Reflections on the Power of Friendship

We sat beside each other in Grade 9 Science class–not because we were magnetically drawn to each other–rather because our teacher had seated us alphabetically. With different family backgrounds and very different life experiences, we had little in common. Despite these differences, we became extremely close friends. At the end of Grade 12, she left for a career in the Armed Forces while I continued to Grade 13 and then to University. For the past forty years, we have never again lived in the same city – and often not the same country. Still our friendship has remained strong – never wavering, never fading– even though, at times, we have gone many years without seeing each other (and many of those years were pre-email, pre-Facebook and pre-social media of any kind)!

I just had the chance to spend time with Jo-Anne when she, and her husband, visited us on Vancouver Island this past week. Immediately upon her arrival, the years and distances vanished as if we had just been together yesterday. My heart leapt. We spent days talking, laughing, eating and shopping as if we were 14 year olds all over again. We shared our deepest secrets, snapped selfies and were comfortable in each other’s silences.

The benefits of strong, positive friendships have long been proclaimed. They nurture our deeply human need to share our life experiences. They support us and give us strength. In one study, participants stood at the bottom of a hill and were asked to estimate the steepness of the hill as they began to climb. When they stood alone, they believed the steepness of the hill to be much more extreme than when they stood with a close friend (source). Another study, from Harvard Medical School, discovered that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop severe physical problems as they grew older. The results of this study were so significant that the researchers concluded: “not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight” (source).

Throughout my life, I have been blessed with many strong, incredible friendships. These friends have seen me through both good and tough times, have challenged me to be my best and have supported me when I began to waiver. I have known that they are right beside me even when they are not physically there. After getting to know some of my closest, long-time friends, my husband once commented how different they were than me – especially pointing out their relaxed, easy-going natures (ouch!). Opposites can attract…and in each of these cases I am glad that they stuck with me.

Recently I posted a blog on aging well. My goal is to follow the fundamental principles listed there. Maintaining strong friendships is at the top of my list. As friends are “the family that you choose” (Jess C. Scott), they grab the baton to go places with you that are reserved just for them.

I’d like to take this time to sincerely thank the friends who have so profoundly influenced me. Without them, the highs of my life would not have been as high (if they had existed at all), and the lows would have been unbearable. Without them…well, that is something that I simply do not wish to imagine.

Jo-Anne and me

Jo-Anne and me 44 years ago

Ladies Who Lunch

When I worked overseas, I used to marvel at the trailing spouses (usually Tai Tais) who I would hear busily planning their weekday afternoons – a workout, perhaps some shopping and then lunch with friends at some great restaurant. Lunch? Midweek? During the daytime? That, I honestly could not fathom. Being a school principal, I seldom ate lunch, at least not during the day, rarely in a restaurant with friends and never leisurely. How I silently envied those ladies who lunched.  Don’t get me wrong, it was not the frequent connotation of ‘money to burn’ that captured my awe, but the sheer freedom that their lifestyles implied.

Recently, at our Newcomers’ Monthly Ladies’ Luncheon (yes–midweek, during the work day and unhurried), I looked around and caught myself. This is the moment of which I had long often fantasized–I didn’t want it to slip away without savoring it just a bit more. In life, we often spend much time dreaming of deeply desired future moments, both big and small. Then our present day realities consume us, dampening the sustained awe that these realized moments truly deserve.

Think back to that yearned for job, house, marriage, child–see them in the craziness of the present moment, and then look at them through the eyes of your younger self. “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” –Thornton Wilder

I left that lunch vowing to take the time to look at my current life from the point of view of a much younger me. “Pretty amazing!” I can hear my younger-self saying. And right then and there, the routines of my present-day life regain their rightful magic!

What would the younger-you say of your current life and treasures?

 

 

A WALK IN THE WOODS (NOT THE BOOK OR THE MOVIE)

I’ve just returned from our regular weekend 5K walk. Okay, so it’s actually supposed to be 10K, but a few of us cut out half way through to join some of our other friends for coffee. I don’t want to miss out on the coffee part, so I exit at the 5K mark too – my story, and I’m totally sticking to it!

I originally had a different post planned for today (my apologies if I told you about that one, and you were expecting another topic). Since I have recently been on my ‘longevity and active aging rant,’ I thought that I would sneak in one more post on this theme.

Previously a somewhat undervalued activity, the benefits of regular walking are now exalted everywhere that we turn. From improving physical fitness, calming the mind, reducing stress (source) triggering anti-aging processes, repairing old DNA (source), lessening risks of breast cancer/colon cancer (source)/dementia (source) and helping to prevent premature death (source), walking is now hailed as a multi-tasking cure-all.

Experts suggest mixing up your walking routine to keep it fresh and challenging, as well as to ensure that you reap maximum benefits. For example, walking barefoot, sometimes called ‘grounding,’ helps you to absorb free electrons from the earth. These electrons are touted to assist with a wide assortment of health concerns including, poor sleep, arthritis, respiratory issues, chronic muscle pain, stress, hypertension, weak immune systems, and more (source). If going barefoot is not quite your thing (or if you have no soft sandy beaches or grassy knolls nearby), taking 100 steps backward is claimed to reap the same benefits as taking 1,000 steps forward (source). According to researchers, compared to regular walking, ‘retro walking’ increases cardiovascular endurance, burns more calories, improves balance, more fully promotes blood circulation, and prevents the development of a hunched-back (source). Have the walking coordination of a tarsier? Try ‘breath walking’! This technique (taking four sharp breaths in and four sharp breaths out while you walk) is argued to “prime your mind for learning and creativity while you exercise” (source). That strikes two (or even three) birds with one stone–you’ve gotta love that!

Excuse-buster alert: Almost everyone can take part in walking (or modified walking) activities and just a little bit can make a huge difference. Researchers have found that walking regularly for just 20 minutes per day, burns approximately 100 calories each time and contributes to the wide-ranging health benefits listed above (source). Some literary theorists have even closely compared walking and writing, stating, “writing is one way of making the world our own, and walking is another” (source).

According to Random Facts:   “The average Australian takes 9, 695 steps per day (just a few short of the ideal 10,000), the average Japanese takes 7,168; the average Swiss: 9,650; and the average American just 5,117.” Supplementing these facts, “the average Canadian man takes “9,500 steps per day” and “the average Canadian woman takes 8,400 steps per day” (source). How do your steps align with your country’s average?

Looking for even more health benefits? Add coffee! Loaded with antioxidants, coffee has been found to improve energy levels, make you smarter, fight against depression, helps to protect against liver disease/Type 2 diabetes/Parkinson’s disease/gout, and promote a healthy heart. (source, source). Add friendship and laughter on top of all of that and the health benefits are maximized off of the charts!

So, the next time that you notice a small group of walkers seemingly cutting out early, think of them not as slackers, but as diligently in pursuit of optimal health and well-being.

The photo above is from our walk today. Seriously, it was like walking directly inside a painting. Below are a few shots of the regular walks we had in  Beijing and surrounding areas, which we also greatly loved. (Beijing friends: do you recognize any of these spots?)

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Secrets of Longevity and Aging Well — Explained through Momisms

Momisms—my mom said them, your mom probably said them—and I’ve said them too (cringe here)! If you follow current research on longevity and aging…it turns out that Mom was right (who knew?). Here are ten common momisms that match frequently cited research findings on positive aging. Time Magazines’ Longevity Issue (Vol. 187, No. 6-7, Feb 22-29, 2016) provides a summary of much of the current longevity research, and is filled with articles extolling the virtues of the following:

  1. Eat your vegetables – In her article on longevity (Time, Vol. 187, p. 82), Alexandra Sifferlin reported: “Diet Is by far the most powerful intervention to delay aging and age-related diseases.” Consistent with this claim, a 2014 UCL study reported that “People who ate seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day had a 42% lower risk of death at any point in time than those who ate less than one portion” with “vegetables having a larger effect than fruit”. (Source) Thanks, Mom! Please pass the broccoli!
  1. Get off of the couch (sometimes translated as “go outside and play”) – Research continues to bombard us with an important message that we can no longer ignore (no matter how hard we try!): Movement and activity are essential not only to our physical health but equally to our mental and emotional well-being. The good news is that small amounts of regular activity, even squirming and wiggling, can make a difference. (Time, Vol. 187, p. 80). Unfortunately, this does cancel out one standard momism: ‘don’t fidget’! Put more harshly, “scientists have shown that sedentary behavior, like sitting all day, is a risk factor for earlier death”. (Time, Vol. 187, p.84) Going even further, a 2011 study claimed that, after age 25, every hour spent watching TV was linked to a deduction of 22 minutes from predicted life expectancy. (Source) Two words come to mind here: uh oh!
  1. It’s no use crying over spilled milk (or if Mom was a Doris Day fan, ’kay sera sera’) – Research tells us that our bodies’ natural defense mechanisms, that help manage stress, decline as we age. Being able to control stress is a key characteristic of “successful agers”. (Source) Taking this a bit further, don’t you just love how research reporters nonchalantly throw out uncommon terms and then you find yourself nodding in agreement (even though you have no idea what exactly you just read)? For example, Time Magazine also reported, “It is now suspected by scientists that reducing stress may slow biological aging by stabilizing telomeres” (Time, Vol, 187, p.86) To translate the above: elderly people have chromosomes that have replicated many times. Telomeres keep these aging chromosomes from becoming inefficient or harmful. Yup, I definitely had to use my dictionary, plus ask around, to fully understand this one.
  1. Money doesn’t grow on trees – Financial comfort is frequently cited as a key piece of a happy retirement (and it is often a major area of concern for the retired and the nearly-retired). The good news is that many retirees enjoy happiness while having much less than others because they have (creatively) found ways to “cut their coat by their cloth.”(Source) Time Magazine’s Longevity issue would not be complete without discussing current financial retirement solutions and does so in Dan Kadlec’s Article, “So How am I going to Pay for It?” (Time, Vol. 187, p. 92)
  1. Do your Homework In research study after research study, crossing different countries, races, and social-economic factors, the following findings were consistent: increasing the number of years that children went to school was linked to better health and longevity. Dr. Lleras-Muney, who wrote a prize-winning dissertation on this topic, was quoted in the New York Times as stating “life expectancy at age 35 was extended by as much as one and a half years simply by going to school for one extra year.”(Source) The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics supported this claim in their findings that “people with a bachelor’s degree or higher live about nine years longer than people who don’t graduate from high school” (Source). And as Mom knows, doing homework was a great excuse for getting out of doing the dishes!
  1. Make a Friend (sometimes translated as ‘Play nicely with others’) – Having strong, positive friendships is also solidly linked with longer life. Having friends to turn to decreases social isolation, provides emotional and physical support, helps us to better manage stress and, according to some research, improves our immune systems. (Source) Significantly, positive mindset (momism: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all), and engaging in meaningful activities (momism: if you don’t do it now, then when are you going to do it?) get wrapped up into this category as well.
  1. Respect your elders – This one surprised me. Research has now found that those of us in middle age, who possess healthy attitudes towards the elderly, fare much better as we age ourselves. Studies have shown that adults, in their 40’s, who demonstrated negative stereotypes of senior citizens, twenty-five years later showed a significantly greater loss in the volume of their hippocampus (and thus significantly greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease) than their more positive peers who took part in the same study. Something else Mom often said, “there, but for the grace of God, go I”.
  1. You just ate an hour ago – Okay, this one I have found myself, as a mom, saying quite a bit. And as it turns out, cutting calories and fasting in our older years (done properly), can result in significant health benefits. Researchers from The University of California’s Longevity Institute found that “when people occasionally fasted, they lowered their risk for age-related diseases.” (Time, Vol. 187, p. 82) This combines with other research supporting the benefits of healthy low-calorie diets in reducing blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease. (Source) Rats! There goes my planned trip to Dairy Queen!
  1. Isn’t it past your bedtime? (or ‘Just go to bed!”) The National (US) Heart, Lung and Blood Association has confirmed that ongoing lack of sleep is linked to increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. (Source) While it is often commonly believed that we require less sleep as we age, this belief is untrue according to The National (US) Sleep Foundation. (Source) Although this news may be disconcerting to many, it is of great comfort to those of us who love our beds (what better excuse to sleep in?).
  1. I will always love you (sometimes translated as “Call me when you get there”). It is widely accepted that nurturing and supportive family relationships can decrease stress levels. Research has also found that, in retirement, such relationships can provide us with stimulation, purpose, a sense of connection and the validation that may now be missing from the workplace. (Source, Source). Nowhere else is the strength of this bond more poignant than in the countless stories of grown men in battlefields calling out for the warmth, strength and protection of their mothers’ love. (Source)

Thanks, Mom, for the great advice and for the ahead-of-your time wisdom. I will always love you too!

Donna baby photo 2

Top Photo:  A current snapshot of Mom and me

Bottom Photo: (Viewers Left to Right) Me, my mom and my sister (53 years ago)

Taking ‘Vacation’ from ‘Vacation’: Can you Actually do that?

We have recently returned from our three-week driving trip. During our time away, others often referred to our excursion as ‘vacation.’ This small, innocuous-seeming word began to grate away at me. Once people retire, can their travel justly be called ‘vacation’? This word no longer seemed appropriate to describe our trips away (especially this one, which included many of the same tasks and activities that we did at home….only with different scenery and very different weather).

I turned to the Cambridge dictionary.

“Retirement: the act of leaving your job and stopping working.”

And:

“Vacation:  a time when someone does not go to work or school but is free to do what they want, such as travel or relax.”
(http://dictionary.cambridge.org)

You can nitpick these definitions for donkey’s years, but if defined as above, both words center on “stopping working” and the “freedom to do what you want” (at least for a period of time). So in that regard, retirement itself can be seen as a ‘vacating’ of sorts. Hmmm, that means I would be taking ‘vacation’ from ‘vacation.’ This is not to imply that retirement is not a very busy, active and meaningful time (I find it incredibly so).  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but ‘vacation’ from ‘retirement’ just seemed wrong.

I placed the dictionary aside and turned to Google where I was sure I would find a quick answer. After typing the words ‘retirement’ and ‘vacation’ in the search bar, using both narrow and broad phrases to go with my topic, and then scrolling through pages and pages of posts… the closest entries that I found were “retirement destinations,” “cheap ways to travel” and “Elderhostel.” Google totally failed me here (or my research skills have quickly atrophied in my post-work life)! Still I persevered. Several pages in, I was directed to blog posts asking if vacations were important in retirement. I mean absolutely no disrespect here when I say “duh”! My question was not whether one should take trips during retirement, but rather what these trips should be called.

I was about to give up on the whole topic and once again vow not to be so picky (yeah, right), when I saw a freshly posted blog entry entitled “No More Vacations.” In this post, the author argued that retirement brings the “freedom to stop taking vacations from something and instead be able to say “yes, we’d love to,” “yes, we’ll go,” “yes, we will be there.” Eureka!! I totally agree! My trips away are no longer a separation from my regular life, more appropriately they are an extension of my current freedom and exploring. Thanks to Janis my query has an answer to which I am quite satisfied.

As an aside, an amazing bonus of blogging on retirement is reading different retirement blogs and sharing that connection with others who are experiencing similar journeys!

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your point of view.

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Top Photo: A snapshot from our recent road trip                                    Bottom Photo: A snapshot from our daily life