Senior Moments

Attitude Is Everything at Any Age


Senior Moments

Attitude Is Everything at Any Age

    Old age is a bugger,” my Scots grandmother would regularly lament before she died in her early 70s. Compare that to the recent comment made by a travel writer friend of mine. He was recovering from a couple of minor elective surgeries and had moved in with a woman he called “the love of my life.”
 “I'm 74 years old,” he said. “I reckon I have 20 good years left, and I want to make the most of every one of them.”
    It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out whose life is likely to be richer, fuller and more satisfying. While I can feel compassion for my gran who had tough times, I’d rather be like the travel writer and see the glass as half full.
   “While nobody is in perfect spirits all the time, and it’s normal to have good days and bad days, attitude is everything at any age,” says Jackie Krause, senior services manager at Alameda’s Mastick Senior Center.        “Whether we approach aging as a time of decline or possibility makes all the difference,” says Patt Schroeder, who has worked with seniors in Alameda County since 1970. “It takes a strong core attitude—a strong person—to adjust to the challenges, accept the changes and to keep seeing life as filled with possibilities.” Seems old age is lucky when you’re plucky.
    “Personality plays a big part in how we engage in life,” adds Schroeder. “You have two people facing similar challenges. One adjusts, adapts and does well; the other declines. You can’t force an older person—or any person—to change their attitude. You can, however, expose them to possibilities.”

So, what is a senior citizen?

    Life expectancy in the United States in 1901 was 49 years. In 2000, it was 77 years—and rising. By American Association of Retired People, or AARP, standards, you become a senior the day you turn 50, which is also when you become eligible to join Mastick Senior Center. You get a senior discount at Goodwill when you are 55. Some East Bay cinemas don't offer senior discounts to anyone younger than 65.
    Age, it seems, may be more a state of mind. I have a nonagenarian buddy I would rather hang out with than some of my 30-something friends. Why? He is interested in life, has opinions about what’s going on in the world and he’s fun to be with. On the other hand, I know people in their 30s who live like they need to be fitted with a couple of Duracell batteries to get them going.
    “Many people, even seniors, have preconceived ideas about senior citizens,” says Mastick's Krause. “You spend even a short time here, and your prejudices melt away. You see we're all human beings in different stages of life.”

The chicken or the egg?

    Which comes first—attitude or activity? Difficult to know, say the experts. But people who work with seniors—and many seniors themselves—will tell you that there are a broad range of activities and situations that lift the spirits and add spice to life.
    “The stimulation covered by the key phrase ‘lifelong learning’ keeps people of all cognitive levels engaged and interested in life,” says Schroeder.
    “The zest for knowledge, and curiosity, fuels people,” adds Kraus. “If we look at toddlers, we see that zest. We carry it with us through our lives. Retirement, for those afforded the opportunity to enjoy it, offers time to refocus and try new things. Most of the classes we offer at Mastick are free, and many are $2 or $3. We try to encourage participation.” Class options run all the way from computers to conversational Spanish, ceramics and creative writing.
    “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”The Roman philosopher Seneca said this, and retired Encinal High School physical education teacher Phyllis De La Vergne, 88 years old and still traveling, agrees. She started taking trips while teaching, mainly during summer vacations. After she retired in 1981, she continued to travel. Romania, Russia, Spain, Portugal, the Galapagos, a two-month cruise circling the Pacific, Mexico’s Copper Canyon, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, Egypt—she reels off countries and tells stories. She learned about yoga from an Indian teacher while on a trip to Poland, long before yoga became popular in the Bay Area. She has pretty much traveled the world “except for Antarctica” and is still on the go. Mariel Thomas, senior services  coordinator at Mastick, organizes daytrips, three-day trips and longer overseas tours for seniors. She had packed off a group to Beijing the day I spoke with De La Vergne—who the previous day took a Mastick daytrip to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. “It was wonderful—so interesting,” she enthuses, eager to share.
    Fun, feminine and full of life, De La Vergne wears pretty hoop earrings, her white hair styled short, a turquoise and silver sweatsuit and hearing aids in both ears. When I ask her what gets her out of bed in the morning, she says: “I get up at 5:45 and go to Mariner Square to exercise in the water.” Previously an avid swimmer—several of her travel adventures involved swimming or dancing—she can’t swim these days because of shoulder problems. “So I do walking exercises in the water. They’re very good.”
    The same shoulder problems meant she had to give up golf, another favorite activity. “Things happen,” she says. “I just do whatever I can. I’ve been so fortunate in my life. If it were to end right now, I can say nothing was missing. It will all have been worthwhile.”
    What about traveling? I have friends years younger than De La Vergne who say they’d like to travel, but the discomforts of the journey put them off. Travel constraints? She scoffs—and gives the following tips:
•    For one person, nothing seems to go wrong; for another, everything goes wrong. Attitude is key. Program yourself  so that if things go wrong—and they might—you’ll still have a great time.
•    Develop a sense of humor.
•    Smile, engage people and watch how the world opens up.
•    Be adventurous and try everything, including the food. Some people turn up their noses at what other cultures  eat. It’s invigorating to be curious and open.
    “I grew up on a farm,” says De La Vergne. “We only got money if we sold a pig. We’d go trading, not shopping. My dad taught me to be adventurous.”
    De La Vergne lives across the street from Mastick. “My children used to go to school here [it was previously an elementary school], and now I go to school here,” she laughs, referring to her yoga and tai chi classes. “It’s a fact that when you’re game, the whole world opens up. You need to keep exercising; keep going. Charge!”

Use it—or lose it.

    At any age, exercise lifts the spirits and adds quality to life. “As people get older, it is essential that they make a conscious decision to actively exercise,” says adult and aging services expert Mary Louise Zernicke. “If older adults don't exercise, they lose muscle mass and become weak.”
    Essential as we age, Zernicke says, are regular aerobic exercise (walking or swimming are good); strength training (resistance training—for example, with weights); and stretching and flexibility (yoga and tai chi are obvious choices). A key to fitness is to find an enjoyable exercise form.
    Hawaiian-born Alberta Jay has taught hula at Mastick since 2001. “Hula is a wonderful way to exercise while developing a talent,” she says. Jay has been doing it since age 13 and hula-danced in episodes of M*A*S*H. and Fantasy Island. “It helps maintain body flexibility, balance and dexterity. Our performers are aged from around 60 to 80. Some have physical challenges. They don’t complain. They just focus on perfecting their technique for our shows.” Rehearsals are four hours twice a week, and the group performs at convalescent homes, retirement homes and private parties.
    The women in Jay’s class wear colorful leis and skirts made from strands of cellophane—turquoise, white, yellow. The skirts sway as the hula gals move—sensual, graceful—to the rhythmic island sounds.
    “I think women are sexy when they do the hula, whatever their age,” says Jay. “I say, ‘Look in the [wall-length] mirror at the dancer you’re creating. She’s sexy. She’s fun. Smile at the woman in the mirror. Tell her she’s wonderful. Appreciate her.’ ”
    Alamedan Genie Phillips, who works part time and hulas a lot, puts a skirt and a lei on me, takes my hand and leads me through a dance. The song tells us to cast our nets, circle around and pull in our fish. It looks a lot more graceful than I feel—but with some practice …
    “When you’re dancing the hula, you feel 18 years old,” says Islander Carrie Mercado, who came to Alameda from the Philippines.
    Tomie Cullins, who is Japanese, agrees: “You get up in the morning and you think: Can I do the hula today? You come to class, change your clothes—and you forget all about your aches and pains and go home happy.”

The fine art of retirement.

    One hears grim tales of people who work for years in jobs they hate, finally retire and don’t know what to do, so they unravel, physically or mentally. For some, however, it is a case of life begins when you retire from your job.
Vicki Gutgesell, Shirley Hoye and Meg Kiuchi are part of an East Bay group that calls itself “the tea bags” and meets Wednesday afternoons for tea, coffee or sometimes, champagne. What the trio has in common is that each member took early retirement and all got involved in making art. Not one has regretted forfeiting a bunch of money for the freedom it bought.
    Gutgesell, an ophthalmologist, exited the profession at 49. “It was an easy decision. Either I was going to retire, or I was going to shoot myself, so I decided to retire.” She could, she admits, have made a lot more money had she kept working. “But I would have been miserable and not able to enjoy it. And you never know how much time you have left.” It wasn’t a rash decision. She worked with a financial planner in what was a three-year countdown to “R-Day.”
    Hoye, a physician, retired at 52. She liked her patients—but not the bureaucracy. “It got to a point where something had to give. There were some very dear people, and I felt guilty bailing out, but I did it anyway.”
Kiuchi, a longtime child protective services social worker, forfeited a larger pension by retiring at 56. She went back to Cal at age 51 to earn a master’s degree in social work. One day, not long after returning to work, she decided, “I just don’t want to do this anymore,” and resigned. She considered art therapy as a new career, but soon after starting some required painting classes, she decided she just wanted to paint. “[Giving up my career] was the best decision I ever made,” she says. “It was like getting a shot in the arm.”
    Gutgesell, Hoye and Kiuchi all live rich, full lives that include travel, volunteering, friends and their art. Something they all have in common is that, even while working in super-busy jobs, they pursued art as a hobby—Gutgesell, woodwork; Hoye, ceramics; and Kiuchi, art and design.
    Once retired, Gutgesell enrolled in the two-year Laney College woodworking program. When she ran out of things to make for her house and space to store them, she started glass-fusing and slumping classes—and more recently, beading. While working in the ER at Alameda County Medical Center-Highland Hospital in Oakland, Hoye threw pots as a hobby and still does. As soon as she retired, she signed up for welding classes at Laney. “Don’t wait for the day you retire to twiddle your thumbs and think, now what?” she advises. “If your whole life is your job, you have no identity. You’re likely to identify yourself with what you do. ‘I’m a doctor,’ or ‘I’m a lawyer.’ I don’t hang out with people who care about that sort of thing. My identity? I guess I never considered my identity, but what I did wasn't me.”
    “I know a lot of people who lost money by taking early retirement, and I have never met one person who regretted it,” says Kiuchi, who is passionate about painting. “Retiring was the best thing I did. The last 10 years have been the happiest of my life,” says Gutgesell. “There are so many things to try; the sky is the limit.”   

Help others, help yourself.

    According to a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, about 28.8 percent of the population—64.5 million people—currently engage in some sort of volunteer activity. “There is something tremendously empowering when a person feels he or she is having a positive impact, contributing and feeling needed,” says Mastick’s Krause. “Some of our volunteers are so busy, they wonder how in the heck they ever found time to work.”
    “I have to keep a calendar of my activities, which I never had to do at work when I was in the same place every day. Now, every day is different,” says Jim Thomas, 64, who retired three years ago and started volunteering “to make a contribution” when he noticed he was becoming isolated. These days, among other things, he is on the board at Mastick, he volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul free dining room in Oakland and he works part time at Girls Inc. of the Island City.
    Alameda housing commissioner and Mastick board member Nancy Gormley says her volunteer activities add quality to her life. “I like to be involved in my community. I enjoy many of the people I meet and find that being busy keeps me energized.” Her energy also comes from paying attention to food and exercise—and having been blessed with good genes, says Gormley, who confesses up to being in her 80s. (Many of the people interviewed for these stories chose not to give their age.) “Everything I do, I'm interested in, and that keeps me motivated and inspired.”
    Betty Hixson, 83, volunteers four days a week at Mastick (which has about 150 regular volunteers). A retired secretary, Hixson works in the office and helps run bingo games. “You feel like you’re doing something for someone beside yourself—and you can only stay home and clean the house so much!”


A funny thing happened—

    “If you feel old age creeping up on you, it's me,” an octogenarian of my acquaintance quips when paired with someone 30, 40, 50 years younger than himself while line-dancing, which is his exercise of choice.
    The way it creeps up on some people doesn’t seem half bad. “I’d say one of the single most important things you can do to enjoy life as you grow older is develop a sense of humor,” says Phyllis De La Vergne.
    “I consider working with older adults a gift,” says Patt Schroeder. “Many times when I’ve felt overwhelmed, I've been inspired by an older adult. In some cultures, old people are revered, seen as wise. Our culture needs to stop and listen to what an older adult has to share. When you do, you begin to see how attitude is everything.” To learn this is to be like Andy Rooney—and feel lucky.
    As comedian Jack Benny famously said, “Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn't matter.”

Thank Your Lucky Stars

Six Keys to Aging with Style

1.    Be around people you enjoy.
2.    Seek out groups and be involved in other people’s lives.
3.    Exercise for physical and mental health. Move whatever you can.
4.    Accept help. Indpendence is overrated. (Patt Schroeder)
5.    Explore early passions. You could find fulfillment. (Meg Kiuchi)
6.    Don’t let fear block you. This is the only time you’ve got! (Meg Kiuchi)
1.    Be around people you enjoy.
2.    Seek out groups and be involved in other people’s lives.
3.    Exercise for physical and mental health. Move whatever you can.
4.    Accept help. Indpendence is overrated. (Patt Schroeder)
5.    Explore early passions. You could find fulfillment. (Meg Kiuchi)
6.    Don’t let fear block you. This is the only time you’ve got! (Meg Kiuchi)

Eat Me!

    “Nutrition has a role in just about every chronic disease, and proper nutrition can mitigate conditions from heart disease and diabetes to cancer,” says Mary Louise Zernicke, senior nutritionist and health advisor with the Alameda County Department of Adult and Aging Services. She says two nutrients seniors often don’t get enough of are vitamins D and B-12, both of which can be taken as supplements.
    “Vitamin D plays a vital role in maintaining and building muscle mass. An adequate amount reduces the risk of falling,” she says. “We get vitamin D naturally, mostly from the sun. As we age, our skin is less able to absorb it. Plus, we know we must protect ourselves from the sun.”
    Symptoms of vitamin B-12 deficiency include dementia and depression, says Zernicke. “As we age, our stomachs become less adept at absorbing it from the usual natural sources, such as meat.”
    For nutrition tips Zernicke recommends these Web sites:
•    The Linus Pauling Institute,
•    The Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University,
•    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging,