Thursday, April 22, 2010

Caring for Aging Parents by Karen O'Neil

On the evening my mother died alone in a retirement home in Chicago, I was 1500 miles away in Austin, Texas standing in line with our eight year old grandson waiting for Rick Riordan to autograph the very latest in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

It was one of those perfect May days. I’d stopped to have coffee at an outdoor cafĂ© and treated myself to the Times crossword. Dawdling in the morning was the first course of what felt like the feast of life in Austin, beautiful weather, beautiful grandchildren, enough work to be interesting, but not enough to be stressful. In what still felt like real life, the one from which I had just retired as English teacher and college counselor in Charlottesville, by this hour I would already have taught a class, answered emails, and tried to soothe a handful of worried parents. Here in Austin I was sitting on a sunny patio, gazing at a skate boarder with puffy dreadlocks sailing cheerfully past. No one seemed in a hurry, least of all me.

I’d made a point of calling Mother as I sat there, a daily ritual, one usually performed in the evening, but that I’d somehow neglected the night before. If Mother was disappointed , she didn’t say so. She rarely complained, although everything that had kept her going was now gone– her husband of almost 75 years, the family that now sprawled across the country, her capacity to read and write. At 99 she had become almost totally dependent on others.

Struggling to hear her murmured words, it was easy to forget she’d taught until she was 90, consulted until 95, authored two books, nurtured three generations , and thrived as partner in an exemplary marriage. Often I would find myself almost literally shouting over the phone, trying to make myself heard across a rapidly thickening wall of separation. And often, honestly, I was relieved to hang up.

I hadn’t known that morning that Mother’s and my brief conversation would be our last, that she’d sleep through most of the day, and grow increasingly unresponsive. If I’d called the night before I might have captured her for just a moment by reading from the volume of poetry that I kept by the phone for that purpose, knowing that shared words could almost always draw her back into life. But I hadn’t called, and not for any complicated reason. I was just plain tired. Weary. Weary of monitoring high blood pressure and low, weary of falls and infections, weary of fearing the sound of the phone and keeping a packed suitcase beside the bed. Weary especially of the endless question of whether I was doing it well enough -- fulfilling this unexpected assignment of helping my parents through the ends of their lives.

Oh, I knew then, know now that none of us had cause for complaint. My parents had had long life, good health until the end, ample resources. I wasn’t wrong to revel in a perfect May day, to choose the company of an appreciative eight-year-old, to postpone my next visit just a little longer. Surely the choices I made that sunny Austin day were exactly the ones I hope our own children will make some day. Or so it seems now.

                                 -- Karen O'Neil lives in Charlottesville

Thursday, April 15, 2010

About Virginia's New Slogan . . .

As a social worker, I serve Central Virginia residents who have children with Intellectual disabilities (formerly called Mental Retardation). In this capacity, I sometimes get calls from families who are thinking about moving to Virginia. They want to know what State funded services and support, such as daytime activities, group homes, or respite, might be available for their disabled children. In the past, while I could rarely promise immediate access to such services, I could at least tell them about getting on waiting lists for them and what their wait times might be. This year, I can’t offer even this because in the proposed budget of the General Assembly, the 40 Community Service Boards in Virginia will not be getting any money for people on the waiting list.

As if that weren’t bad enough, we were also informed that the reimbursement rate for services – what Medicaid pays for them– will probably be cut by 5%.This is a huge cut for the agencies providing group home and day support services, and may force some of these centers to close. The bottom line? In Virginia, it may mean an increase in the populations of the training centers (also called institutions) because there will be nowhere else for people to go. I have been in this field for 20 years. I have seen the positive changes that adequate funding can provide: safe places to live, jobs that are meaningful, recreation and leisure supports, transportation, and other opportunities that those of us without disabilities take for granted. I have also seen the devastation to families and individuals when there are no resources because there was no money allocated in the state budget to extend services to more people.

I understand that this year the Virginia Legislature faced a huge budget deficit and cuts had to be made. I am not upset because I haven’t had a raise in 5 years or because I’m expected to do more work. I am upset because there are so many families who desperately need services for their adult children with Intellectual Disability and won’t get them. I am also embarrassed by Virginia’s rating in an annual report that ranks states on the funding provided to people with developmental disabilities – number 41 out of the 50 states. These cuts will, in all likelihood, move Virginia even further down on this scale, to 45 or 46.

How do I tell THE 200 PLUS families in this area alone who are already patiently waiting for state services that the reality is that their child may have to go live in an institution because there is no money to pay for a group home? How do I tell the single mother of a son with Down syndrome that when he graduates from special education, that he will not be going to a daytime activity center, which means she must quit her job because he can’t be left unsupervised during her work hours?

I recently heard that Virginia was changing its slogan from “Virginia is for Lovers” to “Virginia is for Families.” This statement needs to be amended to make it clear that for those with disabled children, Virginia is not for your family.

                           -- Ruth Ewers is a social worker and writer living in Nelson County.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

an unruly comment . . .

Martha, here: I posted a really nice response to Val's essay from the Stuarts Draft postmaster, Kevin Blackford,  on the WMRA blog. 

I couldn't get it to post as a comment, so the WMRA blog was plan B.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Postal Lament by Val Matthews

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” That the United States Postal Service would have such a motto, just added to the romance and excitement of emigrating to America.

I grew up in South Africa, and emigrated to the United States when I was a married woman of about thirty-five. All those years in South Africa and I have absolutely no recollection of how our mail was delivered, no recollection of any particular mailmen or postmen as we would have called them, no picture in my mind even of what a South African mailbox looked like.

So in our house north of NY city we were very excited by our mailbox and the fact that we could put letters into the box and raise the little flag and the mailman would pick up our letters and deposit our new mail. We came to know and love our mailman -- he was with us for the eleven years we lived in that house. I remember him coming to the front door once with a letter one of my children had written, and telling me that the post office wouldn’t mail it. The stamp had been licked so thoroughly that the glue had all gone, and cellotape fixed the stamp to the envelope. He waited while I put on a fresh stamp.

After some years back in South Africa we moved to downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. Once again a friendly and obliging mailman was our friend for six years and when we moved out into the county, he passed the word to the mailman he knew would be serving us at our new address.

We were now living on a large bit of land and knew none of our neighbours – in fact they did not know that the farm had changed hands. So guess who passed the word? Our new mailman. Without him I wonder how long it would have taken for us to meet our neighbours. I called him a community builder – he admitted that perhaps he became too involved in matters of the community, but his heart was in the right place.
Now, sadly, the postal service is struggling and has to cut back. So much mail and parcel delivery is now being done through Fedex or UPS, so many bills are paid on line. I still receive bills in my mailbox and make payment in the old way, but most of my mail is junk and goes straight into recycling. Fewer and fewer people send actual letters or Christmas cards –email is easier.

Saddest of all, many of the older career mail delivery people have been ‘encouraged’ to take early retirement, so our mailman has gone. I no longer know who puts the mail in my mailbox and certainly they never bring a parcel to the door, perhaps just as an excuse to have a quick chat. Or bring some note or present that has been dropped in my box just to check and see that it’s not something weird. Or to suggest that leaving mail overnight in my box is not a wise idea.

It does seem rather sad that as society advances, and becomes more efficient and cost saving, so the little personal civil contacts and services that make life pleasanter, tend to disappear.

                                                                   --Val Matthews lives in Albemarle County

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Truth and Politics in the Shenandoah Valley by Andy Schmookler

For eighteen years, I’ve conducted conversations –on the biggest AM radio station in the Shenandoah Valley—about issues that divide Americans. With regret, in recent years I’ve had to change my posture in these conversations.

For the first decade, I saw these public discussions as a means to help heal the increasing polarization of our nation. Both sides had a piece of the truth so I felt we Americans should seek together a higher wisdom that integrates the partial truths of both conservative and liberal viewpoints.

“We should talk with each other in a spirit of mutual respect,” I’d say in my shows. “As if we might actually learn from each other.”

But since then, something’s happened on the “conservative” side of the divide to prevent that kind of conversation.

I still see my interlocutors as fine people, operating in good faith on the basis of their understanding. But that understanding has been twisted by propagandists who are not operating in good faith.

Political forces that have taken over the right have created a system of misinformation in which anything can be said to gain political advantage –no matter how false, or how much fear or hatred it provokes.

Politics is always less than fully honest, but never before in American history has the effort to deceive been so pervasive at our political center stage. These lies poison the “marketplace of ideas” on which our democracy depends.

At the local level, this Culture of the Lie has made me reconsider how to do constructive work in my modest role conversing across the widening split in our body politic.

I can’t talk “as if we might learn from each other” when the other side of the conversation starts with “facts” like that our president was born in Africa and so cannot legitimately hold that office. Or the Democratic Party’s proposal for health care reform contains “death panels.” Or Obama’s coming after our guns, or the Stimulus did nothing for jobs.

The list of such falsehoods grows virtually daily, each one a barrier to meaningful discussion of the real issues that confront us.

I still believe in the need in America for a better integration of the genuine insights of right and left. But so long as good people on the right have their minds poisoned by fear-mongering lies from the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and today’s unprincipled Republican Party, those collaborative explorations must wait.

So in my radio conversations, because I believe in the basic goodness of the Valley’s conservatives, my goal is less that they understand that no one wants to “pull the plug on Granny” than that they realize that those who tell them these kinds of lies should not be trusted. PERIOD.

That realization might break open the right’s closed system to those more honest sources of information their followers have been taught to suspect and reject—sources such as genuine journalism, scholarship, science, and what our Founders called “the decent opinion of mankind.”

Once the reign of the lie is broken —once we achieve the normal degree of shared reality on which good public discourse depends—I will be so glad to resume that sweeter and more congenial kind of conversation I used to seek with the Valley’s conservatives.

                                        --Andrew Bard Schmookler blogs at


About Me

I write for lots of different venues, so this blog provides links to those places. Plus, occasionally, stuff that appears no where else . . .