Senior Toronto blog

April 29, 2017

Eldersongs

When did you stop listening to pop music? It’s such a big deal when we’re young. That’s when it’s talking right to us, exploring all the joy and angst of youth and romance. Then we grow up, get on with our lives, and tune it out. It’s not talking to us anymore. And yet all the changes and emotions we experience as we age make for a rich, complex stew that seems like perfect material for songs. Wouldn’t you love to hear songs that speak to us about our lives again? The problem is, you pretty much have to get to old age to understand it, and there aren’t too many elderly songwriters around. Younger people are doing the songwriting, and when they do write about aging, they tend to fall back on stereotypes. Most of the songs are either overly sentimental or downright cruel. Anyway, I went digging to see what songs I could find that reach beyond the stereotypes, and capture some of the genuine experience of growing old, from the older person’s point of view. Here are a few songs that resonated with me:

  • Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arthritis blues. Written by a true sufferer.
  • Dave Evans, Be proud of the gray in your hair. Bluegrass classic. Get up and live your life; nobody else is going to do it for you.
  • Joni Mitchell, Both sides now. Joni Mitchell wrote and first recorded this insightful, poetic song as a young woman. “It’s life’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know life at all”, she admits. Many years later, with a lifetime of experience manifest in her now deep, husky voice, she recorded it again, and the message still holds true.
  • Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, I remember it well. In this tender, nostalgic duet from Gigi, two former lovers sing about their last rendezvous, many years before. They have completely different memories of the occasion, but it hardly matters, as they look fondly into each other’s eyes.
  • Willie Nelson, It gets easier. The venerable Willie Nelson, age 83, celebrates the freedom that comes with growing old.
  • Tim McGraw, Live like you were dying. The title says it all: live life to the fullest.
  • Pete Seeger, My get up and go. This old chestnut is full of clichés and if this were a young performer I might have given it a pass. But it’s Pete Seeger, who kept on performing right into old age. He sings and plays this song with good humour and grace, and makes it his own.
  • Barry Manilow, Old friends. Stephen Sondheim’s tribute to friendships that have stood the test of time.
  • Frank Sinatra, September of my years. Time passes so quickly, but the past is full of sweet memories that warm up our September years.
  • Leonard Cohen, Steer your way. Really, I could have picked anything from Leonard Cohen’s extraordinary last album, You want it darker. He can feel his life drawing to a close, and probes those questions that have no easy answers: questions about love, faith, and death. His vision is dark, but not despairing. In this song, he stands up to the darkness with honesty and courage: “Steer your heart past the truth you believed in yesterday”.

March 30, 2017

Brain games

We’ve all felt it: that moment of panic when we reach into our pocket or purse for the house keys, and discover that they aren’t there. As we frantically retrace our steps, opening drawers, riffling through yesterday’s clothes, a sinister little tape keeps looping through our heads. Am I losing my mind? Is this the beginning of dementia? How long do I have before I can’t look after myself anymore? Cognitive decline is what many of us seniors fear the most. What can we do about it? Enter the brain games industry, catering to those fears to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But do brain games work?

Because of the public interest, and the relentless hype, scientists have turned their attention to this question. To find out what the biomedical research has to say, I ran some Medline searches. I looked for studies that had gathered together all the research on the topic, and had focused on the most rigorous studies, analyzed and where possible combined the results. It made for a frustrating read. Many studies had been poorly designed. Most looked at short-term outcomes comparing pre-test and post-test scores. And they differed widely as to what aspects of cognitive performance they were measuring: everything from attention, to various types of memory, to reaction time. With all these methodological issues, the results are not surprising. The most comprehensive recent study found that while there is evidence that brain games do improve performance on the trained tasks, there is little evidence that the training transfers to everyday life. Additional studies looked at whether other factors, such as exercise, diet, and social interaction, could influence brain function. These results were discouraging too. For example, researchers could not find evidence of any cognitive effect from aerobic exercise, although of course it’s still worth doing to improve cardiorespiratory fitness.

So how do we keep our aging brains sharp? Well, there’s a model already out there for young people: school. In school, kids develop their minds not just by sitting in front of a computer and focusing on single tasks, but through rich, deep, challenging learning experiences, working independently and in groups. Maybe it’s that deep learning that we need to do, making concentrated sustained efforts that take us out of our comfort zone. It’s the exact opposite of what we think we want in retirement, an easy day, just relax, put your feet up and enjoy yourself, you’ve earned it after a lifetime of work. Maybe that easy day is what sets us on the path to cognitive decline.

So learn to play bridge, take tap-dancing lessons, study Italian, take up the trombone. Smarten up.

February 28, 2017

Memories of old Toronto

Don’t get me wrong. I love the vibrant, multi-faceted city that Toronto has become. I wouldn’t want to turn back the clock to the staid, white-bread city I grew up in. But every once in a while, something triggers a pleasant memory of bygone days, and I indulge myself in a little wallow. Here’s a personal, idiosyncratic list of some of my fond memories:

  • Arcadian Court. An elegant art deco restaurant on the eighth floor of the old downtown Simpson's store. You had to be on your best behaviour there as a kid. Your reward was their succulent chicken pot pie.
  • Bookstores. The Cookbook Store, Britnell’s, Pages, Nicholas Hoare, the Book Cellar, Edwards, David Mirvish Books, Lichtman’s, Librairie Champlain, the World’s Biggest Bookstore. Many of the collections had been carefully curated and would lead you in inspiring new directions.
  • Coffee houses, as opposed to coffee shops. You didn’t much care what the coffee and snacks were like. They just gave you the right to linger at a table and listen to live music.
  • The old Exhibition, when it was still trying to be a country fair, and appeal to adults as well as kids. Kiwanis Festival competitions in the Music Building, fiddling and country dancing contests, snooker championships, the horse show, boat races, the Kitten Sweater models standing like statues.
  • Fabric stores. Stitsky’s, Dressmakers’ Supply, Lizanne’s, Archie Fine and all those other little stores along Queen West near Spadina. Gorgeous quality fabrics for all occasions, endless choice. Lots of free sewing advice from the staff; they loved to sew too.
  • Lunch counters. You’d find them in Kresge’s, Woolworth’s, some drug stores, the basement of Eaton’s Queen Street store. It’s where you went to get a grilled cheese sandwich and a milkshake. If you asked nicely, they would put chocolate ice cream in your chocolate milkshake.
  • Movie theatres. Loews, the Uptown, the University, the Eglinton. There was a sense of grandeur about these movie palaces; you were being drawn into a different world.
  • The revolving stage at Ontario Place. You could sit and enjoy the cool lakeside breeze on a warm summer night and watch some great live entertainment as the stage slowly turned in a complete circle. No bad seats!
  • Record stores. Sam the Record Man, A&A, Vortex. Wide-ranging collections, knowledgeable staff. You could get quite a musical education just by asking a few questions in Sam’s classical department.
  • The Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel. In its heyday it was like a Las Vegas nightclub, with fine dining and a dance floor and top-notch live entertainment. Not my usual kind of haunt, but by a lucky quirk of fate I spent one unforgettable evening there listening to Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

January 30, 2017

Sew it goes

After 40 years, I shouldn’t have been surprised when my sturdy Sears Kenmore sewing machine finally bit the dust. It had three stitch types - straight, zigzag and blind hemming – and a lever to drop the feed dogs. That’s all I needed to make suits and coats and bathing suits and pajamas and drapes and even machine-quilted wall hangings. It was a heavy, all-metal machine, and I kept it oiled and dusted and really hoped it would see me out. I feel like I’ve lost an old friend.

When you haven’t bought a sewing machine for 40 years, you venture into the market and start to feel the earth shifting under your feet. Planned obsolescence has taken over. Most machines are made of flimsy plastic now, inside and out, with fragile dials and levers that might not survive the trip home. You can lift those machines up with a couple of fingers; they feel like toys. Ask the staff to let you try one out, and watch it bounce all over the table. To distract you from the dismal manufacturing quality, they try to snow you with technology. Machines are ranked according to the number of stitch types they offer. A mechanical machine might offer a dozen or two; a computerized machine could include over 200 kinds of stitches. According to the canny marketing line, those mechanical machines with just a few stitches are meant for beginners. More advanced sewers, they advise, will want lots of stitches. So I’m a beginner, because I sew mostly clothing, and have never felt the urge to machine-embroider a daisy on a pillowcase. To me, advanced sewing means mastering techniques like flat-felled seams, piped seams, bound buttonholes, welt pockets, invisible zippers, pinch-pleated drapes. It’s mostly a question of skill, not technology. I can’t imagine that most home sewers would need more than a handful of stitches for their projects.

All of which makes for a very nerve-racking shopping experience. I tried to do my homework, researched blogs and reviews and manufacturers’ websites, and picked a few possible models. I made sure I was clear about what I needed and didn’t need. I promised myself that I wouldn’t yammer on about my late lamented Sears Kenmore. Then I made the rounds of department stores and dealers, testing and observing as much as I could. In the end I bought a mechanical workhorse from a dealer where the staff do repairs and teach classes, and even offer a tutorial to each new customer so they learn about their own machine. It felt reassuringly heavy as I lugged it up the stairs. Pretty soon I’ll have to make a new bathing suit for aquafitness class. That’s when I’ll find out if I made the right choice. Wish me luck.

December 30, 2016

Here’s hoping

It’s supposed to be the season of peace and goodwill, but somehow it all rings false this year. I don’t need to repeat the litany of miseries we experienced in 2016. But this time we can’t just flip a calendar page and call it a fresh start. We’re going to be reaping the results for a long time to come.

This year has taught us a lot of things we don’t like to believe about ourselves. We humans are selfish, greedy, violent, irrational and easily manipulated. When cracks appear in our society, we look for scapegoats. We’ll believe anyone who tells us stories that make us feel good about ourselves, especially at the expense of other people. We’ll do anything for a sense of security, and don’t mind trampling on truth and democracy along the way.

So is there any hope? Well, of course there’s another side to us humans too. We can be caring, creative, innovative, rational, principled and altruistic. We can pull together in a crisis. Will we be able to do it this time? Grassroots movements take a long time to build. But in the past it has been grassroots movements that have gradually swayed public opinion and forced governments to shift in response. That’s how we’ve been able to make progress in minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights. Individuals and communities need to come together now. We need leaders who bring morality and social justice back into the conversation. Progressives can’t expect to persuade with rational argument any more. They need to find ways to project a vision that people can feel deeply, that makes us want to be better than we are, to reach out beyond ourselves. It has to be more appealing than rage and hate. And it has to give us hope.

November 30, 2016

Senior activists

Winter’s on its way, but that’s nothing compared to the icy chill coming from south of the border. Social progress that has taken decades to build may be rolled back now. It may take decades to undo the damage. But there’s one issue that can‘t wait: climate change. We’ve already squandered years in wilful ignorance, lies and misinformation, greed and selfishness, and we can’t afford to waste any more time. The future of the planet depends on what we do in the next few years.

David Suzuki, now 80, recently spoke about the urgent need to have environmental rights enshrined in the Constitution, so that they won’t be subject to the whims of politicians. He’s worried about the world he’s leaving for his grandchildren. And he issued a special challenge to seniors: “Get ... off the golf course, get off the couch. You’ve got something that nobody else in society has — you and I have lived an entire lifetime — we’ve learned a hell of a lot during that lifetime. But what we’ve learned is we need clean air, clean water and clean food to survive. Kids know that, but a lot of adults have forgotten that.”

If you’re a seasoned activist with a reputation for making a difference, jump right in. Otherwise, I really don’t think younger activists want to hear from us. They see us as the generation that created the culture of greed and excess that led us to this point. If you’re a good organizer, maybe consider forming a coalition of grandparents, as grandmothers did in response to the AIDS epidemic in Africa. I’ve come across a few such efforts in Canada, but so far they don’t seem to have gotten any traction. Support our environmental organizations, like the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Ontario Nature, and the Toronto Environmental Alliance. And support trustworthy, objective, research-based news sources, so that we can continue to hear the truth.