Happy Birthday Ms. Sophie!

My guide dog turned 5 years old yesterday. All day I pondered the ways she enriches my life and facilitates my independence. I celebrated her with extra hugs and special attentions and she ate it up. I even fixed her a “birthday” treat which my sister shared with me. (Take several doggie treats and place them in a small bowl. Cover with water or chicken broth and freeze. Pop it out of the bowl and give to your dog) Sophie loved her popsicle and worked on it out in the yard. She also got a juicy bone to chew today!

Sophie enjoying her birthday popsicle

Sophie enjoying her birthday popsicle

     ” Be the person your dog thinks you are.”

It just so happened that Leader Dogs for the Blind asked me to write a list of “Top Ten Ways My Leader Dog Assists Me” for a media campaign the day before Sophie’s birthday. I enjoyed thinking about that list and it marked her birthday in a special way. So here is what I came up with:

Top Ten Ways My Leader Dog Assists Me…

    10. My Leader Dog helps me to live a healthy walking lifestyle.

     9.  With my Leader Dog, I am more engaged in my community with    organizations like Lions Clubs and local school groups.

     8. My Leader Dog helps break the ice and start conversations socially.

     7. I feel confident and eager to go places with my Leader Dog.

     6. My Leader Dog gets me from here to there with style, grace, and efficiency.

     5. My Leader Dog keeps me on a schedule and encourages me to play.

     4. My Leader dog helps me walk in a straight line, maintaining my balance, pace, and route.

     3.My Leader Dog assists me to stay safe while walking, avoiding obstacles like curbs, signs, and people.

     2.With my Leader Dog, I am able to walk with my head up and enjoy my surroundings.

…and the #1 way my guide dog assists me is she provides unlimited love, adoration and devotion which lifts my spirit and enriches my life…what is not great about being adored?! 

Happy Birthday Sophie…I love you to the moon and back!

Let’s Learn About Guide Dogs

Sophie and I often visit school classrooms. Today we were invited to Oak Grove Elementary to speak to the pre-k class about guide dogs. This class has several students who are visually impaired and the teacher just completed a unit on “pets.” I shared a storybook with the teacher about a guide dog and she read it to the children ahead of time. So they were well prepared and very excited to meet a real live guide dog.

Sophie visits Oak Grove Elementary Pre-K class

Sophie visits Oak Grove Elementary Pre-K class

We talked about Sophie’s very special job – to take care of me and keep me safe. They learned that working dogs usually have a harness or vest for their “work clothes.” I described how Sophie went to a special “dog college” to learn her job and that I had to go to the same school to learn how to work with Sophie as a team. We discussed how important it is to not pet or talk to working dogs while they are doing their job. The kids learned that they should ask permission before petting any dog, especially service dogs.

Not so sure about petting Sophie...

Not so sure about petting Sophie…

I asked the children to think about all the things a dog needs to be healthy and happy. They came up with food, water and treats. I brought Sophie’s brush and a toy to tell them that she needs grooming and time off to play like other dogs. They learned that Sophie also needs exercise and her teeth brushed, just like them. But most importantly, I told them she needs love, praise and affection so she knows that I appreciate the work she does for me. I gave them examples of the ways she takes care of me like helping me to cross a road safely, go down stairs, and find my way out the door. She takes care of me and I take care of her; we are a team.

All the while, the children sat on their squares, containing their wiggles and giggles. Then I took off Sophie’s harness and invited them to brush and pet her. Sophie weaved among them sniffing, giving wet kisses, and swooshing her beautiful, happy tail. The children squealed with delight. Some were eager to brush her and pet her, others not so much. Sophie brought some of her favorite treats to share with the kids so they could give their doggies a treat at home. It was a good day with some important lessons learned.

Happy dog...happy shildren...

Happy dog…happy shildren…

 

Yoga Anyone?

Making the Committment

In my retirement, I have been exploring new ways to be physically active. I have always walked for exercise with my guide dog. We mapped out several routes in my neighborhood and enjoy this special time together. But walking just didn’t seem like enough and I was experiencing changes in my balance, muscle strength, range of motion, and stamina. As a visually impaired person I had become less physically active and I didn’t like the way I was feeling. I have put on weight and have been suffering with low back pain. I needed to move all my muscles and joints and strengthen my whole body. As I age, I want to be able to rely on my body to allow me to do the things I want to do. If we give our amazing bodies what they need, they will perform what we ask of them. So now that I have time on my hands, I am investing in my health and well-being.

Getting Started 

I discovered the “sports and fitness” channel on TV and began to do Pilates, dance, and yoga programs in my living room. This proved to be a great place to start and helped me loosen up and get back into regular exercise. These programs are “on demand” selections and there are hundreds to choose from with a wide variety of workouts. Though I was sore at first, it felt so good to be moving again. After a few months of these home workouts, I wanted more. I considered joining a gym, though in the past that didn’t always work out since I do not drive and have to find rides. There happened to be a new gym opening up in our area and we checked it out.

Joining a Gym

Sophie and I working out at the gym

Sophie and I working out at the gym

 It turns out that this new gym offered a great deal; affordable pricing, no contract, and no sign up fees. In addition, the membership allows for a free guest with each visit. This was perfect — I could invite friends to drive me and stay to work out for free. And so for the last few months, I have been able to visit the gym consistently and explore all that it has to offer. The management and trainers were very helpful in orienting me to equipment and welcoming to my guide dog Sophie. I learned the weight machine circuit and how to set the different cardio machines, carefully navigating the maze of equipment with Sophie or my white cane. When I first joined, I mostly took advantage of the water aerobics classes which were easy on my lower back problems. My back improved as I strengthened my core muscles. Then it was time for a bit more challenge. I stepped up my game by adding 30-45 minute workouts on the elliptical, treadmill and stationary bicycle, alternating. And I began doing the weights twice a week as well. The gym recently added Pilates and yoga classes, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Trying New Activities

My yoga instructor-Namaste!

My yoga instructor-Namaste!

Yoga has been such a surprisingly delightful way to move and work my body. It involves posing in ways that stretch and engage your muscles, heating them up and fatiguing them. Breathing technique is also important when practicing yoga, I am learning. My instructor AJ has a wonderful way of leading us “baby yogis” through the poses, giving verbal cues and tips on how to get the most out of the movements. As she talks about “creating space” within our bodies, I am aware of new sensations and movements of which my body is capable. When my muscles shake in the “hovering cat” position or burn as I hold a balancing pose, I know I am doing something healthy for my body. As AJ says, “It feels so yummy!” It is a delicious experience being anchored to the earth and unifying your mind and body as you go through the routine, interspersed with moments of relaxation in “child’s pose.” My favorite part of class is doing our “oms,” which AJ calls a massage of our central nervous system and a chance to project our voice. This is followed by the “corpse pose” when we are challenged to rest, empty our minds, and breathe deeply for two minutes…heavenly! What a wonderful feeling I have when I leave the class, ready to take on the day!

Enjoying the Benefits of Exercise

I have already seen many changes and benefits to my body as a result of these new activities. My balance has improved, I am losing weight, my clothes fit better, my moods are stable, and I am sleeping soundly. My lower back and joint pains are improving too. Another benefit of going to the gym has been making new friends and being inspired by the environment. Our bodies are incredible machines and require motion and maintenance. Give your body what it needs and it will give you what you want – quality of life.

If you are doing nothing in the way of exercise, do something! If you are doing something, do more! Enjoy your body in motion!

A Saturday Stroll Through the Cemetery

Yesterday was “get out of the house day.” My husband and I laid aside our Saturday chores and opted for a trip to Atlanta. We had a full day of activities planned. We wanted to do some walking, check out a new restaurant, and shop at a store I have never been to before. I packed for the adventure, including food and water for my Sophie girl. She was just as excited as I was to “get out of Dodge” and get some exercise.

First stop was historic Oakland Cemetery. I love walking around old cemeteries and reading the gravestones. This garden sanctuary dates back to 1850 and is full of Atlanta stories and history. There are beautiful old live oaks and magnolias that cool off the brick paths. The ornate monuments and wrought iron gates are stately and showy. There is unique sculpture and architecture marking the final resting places of Atlanta’s dignitaries. We strolled peacefully among the headstones and my husband read them to me. There were soldiers’ graves from the Civil War and tiny crooked markers of infants who died prematurely. One of my favorites today was a husband’s stone which read, “All I ask of you is forever remember me as loving you.” Such a touching testament to eternal love…the words stayed with me all day.

We moseyed on and came upon the gravesite of Margaret Mitchell Marsh, the author of the Pulitzer Prize novel Gone with the Wind. It was published in 1936 and is said to be the second most read book in the world, after the Bible.  Yet she lies next to her husband with a simple headstone without powerfully penned words. Just an observation… 

Despite the shade and coolness among the trees, the day was heating up. Sophie was panting but being a trooper. She did a great job guiding me around broken concrete paths and low hanging tree branches. We made our way back to the entrance gate. Sophie appreciated a long swig of cool water at the car and a relief break. Then just across the street, we walked to a pub called “Six Feet Under” which had great reviews and the promise of cold beer. We refreshed ourselves with some suds and seafood gazpacho…de-lish! Then we shared a lovely baked basa on a bed of spinach and some scallops and asparagus. The day was shaping up to be a real treat!

We headed into Atlanta and found the REI store. I was eager to peruse this sports enthusiast’s super-store. I think like many customers, I fancy myself to be way more sporty than I am. Ha-I am more like a wanna-be! But I am planning a hiking trip in October so one of my objectives was to look for hiking pants. I never knew such an item existed before and I have done my fair share of hiking. But this trip is special and I want to dress for success! So I tried on several items and found just the right pair. I could have spent all day in this store fingering the yoga attire, the fashionable trail outfits and the soft and cozy long underwear. But alas, the budget and my husband couldn’t tolerate that! True to his gender, his shopping motto is always “seek-find-buy-then leave as soon as possible.”

It was a wonderful day trip and perfect antidote for cabin fever. It left me thinking about the age-old existential question: “What do you want to be known for when you die?” and “What do you want as an epitaph on your gravestone?”

The Transportation Problem

Finding Rides When You Can’t Drive

Audrey on the side of the road with her thumb out and a sign that reads "Going My Way?"

Hitch Hiking is Always an Option!

One of the most difficult challenges for people with vision loss is finding reliable and affordable transportation. Whether you have had to give up your driver’s license or never had the chance to drive, it is an adjustment fraught with emotion and a sense of loss of independence. In this mobile, fast paced, car-loving society, who among us has not longed to get into a car and drive? Oh the joy of running errands on your own schedule or simply being able to spontaneously meet a friend for lunch. Those days are long gone for me; I lost my driver’s license 24 years ago due to vision loss. It was a real game-changer to be sure. However, life can be lived even after this happens. Life without a license to drive calls for innovation, networking, and advocating for yourself especially if you live in a community that does not offer public transportation.

Relocation For Greater Independence

At the time I lost my license, we lived in the cornfields of rural Indiana. My husband and I quickly realized this location was not going to work for us; we had three young children to raise and I had a career I wanted to pursue. So, we relocated to Georgia. We discovered Peachtree City which is in a rural county south of Atlanta. While it does not offer any forms of public transportation, it has 100 miles of golf cart paths and walking trails that connect the whole city. For years, I drove a golf cart to work, school, shopping, piano lessons, ball games and anywhere my busy life required. As my vision declined, my children were old enough to drive me and we survived a few more years on the golf cart paths. Then my kids got their drivers’ licenses and we bought a second car. They each took turns being my chauffer. Before long, they all left for college and I found myself looking for new transportation options. I got my first guide dog and began to walk to work and to the closest stores. But there are many places I cannot get to on foot and there are still no buses in town. So I had to get creative and assertive about finding rides.

Meeting The Challenge

I rode to work for a while with a neighbor who worked at the same place I did. Then her job changed and she moved. I then recruited college students from a local campus and several individuals as drivers for pay. We would discuss the price up front, which I based on mileage reimbursement plus an hourly wage. To find drivers or rides, I advertised my need for transportation in the neighborhood newsletter. Also, I contacted the local Lion’s Club to explore options with their volunteers. Often, I can get errands done with friends who do not accept payment and I buy their lunch in return. When my children were young, I arranged carpools and rides for them in exchange for my babysitting services. It is important to plan your rides in advance, communicate clearly with your drivers, and organize your outings to make the most of the trip.

Tips on Getting Around

Here are a few more tips to address the transportation dilemma:

  1. Some people keep their vehicle and hire a personal driver. You may want to advertise locally, interview candidates carefully, do a background check, ask about their driving record, negotiate fees, and secure appropriate insurance coverage. This option involves other expenses such as car maintenance, registration and tags, insurance, and gas.
  2. If relocation is an option, consider areas where there is public transportation; fixed route buses, paratransit, and public transit. Look up the Walk Score (www.walkscore.com) of areas that may interest you to find the “walkability” of the community. Consult a realtor about the rising number of “live- work-play” communities (http://plannersweb.com/2013/09/a-place-to-live-work-and-play/)   that offer the conveniences of city life with less stress, decreased need for driving, and a healthier walking lifestyle.
  3. Some communities offer a “voucher transportation program” through the senior services or community services center. These programs are subsidized by federal and local agencies to provide transportation for seniors and disabled adults. The rider buys a book of vouchers at a low cost and exchanges them with a certified driver at the time of service. The driver then cashes in the vouchers for a subsidized amount.
  4. Some local churches or community groups may have “volunteer” transportation programs that provide rides free of charge to qualified people.
  5. Local taxi companies may be willing to negotiate discounts for disabled passengers who frequently use their services.
  6. There are new “rideshare” services cropping up such as Uber (www.uber.com) and Lyft (www.lyft.com) in most major cities nationally. These services offer rides on demand within minutes in private vehicles, as taxi alternatives. They have mobile apps used to request the ride and handle fees electronically.
  7. Expect to pay for rides and budget accordingly. If you owned a car and drove, you would have a myriad of expenses to maintain your own transportation.

Accessible and affordable transportation is in short supply in many communities. Federal and local governments struggle to maintain programs and find resources to meet the needs of low income, senior, and disabled citizens. Shortfalls in funding have resulted in cutbacks in services and routes, and even the folding of paratransit programs in some communities. People need rides to maintain employment, good health and quality of life, and engagement in the community. It is imperative for the visually impaired community to be pro-active in managing their transportation needs. Lack of transportation can lead to isolation, unemployment, loss of independence and even depression. We must take charge, self-advocate and be creative when it comes to addressing this area of our life.

Walking With Sophie

I no longer take this for granted…the ability to walk out my door, unafraid and confident, into the bright and blinding sun to go for a walk in my neighborhood. It is still summer and temperatures will be in the 90’s today, so I try to go early. I don my sunglasses and hat and call to Sophie.

“Let’s go for our walk girl,” I coo. She stretches and eagerly comes forward.

“Get dressed,” I say with the harness out and she slips her head in gracefully.

With one fluid motion, clipping the leash and harness, we are off. We have been a bit off schedule with a recent vacation and extra hot days of late. We both need this walk today to maintain our girlish figures. We have several routes to choose from and will walk two-three miles in all. As we leave the driveway, Sophie demonstrates a strong preference for the route that will take us directly to the ball field where she likes to romp. Not today girl, we need to get in a couple of miles. I coax her in the opposite direction and she obediently but ploddingly complies. I think she is feeling a bit lazy today and I can certainly relate.

“Hup up girl!” I sing to her.

And then I feel it…the spring in her step. Her head is up and she is moving jauntily now. That’s my girl! I have pocketed a couple of treats in case she needs additional motivation today. Sophie knows our routes and she anticipates my commands. We are doing country travel at first. She takes me around several parked cars and trash cans, gliding along. The sun is so painful that I close my eyes as she expertly guides me. She slows when our first turn comes up and angles her body slightly toward the turn.

“Good girl, Sophie! Right!” I praise her as I sweep my arm sideways.

We cross the road and enter the wooded path. Immediately, we both appreciate the shade of the leafy trees and take note of the bird sounds. Sophie’s ears and nose twitch and she is alert. We are walking at a good exercise pace now, stretching out our stride. Suddenly, she stops abruptly and I wonder why. There is debris on the path; fallen tree branches after a storm which I discover with my feet. Ahhh, that’s my girl.

“Good girl, Sophie-that’s it! Good job!” I exclaim and rub her ears.

She saved me from tripping and kissing the asphalt, which I have done many times in the past before I had Sophie. And she earns herself a piece of kibble just because I appreciate her skills. Off we go again. Along the way, we encounter the neighbor’s squawking tropical bird, a barking dog or two, and people on bicycles who whiz past me before I even realize they are there. Sophie takes it all in but remains focused, only needing an occasional reminder to “leave it.” We move as one.

The walking path leaves the woods and we are at a crosswalk, in full sun again. It feels good but the day is definitely heating up. Sophie stands at the crossing, waiting my command. I survey the street; look, listen, and look again.

“Sophie, forward,” I say and we step out into the road and then “find the curb” when we are midway.

There is no fear and no hesitation any more on my part…I am enjoying our morning walk, able to attend to my surroundings and walk with my head up. Because I am not anxious and I can depend on Sophie to do her job, it is a pleasant daily excursion. We cross another road expertly and pick up the path again. Sophie picks up her pace as she knows we are nearing the ball field at the end of our route. A golf cart appears out of nowhere and Sophie angles me to the side of the path, just out of the way of this passing vehicle. She always sees them and hears them coming before I do and is ready to make way. We top the hill and the recreation complex appears. Sophie is excited. Yes girl, we will go play for a while.

“Sophie, right,” I motion and say. She quickly turns on a dime.

We enter the ball field, close all the gates and I release Sophie from her harness. It is like a giant playpen for her and her favorite place. She takes off in a fit of zig-zags, circles and figure eights which I call her “zoomies.” When she tuckers out, she leisurely wanders the field, taking in its intoxicating scents. She could sniff all day-one of her greatest pleasures as a golden retriever. I walk the fence line, listen for the jingle of her collar and keep in touch with her.

“Sophie, touch!” I call to her.

She runs to me and puts her wet nose in the palm of my hand, never very far away. Sometimes, we lie in the sun on the grass together, enjoying the freedom, the exercise, the ease of our relationship and the beauty of the day. It is no small thing to be able to enjoy a walk by yourself with your guide dog. I am blessed and I am grateful for Sophie.

 

Traveling Blind: A Sensory Experience

 

Yosemite National Park-El Capitan

Yosemite National Park-El Capitan

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

Saint Augustine

My husband and I just returned from a trip to California. We visited Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Muir Woods, Carmel, and Sonoma Valley. He is an excellent vacation planner and travel companion! This was one of my favorite trips with such a variety of experiences and adventures: hiking among the giant Sequoia, picnicking and wine-tasting in lush wine country, riding the rickety trolley car, shopping in the “hippie” district in the city, lunching on dim sum in colorful China Town, sipping tea in the peaceful Japanese gardens, meandering in the serenity of Cathedral Grove among the regal Redwoods, walking the dog-friendly beaches with my guide dog Sophie, breathing in the fresh, crisp air on the Coastal Trail, feasting on local seafood and wines…ahhh…I am still basking in the glow of the sweet sensory memories of it all!                                                                                                                        

Matanzas Creek Winery-Sonoma Valley

Matanzas Creek Winery-Sonoma Valley

                                                         

A couple and guide dog at the base of a giant Sequoia tree

The Mighty Sequoia Tree

 

Where ever you go, go with all your heart.

Confucius

As I was packing, I marveled at how little I needed in my suitcase. A mere 46 lbs. of worldly trappings and accoutrements to survive a twelve day trip was all I required. I have learned to keep it simple. That way, there is less to organize, keep track of, and haul around! I love this sense of freedom from material things and it creates room in my soul to take in the new experiences. It is enlightening to consider what we can live without and how freeing it can be to shed extra baggage.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the past when I have traveled as a visually impaired person, I often experienced overwhelming fatigue, anxiety, and even irritability while trying to adjust to new surroundings. This would cause stress  which took away from the ability to enjoy the adventure. This trip was different somehow. I have learned to relax and accept my limitations. I try to pace myself, yet challenge myself at the same time so as not to miss a worthwhile attraction. For instance, we chose to take a two-mile “moderate” hike to Glacier Point in Yosemite. It took us a few hours to painstakingly navigate a rocky course to reach a spectacular summit view. My guide dog was an amazing and attentive partner as she moved me through the obstacles of rocks, logs, and roots. My husband patiently gave me verbal instructions and a steady arm when needed. It took teamwork and concentration as the three of us plugged along the path. The payoff was arriving at the highest point in Yosemite, surrounded by unmatched grandeur; sparkling granite cliffs, terraced waterfalls, and a feeling of infinite openness and space. It was exhilarating and energizing! And the satisfaction of accomplishment spurred me onward. As visually impaired people, we sometimes have to find a different way to do things and take our time-but what joy there is in success and the experience.   

Ft. Funston Beach

Ft. Funston Beach

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

Mary Ritter Beard

From the moment we arrived in California, I sensed the differences. The air was cool and crisp with a woodsy herbal scent. The birds sang different songs. Trees have unique silhouettes and shades of color. The sky was bigger and bluer than in Georgia. Flowers seem to be more bold and varied. There are ever-present views and briny smells of the ocean. Foods and people from all parts of the world abound. Travel is about appreciating the differences and variety which the world has to offer. I may not “see” all the sights, but I can employ all of my senses to enrich my experience and celebrate the joys of travel. It is about being there and “being present.”

Pleasure is the flower that passes; remembrance, the lasting perfume.

Jean de Boufflers

A special benefit of this trip was the opportunity to truly enjoy the company of my husband. With the distractions of home, work, and other responsibilities left behind, we were able to tune in to each other fully and refresh ourselves together. Long walks and talks on beautiful beaches can rejuvenate the mind, body and soul. I discovered that each day I could not wait to get up and going, as it meant more time with Kevin. His undivided attention was luxurious and the lazy days together felt extravagant. I wanted to make the most of “him and me” time. So travel is also about the joy of being with your loved ones. All the adventures, sights and experiences are richer when shared and the memories sweeter when made together.