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Blue Sky Happiness

A few years ago I heard on the radio an interview with a 102-year-old woman. She said that there are some days when she wonders why she still wants be here, but then she looks up at a blue sky and says to herself, “Ah, that’s why!” For her, the blue sky is one of those little things that bring a burst of happiness to life. We all love the grand moments, such as weddings, once-in-a-lifetime vacations, the birth of a child, but in truth, it is those brief moments of “happy” that keep us going…that give every day its shine.

I think of this "blue sky” comment almost every day as I go about my life. Like all of us, I just want to be happy. I know that there are genuinely sad times in all of our lives and I am not saying we can “Pollyanna” those moments away, but hopefully, most of our lives are spent in the ordinary times. Those are the times when we can influence our own levels of happiness. 

First, the why: happiness is good for us. There are many of scientific studies that prove the health benefits of being happy. Just Google “happy” if you want the research, but basically, happiness is like a super pill - it improves our mind, body, and spirit in every way. It helps us recover from surgery faster, makes learning easier and a 2013 article in Psychology Today even links happiness to preventing dementia.

So how does one bring more happiness to life? It happens by simply looking for the small nuggets of wonder and joy that lie all around us everyday…the blue sky. Those nuggets are different for each of us - what brings on my happy may be different from what brings on yours, but I guarantee, if you look, you will find it. 

Best of all for those of us moving into the next chapter of life, being happy gets easier as we get older. According to a joint study by Tufts and Stanford Universities, even during a time when factors, such as mobility, health, and social isolation can make looking for our blue sky seem more difficult, older adults are more adapt at finding the happy moments in a situation. In addition, a 2011 Michigan State University study showed that simply reminiscing about things that make us happy to the point of smiling had the same health benefits as the original moment.  

Since hearing the radio interview with the 102-year-old, I started keeping a list of the small things that make me happy. I pull it out every once in a while and add new observationsIt’s almost like reading a diary in that I can tell what else was happening in my life by what was bringing me joy, and just reading it makes me happy.

Here are a few things on my list:

* Watching tomatoes turn red in my garden
* The first sip of coffee in the morning
* Homemade vanilla ice cream
* Seeing mature couples holding hands     
* The smell (and taste) of honeysuckle
* Getting a handwritten letter in the mail
* The sound of crickets on a summer evening
* Learning something new – particularly at The Learning Center
* The anticipation that rises when the lights start to dim at a movie theater
* Roaming through a book store
* Winning my bet with my Gator friend when Tennessee and Florida play football
* The blue of the Smoky Mountains
* Champagne
* Finishing a crossword puzzle
*  And, of course, a blue sky

As you can see, the list isn’t full of grand things but I’m smiling!  Start identifying your list now and while you don’t have to write it down, I encourage you to do so.   You can bring it out when life is cloudy to bring on your own blue sky.

Volunteering: what are you waiting for?

This past week, Rosalie Wilson, a 79-year-old dynamo and one of Senior Citizens’ incredible volunteers, won the Herschel V. Jenkins Volunteer of the Year award. This award is given out annually by United Way and HandsOn Savannah to recognize someone who personifies the spirit of volunteering. Rosalie holds three different volunteer “jobs” at SCI, ranging from  helping a home-bound older adult four days a week to delivering meals weekly and making telephone calls three days a week to remind other Meals on Wheels volunteers of their routes for the next day. 

Granted, Rosalie is truly special (hence the award!) but it got me thinking as I listened to her joyful talk at the event that while volunteering is, without a doubt, good for our society, it is also good for us as individuals. It is one of those rare activities that strengthen all four “columns” that support a successful life: Mind, Body, Spirit, and Community. 

Mind: There is no denying that volunteering your time will improve your mind. Rosalie says “it keeps her sharp,” and numerous medical studies, including a recent report from Brown University regarding Meals on Wheels, show that spending time with others makes dramatic improvements to our mental health. Plus, you can’t help learning something from the experience, whether it’s the history of someone’s life or the history of the world if you volunteer as a tutor.

Body: Just getting out of your house improves your body. (Imagine the impact on your muscles if you mowed the grass of your home-bound neighbor!) But one of the great things about volunteering is that there is an opportunity for you regardless of your physical situation. Even if you are the beneficiary of the above-mentioned lawn work, you can be a “friendly caller” to someone else or perhaps make cards to brighten the day of someone in the hospital.

Spirit: It is guaranteed that your spirit will be lifted by the giving of yourself. Everyone who volunteers will tell you that it’s hard to tell who benefits the most…the giver or the receiver. 

Community: Volunteering gives you a double whammy in this column of your life. Not only will you expand your personal community by seeing different areas of town, meeting new people, and trying new things, but it’s a given that you’ll improve the community as a whole with each experience.

Regardless of what chapter of your life you are currently in, volunteering is something that each of us can easily do.  No invitation or special equipment is needed…just you. 

There are many ways to find a volunteer experience that will be right for you. Several organizations, such as SCI and HandsOn Savannah, produce a monthly calendar to offer flexible, no-obligation volunteer opportunities. You can try things once or twice, and if they aren’t the best fit, you can try another project! In addition, many nonprofit organizations have volunteer coordinators who can work with you to help identify an opportunity that you’ll enjoy and that fits your schedule. What’s important is that you try, for merely the act of trying will have a positive impact on your “columns of life.”

Of course, all of us can’t be Rosalie, but we can follow her example. And while you may not receive the Herschel V. Jenkins award, she and others who volunteer will tell you that the true award comes in the form of the smiles they receive from those they have helped and the smiles they put in their heart. So with all of this satisfaction and happiness awaiting you in exchange for very little time and effort, the only question left is, “What are you waiting for?” 

Advocacy is simple and effective

In March, the White House announced the president’s budget recommendations for the coming year, including significant funding reductions to services that help older adults age successfully.

Obviously, I am passionate about issues that affect older adults, so I was pleased to receive a lot of calls and emails from folks who were concerned and wanted to “fight back.” These words were quickly followed by, “But I don’t know how to do it.”

As I have written previously,for each of us to age successfully, all four columns of our lives (mind, body, spirit, community) have to be strong. Advocating for the things that are important to you is an essential tool for building and maintaining your community.

It is critical that your voice be heard. Your government leaders need to know what you consider important. Best of all, they want to know your thoughts on what they are doing and should be doing. Constituents really can sway the decisions of lawmakers!

Advocacy is simple and works in any situation, whether you are trying to share your thoughts with your local officials, state legislators or Congress. Be informed. Do a little bit of research. Read or listen to a variety of news sources so you can learn more about the issue at hand. Map out exactly what you want to express. Write down your thoughts. Keep your message simple, clear and succinct. Use personal experiences and statistics to support your opinion. For example: “Within a few years, almost half of the population in my community will be over the age of 60. This makes services for older adults critical. I have seen how important they are for my mom, and the difference it makes for all of us.

The serviceslike the ones the president is proposing to reduce have been proven in numerous studies to result in healthier, happier older adults, keeping them out of the hospital and nursing homes. For the cost of one day in the hospital, Senior Citizens Inc.’s Meals on Wheels program can feed an older adult in their home for an entire year. Therefore, now is the time to be making an investment in these programs, not a reduction!”

Get the contact information for those you want to reach. You can find email addresses, phone numbers and mailing addresses at www.legis.ga.gov for Georgia’s state legislators and www.congress.gov for both your U.S. senators and representatives. Or you can call Senior Citizens Inc. at 912-236-0363 and we’ll be happy to find the appropriate contact information for you. Make contact! Emailing or making a phone call is the fastest way to share your thoughts. While written correspondence is effective, it can take more than two weeks to make it through the screening system. If you make a phone call, keep in mind that you will probably be talking to an intern or assistant, so be clear about why you are contacting their boss. Have your notes in front of you for easy referral. Always be polite and remember what your mom said about catching more flies with honey than vinegar. Say thank you. It’s that whole honey-vinegar thing again!

Now that you know how easy it is, teach your friends. This is one of the situations in which numbers make a difference. Of course, I hope you’ll join me in advocating for all of us to age successfully. However, regardless of what you choose to champion, I make you this promise: just like writing this column has for me, advocating for the issues you care about gets easier each time you do it. You’ll also feel good for having done it and you will have helped your community. Oh, and thank you for reading!

Navigating the Unknown

My mom was a voracious reader for all of her 94-year life. She was known for never leaving home without a book in her purse and for always reading the last page first. When asked why she would do this, she would say it was because she wanted to make sure that she was going to like the ending. For her, the journey to a satisfactory ending was the interesting part. 

For almost 20 years, I have been working in the aging world and I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every day. Not just because of the wonderful people I get to interact with, or the never-boring challenges, but for the same reason that Mom read the last page of a book first. I like helping people enjoy their journey through life to a satisfying conclusion.

Recently, I wrote of the four columns of life: mind, body, spirit, community – and how each one has to be strong for a life well lived. We all know that there are times when one or more of those columns will need support and it is about those times that I am probably most often asked. The questions are usually things like: What does this change mean for Mom? What are my options? Who can help? What is the path ahead?

These questions can frighten all of us. We want to make the best decisions but this territory is usually new for us, uncertain and - unfortunately - complicated.  Like most “industries,” the aging world is vast and full of jargon and insider secrets. What makes it even harder is that this world is facing its own awkward point of change as it morphs to meet the challenges of a rapidly aging society. There are a lot of options but the first crucial step is having solid information. If life needs four columns, then having the necessary information is what levels the ground for those columns to stand upon.

Fortunately, there are folks who specialize in helping at these moments…people who can look at the situation with you, provide an honest assessment and lay out the options and even a roadmap for the future. In the aging world, they are often called Care Navigators and Aging Life Care Specialists. Both provide information but at different levels of involvement.

A Care Navigator is a “subject matter expert” who can answer questions about services available in the community. Their knowledge is broad and their involvement can range from a single phone call to years of answering questions as they arise. You want to make sure that your Care Navigator is unbiased. For example, at SCI, our Navigators provide not only information but linkage to services, whether those services are provided by SCI or another entity in the community. This is critical because you want the best answers for you, not the organization.

Aging Life Care Specialists are certified experts who can be more intensive partners. They often begin with a visit in the home where they assess the current situation and together with everyone involved, develop a plan that fits the specific needs. They can provide a formal written plan of action and can even act as a guardian, which makes this an especially valuable service for someone with no family support or whose family lives far away. Because of the experience and trust required, it is important that the Aging Life Care Specialist be certified and bonded.

Regardless of how little or how much information is needed, it is the “unknown” that makes these times difficult. Using an expert such as a Care Navigator or Aging Life Care Specialist can help shore up the columns and make the next chapter more enjoyable. After all, like my mom, we want to make sure we’re going to enjoy our entire book.

For more information about how to find a Care Navigator or Aging Life Care Specialist in your community, call Senior Citizens Inc. at 912-236-0363 or toll-free at 866-579-2116 or visit www.seniorcitizensinc.org.

 

The Four Columns of Successful Aging

The Next Chapter - Improving the Lives of Seniors
Patti Lyons

Today, 12,432 people in the U.S. will celebrate their 60th birthday! This rate will continue for an estimated 10 years. It’s an amazing statistic and one that should give you pause whether you are among the lucky seniors starting the next chapter of your life or among the ones who will live in the wake that this phenomenon will cause - not only in our community but our country and world as well.

While 60 isn’t old by ANY means, it brings to the forefront the importance of aging successfully…not only personally but in our society’s imperative to ensure that reaching that age occurs for each one of us. From a community standpoint, the ramifications of a diminished tax base forced to deal with the strain of Medicare and Medicaid for a growing population that is living longer will change how and what we fund in the future. It will bring sharply into focus our core beliefs, and hopefully we’ll rise to the challenge and remember the wisdom that cautions that a society will be judged by how it cares for its young AND its old. The course we will take is beyond my expertise to foretell but it is one that I am without a doubt we will need to navigate.

I do know that each of us can play a role by making sure we do all we can to personally age successfully and prepare for the next chapter in our lives when we reach this landmark. Aging successfully is what this column is all about and has been the mission of Senior Citizens Inc. for almost 60 years. Most of the articles will deal with helping on a personal level and we’ll look at topics that help strengthen each of the columns that hold up the framework of a successful life. At times, we’ll also look at larger changes that will inevitably occur as we struggle as a nation to best define society’s role in successful aging.

So what do I mean when I write about the “columns of life”? There are four areas, or columns, that are essential to achieving a life well lived.  Each of these columns has to be strong in order for us to live life fully and successfully. 

Mind:  A sharp, keen mind is critical for successful aging.Keeping ourselves intellectually engaged and challenged is just one of the tools needed to ward off not only the natural effects of growing older but diseases like Alzheimer's that rob so many of us of our mental acuity against our will.

Body: The physical component of our life is also an essential column. Time has a way of eroding our body but we can keep it strong and healthy, and it may be one of the easiest things to control.

Spirit: A heart that is open and nourished by goodness is our third column. It is scientifically proven that those that find the positive in situations and people around them live longer.

Community: You know the phrase “it takes a village”? Well, it does. Each of us needs to have a village around us. We need to have relationships that lift and nurture us and give us the community we all crave. Keeping our community active in our lives is the fourth column in our ability to age well.

In the months to come, we’ll talk more about each of the columns and what you can do to shore them up. Until then, take a survey of your own columns. Do one or two of them need attention today? Take the time now to look at ways you can strengthen them. It doesn’t have to be a grand or difficult endeavor. Call a friend. Take a walk. Breathe deeply. Complete a crossword puzzle.  After all, regardless of our current age or where we are in the book of life, we all want to age successfully and be ready for each new chapter.

For the past 17 years, Patti Lyons has been the President of Senior Citizens Inc., a nonprofit organization that has been helping people age successfully for almost 60 years. She serves on the Meals on Wheels America Board and is a governor’s appointee to the Georgia Council on Aging.