The most important thing of all is to laugh frequently. Laugh often. I find laughing, smiling, and having fun a stress reliever. Our family always finds something humorous about life because life doesn’t always have to be serious. With my mom, we watch stand-up, laugh, have fun, and talk about it. We’re able to use comedy and laughter as stress relievers to help us enjoy life because life should be enjoyed. I think that one of the things that I’ve found being employed, with my family, especially with my mom and other members of aging communities, is that you have to learn and make laughing intentional.
With all that’s going on in our country, our economy, the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. Caring for elderly or aging parents can be particularly stress-inducing. We know chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. What are stress management strategies that people use to become “Stress-Proof? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help reduce or even eliminate stress when caring for our aging parents? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, and mental health experts, who can share their strategies for reducing or eliminating stress. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alturrick Kenney.
Alturrick Kenney is the Essex County Surrogate for the State of New Jersey. His office provides support services and resources to Essex County residents undergoing major life transitions, such as validating Wills, appointing administrators to manage the affairs of people who die without Wills, and processing legal documents for adult guardianship. Alturrick holds a Bachelor of Arts in History & Political Science from Howard University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
As a resident of the City of Newark, NJ, and a child born to a family starved of resources, it was important for me to run for the Office of the Essex County Surrogate. This position has provided me the opportunity to ensure that families who are raised under similar circumstances as I have the information they need to ensure that they’re able to provide not only for themselves but also for future generations.
The Essex County Surrogate’s Court to me became a tool to show families how to transfer wealth from one generation to the next as well as stabilize their households and communities through knowledge and revenue sharing. Additionally, the Essex County Surrogate’s Court allows us to help families — especially our seniors, through guardianships.
This office has given us a platform to inform the general public about why estate planning is critical and equip them with the necessary tools to prevent the drain of resources in communities of color. This is what inspired me to run for this particular office. I want to help families be protected when death occurs or when members are unable to care for themselves.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
I would say to a younger Alturrick, “You actually have a purpose in life that may be greater than what you imagined by providing for those most in need.” I would also say, “While providing for those most in need, it’s equally as important as living your life’s passion. You can live your life’s passion through service, and service can come in many forms. It doesn’t have to be limited by your imagination. It can range from providing jobs to protecting families to protesting at the port, or leading symposiums in senior communities for former teachers and superintendents — people you regard as giants in your community. You’re able to offer them something that they may not be aware of.” So to my younger self, I would say, “Continue to strive towards living your life’s passion. Learn as much as humanly possible. Value time. Use your time to enjoy experiences.” I would also say, “Learn, love and always value your family.”
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
I don’t mean to be cliche and say my mom, but I can’t start this conversation without saying my mom. She’s incredible. She was able to raise two Black boys in the City of Newark, who were able to grow to the age of maturity. She gave us the resources to ensure we had the appropriate education and went to the best Newark schools. She made certain we connected with other upwardly mobile young people and families in our city to protect us, provide for us, and guide us. I think her resilience in having to raise two Black boys by herself exemplifies her character. She showed us how to make critically-important decisions as we matured into adulthood, but also gave us the space to make mistakes. So I think my mom would be the most obvious answer.
If I had to talk about somebody outside my family, I would say Joy Smith Carter and her husband, Cliff Carter. Joy ran a youth program called Quest Youth Services. She pretty much redirected my life and gave me a greater sense of purpose by providing me and hundreds of other young people in Newark with a space to do community-based programs. She gave me and a couple of other young men the responsibility to do an afterschool program called Off the Streets, where we managed about 10 or 12 boys from the streets of Newark. Those young people have gone on to do some amazing things. We also did a program called Survival Weekend, where we would bring young people from outside of Newark into a camp-like setting.
Outside of my mom, Joy and Cliff meant so much not only to me but also to the City of Newark. They provided critical services and jobs without seeking attention. They only sought to help the city the best way possible — by offering services and direct care to residents throughout our community.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I believe that the more we inform, the more we help. We get out into our community to educate people about existing resources. Meeting people where they are creates an opportunity where they can ask questions and receive information. We also realized that the articles, videos, and events we publish on our website have been used by churches and other organizations to encourage families to start thinking about the tools they need to use to protect themselves, whether it’s learning about the guardianship process, how to get a Will or why setting up a trust is important.
To give you an example, Essex County Surrogate’s Court recently partnered with Crystal West Edwards, Esq., a principal with the law firm of Porzio, Bromberg & Newman, P.C. to create a video explaining how best to protect your financial assets and secure your family’s future with three key documents. The 3-minute video goes over estate planning and trusts and provides resources to help residents get started.
I’ve noticed that our public outreach efforts have also encouraged other offices throughout the State of New Jersey to move beyond the walls and engage directly with residents. We’ve had folks throughout the state and other counties reach out to us because they want to ensure that their communities have the tools necessary for wherever they are in life. I think we’ve done a great job in terms of communicating with our stakeholders and will continue to do all we can to share information widely across Essex County, especially with communities of color.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
I would define stress as superficial ideas tied to benchmarks. We create undue stress on ourselves internally to ensure that we meet benchmarks that may not even be realistic or necessary. Stress creates unhealthy relationships, where you compete against people who don’t exist or against unrealistic standards. Stress can also create expectations or disappointment that often lead to depression.
Speaking from my experience, stress in Black and Brown communities often leads to early death, and stress factors come from all the isms. Classism, racism, and sexism have created issues carried out metabolically in the body where your heart and arteries are working too fast. My mom had to go through a medical procedure, and one of the causes the doctors stated was stress. Stress has impacted her heart, which impacted the blood going throughout her body, which enlarged her heart, and because of that, her overall health suffered.
Another reason stress can lead to early death is that if left undertreated, it often leads to self-medication. That can mean medicine, drinking, or even overindulgence in food.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
A lot of it is caused by unmet expectations placed upon our lives by society or thinking we haven’t met the expectations we put in place ourselves. Social media is also a factor that can lead to stressful life situations, too. We’re looking at people, people we don’t know, and thinking that their lives are something that we want to aspire to have. We then feel disappointed if we don’t.
I think the other part of it is that compensation doesn’t match the cost of living. Housing goes up while salaries don’t. It becomes a stressful situation. American workers can’t afford the food, housing, or childcare needed. People have access to basic things, but unfortunately, the gap between the rich and poor has widened, and the cost of living has increased. Even though we have somewhere to live, it may not be the situation or place where we want to live. I think people feel stressed that they can’t afford the things they want in life.
The last thing is that people live a lot longer today than they did years ago. And so even though you’re living for today, some people are planning for life tomorrow. Whether their plan includes providing for their children or planning for retirement, wherever they are, people want to know, do I have enough money? Am I in the right situation to provide for myself if work stops? That becomes a very stressful situation that people are facing in today’s economy because money is definitely a huge factor.
That’s why what we’re doing at Essex County Surrogate’s Court is trying to educate people. The most important factor is how you can protect the resources that previous generations provided for you and then how you’re able to build off that to move forward in life. We see young people born into this world, leading with debt rather than building off of wealth. They might only be saving their wealth to have a baseline in terms of not being able to worry about basic expenses. We want to make sure that we can reduce the stress factors people are born into and help keep families together.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
I think it depends on where you are in terms of stress and your age. So for older people, it could be an enlarged heart or reduced arteries, and it can lead to a lot of pulmonary issues that can cause heart attacks. Stress can also lead to overeating, where people eat because they need to find some sort of way to satisfy an urge or need. If not checked, stress leads people to figure out short-term answers to relieve it.
Stress can also lead to anger, which can cause people to act out or engage in criminality. So I think that stress, as it relates to the human body, has a tremendous negative impact if it’s not managed appropriately. We’re also seeing a lot of new ways of coping with stress. For example, people use yoga as well as other resources to relieve stress, rather than what people have done in years past, such as drinking, overeating, or becoming estranged from family members.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
I think that stress, if managed correctly, can be used productively. It can inspire or create a level of urgency, like helping people meet deadlines, and I think in those ways, it can have a positive impact. However, stress in and of itself, is typically unhealthy. Even though you may meet deadlines or goals, internally, it can be harmful. It also can have a negative impact on people who are relying on you to think clearly and not react in ways that could lead to unhealthy relationships with members of your family, people in your workspace, or folks that you interact with on a day-to-day basis in your community.
Let’s now focus more on the stress of caring for elderly or aging parents. This feels intuitive, but it is helpful to spell it out in order to address it. Can you help articulate a few reasons why caring for our aging parents can be so stressful?
Absolutely. One of the reasons it becomes stressful is that the concept of mortality starts to become a reality when we see an elderly parent begin to age right in front of us. The level of patience you need to have with an elderly parent is literally manifested as their mind, body, and level of dependency changes where they’re no longer a person who can live independently. Now they become more dependent on our direct care and institutions to get the specific care they need.
Another stressor is that time begins to feel like a currency, and many adults may feel as if they’re giving away something important. If you feel that you’re giving your time to an aging parent, you may feel like you’re making a sacrifice. A lot of times aging parents have children that also have children of their own who require their time and attention. So when you have working adults trying to care for them while also trying to raise a child, it becomes a situation where multiple people are competing for your time, resources, and attention.
There are things that an elderly parent may need at that exact moment like being driven to the hospital or taken to see a specialist. It can become challenging trying to balance a work schedule and the required care for aging parents.
Lastly, another stressor may be regret in wishing you could have done certain things with your parents that you’re no longer able to do anymore. Whether it’s travel or even having conversations that might be important to passing down family traditions and history. When you’re not able to have that sort of conversation with a functioning human being because their body becomes more susceptible to certain diseases, dementia, cancer, and other health-related concerns, it can take a toll.
Can you share with our readers your “5 Things You Can Do To Reduce Stress When Caring For Your Elderly Or Aging Parents”?
I’m going to use my life experiences and relationship with my mom to answer this question. One of the things that I do is simply check-in. I call and ask, “How are you doing?” In a sense, I’m not trying to feel as if I have the answer for everything or that I’m able to provide a solution to all problems. Instead, I just want to listen, understand, and be empathetic without my mother feeling like she’s a burden to me or my family. So I think checking in has always been a solution for me with my mom.
The second thing is connecting my mom with her grandkids. Even though COVID had a huge impact on how grandparents interact with grandchildren, I think that needed interaction with children keeps you younger, engaged, and alive. Watching my children interact with their grandparents is special for them as much as for me.
The third thing is activities. A stress reliever is engaging your parents or grandparents in activities. This can be small activities from walking or even going to community events. Those events can be church or bingo. It can be anything that allows your parents to get out of the house and engage with people their own age. I think this has been a stress reliever for me as much as it has for my mom because she’s able to interact and have conversations with her peers.
The fourth thing is also living a healthier lifestyle in terms of how we eat and what we drink. I think that becomes an important stress reliever because what we put into our body impacts how we feel and manage stress. If you have a diet high in salt or sugar, you may not be able to manage stress because it can play a role in your health, so how you eat becomes important.
And the fifth thing, to me, is self-care. Feeling good helps you live a long, healthy, and happy life. We have to be able to provide spaces where self-care is not only critically important but also protected. For my mom, it might be braiding her hair because it’s associated with her personal self-care. As a Black woman, my mom’s hair care is important. For others, it could be enjoying a good meal or going to the gym. Whatever the parent feels is appropriate as self-care is important to provide.
I also want to add a sixth note. The most important thing of all is to laugh frequently. Laugh often. I find laughing, smiling, and having fun a stress reliever. Our family always finds something humorous about life because life doesn’t always have to be serious. With my mom, we watch stand-up, laugh, have fun, and talk about it. We’re able to use comedy and laughter as stress relievers to help us enjoy life because life should be enjoyed. I think that one of the things that I’ve found being employed, with my family, especially with my mom and other members of aging communities, is that you have to learn and make laughing intentional.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
There’s an author named Paulo Coelho who wrote The Alchemist as well as several other books that I enjoyed and made me appreciate more about life. Octavia Butler is another author whose work I really like to read, and I’ve had a chance to revisit some of her books. I like to balance books that I enjoy with books that might make me angry, like books on inequity, classism, racism, or sexism. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari is another book I enjoyed as well.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to start a movement to increase the number of Black men in education. The reason why I say that is because growing up in Newark, I think I had two Black male teachers from the time I was in kindergarten until the time I graduated from high school. I’m talking about teachers outside of phys ed. Championing more Black men in the teaching space is definitely a movement I would wholeheartedly put resources behind. This is critically important because most at-risk children in this country are Black.
I think the other part of it is to give other communities a voice that might be different from the voice that they actually heard during their upbringing. There are Black men who care about education and want to help children understand the world in a very different way. So if there was a movement that I could definitely start, it would be to create institutions that identify, train, and properly pay teachers who are Black men to go into the profession and stay in that profession.
The second thing I want to do, which I’m involved in right now, is to provide resources for students attending historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) throughout the country. So right now, we have an annual bike ride where we raise money for students from Newark to attend college. We have about 50 students that we’re raising money for, and we want to continue that movement. Anyone interested in learning more can visit hbcuscholarshipride.com.
So those are the two movements I would love to advance. One is to push for more Black male teachers in the classrooms. The other one is to provide resources for Black students to attend HBCUs. Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, we need to ensure that Black children’s enrollment in higher education doesn’t suffer and provide resources for those who are looking to be educated throughout this country.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
Please visit our website at essexsurrogate.com and look at our Surrogate’s Corner page to learn more about what we do. We also have a Facebook page for those that want to follow us on social media. We want to encourage people to share the information they learn from us with the general public so that it becomes an ongoing resource that they can use for themselves and their families as well.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.