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Build your safety circle now, before you need it
Special to The Seattle Times
Whether you figure you'll live at home, in a retirement community or in a yurt on top of a mountain as you age, you want to do it consciously.
Getting old doesn't happen overnight — we don't go from, say, 30 to 80 in the blink of an eye. We have many years to prepare. I call it "aging deliberately" — putting plans into place while we're healthy that will give us control over what happens to us when we're not. None of us ever has total control over our lives, but many older people today have no control. I want a say in what happens to me, and I think this is what most people want. But it takes some doing.
Near the top of my aging deliberately "to-do" list is to identify my significant others. These are the people I trust and care about (and are trustworthy and care about me) whom I can count on to watch over and guide me as I become frail or vulnerable.
I hope not to need them for a while yet, but when I do, I'll want them in place, understanding my wishes and being strong enough to advocate for my best interests when I can't. Ideally, my significant others will become my "safety circle" or "team," and, like a team, our concerns will be reciprocal; we'll watch out for each other.
Team members are typically family members who live nearby — our spouses and adult children, but not necessarily or exclusively. One spouse will likely outlive the other, and many men and women (especially women) don't have a partner. If there are children, they can't always be counted on. Many live far away or aren't trustworthy, or they won't help or don't like us.
Those without family will find their teams among good friends, caring neighbors and professionals in the aging field. Even those with family might want to consider including outsiders. You'll want someone who's at least 20 years younger to participate. And, from time to time, you might involve a geriatric professional — for example, a nurse, physician's assistant, guardian or care manager — to provide clinical advice as members' needs change.
A safety circle is whatever its members want to make of it. This is so new, there are no rules. The structure can be tight or loose, depending on the personalities and desires of its members, and may change over time.
Main task: to serve as substitute decision-makers for health and finances when a member becomes mentally incapacitated. This is a powerful burden, which is why you want your teammates to care about you and be trustworthy.
Other good purposes, in my book, would minimize four problems that loom large among older people (especially the oldest of the old) today:
• To care about each other, reducing loneliness.
• To encourage healthy eating and exercise.
• To protect against con artists.
• To ensure good care (medical and long-term).
Developing a team that can accomplish these things takes time and work — it won't happen overnight — and ongoing communication.
One pioneer is the "Fiercely Independent Elders," a group of 11 older people near Hood Canal that has been meeting since 1990. You can read about them in my column of Jan. 10, 2005, archived at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/. Their goal, according to their statement of purpose: "to do a great job of growing old!" There were no guidelines when they started, so they invented the model as they went along. Meeting twice monthly — once for business, once for fun — they've gone through many ups and downs together. "We started as friends," founder Ray Hanson told me, "but now we're family."
The idea is catching on.
A reader, Jean Sillers of Redmond, recently e-mailed me: "My own parents, now in their 90s and living thousands of miles away, did a terrific job getting their lives in order — they created a notebook with all relevant documents, even the programs they want for their memorial services. But they refuse to involve me or other relatives in other planning," says Sillers. " 'We're just fine!' is all they'll say.
"This generation seems to view open discussions about these matters as disrespectful. I'm doing my best to see that I grow older in a different way."
So Sillers and her husband are putting together their own team composed of their adult daughter (who's also their executor and has power of attorney); son-in-law; and possibly their grandchildren, now 12 and 15. "We also want to include longtime friends with whom we've bonded over the years and who really know us — one couple is our age, the other about 20 years younger — and maybe two cousins."
How they proceed is an open question — the important thing is that they're starting. I predict we'll see a great flowering of caring circles over the next 20 years, with many different models. It's a work in progress as more of us learn new ways to live better and live longer than ever.
Liz Taylor's column runs Mondays in the Northwest Life section. With 30 years' experience in the aging field, she writes and conducts workshops. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. You can see all of her columns at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/.
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