So twice a year I head to Florida to visit my 88-year-old aunt. Except for the fact she’s a Fox News Republican, we enjoy each other’s company by agreeing to avoid political arguments. I might add she’s a former nightclub singer and makes a mean martini.
My aunt lives in an assisted living place–nice to look at with plenty of green grass, but everyone seems to remain indoors watching TV and, well, let’s face it, waiting to die.
Except for a woman I met on my last visit named Elaine.
I’ve taken up power walking recently, a vigorous workout that requires you to walk literally as fast as you can, taking big strides with arms swinging, for about 30 to 45 minutes before turning around and doing it all over again. Personally, I’d rather be under a beach umbrella sipping a pina colada, but when you’re in my line of work–preventive medicine, anti-aging, healthy living—you do feel obligated to set an example for your patients.
It was 7 in the morning, Florida hot and humid though the sun was barely up. Not a soul was out until I, mightily striding along, literally bumped into Elaine.
“Nice to see a fellow walker,” she beamed, pulling the ear buds from her ears. I guessed her age at 72 or 73, but in fact she was ten years older. She would turn 84 in six months.
We strode on together (me puffing, she not) and I asked how many miles a day she did this.
“Seven miles, every day–three in the morning, four in the evening. I follow each of these with a few laps in the pool.”
Thunderstruck, I blurted “Seven miles?! Every day? How long have you been doing this?”
“Ever since I gave up jogging about ten years ago.”
Since I regard all exercise as boring beyond belief, I had to ask how she kept it up.
She pulled a CD player from her pocket. “Books! I listen to books constantly. I learn so much!”
She averages three or four books a week. “Some trash, mostly good stuff.” When we met she was listening to Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, a 100-year-old sociologic-economic study featuring the first use of the term “conspicuous consumption.”
“Are you familiar with Veblen?,” she asked, and I mumbled “Maybe in college,” holding back that it was probably via Cliff Notes.
I later learned from my aunt that Elaine had been a refugee from the Nazis after World War 2, had successfully dealt with both melanoma and breast cancer, had a metal hip, volunteered every afternoon at the local skilled nursing facility, and made volunteer hospice visits. My aunt added that Elaine seemed to remember everything she read and listened to, which is impressive when you ponder that many of her peers struggle with memory.
Obviously, the lesson here is that healthful aging is mostly up to you. That when you throw yourself into life with boundless energy and enthusiasm, as Elaine does, you’ll likely be rewarded as she has been. In turn, Elaine rewards all of us with her vibrant self, pushing forward seven miles a day.