Monday, February 24, 2014

High-Tech Advances to Help Seniors: Scary or Reassuring?




For almost a year I've been writing about technological advances and inventions, including robots, that have been appearing in the headlines almost weekly, many of them touted as a boon to senior citizens who will need home care. By 2030 there will be 72.1 million Americans over the age of 65 -- nearly double today's number. The pool of caretakers will be woefully inadequate, hence the creation of robots like Cody, who is "gentle enough to bathe elderly patients" and Paro, who looks like a baby seal and has a calming effect on patients with dementia.
My comments about these high-tech breakthroughs have varied between alarm, ("Do you Want to End Your Days Talking to a Robot") and shock ("Now you can have sex with your computer!") to admiration for new gadgets -- for instance, accident-free cars smart enough to drive themselves and tiny wearable GPS systems that can keep track of wandering small children or elders with dementia.
The latest good technology I've learned about is something called "The Senior Network," currently available only in Israel, but planned to expand into other countries. Sponsored without cost by the JDC -- the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Watchitoo, an Israeli-American video platform, "The Senior Network" is designed to bring together isolated elderly people to engage in seminars, which take place on a video platform in real time. Up to 25 participants can see each other and interact, although the size of classes is being limited to 12.
The program targets hard-to-reach populations and allows isolated elderly people in Israel to participate from their own home in social programming based on such topics as current events, religion, health promotion and music appreciation. Some of the classes to be offered for the spring semester include mathematical thinking games, grandparenting (expectations versus reality), positive communication and current events.
Dov Sugarman, the programming manager of the JDC says,"We're looking for engagement, not academics. Our real target is loneliness." He points out that elderly people who are lonely are 64 per cent more likely to develop dementia.
Here's one example of how the Senior Network has helped: Two and a half years ago, Rachel Zalmovich, then 70, suffered a stroke and lost her ability to speak. Bound to a wheelchair, she felt isolated, lonely and like she would never be herself again.

About six months after her stroke, Rachel was introduced to The Senior Network. At first, she was embarrassed about her impaired speech, but as time went by, she felt accepted by the other participants. She started forming relationships again. Soon she was connecting with people from 12 different cities in Israel, participating in discussions about history and politics and taking phototherapy courses. She felt alive again and her ability to speak was completely restored.

Rachel says the program empowered her. "You're not stupid even after you had your stroke". It also gave her a reason to get up in the morning, and a routine to follow. Each time Rachel joined a video session, she would put a flower in her hair to match her dress. Today, Rachel credits the program for her communication improvements. "Now I'm all over," she said. "My brain is ticking. I'm not stuck at home. I'm 72, and seventy is the platinum age."
In Israel the Senior Network service is free to seniors who want it. Someone will pay a site visit to the home to connect the computer to the Watchitoo video platform. Watchitoo was developed by Rony Zarom, a former Israeli paratrooper who created the technology so he could visit with his young son via video when he was traveling, and they could watch YouTube clips together. Watchitoo is now based in New York and combines HD video conferencing, streaming and multimedia collaboration on a Web browser platform. Yale University uses it for virtual classrooms and some TV networks use it for "after parties" following a TV show--so that viewers can discuss the program they just saw and ask questions of the stars.
Watchitoo and the Senior Network in Israel are just one of the ways I've learned that people around the world are creating new technology that will help in eldercare. Here are some more:
Lari Numminen, a young woman in London, has created a smartphone and tablet for senior called Zilta. She developed it for her own grandparents and now it's being used in 170 countries.
Lest you think that I've been lulled into believing that all the new technology gadgets are a boon to us seniors, let me return to my role as the Paul Revere of senior citizens, and alert you to something I read about in The New York Times' "Vows" column of January 26, 2014, "I Now Present Mr. and Mrs. Jetson."
It seems that a new fad is renting a robot ($325 a day) to attend a wedding when you can't be there, while you watch the proceedings through the robot's eyes from half the world away. Your rental robot can dance with other guests or even be the ring bearer in your place. The essay chronicled a number of robot-facilitated weddings, but it failed to address the inevitable question: If either the bride or the groom attends the wedding in absentia, using a robot as an avatar, then is the marriage legal?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

President Obama, Save the Monarch Butterfly!

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Last week, The New York Times published an article with the title "Leaders Urged to Restore Monarch Butterfly's Habitat"

 A group of prominent scientists and writers have written a letter urging the leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada to commit to restoring the habitat-- milkweed plants-- that supports the insect's extraordinary migration across the continent to Mexico every year.

Because of herbicides, American farmers are killing off the fields of milkweed --the only food of the Monarchs--and as a result, the area in Mexico where they migrate every winter to breed before returning to the U.S. has shrunk from 45 acres to 1.65 acres.  The migration of 2013 was the worst in history.

Today, Wednesday Feb.19, President Obama is meeting President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada in the Mexican city of Toluca.  The scientists and notables who wrote the letter (including famed Mexican poet Homero Aridjis) will be urging them to do something about protecting the milkweed plants in North America.  But the Presidents and Prime Minister have many other topics on their agenda, as today’s New York Times article-- “Politics Shadow Obama’s Trade Talks with Mexico”  makes clear—and it’s not certain that the plight of the Monarchs will even be discussed.

The fate of the Monarchs is very close to my heart, because exactly three years ago, on Feb. 14, 2011,  to celebrate my 70th birthday, I visited the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico and climbed up to the heart of the butterflies' gathering in the woods.

It was truly a life-changing experience for me (although at my age, the climb at such an altitude required many stops to catch my breath.)  I wrote a blog post describing the experience, which included a number of photographs as well as a 55-second video of the whirling cloud of butterflies.


I’m re-posting that early essay to add my voice to the others, including the leaders of the World Wildlife Fund, as we all plead with the leaders of Canada, the United Sates and Mexico—please help us save the monarch butterfly!

The Mystery of the Monarch Butterflies of Michoacan, Mexico



They are one of the great mysteries—and beauties—of nature. No one knew where the migrating Monarch butterflies spent the winter until 1975, when the mountaintop in Michoacan, Mexico was discovered by an American named Ken Brugger and his wife Catalina Aguada. The Bruggers had answered an ad in a Mexican newspaper  asking for volunteers, placed by Dr. Frederick Urquhart who had been trying to find the Monarchs’ wintering place since1937.

    The discovery of the Monarchs’ winter hiding place, according to another scientist, was “Like discovering the eighth wonder of the world.”

     For the native Purépecha Indians, the place of the Monarchs had never been a secret.  At the beginning of November every year, the church bells rang, signaling the arrival of millions of butterflies (which had flown all the way from the United State and Canada.)  The Purépechas believed that the mariposas were the souls of dead children, and the annual arrival frightened them, so they did not speak of it to outsiders.

     One of Mexico’s most celebrated poets, Homer Aridjis, who was born in a small village near the hibernation site, had known about the butterflies all his life, since he first discovered them while exploring near his home.  Here is what Christine Potters, an American fellow blogger, whom I met during my recent trip to Morelia, wrote about Aridjis in her excellent blog “Mexico Cooks”

        "In the town of Contepec, Michoacán, a small boy, Homero Aridjis, born in 1940 as the youngest of five Greek/Mexican brothers--used to climb Cerro Altamirano near his home to look at the monarch butterflies that flooded the forests for almost four months in the winter before they left again, heading north. No one living in his area knew where the butterflies came from or where they went. "When I began to write poems," Aridjis said, "I used to climb the hill that dominated the memory of my childhood. Its slopes, gullies, and streams were full of animal voices--owls, hummingbirds, mocking birds, coyotes, deer, armadillo. The natural world stimulated my poetry." But of all of these animals, he says the monarch butterflies were his "first love." Aridjis won Mexico's very prestigious Xavier Villarrutia Award at age 24 and years later, monarchs were still making their appearance in his writing. His 1971 book, El poeta niño, includes a beautiful poem that goes like this: "You travel/by day/ like a winged tiger/ burning yourself/ in your flight/ Tell me/ what supernatural/ life is/painted on your wings...."**"

      Early on, after the discovery of the hibernation site, Aridjis became an activist trying to protect the butterflies’ hibernation place and to prevent the deforestation of the fir trees on which they depend for their survival in the winter.

     When I entered the butterfly sanctuary at El Rosaria, in the Mexican state of Michoachan, on Valentine’s day, last week, as part of the first tour to the area sponsored by Susana Trilling, a chef who is based in Oaxaca, (www.Seasonsofmyheart.com)  the people of El Rosario were still digging out from a tragic storm, exactly a year earlier, which  caused mud slides and floods that buried homes and people and washed away cars, homes and animals, leaving 30,000 homeless and at least 45 people dead. We could see the construction to rebuild roads and bridges as we approached Rosario.

In our itineraries for the trip, Susana had quoted an account of a  storm in 2002 that killed a majority of the wintering Monarchs.  It turns out that the butterflies, who don’t move, but cling to the fir trees when the weather gets cold, can survive temperatures well below zero, if they have little liquid in their bodies, but if they are wet, as they were in 2002, they freeze.  On the day after the storm, acording to Lincoln Brower, an entomologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia,  “We were wading in (dead) butterflies up to our knees.”  He and his colleagues estimated that 500 million monarchs had died from the storm—five times more than they thought had even existed in the colony.

The scientists feared that only a fraction of the usual number of butterflies would return the next year, but to their delight, they found that the devastated Monarch population had returned to normal.

In my visit last week to the butterfly sanctuary at El Rosario, I learned a lot, including how to tell a male butterfly from a female.  A male has the two dots that you see on the back part of his wings  (as in the first photo at the beginning of this post).    The dark veins on a female are wider.
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The butterflies that flock to Mexico from the U.S. and Canada to spend the winter are the fourth generation, the “Methuselah Generation” of their breed.

An adult butterfly lives only about four to five weeks, The eggs are left on the milkweed plant, three or four days later the brightly striped caterpillars emerge, and during the next nine to 14 days they shed their skin five times.   On the sixth molting, the caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis, and after eight to 13 days, the adult butterfly emerges. (This is illustrated by a five minute film in Spanish for visitors at a theater inside the Rosario sanctuary.) 

Three days after emerging, the adult butterflies develop sex organs and, five days later begin to reproduce. This cycle occurs three times during spring and summer as the butterflies travel north into the US and Canada until, in the fall, the fourth or “Methuselah” generation is born.  This fourth generation will survive seven or eight months, will  perform the astounding feat of traveling from Canada and the United States to Mexico, and after mating, the females will return back north again to the United States. (The male Monarchs in Mexico after enjoying the 72-hour mating season in February, during which they will mate with numerous females, will then drop dead—their work is done.  Only the females fly back north to lay their eggs.) 
                                      photo of butterflies mating
On the day we walked up the mountain to the most butterfly-crowded sections of the forest, what our guide Raymundo called “The Nucleus”, it was a warm day and the beginning of the mating season, and the air around us was alive with butterflies, while millions more hung on the trees like orange autumn leaves.   We were very lucky, because in the early part of the winter—November and December-- the butterflie tend not to fly, but just to hang still on the trees, and on cold days they’ll do the same.
Our guide told us that only one day in ten will provide the optimum conditions that we saw on Valentine’s Day. As we started up the steps toward the apex of the walk it became clear this was a harder trek than I expected.  (We walked 2008 meters up and 2008 meters back for a total of 6 kilometers, our guide told us—And when we started at Rosario we were already 1850 meters above sea level.)

It looked easy at the start, but only about 100 feet up I was gasping for breath  I quickly realized that the altitude was a major factor in whether or not I was going to make it all the way.  As it turned out, half of our group of six—most in their thirties or early forties—had little trouble making the ascent but the other three of us—with me at 70 being the oldest—had to stop at nearly every bench to catch our breath, while marveling at the scenery around us. (For those not able to make the ascent, horses can be rented, but the last 300 feet up still has to be on foot.)

The butterflies were a constant commotion all around us.  As one book said, the miracle is that they never collide.  In spots where there was water, like a small stream over the road, they clustered. 

The view of the sky, of the laden fir trees, the beauty all around us was indescribable.  When I sat down to catch my breath, the silence was complete-- almost eerie.  But then, as I sat there and my heart stopped raced and my breath returned to normal, I could hearing, ever so faintly, the rustle of thousands—millions—of butterfly wings.

It was a transcendent experience, even for those who have no religion.  No wonder the Purépecha Indians thought the butterflies were the souls of their dead children.

We all took photos and then we realized, as one of the women in our group remarked—there is no way a still photo could give any idea of the indescribable experience we had.  So I tried for the first time to take some videos with my camera, and I’m attaching below a link to one of those videos.  It lasts 55 seconds and if you watch it to the end, you will see some of the members of our group.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqkQ-M64TWc 

This trip to Michoacan, Mexico was a gift from my husband for my 70th birthday—and I can’t think of a better way to mark a milestone in life.  It was something I’ve always wanted to do before I die, and I wish you an equality miraculous and moving experience, to mark a landmark birthday.





Sunday, February 16, 2014

Amalia Fashionista Accessorizes



Since  she passed her second birthday and moved from Miami to Manhattan, granddaughter Amalia has revised and refined  her fashion vibe. 

 Leaving the bikinis and sundresses behind, she’s transformed her wardrobe for winter in the Big Apple.  And like Coco Chanel, whose ever-present pearls are an inspiration, Amalia believes, “The ability to accessorize is what separates us from the animals.”


Like many New Yorkers, Amalia often wears black.


Especially when working with penguins --one of her favorite animals.  She often visits them at the Central Park Zoo.)


This brown outfit needed something to make it pop—she decided to add her lime green owl backpack.


For eating a mini-cupcake in a diner, she wore her shiny red Minnie Mouse boots and a white hooded jacket.


She has to pick the right workout clothes for Tuesdays (hip-hop dance class) and Thursdays (yoga) at the nearby store “Sprout.”


This outfit was a favorite of her yoga partner.


For a casual Sunday brunch, she picks her cozy Hello Kitty robe, Dora socks and her favorite baseball hat—worn backwards.


Fake glasses add a note of gravitas when you’re playing doctor.


A new Poochie Purse inspired her “Snow fun” top and multiple necklaces.


For working on her I-Pad, Amalia chose black galoshes and her cupcake-topped tutu, but she felt there was something missing.


Her old faithful Dora baseball cap!


This outfit, with the matching knitted leggings, needed no embellishment



For baking and eating Valentine cookies, she picked her LOVE shirt with a heart on it.


Choosing the right purse for an outfit is critical.


Watching Dora videos on Yiayia’s computer called for some butterfly wings and a tutu, along with her penguin top.


On Valentine’s Day,  Amalia baked heart cupcakes and entertained Uncle Bob and Auntie Robin in a black outfit with hearts and a hat worn backwards for a cloche effect.

Last week’s storm, which caused havoc in New York, prevented some child models from getting to a photographer’s studio in the building where her Mommy works, so Amalia was pressed into service for a catalogue shoot. 


Here she is getting ready in hair and make-up.


She liked the outfit they put on her, but if she were accessorizing the photo shoot herself, she would have added a poochie purse and a baseball cap—backwards, of course!






Sunday, February 9, 2014

Valentines in the U.S.—It All Started Here

 (I recently bought these English and German-made valentines at an auction--sadly, they are not from Howland or Taft.)

Worcester, MA, the once-bustling industrial metropolis 45 minutes west of Boston where I live, is enormously proud of its rather peculiar list of “famous firsts”, including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball, the first liquid-fueled rocket and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon (starring in a soon-to-be-published tell-all book “The Saga of Smiley”, printed by the Worcester Historical Museum and written by me.)

And every year about this time, you hear about how Worcester produced the first commercial valentines in this country thanks to a foresighted young woman named Esther Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”


Esther Howland (1828-1904) attended Mount Holyoke at the same time as Emily Dickinson. She was the daughter of a successful Worcester stationer and, in 1847, she received a frilly English valentine that inspired her to ask her father to order materials from England so that she could assemble her own.  She then convinced her brother, a salesman for the company, to show a few of her valentines on his sales rounds.

The initial demand was overwhelming and Esther gathered some of her friends to help her assemble the valentines, seating them around a long table on the third floor of her home.  The company was eventually earning $100,000—a phenomenal success.


Esther is considered significant because, according to historians, she was among the first commercially successful women overseeing a female-run business, and she basically created the assembly-line system, paying the local women “liberally”.

She introduced layers of lace, three-dimensional accordion effects, and insisted that the verses be hidden inside--something you had to hunt for. She had her staff mark the back of each valentine with a red “H”.


In the Victorian era, Valentines were wildly popular, and the elaborate cards were scrutinized for clues—even the position of the stamp on the envelope meant something. Often the valentine was intended as a marriage proposal.

On Feb. 14, 1849, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin, “The last week has been a merry one in Amherst, & notes have flown around like snowflakes.  Ancient gentlemen & spinsters, forgetting time & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles – in exchange for smiles…”


In 1879—after 30 years in business—Esther Howland merged with Edward Taft, the son of Jotham Taft, a North Grafton valentine maker.  Together they formed the New England Valentine Co. (and their cards were marked “N.E.V.Co.”)

This is where Esther Howland’s title of “Mother of the Valentine” begins to get a little shaky.

It seems, upon much study, that Edward Taft’s father, Jotham Taft of North Grafton, a small village near Worcester, started the commercial valentine business in the U.S. even before Miss Howland did,  but he didn’t like to talk about it, because the Taft family were strict Quakers and Jotham Taft’s mother sternly disapproved of such frivolity as Valentines. (Full disclosure—I live in North Grafton, about a stone’s throw from where Taft worked.)

In 1836, Jotham Taft married Sarah E. Coe of Rhode Island and two years later, they welcomed twin sons.  But in 1840, one of the twins died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Taft prostrate with grief.  Jotham decided to take his wife and surviving son to Europe with him on a buying trip for the stationer who employed him, and while in Germany, he bought many valentines supplies—laces, lithographs, birds and cupids.

When he returned, Taft began making valentines with his wife’s help, and in 1844—3 years before Esther Howland graduated from college—he opened a valentine “factory” in North Grafton (then called New England Village.)  But because of his mother’s disapproval, Taft never put his own name on the valentines—only “Wood” (his middle name) or “N.E.V.” for “New England Village”.  Some believed that Taft trained Elizabeth Howland as one of his workers before she opened her own factory

Taft and Howland merged into the New England Valentine Co. in 1879, and a year later Esther’s father became ill and she left her business to care for him.  After he died, she moved in with one of her brothers and she passed away in 1904.

Unfortunately, despite all the couples who presumably found their true love thanks to Esther’s creations, the “Mother of the Valentine” never married.


In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the combined business of Taft and Howland and it became The Whitney Co,  which dominated valentine production for many years.  Instead of cards laboriously made by hand, Whitney turned to machine- printed valentines and eventually added postcards in the 1890’s.  The Whitney designs, featuring children who resembled the “Campbell Soup “ kids, were wildly popular, although more often exchanged by children than adult lovers, and in 1942 the Whitney factory closed, as a result of wartime paper shortages.