Isolation and Elderhood

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What a Geriatric Manager does By Roy Herndon Smith, Ph.D. Many older people live alone. Even when they are healthy and able, the cumulative effects of losses-of friends, family members and familiar stores and institutions in their neighborhood-can lead them to withdraw from others and to lose confidence in their abilities; sometimes their sense of who they are begins to dissolve. A geriatric care manager can help such a person reconnect with their abilities and with others. For example, a social worker at an agency referred Mr. J, aged 90, to me. He was a successful artist. He was also a brilliant art teacher, who had, for over 40 years, taught private classes at his studio. Most of his students had been other working artists who found that Mr. J created a culture that nurtured their individual creativity. Many of his students had been with him for decades. A few students had started coming to his classes with their parents when they were teenagers. He had written a book about his teaching method that was, for a time, a popular text in art schools. A series of losses-of his wife of over 50 years and of two close friends-had led Mr. J to feel, at age 85, that he needed to move in a new direction. He stopped teaching and doing much painting. At the time that I began working with him, he was feeling lost, alone and anxious. He was full of ideas for new projects and ventures, which he worked on, but none of them was "it"-what he wanted to "spend the next decade doing"-and none of them provided him with the intense, in-depth interactions with others that he missed. I began visiting Mr. J, for an hour at a time, every three weeks, in his apartment, which was also his studio. At first, I focused primarily on helping him secure the benefits to which he was entitled and understanding the sources of his loneliness and anxiety. I became convinced that he needed to resume teaching, but he insisted that he was done with that part of his life. During a visit after about six months, toward the end the hour, he asked me if I would mind drawing something for him. I said that, while I had taken some art classes decades ago, I hadn't done any art for years. He said that was okay; he just wanted to see what I would do. He gave me a pad of paper and a drawing pencil and suggested an exercise. At each meeting after this one, Mr. J and I would spend the last 15 minutes of our hour together with him giving me a drawing lesson. I was amazed at how freeing these lessons were. Our conversations during the rest of our meetings deepened as we focused on his philosophy of teaching and art. During this time, Mr. J began to write poetry. For a few months, he attended a writing class taught by a poet. He had me read his poems, which were moving and colorful-something like his art. After about another six months, during which we continued to meet, Mr. J arranged with some of his former students to teach a workshop in which the students both wrote poems and did drawings. The workshop was a success. After the workshop, a number of his former students, who had been asking Mr. J if he would please resume teaching art, asked him again. He said yes, but he also said that the classes would be different, that he would be trying out new ideas with them. With the help of his students, he set up a weekly class, which he has continued to teach, now for over two years. While he still acutely misses those he has lost, Mr. J no longer talks about being lonely or not knowing what he is going to be doing for the next 10 years; he's doing it. Sometimes effective geriatric care management involves encouraging older people to try out and practice new ways of exercising their skills and wisdom. When they regain confidence in their abilities, they are often also able to reach out and reconnect with others who appreciate and gain a great deal from what they have to give. Roy Herndon Smith works for Community Geriatric Care Management (a wholly owned subsidiary of Foremost Home Care)

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