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The Bonus Years

by Jean Pond

Many of us are going to live much longer than we expected. I already have. As an octogenarian the years that I'm living now are bonus years. The Census Bureau believes that by 2050 there could be nearly a million Americans who have lived a century. At present centenarian women outnumber men.

So far they've been rewarding years. I've learned a lot about myself and my contemporaries and I'd like to share some behavior that I think might contribute to the richness.

Older people who went before us were said to be living on borrowed time. Our possibilities include borrowed kidneys, hearts, corneas and livers. We need to get well acquainted with our own bodies. Absorb as much information as possible about any medical problems you have. That would include learning from our doctors, pharmacists, libraries and authoritative Internet information. Read everything from the morning newspaper to the New England Journal of Medicine. Know what every pill you put in your mouth is supposed to do and whether the medications might conflict with each other. An overworked doctor once told me that his information about a certain drug had come from the drug salesman. That's scary

Lessen the chances of becoming ill. We have learned that hand washing is the best defense against germs. Be almost obsessive about it. The other day I heard a health advocate say that we don't wash our hands long enough. She suggested that we wash as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday. That's probably good advice even though you may get some strange looks in public restrooms.

Try to be a little food smarter. Read some labels. Notice the sodium content on canned soups and canned vegetables. Forget about 'fry' and think 'bake or broil.' Control your salad dressing consumption by asking for dressing on the side. Take a low calorie treat to the movies so the buttered popcorn fumes don't become too enticing. Drink more water than you're drinking now.

Obesity has become epidemic during the last five generations of packaged foods, fast and high calorie foods. If you don't believe that, take a trip to the nearest mall and look around.

Calcium is one of the most important of the minerals we need. It does a lot of work it doesn't get credit for like helping muscles to contract, the heart to beat and the brain to think. If you drink skim milk out of an amber glass it looks like cream. Bone scans take about six minutes, do not require clothing removal and can indicate bone density. If you're not doing well, the doctor may talk about weight bearing exercise and appropriate medication.

Exercise is really important. Active people do not break easily. We don't need a personal trainer or a contract with a fitness salon. Walk. Don't drive to your neighbors three doors down. Don't drive around a parking lot for twenty minutes trying to find a space by the front door. Park in the perimeter and walk to the front door. Take the stairs occasionally. Exercise buys years.

Dr. Leonard Morehouse, a physiologist at UCLA says, "An inactive life is a slow form of suicide." The sixteen eminent scientists that the MacArthur Foundation picked to find the answer to successful aging came up with the right answer after ten years and a large investment. The answer was that an involvement with life itself was the most important factor. The irony of that was that a large number of people of my vintage could have told them that for nothing.

You know that stuff that you've saved for someday? It's time to notice that someday is here. Let the Salvation Army Thrift Shop customers finish those projects — that box of seashells in the garage, followed closely by those half-finished needlepoint pillow tops and as for that drawer full of old prescription glasses and cases ... do you really think that your eyesight is going to revert to its two-prescriptions-back condition? Drop those eyeglasses off at the optician's office to be forwarded to the Eyes for the Needy project. The Lion's Club also will welcome them.

You might want to practice what Helen Hayes called "creative divertissement." She meant that to signify disposing of things you own by giving them to people and places where they should go while you're still here. When you get to the cherished silver you've had to polish all these years most of the younger generations don't want to polish it, either, and have opted for dishwasher-safe stainless steel. Personal property may be a small part of your estate but I've seen whole families fall apart over who gets Grandma's homemade quilt.

Make any health decisions you wish and discuss them with your children. Children and friends being asked to carry out health decisions they don't want to can be painful for them. Why would this subject be part of an article on longevity? Because when some of these decisions are in place, it's an amazingly freeing process.

Don't pay an inordinate attention to your bathroom mirror. Mine reflects that, unclothed, I'm beginning to look a little like those Third World ladies in the National Geographic. I remember those ladies well. My elderly parents believed that access to the National Geographic would suffice as my sex education

Wrinkles in a lived-in face do not bother me. Mark Twain said, "Wrinkles show where the laughter has been" and I have laughed a lot. I believe that laughter is healing. Laugh whenever you can. Attitude has also been recognized as a factor in health. Except for cases of injustice, ration your anger. It is the most devastating emotion.

If you feel that you need to get some cobwebs out of your mind, check into an Elderhostel program. I've never talked to anyone who participated in one who didn't enjoy it. If you're questioning your worth, volunteer; volunteers always receive more than they give.

Develop a passion for something. It doesn't have to be a grand passion. It can be anything that interests you — memoir writing, flower arranging, researching, computing, bird watching, dog training or any of hundreds of others.

Always have something to look forward to. It may be something that will be coming in the mail, a class you're gong to take, a concert that's coming up, a reunion with a friend, a book you're looking forward to reading.

And one more thing — you might want to throw out those yellowing bank statements and keep your love letters. I threw out my love letters and kept my bank statements and they're not the same comfort on a cold winter evening.

©2002 Jean Pond for SeniorWomenWeb
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