The word "doctor" derives from the Latin verb docere: to teach and, as a doctor, I do often offer instruction. But when a woman in her eighties comes in for her annual physical and tells me she's still dancing, mowing her own lawn, and helping out her older neighbors, I have no illusions about which of the two of us should be doing the teaching.
Particularly since reading this lovely feature story about Ethel Weiss, the 99 year old Brookline woman who's still running her toy and card shop on Harvard Street after an incredible 74 years, I've been thinking about what I've learned from my patients about aging well.
Ms. Weiss is not my patient, but many of my older patients share several things in common with her: good genes, a positive attitude, and a determination to stay active and engaged. Many, like Ms. Weiss, have made the choice to incur some risk by continuing to live alone, in order to maintain independence. As one of my older patients once told me: "There are worse things than falling."
But here's where it gets tricky: I also have patients who are aging well who've made very different choices. Some have moved to assisted living facilities and tell me that the safety net provided by on-site dining and medical care gives them the freedom and peace of mind to do the things that they really enjoy: reading, socializing, volunteer work, whatever.
I have an older patient who's been doing great since moving in with her kids and another for whom this arrangement has been a disaster.
Some retirees come back from a winter in Florida and and pronounce it heaven on earth. Others call it a geriatric ghetto or, more morbidly, "God's Waiting Room."
So, beyond a few common sense basics--keep moving, eat well, don't smoke, don't drink too much, keep up with routine medical care, stay intellectually and socially stimulated--is there any single secret for aging well?
I'm concluding that aging well isn't much different than living well at any age. My contented older patients, like my contented younger patients, are honest with themselves about what works best for them, they don't expect everything to be perfect, and they have good senses of humor.
That woman in her eighties who still mows her lawn? As she left my office she said to me: "Listen, be happy...and be well." Was that a pleasantry, or advice?
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