GratiTuesday: Lifelong learning opportunities

I’ve written several posts about the free or low-cost educational opportunities many communities offer to those who are 50+. I continue to be amazed at the breadth of subject matter and quality of instruction these classes, workshops, lectures, and field trips offered.

The OASIS Institute is just one of many learning opportunities that can be found in many communities.
The OASIS Institute is just one of many learning opportunities that can be found in many communities.

Last semester, among several classes my husband and I attended, were a couple of exceptional one-day workshops offered by our local OASIS Institute. Teaching them was a tenured professor of Philosophy and Humanities at a local college and a popular speaker at both OASIS and Osher. The depth of his knowledge was amazing and his skills as a lecturer quite impressive.

One of his workshops was titled Practicing Gratitude. By weaving religion, philosophy, poetry, culture, and modern-day challenges, the instructor was able to shine a light on why we are wired to react more strongly to negative events instead of positive ones and remember insults rather than praise. Even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, we often will focus on the negative.

Our proclivity to look for threats and be hyper aware of potential negative outcomes was hard-wired into our prehistoric brains. Our early relatives wouldn’t have lived very long by assuming everything would turn out great if they just looked on the bright side of life. Their world was full of threats and their survival depended on being wary and watchful.

Fortunately in our modern world, embracing a positive outlook and practicing gratitude won’t get us eaten by a saber-toothed cat. That’s not to say we should turn a blind-eye to possible threats and naively expect that everyone has our best interests at heart. We still need to remain attentive and protect ourselves from harm. But, we can change the way we react to events and alter our perspective by proactively and consciously practicing gratitude. Even a negative experience can yield a positive outcome (if only a small nugget of one) if we train ourselves to look for it.

Many people have embraced the practice of gratitude and have found that by doing so, they have become calmer and feel happier. Suspicion and hyper-vigilance can be exhausting and depressing. In order to help them focus, some people keep a gratitude journal; others begin every day by making a mental list of people and things they are grateful for. Beginning on the first Tuesday after the new year, I started to write a weekly GratiTuesday post. I hope to keep it up throughout 2016 and beyond.

Today, I am so very grateful for the incredible lifelong learning opportunities available to me. The instructors, volunteers, sponsors, and donors work together to inspire and engage us so we never stop learning.

What are you grateful for?

GratiTuesday: So long, fifties, it was fun!

Tomorrow, I will no longer be in my fifties. A new year and a new decade of my life begins. I’m not even sure how long I can legitimately claim to be “middle-aged” anymore (although I suspect that I’ll cling to that designation until my dying breath).

60 cupcake

At least up until today, I’m not too freaked out about this milestone birthday. Tomorrow could be a whole different story, but right now I feel optimistic. At 59, I’m generally healthy and happy, and I have no reason to think this will change when my odometer clicks over to 60.

My fifties started out not with a bang, but a whimper… mine. On the day of my 50th birthday, I had a 4-hour meeting with a client that required a 3-hour drive each way. I felt sorry for myself the whole day and my mood was only slightly brightened when my husband greeted my return with a hug and a kiss and a homemade cake. Poor me.

Fortunately, that inauspicious start was not a harbinger of things to come over the next decade. I soon left that good but uninspiring job for a better one which allowed me to learn a lot of new skills, work with some amazing people who became much more than colleagues, and gave me a strong sense of career satisfaction. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to work for a great company and with some outstanding individuals.

My fifties included quite a few travel adventures, including a trip to Cuba that I had dreamed about since I was in my thirties. I also got to explore parts of the United States that I hadn’t been to before, and re-visited other areas that warranted a second – or third – look. I am so grateful that my husband, traveling companion, and best friend are all wrapped up in the same package.

I took up a few new hobbies in my fifties, including blogging and photography. I am grateful for the generous help and encouragement I’ve received from others as I struggle to improve. I’m also grateful for the plethora of free, or nearly free, classes and seemingly limitless online resources that have helped to shorten my learning curve.

Of course, my fifties contained a few bumps and bruises along the way. Four years ago I lost my beloved 92-year-old father after many years of failing health. As sad as it was to say good-bye, I am so grateful that I had him in my life for so long. I, along with my brothers, had the privilege of caring for him as he declined and I am profoundly grateful that I was by his side to surround him with love as he slipped away.

My fifties is also the decade that I shut the door on the 8 – 5 world and opened the mystery door labeled “retirement.” Although it has been less than two years since I stepped over that threshold, I can’t say that I’ve ever had a second thought about that decision. I am grateful that I was able to leave work on my timetable and while young enough to experience the joys and take advantage of the opportunities retirement offers.

So, tomorrow I’ll celebrate the beginning of a new decade. I don’t know what it holds for me, but I’m grateful that I get to be here to say “hello, and welcome.”

A New Year’s Resolution for EVERYONE

I gave up writing New Year’s resolutions for myself years ago. As a kid, it was kind of fun to put together a list every year but, as I got older, I came to realize that they really never amounted to much. In the end, and despite my good intensions, there were few pounds lost and no better habits gained. Yep, I was pretty much the same old me after a month or two into the new year.

This year, rather than come up with a resolution just for myself, I have decided to make one big resolution for EVERYONE to share. I figure that, with us all working together, supporting each other, and gently nudging those that falter back on track, maybe, just maybe, we can succeed.

My resolution for the masses:

Don’t be Stupid

The best thing about this resolution for you is, because I’m sure, like me, you aren’t stupid at all, your part will be easy. Just make sure that everyone else doesn’t backslide.

An Allegory of Folly (early 16th Century) by Quentin Massys
An Allegory of Folly (early 16th Century) by Quentin Massys

 

Here is list of 10 ways your fellow humans can avoid being stupid. It’s far from complete.

  1. Don’t text or talk on the phone while driving. Competent multi-tasking is a myth, and, even if it wasn’t, when the task is piloting a vehicle that weighs over 3,000 pounds, that task requires complete attention. This level of stupid could end up killing someone.
  2. Same goes for drinking and driving.
  3. Don’t believe everything you read, hear, or see on the Internet – check things out. Develop a healthy skepticism. Believing that Mark Zuckerberg is giving away $4.5 million to random people is stupid. Reposting it (even with the caveat “this could be a hoax, but I’m posting it just in case”) makes the poster’s stupidity evident to all 1,000 of their closest friends. Snopes.com and Factcheck.com are your friends. So are critical thinking skills.
  4. Especially in an election year, #3 also applies to politicians. Even – maybe especially – the ones you agree with.
  5. Don’t over-inflate. I’m not talking about weight here (although, it could be argued that not properly nourishing and caring for the only body we have is kind of stupid), I mean the tendency to take a small incident and inflate it into something much greater. Red Starbucks cups come to mind, as does Donald Trump. Over-inflating creates cultural distortion and promotes misinformation.
  6. Don’t miss out on glorious vistas or the witnessing of actual events or because it seemed more important to take and post selfies. The magnificence of the Grand Canyon isn’t improved with duck-lipped faces in front of it.
  7. Don’t compare yourself to Photo shopped models. The models don’t even look like that.
  8. Don’t dig your own grave. You’ll get there soon enough as it is. Stop maintaining habits that are self-destructive, staying in relationships that are toxic, and dwelling on negative thoughts. If you like digging around in the dirt, better to plant a garden.
  9. Don’t ever pass up an opportunity to pay a sincere compliment or tell someone that you love them.
  10. Don’t forget to live your best life. Always. It’s the only one you’ll get.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year’s celebration! And, please watch out for stupid people (especially those mentioned in #1 and #2).

Old perro, new tricks

Old-Dog-New-Tricks

I took Spanish in high school because I had to. Alternatively, I could have chosen French or German but I figured Spanish would be much more useful in my day-to-day world. I’ve never had a good ear for languages or accents, but, after three years of struggling, I ended up with a moderate grasp of conversational Spanish.

The problem with trying to learn anything only because it’s required is that, once the lessons are over, the motivation (in this case, a good grade) is gone and whatever knowledge managed to penetrate my cranium starts to fade away. Lessons learned in subjects I loved – English, social studies, history, art – are still with me for the most part. Algebra, chemistry, and Spanish… not so much.

I actually know a number of Spanish words and I can even put together a few complete sentences. But, since I live in a border city, I probably would have risen to this barely-literate level even without taking classes in high school. I’m fairly confident that the few swear words I have in my meager Spanish vocabulary weren’t taught to me in school, but instead from several helpful kitchen crews I worked with as I waitressed my way through college.

I have often regretted not building on my Spanish skills since I graduated from high school. I have had many co-workers and friends who were fluent speakers and I know they would have been happy to let me practice on them. A lot of my reluctance has been my insecurity with my accent and, frankly, not wanting to look – or sound – silly. Since most native Spanish speakers I interact with are also fluent in English, I’ve taken the lazy person’s way out and opted to converse in the language that is most comfortable for me.

On my long list of want-to-dos in retirement (or jubilación in Spanish – isn’t that a great word? It sounds like jubilation) is to take classes in subjects of interest to me. I’ve already taken several photography and photo editing classes and I’ve signed up for a few lectures on interesting topics. Between our local community college’s continuing education offerings, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes, and our local Oasis Institute, I could happily become a full-time student again.

Most recently, my husband and I have started taking a class in beginning Spanish. Not only do we want to better understand and converse in a language we hear just about every day, we are contemplating arranging for an extended stay in Oaxaca, Mexico. Although we hope to take Spanish classes while we are there (in addition to cooking and art classes), we want to have at least some of the basics under our belts before we arrive. Right now, we could successfully ask where the bathroom (baño) is and order a beer (cerveza) – obviously both very important – but we would have trouble with anything more complicated.

So far, the class is very different from my high school experience. The teacher is fun and not at all intimidating, my fellow students are older and grayer, and the text book contains words and phrases that one might actually hear in the real world. The biggest difference is that we are there because we want to be. The only requirements are the ones we put on ourselves: listen, participate, practice, do our homework, and, most of all, enjoy the process of learning a new skill.

Building a bridge to Cuba

Although the news wasn’t a surprise, I was heartened to hear President Obama announce the formal re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba. This breakthrough came after months of secret talks between the nations followed by his acknowledgement last December that the relationship between the two countries was headed for a profound change. This Monday, the Cuban flag was raised over the country’s newly restored embassy in Washington, DC.

In 1961, the United States enacted an economic embargo with the explicit purpose of ousting the Castro regime. The sanctions were tightened even further in 1996, again in an effort to unseat Castro. History has shown us that these restrictions haven’t attained their goals; the Castros are still in power and democracy has eluded the island’s citizens.

Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as "The great homeland that grows."
Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as “The great homeland that grows”

Although past U.S. administrations have sought to moderate or remove the sanctions, politics has, until now, stymied any efforts. Politicians seeking the votes of the large population of Cuban exiles in the swing state of Florida have been unwilling to support any changes.

There are many reasons why what seemed impossible before, now appears to be happening. For Cuba, their two main benefactors, first, the Soviet Union and then, Venezuela, imploded, leaving the government without critical economic support. Tourism, trade, and investments from the United States will offer them much-needed monetary infusions. For the U.S., not only have the sanctions failed to oust the Castro regime, but they have severely constrained our country’s trade and foreign policy options. In addition, with an agreement, the Cuban government will lose a powerful scapegoat. No longer will they be able to blame their failed economics on the policies of the United States.

Demographics have also played a big role in the softening of the stance of both countries. The Castro brothers are now in their eighties and soon these powerful symbols of the revolution will be gone. In addition, the original exiles – the most vocal opponents to any change – are also aging, and younger Cuban-Americans are more open to removing the restrictions of the embargo. Although no one believes that Cuba will instantly become a bastion of human rights and democracy, it will be hard for their government to maintain its current policies when there is more freedom of communication, travel, and commerce.

Cuba's famous Malecon at sunset
Cuba’s famous Malecon at sunset

When my husband and I traveled to Cuba earlier this year (you can read about our journey here, here, and here), we found a country hungry for change. The Cubans we talked to (and there appeared to be little or no restrictions on our interactions) were friendly, welcoming, and eager to engage with Americans. Despite – and maybe because of – the hardships they face, many have a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit. They are also very proud of their country. Cuba has a 96% literacy rate and their citizens enjoy free education and healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba’s water quality is among the best in the world, as is its citizens’ nutrition levels, health, and life expectancy.

Cubans are also very proud of their medical system. Cuban doctors are highly trained and their skills are in demand around the world. In fact, some 50,000 Cuban medical workers have been deployed in over 66 nations. That, of course, hasn’t included the United States, but maybe that could change. There has been a lot of concern lately about the dearth of general practice physicians here in the US. As the Baby Boomer population ages, more and more medical care will be needed. In addition, now that healthcare is more widely available through the Affordable Care Act, we need more doctors to provide care.

I know that there are many who feel that the sanctions should remain and that formally re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba sends the wrong signal. I, on the other hand, think it’s time to admit that our half-century estrangement hasn’t yielded the results we wanted and has actually produced many unintended negative consequences.

Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana's buildings are at risk of collapsing
Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana’s buildings are at risk of collapsing

By joining the rest of the world and opening up relations with Cuba, we can start a dialog that could result in increased freedom for their people. It might also mean that we could help satisfy our growing need for doctors by inviting members of their highly-trained medical establishment to practice here. Wouldn’t that be better than to continue a failed policy which, after more than 50 years, has yet to show any positive results?

The girl I never knew

scan0009Today is (was?) my mother’s birthday. She passed away back in 2000, after having a series of strokes, but seldom a day goes by that I don’t think of her. Sometimes it’s a memory of a conversation we had, or a place we visited, or a question that I would like to ask her. Each time I write a blog post, I wish I could rely on her excellent writing and editing skills to proofread my words before I hit “publish.”

My mother and I were close, but we weren’t best friends. I depended on her for love, emotional support, good advice (even if I didn’t take it all the time), and help with my homework. She taught me to work hard, revere nature, nurture a positive outlook, and not to take myself too seriously. We didn’t share all of our secrets or spend hours talking on the phone. I loved her very much and I know she loved me but our roles were fairly well defined.

Now that she is gone, I am often struck by how little I know about her life before I was born. I have a lot of tangible memories of my mother: many of her favorite recipes, magazine articles she wrote, and some beloved tchotchkes. I also have a lot of photos of her; what I don’t have is the comfort that I really knew the women in those photos. I love hearing stories from relatives who grew up with her and I treasure the diaries that both she and my father kept in their twenties and thirties. But, looking back, I wish I had asked her more questions about her childhood, her teenage years, and when she was a young woman – before and after she met my father.

I know that her mother died just days after my mother was born, but I don’t know how the loss might have shaped her as she grew up. I know where and how my parents met, but I don’t know what she thought about when they decided to get married after just three months of knowing each other – and just a few weeks before my father was shipped off to Europe for his Army service during WWII.

scan0003I think many of today’s mother/daughter relationships are different. Many of my friends who have kids talk about how close they are and they seem to be more open with them about their past. Some mothers and daughters share clothes and Facebook updates. A few discuss their sexual histories and past drug use. One friend even shares Botox appointments with her adult daughter.

If I had a daughter, I’m not sure where along the closeness spectrum we would sit, but I’d like to think it would be somewhere in the middle. I understand the desire to be “best friends,” but I also appreciate the need to maintain a certain amount of separation. Although I wish I had asked more about my mother’s past, I appreciate that she had pieces of her life that she wanted to keep private. Just as her past shaped her, mine has shaped me, and my relationship with my mother is one of the parts of who I am that I most cherish.

**

Mom and Me1Although I don’t remember many of my dreams, every once in a while I have a vivid one about my mother. It is usually the same: we are sitting together on the sofa in my parents’ living room chatting about this and that and enjoying each other’s company. Everything seems completely normal when suddenly I realize it is just a dream. When that happens, I reach over and hug her tightly to me, knowing she won’t be there when I wake up.

I hope I have that dream again tonight.

Finding my happy place

Last week, Sammy over at Bemuzin, posted a list of ten things she loves and ten things she hates. She had been tagged by a fellow blogger to participate in the Love-Hate Challenge, then she tagged ten different bloggers to pass the baton to, including me.

Fortunately, she didn’t list “procrastinators” as one of the ten things she hates, because I’m a bit tardy submitting my lists to the blogosphere.

Blueberries definitely take me to my happy place!
Blueberries definitely take me to my happy place!

For my lists, I’m going to change it up a bit (Sammy also didn’t include “rule-breakers” on her hated list, so I think I’m in the clear). First, few things rise to the level of “hate” in my life, so I will modify my list titles a bit. Second, I’m not going to tag a new group. But, give some thought to compiling your own lists, it was a lot of fun!

Ten things that take me to my happy place:

  • Beginning the morning lazing about and cuddling with my husband
  • Sitting on my deck and enjoying the sunshine
  • Taking walks with friends for exercise and conversation
  • Starting a new book and, after just a few pages, realizing that it’s REALLY good
  • Our blueberry bushes bursting with berries
  • All the yummies we make with our blueberry harvest
  • Small get-togethers with friends – good conversation, good food, and good wine
  • Road trips
  • National Public Radio
  • Coaxing a contented purr from a kitty by scratching behind its ears

Ten things that harsh my buzz:

  • Guilt-tipping (I talk all about it here)
  • When people post controversial things on Facebook without checking its authenticity
  • Drivers who endanger themselves and others by texting or talking on their cellphones
  • Mean people
  • Cooked carrots
  • When I forget someone’s name and have to fumble around in my brain to retrieve it
  • Missing Stephen Colbert and, soon, Jon Stewart on Comedy Central
  • Gophers
  • Ever-shrinking seats on airplanes
  • People who don’t pick up their dog’s poop

It’s the journey, not the destination

Route 66

When my husband and I were planning our recent road trip, we realized that our drive home from St. Louis could naturally follow the same trajectory as old Route 66. Even though our trip west wouldn’t begin in Chicago (the traditional starting point) and our final destination wasn’t Santa Monica (Route 66’s “end of the trail”), we were excited to have the opportunity to see many of the famed byways and unique roadside attractions we had heard so much about.

Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.
Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.

Like many of the original highways constructed in the early 1920s, Route 66 was designed to connect urban and rural communities and break the monopoly of the railroads. Nicknamed “America’s Main Street” and the “Mother Road,” it linked hundreds of small towns along a winding 2,400-mile ribbon of asphalt. Although the highway was used during the Dust Bowl and the Depression by those who traveled west seeking better lives, it wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that Route 66 fully became a symbol of freedom and the wide open road. With the economic boom of the post-war area, more Americans had money to buy cars and the leisure time to travel, and a road trip on Route 66 was almost a rite of passage for many.

That began to change in 1956, as the Interstate Highway System started to develop super highways that were straight-lined and designed to move people from one place to another as quickly as possible. Because the modern highways bypassed hundreds of the small towns along the path of Route 66, many couldn’t survive. Just like the cracked and crumbling asphalt, the towns and the business that depended on travelers began to decline. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned by the federal government.

Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.
Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.

As we made our way west, we ran into a lot of fellow travelers who were also tracing the historic route. Some were dedicated Route 66 explorers and others, like us, made stops here and there at towns and attractions that sparked an interest. We were surprised to discover many Route 66 aficionados were visiting from other countries, including a group from Sweden traveling on rented motorcycles.  Just about all of us were baby boomers.

World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.
World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.

Many of the shopkeepers and restaurant owners we talked to along the way shared that business wasn’t what it used to be. Several pointed to the recent recession as the beginning of the downward trend and I’m sure that had a big influence. But, I also wonder if the lure of America’s Main Street just doesn’t tug at the imagination of Gen Xers and Millennials as it does for Baby Boomers*. Yes, there are various Route 66 associations and preservation groups, but most members are over 50. Back in 1999, our former Boomer-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, signed a National Route 66 Preservation Bill. I’m not sure a similar bill could pass today.

Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.

A majority of the original road is gone and many of the roadside attractions are no longer open. Some of the small towns are now boarded up ghost towns. But, there still is a lot to see and do. If the lore of Route 66 has ever pulled at you, or if you want to find some escape from our modern generic world (even in bits and pieces), I encourage you to make your travel plans soon. Route 66 awaits you and I’m not sure how long many of the places can hang on.

The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.

* There may be hope for Generation Z as many of them would have see Pixar’s 2006 animated film Cars. In it, the once-booming Radiator Springs, situated along Route 66, is now nearly a ghost town because it was bypassed by Interstate 40. Perhaps the movie’s success has generated a resurgence of public interest in Route 66.

0 to 5161 in three weeks

Last night, my husband and I arrived back home after being on the road for three weeks.  We took off from Southern California on April 24 with a rough itinerary that included a couple of hard dates but also a lot of flexibility. We had family and calendared events waiting for us in Omaha and later in St. Louis, but, other than that, we were on our own.

A quiet walk among the the red rocks in Capitol Reef National Park
A quiet walk among the the red rocks in Capitol Reef National Park

The 5,161 miles we traveled took us through 14 states and to 11 national parks and monuments, several state parks, and quite a few museums. We had days when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, days full of ice and snow, and just about every weather pattern in between. We experienced the majesty of nature in the red rocks of Utah and Arizona and the audacity of men whose dreams led them to carve the likenesses of four presidents and an Indian chief on the sides of mountains. We saw a giant depression in the earth where a meteorite landed 50,000 years ago and we enjoyed the kitsch of visiting a giant rocking chair and sleeping in a motel room shaped like a teepee along the route made famous in the 1920s and 1930s.

My husband, best friend, and traveling buddy (I’m fortunate to have all three wrapped in one person) indulged my photographic whims by happily stopping whenever I asked him to. Our tastes are similar enough so that we usually easily agreed on attractions to stop for as well as food and lodging choices, but we are flexible enough so that we could change plans to accommodate each other’s interests.

Today is the one-year anniversary of my retirement. Over the past twelve months we’ve taken two driving trips and two trips that have required getting on a plane. Planes allow us to get to far-off destinations, but there is nothing like a road trip to best explore this country and build a greater understanding of ourselves and others.

As I do on every one of our travels, I kept a journal of our day-to-day activities and adventures. I also jot down inspirations, insights, and possible blog topics as they occur to me. I will share some of these over the next several posts.

Is this when the wheels start to come off?

I have a friend who is battling colon cancer. She has undergone several series of chemotherapy over the past year and has yet to receive an “all clear” diagnosis from her doctors. Each time she thinks she is done, they’ve found new reasons for concern. After completing her last round of chemotherapy, she is now in a wait-and-see holding pattern and we are all cautiously optimistic.

Another friend is currently undergoing chemotherapy for Lymphoma.  She is one month into her treatments and after another 4 – 5 months her doctors will do another evaluation. She is getting a lot of support from her husband and friends, and we are cautiously optimistic about her outcome.

A neighbor who is also a good friend had a mastectomy a few years ago when a small tumor was discovered in her left breast. Recently, during a routine follow-up with her oncologist, it was discovered that her HCG levels were unusually high. High HCG levels are normal in pregnant women; high levels in a non-pregnant woman can be an indicator of ovarian cancer. She will get her test results later this week and her friends and family are cautiously optimistic that she will get a clean bill of health.

Then, just the weekend, I called a friend that I’ve known since grade school regarding an upcoming get-together. She told me that her attendance was up in the air at this time because her husband was recently diagnosed with severe Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS), a bone marrow disorder. In general, the prognosis for patients with advanced MDS isn’t encouraging, but she is doing her best to maintain a cautiously optimistic perspective for her husband and her family.

Hope

These four medical challenges are not the only ones faced by friends and acquaintances; I know a few who have battled cancer and won (at least for now) and several others who are living with MS and other long-term health issues.  But, these are the most recent and I can’t shake the feeling that there seems to be an uptick in the number of serious diagnoses received by friends, friends of friends, and their family members – all close to my age.

In general, when we reach retirement age, we are focused on our finances and our emotional well-being. Many also realize that it is important to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. When we think about the future, our concern is often how to ensure adequate care in our advanced age. I don’t think most of us put a lot of thought into facing an early death – of either ourselves or our loved ones.

A recent article in the New York Times titled Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer discusses how cancer is slowly overtaking heart disease as the number 1 cause of death. Due to an increased focus on the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet, and the availability of medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease is less likely to affect someone between 55 and 85. Because of the way cancers develop (over time, due to errors in cell evolution), just the fact that we have lived a long time makes us susceptible to these cell mutations.

Although there have been a lot of strides made in the treatment of some cancers, preventing it in the first place seems to hold the most promise. Governments do this by improving sanitation, regulating and banning certain toxins, and promoting research and the development of vaccines. On the individual level, we can make sure we pay attention to what we eat and get plenty of exercise to keep our weight at a healthy level, stop smoking – and if you don’t smoke, stay away from second-hand smoke, and avoid excessive sun exposure. Of course none of this is a guarantee: not one of the four friends mentioned at the beginning are overweight or have poor eating habits, they don’t smoke, and none of their cancers resulted from too much sun exposure.

I’m not sure what the takeaway from all of this is. I don’t want to live my life in fear of what could be waiting around the corner. I am fair-skinned but I love the being outdoors, so I slather on SPF 50 and go out and enjoy myself. Although I’d love to be able to encase my husband in bubble wrap when he goes on one of his routine 50-mile bike rides, I know I can’t. We both try our best to avoid unhealthy food but, sometimes, something bad is just the thing that makes us feel so good.

So, we do our best. We try to get as much out of this life that we can, love the people who we hold close as hard as we can, take as good care as we can of our frustratingly aging bodies and minds, and always strive to treat others with patience, kindness, and respect.

We remain cautiously optimistic about the future.