We’re all on some sort of journey, aren’t we? Check back here
periodically to find out more about G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s journeys
through the literary world and through life.
A recent issue of Time Magazine was a “Special Health Double Issue” devoted to longevity, a term that seems to be used these days not only as a quantitative measure of how long we live but also as a qualitative trait akin to wealth. It seems that achieving greater longevity somehow means you are a better person than those who die younger because you ate more almonds/ran more miles/drank more water/practiced more yoga. In a way, longevity seems to be the new mark of success.
I visited a longevity doctor last summer. (That’s right, there are doctors and whole clinics that devote their practices to helping their patients live longer, which I had thought was pretty much what all doctors were supposed to do. I guess I went to this doctor to make sure I wasn’t missing something.) Anyway, this guy analyzed ten vials of my blood before the appointment, and when I got there he counted how many push-ups I could do in a certain amount of time, had me play memory games on a computer, made me lie down on a cold metal table, like a corpse, and tested my body mass and bone density by scanning some electronic thingamajig overhead, and ran an ultrasound probe along my carotid artery to determine how much plaque had built up. When all was said and done, he sat me down and told me to eliminate toxins, watch my glycemic intake, consume massive platefuls of broccoli, and swallow dozens of supplements for my hormonal, neurological, cardiac, and other internal systems.
Most of the stuff he said made sense. But here’s the thing: you don’t need a longevity doctor’s orders to live a long time. My mother is proof of that. She taught me a lot of things over the years, and one of the most important lessons she taught me was how to live to 91.
Mom always started her days at the breakfast table sitting in a “stupor.” That’s what she called it for as far back as I can remember. But in today’s vernacular, a similar activity is known by a different name: meditation.
Experts have become fascinated with meditation in recent years although this practice has been around for thousands of years. And scientists are touting the extraordinary benefits of meditation. A Huffington Post article a while back reported that meditation can boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, improve cardiac fitness, and structurally alter the brain.
But Mom didn’t need to hear about those studies. She knew it intrinsically, from a young age, that this was what she needed to do, and I am convinced it contributed to her long life.
While her stupor may not have been as mindful as many forms of meditation, it involved an approach that was simple and stress-free.
- Be gentle to yourself upon awakening
- Keep your mind clear of worries and to-do’s for a while
- Gradually let yourself become aware of the world around you
- Avoid analysis, questions and judgment.
2. Stick to your routine
Mom was a creature of habit. She pretty much woke up and went to bed at the same time every day. She ate three meals a day, regardless of whether she was actually hungry, although she did modify the quantity she’d eat depending on circumstances. She always had dinner ready at 6:30pm. She always watched the 10pm news. She ate the same thing for breakfast every day of her entire life, took her vitamins after that, and had a number of other habits that she stuck to as well.
At first blush, this sounds awful! I like variety in my life, and I don’t like to be held accountable to schedules. But Mom knew what she was doing, and experts support her style. “Routines are like mental butlers,” says Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. They allow certain activities to happen automatically, thereby saving you time, energy, and stress. We all know that minimizing stress is key to good health, so it makes sense that minimizing stress through routines will help you extend your life.
But who cares what the scientists say, right? Here’s what the inimitable poet Mary Oliver said about how habits help us in her collection Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. “Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.”
While habits and routines can be set up, consciously or otherwise, around many aspects of life, some of the easiest ones to focus on are:
- Meal times and plans
- Personal grooming
- Pet care
- Regular enjoyment activities like reading
3. Be grateful
Mom was grateful to a fault. When we were little and opened our gifts on Christmas morning, she always insisted we keep the To/From tags so we’d know who to later thank for the gifts, and she made sure we wrote those thank you notes. In recent years, Mom would thank me multiple times for whatever small gift I’d sent her or favor I’d done. It got to the point where I found it annoying, I confess, to have to respond to her gratitude for the umpteenth time. But that was my flaw, not hers.
Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” According to a recent Forbes article, studies have shown that gratitude can increase mental strength and that grateful people sleep better, experience fewer aches and pains and are more likely to take care of themselves.
Gratitude can be an internal or external frame of mind. Mom was a good one for calling people to say thank you, but I know others who have found great benefit from keeping gratitude journals. The key is to find at least one thing to be grateful for every day (see #2 above).
4. Have fun!
Everyone needs to have fun. But what is fun? It’s different than enjoyment, which brings you pleasure. Fun goes a step further, triggering an internal, more visceral reaction to what’s going on. It may even provoke laughter.
George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Experts would say he was on to something, and studies now show that fun can help reduce pain, stress, and heart disease. It also keeps you sharp mentally, creatively, and emotionally, which can help you in your later years.
I remember Mom laughing and having fun throughout her life: on Halloween, on Christmas morning, on Friday nights when we’d play family games. And I especially remember her focus on having fun in later years.
She loved playing Skip-Bo, a silly little card game that anyone can play and that requires no strategy. That’s why she loved it: anyone could win or lose, and it didn’t much matter. What mattered was that it brought others to her kitchen table, to the same, level playing field. We talked with one another, anticipated the next card in the deck, and laughed.
Fun doesn’t have to be a big time commitment, and you can find fun anywhere. You can do it by yourself or with others. In a box or with a fox, Dr. Seuss might say. Try to come up with an idea for how you can have fun:
- At work
- With friends or family
- By yourself
- With a pet or child
5. Treat Yourself Every Day
My longevity doctor might not approve of this one, but Mom treated herself every day to a peppermint candy or a bowl of ice cream. Right up through her final day.
Life is supposed to be enjoyed, right? But that’s easier said than done. From financial or relationship problems at home to terrorism abroad and climate change all around, we are inundated with stressors and worries. And as we grow older, and our bodies can no longer do what they once did, it’s easy to get down in the dumps about so many things. While I promote the idea of having fun as often as possible (see #4 above), sometimes it’s hard to fit full blown fun into your busy schedule. But it’s almost always possible to find a way to treat yourself.
Mom knew that a yummy treat could lift her spirits, but treats can also have health benefits. Peppermint can ease headaches or upset stomachs, and it’s been reported that chocolate can slow down the onset of Alzheimer’s. And treats don’t have to involve food or candy. Your daily treat might involve brushing your cat, or spending time out in the garden, or curling up with a book.
I should point out here that treats are not the same thing as self-medication. My mom’s treats were small gifts to herself to celebrate each day. These gifts, studies show, can reduce stress, stimulate your brain and body, and give you something to look forward to tomorrow and for many more tomorrows to come.
* * *
Mom didn’t win the prize for the longest-living-woman. And she didn’t follow all the rules that today’s longevity specialists might prescribe. But she did live for 91 years, and they were, for the most part, 91 years of joy and peace, which is far better, in my mind, than 91 years of broccoli.