Senior Toronto blog

July 30, 2017

The fine art of doing nothing

The Italians call it “il dolce far niente”, the sweet do-nothing, and they have perfected it down to a fine art. Not hard to get the hang of it when you can sip wine on a terrace in an ancient Tuscan town and gaze out over the valley all afternoon. It’s a little trickier over here, where we pride ourselves on how busy we are. But free time is one of the most precious gifts of retirement, and I think it’s worth learning how to enjoy the extravagance of wasting some of it. First, we have to tussle with some notions that our culture has ingrained in us: that we have to be useful, that we have to achieve goals, that time is money. If we’re tied to our gadgets, we have to set them aside for a while. We have to eliminate all distractions, everything that fills up our minds, including reading and listening to music. But no meditation either; we’re not trying to empty our minds. We’re going to let our minds drift.

I’m new at this myself, so I’m trying out some short experiences first. Once I get comfortable with those, I’m going to try longer ones. Here are some ideas:

  • Lie down outside somewhere. I dare you. Watch the clouds roll by.
  • If you have a dog, go to the park and play together. Roll around in the grass.
  • Find a bench. It’s especially fun to be sitting still when there’s a lot going on around you. Try the boardwalk along the Beach; a bus stop; Philosopher’s Walk; a local park where kids are playing baseball or skateboarding or romping through a splashpad.
  • Eat chocolate. It has to be good chocolate, of course. No gobbling. If you need lessons in savouring chocolate, you can get them here.
  • It’s hard to believe, but some people don’t like chocolate. So eat an orange; they’re delicious too. Don’t like to get your hands sticky? Eat it in the shower.
  • Take an afternoon nap. It doesn’t have to be long; 20 or 30 minutes will do. You’ll feel like a new person. Call it a siesta.
  • Try some purposeless walking.
  • Go to a cafe with an outdoor patio. Order a cold drink or a coffee. See how long you can make it last.
  • Take a bath. Add Epsom salts or bath oil or bubbles. Rubber ducky optional.
  • Take a long bus or streetcar or subway ride. Pick a route you don’t normally take. The streetcar routes are especially colourful, but you can have a good time just watching the people around you. Don’t stare.

June 30, 2017

Summer in the city

Retirement often feels to me like a permanent vacation. No bosses nipping at your heels, no impossible deadlines. Lots of deliciously slow, leisurely days. I rarely feel the urge to travel. But every once in a while, especially in the summer, I want a little break from my familiar routine. You too? Here are a few outings that can transport you to a different place and time, all for the price of a local transit ticket:

  • Allan Gardens Conservatory. Built in 1910, the Allan Gardens Conservatory is an elegant glass-domed gem, worth seeing in its own right. Inside you’ll find a permanent collection of exotic plants, and four seasonal flower shows a year. Admission free. On the south side of Carlton St between Jarvis St and Sherbourne St. From College subway station, take the 506 Carlton streetcar east to Jarvis St.
  • Black Creek Pioneer Village offers an opportunity to explore 19th century buildings, heritage-bred farm animals, and beautiful gardens. Admission $12 for seniors. At 1000 Murray Ross Parkway, near Jane St and Steeles Ave. From Finch subway station, take the Steeles 60 West bus to Murray Ross Parkway.
  • Islington Village Murals. Stroll along Dundas St West between Kipling Ave and Islington Ave and view the 26 murals that depict actual local people, places, and events from the early 1900s. Beautifully painted by professional artists along a lively stretch of Dundas West. Download the brochure from the website. From Islington subway station, walk north on Islington Ave a short distance to Dundas West.
  • Mount Pleasant Cemetery has one of the finest collections of almost every tree and shrub that can grow in eastern North America. Many are labelled so that you can easily identify them. Buried here are many prominent figures from 19th and 20th century Toronto, including Timothy Eaton, William Lyon MacKenzie King, Hart Massey, Egerton Ryerson, and Garfield Weston. Download the map from the website. Between Yonge St and Bayview Ave, and Moore Ave to Merton St. From St Clair subway station, walk north on Yonge St a short distance to the entrance.
  • Niagara Falls. On Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays in the summer, the GO train goes directly to Niagara Falls. It leaves Union Station at 9:00 am, and arrives in Niagara Falls at 11:05 am. Gawk at the falls, mingle with the tourists, eat fudge. If you don’t have a Presto card, ask for a senior day pass.
  • Patio by the Lake. Just sit, have a meal or a drink, enjoy the view, and pretend you’re in Muskoka. I’ve given you a link to a useful list that was compiled in 2016.
  • Port Credit. A lively, picturesque waterfront with a resort-town atmosphere. Enjoy the shops and restaurants along Lakeshore Road. Meander along the lakefront trails. Take the GO train to Port Credit; if you don’t have a Presto card, ask for a senior day pass. The waterfront is a short distance from the GO station.
  • Redpath Sugar Museum. The Redpath Sugar Refinery is one of the few remaining manufacturers on the Toronto waterfront. Their museum is a fascinating excursion into Toronto’s industrial history. Contact them in advance to arrange your visit. At 95 Queens Quay East, between Yonge St and Lower Jarvis St. From Pape subway station, take the 72 Pape bus southbound to the Queens Quay East at Lower Jarvis St West Side stop.
  • Riverdale Farm occupies 7.5 scenic acres along pathways through wooded areas, around ponds, and past flower and vegetable gardens on the edge of the Don Valley. It recreates an early 20th century Ontario farm in the heart of Cabbagetown. Admission free. At 201 Winchester St. From Castle Frank subway station, take the 65 Parliament St bus south to Winchester St, then walk east along Winchester St to the end.
  • Self-Guided Walking Tours. The City of Toronto lists about 40 on their website. They cover everything from history and architecture to ravines and the waterfront. Some offer online interactive versions. They all have downloadable printable guides. There’s something for everyone.

May 30, 2017

Seniors and scams

No question that we seniors are heavily targeted by scammers. Why are seniors so vulnerable to scams? Researchers, public institutions, and the media paint a grim picture. We’re in cognitive decline, we’re isolated and lonely, we’re too trusting, we can’t make sound decisions. They mean all of us, not just those with dementia. I’m not a researcher, and maybe I’m deluding myself, but that picture just feels all wrong. How could we become such idiots? How could a lifetime of experience living in the world, dealing with people, confronting scams, all get wiped right out?

Suppose we change the question. Which seniors are most vulnerable to scams? Now a different picture emerges. Turns out it’s older men who are risk-takers, men who see accumulating wealth as a key achievement in life, and who look for investment opportunities others don’t know about. Well, that makes sense. And online platforms make it easy for scammers to find those victims.

Suppose we broaden our perspective, and change the question again. Which people are most vulnerable to scams? Now things really get interesting. An analysis from the U.S.-based Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker reviewed over 30,000 reports of scams. Who do you think comes out on top? Surprise! Of those consumers reporting scams to BBB Scam Tracker, 89% of seniors (aged 65 and up) recognized the scam in time, while only 11% reported actually losing money. For those aged 18 - 24, however, more than three times as many failed to recognize the scam, and 34% reported losing money. Why millennials? They’re bigger risk-takers, they’re overconfident, they think they’re invulnerable. On the other hand, we seniors already know we’re being targeted. We’re probably less impulsive than younger consumers, and have likely already had some experience encountering scams.

It’s not too often that the stereotype of the scatterbrained, helpless senior gets turned on its head. Enjoy.

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.