Life is choice. All day, everyday. Who we talk to, where we sit, what we say, how we say it. And our lives become defined by choices. It's as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful. So when I'm observing that's what I'm watching for. The choices people make. (Louise Penny, Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel.)
Some people have encouraged me to write more blogs about compassion. Truthfully nearly every article I write has some connection to compassion. Compassion encompasses emotional, social, and cognitive intelligence – mindfulness, self-awareness, understanding self and others… the ability to take different perspectives, kindness directed toward the many aspects of self and for others. Resourcefulness. Courage. Self-care. (And struggles and blocks to all those things.)
In my world compassion is not only about alleviating suffering but also about promoting the good life, flourishing and thriving. That means working with joy and hope and love and meaning and purpose and physical fitness (and all those things which help the body and mind be strong), and creativity and fun and play and resilience and awe and wonder – the works.
Today I’m thinking mostly about self-care because pretty much everything else depends on it. It comes up especially for me as I was musing this morning with my husband, John, about some of the older folks we know who are simply studs. Remarkable in their capabilities. And aren’t we always wondering what goes into this high functioning beyond having some good genetics?
We consider the choices we see these super-agers making in what they do, what they eat, who they hang out with, and what they say. Secretly we wonder if they are infusing younger people’s blood or going into hyperbaric chambers or ingesting exotic vitamins from Bali.
Joking aside, we aim to go by the practical evidence-based advice coming from people like Dr. Luigi Ferrucci. His advice was highlighted yesterday (January 4th) in the New York Times. Ferrucci is the scientific director of the National Institute on Aging. He seems to get perturbed with all the speculation and silliness around aging advice. He says we have and know the “magic pill.”
The magic pill features the 7 Pillars - moving more, eating nutritiously, getting good sleep, not smoking/not drinking too much, managing chronic conditions (like diabetes), prioritizing relationships, and cultivating a positive mindset (believe it or not, optimism is associated with a lower risk of heart disease).
I also really liked what Ferrucci advises doctors to ask their patients – “How many friends or family members did you see in the last week?” We have heard so much lately about how important good relationships are to good overall health and well-being.
I’m going to take a big side-track here because so many people begin to worry about their memory in their later years and aren’t so sure they want to stay around because life doesn’t seem worth living if their memory fails them.
The person I go to for advice in that area is Dr. Richard Restak, a neurologist and clinical professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, who has written more than 20 books on the mind. What does he advise? Sleep and diet and physical activity of course. Additionally reading fiction – this is my biggest go-to (Louise Penny has been one of my favorite authors). We tend to start reading more non-fiction because novels challenge us to remember characters and plots, but we can stick with it.
Being more mindful like paying attention when we hear a person’s name, encoding it. Challenging ourselves can be part of that. For example, we help with a community meal and I often do the name tags for 80 to 100 people. (Actually, we started doing name tags for a couple of reasons. One, people felt less anxious about remembering each other’s names and also to just make people more likely to see each other as human beings, strike up a conversation). I make a concerted effort to remember people’s names before they tell me. I also try to remember something about them. That’s been helpful not only for memory but for relationships.
Playing games like twenty questions in which a person thinks of a person, place, or object and others try to figure out what it is using only 20 questions is good. This helps the brain because you must hold the previous answers in memory.
Restak also warns how depression messes with the brain. Restak says that when people are referred to neurologists for memory issues, one of the biggest causes is depression (our emotional state affects the kind of memories we recall. When we are in a bad mood or depressed, we tend to remember sad things – and btw, sadness is huge predictor of addiction we now know).
Then, of course, in our world technology is a blessing and curse. The biggest issue is relying on it too much and getting distracted so that we are not encoding information for the tasks at hand.
Now swing back with me to thinking about ourselves and aging well, living the good life. I have also been dipping into a book called Living Fully and Dying Prepared, Francesca Lynn Arnoldy. No matter what we do, we are going to die eventually. How do we prepare ourselves to not only live but also die well?
I think it helps to stop and reflect occasionally, consider where we have been and where we want to go. The New Year is a perfect time. It’s a sort of liminal space (in-between-time) in which we are offered an opportunity by the calendar to consciously leave things behind, gather together our body and soul, and consider what we need for our journey ahead.
Questions can guide our reflection. Here are seven questions Arnoldy offers. I think we can use these not only as we near the end of our lives, but each year end and new beginning:
1. What matters most to me?
2. What has inspired me?
3. What has shaped my perspectives?
4. What have I learned?
5. What have I struggled with?
6. What have I overcome?
7. What do I accept?
A lot to consider today. All under the heading of self-care, self-compassion, living fully and aging well. 7 pillars of healthy aging from Dr. Ferrucci, a few tips on keeping our memories keen, and 7 questions to help take advantage of this liminal space of year’s end and new beginning….and set up for the choices we will make.
How might we journey together to the Good Life this new year by applying evidence-based advice on longevity and well-being, grab a tip or two on memory, take time for reflection, and gear up for our choices ahead?