Tag Archives: positive aging

Re-Housing Our(elder)selves

About 15 years ago, we went in search of a new home, and a new type of home.  Somehow the concept of  co-housing had floated into our head space. We were attracted to the idea of  ‘building a better society, one neighborhood at a time,’ to quote the current official cohousing slogan.  This was pre-grandchildren and the appeal of sharing a planned community with people of all ages, including small children, seemed vastly more appealing than the 55+ adult gated communities then being marketed.  So we signed up for a co-housing conference in Maryland where a new community was forming, and the following year we toured four communities, Cantine’s Island, in Saugerties, NY, award-winning  Windsong in Langley, BC, Quayside Village in North Vancouver, and Trillium Hollow in Portland, OR (a city where some of our family already lived).  Of these, only Windsong was completed and occupied at the time.  We attended open houses at all of these, and spent a night at Windsong.  We even joined two of them at the minimal membership level. People were friendly and welcoming, some were close to messianic about their chosen form of living.  Forming a co-housing community is a long and challenging process and a few ‘burning souls’ are essential to sustain the effort.

We supported the living lightly on the planet philosophy of co-housing communities of which EcoVillage in Ithaca, NY, is perhaps the best known example.  We liked the self-governance ideals, the espousal of diversity.  We were attracted to the idea of a neighborhood planned to maximize contact among the residents, a kind of  y’all come, potluck ethos very different from most suburbs, including where we live now in South Florida.

The closest we’ve come to that kind of community sensibility was our eight years in Hoboken, NJ, where everything one needed was within walking distance.   If street life didn’t bring you into contact with a neighbor or two and the possibility of a social event, stoop life — hanging out on a balmy evening on your own front steps — certainly did.  It was a small town in every sense of the word, with Manhattan right across the Hudson River.

For us, the downside of co-housing was governance by consensus.  At one of the just-forming communities we toured, I sat next to one of the members in a meeting.  An open house usually includes a pot luck and an invitation to whatever is happening so visitors can get a sense of community process.  This meeting was about landscaping and it went on and on and on, and finally broke up with no decision.  The woman looked at me very kindly and said, “If you’re serious, get used to it.”  I gather that some communities have modified this form of governance.

Today, as co-housing has evolved and grown (there are communities in 37 states and several Canadian provinces), there is more variation in community aspirations including the introduction of the concept of co-housing for elders (a word I prefer) developed by architect and co-housing in America champion, Chuck Durrett.  I’ve heard Chuck speak at an American Society on Aging session and his arguments (read here) for elders living in a community are starting to make a lot of sense to me…again.  I guess you could say it’s deja vu all over again, but with a sense of urgency that I could not have experienced in a pre-grandchilden, pre-Inconvenient Truth, Union of Concerned Scientists report world.

More reading:

Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, Charles Durrett

See also: Dr. Bill Thomas’s The Greenhouse Project

‘Tis the Day After Christmas…

and through our abode,

there lingers a fragrance of cinnamon and cloves.

No stockings were hung here —

the children all grown,

gone to in-laws and ski slopes

with children of their own.

We’re done with the shopping

and decorating trees,

over the holiday stress

that once brought us to our knees.

But one habit remains

though many have flown,

the baking of bread

with the warm taste of home.

So bring on the butter, brew a fresh pot of tea,

’tis the Day After Christmas for you and for me.

One of my favorite memories of this year was a short period of teaching creative writing to elders at a retirement community.  The day I got the assignment, I also found a copy of Judith Viorst‘s wonderful Unexpectedly Eighty: And Other Adaptations at the library.  So I brought it in with me to a session and read the last poem in the collection: After Giving the Matter A Great Deal of Thought. Then, I asked the participants to write that line on the top of a piece of paper and continue on for about ten minutes.  We had such a good time with this exercise, no one wanted the session to end, and I have all kinds of new ideas about doing more of this work.  Creativity bubbles up wherever it can.  You just have to give it space and make it welcome.  Try this exercise for yourself.  It’s a great year-ender.

Here’s a post-Christmas gift for you lovers of poetry who have yet to subscribe to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac:  click here.   I couldn’t live without this daily reminder that, as William Carlos Williams puts it: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

The Striking French

Driving to the first of two yoga teaching gigs yesterday, I listened to a report on NPR that Paris was all but shut down by unions striking against the proposed rise of retirement age from — get this — 60 to 62.   Flights were disrupted and even the Eiffel Tower was closed to tourists.  A few weeks ago, when the movement (if one can call it that) for status quo was just heating up, I heard a couple who had just turned 60, offer an argument you won’t hear on this side of the Atlantic so much these days, that they some how deserve to retire.  They felt they had paid into the pension funds and were fortunate that their pensions would not be threatened by the new law, if indeed it is passed.  In the background, one could hear the voices of their grandchildren for whom they offer care one afternoon a week because they enjoy it.

Contrast this to the desire of most Americans — I’m one of them –to continue to work and not only out of financial necessity, although that is certainly a factor given the sorry rate of saving and investments of many older adults.  The new MetLife Mature Market Institute Study finds “startling” the news that many Early Boomers plan to remain in the labor market.  But if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that we believe that money is not the only driver for the choice to continue to work.  We happen to think we will remain healthier for it — that alone is a good way to give back.  And unlike our French cohorts, we take a certain pride in continuing to contribute actively to society and to the well-being of future generations, including our own grandchildren, if we have them.   I admire many things about French culture — the food, the art, the joie de vivre, and the fact that the welfare of children is a national priority.  How they will reconcile childcare costs with an aging population that wants to be supported for 25 or more years is the question.  Send in the grownups.

Generational Warfare

Chair Yoga: Seated Postures for Everybody

When Michelle Obama does yoga as part of her recent President’s Council on Fitness initiative, you know yoga has gone mainstream.  In the 15 years I’ve been a practitioner (including the last 12 as a Kripalu Yoga-certified instructor), I’ve seen yoga grow from the culture of the ashram, dependent on the guru-disciple relationship, to a billion dollar industry of conferences, workshops, star yogis, fashion clothing, DVDs, books and the like.  Pick up a copy of Yoga Journal and the cover will likely feature a well-toned yogi in spandex performing one of the more difficult postures.  I love YJ for the useful articles and professional advice I usually find there, but I wonder how many people get turned off by those daunting covers.

“I can’t do yoga; I’m too inflexible.”  If I had a dime for everyone who says this when they discover what I do…  The reality is, people who sit in chairs most of the time (and that’s nearly everyone in the West) are likely to be inflexible, and not just in the body.  My Burmese grandmother grew up sitting on the floor, with her legs crossed yogi-style or hunkered down, with her arms wrapped around her knees.  In her eighties, she had the body of a much younger person, was up with the dawn to meditate, and active all day long.  She didn’t do frailty.

The sedentary lifestyle of our desk-bound, television-addicted population reinforces more of the same behaviors.  So the very idea of getting down on a yoga mat starts to sound more and more impossible.   But yoga has been evolving in other ways that open up its tangible benefits to more of the population, particularly older people who want to maintain good health, preserve their independence, and forestall the so-called diseases of aging.  It is no accident that some of the greatest yogi masters are robust well into their 80’s and beyond.

Last weekend, I became certified in Chair Yoga, a form that adapts many classic yoga postures to the seated position and makes the benefits of yoga available to a much larger population including older adults.  Chair Yoga, as developed by Lakshmi Voelker who has devoted most of her life and career to yoga, delivers the benefits of yoga, including flexibility, strength, improved circulation, and mental focus, to anyone able to sit in a chair, including those in wheelchairs.  In her three and a half day workshop at Discovery Yoga in St. Augustine, Florida, 23 eager students — yoga instructors, physical therapists, Reiki masters and others — learned seated variations of postures like Mountain (Tadasana), Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana), Tree (Vrkshana) and the Warriors at varying levels of challenge.   We learned how to add 1- and 2-lb. weights to increase the fitness challenge.  And we experimented with double chair and partner-assisted postures.  We were encouraged to replace some or all of our personal practice with chair yoga to improve our skills as instructors.  The biggest surprise was not how well these postures could be adapted for the chair, but how physically challenging they are, even for the young and fit.

Even if you have a yoga practice and/or other fitness routine, there are times when mat practice is not feasible.  You can practice chair yoga at your desk at home or work, on the train/plane/bus or in a car (not while driving!)  If you are recovering from an illness or injury, chair yoga can help you resume your normal fitness activities sooner.  You can even do chair yoga while you’re watching television.  Don’t just sit there!

Sweating the Big Stuff

Sound familiar?  You are (blissfully) unaware of the aging process until one morning, you are standing at the bathroom mirror brushing your teeth as usual, and whoa! this strange person stares back at you.  Your eyes may be as sharp as ever, the expression in them the same, but your features seem to be slouching in a Southerly direction.  (French women seem to enjoy special dispensation from these facts of life.)

For some folks, women mostly but not exclusively, this new old face is enough to send ripples of panic through the whole body.  Before you know it, you’re Googling anti-wrinkle creams, Botox treatments, and/or face lifts.  (Yes, I admit I went as far as to check out the non-surgical options, see The Perricone Prescription.  The good news: it is based on an anti-inflammatory diet and boosts one’s general health and well-being.)   If you are past your fifth decade, you may personally know women (and maybe a few men) of a certain age who have submitted their tissues to the surgeon’s knife.  While I respect the right to make this choice, ‘nip-and-tuck’  isn’t in my future.

Of course, I’m not in the entertainment business where my wrinkles could directly affect my livelihood.  And I don’t plan to run for political office, ditto.  If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, goes one recent joke, would we even be having this conversation?  The truth is, whatever we do cosmetically, we will all end up looking something like Golda Meir (or Mike Wallace) if we’re lucky enough to live that long.   But honestly, would you choose youth and beauty over a reputation for doing good work; passionate support of worthwhile causes; spreading joy; being trustworthy; being a good parent/grandparent/friend or any number of other qualities you value?

In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a baby is born old and grows younger each year until he ceases to exist.  The tragedy was that he was moving through life in the opposite direction from everyone else, including the love of his life.  It wasn’t so much an compelling story-into-film as a cautionary tale.   In the world of the imagination, maybe we can fool Mother Nature.  In real life, not so much.  The aging face that looks back at you by dawn’s early light is a reminder that it’s time.  Time to cultivate a sense of self deeper than your skin.  If we — especially we women, weren’t so caught up in how the world sees and judges us (our faces, our clothes, our homes), we might be putting more attention on things like, let’s see, the epidemic of violence against women; the threats to our basic rights to clean water, air, education, health care; what kind of world we appear to be leaving to our grandchildren.  We could be sweating the Big Stuff.

V-Day: A Movement to End Violence Against Women and Girls

The Center for Public Integrity

Not That Easy Being Green?

Well, easy no (Kermit, my friend), but possible.  You will have to make changes in how you live that seem so small they couldn’t possibly have an impact.  You will risk making friends uncomfortable.  You may be labeled Treehugger — like there’s something wrong with appreciating a reliable source of oxygen.  Don’t be surprised to learn that innovation will probably begin at the grass roots — hey, that’s us, particularly those of us old enough to remember when Global Warming was barely a blip on the radar.  If we keep working, our solutions and ideas will percolate up to those in power, or maybe we’ll create a new power base.

We have to embrace activism but without the us vs. them, blame-and-shame game that tends to alienate people when we can spare no one.  We need to “act as if what we want is already true,” to paraphrase a quote circulating in New Age circles.  Author and expert on the power of intention, Lynne McTaggart had a radical suggestion about the spill in the Gulf in the three-part teleconference series: The Gulf Call to Sacred Action.  She suggested to her listeners that we stop demonizing BP for this disaster which could have occurred at any one of hundreds of deep water drilling sites, and start imagining that BP engineers are successful at capping the leak.  And then, imagine that the massive cleanup that follows unites people and resources in unprecedented, effective ways.  McTaggart is best known for her research into the power of intention (The Intention Experiment, Free Press — Simon & Schuster 2007).  Other visionaries on the call: Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston.

We need to find, fund, nurture, and support people who are working on solutions:

Here are a few examples:

“It’s not that easy being green
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves…
But green’s the color of Spring.
And green can be cool and friendly-like.
And green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain,
or tall like a tree…”

The Changing Brain: A Review of Two Books about Neuroplasticity

by Susan Cooper, Windbridge Member and Community Advisor

All sorts of fantastic, remarkable, and hopeful brain adaptabilities were being explored by some inquisitive folks more than 400 years ago!  We can thank Descartes once again for slowing the scientific acceptance of reality.  It turns out that only recently have we returned to this subject and we now know that our “immaterial” thoughts do indeed have an impact on brain structure just as mind/body relationships impact so much of our lives.

Two books are competing for my “favorite” read about neuroplasticity at the moment:

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD (http://tinyurl.com/y9l6rrn)

Train Your Mind Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley (with a forward by the Dalai Lama and a preface by Daniel Goleman) (http://tinyurl.com/y88esqt)

The Doidge book is/was a New York Times Bestseller and Doidge was featured on PBS’s The Brain Fitness Program.  He is a psychiatrist and researcher on the faculty at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.  Begley is a science writer for Newsweek magazine, and her book reports on how cutting-edge science and the ancient wisdom of Buddhism have come together to reveal that we have the power to physically change our brains by changing our minds and behaviors.

The old Cartesian distinction between the mind and the brain (matter)—and the resulting idea in mainstream medicine and science that brain anatomy was fixed—is falling apart as the “power of positive thinking” gains scientific credibility.  Because the belief was that the brain could not change, Doidge claims that “human nature, which emerges from it, seemed necessarily fixed and unalterable as well.”  Now, however, a new array of possibilities for human adaptability is emerging.

Doidge reports the scientific discoveries in fascinating story after story of scientists, doctors, and patients who, without operations or medications, have made use of the brain’s ability to change.  Over the years, he has met many brain scientists working at the cutting edge who have shown that the physical structure of the brain changes with the activities and thoughts it performs… if one part fails, then other parts take over.  One scientist enabled a person blind from birth to see; another showed that thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off; and another was helping people who had had strokes years before and had been told they would never recover to change that diagnosis.  And get this: If you exercise to increase muscular strength 5 days a week for 4 weeks (doing fifteen maximal contractions, with a twenty-second rest between each) you will increase strength by 30%, but if you only imagine doing this—for the same periods—you will increase strength by 22%!  Imagination is funny, indeed!

Begley’s book reads like a detective novel.  It is the tenth book in a continuing series reporting on the dialogues arranged by the Mind and Life Institute (see http://www.mindandlife.org/).  Here, she reports on collaborations between neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, the Dalai Lama, and contemplatives (monks who have meditated for up to 55,000 hours in their life-times!!).  It speaks loudly and clearly to potential:  We have inner powers and we are in control of them!

The Dalai Lama, in his forward to this book, says, “I am grateful… to Sharon Begley for her artful work presenting this material accurately and attractively.  I am optimistic that the exciting discoveries related here have great potential to contribute positively to the betterment of humanity and the way we may develop our future.”  I, too, especially as I age, am grateful to Sharon Begley for this book about a hopeful new science that will allow me to stay young—at least mentally.

It was in 1986 that the first Mind and Life Conference took place in Dharamsala and was attended by people who encouraged initial dialogues between Buddhism and modern science.  It would appear that although these fields arose out of different historical, cultural, and intellectual backgrounds, they have an amazing amount in common.  Based on the teachings of the meditation adepts, the Dalai Lama wanted to know, from the scientists, if the mind could really change the brain.  Buddhism tells us that that any ‘fixed constraints’ can be overcome—through the right training.  The Dalai Lama was ready to “change Buddhism” if the scientists could disprove these beliefs.

William James, in 1890, said “organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”  But his opinion didn’t count—he was not a neurologist.  In 1913, Ramon y Cajal, a Nobel Prize winning Spanish neuroanatomist, made it clear to his audience that “in the adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended and immutable.” And this was the statement that scientists chose to believe for the next 90 years: the adult brain is hardwired, fixed in form and function, we are stuck with the hand we were dealt….no new neurons and no new functions…period.  As late as 1999, the journal Science reported that the current teaching was that neurons could not be replaced and neuronal networks (after injury, with aging, or in disease) could not be reestablished.  That is, the basic layout of the brain (as diagramed in anatomy textbooks) could not be changed.

But, now, we know otherwise.  Rehabilitation for adults who suffer brain damage from a stroke works!  Psychiatric diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression can be cured.  And, although the adult brain is not as plastic as a child’s, it is much more adaptable than was ever thought.  In the last few years of the 20th century, discovery after discovery proved that brains have stunning powers of neuroplasticity.  They can be rewired simply through the actions we take, our thoughts and behaviors, and in the experiences we have in the outside world.  The size of different regions and the strength of connections can all change based on the actions we have take, the lives we lead, and the thoughts we think.

Ancient Buddhist training emphasizes the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one’s own mind.  Its teachings define a person as a constantly changing dynamic stream and this follows closely what has now been learned about neuroplasticity.  The idea that we are constantly changing means there is no intrinsic nature to the self or the mind.  We may be products of the past, but we always have had the opportunity to reshape ourselves.  And at long last, the scientists agree.

Read these books—both of them.  They will convince you that you possess the ability to do what you choose to do; it may take time and some effort, but you CAN do it!  We can train ourselves to be kinder, to pay more attention, to exhibit more compassion, and to be less defensive, self-centered, aggressive, and warring.  Now wouldn’t that be something!?!

Rewiring the Brain Through Creativity

Neuroplasticity.  Until the late Dr. Gene D. Cohen mentioned it in his keynote speech at the First Positive Aging Conference at Eckerd College, I had never heard of the term.  It describes the brain’s ability to regenerate and rewire itself throughout the lifespan — a pretty radical idea not too long ago.  You’re going to be hearing a lot more about this as more people come into their 60s and take stock of the years still left to them.  Recommended reading: Dr. Cohen’s ground-breaking book, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. The cover photographs of older people, kayaking, swimming, dancing, and making art hint at creativity as “the secret to living with one’s entire being.”

Most of us already know how important it is to be physically active throughout life.  But the connection between a lower BMI (body mass index) and brain function is less well understood.  Here’s a  link to the Franklin Institute’s excellent research on this subject.  Gene Cohen was perhaps the first, however, to suggest that creativity also had an important role to play in staying mentally fit as we age.

As challenging as it can be to change sedentary habits, awakening our innate creativity through some form of artistic expression requires even more will power.  As JFK once commented in another context, we have become ‘a nation of spectators’ as opposed to the poets, writers, painters, potters, photographers, dancers, singers, or musicians we might yet become.   Dr. Cohen called this late blooming the Encore Phase of life, a “phenomenon [that] taps the inner pressure that many feel to do or say something before it’s too late.  Not to overlook the obvious, the phrase applies strongly to the field of music, reminding us of how many noted musical achievements have come late or at the end of a musician’s or composer’s career or life cycle — like the late works of Verdi, Liszt, and Stravinsky.”

One way to get started is to take inspiration of your favorite elder artist.  Matisse?  Martha Graham?  Tony Bennet?   One in my personal hall of fame is poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz.   Some years ago, I had the privilege of hearing him give a reading at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.  He was in his late nineties then (he died in 2006 at age 100), and looked physically frail.  But when he read the lyrical, Touch Me, his voice was strong and one felt a sense of an artist come into his finest hour.  I have written very little poetry since I left graduate school, but I’ve found my way back to it.  Perhaps for T.S. Eliot, April was ‘the cruelest month.’  But for me it’s National Poetry Month.  I’m juicing up those neurons, one verse at a time.

More on neuroplasticity

The Decade of the Brain

The Deadly Comfort Zone

Singer and songwriter, Paul Simon has a line in his wonderful poem set to music, American Tune, that has always resonated with me. “For we’ve lived so well, so long…” it goes, and later in another verse, he cautions, “…you can’t be forever blessed.”  We have been blessed here,  in the safe, secure, wealthy nations of the developed world.  And as we grow older, it seems that we have also been lulled to sleep, cradled in our comfort zones, dead to the world.

What happened to our thirst to learn and discover new things we had as children?   Think about your grandchildren in their first year, taking those tentative steps, wanting to touch, taste, smell everything.  We were all like that once.  Then, gradually, without our noticing, we started craving something else — safety, security, the known world — even to the point of shrinking our aspirations to fit into what was comfortable, predictable, easy.  In the process, we have sacrificed resilience and resourcefulness, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances upon which our survival as a species depended.  We gave up, and opted for ‘assisted living’ long before our time (if there is ever a time).

Even if you recognize some part of yourself here, the situation is reversible.  True, the bell tolls for us all.  But in the meantime, what is there to stop us from making the most of the ‘life we are given‘ to borrow from a title of a wonderful book by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, pioneers of the human potential movement and founders of Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

Published in 1995, this workbook for Leonard and Murphy’s Intergral Transformative Practice, remains a prototype, indeed a classic, of the self-help genre.  It weaves together proven practices: exercise, diet, daily affirmations, and community, into a program that is both rigorous and enjoyable.  (ITP groups continue to form today).  Here’s a quote from novelist, James Agee, that sets the book’s tone: “I believe that every human being is potentially capable, within his ‘limits,’ of fully ‘realizing’ his potentialities; that … his being cheated and choked of it, is infinitely the ghastliest, commonest, and most inclusive of all the crimes of which the human world can accuse itself.”

Is waking up hard to do?  Perhaps.  But clinging to the deadly comfort zone is a far worse choice.  Conclude Leonard and Murphy: “We believe that by the very nature of things, each of us carries a spark of divinity in every cell and that we have the potential to manifest powers of body, mind, heart, and soul beyond our present ability to imagine. We believe that a society could find no better primary intention, no more appropriate compass course for its programs and policies, than the realization of every citizen’s positive potential.”  Amen.  And go for it!

More information:

Excerpt from The Life We Are Given
Integral Transformative Practice Workshops
Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California

World Cafe – a conversational process for breakthrough thinking.

Institute of Noetic Sciences


…and the Purpose Prize Winners Are

  • Judith Broder, a psychiatrist who now enlists therapists to provide free counseling to returning veterans and their families
  • Timothy Will, a former telecom executive who brings broadband – and profits – to economically distressed farm communities in Appalachia
  • Henry Lui, a professor who now turns toxic waste into safe, “green” bricks

broderHenry LiuTimothy Will

Five Purpose Prize winners have won $100,000 each. Five more won $50,000 each.  And 49 were named Purpose Prize fellows.  What distinguishes the Purpose Prize from others is that it not only honors past achievements, but it provides the funds and recognition for winners and fellows to continue their groundbreaking work.

Retirement?  Not for these folks.  They are just getting started on Encore Careers that will make the world a better place.  Read about their big ideas.