Lifestyle Advice on How to Live a Long and Meaningful Life: From Elsa,102 Years Young and Going Strong

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The “Dignified”Ms. Elsa

We were all (slowly) scrambling to get changed into bathing suits and pack up some towels to go to the pool. Being in vacation mode makes everything less urgent. But I was all ready, obnoxious gaudy pink flower flip flops and all, and Elsa was ready, too. Being away for a few weeks on vacation in Florida has not given me much time to write, but when I heard she was going to be down here too, I knew what I wanted to write about. Elsa is our friend’s mother who just happens to be celebrating her 102 birthday next week. We went to her 100 year celebration 2 years ago, and when the dust settled the next day I remember popping in to her apartment (attached to my friend’s home) to take advantage of the time to chat. To me, anyone older than me is a rich source of knowledge and experience just waiting to be tapped….it you take the time. I feel many of us are so busy with our own lives and problems that we forget that older people who have been around a lot longer than we have, probably have experienced what you may be struggling with today. They often have the answers you may have never considered just because they have “been there, done that”. They have learned priceless lessons (we may be blessed to learn ourselves if we live long enough)….but I want to know now!

Anyway, back then, 2 years ago, we did sit and chat as she sipped her tea and ate a few Milano cookies (which mean cookies are ok if you ask me, Elsa would know). The problem is that I was so mesmerized by her stories of family, passion, love and the changes in her life and how she coped that I did not write down anything. So here I was again, with a bit of time with Elsa, and although I did not want to bother her as she was relaxing in her comfy chair overlooking a peaceful lake, I knelt down beside her to chat. Her hearing is not as good as it used to be apparently but she had no problem hearing any of my questions and answering me in her straightforward, honest and crystal clear way.

Elsa has been through a lot in her life. Early on she married, then after having had 4 children, through unfortunate circumstances, had to raise them on her own. Back then, it was an unusual woman who could do this, but being the strong woman that she is, she did. She also was unusual in that she had a career: she was a nurse. She worked during the war and because of her passion for her work, the doctors all sent their patients to Elsa’s ward. Elsa worked on all areas of medicine and loved it all. When she talks about nursing, you can feel her pride. “I have never given it up” she tells me. “I will always be a nurse”. She explained that in her daily life she is always aware of people in need. If she sees someone struggling with groceries or their jacket, even a complete stranger, she will offer help. This gives her great joy and really touched me. Helping others. That definitely is going on the Live a Long Life lifestyle list. In fact, some of the words that came out of her mouth yesterday were so simple yet so profound….advice she had because of what she lived through. Easy to say, not easy to do.

Eventually, Elsa met an Italian man that stepped into her life and changed it forever. She says “he was the love of my life”. When she talks about him you can still feel her love for him. Her eyes well up and so do mine as she describes their lives together. This love clearly nourished her and fulfilled her in a way that she still feels. Love. It should go on the list if you ask me.

Anyway, there is no way to truly capture all the details, however here are the golden nuggets of advice I heard from Elsa. Her daughter-in-law used one word to describe her: “dignified”and it certainly does. Remember, these are Elsa’s answers to my simple question: what advice do you have for a happy and healthy life?

  • Eat Well: by eating well, Elsa means “eat everything”. Her sister was a picky eater according to Elsa, but everyone loved Elsa because she would eat anything that was put in front of her. She did explain that she also eats healthy however it seems to me, in my few experiences with her and food, that she chooses a wide variety of foods. At the pool that day (which was a bit cool and breezy for a Florida day) she ordered a clam chowder from the restaurant. It was thick and creamy, and yummy and I did not hear Elsa make one comment about calories or fat. Savoring a variety of good food is eating well.
  • Stay active: Elsa walks. She used to walk longer and now, although she still does short walks, she “does not do anything strenuous”. She does not want to hurt herself. To me, this is wise advice. How many of us think nothing is good enough unless it gets our heart rate up to a certain point, or makes us sweat, or burns X amount of calories? And so we never start moving because it is just too NOT fun. Instead, why not take Elsa’s advice and simply “be active”. Skip the ridiculous criteria we place on ourselves and just move and have fun. Elsa also dances. Oh, and she sings in the church choir, too. Singing counts.
  • When it comes to drinking alcohol, Elsa is “moderate”: Elsa says “I avoid extremes”. She may have a glass of wine with dinner, but other than that it sounds like smart advice. This is a hard one for those of us on vacation!
  • Forgive others: Elsa told me she has learned not to hold on to anything, especially if someone hurts you. Holding a grudge only hurts you, and you should try to let go of it. I have always believed forgiveness is really for yourself. Being angry and holding on to a anger affects your body in all kinds of negative ways. When you truly forgive, YOU get the gift of feeling better. The other person really does not matter, and is not the reason to forgive. It is for yourself. It is amazing to me that of all the lessons learned over 102 years of life, this is one she felt so important that she mentioned it (I remember 2 years ago she mentioned the same thing). Must be important.
  • Have a passion: Elsa’s was nursing. To this day, when she talks about it, you can see her light up. I don’t think it matters what your passion is, but if you don’t have one, if there is nothing in your life that lights your soul it might be something to reflect on.
  • Help others: this goes hand in hand with Elsa’s passion. It could be why she went into nursing in the first place, because she enjoys helping others. Although it is even more than that, more than simple “enjoyment”. You can tell it is part of who she is, it fulfills her. I don’t think we need to be a nurse or change our professions to reap this benefit. You can start today to help others, even in the simplest of ways. Open a door, pick up a bag, hold the elevator. Help someone and see how it feels. Feeling joy is definitely good for your body.
  • Accept what God gives you in life: Elsa emphasized that we are not in control of everything and it is important to learn to accept our circumstances and make the best of it. She certainly did. We all know people who have been dealt some difficult hands and yet they remain joyful and thankful, with energy to spare. And then there are those who blow up the simplest of problems into giant size issues in their own minds, negatively affecting those around them, and even their own health. From Elsa I have learned you can either complain and stay stuck, or you can move on and make the best of it. It is our choice (although for some with depression or other mental health issues, we can’t always do it on our own). I always say, if you find yourself miserable and truly can’t get out of it, get professional help. It is not your fault.
  • Faith: although Elsa did not come out and use the word “faith”, she told me that for her entire life, as long as she can remember she has said the same prayer every single morning. She was able to tell me the prayer, which I am including with her permission at the end. Clearly, from the words, she relied on her faith every single day of her long life.

Obviously, genetics plays a role in how long you live, but how you live is a choice we all make daily. How we think, our feelings that we choose to have all affect our body’s and health even more than the food we put in (and we all know people who fret about food but not about how they treat others). With the New Year approaching, and resolutions coming to mind, I hope you consider shifting your focus off of changing your body to changing your mind and heart.

Elsa’s Morning Prayer

“Good Morning Lord,

You’ve ushered in a brand new day untouched and freshly new,

And here I come and ask you God if You’ll renew me, too.

Forget the many errors that I made yesterday, and let me try again dear Lord to walk closer in your way.

But Father, I am well aware I can’t make it on my own,

so take my hand and hold it tight for I can’t walk alone.

Amen”.

Remembering a Day That Changed My Life

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Your future is in your hands

It was a cold and drizzly fall day,the year was 1976. I had agreed to meet my friend Joe outside in the parking lot of the condominium where we lived off-campus at The University of Connecticut. At the very last minute, I found myself changing my mind. I did not want to do this. What if I couldn’t do this? I was feeling insecure and afraid, but yet, when I agree to something I hate backing down. My motto is “you never know until you try”. For instance, I tried golfing once, I tried to get on a horse, and I tried skiing. People seem to love these things, and I wanted to understand why. After getting kicked by the horse and breaking my leg in two places as well as my ankle on the bunny slope, well, I can say I tried. Golf didn’t work out either. It was kind of like baseball for me, I just could not hit the darn ball.

So there I stood in the drizzle, waiting in my new Nike sneakers and windbreaker. He finally shows up and starts talking, giving me such encouraging words, describing what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. Joe was a physical fitness major and he knew what he was talking about. I had recently quit smoking cigarettes, and I needed something else to help me deal with life in general. After chatting with him the days before, I agreed to give running a shot. He was here to help me, and to guide me on my very first “run”. He had mapped out our route, which simply was a half mile to the end of the street and back, totally an entire mile. He guided me through some simple stretches, and then we started. Can I do this?

I literally felt like a fish out of water. Just a few months ago, I could barely walk to class without running out of breath (and would light up a cigarette once I finally got to sit down and catch my breath). It had been awhile since I smoked, and I actually was feeling so much better (I did not realize how bad I felt until after the fact…..when I had much more energy and realized this is how I am supposed to feel! this is how people who don’t smoke feel very single day).  I also need to share that my roommate Marion at the time was my inspiration to even consider this. She was a runner, and loved it, and although I did not understand why, I wanted to be like her! So Joe and I started out on this country road, and I started to run as fast as I could (isn’t that what you are supposed to do?) but he stopped me. He showed me how to pace myself, and trust me, it was VERY SLOW! So slow, in fact, that it actually felt GOOD. I could breathe. My legs felt strong. I could do this.

We made it to the end of the country street and turned around. I will NEVER FORGET how I felt when we got close to the end of our “run” and I could see our condo complex. I am going to make it, I thought. We reached the parking lot and I felt something shift inside of me that changed me forever. I loved that feeling so much, that feeling of success and accomplishment, it changed my “definition” of who I was, and who I wanted to be. I think we all have our own self-dialogues going on in our heads, thoughts nobody else can see about ourselves that eventually create who we actually are. Sometimes the thoughts are self-deprecating. “You are so lazy! You can’t do that!”

Yes, I can. And I did.

After that, I looked at myself in a very different light. I loved the idea of feeling good, and being healthy and fit. THAT is who I wanted to be. NOT someone using cigarettes to deal with stress. But, I definitely needed something, and the reality is, when we give up a “habit” it is almost always necessary to substitute something else. In my case, it was running. It became my new “habit”. It stuck. For years. Over time, I increased my distance and my usual runs became 2 or 3 miles. I did not run fast, but I loved running longer. It gave me time to think and meditate, solve problems, plan and dream. As I got more fit, running was just as relaxing as sleeping. I started to do road races and loved the camaraderie of other friends who had discovered the same joy I had.

Over the years, my running habit has shifted along with my life. It is funny, but I think because I always ran after classes (4-5 pm), that is the time my body seemed to crave movement throughout my life. To this day, after work, I just can’t wait to move. My body just craves it. I went through phases of running longer distances, but now prefer walking and slow jogging. I can day dream on a track, on the side walk or even on a treadmill. It doesn’t matter to me, just let me move. It can be kayaking on a local reservoir or mowing the lawn. I just need to move. If you have ever taken a few minutes to watch young children outside, they usually can’t stop moving. I think it is innate in us to move our bodies in ways that are fun and enjoyable. When we put unrealistic goals and numbers and expectations on it all, well, to me the fun is gone. Maybe that is why people “hate exercise”?

The benefits to my life thanks to Marion and Joe are too many to count. Because of this life-changing experience, I can enjoy vacations as much now, at my (older) age as I did in my 20’s. I can hike up Red Rock in Sedona, or down the Grand Canyon. I can walk for miles up and down the cobblestone streets of Cinque Terre in Italy. I can walk almost the entire town of Venice, never tiring. I can enjoy all of the bike trails on Cape Cod, explore the cliffs of Gay Head, garden for hours, walk all over the lively North end of Boston and still dance the night away. Yes, that day changed my life.

Since that day, I also became passionate about promoting health. I felt it, the way this simple act changed my life and my identity, and I wanted everyone to feel it, too. With every patient I have ever worked with, this has been my goal. So many people focus on how they look, and not on how they feel. They focus on the number on the scale, they judge themselves for that, and the self-talk and dialogue in their minds do nothing to help them be who they are supposed to be. People “try” but unfortunately, not everyone has a “Marion” for inspiration, or a “Joe” in their lives who can guide them in such a gentle and self-loving way to be the best they can be. To just start. One foot in front of the other. One pedal around the block. Dancing to even one favorite song.

Unfortunately, not every has the physical ability to enjoy all kinds of fun movement. I know many with joint issues, back pain, muscle issues, and other ailments that will always impact them. I am so grateful to be blessed with a body free of pain, and know that many do suffer. If you can move without pain, you definitely are blessed.

As I was writing this blog, my husband walked in and asked me to read what I had written so far. So I did, but as I started to read the 4th paragraph (“We made it…..”) I could not continue. I got choked up. That is how powerful that experience was, that is how important to my life. It took me by surprise, how strongly I felt, but then again, life-changing shifts in self-identity can do that.

I hope you take a minute to stop and reflect on your own self-thoughts and the dialogue in your head. Do you have unrealistic expectations when it comes to “exercise”? Do you call yourself names? Use the “L” word? When it comes to moving, to be clear, I definitely do not think everyone should be running! I have absolutely no advice on what anyone should do as far as physical activity. YOU are the expert on that. YOU know what you love. Some people absolutely love competition, enjoy running fast, getting stronger and stronger, keeping track of times, and amounts of weights they can lift, how many reps they can do, etc. The bottom line is, they enjoy it. It makes them happy. If what you are doing is not enjoyable, or does not make you happy, that is a different story. I just hope you look at moving in a different light. If you look at it as a means to an end, it may be hard to enjoy. If you instead can find something that has the capacity to be one more thing to enjoy in your day, a fun way to move your body (think kids, think hula-hoop, think fun, think freedom), well, that may be something you keep in your life for as long as you live.

So, that is the story. A day that changed my life, who I am and is part of why I have a passion to help people be healthy. Not perfect. Just healthy. I don’t want to be the only one on the dance floor when I’m 80.