Lighting the way to change
By ETHEL M. SHARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 26, 2000
I've had an interesting time this summer seeking out some of the lighthouses of Florida. Some are easy to visit, and others are less accessible. My friends Valerie and Ron were instrumental in my seeing the most unusual, the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, which is not open to the general public. Most can view it only from a great distance, with high-powered binoculars, but we were able to go to it.
I've loved lighthouses since my childhood when I first saw the Cape May Lighthouse in New Jersey during summer vacations. It's what they represent -- they light the way through all kinds of changes happening around them. They have weathered the test of time, providing a great history in our country. They also have been a beacon of guidance, safety and hope on our shores to mariners in storms for almost 200 years. To me, they also signify an inspiring symbol of welcome and warmth, thus providing hope. Hope is the ingredient we all need as we experience life and are awash in constant change, in us and in those around us. Change is a vital, ongoing part of life. I have on display at home a thought that says, "Never stay too comfortable where you are." This reminds me that change is to be embraced, because we are a growing people who can become wiser and more content. Unfortunately, if we're trying to cope with loneliness that can accompany change, or if we try to shut down our emotions through denial, life can seem isolated and stormy, with little hope in sight.
For many unpleasant decisions, happenings, losses and events in our lives, our denial mechanism kicks in. Preliminary denial of the impact of what actually is happening seals us off from the full blow of the experience and gives us the protection we need.
However, if you are an older person, adult child of aging parents, spouse, relative, friend or another caregiver, know that denial exists and can build slowly. The dynamics of denial are very subtle. Many people stuff true feelings deep inside and refuse to face the changes happening to them. They are rocked by change because they don't know where they're headed. Eventually, reality must be faced. If we internalize our fears and block our emotions, other problems emerge, affecting our health, physical, emotional and mental. We simply can't continue clinging to a life of denial. Not letting go can make our life feel very hopeless.
In trying to cope with loneliness, many people attempt a false fix. This can be a chemical cop-out such as alcohol, pills or other drugs that create the illusion that things are okay, but they only make matters worse and bring more hurt. People can escape into television soap operas, endless news or a string of shows. They can overeat or eat foods that do harm to their health. Overcoming the denial of change, aging and loss helps us to plan properly and plays a dynamic role in our true peace and relationships.
All of us have to go through change, and we become lonely at times. That's normal. There are times when we feel happy, fulfilled, accepted and enlivened by others -- and times when we can feel lonely even in the midst of other people. However, there are many people, older family members, adult children as caregivers and even young people who feel isolated, lonely, cut off and strangely disoriented. Some don't feel personally connected, or they feel alone in what they are experiencing. They don't talk about it; they rationalize that no one would understand; they find it difficult to express how they feel; or they feel ashamed, have fears and don't know how to reach out or won't let themselves reach out for help.
My friend Valerie understands the loneliness of change and how difficult it is to face. She's a hair stylist and is trained and experienced in the American Cancer Society's "Look and Feel Better" program that supplies wigs, hair coverings, skin care and makeup for those going through chemotherapy or radiation.
Valerie is sensitive to the effects of the disease, and when a woman's hair begins to fall out, she may elect to have her head shaved. This is not an easy decision.
As Valerie expressed it, "I never had cancer, but I understood how it hurts your heart when your head is shaved. I really had a very difficult time before I was to meet my first appointment, and I expressed those feelings to my husband. But I couldn't figure out why I was so disturbed.
"I met my appointment on a Sunday -- it was very private for her. I remember putting my hands on her shoulders and saying that I understood her feelings about this. She never said a word. When I know her better, I'll share how difficult it was for me to be the one to shave her head because it had brought back very intense feelings in me -- feelings I had been denying.
"Now, after all these years, I realized old wounds were being opened again. Years ago, I had four brain surgeries, starting in my early teenage years until my early 20s, and had to have my head shaved four times, but I never realized this little aspect of my surgeries had really affected me so deeply. I certainly didn't realize it at the time. I thought I had put it away, but my fear that I never fully faced or talked about loomed up in me again when I had to shave someone else's head."
Valerie's head being shaved was an outward, visual sign of what happened to her on the inside as a young person. Her fear and loneliness were exposed in this traumatic change that was symbolized in the loss of her hair. Her denial lessened the blow of the impact. At any age, it takes courage to recognize and face our fears and talk about them. It's never too late, and you're never too old.
Even though many people find it difficult to acknowledge, the loneliness in change is important in any stage of life, or the aging process, or an illness; not to face it harms us. This loneliness in change, where we may think we need to go it alone, or where we erect barriers, can be unbearable and a stone wall to reaching out.
Two older people I recently visited come to mind. Both live in their own homes and refuse to have any in-home care or even to begin to talk about other housing. They simply won't change and adapt. They are unhappy and vulnerable, pushing away those who love them and causing their families anxiety.
In the midst of the turmoil going on within us, our denial and indecision can prevent us from confronting a problem or life change and responding to it properly and getting the needed help.
For older people or us as caregivers, it's essential that we are alert to the change that is happening in us or our loved one. Emotional needs go beyond the things that need to be accomplished. To be aware and sensitive to those who are going through the longest, most uncomfortable transitional change helps us be more open, supportive, available and affirming.
For us to be survivors and to weather the storm, we can learn from each other. We need each other. Perhaps we had better prepare. Perhaps we had better communicate on a new level.
Remember, caregivers make the present moment count!
- Ethel M. Sharp is executive director of Aging Matters Inc., a non-profit network for family caregivers and elder care. You can write to her c/o Seniority, the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. When seeking more information, please enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope and include your telephone number, with area code.
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