Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Death: A special report on the inevitable

 An interesting issue of New Scientist, dealing with something we all face - in retirement or before.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My birthday from hell – a year later

The birthday from hell was just the beginning – it turned into “the year from hell”. A few days after my birthday, with the car tire fixed, we went to the emergency department (our doctor was out of town), to get husband’s health looked after. Over the next three days, we spent many hours there, with exams, blood tests, ultrasound, etc. The diagnosis: pancreatic cancer, inoperable. So the good times ended.

We saw a specialist in Halifax, who said that a 3-6 month survival was likely. He advised that my husband should have a stent inserted into the bile duct, for the jaundice. We followed the advice, but complications during the procedure turned day surgery into a 5-day hospital stay and coming home in a much weakened condition. My husband now had a permanent external t-tube.

We had visits from family and friends, and many supportive e-mails from all over the world. 

My husband did not want to go to the hospital as he got weaker, so preparations for home care nursing visits and palliative care were done. Our palliative care doctor was less optimistic about how time was left for my husband. He said it could be days to weeks, and he was right. During the first month after diagnosis my husband was still able to function somewhat, even if nausea prevented him from eating properly, and a residual infection from the procedure meant continuous antibiotic treatment. In the second month he became too weak to go upstairs, and a hospital bed was set up in the living room. It was a difficult time, watching him get weaker and being in pain. He only survived for two months after diagnosis and died at home on May 12th, 2011. 

Since then, I have had to learn to live alone, after 35 years together.

Today it is one year after the “birthday from hell”. The weather is similar, if not as harsh. But now I have only a grave site to visit.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

And the band plays on

I have had an interest in playing a musical instrument for a long time. As a young adult, while living in Rio, I took piano lessons for a while. Later, when my mother was unable to continue playing the accordion, I ‘inherited’ it. But it stayed in a corner. For a long time, what with work, family, etc., I did not pursue my musical interests. 

In the last few years, I got interested again, but with my irregular work schedule, I found it difficult to arrange for lessons. So I bought a number of self-teaching books, both for piano and accordion, but it did not work out that well. I really wanted to play the accordion and practiced for a while, but never got beyond the very basics. Plus the weight of the accordion bothered my shoulders. I changed to a keyboard, but again got stuck when the music became more difficult.

Now, in retirement, it seemed like a good time to get back into learning an instrument. Then, I saw a notice about a seniors’ band being formed locally, looking for older adults interested in participating. I did not have to think for long - I signed up and joined the band. Each session lasts 15 weeks, and costs $150, so it’s not free.

The band master and organizer is a retired high school music teacher. He has been organizing seniors’ bands for several years. When I registered, about 16 interested folks showed up, most with no musical experience. Not all stayed on. There was a selection of instruments to try out: brass (e.g. trumpet and horn), woodwind (flute and clarinet), drums, xylophone, and the piano. One couple had brought their own guitars. Some people knew what they wanted to try, but most did not and spent some time blowing through different wind instruments until they settled on what felt best. I did not need any trials – I knew I wanted the piano. I was the only one, but some other bands can have quite a number of keyboard players. 

So my musical instruction began. But not quite as I thought. Playing in a band is very different from playing on your own. The piano is more in the background, playing accompanying accords rather than the melody. For me, that felt like jumping in at the deep end. Individual instruction is minimal, as everybody needs some attention. Those playing the wind instruments – who had to learn how to blow – got the most help. As they also are the ones playing the melody, they are the main focus of attention.

I have to play accords (3 notes at once) with the right hand, while playing one note with the left hand. I was told that I did not have to play the left hand for starters, but at home I always practiced with both hands. 

Now we’ve had over a month of practice, and the sounds coming from everyone are more pleasing to the ear! My piano playing, however, is getting harder, as more accords are added.  Since the finger position changes with each accord, I’m often not sure how to do it – argh!  – I could use some more instruction! 

Well, I’ll keep working at it. For now, I don’t have the time (imagine – retired with no time!) to take proper piano lessons, but once the band practices end in May, I hope to do it.  And it is nice being part of a group where all are beginners.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Birthday from Hell

A Birthday from Hell?  Well, not quite, but that is what my husband called it. It was the day I turned 65 – and officially became a pensioner and retiree – a reason to celebrate!  The morning started out great, with my husband serenading me with “Happy birthday to you” and us having a nice breakfast together.

But the enjoyment did not last. Living in Nova Scotia, February is not a kind month. As per weather prediction, it started out snowing, then switched to rain – a lot of rain – and very strong wind. 

I thought I’d get some exercise before the rain came, got on my snow shoes on and went down the path to pick up the mail. As I approached the car, I saw the one of the tires was totally flat. We live some 40 km out of town, on a gravel road that turns into a sheet of ice when it rains. So how will we fix this flat tire, with no means of getting into town to get it fixed? While there is a small emergency tire in the trunk, we were advised by a friend that given the very messy road conditions, it would not be safe to use that tire.  We’ll have to rely on the kindness of neighbours.  This saga will continue after the weekend.

When the rain came, it poured, and not just outside. Our porch, which, granted, is getting old, started leaking like a sieve. I had to gather whatever containers I could find, to catch the drips and periodically empty them, as they were filling fast. Our dog, Lucy, has excellent bladder control and refused to go outside. Molly, the cat, ditto.

My mother called from Brazil to congratulate me, but did not have otherwise good news, as they need to find a nursing aide to assist in the care of her 92-year old sister, but cannot find an appropriate person. So my mother, who is 89, thinks she may have to play nurse. It cannot work.

Then my husband, who has not been feeling well for the past week or two, told me that he has developed more symptoms, indicative of liver/gallbladder problems. My guess is that he’ll need surgery. 

And lastly, my daughter just broke up with her boyfriend of 3 years. She is moving out of their joint flat and temporarily moving into a small room at a girlfriend’s flat. She'll have to start looking for a flat. Living in London is awfully expensive, and it is hard to find a nice place. 

So, upheavals wherever I look. And not much I can do anywhere. Truly a birthday to remember!

Friday, February 4, 2011

My year living dizzily

The dizziness came on suddenly. When I got up one morning, everything was spinning. Going to work proved not to be a good idea, as the dizziness continued. Medical advice given was to rest for a few days and take Cerc (a medication for dizziness). The rest is history.

For the past year – actually a bit longer, since I developed dizziness in November of 2009 – I have felt like I was in suspended animation, work-wise.  I saw retirement in some foreseeable future, but had not envisioned leaving work yet. I thought I might just reduce the number of days worked, and would still be there for at least another year or two. I was strongly involved with the Green Team and enjoyed seeing it develop. Also, our hospital is being replaced by a new one, and I would have liked to be involved in the transition. Well, it did not happen that way!

I do not know what brought the dizziness on, but about 2 weeks prior to onset, I received a flu shot – actually two shots: the regular yearly flu shot and the H1N1 (aka swine flu) vaccine. The latter one, because the main ingredient was in short supply if the entire population was to be vaccinated, had an adjuvant added, to boost the immune response with a smaller dose. I have allergies, and I wonder if the two events are connected, and whether the vaccination could have triggered the dizziness. Health Canada does not think so, but then, they have been wrong before. Could it be a sign of aging – we all have a weak spot? Or something else – so often we don’t know what brings on an illness? Even with today’s advanced knowledge, the human body remains quite a mystery – medicine does not have all of the answers.

I’m fortunate in that, while I am unable to work, I am not totally incapacitated.  I cannot move around fast, and cannot handle noisy environments with multiple interactions – situations I would encounter all the time at work. I was hoping for the dizziness to resolve, so I would be able to get back to work. For a while, being off work was taken up by trying to sort out what was wrong, and how it could be fixed. I went the gamut: GP, ENT, ophthalmologist, internal medicine, gastro-enterologist, physiotherapists, neurologist, CT scan, MRI, ECG, EEG, numerous blood tests, hearing test and more. I took various medications that help with vertigo, but in my case just made it worse. So far there is no specific diagnosis, but a problem in the inner ear has been brought up as a possible source. Menière’s Disease has been mentioned, but not confirmed. Now I am waiting to see a neuro-otologist, but the waiting list is long. I have come to accept that the dizziness is here to say, and putting a label on it won’t change the outcome. I have to learn to live with it.

I am very thankful to live in Canada, with Medicare looking after all the medical bills. Also, having a nursing union – the Nova Scotia Nurses Union (NSNU) – with a good contract is very helpful in sickness, as I was still getting paid. So my illness did not impact me financially. Even the medications I was put on are covered, though only by the hospital-linked extended health insurance.

A recent newspaper article headline read, “Having it all – until you can’t”. This is how I feel at times. Quite a while ago, I had read of people who made lots of retirement plans, but as soon as they retired, were waylaid by illness. The advice given was not to wait that long before retiring, so one could still “have it all”.  Did I wait too long?

Suddenly, I have a lot of time to think about retirement and what I can still do.  My days of multitasking are over. I cannot undertake several tasks at once any more – I have to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. This is difficult for me to do, but it can be beneficial.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Snow day

Recently, we have been having a lot of snow. Just yesterday, another snowstorm brought about 20 cm of snow, mixed at times with rain and freezing rain – all with enough wind to obliterate the walking path several times.

If you want to see our weather, here is a site for a highway webcam in our area: Mt_Thom Webcam

I spent the morning clearing the snow from essential locations: a path to the outhouse, a snowshoe path to the car, plus clearing the area where the car is parked and around the mailbox, so the mail can be delivered. My daily exercise “requirement” is thus fulfilled. I have a gym membership but rarely go. I much prefer outdoor activities, and this winter I’ve been able to do lots of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing around where we live. The TV news showed quite a few accidents and cars off the road yesterday. It’s great not to have the work pressure any more, and the worry about whether I would be able to make it to work, or be stuck there unable to come home. 

I have a folding garden chair, which I use to put the snowshoes on. While sitting in the chair today, and the warm sun shining, it felt like an après-ski location in the Alps – only it’s my back yard!

While snow clearing, I enjoy the surrounding nature. There are not many birds around right now. The most noticeable are the crows, as you hear them crowing at length nearby. Sometimes I see some black-capped chickadees, or the occasional spruce grouse flutters away when I get near her tree resting spot. And I admire the diamond-like sparkle on the trees, brought about by the ice covering the branches from yesterday’s freezing rain. So much beauty!

I want to get more into photography, to record some of this beauty for posterity. But it’s difficult to capture the essence of a scene – the icicles never sparkle as much as in nature.  One of my retirement projects is to learn nature photography. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some dimensions of me

I am getting ready to retire officially. I’m excited about being able to explore various paths – which I was not able to do while working. This was mostly for lack of time, though I have to admit that I spent excessive time on the internet. But mainly, it’s a question of one’s frame of mind.  Before, I was more focused on the day-to-day tasks that need attention, and I did not feel that I had the time to explore new paths. Now, liberated from work-related chores, I feel free to explore what I want to explore – a discovery trip of the mind!

When you look for retirement advice on the internet and in books, frequently the issue becomes finances. This will not be my focus. There are a lot of issues I want to explore: some related directly to retirement and to aging, but most associated with my other interests.

My background: I was born in Germany, but grew up in Brazil. In 1971, I came to Canada. I told people that I was moving from one country to another that was under some kind of war measures act!  I was planning on staying here for a few years, then travelling to Asia, but this did not happen. I found enough of interest to keep me in Canada for the past 40 years – moving from Quebec to British Columbia, and now living Nova Scotia.

I worked for over 45 years, with hardly any longer breaks. After training as a kindergarten teacher in Germany, I started working in 1965 – first in Berlin, then Rio de Janeiro and later in Montreal.  There, after working for a while at a children’s convalescent hospital, I made a switch to nursing, and this has been my occupation ever since. 

I have been quite involved in environmental activism for quite a long time, particularly since coming to Nova Scotia, mainly trying to explore the link between human and ecosystem health.

Since 1984, I have lived in rural Nova Scotia with my husband and daughter (who has since moved to the U.K.). I love the spot where we live – it’s very quiet and tucked away. There are lots of woods and nature around to hike and explore. The highway is far away and the gravel road on which we live is some distance from the house. 

Of course this works best in the summer and when you are not working. In winter it can be quite a hardship. And, our house being some 200 metres (yards) from the road, this means bringing the groceries and other stuff up to the house on a sleigh – quite a slug sometimes! 

I trained as a nurse in Montreal and British Columbia, and later got a degree in Halifax. My main areas of work have been the operating room, the recovery room and the emergency department. During the last several years, I have worked on greening the hospital - a lot in my spare time - and succeeded in getting a Green Team set up.  

Then, about a year ago, I developed a yet undiagnosed dizziness, and my hospital work and Green Team involvement came to a halt. For a long time, I expected to get better, but this has not been the case. I had been considering when to retire, but the dizziness took that decision from me. Now it’s time for retirement and for exploring what I can still do, at a slower pace.