Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Veteran Voices: An American Santa in France (Part 2)

By Richard "Dick" Cotton, resident at Casa de Manana Retirement Community

Sixty-nine years after Corporal Cotton served in World War II, his son, Guy, visited France, retracing his father's journey from the Cherbourg Peninsula to the small town of Dauendorf in Eastern France.

Before Guy left for Europe, he asked me if I had any memorabilia. I gave him a newspaper clipping from the Port Huron Michigan Times Herald titled “Medal Winner is ‘Santa Claus’: Toys From Port Huron Bring Joy To French Family.” Here is how I became known as Santa Claus in France. 
When Guy arrived in France, he hired a tour guide to show him, and his family, the places my battalion had backed up the infantry as we took the city of Cherbourg. The tour guide asked if Guy had any memorabilia from me.

Guy showed the tour guide, Geert Van Des Bogaert, my newspaper clipping from 1944 and it sparked an interest. The guide suggested sending the newspaper clipping to one of his friends, Jacelyne Papelard, who worked on stories related to WWII in the Alsace Lorraine area.

Joselyn requested I return to France in December 2014, 70 years later. I was invited to meet one of the children I had given a toy to all those years ago. The time and energy Joselyn put into setting up the whole trip, was nothing but phenomenal.

There were five memorable highlights:

The first, and most important, is the fact my two sons and three grandsons were able to join me on my journey. Traveling with them, made the trip much more special and meaningful.

Second, our visit to the Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial was very moving, as I remembered the 5,255 military dead buried at the cemetery, who lost their lives in campaigns across northeastern France to the Rhine and beyond into Germany. Remembering those fallen soldiers, I felt the desire to kneel and honor them.

Third, we were asked to attend a luncheon meeting at a hotel in Lutzelbourg. The luncheon was held in the hotel’s restaurant, which is considered one of the finest restaurants in all of the Alsace area! During the time the Nazi’s were in control, Hitler was known to dine there. We were greeted at the door by the owner Marc Carriger. He escorted my family and me inside, where we were welcomed by the Mayor of Lutzelbourg, council members, the military and the media! The media asked me and four members of my family to come outside and wave an American scarf that looked like a flag, while they took pictures!

Fourth, I was finally reunited with a lady who was one of the three children in the family that I had given the toys to all those years ago. Maria Martz had been four years old, and I was a 19-year old soldier the first time we met. Meeting Maria after 70 years, gave me satisfaction that everything I did as a soldier, was incredibly worth it, and at that moment, I believed my mission was completed, as "Santa Claus had returned to France.”

We were all swarmed by national and local media, who asked questions about our feelings of the reunion. The mayor of Dauendorf was also present! He had a great smile, so I told him I liked his smile and that he had my vote! He got a big kick out of this!

Later that evening, I was invited to address the City Council of Dauendorf! Once we arrived at the council building, it looked dark from the outside, but once we proceeded in and opened the door, there stood some members of a high school band. I was met with nothing but excitement. I walked up the steps, surrounded by a French high school band playing music. There were many people there; council members, celebrities, children and adults dressed in French costumes. I got to the podium and addressed the mayor of Dauendorf, council members, the military, the media, and the people of Dauendorf!

In my speech, I closed with the following words:

“In closing, Mr. Mayor, council members, people of Dauendorf and the Alsace area, I want you to know that I consider it an honor to be among you. I certainly admire the way you handled the German occupation, believing always that right would win out. My prayer is that God will bless each one of you and that our two countries will remain governments of the people, by the people, and for the people. From the bottom of my heart I say, ‘Vive le France.’”

Lastly, we returned to Paris and visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower. We attended a mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral and I couldn’t help but feel incredibly blessed. I thanked God that I had the opportunity to have spent my time as a soldier; helping people that were a defeated nation, come back to life again.

These moments of time that I spent in France are memories that I will never forget as long as I live.

Read PART 1: A Hero's Journey.

Veteran Voices: A Hero's Journey (Part 1)

by Richard "Dick" Cotton, resident at Casa de MaƱana Retirement Community

I enlisted a day after I graduated from high school. I chose the Army because I knew if I went in the Navy, I would get seasick. My vision wasn't good, so flying was not for me. I believed enlisting was the responsibility of anyone physically able to serve his or her country.

Joining the Army was an opportunity to get away from my hometown and see what the rest of the world was like. Thankfully, my parents were very supportive. When I was in combat, my dad sat down every night and wrote me a note. It was tough when the mail came, especially when we received the mail in combat. I received so much mail, but some of my buddies did not even get one letter.

I don't think I would call my time in the service "fun" but what I learned about life was really worthwhile. Throughout the rest of my life, I learned that I needed to handle someone's instruction and not try to fight it. Being a team player was more important, and you learn to accomplish more than being solo.

My first combat was on June 12, 1944, in the Cherbourg Peninsula in France. Our battalion had landed on Utah Beach with our artillery guns to help the infantry in its move forward to take the city of Cherbourg.

I reported to the field artillery forward observer officer and my job was to radio back information he gave me to the field artillery. This made it possible for the artillery to effectively aim their guns where the Germans were located. 

On Oct. 21st, 1944, I was awarded the Bronze Star medal for heroic achievement in action against the enemy and the Purple Heart for wounds suffered at the time. The citation reads … “with complete disregard for his own safety he traversed an open field under intense machine gun fire in order to rescue two soldiers lost from the main body of troops. Although he received a painful leg wound, he continued his mission and successfully guided the two lost soldiers to their proper areas. The courage and devotion duty displayed by Corporal Cotton reflects great credit on the armed forces of the United States.” 

The German machine gunner shot me in the calf of my right leg. The bullet entered and exited the fat part of the calf. The medics were able to patch up my leg and then I was able to go forward and rejoin the infantry company.
Sixty-nine years later, my youngest son, Guy, and his family, traveled to Europe for vacation. They were interested in the places I was involved in WWII, so they traveled to France - their first stop was the Cherbourg Peninsula.

Find out about how Corporal Cotton became known as "Santa Claus" in the French town of Dauendorf in Part 2 of this blog.




Monday, May 1, 2017

Dementia: A Learning Journey

A Son's Journey to Understand Dementia Continues After Father's Passing

By Rich Barger

I’m Rich Barger and this is a story about my dad. My dad was a resident of Villa Gardens  Retirement Community. He spent his final months at the Summer House memory care neighborhood at Villa Gardens. My dad passed away on January 17, 2016 from late stage Parkinson ’s disease, which is one of the common dementias.

My dad’s final chapter took almost three years to write. During those three years, I learned much about the behaviors associated with each stage of the disease that I knew would eventually take his life. I know now that managing his dementia was more than seeing his doctors and filling his prescriptions – it was about maintaining my dad’s dignity, managing expectations, and making certain that the last years, months, weeks, and days of his life were as fulfilling as they could be. Fortunately for me and my family dad used that time to his advantage.

My dad’s final chapter would have had a far different ending if it weren’t for the excellent care he received from what had quickly become his extended family at Villa Gardens. I am now paying forward that excellent care and find myself in a very different place than I believed I would be – learning about caregiving, supporting the members of the memory care community, finding ways to assist the staff, and educating myself.

Dementia is just now being understood. There are more than 80 different forms, and the chemistry that causes dementia is a new science for most of the medical community. What I found was that caregiving takes on a new meaning when it involves taking care of a loved one that has been diagnosed with an affliction that will eventually take his or her life. My behavior would certainly have been different during my dad’s final chapter if I had the knowledge and understanding that I have now.

I’ll share more as I learn more. I’m hopeful that many of you will take that learning journey with me and support our Summer House memory care community.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The 5 Exercises You Should Do Every Day

Credit: Thinkstock

Improve your range of motion and balance in less than 10 minutes

Rashelle Brown for Next Avenue

Balance and mobility training can benefit us at any age, but it becomes more important as you reach and pass the age of 50.

Maintaining joint range of motion allows you to move naturally and helps to combat the postural problems that cause neck, back, shoulder and hip pain.

Far from only preventing stumbles and falls,
balance training is extremely important for everyone because it makes us better at every physical thing we do. Having a keen sense of proprioception (the sense of where your body is in space) makes all movement more efficient. When combined with fluid joints that allow for a full range of motion, this puts you at your functional best.

Here’s a short sequence of five exercises you can do every day to improve and maintain your balance and mobility. Done in a slow, controlled fashion, you can finish the whole workout in under 10 minutes:

Balance Stands

With balance training, the goal is not only to improve proprioception, but also to improve your body’s reaction mechanics so you can quickly move to re-establish center of mass and recover to a normal body posture.

As I tell my clients, balance training is most effective when you are almost falling, so it’s important to challenge yourself every time you do this exercise. Once you’ve mastered a simpler version of the Balance Stand, move on to a more complex version.

At its most basic level, this exercise simply requires you to stand on one foot for 30 seconds. For some, this will be easy the first time, while others may need to stand close to a wall or in a door jamb to put out their hand to re-establish balance every few seconds.

Once you can balance on each foot on a stable surface for 30 seconds, it’s time to make it harder. Try looking up at the ceiling while you balance. Once you’ve mastered that, move to a less stable surface, such as a thick rug, a bath towel folded in quarters, a foam balance pad, an inflatable balance pod or a rigid wobble board.


This exercise works wonders for the hips and spine. The movement should be slow and small at first, progressing to a slightly deeper twist and bend with each successive repetition. Start by standing with your feet in a wide-legged stance and extend your arms straight out to the sides, in a rendition of da Vinci’s
Vitruvian Man.Take in a deep breath and engage your core muscles. Exhale as you slowly hinge forward at the hips and slightly twist, bringing your right hand down and across your body toward your left knee. Rather than moving at the shoulder joint, aim to make all of the motion happen in your hips and trunk.

Also, be sure you are bending forward at the hips and not from the lower back. You may not come anywhere close to touching your knee, and that’s fine. Listen to your body and stop when you feel any tension in the backs of your legs, your hips or your back.

Return to the starting position and repeat on the left side. Do a total of 20 slow repetitions, 10 on each side, alternating as you go.

Jumping Jack Arms

This exercise loosens up the shoulders, stretches the spine and works out all those kinks we get from sitting with less than optimal posture. Stand with your feet in a wide-legged stance, arms down by your sides. Engage your core, making your spine long, and slowly raise your arms out to the sides and as far overhead as you can, in what is essentially the arms-only movement of a jumping jack.

Don’t let your arms travel out in front of your body — imagine your body stuck between two large panes of glass, not allowing your arms to move outside of that space. If you can’t reach all the way up overhead by staying inside the imaginary panes, just stop where your lateral motion ends and return to the start position. Do 30 repetitions.

Pendulum Swings

This exercise loosens up the entire hip socket and stretches nearly all of the leg muscles. Stand in an open doorway with about five feet of clear space on either side of the door. Hold the door jamb with your right hand and face forward, as though you are walking through the door. Lean onto your left foot, engage your core and slowly start swinging your right foot forward and behind you several inches.

As you begin to loosen up, make the swinging more exaggerated, but still keep the movement relatively slow and controlled. Do 20 to 30 swings with the right leg, then switch sides.

After finishing the forward/backward swings with both legs, turn sideways so you are facing the door jamb. Hold the jamb with both hands for stability and step back so you’re holding the jamb with fairly straight arms. Lean onto your left foot and slowly swing your right leg from side to side in front of the left leg, mimicking the motion of the pendulum in a clock.

Be sure to start with very small movements and increase the range only when the motion feels free and easy. Try not to swivel at the hips by rotating your spine, but keep the movement isolated within each hip socket. Do 20 to 30 swings with the right leg, then repeat on the left side.

Lunge Walk to High-Knees

This complex exercise combines balance with mobility, giving your legs and core a real workout! You’ll need a clear walkway, such as a long hallway or open space outside.

Starting with your hands on your hips, take a long, lunging step forward with your right foot. Keep your left knee straight, so you feel a mild stretch at the front of your left hip as you stride forward. Transfer your body weight onto your right foot and prepare for a balance challenge as you bring your left foot forward and drive your knee up high into the air, as though you are stepping up and over a small obstacle.

Continue the motion of your left leg forward and go right into a lunge, this time keeping your right leg straight behind you. Transfer your body weight onto your left leg and bring the right leg forward and up into a high-knee step.

Continue in this fashion until you have done a total of 30 or 40 steps — about 15 to 20 with each leg, alternating as you go. If your balance isn’t up to the challenge of this exercise yet, try doing it in a hallway with one hand on the wall to steady yourself as you go.

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2017. All rights reserved.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Way It Is

The Bird's Eye View From Ninety

By Jeanne Warnke, resident at Wesley Palms Retirement Community

Since my sky diving adventure, friends and kin have praised me for being courageous. I don't see it that way. Yes, I am of a "certain age" as they say, but every resident at Wesley Palms knows about being "courageous" in so many ways. We all have reached a stage in life where we experience things that require a great deal of strength — struggle daily through pain of body and pain of losses. It takes effort. It takes courage. If you are a senior, you know what I mean. We all are here at a lovely retirement community for some reason or other. Yes, we miss our old life, and our new one requires much of us, which includes situations we never dreamed we'd have, and it isn't always easy. To those much younger who ask about the right life-style to survive to old age, I admit I don't exercise as I should; I love junk food, and don't care if the early bird gets the worm. I give in to pain sometimes and upset family and bore others by giving "blow by blow" accounts of it all!

There is no true answer to the question; everyone has their own way of dealing with the Golden Years even when they are a bit tarnished. Sometimes I find it annoyingly necessary to reach for my cane on what I refer to as "my bad day," but it is needed for balance. I hope for wisdom of my years, and the courage to face whatever life now presents. Whether good or bad, this is the "now" and better if we can call it just another adventure in living. Funny, but high places always scared me. Perhaps, subconsciously, I took a sky jump to prove something to myself and it did give me a good feeling to conquer that fear. I rejuvenated myself. I'm pleased that I just dumped wise advice and gave in to the urge to see beauty from a bird's eye view. It is similar to the urge that recently had me buying paints to learn about putting happy, bright colors on a canvas. I wish I could ride a horse again—my mother and sister did in their eighties—but I couldn't get a leg up no matter how much I feel that urge. There are things I realize I can't do, and fears I haven't conquered like jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool.

The most important thing is to keep trying to squeeze every bit of joy out of life. So...any one ready to start a Wesley Palms Sky Diving Club?


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Making a Memoir a Reality

At 87, she wrote her life story and created a family treasure

By Edmund O. Lawler for Next Avenue

When my mother was a teenager, she got to meet the most famous athlete of the 20th century.

It was 1947. Babe Ruth, by then stricken with throat cancer, granted my mom and her sister a private audience in the beautiful Manhattan apartment he shared with his wife, Claire. The girls, accompanied by their mother, were awestruck as the now-retired Sultan of Swat autographed photos and chatted amiably with them about baseball in a painfully raspy voice. My mom didn’t have the heart to tell the Babe, who would die a year later, that she was a fan of her hometown Chicago White Sox.

My mom was celebrating her recent high school graduation with a train trip from Chicago to New York where she rode the coasters at Coney Island, beheld the Statue of Liberty and dined at the Stork Club. The visit with Babe was a complete surprise — arranged by her businessman father and one of his confidants in New York City.

This memorable trip is among the many delicious moments captured in a self-published 2011 memoir written by my mom, Jean Oliver Lawler, for her 12 grandchildren. In good health at age 87 and calling a senior living center outside Chicago home, she titled her 115-page book How Do You Eat an Elephant? (One Bite at a Time). It’s an aphorism she often summoned to buck up her six children when facing a daunting challenge — and a motivational mantra she relied on to persist in the writing and publication of the memoir.

Her Memoir: a Challenging Endeavor

Mom was a nurse, a teacher and a homemaker, but never a writer. She didn’t use a computer. Still, she had a life story to tell.

Not long after my father died, she enrolled in a creative writing class at the community center near her home. The instructor’s feedback on her initial drafts was blunt.

Memoir writing was first and foremost personal, he told her. Facts are important, but what makes them interesting is how you feel about the facts. Her initial drafts lacked in this area, he admonished.

For further guidance, Mom read several memoirs, including some written by her friends. She found she was bored by autobiographies that unfolded chronologically, much preferring memoirs featuring vividly poignant vignettes from throughout the writer’s life.

One day, she bumped into a lifelong friend in a diner. Lorraine had just written her own memoir and had a copy in her car. She encouraged my mom to press on in her quest and offered to transcribe any handwritten material. Mom was inspired, and Lorraine made good on her offer.

In addition, Mom was coached and critiqued by her granddaughter (my niece) Moira Lawler, a gifted writer and editor. She implored my mother to write, write, write.

Mom spilled a series of engaging hand-written vignettes on to legal pads over the course of a year. But at some point, the project stalled. She was getting frustrated and feared her grandchildren would never get to read her memoir.

As a professional writer and editor, I’m an old hand at wrangling copy to get an article or an entire publication into print or online. So I stepped in to help.

A Natural Writer

As with any project, there were loose ends — in this case, computer files of transcribed chapters and a stack of handwritten chapters I needed to transcribe and edit. But I was struck by how well my mother expressed herself on the written page. Her writing was lovely and simply stated. She had an innate sense for plot. My role as an editor was minimal.

The memoir’s tone was largely celebratory — featuring vignettes of wonderful vacations, great friendships, a 57-year marriage and the achievements of her children. There were expressions of gratitude as well as stories about her grandparents and parents. It was filled with family lore that was new — not only to her grandchildren — but also to me. Interspersed throughout the pages were more than 70 photographs that illustrated her life’s special moments.

One chapter was titled “The Aunt and Uncle You Never Knew.” Sadly, it recounted the deaths of two of her children: an infant named Eileen Mary and 19-year-old son Danny, who died in a car accident. I’ve always admired Mom’s and Dad’s fortitude and faith in the face of the staggering loss of two children. The memoir, a family treasure, ensures that memories of her beloved Eileen Mary and Danny will live on in the next generation.

In the memoir’s conclusion, my mother offers some final advice for her grandchildren. “Top of my list is prayer,” she wrote, “God is there to guide you through life, if you ask.”

In reading and editing my mother’s memoir, I learned things about her life I never knew. She is inspiring me to write my own for the benefit of my two sons. Too much in life goes unsaid. A thoughtful and honest memoir can resolve some of the mystery.

Despite having made a living by writing — and almost always about someone other than me — the thought of penning my own memoir is daunting. But thanks to Mom, I know what to do. She taught me how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2017. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Achieving Your Dreams After 60

The authors of 'Senior Wonders' on the 3 P's for Triumphant Aging
By Karen L. Pepkin and Wendell C. Taylor for Next Avenue

Credit: Thinkstock
The media abounds with negative views about the impact of aging on physical, cognitive, and financial well-being. In fact, there are entire industries that have emerged to counteract the effects of aging — nutritional supplements, hormone treatments, surgical improvements, lotions, potions, and the like. They all seem to underscore Bette Davis’ famous quote, “Old age is no place for sissies.”

What if there were another point of view? What if aging brought about, not decline but our greatest accomplishments? What if we looked at aging as Dr. Christiane Northrup does? She tells us that “getting older is inevitable, but aging isn’t.”

Our book, Senior Wonders: People Who Achieved Their Dreams After Age 60 profiles 23 individuals and two groups who not only survived into old age, but achieved their greatest 
successes. As we wrote our book, we looked for emerging themes. Were there any commonalities among these people? Although their accomplishments were in a variety of fields (arts, sciences, social causes, entertainment, etc.), several themes became apparent. We think of them as the 3 P’s: Passion, Perspective on Life, and Persistence.

Passion, by definition, is any compelling emotion or feeling. These individuals either had a strong belief in what they were doing, or in the case of those with an artistic bent, they couldn’t help creating, whether it was writing, painting, or acting.

Perspective on life emerged as a theme when we noticed that several of our seniors commented that they couldn’t have achieved their success at an earlier age. Having lived a long life enabled them to learn from failures and successes, establish a clear focus, and develop a unique perspective.

Our last P is Persistence. This theme became apparent when we observed that many of our seniors faced daunting obstacles and accomplished their goals by sheer will and determination; they did not give up.

Author Harry Bernstein and humanitarian Clara McBride Hale are two who exemplify these themes.

Bernstein was born in Stockport, England in 1910 and began his education as an architect. But when his teacher discouraged his career choice, he decided to pursue a writing career and moved to New York to accomplish his goal. Although he made a living as a writer, his wife, Ruby, had to work as a school secretary to subsidize the family income. He did have one novel published, but it wasn’t successful. Undaunted, Bernstein continued to write, penning more than 20 novels that were never published.

In 2007, at age 97, he wrote an autobiographical novel, The Invisible Wall, which received critical acclaim. The book poignantly described the “invisible wall” that separated the Jewish and Christian sections of his home town. At age 98, he published, The Dream, which told the story of his family’s move to America. Because these two books were so successful, he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship at age 98 to pursue his writing.

At 99, he published the third book in the series, The Golden Willow: The Story of a Lifetime of Love, about his marriage to Ruby and later years. His novels have been translated into several languages. Bernstein stated: “If I had not lived until I was 90, I would not have been able to write this book…It could not have been done, even when I was 10 years younger. I wasn’t ready. God knows what other potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive well into their 90s.”

When her husband died, Clara McBride Hale had to support herself and her three small children. Not wanting to leave her children unsupervised for extended periods of time, she opened a day care in her Harlem neighborhood. Many of the children in her care stayed overnight because their parents worked as domestics. She then decided to become a foster parent and raised 40 foster children, all of whom pursued a college education. At 64, after 28 years, she retired from the foster care system. Soon after, her daughter referred a drug-addicted mother and baby to Hale for help. Before long, she was caring for all this mother’s drug-addicted children.

As the word spread throughout New York City, more and more drug-addicted babies were left in Hale’s care. During the first year and a half, her family provided financial and other support to keep her mission going. Then, the Borough of Manhattan president, Percy Sutton, arranged public funding. Also, John Lennon left provisions for support of Hale House in his will.

In 1975, Hale House moved to 122nd Street where it remains today. After successfully reuniting hundreds of families, only 12 children had to be placed for adoption. At age 85, Clara McBride Hale was honored by President Ronald Reagan for her humanitarian work. She stated: “I’m not an American hero, I’m just someone who loves children.”

“Triumphant aging,” as exemplified by Bernstein and Hale, is a counter perspective to the pervasive negative beliefs about aging. Do you, your relatives or friends have untapped potentials or abandoned dreams? If so, consider what George Elliot said: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2017. All rights reserved.