats to take the steps that would, in time, dismantle Social Security will be enormous.

Kuttner, in his Washington Post story, makes an interesting point in regard to the charge from these forces that in an era of deficit spending, the United States can no longer afford Social Security (and Medicare and Medicaid, but that’s a story for another day):

“History provides a parallel. At the end of World War II, the public debt was about 120 percent of GDP – about three times today’s ratio. Yet the heavily indebted wartime economy stimulated a quarter-century postwar boom – because all that debt went to recapitalize American industry, advance science and technology, retrain our unemployed and put them to work.

“We need to increase public spending and debt now to restore economic growth and then gradually reduce the debt ratio once recovery comes.”

Greider, in his story, has this to say about turning back the latest attack on Social Security:

“The Social Security fight could become a defining test for ‘new politics’ in the Obama era. Will Americans at large step up and make themselves heard, not to attack Obama but to protect his presidency from the political forces aligned with Wall Street interests?

“This fight can be won if people everywhere raise a mighty din - hands off our Social Security money! – and do it now, before the deal gains momentum. Popular outrage can overwhelm the insiders and put members of Congress on notice: a vote to gut Social Security will kill your career.

“By organizing and agitating, people blocked Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security. Imagine if he had succeeded - their retirement money would have disappeared in the collapsing stock market.”

That’s you and me Greider is addressing. We – elder Americans – defeated Bush’s privatization bid and we can do it again. You know how. You can write your Congress people here and here.

Often, postal mail can be more effective than email. You can find correct addresses at this website which also links to email pages for members of Congress. We need to do this, and do it repeatedly, not for ourselves – our benefits are probably safe - but for our children and grandchildren.

I urge you to read William Greider’s entire story. It covers much more than I have in today’s post and will give you a thorough grounding in the entitlement fight that is already underway. It also includes a link to Peter Peterson’s response to Greider.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford brings up the forgotten world of Metal Band-Aid Boxes and Dime Phone Calls.]

Being Green and CFLs

Unlike some of our politicians, Crabby Old Lady believes that Earth’s environment is deteriorating due to mankind’s reckless behavior – lack of good stewardship, if you will. Since Earth is the only planet we’ve got, it behooves us to clean up our act and every person needs to do his or her part.

Although we can, collectively, vote for green-leaning politicians and boycott the products of corporations that pollute, there is not much we can do individually on a large scale. That must be left to lawmakers and their enforcers. Still, there are many things individuals can do and if everyone is diligent, much can be accomplished. Even one light bulb per person, for example, and just in the U.S., equals 300 million light bulbs.

It’s amazing how much we can all do without much effort or cost. Among Crabby Old Lady’s contributions:

  1. Replaced all 15 windows with energy-saving vinyl windows (well, yes, that one was extraordinarily expensive)

  2. Separates and recycles paper, plastic, glass and metal

  3. Saves up dead batteries and empty printer cartridges to take to recycling centers

  4. ditto broken/old electrical appliances

  5. Keeps the thermostat for her oil burner at 67 during the day and 59 at night

  6. Permanently turned off two of six radiators

  7. Turned off the six-foot, electric baseboard heater in her laundry room and uses a smaller, space heater set to 55 degrees to keep pipes from freezing

  8. Weatherized exterior doors

  9. Does not own or use air conditioners (the Maine climate helps)

  10. Does laundry only with full loads and uses cold water

  11. Runs the dishwasher only once every week or 10 days (Crabby owns a lot of dishes) and lets them air dry

  12. Combines errands to drive less frequently; walks when possible

  13. Uses power strips to turn off “always-on” appliances where possible

  14. Unplugs small kitchen appliances when not in use

  15. Is fanatical about turning out lights when she leaves a room

These moves are not only Crabby’s contribution to the environment, they have saved her a good deal of money. Her heating oil consumption is down about 20 percent this winter and the winter electric bill, due to not using the baseboard heater in the laundry room, is down 30-35 percent.

Crabby would love to build a green house or retrofit the one she has, but neither is within her financial means. Nor is a hybrid or other greener vehicle at this time. When a new car becomes necessary (many years down the road, she hopes), she will buy the most environmentally clean car she can afford.

However. Following on Crabby’s complaint last week about CFL light bulbs and readers’ many thoughts on her difficulties with them, Crabby has concluded that light bulbs are a problem in need of a better or different solution.

Oddly, on the day Crabby complained about CFLs, a London friend, Sophy Merrick, ran across this cartoon in a local paper:


If it’s too small to see, the sign reads "Energy Efficient Light Bulbs" and the bubble reads:

“Some ugly light bulbs that will look terrible in your light fittings and mean you’ll have to throw all your dimmer switches away, you say? Let me think.”

Crabby has been thinking: the fact that CFLs are ugly and the light output is both unattractive and difficult to read by isn’t much of an excuse when the health of our only planet is at stake. But it is evident to Crabby Old Lady that CFLs are not ready for prime time. There are too many problems that advocates, manufacturers and maybe science itself haven’t worked through yet.

First, as far as Crabby can determine, a whole lot of light bulbs are unavailable as CFLs:

  • oven lights

  • refrigerator lights

  • halogen lights

  • small lights that fit under-the-cupboard fixtures

  • three-way bulbs which Crabby actually uses at their different settings

As Crabby noted last week, all the CFLs she installed at different times over the past year have burned out – some sooner than others. All the incandescent bulbs were still burning after a year or more when she replaced them.

Even if dimmer switches are to blame for the CFL failures as some TGB readers suggested (they don’t dim CFLs anyway), the three that collectively control various ceiling lights in Crabby’s home will not be replaced any time soon. Crabby doesn’t do electric. She doesn’t have a husband who does. And hey, all you greenies, we’re in a deep recession and Crabby is not prepared to pay electrician rates unless it is to correct something dangerous.

All the people who are so gung-ho for switching to CFLs think it’s oh, so easy. Maybe it is if you’re six feet tall and young. But, there are about a dozen ceiling lights in Crabby’s home. Her ceilings are nine feet above the floor. The ladder she owns doesn’t allow her to reach that high and there is no place to store a bigger one.

She tried once to change a ceiling light on her own, standing on tippy-toe on the top step of the ladder - and fell off. She’s not willing to risk a broken leg or back again and it’s not easy finding a tall-enough neighbor to help at a time that is convenient to both.

Crabby Old Lady makes a willing effort to do her part to save the planet, but as for CFLs, screw it (pun not intended). Crabby’s going back to incandescents until affordable LEDs come along.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Elaine Frankonis explains why she was No Charm School Charmer.]

ELDER MUSIC: Johnny Mercer

category_bug_eldermusic Some years ago when I was still living in Greenwich Village, my immediate upstairs co-owner and I were good friends. Our tiny, three-unit condominium was a 200-year-old townhouse built to different standards than today so there was not much between my ceiling and her floor but air. Even so, when neighbor-type issues such as leaks and noise occurred, we worked them out amicably.

After several years of solutions, I thought we had pretty much resolved everything that could go wrong until one evening there suddenly emanated from upstairs a blast of Skylark as loud and clear and true as if I had cranked it up on my own player to top volume. I don’t remember which songs followed, but it didn’t take long to figure out that they were all Johnny Mercer tunes sung by the man himself on an album that I too owned.

So I didn’t say anything; I just enjoyed.

A couple of nights later it happened again – same songs, same album. And again in a week or so and I just kept listening.

There are other good lyricists, but few turned out as much delightfully good work as Johnny Mercer and he sang his own tunes as well or better than anyone. Unfortunately, there isn’t much video of that, but here is one, Jamboree Jones from an old Rosemary Clooney show in which Mercer sings with the Hi-Los. [3:58 minutes]

For Johnny Mercer singing his own songs, I’m stuck with what’s online which isn’t much and are not necessarily my favorites. But for me, there are not any bad Mercer lyrics. This is Mercer singing Baby, It’s Cold Outside with Margaret Whiting. [3:09 minutes]

On rare occasions, Mercer wrote the music to go with his lyrics as he did with this song, Something’s Gotta Give, introduced by Fred Astaire in this scene from the movie, Daddy Long Legs in which he costarred with Leslie Caron. It was released in 1955. [6:43 minutes]

Mercer’s output was so large that it’s hard to keep in mind that he wrote some well-known, old favorites which seem to have always been with us. I didn’t recall that Glow Worm is his, sung here on The Nat King Cole Show by The Mills Brothers. [1:57 minutes]

Mercer wrote what I consider the best torch song of all time - a great, good tearjerker, One for My Baby. God, I love this song and no one (except Mercer himself who took a more light-hearted approach to it) ever sang it like Sinatra in his prime, as in this 1971 concert in London. [6:06 minutes]

Hardly anyone but Rosemary Clooney and Mercer himself recorded this World War II gem, G.I. Jive. The video includes vintage photos of U.S. Army soldiers during the War. [4:02 minutes]

The annual Academy Awards bash is tonight and because Mercer wrote songs for so many movies in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, it is a good day to include his Hooray for Hollywood (this one sung by Doris Day) which the band will undoubtedly play during the ceremony. [2:58 minutes]

Everyone likes to celebrate round numbers with a zero at the end and November 18 will be the centennial of Johnny Mercer's birth. For those who would like to be reminded of the astonishing number of wonderful songs he has left us, here is a long (although still incomplete) list with names of some of the artists who have recorded them.

Oh, wait – one more thing: eventually I told my upstairs neighbor about the Mercer music flooding my apartment. She apologized and moved her new speakers off the floor and onto a table.

This Week in Elder News: 21 February 2009

In this regular weekend feature you will find links to news items from the preceding week related to elders and aging, along with whatever else catches my fancy that I think you might like to know. Suggestions are welcome with, however, no promises of publication.

Comment Troubles: I know many of you have run into difficulties posting comments here and at The Elder Storytelling Place for the past week or two, and I know it is really annoying. Typepad, which hosts these blogs, has been notified and is working on a solution which I hope will come soon. I also hope you will be patient until that happens.

UPDATE: I've just received a note from the good folks at Typepad with a tentative solution. They also are offering individual help to readers with commenting difficulties so they "can work with [you] directly to adjust any local settings which may be preventing the comment form from loading correctly." You can do that by reporting your problem in this online form. Be sure to include as much specific information about the problem as possible.

Marie Alcorn alerted me to a service in Knoxville that would be a good thing everywhere. Called One Call Club for Seniors, it gives member access to vetted services such as yard maintenance, home repair, pet sitting, piano tuning and much more. The goal, reports Marie, is to help elders remain in their homes when these chores become difficult to keep up. “We stand in for that son or daughter who doesn’t live in town,” she says.

We should all know by now that one reason too many Americans are overweight is fat-laden fast food and the increase of portion sizes in restaurant meals. An interesting new study reveals that over the past couple of decades calorie creep has infected cook books too. Read about it here.

Paul Boutin, writing in The New York Times this week, has a number of low-tech fixes for high-tech problems like cell phones dropped in the toilet, dirty DVDs, extending Wi-Fi reach at home and more. Very much worth saving.

Boomer casting call. A new television show called Appetite for Life is in the works and is looking for boomers from 45 to 65 who have “made the leap from dreaming about change to making their passion a reality. If you fit the category, you can find out more and apply for the program here.

Everyone knows that to help control cholesterol, we should limit our intake of eggs, right? Well, now that’s wrong. In a new study, researchers find that saturated and trans fats are much worse and that we can eat eggs again. More here.

No link on this, just a funny image. I wondered yesterday morning, as I was checking the day’s temperature before leaving the house, if I’d pulled a Rip Van Winkle and it was now August, not February. Another online weather service gave me true temperature: 22F with a real feel of 9F degrees.



EDITORIAL NOTE: Virginia DeBolt (bio) writes the bi-weekly Elder Geek column for Time Goes By in which she takes the mystery out of techie things all bloggers and internet users need to know to simplify computer use. She has written several books on technology and keeps two blogs herself, Web Teacher and First 50 Words.

Every time you buy something, sign up for something, join something or even scratch your nose in front of a computer you need a username and a password. How do you remember all those passwords? All those usernames?

Usernames are easier. These days, your email address can often be your username. Of course, if you have more than one email address, you have to remember which one you used in which place. It's okay to keep the same username for every situation.

Passwords need to vary. It isn't safe to use the same password everywhere you go. For some websites, like your bank or your credit card, you want a very secure password that won't be easy to crack.

A secure password has at least seven characters. It should have at least one letter and at least one digit. You can also include uppercase and lowercase letters in the mix, and punctuation marks or other special characters. Don't base the password on your username or use more than two of the same characters in a row (as in Judy222, for example).

Most modern browsers will ask you if you want them to remember a password. I allow this for a few sites where there is no money involved such as memberships in communities or social groups. For paying my phone bill or sites where ordering something online, however, I don't want that password in the browser's memory in case my laptop gets stolen. I still need a record of the information in case my laptop explodes in a burst of static and dies.

You can write all of your passwords down in a safe place. You then have to protect the piece of paper or book where you store the info. When traveling, don't carry the paper in the same case as the computer.

Relying on the old fashioned piece of paper is low tech and it works if you are consistent about keeping your list organized. But there's the security involved in possibly losing track of the paper. Don't leave it under the keyboard. That's like leaving your key under the welcome mat. Put it somewhere away from the computer that only you know about.

Do you use a password to login to your computer? If it's a secure password and hard to crack, that might give you enough security to store a document with all your passwords listed on your own computer.

Software is available to save your passwords in an encrypted file. Some free software that you can use to store passwords on your computer or on a USB drive that you can carry from computer to computer is mentioned in this article at tucows. When you use encryption software, you must remember the password to get into your password file, but you don't have to remember any other passwords. This is the most technically demanding solution to password management, but also the safest.

My advice is to assess your risk. Are you using online banking and paying bills online? This kind of activity requires some attention to password security and management. Or do you do only less risky chores like checking email or logging to your blog? For that, you can relax and simply write all your passwords down and keep the list in a safe place.

You can email your questions or suggestions here for future Elder Geek columns. Virginia cannot answer individually, but she may use them as topics for future posts.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz explains how a relative found out This Ain't Mink.]

Off the Hook

I’m sure it has happened to you too: because you feel bad about needing to postpone a lunch or dinner engagement, you put off phoning. Sometimes, however, serendipity is on your side as you procrastinate - the phone rings and your friend cancels. Whooeee – you’re off the hook.

Yesterday, there were a dozen items on my to-do list, many of which were time consuming and I didn’t have a single idea in my head for today’s post that wouldn’t require some research, nor could I figure out when I would find the time to write it whenever I did decide on a topic.

Taking a quick break to check email in mid-morning, I found a note from Mary Jamison who doesn’t blog, but is a regular contributor in the Comments sections here. She had forwarded a poem she’d found at Garrison Keillor’s website, The Writer’s Almanac, which, wrote Mary, she thought would be perfect for Time Goes By.

Whooeee – she’s right, and I’m off the hook.

It is titled, History of Desire, written by Tony Hoagland. I didn’t request permission to print this, so if you are so inclined, you can purchase the book in which it was published - Sweet Ruin from the University of Wisconsin Press or the bookseller of your choice.

When you're seventeen, and drunk
on the husky, late-night flavor
of your first girlfriend's voice
along the wires of the telephone

what else to do but steal
your father's El Dorado from the drive,
and cruise out to the park on Driscoll Hill?
Then climb the county water tower

and aerosol her name in spraycan orange
a hundred feet above the town?
Because only the letters of that word,
DORIS, next door to yours,

in yard-high, iridescent script,
are amplified enough to tell the world
who's playing lead guitar
in the rock band of your blood.

You don't consider for a moment
the shock in store for you in 10 A.D.,
a decade after Doris, when,
out for a drive on your visit home,

you take the Smallville Road, look up
still scorched upon the reservoir.
This is how history catches up—

by holding still until you
bump into yourself.
What makes you blush, and shove
the pedal of the Mustang

almost through the floor
as if you wanted to spray gravel
across the features of the past,
or accelerate into oblivion?

Are you so out of love that you
can't move fast enough away?
But if desire is acceleration,
experience is circular as any

Indianapolis. We keep coming back
to what we are—each time older,
more freaked out, or less afraid.
And you are older now.

You should stop today.
In the name of Doris, stop.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, William Weatherstone gives us a story that proves again why the internet is such a good thing in History Catches Up.]

Why Death is Important to the Future

Pardon me today, while I do some long-winded thinking out loud.

Certainly by now, you have been annoyed, as I have many times when, with a friend at home or a restaurant or anywhere, he or she interrupts in mid-sentence (and mid-thought) saying, “Excuse me, I need to take this,” and then turns away – or even walks away – to speak with someone else on a cell phone.

”Recently, for example, Sam Ashton, a 23-year-old Stanford University computer science graduate and the founder of Loopt, a pioneering friend-finding service, was having dinner in Palo Alto, Calif., when he noticed from the screen on his phone that his freshman college roommate was having dinner just two restaurants away. The two met after dinner at a bar, where they were joined by another former Stanford student who noticed on his display that they were socializing together.”
- The New York Times, 16 February 2009

“NOTICED ON HIS PHONE??? It’s happened many times and I can picture it easily: just as I’m getting to the punch line of a funny incident that happened yesterday, for example, I realize my dinner companion, looking at her cell phone and texting, has consigned me to background noise and is no longer listening.

Mostly (but not always) in my case, it is much younger friends – those who have hardly known life without constantly being tethered by an invisible electronic cord to hundreds of others who are allowed, encouraged even, to be in constant contact. It is about to get worse:

As John Markoff, writing in that Times piece, explained, it is no longer only voice calls and texting that distract people from the here and now. Added to the mix is the emerging “map metaphor” for cell phones (which have become, for young people, life itself). Google has recently launched a service named Latitude that tracks friends’ locations on your cell phone and alerts you to their proximity including a handy map – which has other uses too:

”Indeed, a new generation of smartphones like the G1, with Android software developed by Google, and a range of Japanese phones now ‘augment’ reality by painting a map over a phone-screen image of the user’s surroundings produced by the phone’s camera...

“For starters, map-based cellphones simply translate paper maps into a digital medium, but future systems will probably begin to blur the boundaries between the display and the real world...

“Increasingly, phones will allow users to look at an image of what is around them. You could be surrounded by skyscrapers but have an immediate reference map showing your destination and features of the landscape, along with your progress in real time.

One of the people Markoff interviewed for his story asks, “How long will it be before you come out of the subway and you hold up your screen to get a better view of what you’re looking at in the physical world?”

Personally, I prefer to read street signs and look at what’s around me. That method has served me well in dozens of cities I’ve visited, even when the street signs are in another language.

But the world is changing and I suspect elders, certainly this one, will not – or not quickly enough to be part of the emerging mainstream. I don't remember to take my cell phone with me much of the time, let alone use it for anything but talking.

Part of the difference is that those of us who are old don’t need all this friend tracking. We generally don’t spend our evenings looking for love in all the wrong places anymore and are less likely to perhaps cut a dinner short to meet other friends for a drink. But as the kids grow up they will adapt these technologies and the behaviors that go with them to their adult and professional lives. What is rude in the world elders have lived in is becoming acceptable and commonplace – a normal part of the social landscape.

I think it was Carl Jung who said, “If you don’t move life, life will move you.” He was speaking of our personal lives, but it applies on the macro scale too. Like it or not, life hurtles on, there is no stopping it and with that forward movement come new beliefs, new attitudes, new ideas of what is right and wrong, new social mores and behavior.

It doesn’t seem so long ago to me that a slip showing below a skirt hem was cause for blushing. Nowadays, no one wears slips and bra straps are a fashion item. No matter how hard I try, I continue to be startled when I hear the word “gangbanger,” in reference to certain young men; it still means group rape to me. And once upon a time, I could watch a play or movie in silence. Today, theater managers are widely ignored when they plead with audiences to turn off their cell phones. Soon they will give up pleading and dinging phones and whispered (or loud) conversation will be as much a part of the theater experience as they are on trains.

There are four billion cell phones in the world and the social momentum is on their side involving constant ring tone interruptions and more interaction with tiny screens than with the people in the room. I have learned that such a request as, “Do you think you could turn that off for the hour-and-a-half we’re here at dinner?” is a retro social faux pas of those who, like me, are out of touch in more ways than one.

Which is the reason - and what advocates of longevity research miss - we must all die in a reasonable number of decades because if the old folks don’t get out of the way, they will impede the future.

If I, at nearly 68, am annoyed by friends who still refuse to use email, and by local service providers who have not converted to electronic billing, certainly my young friends are irritated (but sweetly too polite to mention) that I almost never have my cell phone with me and sometimes miss voicemail messages for days because I don’t hear the beep from a coat pocket in the closet where it is likely to be out of juice anyway.

Oddly (to me, but not them), young people appear not to be distracted and in fact, welcome cell phone calls, texts and soon, announcements of friends’ proximity. I would prefer to enjoy the moment uninterrupted, but there is never any going back.

While the past can and should instruct the future, it is young people who will and should decide how; it will be their world, not ours. Just as we discarded some of the habits, behaviors and ideas of our parents’ generation, so must they. And it is our job, when our time comes, to “shuffle off this mortal coil” to make room for our children’s and grandchildren’s future. Mother Nature has wisely decreed it so and we elders would be wise too, to make our peace with it.

However, I am certain that until my dying day, I will be annoyed by cell phone interruptions.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, A. Peri recalls The Little English Cottage of her childhood.]

Medicare Fraud

category_bug_journal2.gif Yesterday, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that three people have been charged with Medicare fraud and identity theft to the tune of $1.3 million. The accused are a husband and wife who run a physical rehabilitation center and their accomplice, an 80-year-old woman who

“…helped recruit seniors to sign blank medical forms and turn over their Medicare beneficiary ID numbers in exchange for $100 payments…”

Early last year, after being astonished at the number of news stories about Medicare fraud that randomly popped into my inbox from various news alerts, I began keeping a running list of URLs to those stories. My so-called “research” was casual, completely unscientific. I just saved them when I happened to notice and undoubtedly missed many.

Keep that in mind as you read this dollar amount of Medicare fraud from those 2008 stories I saved: $3.83 billion.

Apparently, that number is a small drop in the bucket, as I discovered on Monday looking into Medicare fraud around the web more seriously than I had last year.

South Florida is said to be the nation’s epicenter of this fraud which has been described as “rampant.” During the past few years, R. Alexander Acosta, who is the area’s U.S. Attorney, made prosecuting Medicare fraud a priority.

”In one operation, agents set out to survey and inspect every medical equipment company listed as having taken Medicare money in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties - 1,581 places in all.

"’I wanted really, really tough criteria," [Acosta] said sarcastically. "One: Are they there? Two: Are they open? Three: Do they have a telephone?

"’Guess how many failed: 491,’ he said. ‘One out of three. They didn't exist.’"
- Palm Beach Post, 31 January 2009

Acosta says his office detected $1.5 billion in Medicare fraud in the past three years, but estimates the real number is closer to $8 or $10 billion. That’s just in one small corner of one state.

Estimates of annual dollar loss to Medicare fraud are hard to come by. One report, dated 1997, from the National Center for Policy Analysis then estimated $33 billion per year. Whatever the number today, and it is undoubtedly much larger and the majority of fraud goes undiscovered.

The medical device business is one of the biggest targets for fraud, but Medicare fraud takes many forms: false claims, phony prescriptions, inflated billing, billing for nonexistent services and much more. The saddest part to learn is that physicians themselves have been convicted.

However, tracking down and prosecuting miscreants pays off in a big way. In a July 2007 study [pdf], Jack Meyer, president of the Economic and Social Research Institute, reported that

”…for every dollar spent to investigate and prosecute health care fraud in civil cases, the federal government receives $15 dollars back in return.”

The oldest of the baby boomers will become eligible for Medicare in 2011, just two years from now, and Medicare is estimated to remain solvent only until 2018. Healthcare is a priority for President Obama and proposals for changes will be forthcoming, including Medicare. Whatever they are, it is obvious that fighting fraud will go a long way toward having the funds needed to reform healthcare. As Mr. Meyer noted in his report:

”With an aging population and sharply rising Medicare spending (even before the baby boomer demographic wave has hit the shore), we cannot afford a major drain on the Medicare program from fraud. Every dollar that is siphoned off from the program’s funding sources by fraudulent billing practices makes the painful choices we face in assuring Medicare’s solvency even harder.

“If fraud is not curtailed, it will be paid for by those enrolled in the program in the form of future benefit cuts and by working-age people in the form of higher taxes. Fraud will also be paid for by honest physicians, hospitals, and other healthcare providers whose rates will be further cut to help control the cost of the program. Each of these parties - seniors, taxpaying workers, and health care providers - has a financial stake in curtailing health care fraud.”

The job of enforcement is clearly up to federal authorities, but you and I can do our part too.

  1. Give out your Medicare ID number only to medical professionals who need it to bill for services delivered, and to Medicare itself

  2. Report a lost or stolen card immediately

  3. Check Medicare statements for double billing

  4. Check Medicare statements for services not provided and equipment not delivered

  5. Check Medicare statements for higher cost services and products than what was provided

There are more tips for detecting Medicare fraud here. Instructions for reporting Medicare fraud are here.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson has a brief, little tale entitled, Nap Time.]

Crabby Old Lady Wonders…

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Chuck Boyd has added a photograph of his workspace at Where Elders Blog. You are welcome to do so too. Here are instructions.]

A short post today with a few questions that are really bugging Crabby Old Lady.

Stimulus Legislation
Why are people, including the White House, complaining about the stimulus package provision to limit the amount of bonuses for executives of financial institutions? Can anyone really believe in the complainers’ theory that there are no other “talented” bankers who would work for less?

How can Republicans think, for example, that rural waste disposal programs, a new D.C. sewer system, flood reduction on the Mississippi, summer youth job programs, computer centers for community colleges do not create jobs. (See Saul Friedman’s column and the comments.)

Why do Republicans keep saying tax cuts are the better way to go with the stimulus? That’s what the government did for the past eight years and look where we are.

Why has every CFL light bulb Crabby has installed, which cost a fortune and are touted to last for years, burned out in under three months?

Why has Crabby suddenly begun leaving off the “.com” when she is required to leave an email address resulting in annoying little messages to go back and insert a proper address?

Crabby’s just asking…

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mamsallie writes of Acceptance.]

Elder Music: Happy Music

category_bug_eldermusic Here’s some good news about your heart. A recent study found that research subjects’ “blood vessels expanded an average of 26 percent after listening to joyful music for 30 minutes” and that, of course, increases blood flow – a good thing for vascular health. The definition of joyful music doesn’t matter, say the researchers – whatever works for you, personally, does the job.

Here is one that always picks me up, sung by Bette Midler and Bing Crosby a long time ago. [1:47 minutes]

Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen wrote that song in 1944, during World War II when the country had been living through hard times for 15 years.

Much later, when I was in my 30s and 40s in the 1970s and ‘80s, I suffered regular bouts of depression that left me nearly immobile. For the month or so that they lasted, I got to work each day, did the minimum I could manage without losing my job and spent the rest of the time lying in bed with the quilt pulled over my head fighting the dragons of my psyche.

The one relief I could count on was music and when I could drag myself to the phonograph, certain songs raised my spirits. Not enough for me to become social, make a phone call or meet a friend for lunch, but some of the bleak thoughts receded. A lot of what I listened to were popular old songs from my childhood like this one from Peggy Lee which she wrote with Dave Barbour in 1946. [2:26 minutes]

Later, when cassettes came along, I recorded tapes of my happy music so I didn’t need to make the (exhaustive) effort to change records for the individual songs that made me feel better. Nowadays, even with the periods of depression long behind me, I still keep playlists of happy songs on my computer.

This past week, I “lost” an entire day and evening tracking down my happy music online. Most that I used for those private therapy sessions in my past are not available, but I still had a terrific time with what I did find, enough so that there is liable to be a Part 2 and maybe a Part 3 of “happy songs” in future weeks.

Show business songs are a goldmine of happy music and Give My Regards to Broadway, written by George M. Cohan in 1904, is one of the best. This isn’t a favorite version, but it was so much silly fun to see Liberace again, I couldn’t resist. [2:47 minutes]

The Great Depression produced a lot of my happy music – probably written to raise people’s spirits then. (Maybe that will happen again now during our own dark economic night.) This is another written by Harold Arlen (with Ted Koehler’s lyrics), in 1933. Frank Sinatra had a big hit with I’ve Got the World on a String in 1952. [1:53 minutes]

I keep another playlist that is all New York songs, some of which cross over into the happy category. Here’s Frank Sinatra again, this time with Liza Minelli, with the biggest, brassiest New York song of all. [4:53 minutes]

A lot of my happy songs are as big and loud as that one – or are sung by artists with big, booming voices. One of those is Barbara Cook. This is an old song written by Irving Berlin for the 1946 musical, Annie Get Your Gun. [3:01 minutes]

Here is another Depression song that I often ended my private depression music sessions with. There is something about the rhythm that never fails for me. It was written by Irving Berlin for a 1930 movie of the same title, but I was lucky to find the clip of “my” version of Puttin’ on the Ritz by Fred Astaire with his marvelous, perfect dance from the 1946 film, Blue Skies. Times and what America found entertaining were different then. [4:49 minutes]

I have at least a hundred “happy songs” on my playlist, so seven is hardly a representative sample and they are undoubtedly not the same as yours.

So what are your happy songs? Let us know – and play some for yourself today. It will make you - and your heart - feel good.

This Week in Elder News: 14 February 2009

In this regular weekend feature you will find links to news items from the preceding week related to elders and aging, along with whatever else catches my fancy that I think you might like to know. Suggestions are welcome with, however, no promises of publication.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Abigail Trafford at the Washington Post has a column on falling in love in late life. Hint: it feels a lot like falling in love at 18 or 20. More here.

Last week, the Guardian put out a call to readers for poems about getting old - linking first to some venerable classics like Shakespeare’s Madigral:

Crabbed Age and Youth
Cannot live together:
Youth is full of pleasance,
Age is full of care;
Youth like summer morn,
Age like winter weather,
Youth like summer brave,
Age like winter bare;
Youth is full of sport,
Age's breath is short,
Youth is nimble, Age is lame;
Youth is hot and bold,
Age is weak and cold,
Youth is wild, and Age is tame:
Age, I do abhor thee;
Youth, I do adore thee:
O! my Love, my Love is young!
Age, I do defy thee—
O sweet shepherd, hie thee,
For methinks thou stay'st too long.

More than a hundred people responded with their own odes to age. You can read them here. Some are a hoot. (Hat tip to Norm Jenson of One Good Move)

There has not been much mention in the economic crisis of how it is affecting elders, so congratulations to the Baltimore Sun where reporter Scott Calvert looked into the issue locally:

"This recession is really hitting older workers hard," said Richard Johnson, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington. In past downturns, it was easier for them to retire after losing jobs, he said.

"Today that's no longer the case because retirement accounts are disappearing, housing prices are slumping. And even after they qualify for Social Security, many people have to keep working."

Read the entire story here.

No matter Australians’ opinion of her newspaper-mogul son, Rupert, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch is as beloved in Oz as the Queen Mum was in England. She celebrated her 100th birthday last week and if this interview is any indication, there is a good bit of a Crabby Old Lady to her. (Hat tip to Peter Tibbles)

It’s been reported that 82 percent of new job losses are among men. Lionel Tiger at the Wall Street Journal has an interesting take on how this will affect women. Hint: it’s not going to be easy.

Here is something that may raise grandparents’ hackles. According to a new British study:

”Babies that are looked after by their grandparents while their mothers are out at work are less ready for school than if they went to nurseries or crèches…”

On the upside, children’s vocabularies are better when grandparents do the caregiving. More here.

Remember years ago when President Reagan got caught on an open microphone saying of Russia, “Bombing begins in 15 minutes”? This has nothing do with aging or elders, but it amused me: a South African television’s test of a moving banner somehow went live scrolling, “George Bush is dead.” More here. (Hat tip to Jeanne of Cooksister)

In doggy years, he’s 70 – an elderdog. Nonetheless, Stump, a Sussex Spaniel, won the Best in Show trophy at the Westminster Kennel Club competition in Manhattan this week, the oldest dog ever to do so. Just thought you’d like to know. (Hat tip to Nikki Stern of 1 Woman’s Vu)

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins used the event of Stump’s victory to declare that the hot trend of 2009 is that “old is in.”

”Since it appears that nobody is ever going to be able to afford to retire, we’re moving into an era in which having your car fixed or your tonsils removed by a 75-year-old will need to seem normal. Meanwhile, young people are going to have to stay in school and keep their heads down since their elders have no intention of creating any job openings in the near future,” says Gail.

Read her entire column here.

I know, I know, in the fast-moving news cycle, airline Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s 15 minutes are over. But among the crashingly awful economic news that goes on minute-by-minute, the miracle landing on the Hudson River continues to inspire me along with the 58-year-old captain’s no-nonsense attitude toward his accomplishment in saving every life aboard his plane. If you missed it, here is his 60 Minutes interview. [11:19 minutes] Also, here’s the Wikipedia entry for “Sully.”


[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Sometimes, like now, I think those macro-economists, to turn a phrase, can’t see the trees for the forest. That is, they talk in big, big numbers, and averages, and means and median, but they miss the important little things, like people.

For example, the macro guys considering President Obama’s economic revival package, tell us that its hundreds of billions and maybe a trillion will consist of so much spending on infrastructure and so many billions in tax cuts that if their models are correct maybe two or three million jobs would be created in two years, give or take.

While the macros are arguing whether that’s enough or too much to jump-start the economy, Democrats tell us that we need a stimulus (I hate that word) to prevent another Great Depression while Republicans charge it won’t work because such spending didn’t get us out of the Great Depression anyway, as if tax cuts did.

But the argument misses the whole point of economics, which is to provide food, clothing and shelter to the ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed.

I don’t really know whether the great jobs programs of the New Deal got us out of the Depression. But it doesn’t matter. More important than the macro arguments, is what the much-maligned Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps did for virtually every state and hundreds of towns in America, and the millions of men, women and children it helped during the hard times. Those benefits are still being seen and felt 60 years later.

When I lived in right-wing, anti-federal government Texas (which hasn’t changed much) it came as a shock to the know-nothings when I wrote that their beloved Alamo in downtown San Antonio was restored with the help of the WPA. And the city’s beautiful River Walk was the muddy San Antonio River until WPA workers fixed it up with landscaping, stone work, and walkways and lovely stone bridges that still stand. Today, the River Walk is at the center of the city’s life, with restaurants, shops and barges that ply the river serving dinner to tourists.

While browsing the web in search of more information about the WPA, which was renamed the Works Project Administration in 1939, I discovered that the WPA also built the obelisk of the San Jacinto monument outside Houston, which marks the battle in 1836 that gave Texas (and much of the west) its independence from Mexico.

If I may digress, I like the true story about how a slightly wounded Sam Houston and the captured General Santa Anna, made peace sitting under a tree smoking dope.

But closer to my point - that it’s the little things that count a lot - was this note that I came across from the University of Georgia Libraries, commenting on its collection of photographs that

“...chronicle the various WPA projects which took place in Georgia. The projects were the same in most all of the states and included basic work such as street building and repair.”

One such project was a beautiful, stone monument to the town of Cassville, which was burned to the ground in Sherman’s march across the state.

The WPA, born in 1935 at an initial cost of $4.8 billion, was at the time, the largest “relief” program in American history (now it’s called “stimulus”). By 1941, when spending on the coming war pulled America out of the lingering slump, WPA had cost $11.4 billion and put eight million men and women to work building 1,634 public schools, 105 airports, 3,000 tennis courts, 5,800 libraries, 3,300 storage dams, hundreds of miles of roads, sewer lines, while the CCC built roads through national and state parks, fire towers, and scores of campgrounds, many of which are in use today.

I doubt if George Bush even suspected that his weekend retreat, Camp David, which Franklin Roosevelt called Shangri-la, was built by the WPA as a recreation area in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Do baseball fans know that WPA workers built Doubleday Field, in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of America’s pastime on that hallowed ground?

The architecturally unique bridges of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut were built by the WPA. Not until 1937 did New York City get an airport, La Guardia Field (named after the city’s New Deal era mayor), with its beautiful art-deco main terminal, all built by WPA labor.

Indeed, while the WPA mostly worked with bricks and mortar and steel, building theaters and city halls, the WPA gave work to men and women of the arts when no one else could. The WPA Arts project gave us murals by Jackson Pollock in Pennsylvania. Dozens of artists were paid to paint murals in post offices and city halls many of which are still there, or have been transferred to museums for permanent display.

The WPA Theater Project, hired out-of-work actors and stage-hands who traveled the country putting on plays, concerts and vaudeville shows in hundreds of towns where people had never seen such a thing. And the Writers Project, which included Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, created dozens of wonderfully written state, city and regional guides, many of which I used as a reporter to learn about the places I covered and lived.

The WPA, I should add, hired women, although the agency’s boss, Harry Hopkins, frowned on giving work to both a wife and to leaving children unattended. About 15 percent of the workers were in the Women’s Division and they received equal pay, which was the local prevailing wage, from $19 to $94 a month, for a maximum of 30 hours of work each week. The WPA also provided jobs for 350,000 blacks, and helped dent some color barriers. And the WPA’s Education Division gave work to teachers who taught reading to thousands of illiterate blacks and whites.

But, as I said, I’m more interested in the littlest things. So I found this, an undated report on “hot lunches for a million school children,” by an assistant administrator of the WPA:

“One million undernourished children have benefitted by the WPA’s school lunch program. In the past year and a half 80,000,000 hot well-balanced meals have been served at the rate of 500,000 daily in 10,000 schools...

“School attendance has increased and classroom work has improved in every school in South Carolina where the school lunch projects operate...In Greenville County...children who were weighed at the beginning of the project and weighed again at the end of each five week period...showed an average weight gain of from three to eight ponds per child for the first five week period...”

Did the WPA get the nation out of the Depression? Does it matter?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Chester Baldwin solves the crime in Just Another Dusty Day.]

Five Years of Blogging about Age: Language

blogging bug image Some people have annual “blogiversaries” celebrating the date of the birth of their blogs. I don’t have one of those. It took me, while I was still working full time and commuting more than four hours a day, six or seven months to get this blog up and running, according to old notes.

Time Goes By began in fits and starts of posting and just the banner took four iterations before I came up with a satisfactory idea.

For seven or eight years before that, I had been spending much of my free time researching aging. So it feels like I’ve been writing about getting old for about a dozen years.

Although I was dinking around with the blog during much of 2003, the steady stream of daily posts began early in 2004, making 2009 a fifth blogiversary, however mushy the actual date is. So without a precise day to celebrate, this year is a good time to take some stock about what I’ve learned (and not); how my thoughts, ideas and beliefs about getting old have changed (and not); and how the landscape of aging has changed (and not), particularly with the advent of baby boomers entering late life, which I had not anticipated in the beginning.

So, from time to time during 2009, I will ruminate on these things.

I give language a great deal of seriousness. Specificity is important, finding just the right word to express what I’m thinking, and the difficulty in doing that sometimes, brings ideas into sharper, clearer focus. It is always worth the effort.

One of my first notes about Time Goes By was that there would be no pussyfooting with synonyms and euphemisms for the word “old.” Certainly not “golden-ager” or “third-ager” or “silver” this and that. In addition to being a form a disinformation, those phrases are just icky.

But in time I realized I had pulled my own punches. Look at the subtitle, in the banner, of this blog: “what it’s really like to get oldER. I remember the moment I chose it.

The first subtitle I settled on was “A journal of aging.” I knew it was boring and searched for something better while my colleague and brilliant designer, Freddie LaSenna, was bringing my banner idea to life. When the solution hit me one day, I went to Freddie’s desk to give him the new copy to insert: “What it’s really like to get old.”

And, by god, as I stood there with Freddie, I said, “Hold it, change that to 'older.'”

The difference in just two letters is big. As much as I had come to dislike all the cutesy references to old people through my years of research, I could not yet state the topic of Time Goes By so baldly and that –er at the end of the word softened the blow.

We grow, we learn and the mistake that has been irritating me for too long now has been rectified in the new banner that will accompany the redesign of this blog when it is launched later this year.

Long-time readers of TGB know that I regularly get on my high horse about the language of aging and (as this post reinforces) it will not stop any time soon. There has been a small renaissance in use of the word “elder" and I’m pleased with my part in it. Still too often, however, I cringe at, for example, the media’s ubiquitous use of “elderly” to describe anyone in any circumstance who is older than about 65.

Elderly implies frailty and senility, and all three adjectives automatically dismiss the person so described as no longer consequential. I promise you that no matter how fit, healthy and articulate you are, if your name turns up in a newspaper as, say, in a robbery, the story will read:

“The mugger got away with 70-year-old Jane Doe’s handbag, but the elderly woman was unharmed.”

Now what picture of Jane Doe comes to mind as you read that sentence? How is that picture different if you read the sentence without “elderly?” And importantly, if Jane were elderly, senile or frail, the crime becomes more heinous and deserves further explication.

Some people become frail or senile as they get old, but it cannot and should not be assumed of every old person. Additionally, the adjective “elderly” in that report is superfluous; the woman’s age is enough. Yet I see similar sentences several times every week as "elderly" is mindlessly used as a synonym for "old."

By the way, apparently celebrities are exempt from the elderly tag. No one refers to Clint Eastwood, Doris Roberts, Ed Asner and old business titans such as George Soros and Warren Buffet - all born in 1930 - with that word.

Language is powerful. If someone tells a kid again and again that he is stupid, he and those around him who hear it will come to believe that he is, whether or not it is true. It can affect how his teachers, classmates and family treat him, keep him from trying hard and diminish the possibilities of his future. Equally so, if an entire culture uses belittling language in regard to elders, both elders and the culture will believe old people are less important than those of other ages.

I thought I understood that when I began Time Goes By, but it was much more vague compared to now. New variations turn up constantly and repetitively, and five years later I am still learning the full force of negative consequences on public policy, healthcare, employment, even fashion and other less crucial aspects of elders' lives.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Carol Gardner asks and answers the question, A New Career After 65? In Your Dreams.]

Getting Too Old to Handle Email Spam

Crabby Old Lady’s ISP and domain registrar, through which her email is filtered to her inbox, work hard to identify and quarantine spam. Her email program, which employs Baysian filters, is another stopgap that can be taught to identify spam by Crabby herself.

Nevertheless, about 60 to 70 percent of arriving email is spam and Crabby doesn’t want to imagine what her inbox would look like if the several filters were not in place.

After years of daily inbox scrubbing, Crabby is adept at identifying spam at a glance but recently, out of curiosity, she undertook a minor exercise in examining what arrives and as in the past, she is astonished at the stupidity of spammers.

All but about 1 percent are messy, incoherent, unreadable and most of all, so clearly scams that Crabby believes anyone who loses money to these miscreants deserves it. Here is one email that is particularly idiotic. There is no mention of what the product is (Crabby has cleaned it up a bit for readability.)

“Take our Challenge. Check it out Just SEE What Happens. Our online automated system Really Does Work and we will PROVE it. You can sit back and watch it Grow BEFORE You Get Started. “It's really that simple Just grab an ID. Watch all the people come in and you decide if this is right for you. Test-drive the system for as long as you want. You will be notified when you have a c hec k coming. Don't lose all the people that are waiting to be placed under you. Grab and confirm your ID”

Really, now. What is that about and why would a spammer think anyone would respond?

Spam falls into predictable categories. There are the ever-present dubious health products including fake Vi*gra and Ci*lis substitutes – “all natural” of course – and spammers apparently believe we will all succumb to colon cleansing as a miracle cure for everything that ails us.

The success of such television shows as CSI has, for years now, flooded her inbox with offers to teach Crabby forensic science and the infamous Nigerian scam, along with its copycats, continue to promise Crabby several million dollars if she will front tens of thousands of dollars to transfer the money to her.

Sweepstakes and make-millions-at-home rackets have always been big, but the economic crisis has spawned a surge in foreclosure prevention, credit and real estate swindles. Several people have been telling Crabby recently that they can save her New York apartment from impending foreclosure (using the exact street address) even though she sold it in 2006.

Someone named John Commuta or Comuta has somehow evaded all of Crabby’s spam filters for years with a “debt-to-wealth” program and in the past month, “Mr. Stock” has been trying to sell Crabby a “stock robot,” certain to make her wealthy with no effort on her part.

The latest college degree spam not only promises “no book, no exams, no study,” but will provide grade transcripts to potential employers – or so says the message.

Television is moving into the spam game. The “snuggle blanket” turns up in Crabby’s inbox about a dozen times a day and even the ubiquitous Video Professor is at it now, although the URLs in those emails do not link to the Video Professor website.

Perhaps because of the topic of this blog, the largest percentage of spam Crabby receives involves anti-aging products. You can look exactly 14 years younger, says one, with their “muli-peptide youth serum.” And we all know how effective that is, don’t we.

Another promotes non-surgical Botox that “works in just seconds” and Cheryl Tiegs or someone impersonating her has a “proven alternative to Botox.”

Not a single piece of spam has ever been or ever will be useful.

For years, with a sigh, Crabby has waded through the detritus to find the jewels in her inbox – comments from readers, notes from friends, etc. – and has long squelched her anger, accepting spam as fact of online life. But lately, she is tiring of the daily grind, allowing the spam to pile up because it has become too damned tedious and time-consuming to sort.

Every now and then, Crabby just says, “screw it” and deletes the entire inbox. But that has led to missed personal messages, not to mention the possibility of lost electronic bills. For a time, she tried color coding email addresses of friends and businesses she deals with, but keeping up with that is as tedious as sorting out spam, and messages from new blog readers don’t get flagged.

Email is one of the great inventions of modern life, but spammers have ruined it for Crabby. She once looked forward to the morning email with her coffee; now it makes her tired before she’s even started her day.

Isn’t there something that can be done?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Johna Ferguson supplies us with a list of Liquids for Your Life.]

New Books on Aging

When I started planning this blog late in 2003, I had spent nearly a decade, in my spare time, researching aging. It wasn’t easy in those days. There was not access to old numbers of magazines and newspapers the internet now provides, so I spent a lot of time at library microfiche machines and purchasing back issues.

Most of the books then (the few that existed) were – or read like - academic works; lots of information, but hard to slog through. (Is there a special class required of college professors and science researchers to teach them to write as obscurely as possible?) Aging, beyond recitation of decline, was not a popular topic.

How times have changed. The daily/weekly/monthly media has twigged to the fact that the pig-in-a-python generation - baby boomers who, it is widely believed, invented everything on earth including the wheel - is getting old. Book publishers have realized this too and there is now a tsunami of books about aging.

A large number purport to reveal the secrets of living forever – the anti-aging crowd. A subgenre, of which there are several, contains recipes and fitness advice anyone can find for free on the web. These two topics are not rocket science and no one has anything new to say.

What could be called a sub-subgenre of anti-aging are those writers who apparently have accepted eventual death as a given, but want to tell you how to look young even, it seems, lying in your casket.

Publishers sometimes want to send me books on aging. I accept only those I believe might expand my knowledge and understanding of old age. Other suggestions come to me via blog readers which are almost always more useful. Here are a few books related to aging, recently published or republished.

Fierce with Reality, edited by Margaret Cruickshank, is a marvelous collection of poems and short pieces, ancient and modern, from many cultures about old age from writers renowned and not. It is the sort of book to keep by your bedside and I wish I remembered how this book came to me; I'm sure I owe a thank you to someone. An example, “The Flame,” written by Helen Earle Simcox:

He was
and trans-
like the
glass of
an old oil
lamp, but
his pride
was the wick’s
bright burning.
I longed to
steady his
steps, to
guide his
but the flame was hot.

Memory Lessons by geriatrician Jerald Winakur is memoir of his years of caring for elders together with his father’s descent into dementia while he and his family navigated the confusing choices everyone faces in this event. The book is also, partly, a rumination on what geriatrics is, should and could be by one of the dwindling number of physicians who choose this practice.

“A geriatrician and the editor of the journal Geriatrics, Dr. Fred Sherman, reflects on the art of observing his elderly patients: ‘Can a woman get out of a chair without pushing off with her hands? That means she can still use the toilet. Can a man put on his socks? If not, he will soon need someone to dress and bathe him.’ Geriatrics is very much about trying to maintain the functional status of our patients, doing the best we can to keep them independent, safe and happy…

“Geriatricians are protective of their patients. We shield them from the hucksters of the ‘anti-aging’ and pharmaceutical industries, even from our own colleagues who, at times, are unrealistic about how easy it will be to put in that new knee or bypass that blocked artery.”

There are dangerously few physicians, fewer every year, who are willing to practice this kind of medicine.

We make the big decisions in our lives and for most of them, there is no going back. After my divorce decades ago, I chose not to remarry, but I have often been curious about the experience of sharing daily life with one person for 40 or 50 or 60 years. I would like to try it, but that won't happen now in this lifetime.

In September Songs, subtitled “The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years,” Maggie Scarf reports on extensive interviews she conducted with about 75 late life couples many of whom say life together is more satisfying after two or more decades of marriage.

“Often, one question that was part of my format – ‘How have your arguments changed over time?’ – evoked laughter on the part of the couple, and a wry admission that their arguments hadn’t changed in terms of what was being argued about. What was different was the presence of humor and the level of intensity involved. I found myself laughing along with them, knowing that if my husband and I were interviewees, our responses would have been similar.”

When a publicist emailed about Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me by Lucia Van Der Post, I declined the book which had been described as advice on living gracefully in old age. She talked me into looking at it and I wish I hadn’t.

Most of the book is shopping and beauty tips of the most expensive and “anti-aging” variety. This is a woman who thinks an $800 pair of grass green Marc Jacobs shoes is “one of the best investments I’ve ever made” and she lost me completely with this advice on “waging war against wrinkles” for women 50 and older:

“You should be using products specifically labeled antiaging or one of the cult creams referred to above.”

Ms. Van Der Post makes a passing stab at recommending less expensive brands of clothing, furniture, cosmetics and more, but her idea of affordable is still pricey and you can tell her heart isn’t in it.

One of the most recent in a new subgenre of books on sex and older women (where are the men on this topic?) is Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 60 by Deirdre Fishl and Diana Holtzberg, both documentary film producers. In fact, the film of the same name came first and this book, says the jacket, is a “deeper look at women who break every stereotype we have about sex and intimacy.”

A lot of first-name-only women are quoted about how wonderful sex is at their age in many varieties and this is probably a good book if you doubt that.

I bought Look Me in the Eye by Barbara Macdonald with Cynthia Rich when Jan Adams wrote about it in her Gay and Gray column here. First published in 1983, it is currently out of print, but can be found for sale around the web.

The essays are a powerful inquiry into ageism, particularly toward women, from one who already, as a lesbian, understood being perceived as other in society. Jan did such a fine job in her column, I suggest you re-read it rather and me writing more.

This post doesn’t begin to survey the hundreds, thousands of new books about aging. The majority are shallow offerings with no serious thinking about getting old in a time when that period of our lives lasts so much longer than ever before in history. But each year there are a few standouts.

One thing puzzles me: the books on personal experiences of aging are written almost entirely by women. Are men unconcerned or uninterested in exploring this territory? Certainly, our culture accepts old men more easily than women, but that doesn’t make this time of our lives less compelling, particularly now when old age lasts much longer than ever before in history, and I’m curious about men’s views.

I read a few days ago that 80 percent of the astronomical number of recent job layoffs are among men. Maybe with time on their hands, some older ones will weigh in with a book or two.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Claire Jean recounts the unexpected events of last Christmas Eve in Family Night.]

Short Term Memory Shot to Hell

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Two more people have added their workspace photos to the Where Elders Blog feature: M.E. of XtremeEnglish and Ronni Prior of Ronni's Rants updated her previous listing now that she has changed the look - a before and after series. You can send a photo of your workpace too. Here are the instructions.

category_bug_journal2.gif ITEM: I go the kitchen for a glass of water. I am momentarily distracted because the cat wants a pet and then I return to the library before I recall that I am thirsty.

ITEM: I bundle myself into my winter outdoor gear and walk the six blocks to the local mini-grocery for a single item – a loaf of their excellent sour dough bread. While I’m there, the owner offers me a taste of a new cheese he has received. I buy a chunk and return home without the bread.

ITEM: I go to the bathroom to pluck a hair that is annoying me on my upper lip. But first, I decide, I need to pee. I return to my laptop where the hair again irritates me.

Basically, these days, I do many things twice. I shudder to think of the day it will take three trips and, eventually, more to get through each minor task of a day. Come to think of it, repeating tasks that should need to be done only once might account for why hours speed by without accomplishing as much as I want.

It’s not as though these memory glitches haven’t always happened. All through my life there have been episodes of, for example, finding myself standing in a room wondering why I’m there. I don’t know if the number of incidents has increased or if it only appears so because memory loss is so fearful to contemplate as we age – wondering if each glitch is a sign of incipient dementia.

Poking around the web and perusing my collection of books on aging over the past few days reveals a wide range of medical opinion. Generally, however, there is a (sort of) consensus that some memory loss in age, particularly short-term memory, is normal due to changes to neurotransmitters and chemicals in our brains.

The research involving memory tests of younger versus older people is mind-numbing. (If insomnia is a problem, I suggest you try reading these.) But I was impressed with some showing that elder brains have trouble ignoring extraneous information, resulting in overload. (That’s hardly the language medical researchers use, but it’s what they mean.)

“The [test] results showed that young adults had no problem ignoring irrelevant information. Some (but not all) of the older adults had a harder time overlooking unimportant information.

“Brain scans backed that up. The young adults' brain scans showed activity in a part of the brain that focused on the important images. The older adults' brain scans showed activity in the same area. But the seniors' scans also showed brain activity focusing on the irrelevant images.

"’These data suggest that older individuals are able to focus on pertinent information but are overwhelmed by interference from failure to ignore distracting information, resulting in memory impairment for the relevant information,’ write the researchers.”
- WebMD, 12 September 2005

It is certainly true for me that I almost never concentrate on one thing at a time. As I have been writing this post, I took a break, when a stray idea entered my head, to add a thought to another post I’m working on.

While I was off on that page, it occurred to me to check on whether I have enough cash on hand to pay the person who cleans the halls of the condo. I returned to the desk to make a note to get some cash and figured that as long as I’ve interrupted writing, I should check email. I followed a couple of links, answered two emails and made a note for a possible future blog post. All before returning to write this paragraph.

No wonder I’ve forgotten what I intended to say next.

Short-term memory can also be adversely affected by some medications, untreated hypertension, lack of sleep, a variety of other conditions and, as is true for so many health problems, poor nutrition and sedentary living.

The one drug I take is not known to affect memory, I eat well, sleep almost okay, but I don’t exercise enough. (Reminder to self: get off your butt.)

The usefulness of memory games that have become popular in recent years has not been proven, but one thing that is known to help maintain cognitive function, of which memory is a part, is the adage, use it or lose it. Learning new things is especially productive as it creates new brain connections and keeps them active.

Not a problem. I learn how to do new things almost every day, but it hasn't helped. A couple of months ago, after leaving laundry in the dryer (which is in a back room) for three days too many times while wondering why I can’t find a certain sweater or shirt, I determined to set the kitchen timer to alert me when it is done. In the short walk from the laundry room to the kitchen, I have remembered exactly twice to set the timer.

It occurs to me, as I write this, to tape a reminder to set the timer on the door of the dryer. I wonder if I’ll remember to do that.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Mort Reichek recalls his childhood in The Bronx in The Games We Played.