“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art” 

-Eleanor Roosevelt

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Ageless Women, Timeless Wisdom; Witty, Wicked, and Wise Reflections on Well-Lived Lives

Ageless Women, Timeless Wisdom; Witty, Wicked, and Wise Reflections on Well-Lived Lives

Ageless Women, Timeless Wisdom; Witty, Wicked, and Wise Reflections on Well-Lived Lives by Dr. Lois Frankel. 

Dr. Frankel is a psychotherapist, executive coach and now a documenter of women’s unique lives. The women included were septuagenarian to nonagenarian, with a few centenarians; some are from an earlier time and are deceased; others very much alive. The book opens with the Hasidic Proverb, “For the unlearned, old age is winter. For the learned, it is the season of the harvest.”

This is a treasure trove of wisdom from women who revel in their season of harvest. Full of life stories, memorable quotes, gentle advice, insights and inspiration, the book’s text is complemented throughout by the artwork of Lisa Graves- photos of contributors, photos of nature, and charming drawings.

Perhaps the best way to introduce this book is to share some of what the women interviewed said:

  • “Do a good deed and throw it in the flowing river, never expecting anything in return” – ZN, Republic of Georgia
  • “If life gives you lemons…look for the vodka”- JM, California
  • “Change is the one constant. Don’t waste your time looking for stability. Stay open to whatever happens” – EM, Pennsylvania
  • “Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” – EL, Scotland
  • “Chi ha tempo non aspetti tempo… simple Italian phrase that means ‘lost time is never found again; do not postpone what you can do now’.” – ND, France

A beautiful homage to the wisdom and ongoing relevance and vitality of elders.

Waiting for the Weekend

Waiting for the Weekend

My dad chopped the end of his index finger off in a metal bending machine when I was eight. He was a blue-collar guy and worked in a factory. His job was cutting and bending sheet metal that would end up in box folding machines. It was hard, messy, dangerous work.

JRyder dad and brotherThe index finger plays an important role in gripping a golf club and there was a strong possibility my dad wouldn’t be able to play golf again. That was bad news because his passion was playing golf on weekends. 

He was a model employee; he did impeccable work and was well regarded in the workplace. He neither loved nor hated his job. It was just a job, the place he went Monday through Friday to get him to the weekend. After recovering, he was excited to discover he could still play. In fact, his game actually improved after he lost the finger.

Many years later when he retired everyone thought he would spend his days on the golf course. We were wrong. A few weeks into it he took a new position doing what he’d been doing most of his life – bending sheet metal. No one could believe it until he explained that his new position was not about bending sheet metal, rather it was about contributing to and helping expand the game he loved. You see, my dad was now manufacturing golf clubs.

A mentor once told me there are three pathways available in a working life; a job, a career, and a calling. While jobs and careers are plentiful, very few people are called. At 65 years old my dad found his calling. I know if he was still around today, he'd be asking people this challenge question—

What can you commit the rest of your life to accomplishing that would enhance the quality of your life and the lives of others?

If you’re so inclined, hang out with this question for a while. Create lots of ideas and possibilities. Stay with it and look to be called.

 

After completing 40 years as a creative director and educator in advertising, Julian Ryder founded The Right Brain Project—a creativity education and training firm helping leaders build creative cultures within their organizations. He is also an activist with The Hunger Project and ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. When not working, you’ll find Julian playing golf, skiing, or surfing.

 

Thanks for the Memories

Thanks for the Memories

Give it up for the Hippocampus

How do we know things? How do we know each other, ourselves, names of objects and historical events? How do we know where we left our keys or why we came into a room? We know these things because we have a memory of them, of course.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that most, if not all, seniors are concerned about their memory and their general cognitive function as well. Fortunately, we need not be greatly concerned if we can’t remember why we are standing in the middle of the kitchen or where we put our cell phone. This happens to everyone, not just seniors.

It does happen more frequently with seniors than with younger people though. This age-related increase in mild memory impairment is normal. I sometimes laugh at myself when I’m standing in front of an open refrigerator wondering what it was I needed.

In his book Successful Aging, Daniel Levitin shared a joke that is apparently popular with memory researchers:

Two elderly gentlemen are sitting next to each other at a dinner party.

“My wife and I had dinner at a new restaurant last week,” one of the men says.

“Oh, what’s it called?” the other man says.

“Um…I…I can’t remember.” (Thinks. Rubs chin.)

“Hmm…What is the name of that of that flower that you buy on romantic occasions? You know, it usually comes by the dozen, you can get it in different colors, there are thorns on the stem…?”

“Do you mean a rose?”

“Yes, that’s it!” (Leans across the table to where his wife is sitting.)

“Rose, what was the name of that restaurant we went to last week?”

 

As is true of other parts of our neurological systems, memory has evolved to help us adapt to the demands of the environment. There are several systems accountable for memory, and each is associated with specific anatomical area(s) of the brain. But before we start drilling down into brain parts, let’s look at how memory works and the types of memories we have.

Types of Memory

We have several different memory systems. Spatial memory allows us to know where we are. Procedural memory helps us remember how to perform simple tasks like using a faucet or activating the turn signal on our car. Short-term memory allows us to remember information we learned just a few minutes ago.

According to Levitin our memory systems form a hierarchy. Spatial, procedural, and short-term memory each use different neural circuits in the brain, and each is vital for daily functioning. But above them, at the top of the hierarchy, are implicit memory and explicit memory.

Implicit memory is the type of memory that we use to perform complex behaviors like playing the piano or tennis. Once these behaviors are learned, we do them automatically without having to think about them or consciously reconstruct them.

Explicit memory, on the other hand, includes two types of memory: semantic memory and episodic memory.

Sematic memory is the memory of general knowledge. This memory includes all the things and information we know but don’t remember learning. It’s knowledge we know so well that we take it for granted. For example, what is the capitol of Russia? Moscow, of course. But when did you learn that?

After so many decades spent acquiring knowledge, we older adults have a lot of information stored in sematic memory. According to professor Alan Castel in his book Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging we sometimes have trouble retrieving general knowledge because we have so many semantic memories in our brains that they become cluttered. The sheer volume makes semantic memories harder to find and affects our recall.

Episodic memory, on the other hand, is the memory of all those things we know from particular events or episodes in our lives. Your wedding, the birth of a child, the funeral of a loved one. We remember these events because we were in them. We were there. What differentiates episodic memories from semantic memories is they have autobiographical components to them.

I recall that in 2007 I was a graduate student sitting in a conference room with three professors giving an oral defense of my dissertation. My committee members asked me a series of questions and asked for explanations of various points I made in my research. When they were done, they asked me to leave the room so they could discuss my work. In about 20 minutes they called me back into the room. I sat down at the table. My Chair stood up and extended her had. I took it and she said, “Congratulations, Dr. Lopez.”

I was so happy I almost started crying. Earning my doctorate at 59 years old was one of the seminal moments of my life. I remember every detail about that room and the members – their names, where they were sitting, even the items on the table in front of them. Heck, I even remember what color blouse my Chair wore that day. That is an episodic memory!

One thing we can glean from the example above is that emotion is a key factor in remembering. Even if the emotion is negative. This is true because the area of the brain that facilitates the storage of emotional memories–the amygdala–is active when we store emotional memories and less so when we store semantic memories. Semantic memory events rely more heavily on another area of the brain–the hippocampus.  

The Aging Brain Brain anatomy

One of the things we do well at when it comes to memory is recalling emotional information. This is probably because these memories carry greater importance for us and because emotions activate the amygdala. And the amygdala tends to continue to perform well even as we age.

On the other hand, the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for storing all memories, and general memories in particular, declines in volume by about 1% a year after the age of 50.

The hippocampus is a sort of gate keeper for all memories. Even though our memories are not actually stored there, the hippocampus is responsible for the dissemination of information to various areas of the brain where information is turned into memory.

HM: A Case Study

While researching this article, I dug out an old textbook I used when I taught undergraduate psychology–Foundations of Biopsychology  by Andrew Wickens­–and read the chapter on memory. In his book, Wickens describes a classic case study of a person known only as HM, a study from which we learned a great deal about the role of the hippocampus.

HM was born in 1926. At the age of 9 he had a bicycle accident and injured his head. He began having seizures, which increased in severity over time. By his late twenties, HM had such severe seizures that he could no longer work. After several attempts to correct the problem with toxic levels of medication, his doctor decided it would be helpful to remove his hippocampus. (What were they thinking?)

The operation was a success in that it stopped the seizures, but the side effects were disastrous. HM was no longer able to store information into long-term memory. HM suffered a profound case of anterograde amnesia. (Antero means “in front”.) He had good language skills, a good vocabulary, and above-average IQ. He could remember things from his past, but after the surgery he had only short-term memory. He could not consolidate any new long-term memories. A researcher who worked with HM for 40 years had to reintroduce herself to him every time she came to work with him.

What can we learn from this case? Maintaining the health of the hippocampus, is essential if we are to continue acquiring new long-term memories.

What Can We Do?

Fortunately, there are things we can do to support good brain health and even increase the volume of the hippocampus.

In Successful Aging1, Levitin references a book written by a neurologist Scott Grafton, Physical Intelligence: The Science of How the Body and the Mind Guide Each Other Through Life. Grafton points out that when thinking about brain health, the idea of a brain/body dualism is unproductive. The focus should be on the health of the whole organism not just the brain. You can’t separate the two.

Grafton argues that the single factor with the largest effect on mental health is exercise and physical activity in general. “We now have hundreds of trials with thousands of subjects” that show the benefit of physical activity.

In addition to exercise, Grafton also believes we benefit from “…problem solving, social enrichment, mind body coordination, and fresh air.”

So, should we all run out and buy a treadmill? Well, a treadmill may get oxygenated blood to your brain, but that’s not the whole picture. Yes, Levitin points out, “A systematic meta-analysis showed that for adults with mild cognitive impairment, exercise had a significant beneficial effect on memory.” But what about problem solving, social enrichment, and fresh air?

Okay, how about tennis? I don’t know how to play tennis. So, if I took it up, I would have to learn how to play. That would certainly involve mind-body coordination and problem solving as I dash around the court trying to figure out where the ball is going and how I need to swing the racket to be effective. Since, unlike a treadmill, I would need to find people to play with, I would probably make new friends. I think that would constitute social enrichment. And, unlike a treadmill, I would be outside in the fresh air.

Of course, few of us are likely to take up tennis as we age. So is there a happy medium?

The truth is, you don’t have to buy a treadmill or take up tennis to engage in healthful physical activity. Walking works. Just walk at a pace that moves you out of your comfort range to get your blood flowing.

Ideally, walk on a path in a park or in the wilderness. The constant need to make physical and spatial adjustments while walking on an unpaved surface stimulates the neural circuits in the brain and helps keep your navigational skills and memory systems in shape. The area most stimulated by those adjustments is the all-important hippocampus.

Need evidence? A study was done using a group of seniors that walked for 40 minutes three times a week and comparing them to a group of seniors that did stretching exercises three times a week. The study concluded that the average walking group member’s hippocampus increased in size by about 2% after one year.

So, if you want to stay sharp and slow the inevitable decline of your brain, and hence your memory, the best thing you can do is stay active. Do something that will get oxygen to your brain and require you to keep your brain focused on what you’re doing. And try to do it with other people.

Oh, and just for fun, see how a “memory athlete” can remember the first 10,000 digits of Pi.

 

Ed Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam. 

Aging - Don't Go There Alone

Aging - Don't Go There Alone

What Are You a Resource For?

One of my favorite children’s games was hide and seek. I loved to hide. I was small and could become invisible. But when the game was over, we all came together. Then, every once in a while, I liked being found.

Maybe, as elders, our job is to “be found” – be found as the resource, passion, and contribution we are. Where do we find that? In community.

Personally, I love those moments of my life where I can be by myself. Call it hiding, call it “quiet time”, or “going in”, whatever you want. This “Lily time” I find to be nurturing and important.

But where I’ve flourished and grown is with other people, in community.

In the beginning, my community was my immediate family. Then I started school and community grew to include my elementary and high school friends and teachers. In college, my community expanded to include roommates. And when I started working as a teacher, my colleagues and students joined my community. Then came my husband and his family, our neighbors, our local service providers, and of course, all of my new friends.

As an elder, my community is now vast, encompassing a lifetime of relationships, many of whom are networked together all over the world.

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Achieving the Unimaginable: Being More Fulfilled at 72 than Ever Before

Achieving the Unimaginable: Being More Fulfilled at 72 than Ever Before

I dropped out of college after two weeks. I was fed up with having others dictate what I needed to think about and when I needed to think about it. I made a promise to myself going forward that I would only do what I wanted to do, and do it when and at the pace I chose to do it. It’s been a powerful and, at times, confronting choice, navigating me through disparate careers in music, television, radio, finance, meditation instruction, and philanthropy to the kind of self-reliance emotionally, spiritually and financially that I wanted.

In December 2004, I released a music album and was about to support it with live performances when the Indian Ocean tsunami occurred. I was struck by the struggles of survivors there. In a matter of minutes, more than 200,000 souls had been lost and 2 million displaced. Entire villages had been wiped out. Families were torn apart. The devastation was nearly incomprehensible.

I found myself wanting to help. Someone gave me the idea of producing a CD compilation with songs by independent artists such as myself. Sales would raise awareness about the need in Southeast Asia and fund rebuilding efforts.

The compilation began a magical ride. It immediately gained support from the United Nations and the Clinton Foundation, and in their wake, tracks were donated by name artists such as Paul McCartney, John Lennon (estate), Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, Ray Charles (estate), Maroon 5, and several others. This project opened my eyes to human crises on a global scale and soon led to my producing public service announcements and other awareness initiatives with NBA stars–including Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Grant Hill, Steve Nash, and more–to bring attention to the genocide in Darfur.

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I don’t own anything. I don’t need an estate plan.

As an estate planning attorney, I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t own anything. I don’t need an estate plan.” Here we go again, I think. How could anyone think they don’t need an estate plan?

My first impulse is to run screaming out of the room. But then I say to myself, “What would you accomplish by doing that? Aren’t you committed to being of service and contribution to each and every prospective client?”

So, instead, I silence the screaming in my head. I remind myself that financial and legal literacy are not ubiquitous in our culture, which is actually why I chose this job. Then I calmly ask the prospective client to tell me about themself, their life, and what they want their legacy to be.

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So You've Walked On the Moon, What's Next?

So You've Walked On the Moon, What's Next?

Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott reached the pinnacle of his career when he landed on and returned safely from the Moon. He was 39 years old. “My career had been finished,” he later told a reporter "and that's it. Now go find a new career.” There Scott was at 39 asking: What’s next? What do you do after you’ve landed on the Moon?

How many of us after we’ve finished our careers and retired have asked: What’s next?

I was 70 when I retired from a 45-year career that I loved.

Imagine, getting to do what you REALLY, REALLY LOVE. Imagine your job is something which for you is the most important way you could use your life. That’s how my career was for me.

Over the course of 45 years, I got to know and interact at a profound level with over 150,000 people from diverse cultures all over the planet, empowering them to create lives they loved. It was my version of a Moon walk. And then it was finished.

So, I’d Walked on the Moon.

What was next?

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For Lack of Imagination

For Lack of Imagination

From age 46 to age 66 I ran my own business, an arty boutique in Santa Monica, CA. The ongoing conversation in my head, and with a few friends and acquaintances and, well okay, with some of my customers, coworkers, and the UPS guy, was that I had no intention of retiring. I would keep working until I couldn’t. Not for lack of money. I realize now that it was for lack of imagination! I couldn’t imagine what I’d do if I retired.

I had to DO SOMETHING after all! I am a doer, and I don’t mean workaholic. I also DO movies, swimming, reading, TV, lunch dates, travel, shopping, museum visits, restaurants, theater, and Dodger baseball – sometimes at the stadium but mostly at home on the couch.

Another reason I couldn’t imagine retiring is that I am driven to be USEFUL. Not only at work, but also to my family and friends and to the organizations I participate with.

Then I closed my beloved store “gioia” (Italian for “joy”). I don’t need to tell you what has been happening to small retail businesses. Even I shop online now, so I can’t blame my customers, right?

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Never Too Late For A Great Adventure

Never Too Late For A Great Adventure

Everything was fine. Really.

My husband and I found ourselves in our mid-sixties with a truly nice set of circumstances. We had our health, a solid 35-year marriage, three gainfully-employed daughters who actually like us, a lovely home on a tree-lined street in South Pasadena California*, and many very long term, VERY dear friends.

*If you think you don’t know South Pasadena, look at any commercial with craftsman houses or an old-timey pharmacy in the background…that’s it.

Why then was I discontented? I’m not sure I can explain it, you’ll just have to trust that after years of “everything’s fine” I found myself crying uncontrollably one day. I thought maybe I needed to leave my husband, and I blamed my despair on the lack of passion in our relationship. I resolved to have it out with him.

Well, the conversation did not go as expected (thank God).

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Embracing Less

Age brings many opportunities to grow wiser if we are open to the possibilities an open mind brings. Opportunities to shift perspective–though sometimes unexpected and even unwelcome–are a part of life.

I have grown to appreciate my growing ability to move more gracefully toward the silver lining that lives just beyond the struggles and challenges I face. That is not to say I don’t grieve loss or grumble as I find my footing. I do. But I also accept change as a part of life and look for ways to ride the storms.

The past few months have certainly been an opportunity for us all to shift perspectives and reflect upon the value of embracing less. Restrictions and limitations on what we previously considered essential to daily life and on how we meet our needs have made revisions and new thinking inescapable. As we pause to consider what is most important to us, a growing need to consider the greater good of our communities and our world is also evolving.

 

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Becoming a Volunteer

Becoming a Volunteer

 

A Social Quid Pro Quo

About ten years ago I started thinking about retiring. I lived in Mexico and was teaching university students online, having already stepped back from the most active elements of my career working as a consultant for large organizations. A few years later, I moved back to the US and slowly wound down my teaching work. It took me a few years to go from “thinking about it” to making it official, but for the last three years I have been fully retired.

At first it was kind of nice; I had no serious responsibilities. I had no clients to call, no student papers to correct, and no research duties. Life was good…for a couple of months.

However, after catching up on my reading list and binge-watching Game of Thrones, I started to get bored. I started to not have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I would lie there and think about what I had to do that day: Let’s see…coffee, read the local paper (bad news), surf the net (more bad news), and walk my dogs (the high point of my day). I started to wish I had kids and grandkids. Maybe I could offer some sage advice about something or nurture a sick child. Anything to make me feel like I was being of value as I had when I felt my clients and students held me in some regard. I had no real friends nearby so visiting them was out of the question.

I had lived in this state of mind for a few months when I started to realize it was affecting my mental health. I was starting to feel depressed...

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Loneliness, Depression and Sociability in Seniors

All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?

There have been very few times in my adult life when I really needed to cry. The one time that stands out for me I was stationed in Vietnam with the First Infantry Division. You might think that there is a lot to be emotionally distressed about when serving in a war zone and you would be right. However, I wasn’t crying because I was afraid, I was crying because I felt incredibly alone. I was far from home, living with a bunch of men I hardly knew, and I was not sure if I was going to make it back. I thought about my family and friends and how much I missed them. These thoughts all came together to create an overwhelming sense of loneliness. 

Even now, 50 years later, I find myself sometimes being lonely. My wife and I have no children, and my wife is frequently away from home traveling on business. I can spend days in the house alone with my two dogs; reading, writing, surfing the net, gardening, and watching TV. Having been an academic, I’m used to spending a great deal of time reading books and journals. A very solitary endeavor.

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Twenty Years to Go

Getting older getting you down? Try flipping your aging paradigm.

On this crisp fall afternoon, I’m sitting at my desk in my Pacific Heights office, a converted A-frame studio condo at the top of a three-story Victorian, bathed in sunlight from windows on three sides. The flip chart behind me has scribbled notes from my earlier session with a group of exuberant, world-tackling millennials looking to join one of my leadership programs. I’m finishing my second cup of Peets Ethiopian coffee before a call with long-time client. My 72nd birthday is coming up, I’m thinking, which means I have 20 years to go.

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It all started mid-July four years ago. I was at a rustic conference center in Bass Lake, high in the mountains just outside Yosemite. The days were beautiful, the birds singing, the majestic pines swaying gently in the warm breeze, and the nearby creek gurgling peacefully. Yet, I was not peaceful.

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The Zen of Gardening

The Zen of Gardening

Science and Beauty From the Garden


The dichotomy of gardening

It has always occurred to me that there is a sort of fundamental dichotomy in gardening. On one hand gardening takes work, energy, perseverance, and money. On the other hand, it is relaxing, fulfilling and provides a sense of accomplishment. I am of an age where spending time on my hands and knees planting spring bulbs is taxing. Carrying bags of compost and potting soil taps into my back and knees. After a day in the garden, I need a hot bath and time to relax my aging muscles.

So, what is it that keeps me coming back and putting more effort into my small plot of land? There is not always an immediate sense of satisfaction. Bulbs takes months to come up and flower. Bare root roses take time to grow and bloom. Of course, there is the ongoing and sometimes time-consuming tasks of controlling weeds and pests. Unless I’m planting a bed of annuals, I’m not likely to get immediate gratification.

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