LArry Minnix, CEO of Leading Age
Larry Minnix, President and CEO of Leading Age, offers his insight for the holidays.
The holiday season is powerful. It brings the unique mix of strong emotions that we carry throughout our lives, from the great feelings of joy we have in the presence of those near and dear to us—and the sadness we feel when remembering those who have passed on and expectations not fulfilled.
Overlay the frenzies of shopping, cooking, visiting, special religious programs, and you have perhaps the most complex time of year in our lives.
I can’t prove it, but it is my impression that many residents lived for the holidays so they could see family one last time and say goodbye. Those without family (or worse: without family that was willing to visit) were the saddest.
At any rate, there always seemed to be an inordinate number of deaths after the holidays. So, how do we all not only cope with these complexities, but create a great memorable experience that our residents and their family will remember as one of the best holiday seasons ever?
Based on my almost 40 years of working with the seniors, and based on my experience with a wonderfully dysfunctional family growing up, here are 3 pieces of advice:
Give and Receive
I always went to visit my late, great Uncle George at Christmas. He lived in a rural nursing home that was the atmosphere of the anti-green house, anti-Eden Alternative. Uncle George came from the depressing, even dark, side of my family, though he was one of the exceptions. A generous, funny man who always treated others kindly.
I did not want to go see him in that nursing home. In fact, I always tried to avoid it. My young boys did not want to go either, but we went.
Uncle George was glad to see me, making me feel all the more guilty for wanting to avoid what he represented. I gave him a gift, and he lit up! He unsteadily rose from his chair and said, “And I’ve got something for you! You still like barbecue?”
“Of Course,” I said.
He reached into his chest of drawers and pulled out a carefully wrapped BBQ sandwich and proudly presented it. “Here, I knew you did!” he said. “I have been saving this for you. I knew you’d come to see me.”
A loss for words.
But he needed to give me something he thought I’d like. The sandwich seemed far more important than what I’d brought him…even if I had to bury the rotten bbq before it spread something contagious.
Nothing brings us out of the closet of isolation like giving and receiving.
Laugh and Cry
The journalist E. W. Howe once said, “If you don’t learn to laugh at trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you’re old.”
If I ever write a book about my career in this field, it will be titled, “Whether to Laugh or to Cry.” I have a theory that two of the most cleansing things any of us can do to relieve stress is have a good belly laugh or a deep sobbing cry.
Both come from the deepest parts of our bodies and souls. Afterward, you feel better. This time of the year creates the personal chemistry for both.
Early in my career, I was on an educational panel with the late Ted Koff, of Arizona State University gerontology fame, and a psychoanalyst from New York, whose name I don’t recall.
The psychoanalyst told a then AAHA audience the story of an elderly male patient who was suicidal. Older men have the highest suicide rate per capita of any group in our society. They are especially vulnerable this time of year.
He said the man was at a critical juncture in treatment: had he decided to live or die? At 2 a.m., the doctor’s phone rang. It was the old man laughing heartily! The doctor asked what’s going on, of course.
The man replied, “Doc, I decided to kill myself. My family is out of town for the weekend. I filled the bath tub with hot water and got out a razor. They say that’s a relatively painless way to die. I stepped into the tub and realized I felt the call of nature and stepped out to sit on the toilet. All of a sudden, I cracked up laughing: If I am ready to kill myself, why did I stop to have a bowel movement? Isn’t that hilarious? I think I’ll live.”
And so he did.
I asked a seniors group at a large church if they ever experienced “laugh or cry” events. A man responded that when his mother died, the entire family quietly stood around her bed watching her slip away. She opened her eyes, grinned, and her last words were, “A watched pot never boils.” The family cracked up, then tears later.
Make opportunities for yourself and others to laugh and to cry.
Don’t Let “I Love You” Go Unsaid
My last piece of advice: Don’t let “I Love You” go unsaid. I’ll never forget John. He joined a support group I led for many years for relatives of the elderly. John is a lawyer. Nice guy, but buttoned-down type. He came to see me with a problem.
“I think my mother is dying of cancer,” he said.
“What makes you think so?” I asked.
“She’s in the hospital,” he continued. “Her doctor is an oncologist. And he seems to be recommending some kind of chemotherapy.”
“Have you asked her?” I asked. Seemed like a logical question.
“No,” John replied, “You see, we never discuss these kinds of personal issues in my family. Growing up we talked politics, religion, economics, but nothing personal. When I graduated from college, I was granted a postgraduate year in England. My father died a few days after I returned. He had cancer, and no one told me. I asked my mother why not and she said that she and my father didn’t want to bother me with it. So, he died and I never got to tell him goodbye or that I loved him. I am determined that the same thing will not happen with my mother. So, I want help in learning how to talk with my mother about very personal things.”
In the ensuing days, John literally practiced saying “I love you Mother” and “Do you have cancer?” and “My wife and I want to know about your treatment so we can support you.”
This was a whole new language of communication for John. His mother died a few months later, but not without him saying “I love you.”
When people we love die, there are two major feelings that most of us have: remorse and regret. Remorse is the feeling of loss and sadness. There is a purity about it that conjures within us a long-lasting warmth because of the good things our loved ones leave with us when they pass on. We cry…and we laugh.
Regrets, on the other hand, leave us feeling conflicted, guilty, and sometimes at odds with other relatives that spills over on to subsequent generations.
Telling people we care about that we love them should be the final words of every conversation, especially over the holidays. Not saying it can leave knots in our stomachs instead of just lumps in our throats.
Holiday time together is a great occasion for making amends where possible, telling people what they mean to you, and tell them that that you love them—just in case those are the last words you’ll ever get to say to them.
Doing so will inevitably mean that future holidays, when loved ones are gone, will be filled with giving and receiving, laughing and crying, and ending on a relationship chord that will resound beautifully for generations…because the kids are watching all this for future reference.
Happy and peaceful holidays