Saturday, 25 October 2014

Searching for Reasons: The Aftermath of Tragic Events in Canada

I live in a quiet suburb of Ottawa, Canada.  The tragic and shocking events in our nation's capital this week shook all Canadians to the core and there's almost no one in my city whose life wasn't touched by the cruel aftermath of the now infamous murderous rampage.  Of course, we all searched news reports for any bits of information that would give us clues about how to make sense of this tragedy.  One thing quickly became clear: no one knew the killer.  He was a homeless loner who was addicted to drugs, racked with guilt and in search of redemption in the strictest elements of the Islamic faith.  Even his estranged mother had no kind words to say about her son.

In contrast to the killer, the victim, Nathan Cirillo, was known and loved by his family as well as many friends and work colleagues.  His tragic loss is felt most keenly by those who were closest to him. 

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau may not have deserved the love of friends or family, but Nathan Cirillo did not deserve to die. What could we as a society have done to prevent this crime and what can we do to prevent similar future crimes? As politicians wrangle over security measures, perhaps there are more personal pre-emptive actions we could take. 

The PLAN movement was founded to create and sustain a good life for adults with disabilities after their parents die - the model is built around the ethic that caring relationships are the key to safety, security and a good life.  Apparently, the killer had no caring relationships in his life and he certainly wasn't safe or secure.  

Perhaps our medical and even our judicial systems should have the ability to make a formal diagnosis of social isolation.  Treatments and assistive programmes to treat this diagnosis could be made mandatory for those whose social isolation is deemed to be a potential threat to society. The Circles of Support and Accountability model has been used to re-integrate sex offenders into society and their track record for preventing recidivism is impressive. Maybe there is a role for a circle of support and accountability in preventing crimes perpetrated by loners like Zehof-Bibeau. COSA describes their work as follows:
The Core Member (ex-offender) and three to five trained and screened community volunteers comprise the Circle.  They meet as a group and individually on a regular basis to:
  • Support the Core Member’s community integration by facilitating his practical needs (i.e. access to medical services, social assistance, seeking employment/affordable housing, etc.) and by providing a consistent network of emotional support;
  • Develop constructive and pro-social strategies and solutions to everyday problems and concerns;
  • Challenge the Core Member’s behaviours and attitudes that may be associated with his offending cycle.
  • Celebrate successes.

We know that social isolation has disastrous health consequences for otherwise able-bodied people.  This week, we learned it can have tragic consequences for many when left untreated.  Everyone has a civic responsibility to identify and act on knowledge of extreme social isolation in people with mental illness and possibly addictions.  The prevention of future tragedies like this one is everyone's business.

Our family uses Tyze Personal Networks to Coordinate Medical Supports and Personal Supports of Friends and Family

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Superfoods for Super-Seniors and Their Caregivers

By Felicity Dryer

Being a caregiver is usually not easy. You have to be emotionally, mentally and physically strong so that you can support those who require your care.

Your food choices can both help you excel in your line of work, as well as be beneficial to keep in mind for those under your care.

Here are some nutritious superfoods to add to your regular diet.


When you’ve been working long hours and you’re exhausted, blueberries can help you to perk up because they’re high in antioxidants. They’re healthier than reaching for sugar-loaded foods that will just zap your energy.


Keeping your energy levels up is important. Beans have a low glycaemic index, so they’re a slow release of energy to sustain you through the day.


This fish should be eaten at least twice a week because it’s packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids that lower inflammation and eradicate body aches and pains.

Coconut Oil

You can tackle fatigue by consuming coconut oil. Because it gets rid of harmful organisms in the body, it can decrease stress, helping your immune system to work more efficiently.

Steel-cut Oats

If you’re stressed or tired, reach for steel-cut oats. They contain many nutrients, such as Vitamin E, B-vitamins, and protein. Oats are also feel-good food, thanks to how they make the brain produce serotonin that helps to improve your mood.

Greek Yogurt

Sometimes you need a healthy snack on the go to keep hunger at bay, and that’s why Greek yogurt is so good. It’s got lots of calcium and protein to keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Sweet Potato

Eating sweet potatoes can contribute to your Vitamin C intake. This nutrient is important because it’s an essential building block of collagen, which benefits your skin, blood vessels, bones and tissues.


Insufficient levels of folic acid can be linked to depression, so make sure you get enough of this vitamin. It can be found in leafy green vegetables like kale.


Dark chocolate could be a good snack every now and then - just make sure it’s at least 60 per cent cocoa as it has eight times more antioxidants than strawberries! It also lowers your bad cholesterol.


Working long hours can be exhausting so start the day with eggs. They contain a molecule known as phenylalanine, which the body uses to produce dopamine. This chemical makes you feel more alert!

Olive Oil

If you want to fight inflammation that can cause joint pain, olive oil can help. It contains oleocanthal, a compound that’s a natural painkiller.


Avocado is rich in fibre, which helps to keep diabetes at bay because it lowers your blood sugar. It’s also got good fats the body needs to lower your cholesterol and decrease your heart disease risk. 

Chia Seeds

These seeds absorb a lot of water so they keep your body hydrated for longer, while preserving electrolytes in the body.


You don’t want the onset of colds and flu to keep you down, so eat pomegranates. They contain a substance known as punicalagin that helps to fight the flu.

Too much caffeine is not good for you, so enjoy green tea instead. It helps you concentrate by working as a mild stimulant and boosts your antioxidant levels.


Pumpkin seeds are great for topping up on your magnesium levels - this mineral is a must if you want to improve your mood and beat depression.


This seed has shown promise for treating arthritis. It contains omega-3s that produce prostaglandins, substances that can decrease inflammation in the body.

Acai Juice

Acai berries contain bioflavonoids, plant pigments that relieve varicose veins while keeping blood vessels healthy. This is important if you’re on your feet all day.


Research has found that walnuts can reverse signs of brain aging. Just a handful a day can give you the brain boost you need to help you function at your peak.


By keeping your red blood cells healthy, spinach’s high iron content improves oxygen transportation through the body which boosts your energy and overall health.

Eat more of the above superfoods to keep you strong and healthy so that you can care for those who aren’t.

And here's a SuperFood Guide for Super Seniors!

Originally born in Flagstaff, Arizona, Felicity Dryer was raised by her parents (more or less modern-day hippies) to always make her health a top priority. Throughout her life, she has focused on encouraging others to reach for and achieve their personal goals. Now she lives in sunny Los Angeles where she is pursuing her career as a freelance health writer, and continuing to help those seeking encouragement to keep moving forward to achieve their goals.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Identity and Belonging by Robert Lepage: The Personal is Universal

Identity and belonging are subjects that caregivers grapple with everyday.  When we become caregivers, do we lose our ‘other’ selves?  When our beloved charge passes away, who are we then?  Either way, where do we caregiving families belong in society – how can we nurture and sustain a sense of authentic belonging when our lives are so different from others’?

Robert Lepage is a theatre director whose work probes questions of identity and belonging.  ‘Lipsynch’, a play I was lucky enough to see in London a few years ago, questions what happens when people lose their voice… or find it.  Many years ago, Jim and I saw an early production of, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota”, a play set in post-Hiroshima Japan in which Robert examined ideas of displacement, order and chaos.   Robert’s biographical “Far Side of the Moon” painfully and poignantly explored sibling relationships at the time of their mother's death.

Yesterday, Jim and I drove from Ottawa to Toronto to hear Robert Lepage give the 2014 Lafontaine-Baldwin Symposium Lecture, hosted by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.  The co-founders of the Institute, Canada’s former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, the author and President of PEN International greeted everyone warmly and personally.  (You might want to read Clarkson’s 2014 Massey Lectures, also on the subject of belonging.)

Jim and I knew intuitively that Robert Lepage would have something profound to say about identity and belonging – we knew that his message would have deep personal resonance, but importance for our sense of being Canadian, too.  And we were not mistaken.

Robert began his address by telling us about his own family.  Growing up in Quebec City, he and a younger sister spoke French.  But two older siblings had spent their formative years in Halifax, an English city.  So, the family was split on linguistic grounds and Robert felt a sense of belonging to Quebec and to his first language of French.  As a young child, Robert developed alopecia, a condition causing loss of hair.  Robert always felt like an outsider because of his physical difference.  But, one thing he didn’t feel was Canadian.  That is, until one day while travelling in Italy.   Robert noticed another young couple whose backpacks sported a small Canadian flag.  A friendly conversation amongst foreigners ensued, beginning with, “Hey, where in Canada are you from?”

Robert realized then that you have to leave your home, your comfort zone, in order to discover who you are and where your sense of belonging lies. 

In his world travels and artistic exploration of the self, Robert has discovered that our stories of home are the most universal.  Our sense of place grounds us and gives definition to our essential self.  But oh, there are other selves to be discovered too!  Robert described a concert violinist – world famous and highly accomplished – coming home to her family where everyone was expected to play fiddle music after dinner in the kitchen.  “Hmph!” her family scowled, shaking their heads.  “What kind of music is that? Our dear daughter is just no good at playing the old standards!”  And yet, that musician calls home her family.  She is known and loved for her personal history and her whole self, not just for her concerts and after-party conversation.

Our personal history shapes our identity and for caregivers, looking after loved ones becomes part of who we are.  Where do we belong in the world?  Robert Lepage challenges us to see the value in our personal stories and to comb our personal experience (for us, that means giving care) for universal meanings.  The ordinary IS extraordinary.

My book, 'The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I've Learned From a Life of Caregiving' is available from all major booksellers in the USA and Canada.

Use TYZE PERSONAL NETWORKS to coordinate sharing your caregiving responsibilities with family, friends and professionals.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Managing Chaos: Lessons for Caregivers From Military Special Forces

The world of illness, disability and caregiving is peppered with terminology from the battleground.  We 'battle' cancer.  We 'fight' to get our loved ones the services they need.  We don't invite friends over because our houses look like 'a bomb went off'.  When the going gets very tough for caregivers, it certainly feels like we're operating in a war zone.

The other day, I was listening to a banker talking about the volatility of financial markets.  She used a word I hadn't heard before - VUCA.  It's a military term used by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and it stands for 'Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous'.  "Wow", I thought, "there must be lessons here for caregivers!"
So, I googled VUCA and found a website about using military lessons learned for corporate leadership.  And my intuition didn't steer me wrong - these lessons really are absolutely relevant to caregivers.  Because our world is always volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

  • Always retain a clear vision against which judgements can be made, with agility to flex and respond appropriately to rapidly unfolding situations.

  • Provide clear direction and consistent messaging against a backdrop of continually shifting priorities, supported with the use of new virtual modes of communication where necessary.
  • Anticipate risks but don’t invest too much time in long-term strategic plans. Don’t automatically rely on past solutions and instead place increased value on new, temporary solutions, in response to such an unpredictable climate.
  • Think big picture. Make decisions based as much on intuition as analysis.
  • Capitalise on complexity. If your talent management strategy is working, then you should be confident that you have the right people in the right place. This will enable you to rapidly break down any challenge into bite size pieces and trust in the specialist expertise and judgement of those around you.
  • Be curious. Uncertain times bring opportunities for bold moves. Seize the chance to innovate.
  • Encourage networks rather than hierarchies – as we reach new levels of interconnection and interdependency collaboration yields more than competition.
  • Leverage diversity – as our networks of stakeholders increase in complexity and size, be sure to draw on the multiple points of view and experience they offer. Doing so will help you expect the unexpected.
  • Never lose focus on employee engagement (here, think of the doctors and home nursing team, if you have one - even your extended family).  Provide strategic direction, whilst allowing people the freedom they need to innovate new processes, products and services.
  • Get used to being uncomfortable. Resist the temptation to cling on to outdated, inadequate processes and behaviours. Take leaps of faith and enjoy the adventure.
Each of these elements of VUCA has great resonance for caregivers.  Some are easier than others to implement, but many of them tell us what we already know (but forget in a crisis or in a moment of self-doubt).  'Get used to being uncomfortable' is a lesson all caregivers must learn and re-learn every day.  But taken together, all these elements of VUCA give us reassurance that being uncomfortable is A-OK and just a natural way of being when dealing with adversity. 

My book, 'The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I've Learned From a Life of Caregiving' (House of Anansi Press), is available now from all major booksellers in the USA and Canada. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

On Thursday, October 9th, Natalie arrived home from university to spend Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada with us.  

We drove to my husband's family cottage on a lake north of Montreal, Quebec.

Where we were greeted by a full moon!

In the morning, we got up and lit a fire in the wood stove.

Then went for a walk in the woods.

It was cold outside, but cosy in the living room of the cottage.

The autumn colours were beautiful.

And we watched the bluejays at the feeder outside the window.

We paddled over to the Thomson family cottage across the lake (Jim and I met at the lake and these are our grandparents' places!).  My sister Karen was staying at the Thomsons' and we all hoped our Mom, Grandma, would be well enough to come up for a Thanksgiving visit and dinner.

Grandma wasn't feeling well, so she couldn't come that day.  But we skyped and had a lovely chat.  She arrived the next day, but we had to return to Ottawa, so we missed our visit with her.  I'm glad she got to spend the day up north with Karen and her family.

We had our turkey with all the trimmings.

And the next morning, with mist was on the lake, we packed the car to head home to Ottawa and Nicholas.

We had a picnic at Nick's place and a really wonderful visit.  Then we dropped Natalie off at the airport, kissing her goodbye till her next visit home at Christmas.

Tonight, we had another Thanksgiving dinner at home with Nicholas and his helper/friend Tom.  Nick and I made a rum cake for dessert - Nick's favourite! 
We skyped Grandma again and told her about the cake.  "Forget the cake and just pass the rum!" she said!
Tonight, I said grace at the table.  "Thank you, Lord, for the food on our table.  But thank you most of all for the love in our family.  Thank you for the love today and every day."  We weren't together all at once this Thanksgiving, but we came together in the ways that we could.  And we felt very grateful all the same.

Friday, 10 October 2014



Anger that my son has pain. Anger that my husband is away on business.  Anger that the caregiver didn’t show up for my Mom.  Anger that the milk is sour in the fridge. Anger that the doctor smirked when I asked a question.  Anger that an old colleague’s career is flying high.  Anger that the dog rolled in something awful. Anger that I have to do the night shift tonight alone. Anger anger anger.

Anger is an emotion that all primary caregivers know too well.  Witnessing the unfairness of our loved ones suffering, combined with a sense of unwanted labour forced upon us sometimes swirls into a toxic stew of seething resentment.

Righteous anger that spurs us on to defend the interests of our vulnerable loved one is energizing – it is a positive force.  But bitterness is negative.  It sucks the life out of our best selves and it feeds on inertia.  It’s hard to move forward constructively when you feel consumed by resentment.

The primary caregiver may have a network of close family and friends around her (or him), but there will be some days that the leadership role takes its toll.  An angry, resentful attitude doesn’t attract friends.  Bitterness sends potentially helpful well-wishers scurrying back to the safety of their peaceful homes.  It isolates.

So, what can be done with these feelings when they stalk us through the day and night?  For years, I held my anger inside when I felt it, and I certainly don’t recommend that as a strategy.  Looking back, I wonder how I got through many of the toughest times.  They say hindsight is 20/20 and I’ve combed through the memories of my life to find strategies that worked sometimes for me, even though I may not have realized it at the time. 

In my book, The Four Walls of My Freedom, I wrote about how I thought of our family life as a swim marathon across a large body of open water.  Jim was in the safety boat – he needed to be there, because to survive, we couldn’t have everyone in the water.  During storms, I cried for him to let me give up the marathon and let me into the boat, or to have him jump in with me.  But the lucid part of me knew that we needed Jim’s salary and that personally, I needed to have one person in the family who grounded us with a sense of order.  “Everything will be all right”, he said.  “You are a great mother.” 

I’m no longer swimming the marathon.  Nicholas is healthy and happy at the moment and I have retired from nursing him.  Others do that now.  My Mom is doing OK and our entire family pitches in daily to ensure she feels safe and loved.

What did I learn about swimming a marathon of caregiving through unsettled waters?  I learned that there is an end to the marathon, even though it is beyond the horizon – it exists.  Every caregiving experience has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I know that changing your swimming  stroke is a strategy that works for the long haul.  Floating on your back to rest and look at the stars means you stay in the water, gathering energy to swim hard the next day.  Getting through a long stretch means switching from butterfly to side-stroke.  It’s old-fashioned, but it’s what our mothers taught us and it’s energy efficient.  I know that staying in the water with lots of people on the boat passing snacks and throwing a life-belt are the difference between drowning and mastery of the waters.  And sometimes, in long stretches of calm water, it’s essential to trade places with a strong swimmer on the boat.  It was hard to trust that others could swim or that they would stay the course if I looked away, but it was a necessary lesson.  I learned that it’s always possible to jump back in and swim strongly after a rest and a change of perspective, especially when swimming against the current.

The biggest lesson about anger a life of caregiving has taught me is that resentful anger is not my friend.  Treating it like a friend only hurt me more, every time.  Changing my stroke, changing my perspective… those are the strategies that worked for me to banish bitterness.

My book, The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I've Learned From a Life of Caregiving (House of Anansi Press, 2014) is available from all major booksellers in Canada and the USA.