Make It Fun!

Some days I feel like I spend the entire twenty-four hours doing things that will help me when I’m “old.” I know that’s not quite true, I am reaping the benefits today of all the positive things I do for myself and as a gerontologist I think it is important to “walk the walk and talk the talk.” However, sometimes it all just feels a little overwhelming—use the alternate hand to brush my teeth and my hair to lay new track in my brain, eat a high-quality breakfast to help control my weight and get in the necessary nutrients, take supplements after breakfast to cover any short-fall in nutrient consumption from breakfast, get dressed using non-dominant hand. This is all happening, mind you, before nine AM. Then, taking a different route to a meeting to help keep my brain active, practicing tap dancing for an hour (laying more track), then lunch—again a challenge for getting in those nine servings of fruits and veggies, plus protein. After lunch, learning something new to add to my blog posts, writing said post, then walking George for fresh air and connecting with nature, a couple of quick conversations with friends to maintain my social network, cook dinner—yep, same song as breakfast and lunch, third verse. Follow this by practicing the piano-- again for new brain tracks, then brushing again and flossing, hot bath to relax and de-compress so that I can be in bed with lights out by 11 pm to get the eight hours of restorative sleep needed to repair any damage done by all of the above, and just living and breathing the air and experiencing the stress of life in a big city. Whew! Just writing all that made me want to lie down.

It was so much easier when we were younger, and took so much less time to keep looking and feeling good. That is what I miss most about my younger days. But, we can’t go back, so now the way to feel as good as we can, be as sharp as we are able to be, and look as vibrant as possible, is to invest time, and some money, into taking care of ourselves.

Is there some good news somewhere in here, L.J., you ask? But, of course! The incredible and miraculous machine of the human body, when cared for with some love and attention, can stay running at near-peak performance for a long time-- well into our nineties, our upper nineties, and beyond, according to research coming out now regarding large swaths of folks alive today around the world. What I am figuring out is how to make the maintenance fun. My idea of fun might not be yours, and that may not have been your first thought upon reading the laundry list of “must-dos” above, but the winning answer for $10,000 is: make it fun. New research hot from the field points to fun as the secret sauce for living a long mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy life—a new concept for this sometimes too serious Virgo social scientist, but worth trying.

After much thought, I began to see ways to make all the maintenance be more fun, beginning with an attitude adjustment that will make it so. Our attitudes are everything, research also tells us, so adopting one that no matter what our day ahead is like, how little we enjoy eating vegetables, finding a way to make these tasks fun, and sharing that lighter-hearted approach with our fellow aging friends (and strangers) slowly refocuses our lives from drudgery to one never-ending party. As Mary Poppins said, “Snap, it’s all a game!” Maybe not overnight, but with time, we can lighten our spirits and see the fun, and the beauty, of life all around us. One day not too far in the distance from today, laughter—the outward and tangible expression of a person having fun, will become your morning song and evening vespers; I’m betting my life on it, because who wants to be Grumpy Cat all the time? (I bet he never gets invited to fun parties;-)

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Tapping Into A Better Brain

A number of years ago, before I went back to school to study gerontology, I began noticing articles in a variety of publications suggesting that exercise might just be the key to unlock the door to vibrant health—mentally and physically-- as we enter the second half of our lives. As I write this, we now know beyond all doubt that exercising every day is the key to dynamic aging. It will effectively disrupt aging and can stave off a vat full of health problems. Earlier this year in two posts, Shake Your Booty and The Rhythm of the Drums, I explored the latest research citing dancing as one of the outstanding ways to lay down new tracks in our aging brain and grow new brain cells along with sleeker muscles.

If you ever participated in your high school’s annual musical production, or took modern dance or ballet because your mother forced you to, you will remember those students who never got the steps, and who had the grace of a spastic earwig. I confess to being one of those students. Therefore it was with no expectations, and little hope, that I signed up for tap class. The first semester wasn’t pretty, I couldn’t cotton on to this kind of dance; so different from the free-form rock and roll dancing I knew. I would sit in my car after class and cry, disheartened that the parade of life had passed me by and that, maybe, I was too old to get this.  Same experience for the second and third semesters, but by the beginning of the fourth, I noticed a small but encouraging change: I could remember how to execute some of the steps after a few tries, and some days both feet would behave for most of the class. Finally, I could keep up with the routine. My teacher, Vicky, a life-long dancer near my own age, who is demanding but very kind, never gave up on me. My fellow tappers were also free of judgement and full of encouragement. The continuously positive environment was the reason I stayed, unlike years before when a ballet teacher shamed me in front of the class for being such a hopeless beginner.  

Shuffle-ball-change by double-toe-tap, I improved. Some weeks it all flows, and other weeks I just give up and make up my own steps while the others tap out a perfect routine. Over time I learned to joke and laugh at my mistakes, and everyone laughed with me. I gave up trying to be perfect, and let the over-achieving aspect of L.J. take a break on the bench. 

As our time together as a class has increased, everyone has lightened up, we laugh more, and have a lot of fun. Some days we follow class with lunch together. I look forward to my class each week, and miss it when summer comes. About the same time I could follow along fairly well, I noticed my mind felt clearer, a little sharper. Now, even when I am tired I think better, and my thoughts seem more organized. From my research I know the tracks I began laying in my brain two years ago have gone from resembling noodles, to ones stronger than cardboard, to pathways now as strong as wood. That’s only one step away from making permanent steel tracks. Maybe then I can get the routine down on the second or third try. At this moment, I am so grateful I didn’t give up, that I found a new form of exercise I enjoy.  

And, I expanded my world with new friends who share my passion for aging vibrantly. 

 Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Spread A Little Gratitude All Year Long

Every afternoon I have to shake my head when I open my overflowing mailbox. Amongst some seasonal greeting cards, I find enough catalogs to reforest a small country, or the state of Kansas, offering me holiday happiness through an amazing array of stuff that I didn’t even know existed. Shuffled in with these products of felled trees is a smaller glade of letters from every legitimate, and not so legitimate charity this side of Venus asking for some of my end-of –the year dollars. Please don’t misunderstand. I know how much the worthy causes depend on YOE donations to make their budgets. I have walked in those shoes and so each December I donate to as many as possible because it makes me feel fabulous to give money away to people and organizations in need. Extending that feeling is the topic for today.

Decades ago in Spirituality & Health magazine I read a short piece about an unusual gratitude practice by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, one of my favorite go-to spiritual people. It stuck with me. Each day, before he began his writing time, he would send a check to one of the charities he believed in. As he said, it wasn’t a big check; and that wasn’t the point. The ritual (and I am guessing he still does it) is about giving as a form of gratitude for what one has been given-- paying it forward. It would take an additional forest at least the size of Vermont to print all the articles written about what giving does for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Some of the benefits I covered earlier this month. To offer just a smidgeon of science on the topic, decades of studies show how giving money to those in need results in us feeling happier. Three regions of our brain are fired up when we are generous—the area associated with social behavior, generosity, happiness and decision-making. We experience a cascade of good-feeling hormones which floods our body, creating in us what Dr. Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia called, “The warm glow of giving.” This feeling is noted to be universal among the 120 countries included in the study. At the University of Zurich researchers found that the amount of money given didn’t change the effect of how much happier one felt. It is the act of giving that evokes the positive benefits.

For folks who don’t regularly sit down to write every day, here are some thoughts on how to adapt this practice. Many of us give regularly to our houses of worship, especially if we attend their services each week, and so our giving muscle already has some definition. Next, let’s focus on all those saplings in the form of year-end solicitation letters. After I have exhausted the bank balance designated for giving this holiday season, instead of tossing those remaining requests, I bundle all the legitimate ones into a stack and tuck them away. I suggest you do the same. Then you can use those letters throughout the following year to extend the indescribable feeling of quiet joy we all get when we give away something we value, in this case, money. Maybe you can set a schedule—say once a week on Sunday evening, to take a few quiet minutes after you have completed your Gratitude Meditation ;-) and open one of the letters. Think about the people who will benefit from your generosity and imagine them holding your gift in their hands. Let yourself acknowledge the altruistic feelings that come from this loving act. Then, write the check to the charity, or go online and enter your credit card. Afterward, you might slip into bed and sleep the sleep of the grateful. Or, slide into a warm tub (my personal fav) and be enveloped in the feelings of gratitude.

Although it may seem a stretch to see paying forward as a counter to loneliness, it helps in a non-tangible way that accumulates with time. A stealth fighter for positive benefit.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Seeing the Best in Everyone

On Thursday Americans will observe Thanksgiving, a holiday that focuses on being thankful, and eating yummy food. What could be better? It’s also a day that for many of us involves sitting at a table with family members we only see on this one day each year. Or, it might be a gathering of your most beloved relatives and significant other, close loving friends and precious, well-behaved children. Or, perhaps you’ll be sharing a meal with friends whose families live in distant places, or have passed away. Wherever you find yourself this Thanksgiving, I would like to offer a few choices of behavior you might consider which will up your happiness quotient.

If you find yourself seated across from your cousin Irma whose beliefs are the opposite of yours on just about everything, and who loves to chatter endlessly about her plan for world peace which involves cross-breeding llamas with cats, pause a moment, and take a few deep breaths. Look at Irma and say quietly to yourself while she praters on:

  • “We both desire a life filled with joy and happiness.” Slowly exhale.

  • Inhale. “We both suffered sadness, anger, and have lived with fear.”  Slowly exhale.

  • Inhale. “We both desire respect and love.” Slowly exhale.

  • Inhale. “We are both doing the best we can.” Slowly exhale.

  • Inhale. “We are both equally parts of Spirit/God/Source (You choose what feels best.) In truth, you and I and Spirit/God/Source are one energy body. We are one.” Slowly exhale.

If you practice this mantra the day before on your best friend over coffee, or your sleeping spouse on the sofa, you will be prepared to handle THE DAY… and cousin Irma.

You can use this exercise anywhere, anytime you want to strengthen and increase meaningful connection during the holidays, be it with a loved one or a stranger. (It works on pets, too. Just ask George Eliot!)

My second recommendation for making a heart connection this Thanksgiving Day and during this holiday season has several parts. 

Part One: seek out an older person in the room. Go and sit by her. Most likely you are related to her, or know her-- even better if you don’t, as you can make a new friend.  Ask her what she loves about this holiday, what are some of her best memories. Ask open-ended questions that require answers longer than yes or no. You will be amazed at what you will learn from this wise, older gal, and she will feel great having the attention and getting to talk about her life. Then listen, really listen. When the conversation is over, notice how you feel.

Part Two: Get on the floor with the wee ones and play! Now, I don’t mean just hold the dolly while Lily works the story with her doll and the other members of the doll family. No, I mean get in there and contribute to the story line with your doll and have real make-believe conversations. This may include building a small housing development for them from books and towels. Go for it.

Part Three: Once everyone has eaten and the pie plates are empty, go around the table and ask each person to say three things they are grateful for today. This is the best way I know to end a holiday meal, and it makes doing the dishes so easy ;-)

My heartfelt wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving to you!

Until next time….Be Vibrant!

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Lift Your Spirits and Your Skirt this Season

Every time we enter a retail establishment, turn on the TV, or get a whiff of the new pumpkin spiced mouthwash, we know the holiday blitz has arrived. This season of celebrations with fantasy-perfect family gatherings, delicious food and later, sparkling lights and pine scented overload, is not the easiest time for everyone. Amid Susan learning to believe, and Clarence getting his wings, many among us struggle with feeling alone and depressed during the holidays. This is true for people of all ages, but those of us with a few decades behind us can feel it even more. The longing for loved ones with whom we once shared holidays -- be they parents, grandparents, or a spouse, who have passed away; or family members and friends who live great distances from us, often becomes especially painful around this time of year. SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder-also called “winter depression” can compound our unhappy feelings, and do a double-whammy on our ability to enjoy the season, so much that it is now a recognized disorder among older adults. Financial issues can also contribute to feelings of depression during the season of More is Better and Greed is Good. 

So, how do we lift our sagging hearts from lower than our knees and feel as light as a snowflake and as happy as a four year-old? One way is to lift our skirts, or boots, if you’re a man, and go dancing. I wrote many words earlier this year about the benefits of dancing, and so have a look at Shake Your Booty or The Rhythm of the Drums, and find a place this season to take a partner, or join a group, and dance the night away. The research shows what relationships do for our health is so positive, and letting go and following the rhythm of the beat can give us a well-needed release of serotonin-- the feel-good hormone, boost our immune systems, and bring on restorative sleep. Sounds like a winning combo to me. Many studies prove that our resistance to getting cancer, heart disease, and even dementia, as well as a bushel basket of other chronic diseases is greatly enhanced when we are connected to people in social, and even better in intimate ;-) situations. In fact, we add nine years to our life expectancy by hanging with others.

The data is in and the news is good: Those who volunteer, mentor, or simply lend a compassionate ear are healthier, experience higher self-esteems, and report feeling happier about their lives and life in general. I discussed above joining in a Bogie Nights Fest, or a Square Dancing Marathon, and here are some other ways to connect this season:

  1. 1.Check out holiday events in your area. Look online or in the newspaper for a list of events for all ages; pick a few and go! You will either have a good time, or a good story to tell.  Additionally, go to the website, Meetup.com for information about special interest groups or social groups for older adults in your area.

  2. 2.Sign up to volunteer. This is the season of giving, so up the gratitude quotient in your own life, and give some back to those in need. You will feel the joy of the season and reap the health benefits that come from serving others. An added bonus--you're also more likely to meet like-minded people looking to expand their own social networks!

  3. 3.Mentor a child, or spend time with children. The International Council on Active Aging reported that people over 55 who volunteered to assist school children or tutor not only improved cognitive function, but also burned twice as many calories as non-volunteers. (Isn’t that great news!) Being with children requires that we become more active and focused. Kids also remind us to believe again, as we did in our own childhoods, in fairies and Santa Claus, and that all things are possible. Then at the end of the day, they go home and you go home, to different houses. What could be better?

Even in this wild world we are living in, we can experience much happiness and joy  this season, and all year long, if we chose to embrace it. We can overcome our feeling of loneliness and depression by opening the door and stepping outside, breathing in the crisp air, and choosing to extend our hand to a fellow human who could be lonely, as well. Nothing I know warms up cold fingers faster.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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