Is It Really All Random? Headline Animator


I try to pinpoint words that when strung together, like beads in a necklace, express something with texture and richness; I hope for the occasional sparkle of a well placed gem. I frequently fail miserably. But on a good day, as with a candid photo, I unexpectedly capture a heartbeat, and it feels as if I've successfully seized fog with my hands.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Racism, Accountability, Paula Deen

I’m interrupting our regularly scheduled programming (my promised entries on Eldercare) because I need to get random here.

I don’t know if she’s a racist. I haven’t talked to her in years. Okay, I’ve never met her. All that cooking and never once has she invited me over.

If she's a racist, there’s no law against it. Moral law, yes. Spiritual law, certainly. But no legal-type law.

If she created a hostile work environment and discriminated against employees, the courts will suss that out and more power to the woman who brought it to the attention of the law.

Not to mention karma. When karma’s involved, you know how that one goes...

But truly, we don’t know anything yet other than Paula Deen’s admission that she used the n-word.

I hate that. And I don’t buy that it was only once because she was robbed by a black man. Though if someone put a gun to my head, goodness knows what I’d say. Or do. Other than clean my britches and hide for about ten years.

There is such a thing as institutionalized racism and we don’t always know when we’re perpetrators. We don’t know what we don’t know. I can’t speak to the covert ways that sections of the human race are demeaned because I don’t walk in their shoes and I can’t always see it. (Not even speaking to the appalling overt behavior I've seen that no one should have to experience.)

When I was very young I was married for all of about 15 minutes. With the last name of Rosenthal, in 15 minutes I learned plenty. About things that had been invisible to me.

I know ugly things are said and said by people who sometimes don’t even know they’re offensive.

“I’m gonna Jew that guy down and see if I can get a better deal.”

“You gypped me.”

Hell, way back when I lived in Texas a restaurant menu showed three salad dressing options. Thousand Island. Blue cheese. And Wop. I assume that’s Italian?

A few years ago I was at a BBQ joint with my parents. In front of us in line was a mixed race couple. My mother said under her breath, “I just hate that.”

I knew my mother. I knew exactly what she was referring to. I feigned ignorance.

“What, Mom? What are you talking about?”

“Black men and white women.” Right after which she attempted to disown her opinion.

“Oh, I know, it may not be right, but that’s just what I think and I can’t help it.”

Interesting, I thought. Bestie’s married to a black guy. Mom loved him.

“Mom, is that what you think every time you see Bestie and Billy?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t think that at all. They’re different.”

I let the moment breathe. Paused. “Well, Mom, I gotta think you can help it if you don’t think it when you’re with Bestie and Billy.”

She didn’t like that. Nope. Not one bit.

And what’s different about Bestie and Billy? We all know. She knew Billy and trusted him. He isn’t part of a nameless mass of humanity of a different color that’s suspect until proven different.

I come from a bunch of Italians (who discriminated against each other because some were northern Italian and some were bas-Italia, low Italian, otherwise known as Sicilian and very dark) and Russian Jews. Shaken not stirred, vigorously at that, if you know those folks.

But I have an advantage. My predecessors paid my dues. I have homogenized looks and a last name to match. My hair is bleached blonde. Good luck figuring out my ancestry. My roots don’t show (well, sometimes, but then I go to the hairdresser) and for awhile, I didn’t even know what they were.

In third grade my friend said to me, “See that new girl. She’s Jewish.” 

Are you kidding me? Sidra Silberman. Hell, yes, she's Jewish. But at that time I’d never even heard the word.

“What’s Jewish?”

She whispered, “They don’t believe in Jesus.”

Seriously? People who don’t believe in Jesus? I went to catechism on Saturday mornings. My parents made a choice between the two religions they came from. I was raised Catholic. I didn’t know my paternal grandmother was Jewish.

I walked up to Sidra. “You don’t believe in Jesus? Why?” I asked astounded.

Can you imagine? I grimace at the thought, even though I was only nine. I'm really sorry, Sidra. 

Clannish. Humans are clannish. We haven’t been socialized all that long and sometimes I’m not so sure we’re socialized at all. Outsiders are – well, outsiders. Humans tend to hang with their own kind. And there's safety in numbers, after all.

Been to the Castro in San Francisco? They have their own flag for land's sakes. 

None of this is to say that any of this discrimination stuff is okay. It’s not okay. It’s reprehensible. The marginalizing, keeping down, holding down, demeaning of any individual or group. It’s just plain wrong.

But there's a lot about the Deen affair left to come to light. In this situation, quite literally, the jury isn’t out – the jury doesn’t even have the case yet. 

I'm not known to quote Al Sharpton but (paraphrasing) he said something about not being much worried about what she said years ago but plenty interested if it's still going on today. Me, too,and it remains to be heard.

Thank you, Reverend.

Paula Deen's affiliates are cancelling contracts, non-renewing, and running for cover. As though their association was an accident. They just bumped into each other mistakenly. And the media are all over the deal like a wet sweat.

But this is what I absolutely do know. There’s something called accountability. It has a few components. 1) Owning your stuff. Good and bad. 2) Accepting the consequences. 3) Cleaning up any mess; paying the fine; making amends. 4) Making a plan for improvement. 5) Improving.

Rinse. Repeat. Till trust is reestablished.

But who in their right mind will ever do the thing we all say we want, take responsibility and own up, if when we do the world lands on us, judges us, kicks us out before fair hearing? If our message is owning up and cleaning up mean nothing. 

There are some distinctions we need to make in this and other cases. Have those accountability benchmarks been met? With my mom, “I can’t help it,” - not so much. Mel Gibson – improvement? I don’t think so. More like taking his show underground. Anthony Weiner, we’ll see, (but I really don’t wanna see anymore).

Then there’s our role. Have we examined our criteria for forgiveness? Is it reasonable? Which are our one strike and you’re out principles, and which transgressions do we let others earn their way back from? Are our standards rational? Do we hold ourselves to the same ones? Would we be okay if others held us to them?            

Do we know the difference between forgiveness and pardon? Nixon was pardoned and to this day he hasn’t been forgiven. Because pardon doesn’t help produce ownership. It says the opposite. It makes the sin like it didn’t happen.

If Paula Deen did bad, she shouldn’t get a bye. No pardon. Not because she’s 66, raised in the South, is famous, a kindly grandma-type on television, or cried for Matt Lauer. She should be accountable.

But how can she, or any of us enact a plan for improvement and seek forgiveness if we’re shunned and humiliated, and left no place to do that?

Make no mistake – her professional associates aren’t severing ties on moral grounds. It's about money. They’re getting rid of her before their sponsors, clients or customers get rid of them. No report of one saying more than, “We’re weighing our options.”

How about, “There will be no decision until all the facts are in. Because that’s the diligence with which we make our product and we believe that’s what you value about us.” Or, "She's been an excellent partner to us and we believe everyone should have a fair hearing."  

Nope. They think we’re reactive, irrational, and unforgiving. Really, I think they think we don’t think.

Again I say, there’s no excuse for racist behavior. I pray I haven’t unknowingly been an
example of Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyed 
Experiment” but that’s probably too much to hope. Instead I’ll ask for forgiveness and the opportunity to make things right if I’ve caused a hurtful impact I didn’t intend. I would wish that for anyone.

While the court sorts out what Deen did and didn’t do, while she explains and dusts herself off, I believe we need to hold ourselves to a standard, too. We have a role in this, in the great world of accountability. Let’s play it well.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Protection Racket


It has a clear, maybe not simple, definition for me. It’s the reputation I have with myself. Who I say I am. What I’m proud of. My talents, skills, competencies; the roles I play. My perception of my weaknesses and strengths. How I see beauty and success, and why. What I value, what I believe. And key personal, historical components that have contributed to my thoughts about how the world works, who I am in it, and what’s possible for me. That’s my identity

©pamela hester king
You have one, too, made up of all those things. 

When I work with leaders learning to give feedback, I tell them to be cautious when giving information that contradicts identity. It may be perceived as an identity assault. It's important to give necessary and sometimes negative feedback but equally so to help the recipient maintain their definition of who they are, hang on to their dignity.

Whole wars have been waged, and continue now, over identity. Look at the Middle East if you don’t believe me. 

I won’t give feedback or information that ‘deconstructs’ identity if in my opinion the situation is such that it’s impossible for the person on the receiving end to restore their reputation with self, or build a new one. If they can’t somehow make things right for themselves.

Does that make sense? I have an example.

A long time ago a friend phoned to tell me her mom was terminally ill. My friend had a lot of unfinished business with her mom. She wanted me to guide her in a clear-the-air conversation, and help her say things to her mother that had been left unsaid, or were said but not heard for years preceding.

©pamela hester king

I coach communication so I was a logical choice for help. We were old friends; I knew her mom and had a deep understanding of the issues that troubled my friend. But there was a rub for me. If I helped my friend say what she wanted, I’d likely also undo the accomplishment of which her mom was most proud – she had tried to be a good mother. Believed she had been. Thought she raised her daughter well, with love and advantages, and was leaving to her only child a large estate to secure her daughter’s future and that of her grandsons.

Giving my friend the benefit of the doubt, I’ll say she planned to be compassionate in the conversation. I still said no. Would not do it. Not under the circumstances. There was no time left to work through things. For her mother to refurbish her reputation with herself as having done right by her daughter, let alone time to shift her daughter’s opinion. 

My decision caused a rift. My friend was angry with me. Felt deserted in a time of need. All the things she needed to say before her mother’s passing might never be said. 

I understand her point of view better now. 
©pamela hester king

But that is how I thought, and think today. If there’s no opportunity to restore or rebuild, I won’t be party to sending someone off whose identity has been upended, and may be left to believe they were not who they strived to be through a lifetime so someone else feels better. It serves no one. It has its own fall out for those who remain behind. One burden lessened while another takes its place…

So as my own parents struggled with their illnesses and my brother and I were challenged with maneuvering through a minefield of financial mishaps we hadn’t known existed, we positioned information to my parents to preserve their identities and protect them from ever feeling ‘less than’ in our eyes.

We told most of the truth. That we needed to be judicious, budgets were required, assets were limited and creativity necessary, but we kept to ourselves that at nearly every junction where a decision needed making my parents had chosen poorly with devastating consequences to their future. They never asked certain questions and we didn't feel compelled to tell. 

We protected them with our money. We protected them by doing things that may have been better handled professionally had more resources been available; we protected them by filling in as many blanks as necessary so they were never without, sometimes to our own detriment.

We protected them from gaining the knowledge that they worked a lifetime to wind up insolvent. We could not bear the pain that would be caused for them were they fully in the know, especially my dad whose identity in part consisted of being a good provider.

They had lost the dream of aging and dying in their own home. Were reconciled with great difficulty to the knowledge they would not be leaving much to their children; for them a final picture of meaningful parenting had died. I couldn’t tell the entire, unvarnished truth of their circumstances. Couldn’t handle taking anything else away. Even an illusion.

We managed the facts in small bits, without lying. But without fully truthing either. It was a protection racket.

And then it finally became necessary to ensure their future well-being with the move to Arizona where they would have the benefit of the ALTCS program if needed. I wrote about that a few weeks ago in, Working the System.

Mom called the move her extradition from California. She thought I was too tired to continue caring for them as the primary custodial child. Thought I didn’t love her enough to do the hard stuff anymore. She was disappointed, angry and sad. Afraid to leave what little she had that was familiar.

I highlighted all the reasons why the move was good. Better weather. Close to my brother. A larger apartment with more amenities. Bigger resident population with less dementia so more real peers, companions, and activities. Things which were important to her. As my brother had done when they lived near me, I planned to come monthly to visit. She would have one child near her and the other visiting. The reverse of what we’d done in California.

But the most important piece of information was held back except for the words, “You’ll never have to worry about your financial future.”

Though my brother and I never stopped worrying, I don’t know that they ever did, we'd protected them so well.  
©pamela hester king

My mom fretted. 

told her it was our last great adventure together as a family. We spent part of my 
childhood moving from city to city because of Dad’s work. And here we were again, blazing a trail, learning a new town, making new friends, adapting, just as she'd taught us.

She was not appeased.

I kept wondering whether we’d, I'd, protected Mom too much. In my fervor to help them maintain their identities as sovereign, responsible adults, she had no real context for the move. She was a native born San Franciscan. Californian to the core and was being asked to surrender one more piece of her history. Of herself. The protection bill had come due. My mother would not, could not, did not understand.

If my father understood more than was said I don’t know. He cooperated, even seemed a little excited, until the evening before the move during which he cried out in his sleep, became restless then finally remained awake and disoriented for the rest of the night.
A lifetime of love, Mom & cousin

When Mom said good-bye to her favorite cousin the week before we left for Arizona, they both knew realistically, it was forever. It wasn't easy. There was no protection from that.

The move itself, on December 1, went smoothly. Mom helped unpack and directed furniture placement. She appeared to recover some enthusiasm for her living situation, except for the new laundry routine. She vigorously disapproved of the weekly schedule and told me so on the phone twice daily for a week after I left. When I distracted her with a planned shopping trip upon my next visit and she was nearly restored, temporarily. 

I left her on December 5, my air travel ticket already secured for a return trip immediately after Christmas. She had her Christmas lights and ornaments and my sister-in-law to help decorate their suite. I ordered a wreath for their door.

Mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas. As ever, she didn’t get it. 

“I want you to scout every nook and cranny of this building so that when I come back you can give me a tour, show me everything they have here and introduce me to your new friends. That’s what I want for Christmas.” I hugged her and said, “I love you,” her tiny body lost in my bear hug. She nodded, waited and watched as I walked down the hallway to the exit.

Mom & Brother 
I turned around a few times to see her still standing at her front door. We waved and blew kisses every few feet. I exited.

Ten days later she was in the hospital. Ten more in hospice. Five and she was gone.

Had I protected her right out of life? Broken her heart with what she didn't know? I don’t have the answer. 

Nobody talks about this aspect of elder care. We talk about self-care (I’ll get to that), we talk about social services (I did that in Working the System) but the place where I started, No One Knows How to Do This, well, I know less now than when I began the journey. How to help with adjustments and loss of independence and the different, difficult crises that emerge on the way to the end. 

I don't know that if I'd done everything perfectly it would have made a difference. I can't always tell what's out of my hands. I ask myself some of the same questions even now that there's only Dad to care for. What should I tell him? What should I demand from him in participation because it's good for him and protection only serves to weaken him? I don't know. I say that more often than ever. 

I did the best I knew, as did my brother. We need to protect our own identities, too, from second-guessing ourselves. From not being able to shield our parents completely from the pain of withering away. 

But that never was assigned to us. We took it on. 

We try to protect ourselves from wishing we were more than only human, with mere human power and limits. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Working the System

They met at age 12, married at 21, stayed married for 63 years. And both were gravely ill, together, as they’d always been. We never imagined that. Moreover, they hadn’t either. For the first time since seventh grade, my parents weren’t able to care for each other.
August 2009. Novices in our situation. New to a system. We were caregivers. Financial
planners. Chauffeurs. Personal assistants. Errand-runners. Note-takers. Translators. Keepers and givers of history. Medication dispensers. Eyes and ears for doctors who couldn’t see everything. Advocates for the elderly.
There was hardly time left just to love them.
My mother moved to a rehab facility to recover from physical and emotional ills while Dad healed after open cranial biopsy for a large brain mass. ‘Crisis’ doesn’t feel an adequate descriptor as I look back. I recall adrenaline surging with chaos, overwhelm, helplessness and panic, all coursing through family veins.
Profound sadness set in as we absorbed the probability of losing both mother and father in the coming months. We grieved for them as they faced their own worst fear, one being left without the other after being together since grade school.
Their relationship had endured for 72 years. They no longer had separate memories.
We originally hoped to return my parents with health support to their home nestled near the wilds of Yosemite. It quickly became clear that was unrealistic. Dad’s treatment included weeks of radiation during which he needed outpatient care Mom couldn’t provide and transportation to various appointments hours from their home; she no longer drove even if well enough to do so.
We conjured a second plan with temporary, respite housing for Dad a mile from me and located next door to where Mom was convalescing. Assuming she was physically and mentally restored and he lived longer than the dire prediction of 3 months, we hoped to situate them in a senior-friendly apartment back in the Bay Area “beehive” my dad had tried to escape. I could deliver meals, home healthcare would oversee meds, and Mom could remain mistress of her domain, a key factor in helping her cope. Dad, when able, need not drive more than ten minutes to anything.
Though she came around several times, it was always temporary. Mom wasn’t able to maintain sound health for longer than six weeks without re-hospitalization. A fragile mental health component concomitantly lurked making treatment difficult and emotional support challenging. Dad worried constantly about her, unable to do anything but watch.
Again we shifted gears. A permanent move was made to an assisted living environment with professional staff to support them as family provided for all other needs.
To finance the situation we sold their home, scrutinized income sources and savings, and began to work the system into which we were conscripted. Our goal was to provide long term care should the doctors be wrong in their longevity predictions.
We spent hours on the Internet researching treatment and understanding likely disease trajectory.
We investigated free and low cost third-party services that might help us leverage the system for financial assist. My brother and I became familiar with Veterans Administration services, their aid and attendance program, military service pension and medical care.
We contacted the county and state, learned about California’s Council on Aging and what it might provide. We sought out nearly free transportation services through the county and took steps to qualify my parents. We looked into volunteer offerings through the parish church that served my parents’ new residence. We talked to social services at the hospital where they were treated. We met with an elder care attorney seeking information about my parents’ rights and ours to act on their behalf.
We had my parents sign sweeping Powers of Attorney (POA) documents so we, their children, could act in concert or independently in pursuit of their interests without redundant signatures or total burden on a single child. Brother One handled financial issues, Brother Two sold their house, and I handled all logistics pertaining to medical care and living arrangements.
Armed with all we knew and attempted to learn about the system, we were still ill equipped to wend our way through the top-heavy, overburdened bureaucracies of the state of California, and federal government as related to the Veterans Administration. Stabilizing my parents’ medical and financial situation became my full-time job.
The VA has labor-intensive protocols in place that take months, even years to navigate. Close to one year passed between filing the initial claim and the first ‘aid and attendance’/pension payment to my parents. This time frame was considered a WWII veterans fast tracked process. Even then, the claim was processed incorrectly and the fix took another year. The corrected payment, thankfully so, was retroactive to the date of first filing, by then nearly two years prior.
I had 22 years of experience in medical administration that allowed me to comprehend physician-speak and ask important questions. I could talk knowledgably with case managers, crack the code on health insurance benefits statements and hospital bills, and understood the Medicare system with which I had worked as a liaison during my healthcare career.
My patience was still tested by red tape, errors, and the failure to correct them that I frequently encountered. My experience helped me recognize mistakes, ask questions and make requests but generally served to irritate those to whose attention I brought them. A helpful, effective representative was a godsend who changed the tenor of an entire week.
I could be terse, even short-tempered, with someone who seemed obstructive. There were times I had to lay down the load, take a walk, nap, or zone out with computer games to shake off a day of frustrations due to roadblocks, or transfers to multiple phone agents each asking again why I called.
In all of this, lessons were learned.
I recorded names and numbers of specific contacts within organizations whose knowledge was broad, deep and accurate. They became my contact points.
I worked better with the mounds of paper when done in short bursts with breaks between tasks; I started out with specific, small goals tailored to the complexity of the chore.
In what now seems a prescient moment, I had a year earlier asked my dad to compile documents I could easily find if needed. I included these items:
  • Copies of my parents Social Security cards
  • Copies of their health insurance/Medicare cards
  • Original marriage certificate
  • Original U.S. military discharge papers
  • Original birth certificates
These allowed me to file for the VA benefits my dad had earned during his military service but never used, and his original service documents were needed. A Power of Attorney allowed the VA to work with me.
My mother, as spouse of a veteran, was also entitled to benefits that were/are more easily procured while the veteran is alive. Benefits can be obtained after death but the process, already arduous, is longer and more difficult. We filed on Mom’s behalf as quickly as possible given my father’s poor prognosis.
My parents were proud that they had been on top of things, ‘affairs in order’, wills drawn, durable powers of attorney for healthcare designated, and POAs executed in case of emergency. But it wasn’t until we needed those documents that we found their POAs unsuitable, good only if they were dead.
The document was also sequential. “If Miss America is unable to fulfill her duties, the crown then goes to…”, with power rolling from one parent to the other then on to the kids. In our case, both were out of commission and neither deceased. We had no power to act for them.
We couldn’t allocate responsibilities among us until procuring a different type of POA.
We were fortunate to have discovered this before my dad’s brain surgery so his competence was not at issue, and while my mother was still tethered to reality sufficiently to understand their paperwork wasn’t applicable during incapacitation. We obtained new forms from a local office supply store and a hospital staff notary witnessed execution.
No single individual (including pricey third party senior advocates and attorneys) was more instrumental in assisting us to successfully secure VA benefits than the Veteran Services Officer through our county Health and Human Services Agency. The overworked individuals in this role are themselves veterans and understand the system; they act as veteran advocates as well as being public servants at the community level. Their plates are overflowing.
Our officer was an expert. He explained the VA system, criteria and process. He sat with me while I completed applications. He gave a heads up as to where we could expect bumps in the road and info on how to prepare. He schooled me in the best way to work the system without gaming it, nibbling at the edge of ethics or compromising integrity.
He greased the skids wherever he could and verified we were in process when something seemed out of timeliness. He coached me on language to use when being interviewed by VA representatives, and reassured me every step of the way.
Had I not found him, in conjunction with time to learn the VA system and my own prior medical background, the outcome for my parents would have been very different.
When we had exhausted our own abilities and all avenues in bankrupt California, we had to become even more creative in our research. It was then we learned of the Arizona Long Term Care System. My dad will eventually enter ALTCS. The program will make certain there is no change in his current living situation. His shift in financial status from independent to state funded will be invisible to him and outside observers.
As the Yiddish proverb aptly says, Man plans, God laughs. We find ourselves in uncharted territory once more. My father, now unthinkably four years post-diagnosis, has outlived his wife and his ability to care for himself. His memory is greatly compromised due to the brain radiation that saved his life. He relies on care from professionals and family and is monitored around the clock.
I traded places with Brother One. After more than three years in my care, Dad now lives in Arizona, a state that has gone to great thought and expense to provide for its elderly population in the most dignified manner possible and, coincidentally, where my brother resides. Arizona will pick up the difference between combined VA and Social Security benefits, and the actual cost of maintaining my father. I visit monthly to lend a hand and I manage everything that can be handled remotely. Brother One provides all logistical day-to-day support.
This isn’t a pretty story. It’s not one I relish telling. It was and remains painful to live. It is told with profound disappointment at having to see my parents, now just my dad, down a path he would find humiliating were he competent to understand. But I believe more and more of us will face these challenges and wanted this story told with as much useful information as I could transmit.
Working the system has new meaning in my family. Because of the work we did to find out what’s available we were not only able to shelter my parents well, comfortably, and lovingly, we’ve also eased financial obligations on two subsequent generations that had pulled together to cover the financial needs of its elders.
The Greatest Generation put much of this system in place. Some of them now need to access its benefit, freeing their children to provide for their own old age.
But pursuit of these benefits in conjunction with care for my parents was an all-encompassing quest. The system works but working the system was difficult. Should it be easy in the face of potential graft and corruption? Probably not, but it shouldn’t be this hard either.
Who said, “Growing old ain’t for sissies?” Bette Davis? True, true.
Watching out for those growing old takes grit, too. Work the system. It is work, and all the help we’d wish isn’t there but some is.  Find out what’s there for you and yours. Be creative. Pull your documents together and be sure they’re the right ones. Nurture connections. Get stubborn. Make the system work for you.