Maybe I’m Too Old For This Sort Of Travel

1 veniceAs a very special 80th birthday present to myself, I’d signed up for a ten-day tour of Italy. I knew it would be physically demanding. The organizers had been clear about the number of miles we’d walk each day. We needed to be prepared for cobblestones and long, steep stairs everywhere we went. Could I do it at age 80? Yes, darn it, I was determined to. And so I started serious training with Sammy the Poodle. At least three times a week I walked for a brisk hour up and down the paths along Lake Ontario’s shores while Sammy chased squirrels, chipmunks and the occasional rabbit. When the time came, I was as fit as anyone.

My aging brain was a different story. The first time I screwed up, we’d just arrived at our hotel in Venice. Our tour captain assembled all of us in the lobby to announce that we would be heading out for an Italian dinner at six o’clock. It was to be one of those Italian dinners with multiple courses lasting until about 11 o’clock. Somehow I heard “7.” There was a knock at my door a little after six. A fellow traveller had been sent to find me. Fortunately I was dressed and ready to go. As I descended the stairs to the lobby, I looked down into a dozen upturned faces. Everyone else was there for six. I was the holdup, the one who was keeping everybody waiting. I could just imagine what they were thinking: maybe she has dementia. Maybe we’ll have to wait for her every time we go anywhere.

The following morning I did it again. We were to gather at 6 a.m. for a ride in a gondola, before the crowds appeared on the gondola docks. My aging brain conveniently turned the “6” into “7.” Once more I had to face the upturned faces as I made my way down to the lobby level.

1 venice 2The gondola is a wondrous craft. The job of a gondolier is usually passed on from father to son. These amazingly skilled men stand on a platform on one side of the craft’s stern, deftly steering through crowded canals with just a long pole and the positioning of their bodies.

This was not my last ride in a gondola. My next gondola ride happened when I was out on my own and suddenly realized I had no idea how to get back to our hotel. This is not a new problem for me. I am one of those people who lacks a sense of direction. As an experienced traveller, I’ve worked out a system for getting to my destination. I don’t get upset. I simply call a taxi and hire someone who knows how to get to my destination.

I inquired about taxis and was met with a blank stare. Most of Venice is closed to vehicle traffic. People travel by canals. I’d have to hire a gondola. How much would that cost? “80 Euros,” came the answer. That was ridiculous: far too much money. I tried once more to spot a familiar landmark. I still had no idea of how to return to the hotel. I’d left my i-phone with its GPS in the hotel room. As well, attempts to ask directions in Italian were useless. At last, discouraged, I returned to hire a gondola. “20” Euros was the new price.

And so, I returned to my hotel in splendid style, carried along in a shiny black gondola with gold carvings. I tried my best to really enjoy it. After all, there wasn’t a darned thing I could do about it.

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Travelling Alone

1 florenceI once had a yoga teacher who travelled a lot – and always alone. She wouldn’t travel any other way. Why? Alone she met such interesting people. If she’d been with a friend or part of a group, these friendships would never have happened.

As I write this, I’m on a ten-day guided tour of Italy ALONE. Did I choose my single travel status? Certainly not. It’s just that I had nobody to go with. I had a choice. Go alone or stay home. I chose to go. And so I joined the Story Land and Sea small group tour of five major Italian cities. Maybe, I told myself, there would be another compatible single man or woman.

My plane from Toronto landed at Venice’s island airport.  True to their word, the Story Land and Sea representative was there to meet me. This was definitely a reassuring sign. Landing without a travel companion was, for me, a daunting experience. If no one had met me, I’d have been really shaken.

All 1 florence bof us passengers walked out onto long wharves and piled into low motorized launches, the sort you saw in cottage country a century ago.  The airport is on an island. We were en route to the city of Venice which I learned is made up of 100 islands. Nearer land, the motor launch slowed and we made our way through a network of canals. Surprisingly, our boat docked at a wharf that turned out to be the water entrance to our hotel.  Climbing up out of the low boat, we stood on the dock while our legs steadied and we could push open the glass doors leading to the dark panelled hallway where the desk clerk welcomed us.

The hotel turned out to be gracious in an old-world sort of way.  My room was hugely spacious and elegant. All of Venice’s old hotels, it turns out, were originally mansions belonging to private families.

After a struggle to open my ornate white door, figure out the light switches and borrow some international electric plugs for my computer, my phone and my electric toothbrush I begin to feel slightly more competent about managing the complexities of this historic world.

At last, it was time to meet the rest of the group. About a dozen of us gathered in a sitting room where the leader greeted us and laid out the programme for the coming week and a half. Then it was time for introductions. Guess what?! Everybody was with a partner: 5 married couples and two women who were twin sisters. My heart sank.

…………………………………

As I write this, we’ve been together for a week and I have to say my fellow travellers are wonderfully thoughtful about including me and making sure I’m in the right place at the right time. I no longer feel stressed by my single state. They are particularly aware of my safety since I’m much older than my fellow travellers. After a struggle to open my ornate white door, find the light switches and borrow some international electric plugs for my computer, my phone and my electric toothbrush I begin to feel more competent about managing the complexities of another world.

Right now I’m feeling surrounded by caring people. I have all the companionship I need to feel happy and safe. In fact, I seem to have the best of both worlds: caring, thoughtful people for shared activities with the freedom to do as I wish for a good part of each day.

Would I do it again? You’d have to ask me next year or whenever I get the urge to travel again. Besides the fear of loneliness, it’s stressful not having a second set of eyes and another mind to make decisions as you travel. I’m not sure what I’ll decide.

Here’s a rhyming toast my much younger fellow travellers made to me at dinner:

Here’s to Mary, fearless and bright

From the climes of Canada she suffers no fright.

May we all be so bold as to follow her lead

And never let time inhibit our speed.

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Mindfulness Comes To The Rescue

Screen Shot 2018-09-01 at 10.29.15 AMIn my last post I talked about the importance of Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness for older people. In his book Brain Rules For Aging Well, Medina says: “It is not an exaggeration to say that Kabat Zinn’s ideas revolutionized the field of mind-body medicine, putting it on a firm scientific footing. Now his technique is one of the most powerful anti-stress therapies ever shown to actually work in the elderly population (p. 77.)”

Medina’s praise for Mindfulness was enough to convince me this was something I needed to explore. So, what is Mindfulness? It’s about paying absolute attention to whatever is happening in the moment without judging your experience. Frankly, when things go wrong, I find it very hard not to wish things were different. If only I could accept events without judgment, I could join the ranks of mindful seniors who handle stress well and have a marked reduction in depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction could improve my memory too, because cortisol would not be causing my hippocampus to atrophy. (See the previous post about stress and memory.) Even if this part of my brain has already atrophied because of stress, the good news is that the hippocampus is capable of neurogenesis. (Remember when scientists believed that the brain never changed for the better? or that it was capable of healing?)

Mindfulness demands two things. First, we have to pay attention to what’s happening right now. Second, we have to stop wishing things were different. You can’t be mindful if you’re caught up in wanting a different reality. I find this very difficult. Accepting whatever’s happening right now without judgment seems almost impossible.

So what does an average day look like now that I’m practicing Mindfulness?

pexels-photo-268134There are some changes to my routine. For example, I’ve always listened to the radio as I work around the house. Now the radio is turned off while I try to concentrate solely on washing the dishes or separating the garbage for recycling. Walking along the shore of the lake, if I find my mind wandering, I tune into sounds, the feeling in my feet or the number of oak trees lining the path. Anything to keep from daydreaming or worrying about something that might never happen.

At some point during the day, I do the body scan. In the U-Tube’s body scan, Kabat Zinn’s gentle voice instructs you to lie down and listen as he guides you through a deep letting go of each part of your body. The trick is to stay awake. For me, this means doing the body scan early in the day before I get tired. It’s really hard not to drift off with the sonorous voice telling you to breathe into your belly.

Then there’s daily meditation. That’s no problem for me. I have a long-established habit of making space for meditation each morning. Basically, Mindfulness meditation is a practice of concentrating on the rise and fall of the belly, as you pay attention to your inhaling and exhaling.

“The twin ideas of awareness and acceptance can literally rewire your … brain,” says Medina (p.80.) I’d certainly like to meet those calm, happy seniors who’ve mastered this way of being in the world and I’d like to hear from other people who have pursued and struggled with Mindfulness. If you struggle with or successfully practice Mindfulness, I’d appreciate reading your comments in the space below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s No Such Thing as Multi-Tasking

man-with-index-fingers-at-the-temples_1187-2926I’ve been reading John Medina’s book Brain Rules for Aging Well. Medina, a molecular biologist, presents his guiding principles for healthy aging. He writes with the scientific rigour you would expect from a scientist. At the same time, Brain Rules for Aging Well is an enjoyable, reader-friendly book. Having worked my way through it, I feel more informed about what truly contributes to healthy aging.  Here are a couple of my new insights.

Medina has set me straight about multi-tasking. He says: “Scientists have known for years that true multitasking is a myth. It’s impossible for any brain to monitor two attention-rich targets simultaneously. The only way your brain can track multiple targets is to use a task-switching strategy (p.116.)”

I’d always known that the aging brain, unlike younger brains, is incapable of doing two things at once. Witness the older person trying to carry on a conversation while writing a note to a friend. Younger people can do both at once. I had always attributed this to the aging brains’ inability to multi-task. Medina sets the record straight.

“Older folks concentrate on tasks just as well as younger ones, maybe even better. What’s at stake here is the increasing inability to ignore distractions. This is what makes it hard for the older person to manage two tasks at once (p. 225.)”  He continues: “Our ability to ignore distractions declines from a high of 82 per cent when younger to a low of 56 per cent when older.” Scientists call this ‘divided attention,’ not ‘multi-tasking.’ It’s the increasing inability to ignore distractions (p. 115.)   It simply gets harder for us to switch between tasks with age (p.115.)  After all, Medina points out, we’re living in a body that was never built to handle life past thirty.

Then there’s the matter of cortisol, the steroid hormone that’s released when we’re stressed. Too much cortisol damages the brain.

“When too much cortisol hangs around too long, it can actually whittle away at hippocampal tissue, causing the organ to atrophy (p. 71.)”  You will remember that the hippocampus is responsible for our memory. What older person isn’t worried about memory loss?

The bad news gets worse. As we age, we don’t calm down as quickly as we once did. That means an even greater release of cortisol.

Medina explains that this steroid hormone was meant to help the body respond to stress. That was all very well for animals or for our primitive ancestors.  Their stressors were short lived. Either you managed to run faster than the tiger, or you were eaten and that was the end of it.  The problem is, for us humans, stressors are usually complex, about relationships or money: not issues that are over quickly. We end up with too much cortisol in our systems and this damages parts of the brain, especially the hippocampus.

At this point I shiver with fear. Old age itself is stressful, even if your life runs smoothly. Considering my own life path and the rough road I’ve been travelling, I figure I’m doomed to memory loss. I shudder to think how much cortisol my own body’s fight-or-flight response has been dumping on my hippocampus. After all, in the past three years I’ve left a marriage after 55 years, moved four times, got really sick in Arizona and now am concentrating on recovering in a retirement home until I’m well enough to get my own apartment again.

But wait! There’s hope, says Medina. The hippocampus is capable of making new neural tissue if you practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about cultivating the habit of paying close attention to any task we’re carrying out and staying very present to our surroundings. If I learn to practice this, I’ll not only stay calm, I’ll give my hippocampus a chance to hold more memory.

In my next post, I’ll let you know how I’m making out with my new practice of mindfulness.

Worst Time In My Life

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If you regularly read my blogs, you know I haven’t posted for a long time.  That’s because the first half of 2018 has probably been the hardest and worst time in my life. Returning from Arizona, where I intended to spend a glorious winter, I could barely breathe. I was limp, depressed and helplessly weak. In retrospect, it’s hard to know how much of my weakened state was purely physical (Is there such a thing?) – and how much was emotional.

My son and daughter-in-law took me in and looked after me until I moved to – yikes! – a retirement home. I don’t know how long I’ll stay here. I’ll probably move out to an apartment to live on my own before too long. Meanwhile Sammy and I have a charming suite right on Lake Ontario, in the very centre of Kingston’s busy downtown.

Sammy really enjoys life among these old people with their ever-present walkers. We even have a fenced-in grassy area just outside our bedroom window.  Sammy hops through the window to relieve himself or to bark at passersby.  No longer do I need to take him outside last thing at night and first thing in the morning. (Every cloud has a silver lining?)

Meanwhile as I recover my health, I continue to look for reliable information on healthy aging. My latest discovery is a remarkable book by New York Times bestselling author John Medina. It’s called Brain Rules For Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp.  Dr. Medina is a scientist, a molecular biologist. His findings are well researched and his book is very readable.

Not too long from now, in my next posting, , I’ll tell you more about what Medina can teach us.