Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates beautiful hearts as a tribute to enduring love

My love is renewed when I think of you

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of love in the midst of death.The project’s origins take us to 2005: the moment Page Hodel encountered Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” The couple’s first meeting was electric, and Page felt inspired to do something unique for the woman who captured her heart. So, she began leaving handmade hearts – made from flowers, leaves, and other materials – on Madalene’s doorstep. The hearts became a ritual, and they were there to greet Madalene as she left for work every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.” Page Hodel

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away on June 20th, 2006. But Page’s love for her hasn’t ceased, and she continues to make a heart for her every Monday in celebration of her life.

If you would like, you can also receive Page’s “Monday Hearts for Madalene” by emailing her at page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” written as the subject. Images of the hearts can also be purchased in her beautifully compiled book, Monday Hearts for Madelene. Please also visit her website and Facebook page. A portion of all sales will go to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California (www.wcrc.org). See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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Rapamycin Could Help Address Neurologic Damage Associated with Aging

Research shows the compound can help reduce cellular senescence

A study recently published in the medical journal, Aging Cell, outlines how a compound known as rapamycin may help to suppress neurological damage. This research could lead to new therapeutic approaches to address neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Elderly couple walking symbolizing aging.

The scientists at Oregon State University who conducted the study found that rapamycin can help minimize damage related to cellular senescence.

“The value of rapamycin is clearly linked to the issue of cellular senescence, a stage cells reach where they get old, stop proliferating and begin to secrete damaging substances that lead to inflammation,” said Viviana Perez, one of the authors of the study. “Rapamycin appears to help stop that process.”

Stick model of the rapamycin molecule

Stick model of the molecule.

The secretion of harmful compounds by cellular senescence creates a toxic environment called senescence-associated secretory phenotype, or SASP. It’s thought that SASP ultimately hampers cells’ functionality and disrupts tissue structure and function.

“The increase in cellular senescence associated with aging and the inflammation associated with that can help set the stage for a wide variety of degenerative disease, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and neurologic diseases, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s,” Perez said. “In laboratory animals when we clear out senescent cells, they live longer and have fewer diseases. And rapamycin can have similar effects.”

Rapamycin Has Been Studied Extensively

Rapamycin is a natural compound. It has been widely studied because it can produce results similar to dietary restriction, which has proven to extend some animals’ lifespans. Lab mice that receive the compound have demonstrated better fitness, less cancer, improved cognition, longer life and other positive effects.

Moai statues symbolizing Easter Island because rapamycin was first discovered there

Rapamycin was first discovered in the soils of Easter Island in the South Pacific Ocean.

Before the new research, scientists had only known of one way that rapamycin could affect cellular senescence. It was believed that the compound helped to increase the function of Nrf2, a regulator that “turns on” roughly 200 genes that ultimately help reduce levels of SASP. The new study concludes that rapamycin could also directly affect levels of SASP, separately from the Nrf2 pathway.

“Any new approach to help protect neurons from damage could be valuable,” Perez said. “Other studies, for instance, have shown that astrocyte cells that help protect neuron function and health can be damaged by SASP. This may be one of the causes of some neurologic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.”

Rapamycin for human use has been largely constrained by a side effect that increases insulin resistance. This could elevate the risk for diabetes. Since that risk exists, the use of the compound in humans to alleviate degenerative neurological disease remains limited. Scientists are working to find compounds similar to rapamycin that have the same biological benefit and don’t cause the unfortunate side effect.

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Post-apocalyptic Dioramas Make Doomsday Seem Very Real

Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber collaborate to create realistic photos of a ravaged world
A post apocalyptic scene of an anatomy classroom

Credit: Lori Nix/via cultofweird.com

When most of us think about death, we think in very personal terms. Perhaps we worry about the pain of losing a loved one or ponder what it will be like when we are confronted with our own demise. Very few of us spend much time thinking about death on a macro level, at least not here in the United States. What would the world look like after a nuclear holocaust? What would exist in the aftermath of a global pandemic of some devastating disease? Would anyone survive in this post-apocalyptic world? 

These are not questions we typically ask ourselves.

But Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber have, and the result is some disturbing but intensely engaging imagery. Since 2005, the two artists have been collaborating on a series of dioramas collectively named “The City,” in which they depict a tiny, incredibly realistic post-apocalyptic world. The duo builds the models in their Brooklyn, New York apartment, each one working on different parts of the whole. For the anatomy classroom above, for example, Nix built the cabinets and furniture, while Gerber created the specimens and skulls. Each one of the intricate models, which range from 20 inches to nine feet in diameter, takes about seven to 15 months to build.

A destroyed shopping mall in post-apocalyptic world

Credit: Lori Nix via cultofweird.com

When the dioramas are finished, Nix photographs the scenes using an 8×10 wide-format camera. One photograph takes up to three weeks to produce.

“She’s the sculptor,” said Nix in an interview with National Geographic. “I’m the architect. I come up with the ideas and the color palettes and the camera angle. She does all the detail work — makes things come alive and shine.”

Inspired by Real Events

“Why doomsday scenes?” you might wonder. It seems like an odd preoccupation for two young women living in arguably the hippest borough in New York. But Nix, who spent her youth in Kansas’ Tornado Alley, is no stranger to devastation. “Bad weather, blizzards, floods, insect infestations, and, of course, tornadoes” were the stuff of her childhood. And, she admits, her goal today is to provoke her audience and make them think. “We want them to contemplate the present. Do we still have a future? Will we be able to save ourselves?”

a deserted subway car filled with sand and debris

Credit: Lori Nix via cultofweird.com

The models and photos are extraordinarily realistic for much the same reason. Looking at the finished products, it’s hard not to wonder, “What happened here? Did anyone survive? And if they did, where are they now?” And, naturally, our next thought is, “Could it happen again, and could it happen to me?” 

Once we realize the images aren’t real, of course, some of that existential angst goes away. And that, says Gerber, is also the artists’ intent. “Once people find out they’re models,” she says, “they think, ‘Oh, these are just pretend!’ That creates a safe space where they can ponder the message.”

And the message is pretty clear. We live in a world that seems safe and far removed from complete annihilation. But we all know that is far from true. Looking at Gerber’s and Nix’s creations creates a sense of urgency….a feeling that the end of the world as we know it may not be far away. And given how much work we need to do to save our planet — if we can save it at all — maybe that’s a good thing.

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How Can A Dreamscape Help Grieving Families Heal?

An interview with Nancy Gershman, Part Two

Today SevenPonds concludes our conversation with Nancy Gershman, a memory artist who creates “Dreamscapes” for people in hospice and their families. A Dreamscape is a photo collage that serves as a physical image of a memory or something the ill/deceased person wanted to do but never had the chance to achieve. Nancy works with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York’s Haven Hospice.

Old family photo of woman before her death

Original photo of Phyllis on her wedding day.
Credit: ArtForYourSake.com

Dreamscape created by Nancy Gershman depicting a woman in the Artic sitting at a typewriter

Dreamscape of Phyllis re-envisioned at age 26 when her radio play about a polar bear was the talk of Ithaca.
Credit: artforyoursake.com

Lucas: As the person making the Dreamscape, what is the most important thing to consider while you’re creating one?

Nancy: If you’re the person creating the Dreamscape, the most important thing is to be genuinely curious. That opens doors, and it sounds so matter-of-fact, but it does make a difference. You also want to get people to be as detailed as possible because that helps to really light up the brain. For instance, if I am making a Dreamscape of a memory/event that actually happened and they tell me he was wearing shorts…what kind of shorts were they? Long or short? What color? And the more they think about the details, the less sad they tend to get.

Lucas: What are some methods you can employ to help people be detailed about their loved one and/or a specific memory?

Nancy: It’s vital to find out what a person’s passion was. So if I’m getting too generic of an answer, I may ask, “What could this person not live without?” Rewording is a good way to get more specific answers. There are also different kinds of positive memories that you can try to tap into. A positive memory doesn’t mean that everyone was always smiling and laughing. It could be something like the gentle touching of the hand or a certain gesture. It doesn’t have to be an event, per se.

1070's photo of a woman long in grief

Original photo of Rita.
Credit: ArtForYourSake.com

Another important thing is to observe the interviewee when they’re describing their memory or loved one. They could be smiling but may also appear to be on the brink of sadness. From that, you may see if it’s possible to slightly alter that memory so that it will be a purely positive one that you will display in the Dreamscape. So you’re always observing their body and facial expressions. Also anything sensory that they might remember, anything to do with touch or smell, is important.

Lucas: What are some different kinds of memories/Dreamscapes you’ve recreated?

Nancy: I’ve had some families that have heard of what I do and know that they want something for the memorial service. Maybe the person wants something that the other brothers and sisters don’t have. So I’ll depict their special relationship, “quality time with Dad,” in a way

Dreamscape by Nancy Gershman depicting a married couple on a cruise ship

Dreamscape of Rita re-envisioned as an anti-smoking cop with husband Albert recast as a judge on their favorite cruise ship.
Credit: Artforyoursake.com

they never had before. I’ve worked with poor, underserved families who may not have had the luxury of owning a camera but had one disheveled photo of their loved one. And from that I’m able to create a fully fleshed-out story.

It also doesn’t need to be about one person. I’ve made Dreamscapes that recreate how a couple first met if they don’t have a photo of that. I also made a Dreamscape with a man whose father had died. His father was a lawyer who always wanted to be a judge but never got to be one. So we put his father in the robes and had him shaking his wife’s hand. We then put them on their favorite cruise ship. So there are many ways Dreamscapes can be utilized.

Lucas: We touched on this a bit, but how can you use Dreamscapes to help soothe a person who’s in hospice care?

Nancy: Some people have a really crazy fantasy that went through their mind that maybe they had never told anybody about. So you want to make them feel like they’re in a safe place so they can share that with you. I give them a chance to make it real and concrete. I will use both photos that I get from the family and ones that I get online. Sometimes I will photograph the patient and then use Photoshop to change their clothes.

Woman in hospice with her daughters

Original photo of Melissa in hospice with her daughters.
Credit: ArtForYourSake.com

Lucas: Have you noticed any overarching themes or similarities you’ve found between your subjects?

Nancy: As a matter of fact there are. It usually boils down to something so unbelievably simple. Dreamscapes and their memories are usually about love, pride or validation. People want to be seen and heard; they want to be loved, and they want their loved ones to be proud of them. Almost everything gets reduced to that.

Lucas: How long does it take you to create a Dreamscape?

Nancy: The physical creation will take me a couple hours, but the assembly is not the hardest part. The hardest part is deciding whether I have all the images I need, and searching for images I don’t have. Then it goes to the family and I wait for their feedback. They might want to take out an element or add something else. They usually have a rough idea of what I will do, but not completely.

Lucas: What do you enjoy most about making Dreamscapes?

Dreamscape depicting a mother and her children in Fiji

Dreamscape of Melissa realizing a life long dream to visit Fiji with her daughters.
Credit: artforyoursake.com

Nancy: I like the quiet moments I have cutting out the person from the photo, and sort of reassuring them I am putting them into something wonderful. Because I’ve seen them in pain or heavily sedated or disfigured and now I have this beautiful photo of them. And when I say beautiful I don’t mean they’re perfect, but it’s a photo their family members picked out. And when you’re cutting someone out it’s almost like you’re caressing them, in a way. I know that probably sounds bizarre, but it’s a very intimate moment.

Lucas: Do you have any other projects planned for the future?

Nancy: My primary business right now, kind of the number one thing on my plate, is to write a book that teaches therapists how to do what I do. I really want more people that just myself doing what I’m doing.

Lucas: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me! I’ve certainly learned a lot about the wonderful work you do, and I think it’s great that you’ve been able to help so many families in their greatest time of need.

Nancy: Thank you so much, Lucas.

If you missed Part One of our interview with Nancy, you can catch up here. 

For more information about Nancy and her work, visit www.artforyoursake.com.

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Sexuality in an Assisted Living Facility

Do residents have enough privacy to fulfill their sexual needs?
Sexuality lasts through the lifespan

Credit: jewishfamilyservice.org

Years ago, I worked in an adult care facility as a medical social worker. We admitted a woman in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. She was a widow but had no memory of her husband’s death. One day, the woman met a dashing gentleman whom she believed to be her husband. She began holding his hand and curling up against him when they sat on the couch watching television together. This quickly progressed to caressing and kissing.

The staff’s opinion was pretty equally divided. About half thought that the couple was cute. The others felt that expressions of love between older people were disgusting. The woman’s daughter thought the male resident was taking advantage of her mother, even though the mother was clearly the instigator. The daughter eventually moved her mother to another facility.

A study from Georgia State University reported in The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying found that assisted living facilities tended to put barriers in the way of sexual freedom. Most facilities have no clear, written policy dealing with resident sexuality. Deliberately or subconsciously, staff and administrators often keep romantic pairs apart. They may forbid the couple from going into a private room, for instance. Or they may steer members of a couple into different activities.

According to an article in The New York Times, the first assisted living facility to develop policies about resident sexuality was The Hebrew House in the Bronx. The policy, initiated in 1995, emphasizes that physical and romantic intimacy are “natural aspects of life.” The Hebrew House trains staff to avoid “personal bias” and support consensual sexual behavior. In some cases, the administration has even provided residents with private rooms, condoms and Viagra.

Dementia and Consent

One troubling issue when it comes to older adults and sexuality is dementia. A person with cognitive impairments might be forced or tricked into sexual contact. A person with dementia might also make choices that they would never have made were it not for the cognitive impairments.

For instance, the daughter of the woman in our facility claimed that her mother was incapable of thinking clearly and thus could not give consent. “She thinks she’s with Dad,” her daughter said. “She would never act that way with a total stranger.”

a private love nest allows seniors to express sexuality

Credit: bedroomsdecoration.info

And dementia does make the issue of consent more complicated. What’s more, it can sometimes lead to hypersexuality or sexually aggressive behavior. For this reason, many assisted living facilities train staff to assess the behavior of cognitively impaired residents for warning signs of discomfort or depression. But this is not the case everywhere.

In fact, few assisted living facilities have policies on sexual contact between residents, according to Ann Christine Frankowski of the Center for Aging Studies at the University of Maryland. Staff evaluate relationships on a case-by-case basis. Often, family input or staff attitudes takes precedence over what the romantically linked residents want.

If you or a loved one is entering an assisted facility, ask the administrator if the facility has a policy about sexual relationships between residents. If not, ask how the facility usually handles these issues. Many adults are sexually active long into old age. You want to be certain that the residence you choose will honor your or your loved one’s needs and desires.

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Book Review: “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life”

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh apply ancient ideas to modern problems

Book cover for "The Path" When professor Michael Puett started teaching a course on classical Chinese philosophy at Harvard, few people expected his class to become one of the most popular courses on campus. Why did so many students flock to this seemingly dry topic? To answer this question, Puett co-authored a book with Christine Gross-Loh called “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life.”

As you can probably glean from the title, this isn’t a boring history book about Confucius or Laozi. Instead, these two scholars approach these ancient philosophies from a self-help angle, using them as a tool to solve modern problems.

They go in-depth on a number of ancient Chinese philosophical questions, proving that humans have been thinking about these issues for thousands of years. What does it mean to be happy and fulfilled? Is the world chaotic and unpredictable, or organized and predictable? Do we have control over our fate, or is this something that’s decided for us?

Reading “The Path” is a sneaky way to learn about the history and ideas of these old philosophers without feeling bogged down by concepts. The authors focus on the meat of the philosophies and connect all of them to our experiences in the modern world. They also set out to prove that our own philosophies about life, death and its meaning (or lack thereof) stem from massive cultural trends that have taken place over thousands of years. Our ideas about life don’t emerge in a vacuum — we’re deeply shaped by the culture around us.

The authors explain that the Western world’s view of ancient philosophers and their culture is flawed. We think of these civilizations as being highly ritualistic and tradition-oriented. In our society, we appear to value individualism over cultural traditions. However, as the authors point out, we’re not as independent as we think we are. Likewise, ancient philosophers aren’t the strict traditionalists that we make them out to be.

A group of people stand around a table filled with food and incense as part of a Chinese death ritual

Chinese mourners visit a Bangkok shrine and offer incense and food to the dead.
Credit: Flickr.com

The most interesting example of this concept in “The Path” is the discussion of Chinese death rituals. Confucius, in particular, spoke about the importance of paying respect to ancestors after death. In China, many families believe that their loved ones become “ghosts” when they die. In order to keep their ancestors calm, families hold vigils for the dead. They clean their tombstones, light incense and offer their ancestors their favorite foods or drinks.

This might seem like an unnecessary tradition to Westerners, but “The Path” explains that the rituals are beneficial for families.

Our relationships with our loved ones are complicated and often messy. A son might have had a competitive, fraught relationship with his father while he was alive. However, ritual vigils can help him form a new relationship with his father after his death. As he pays respect to his dead father, he flips the script on their old relationship. He achieves a sense of calm through ritual, rather than letting his miserable relationship with his father continue to haunt him long after his father’s death.

The authors explain, “For Confucius, the ritual was essential because of what it did for the people performing it.” Whether it actually calmed the “ghosts” of loved ones didn’t matter.

A statue of Confucius wearing a long robe

A statue of Confucius.
Credit: Pixabay.com

“The Path” also addresses some common fears about death. Many ancient Chinese philosophers taught The Way (often called the Tao), which emphasizes that the world is constantly evolving and that everything and everyone in the universe is connected on a basic level. We walk on ground largely made from decomposed plants and animals. When we die, we return to the ground to support other lifeforms, and the cycle continues.

For these Taoist philosophers, to fear death is to fear The Way itself. No living thing has control over death. Death is just something that happens, like the changing seasons. Being a living, breathing human being is only a temporary state, which for these philosophers is what makes it worth enjoying while it lasts.

This book likely won’t be anything new to those who have studied Taoism or Confucian teachings. Even so, it’s an excellent collection of ideas that’s well worth a read, especially if you’re in the midst of grief. “The Path” teaches us how to shift our perspective and make the most out of the brief time we have with the people we love.

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