Watching your loved one decline in old age is an incredibly challenging and emotional process to go through. Jordan Levin’s guest today is Karen Faith Gordon, an expert in the geriatric arena. Karen shares how she has seen individuals face the myriad of challenges accompanying the aging process. The multi-faceted needs that arise with aging often bring unanticipated changes, leaving people vulnerable and unequipped to manage the puzzle pieces they are tasked to put together. Listen to this episode and learn how you can prepare yourself to make important decisions when your time comes. Tune in!
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Karen Faith Gordon
I have Karen Faith Gordon, who I have known for quite a long time. Thank you for being on here, Karen.
Thank you for having me, Jordan.
I’m honored. Tell the audience about what to do and I want to know why you were so awesome at what you do and what makes you super special.
Thank you. What I do is work with individuals and families who are navigating their way through the aging process. As any of us know who are aging ourselves and have loved ones who are aging, we know that this journey may be fraught with various challenges. Oftentimes, people feel ill-equipped to answer the questions or manage the situations that confront them and I’m here to help them move through whatever challenges they face. I’m always present to work through whatever emotional or other challenges they are having through the moment they are in and being faced with.
Let’s talk about different types of individuals that have different disabilities or cognitive issues. How do you navigate through that and how do you decipher that information and decide, which is the best path? What I have seen on your website is you have so many different avenues and options that you can provide but sometimes, that can be too much information and you have to narrow it down. How do you go about that?
There is an incredible capacity for people to move through life despite immense challenges.
Thank you for asking the specific question. I’m more than happy to offer you the distinctions. There are various ways that I am approached with inquiries. One example is that I may get a call from a spouse dealing with a white husband or wife who is in decline, either mentally, cognitively or physically. Either because of a diagnosis that they have been given or because of a disease process taking its toll and deteriorating their ability to function in time. When I get those calls, I can help people figure out what’s next. Can their loved one stay at home? Is it proper, safe and dignified for their spouse to stay at home? Is it healthy for the spouse to have their husband or wife at home if they are the primary caretaker?
Oftentimes, caregivers are not able to recognize the toll that their caregiving responsibilities are taking on their well-being. That’s one way. I can be there for the spouse as a guide to resources and I’m also there for the spouse as someone who can help mitigate some of the emotions that they are faced with. There are a lot of different things that come up when a husband or wife is observing or watching their loved partner declined in some way right before their eyes. That’s an incredibly challenging emotional process to go through and I am there to help them with that.
I’m also there to help the spouse who’s in decline move through whatever challenges they are facing. At the beginning of cognitive impairment, oftentimes, people have an awareness of it, yet there’s a resistance to accepting that reality. Same with a physical diagnosis that’s going to have one path ahead of you that might lead to different kinds of decline. I’m there to provide the mental health counseling that would help support that person’s process through that transition.
That is such a deep-rooted feeling of watching people go through that. I will give you a quick example. I have been through it with all of my grandparents several years ago. I learned the whole term of my parents being in the sandwich generation of taking care of their parents and kids. I didn’t understand what that meant at that time. For me, going through the process of watching our grandparents going through such a difficult time when you are younger, you don’t understand what’s going on. As you get older, you start to process and understand at a deeper level how truly complicated that is. For you, you’ve got to take the bull by the horns and say, “This is what we’ve got to do. Trust me. I’m going to help you make this happen.”
To your point about the sandwich generation, 100% still true. It has been interesting to get calls from young adults concerned about their grandparents. Yet they are concerned about their parents because they realized that their parents are taking on a role where they are helping with the grandchildren, adult children and adult parents that are elderly. It’s an incredible puzzle to navigate and put pieces together. It can be an overwhelming feeling. I am there to help people realize, “As insurmountable as it may feel, I am here. I can guide and connect.” I’m so blessed for having done this work as long as I have. I feel blessed to be connected to wonderful people and professionals. If I don’t have an answer, I can connect you to someone who does have an answer to help with whatever that challenge is.
That’s an excellent point because having this support system is so paramount. For people that didn’t know somebody like you who had the resources to be able to navigate everything from A, B, down to Z. There are many moving parts. When I look back at my parents going through this situation, I realize how complicated that was. They were quantitative moving parts. We had a caretaker at the time where he would come in the morning and help the grandparent get out of bed, get him showered, get him ready and come back in the evening, get him into bed, settled and that type of thing.
It’s common for people to feel vulnerable because they are being faced with so many things at one time. Oftentimes, they are in a crisis where they are being asked to make decisions quickly and they are big decisions. Nothing is to be taken lightly yet, they feel ill-equipped to answer questions that they have never been faced with before. They are being told, “There’s no time to research what this is going to look like. You need to tell us where do you want us to place your parent post-discharged from the hospital.” Families are understandably feeling vulnerable and scared. I always say that I want to help families shift from that space of fear because typically, the last place you want to decide is from that space of fear. You want to feel empowered, informed, educated and supported. That’s how I want to help families move through the process.
Life is a series of chapters. Whatever our chapters look like, the result is that we have different phases of life.
What you said right there is a great summary. You outlined everything step by step. Take those notes and put them on your website because that was fabulous. Let’s talk about some of the different trends. You have been doing it for many years and I’m curious to know some of the different trends, especially during COVID. What have you noticed?
The biggest trend that I have experienced during COVID is the movement guiding people toward small group homes for placement rather than the long-term, large, sprawling communities that most people are familiar with on every suburban corner. Those communities have their value. They also have their challenges and those challenges have been amplified during this pandemic. As someone who gets calls often about needing to place a family member who can no longer stay at home, I have the relationships that I have cultivated with some wonderful group homeowners.
It has been paramount to my ability to successfully guide someone to a proper placement meaning, they are going to go into a small home. They are licensed for six people. It’s a small, warm, intimate family-like setting. The care is dignified and present for those people. Unlike some bigger communities are inherently challenged with a shortage of workers. A nationwide crisis we have is a shortage of domestic care workers. It gets highlighted in these bigger communities where the demand simply outweighs the supply of the people to address everything that’s happening with each resident.
For me, what has come up the most during this pandemic is my movement toward cultivating deeper relationships with the group homeowners who I’ve gotten to know so that I can guide families that call me and may not have ever thought of that as an option. Most people don’t think of adult foster care homes and I don’t love that term. I feel like there gets to be a better term that we come up with. In any case, they are small group homes. For me, the biggest change I have seen during the pandemic is a movement toward that rather than the bigger communities.
The understanding of smaller group homes generally is going to give you more attention. When you have the bigger group homes and you’ve got a couple of hundred people in there, there are going to be things that fall through the wayside. Part of it comes down to not just the support but it comes down to money to help provide the best possible options with that.
There’s a great deal of sticker shock out there. I’m not going to lie. There’s a misconception in our society that Medicare will take care of things and maybe insurance policies that were purchased will take care of things. It’s not to say that they won’t. It is to say that it’s incredibly individualized. That carte blanche is not true that things are covered as you age through any kind of federal subsidy. It’s mostly private pay. I’m a staunch advocate for change in our country such that people can afford care and access good care. We are not quite there yet. We are working toward that. However, that is something that families often are quite shocked by. The cost of care can be quite shocking to families.
Having said that, how would you want to educate people about that sticker shock? How would you want to see more change, whether it’s in the government or local? How would you go about doing that so people don’t get that sticker shock? How would you prepare them for that? What would you suggest?
I often ask if the family has been in contact with an elder law attorney, someone who is well-versed in the laws around Medicare, and for some, it needs to be a Medicaid situation, which there’s a term called spend down. It gets complicated and it’s not my wheelhouse, which is why I like to refer people to an attorney. Make sure that they understand what their assets are and what that looks like in terms of the affordability of different options as they move forward and/or a financial advisor. Typically, an attorney is where I want to guide people because I want to make sure that all of their directives are in order. Circling back to the questions being thrown at you and having to make decisions, oftentimes, these are things that if you are proactive in your approach, you can address with an attorney beforehand and have these things in writing, which is priceless.
You have to have it in writing because writing is something I have done. I’m sure you have had difficult situations where family members are going back and forth and they go, “What’s this and that?” The good thing cannot get out. You are there to check everything off and have everything step by step so that you are easing the fear with this pain of having to go through it.
You have great insight. There are so many moments that can create strife among family members. I often tell parents, the older adults, that by putting things in writing, they are giving a gift to their family. When the time comes that they are unable to make a decision, their family members have the gift of carrying out their wishes rather than being in the question of, “What would he have wanted? What would she have wanted?” Having the children debate about what they would have wanted. I have been asked to be on calls with various family members to try and buffer those conversations. There are some delicate matters that family members would have great difficulty talking out directly with each other yet, if I can facilitate the conversation, it can make it much more palatable for everybody.
Here’s a question I was thinking about. Do you feel more challenged working with the family members or the actual client themself?
With all due respect to all parties involved, it’s usually the family members. Family members are typically the ones who are going to challenge me more than the actual older adult, who is usually someone with who I become quite connected in a loving way.
It’s a tough subject for all of us to be in that situation and for you to be able to be there, that’s phenomenal. What’s the most valuable lesson that you have learned working with the elderly?
We have a starting and end date, whether we want to look at it or not.
What’s true time and time again is that they are walking talking libraries. I feel so privileged every single time I find myself in conversation with a client who’s lived a rich life. When I say rich, I’m not talking about resources rich. I’m talking about each of us as an individual experience this world in a unique way. What I have learned is the incredible capacity of people to move through life, challenges that people have faced and historic moments that people have endured, both individually and collectively. I work with so many older men who served in combat still in World War II.
That is what I call history. When you hear history and somebody who is quite there, as a population, we hear the general aspects of World War I and World War II, whatever, those deluxe stories are a powerful thing.
It’s fascinating to me to listen to their stories, perspective and approach to life. I get to learn so much. I’m fortunate that way. It’s a real blessing to learn from them.
Through the years, I have worked with hundreds of clients. I have worked with a client privately, an elderly gentleman. I would go to his house three days a week. I don’t know exactly what happened but he had a hard time getting out of the chair. I came up with this workout program that will help him get up off the chair and get back onto the chair. We will do different walking drills. I would go to the kitchen pantry, grab some soup cans and have him do some bicep curls and different processes.
Going back to the point of stories, he was telling me stories while we are going through this is phenomenal. He was in his 50s or something. Before that, he was a podiatrist. It looked like a complete switch here. The guy always wanted to learn something. He always wanted to be challenged. When we talk to him and hearing his stories, it was phenomenal. I appreciate that aspect of that.
It’s such an affirmation of the reality that life is a series of chapters. Your example speaks to that beautifully. Whatever our chapters look like, the end result is that we have these different phases of life. How inspiring is that to hear about someone who had a profession and had gone to school a career, and then decided to change things up? Who knows who that would impact along the way in hearing that story? It’s profound to know about the capacity that people have to overcome challenges. The older adult population we talk to are the prime example. These are the people who have decades’ worth of experience and wisdom to speak from. They are informed from a perspective that we can’t yet know because we haven’t lived that long so it’s special.
I keep thinking about it. I’m enamored by the dedication that you have. It’s not easy. I can’t do what you do. It takes a special person to be able to do that and I hope everybody else realizes that. Every single person has the power of this superhero and that what makes each one of us so unique.
We all have gifts to share.
We have not talked about that you are also a wonderful yoga instructor. How did you take all of these experiences? What made you decide to throw yoga into the mix of all the different things that you do?
Speaking about chapters, that chapter of my life started about several years ago and I had no idea that it would grow into such a personal passion. I went through the teacher training that I did and I loved every moment of it. I loved deepening my knowledge in all aspects of yoga, from anatomy to philosophy and all of it. It intrigued me so much. It had me want to share it even more within the scope of work that I do, I went on to do a couple of other training. One in adaptive yoga for those who are challenged by mobility issues. It could be Parkinson’s, MS or other dementia-related diseases that would have someone unable to perhaps do a regular yoga class but could certainly do adaptive yoga.
I also did training in dementia yoga, which is more or less chair yoga. I have loved what I have been able to do with that knowledge and skillset. I have a gentleman and I see him twice a week. We do one-on-one yoga. For the first twenty minutes or so, he’s in his wheelchair and honestly, it has been amazing to see how we have gotten more and more. He’s standing and we are using the wall as a prop. It has a handrail so we can go places that I don’t think either of us expected. He has seen such an increase in his strength, gait and balance. It has been incredible to behold his movement through this process. We are talking and we are visiting. There’s engagement and it’s enriching in so many ways and on many levels beyond what you would think. Superficially, we are doing yoga and we are talking, and yet, it’s so much more than that. It’s wonderful.
People need to understand that the perception of yoga is not just the physical aspect. It’s also the mental, the breathing to work with somebody who’s not able to move in a certain way to be able to help enlighten him to feel better and be able to do these things. We talked about somebody with dementia or a physical ailment. That goes hand in hand with the overall physical and mental health.
It affirms something within them to feel and experience their own ability to stretch themselves, both physically and metaphorically, to a new space like, “I didn’t know I could do that or now my hip is telling me not to do that.” It’s all good because we are adaptive. We adapt to whatever it is we are facing at that moment. Breathing is a huge part of it. When you get into that meditative process, it is so beneficial. As someone who has learned to slow things down, I’m usually at a fast pace and yoga has been my saving grace. I’m not here to say it’s easy. I’m here to say it’s a practice and it takes time. The commitment will always pay off.
I want to know what is your favorite book that you have been reading?
It’s so funny because I picked up this book before the interview. It’s got lots of dog tags. This book is called Still Here by Ram Dass. First of all, he was a yogi. He passed away in 2019. His name was Richard Alpert and he went by Ram Dass when he went in the ‘60s to India and met his guru, etc. He writes beautifully. This particular book called Still Here talks about embracing aging, changing and dying. What’s so poignant about this book is that he’s writing from the perspective of, he started the book, and then he had a stroke. He then had to rehabilitate from that stroke.
He writes so eloquently about that experience and the lens of life through, which we all see. As that changes, he’s able to articulate his experience as someone who was always a vibrant, active person. Also, what it was like to accept support from other people as his body was no longer doing what he expected it to do. It’s a beautifully written book and I’m glad you asked about it. I’m glad I happen to put it down next to me before the interview. I don’t know why. That’s why.
I like what you said there because acceptance is a hard thing when we are dealing with these concepts in terms of fear and belief. A partnership comes into play. It was the acceptance and that’s a hard thing to do. The fact that you are there to help these people that could make your job easier and could make the client feel more comfortable.
There are sensitive topics. Most people don’t want or are resistant to talking about aging and mortality, whether it’s their own or their loved one. I find myself quite often inviting people into a conversation about things that they would otherwise not want to talk about. That’s a whole other conversation because, from the perspective of life being physically finite, we do have a starting and end date, whether we want to look at that or not, it’s the reality. I invite people into the conversation in a way that would have them be able to look at what’s possible within that space from an attitude of hopefully positivity and hopefulness rather than from a space of scarcity and fear. It is why people resist the conversation, to begin with, because it’s the end. However, what can you see within that can be beautiful and life-affirming rather than death and doom?
The mortality word is such a defining point that we beat ourselves up over it, whether it’s your own personal or somebody else’s relative taking everything that we have talked about. Allowing yourself to be in the moment, being present and understanding, acknowledging, accepting it. Other people should understand that they should be able to do that and not dwell so much on the past. Look at each moment and each day as it comes. Enjoy, get out and move your way through. That is wonderful. What I would like you to do now is tell the readers how they can find you, whether it’s online or in-person. Give us a little bit of a rundown.
I’m easy to find at Karen Faith, LLC. Either you can google my name. I’m on Facebook, Karen Faith, LLC. I’m Karen Faith Gordon. I take inquiries all the time and I want people to know that I’m open to that. It’s not going to cost you anything to call me. I take a lot of calls. As a business owner, I get to monetize my time and understand how that works as a business owner and yet as a human being, I want to help. People call me all the time. I field a lot of calls from people who find me and they ask me questions. I’m not necessarily the quarterback who’s going to take the football and yet, I might know the person who is so I’m going to give you that information, and/or we may engage. You may decide that I have a skillset that would benefit you and we can happily engage in a client relationship. I’m happy to take all calls.
Thank you. I hope to see you soon.
Thank you, Jordan. Bye.
About Karen Faith Gordon
For more than twenty years, I have had the privilege of working with individuals and families in the geriatric arena. I have been by their side to face the myriad of challenges that often accompany the aging process. The multi-faceted needs that arise with aging often bring unanticipated changes, leaving people to feel vulnerable and unequipped to manage the puzzle pieces they are tasked to put together.