How to Live to 96 1/2

Over this past Christmas break week, I visited my grandmother in the hospital. She was admitted with a fever and dehydration. She’s doing just fine now, but I spent many hours over a few days with her. Amid the flurry of nurses and aides and specialists who were in and out of her room, many stopped to chat with her and seemed surprised at how articulate, polite, and positively she answered them. I saw them glance once and then again at her chart. That was usually followed by a question about her secret for living so well for so long. She’s 96 ½, after all.

She said people ask her that a lot. She talked a lot in those hours about why she thought she’d lived so well for so long. Her answers were consistent with the ever- growing body of research on aging. As we ring in 2019, I couldn’t help but think that some of her thoughts might help us rethink our own approach to living well in the New Year.

“I have wonderful neighbors.” Elder Care Alliance reports that cognitive abilities declined 70 percent more slowly in individuals who had frequent social connections compared to those who are more isolated. Helen’s husband, my grandfather, passed away suddenly at 46 and Helen lives with an aide in the same house she bought with him when they were first married. She greets all old and new neighbors in her loving way. The neighborhood children know where she keeps the cookies and the crayons and frequently visit her on their own.  One young family who moved from family in Chicago took her to Grandparent Day at their elementary school. Several neighbors visited her in the hospital while I was there. It seems they all text each other about her wellbeing, like she’s being cared for by an entire community.

I keep moving” Helen traveled extensively and still rarely remains idle. She likes to color and talk on the phone and with her aide, she walks outside almost every day. “Exercise is the only real fountain of youth that exists,” says Jay Olshansky, a professor of medicine and aging researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s like the oil and lube job for your car. You don’t have to do it, but your car will definitely run better.” Research continues to show the benefits of movement and exercise on mood, mental acuity, balance, muscle mass, and bones.

“ I try to focus on the positive.” Her closest friends have all died. Two of her three kids live too far from her to visit. Yet she never complains; rather, she shows appreciation for any effort anyone makes. I wrote on the myriad benefits of gratitude back in 2015 but my favorite research nugget was this: “If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.” tweeted by the head of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center.

I plan to spend 2019 living like I’m 96 ½. How about you?