I wanted to share a few lessons from my 92-year-old grandmother, “Moom.”
Also known as Jeanette Zaitchik, Moom got her nickname from my uncle when he was a teenager. She is 5 foot something and 120 pounds. She has few physical limitations, but suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She is also the happiest person I know.
Like so many others, I have been focused on ways to improve myself in 2017. In light of national and global events and debates surrounding religious tolerance and national borders, I now feel increased pressure to be my best self. No matter your opinions, you can only work to improve your relationships, your attitude, and your capacity to do whatever it is you wish to do if you are healthy and grounded to start with.
To the best of my knowledge, these are the top four ways to stay healthy and happy until 92 and beyond:
Invite your neighbors to dinner.
If not, then at least offer them a snack. My great-grandmother brewed moonshine in her bathtub in order to support her family of 12 during the Great Depression. Yet Moom recalls her mother constantly feeding every guest that walked through the door. This habit of giving has always stayed with Moom: Whether by snack or by meal, she bestows food as a way to show her love to those around her. Giving has been shown to increase your happiness.
Be active every day.
We all know that exercise can help prevent a number of diseases. However, many population studies, including those in Blue Zones, prove that activity, not just strenuous exercise, can also have lifelong benefits. As Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author, puts it, those individuals who live the longest simply “move all day long” (from The Blue Zones Solution). My grandmother’s daily habits from the moment she retired were to walk for 30 minutes and to go to the grocery store. These activities were not strenuous, but they were routine. She could also be seen “Schmeying” (shopping) in the Marshalls around town on a bi-weekly basis.
Her physical habits were also social ones: Moom had the chance to chat or wave to her neighbors when she walked and was friends with employees at the grocery store, the cashiers at Panera, and the people who worked wherever she went. Social habits are also healthy ones, and harder to come by these days in the age of ordering everything online. Next time you have a conversation while running errands, consider it a boost to your health.
Always wear lipstick.
(Or whatever makes you feel good). We used to tease Moom incessantly because she put on lipstick every time she walked out her door—even if it was to bring the trash to the basement of her apartment building.
In hindsight, I think this care for her appearance is part of what has kept her going into her nineties. It may not be lipstick, but self-care means that you value yourself in addition to others. In a phone call to Moom this morning at 7:30am, she did not know what day it was, but was brushing her hair and putting on lipstick before she went down to breakfast at her assisted living dining room.
Focus on happy thoughts and be grateful.
I’m baffled as to why my grandmother does not express frustration about her memory. She is often reminded (albeit nicely) that she does not remember the last time she saw a member of her family, the day of the week, or what she had for breakfast. Yet it doesn’t faze her—she just asks again or makes a positive statement.
It has been shown time and again that it is easier to let your thoughts—even if they are forced—change your mood than it is to change your mood in order to fix your thoughts. Speaking with Moom last night, she expressed gratitude that her body functions as well as it does and allows her to move about her day as she pleases. I’m not sure how my grandmother cultivated a lifetime of a good attitude, but it pervades into the future even as her disease progresses. Moom’s positive attitude continues to create a good life for her: Family visits frequently, staff members are kind to her, and other residents treat her with respect because she offers the same to every person with whom she comes into contact.
This may be hard to read if you have a close family member or friend suffering from dementia, physical disability, or other hardships of age or circumstance. I hope this account of my grandmother does not bring up frustration or sadness . I share only to provide an example to those of us who are able-bodied and in possession of our faculties, to make choices to focus on the positive, to take measures of self-care, and to focus on the needs of others, in an attempt to find our own happiness. The one thing over which everyone has control is their own outlook and their own actions.