WARMING UP

fire

Last week, my 94 year-old, friend left me this voicemail: “Helen, would you please write my obituary? And could you come over today?” Since I’ve never written one before, I looked up a few before heading to her house. Reading them made me wish I’d known the people themselves:

 “Walt was preceded in death by his tonsils and adenoids in 1936, a spinal disc in 1974, his thyroid gland in 1988 and his prostate on March 27th, 2000. His loving wife of 57 years will now be able to purchase the mink coat which he had always refused her because he believed only minks should wear mink.” –Walt Bruhl

 “Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone. Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner.”—-Mary Mullaney

 “He despised phonies, know-it-all Yankees and Southerners who used the word “veranda.” He particularly hated Day Light Saving Time, which he referred to as The Devil’s Time. It is not lost on his family that he died the very day that he would have had to spring his clock forward. This can only be viewed as his final protest. –Harry Stamps

 Joe Heller told his family, “Just dig a hole in the backyard and roll me in.”  His daughter, however, wrote him a funny send off, detailing things like, “He left his family a house full of crap and 300 pounds of birdseed.” She recalled that his doctor approached her towards the end of his life and informed her that he was, “a very sick man.” “You have no idea,” she countered.

 “I was given the gift of life and now I have to give it back. This is hard but I was a lucky woman and for that I am grateful. And on that upbeat note, I take my mortal leave of this rollicking, revolving world—this sun, that moon and the memory of a child’s hand in mine.” –Jane Lotter  

I would not need any of these for inspiration, for when I arrived at her house, she was not up to the task. Days later she was in hospice. Then in a breath, gone. Words said after the fact can’t take the place of those spoken while we are still here. Tonight, warming by the fire, I remember this: she made me laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

ARE YOU YEARS YOUNG….OR OLD??

 

Lani

I met this lovely gal at Trader Joe’s this morning. She was such a knockout in all blue that I asked her to, “Stand right where you are because I MUST take your picture!” She had just finished her 2 ½ mile daily walk, was grabbing some groceries then headed off to one of her two part-time jobs. Her gait was lively, her smile quick and her enthusiasm for life, palpable. Lani is a force and I was inspired not just because of her person but her chronological age. Can you guess it?

One of the best things about aging is that we’ve had years to learn that not only can you not judge a book by its’ cover, you can’t count on the cover to even give you a book. We make a lot of assumptions about others that are wrong and it can affect both our health and psyche negatively. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Talking to Strangers,” gets at the heart of our prejudices and presuppositions about others. He writes, “When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity but when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”

Such is the case for Olympic athletes. One would assume that all three medalists would be equally ecstatic. It turns out that silver medalists are the most depressed ones on the podium. They have just missed the gold and their disappointment is much greater than the bronze winner who is thrilled to have medaled at all. Researchers have even shown higher rates of depression among silver medalists. It seems that most of us are victims of ‘counterfactual thinking.’ That is, instead of rejoicing in “what actually is,” we compare our objective achievements to what, “might have been.”

That, of course, is the toughest thing about aging: accepting what is and letting go of what was. Scientists know that what truly ages us is the eventual breakdown of our cells and their ability to repair themselves and divide. Recently researchers from the U of A have discovered that by altering the sleep patterns of cells they may be able to slow down the aging process. For now, though, that aging process is zipping by for most of us. The important thing is to shine in the moment—like Lani, who is 81 years young!!

 

SHAKE IT UP!

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 Put down your Sudoku pencils! Science says that if we really want to stay sharp, we need to shake things up and think out of the box. In a recent study researchers concluded that standardized games are not particularly effective in improving brain performance. Experts now recommend that we use real-world activities instead. “Almost any silly suggestion can work,” says David Eagleman, neuroscientist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. “Drive home via a different route or brush your teeth with your opposite hand.”

So, I’ve started using my left foot to drive around town. The tricky part is keeping my right leg out of the way. Now I just need more finesse when braking so the drivers around me don’t think I’m on crack. Yesterday, I faced a new challenge: As I waited for a car to back out of a parking space, some jerk in a Porsche suddenly zoomed out in front of me and took it! Oh boy was I mad. However, instead of cursing and flipping him off, I took a good, long look as he got out of his car and entered a nearby restaurant.

After parking, I headed straight for that restaurant. I didn’t care if he was with a bunch of businessmen or out on a date. He was going to hear from me. I whooshed past the maître’d and searched hard for the very, tall guy that I’d seen emerge from the Porsche. Bingo! He was alone at the bar, already halfway through a beer.

 “Hi!” I said with a big smile, sitting down next to him. “Are you aware of what just transpired between us outside?” He was genuinely confused.

 “You purposefully took the parking space that you saw me waiting for and even ran your stop sign to do it.”

 He looked down sheepishly and I had the sense that drinking on his lunch hour was common.

“Someone did that to me here last week,” he stammered.

 “That’s hardly an excuse,” I said. “Look, it seems like you’re having a rough time right now but if you start being nicer to the folks around you, things just might get better.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

 “Thank God,” I laughed. “For a minute there I thought I might have to beat you up!”

 He smiled.  Me, too.  See what happens when you shake things up?  Now, open your icebox and ask the dog what she’d like for dinner.    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MY TRIBE

GIRLS CLUB

Much ado is made of the importance of diet, exercise, sleep and lack of stress in order for us to age healthfully. What is less known is the impact that community has on us psychologically. According to research, our connections with others greatly impact both our physical and mental health.  “We are stronger when we come together,” Sebastian Junger writes in, “Tribe.” He warns, however, that in America, “we are rich enough as a society to not need each other much,” and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

In a 1979 study on civil violence from the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, the authors concluded that, “When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose which results in an improvement in their mental health.” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0022399979900515) This is one explanation for why both suicides and terrorist rampages decline during wartime and natural disasters.

The “Nun Study” begun in the 1980’s, found that social connections with others could actually overshadow physiological realities. An elder nun whose brain showed significant Alzheimer’s disease and plaque lesions exhibited almost no cognitive impairment during her lifetime. Yet, another nun with only minor pathology was highly dysfunctional. The difference? The first nun had a vast network of social connections while the second had none. (https://www.psychiatry.umn.edu/research/research-labs-and-programs/nun-study)

In the last 40 years, I have lived in seven states and 10 cities. Each time that I move, I begin connecting.  I visit the police station, post office, library, supermarket, attend churches, local events and join the gym.  I am always looking for trustworthy, simpatico comrades of both sexes. In hindsight, I was building my tribes without even realizing it! Above is a photo from my recent birthday party. While I’ve known three of these women for more than 50 years, the others I just met in the last two. However, I believe that every one of them would take me in or bail me out of jail if necessary and I would do the same for them.

So who is in your ‘tribe’? Who are, “The people around you that you would both help feed and defend,” asks Junger? Who has your best interest at heart and brings out your highest self? Your answer may not even include your own family. Without these social networks, Junger says that we are just, “dead inside.” So, whether you are 17 or 70, it is never too late to start building your own tribe. Remember, all friends were once total strangers.

 

PULL THE PLUG!

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You can pull that cord smack out of the wall and nobody in this hospital is gonna come anytime soon. Same goes for the handheld remote they give you with a large, red “NURSE” button. It’s all an illusion. Now, I am very grateful for the new knee, which my surgeon just put in. However, I was quite unprepared for the treatment that would follow.

 My nurse, Idga, (short for I Don’t Give A), helps me to the bathroom for a quick pee and disappears. As I gingerly sit down, the seat suddenly lurches sideways, sending a wrenching pain up my operated leg. Since Idga told me “not to move” without her, I pull the cord and wait. No one comes. Eventually, I maneuver myself to a stand by gripping the sink and pull it again. Nothing. Nervously, I call out, “Hello?” Finally, unable to stand much longer, I yodel, “You Who” in my loudest, operatic soprano.

 Idga swishes in. “You’re not supposed to walk on your own!” she scolds.

 “Well, the cord doesn’t work because I pulled and pulled and no one came.”

 “The cord works perfectly fine,” she hisses. “There are other people in this hospital besides you!”

 During my stay, Idga refuses to give me my pajamas so I can take off the itchy hospital gown, places the blood drain from my knee on the tray where I’m eating, purposely unplugs my iPhone and ignores my pleas for pain meds. When my husband insists that she give me ‘something,’ she grabs Toradol and shoves it into my IV so fast that the pain makes me gasp. “Inject Toradol by IV bolus over no less than 15 seconds,” Google says, otherwise it burns entering the vein.  Yup.

 Ironically, the hospital that impeccably sanitized me BEFORE my operation paid zippo attention to hygiene afterwards. Several people handle a breathing apparatus that I’m supposed to use to avoid pneumonia. One even drops it on the floor and hands it back to me. When Idga changes my bandage, she drops the gauze on the floor, picks it up and slaps it over my wound. (I know the floor is filthy because the yellow socks they insist I wear are black after only a few trips to the bathroom). The first afternoon, I throw up into the trashcan next to my bed and ask everyone, including Idga, to please take it out. It even has a removable, plastic liner but remains right there until I leave three days later.

 So, should you find yourself in a hospital, please be better prepared than I was:

  1.  Hit ‘record’ on your iPhone right at the get go when your nurse comes in. Explain that you’re making a documentary on ‘kindness and compassion.’
  2. Bring earplugs to deafen the constant noise from the floor loudspeaker, an eye patch to shut out the light from countless people coming and going and antibacterial wipes for your bed rails, door knobs and anything you touch!
  3. Bring your own water. The stuff they give you tastes like something from an airplane sink.  Actually, it’s worse.
  4. Keep your overnight bag within reach.  Otherwise, you may wrench off your hospital garb and be stark naked when you discover that you need your PJ’s.
  5. Bring an advocate, a whistle and a sense of humor if you plan to survive.  

 P. S.  The following day, a nice, young man–not hospital personnel–actually fixed my toilet seat!!

INSIDE OUT

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Last week, the Inside Out art project came to my town. Their truck rolled up in front of the library and we, local residents let them take 4’ by 3’, black and white photos of us. These were then pasted on the walkways in front of the library. I was amazed at the diversity of faces. Our art statement didn’t last long as it rained the following day and all became a gray mush. It was a great reminder, though, of the brevity of our lives. That is why it is so important to shine while our light still flickers!

Recently, I spoke to a group on Alzheimer’s. Since all had been (or were), caregivers, I assumed they would ask questions about the disease and its’ progression. Instead, I faced a room full of people terrified that it might happen to them! In fact, one perfectly, healthy woman was actually taking an Alzheimer’s medication in hopes of preventing it before it started!

Considering that 1 million people will have dementia in some form by 2025, their concerns are valid. So, here’s what we know so far: there is NO cure or drug that can really help yet. No. Nothing–so don’t fall for those TV commercials. However, here are a few things we DO know that will give you the best prevention possible:

  1. Smoking increases your dementia risk 30-50%.
  2. Drinking one Coke a day ups your risk by 30%.
  3. Although few of my readers likely play football–watch for blows to the head—they cause inflammation to the nervous system and increase the tau proteins that cause Alzheimer’s.
  4. Keep your blood pressure low.
  5. Playing a musical instrument lowers your risk by 36%. Taking up the harmonica can’t hurt.
  6. Yeah get off your butt—stub out your butt—and no more ifs ands or buts. THIS is the MOST important one!  

 Here’s the mystery of life: the things we plan for rarely happen and the ones we don’t expect often smack us right between the eyes. Considering that 24% of boys born today and 35% of girls will eventually develop dementia, starting healthy behaviors now will have a more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure. Plus, if you wanna see your face plastered up real big, track down the Inside Out Project! Smiling increases longevity and makes you feel good inside and out!

 

 

YOUR FRIEND, ME

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A friend of mine in his 80’s pulled me aside to talk this morning. He lifted his pant leg to reveal a huge, gauze-covered dressing over his entire shin.

 “I was caught in the middle of a dogfight,” he said. “The doctor can’t stitch it because there’s simply no skin. I have another bandage up here,” he said, indicating his thigh.

 His skin is even thinner than mine and he’s also on blood thinners. I cringed, imagining the pain of that huge, open wound.

 He then confided that his lady friend of late has decided to fly solo. After a long sigh, he simply said:

 “My life is over. I’m in too much pain to move. I have no companionship and there’s nothing to look forward to. Really, nothing.”

 For a moment, I was flummoxed. We’re pals. We’ve worked out together, gone to many a lunch, had tons of talks about love, life, books (he loves murder mysteries) and he has nothing to look forward to? I wanted to give him the pep talk that one normally gives when a friend is feeling down but no words came simply because I know how he feels. I really do.  What could I say?

 Finally, the words come to me tonight, as I ready for bed. So, I dash off this email. Maybe it will help him feel a little less alone.
Hey, kid:

I know you are in a lot of pain and that life isn’t fair.  It’s hard getting older and not snapping back into step the way you once used to.

But I just want you to know how happy it makes me feel inside every time you wave at me when I come to the gym.

Want you to know how much I love your ‘joke of the day,’ cuz even when it’s not funny, it still makes me laugh.

Want you to know that I admire how you’ve kept yourself active and in shape all these years. That takes real strength and persistence.

 Mostly, I just want you to know that my life is just a bit richer and warmer for having you in it… so hang in there.

“This, too, shall pass.”

 Your friend,

Me