Senior Toronto blog

July 29, 2019

Hot summer days

It’s hot hot hot out there and I wish I could just stay home, but I have to get to physio for my decrepit back. A couple of years ago, it would have been a pleasant 20-minute walk, but now it’s like a trek across the Sahara. My aging body reacts in strange new ways to the heat. If I change direction, move my head down or to the side, or stop for a red light, I get dizzy and feel like I’m about to faint. If I grab a lamp post or manage to sit down for a couple of minutes, it passes. But what if it happens when I’m crossing the street?

So I’ve learned to walk slowly in the heat, lurching from lamp post to lamp post. I keep my head steady, moving my eyes but not my head as I go along. When I’m about 50 steps from the corner and it looks like the light is going to turn red, I slow down to a crawl. If I start to feel faint, I hang on to something and go up on my toes a few times. The family doctor says that will pump blood up to my head, and it does seem to help.

I feel like I’m made of tissue paper now, one strong gust and I’ll be ripped to pieces. I’m astounded at what it takes to propel this bag of bones down the street: all the exercising at home, determination and persistence, tolerance of pain. I wish I could pass a message to my younger self, the self that used to blow impatiently past those slowpokes on the sidewalk. Give them some respect and some elbow room, I’d say. Those people are tough; they have to be. It’ll be your turn before you know it.

June 30, 2019

Elderwalking

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you. If you’re a senior trying to stay fit, you can’t beat walking. It’s free and available to everyone. But if it’s going to do anything for your endurance, it has to be brisk enough to warm you up and make you breathe faster. And you have to do it often: at least 20 minutes a day. The payoffs are great: you can reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and obesity; lower your blood pressure and blood sugar levels; and improve your mental well-being.

I used to love walking. I’d walk for miles along city streets and park trails. It felt like I was swimming through the air. But now, at 73, I can’t walk briskly outdoors anymore. Neither can most of my friends. We all have different reasons: osteoarthritis of the hip or knee; back and leg pain from degenerating discs or sciatica; plantar fasciitis; hammertoes; neurological disorders; side effects of medications; vision problems from cataracts; dizziness in hot weather; and just plain fear of falling. I can still walk around outside, but I’ve got my eyes glued to the ground in front of me, watching out for every uneven bit of sidewalk just waiting to trip me up, and if I do try to walk quickly it just hurts hurts hurts.

So I don’t care anymore what the experts say my fitness goals should be. What sort of walking do I need to do? Well, I have to be able to walk for 20 to 30 minutes without sitting down. If I can do that, I can get to the subway station, grocery store, drugstore and bank. So I still aim for 20 minutes of aerobics a day, but instead of walking outside, I do low-impact fitness routines for seniors from YouTube: you’re moving in a small familiar space. Aquafitness too, it holds you up so you can’t fall. Treadmills and ellipticals would work as well, at home or in a gym, but they don’t appeal to me. As for Fitbits and counting your steps, you can’t tell me that shuffling off to the bathroom counts as fitness. Counting steps makes you get out of your chair, so I guess it’s better than nothing but that’s about all. Gotta do more than that to get to the grocery store.

May 29, 2019

Get out of town

Spring has finally sprung after a long miserable winter. Everyone wants to get outside, take in great gulps of air, go somewhere, see something new. A day trip would just fill the bill. Sound good? It’s a bit tricky to arrange without a car, but here are a few day trips you can take using GO Transit. It’s just a small list, because I’ve limited it to locations that you can get to within an hour from Union Station, and that have GO stations within a short walking distance of an area of interest.

  • Hamilton. Get off at the Hamilton GO Centre. Visit the nearby Whitehern Historic House and Garden or the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Have lunch at one of the restaurants on James St North. Find out more here.
  • Port Credit. From Port Credit GO station, it’s a short walk down to the lake. You feel like you’re in a resort town as you stroll past the shops and restaurants on Lakeshore Rd. Just west of the Credit River is Saddington Park, with beautiful waterfront trails. Find out more here.
  • Stouffville. The Stouffville GO station is right on Main St. Visit the Latcham Gallery (admission free) and outdoor sculpture garden. Along Main St, there are many repurposed historic buildings, and nearby there are many beautiful homes built in late 1800s. Lots of restaurants for lunch. Find out more here.
  • Streetsville. From the Streetsville GO station, walk through the parking lot, then a short distance down Thomas St to Queen St South. You’re stepping back in time into a streetscape that has remained relatively unchanged for over a century. Streetsville is home to the largest concentration of historic buildings in Mississauga. Drop into a Queen St restaurant for lunch. Find out more here.

A few companies offer guided day trips by bus from Toronto. To find some, just type or paste this phrase into the Google search box: toronto day (bus OR coach) (tours OR trips). You’ll see a variety of theatre, history, nature and shopping trips. Give yourself a one-day vacation by tour bus or GO Transit. Bon voyage!

April 30, 2019

What’s for dinner?

What did you have for dinner when you were a child? In our house, it was usually variations on the theme of meat, potatoes and another vegetable. The meat was often hamburger, which cooks quickly. The vegetables came from a can. We hardly ever went to restaurants. There weren’t many convenience foods. My mother never heard of quinoa or kale. She worked full-time and didn’t have much time or energy to spend cooking dinner. She was cooking from scratch under stress.

Fast-forward to 2019. Lots more choices now: many more imported foods, convenience foods, fast food, ready-made meals, frozen dinners, meal kits, take-out. More cooking tools: slow cookers, microwaves, food processors. So cooking should be easier now, and less stressful, but it isn’t. Now there’s a food culture, a heavily marketed industry that has turned food into fashion: cooking shows, celebrity cooks, magazines, cookbooks and food blogs that create trends and focus on novelty and exoticism and a touch of snobbery. Here’s a simple recipe, they say: just pick up some black sea salt and yuzu juice, make a balsamic reduction, cook the meat sous vide. If you have people over, you have to provide alternatives for your friends on a gluten-free diet, or vegan, or Paleo. Eggs are bad for you – no, wait, that was last year. Don’t eat red meat, eat lots of red meat. All carbs are bad, some carbs are bad, complex carbs are great, no they’re not. Tuna casserole? Hang your head in shame.

And then there’s that dirty little secret that nobody wants to say out loud: all that grocery shopping, slicing and dicing, washing and cleaning up take time and effort. Cooking is work. And as we seniors struggle with our waning strength and energy, we just want to uncomplicate our lives, simplify and streamline whatever we can. We’re not alone in this. For working people and families with small children, dinner is a daily hurdle to jump over when they’re already tired. A few years ago, some British researchers ran a survey to find out how people really cooked at home. Guess what? Sixty percent of Brits eat the same seven meals every week. One in four British adults even cooks the same meal on the same day every week. Only four people in ten know more than nine recipes, and one in four can only cook three. The three most popular dishes were bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes), beans on toast and spaghetti with meat sauce: traditional comfort foods. People wanted meals that are cheap, tasty, easy to prepare and foolproof. They just wanted to get dinner over with. But they had been affected enough by the food industry hype to feel guilty about it.

Don’t feel guilty. Just pick your own tried-and-true favourites and make them as often as you like. Try to choose foods that fit in with Canada’s new evidence-based food guide. Novelty in the kitchen is overrated. Ignore the hype; it’s not your job to prop up the fashionable food industry. And if you want to sneak in the occasional tuna casserole, I won’t tell.

March 30, 2019

Retirement for introverts

I’ve always needed plenty of time alone. I enjoy getting together with a friend or two, but a lot of social activity or large groups make me feel exhausted. Then I need lots of solitude to recharge. I’m not unhappy. It’s not pathological, it just is what it is. No matter what line our culture tries to feed us, heavy socializing is not for everyone.

We introverts often find the workplace stressful, being surrounded by people and having to interact all day. So retirement can feel like a blessed relief. Finally, our time is our own, and we can choose how much interaction we want, and when, and with whom. I can spend days puttering around at home, taking my time with everything, not following a schedule. If I want to spend more time with other people I can easily arrange it. If I need a bit more structure, I can just sign up for something. I don’t have any bucket list; I’m happy to just float along. As long as I’m healthy, it’s bliss!

It would be lovely to imagine that I could just go on living in my own home until I die peacefully in my sleep some day. But realistically, at some point I’ll probably need care. And care homes are not designed for introverts.

If I can’t manage to look after my place anymore, have to stick close to home but still want easy access to activities and medical staff, then I’ll go shopping for a retirement home. They’re expensive and I might not find one I like, but at least I can take my time and do some comparison shopping. A lot of them seem to run sort of like an adult summer camp, with the expectation that you will socialize, socialize, socialize: join lots of activities, eat your meals in groups, get out of your room. But a few retirement homes are starting to recognize the need to accommodate introverts and include activities with lower social content in their programming, like using computers, puzzles, games, fitness, singing and gardening.

The real crunch will come if I get sick enough to need care round the clock – dementia, a broken hip – and have to go into a nursing home. Nursing homes in Ontario are warehouses: weakly regulated, poorly monitored, minimally staffed. About 70% of them are privatized. I would expect to share a room and the washroom will be down the hall. I’ll be lucky to get two diapers a day and a shower a week. The TV will be left blaring all day, and no one will answer the call bell at night. Programming, if there is any, will consist mostly of bingo. This is not fear-mongering; it is exactly what I discovered when I spent seven weeks in convalescent care in a nursing home a few years ago. There is no relief from the noise and no place to be alone. But neither is there much chance of companionship: of the 60 residents on my floor, not more than one or two were capable of carrying on a conversation. So I’d say nursing homes are probably equally hard on introverts and extroverts. But maybe I’d give a slight edge to introverts, who are used to entertaining ourselves with our own minds. With luck, maybe that will help see us through those rough days at the end of the road.

February 28, 2019

On rereading books

So many books, so little time! Why bother rereading a novel when there are so many new ones? Are we just being lazy, sticking to what’s familiar? Or is it the only way to really understand a book?

I got to thinking about this recently when I was home recovering from minor surgery. I found myself reading through all my old Brother Cadfael mystery novels. I didn’t care whodunit. I just wanted to spend time with a beloved familiar character. It was such a pleasure to be back in the company of the calm, compassionate, astute, spiritual yet worldly Brother Cadfael. A few years ago, when I was in a lot of pain with a ruptured disc, I reread all my Asterix comic books. They allowed me to escape to Gaul in Julius Caesar’s time, and have a good laugh. So sometimes rereading books can simply provide the comfort of something familiar, something we’ve enjoyed before and probably will enjoy again.

Some books provide a depth and breadth of vision that we discover only gradually on rereading. The second time around we can better appreciate the characters, atmosphere, writing style, structure and ideas: all that rich nuance we didn’t catch the first time because we were too curious to find out what would happen next. This works best with what are sometimes called literary novels, or classics: novels with depth and complexity. Middlemarch is a good example. The first time I read it, I was all caught up in following the threads of each character’s story. The second time, I could focus more on exploring some of the themes: confronting our failures, the place of women in Victorian society, the complexity of human motivation, the hunger for money, the power of compassion.

There’s a special benefit to rereading books in old age: we become aware of change. The books haven’t changed, but we have. As we go through life, our experience has broadened, and our values and interests may have evolved too. So we may react very differently to a book now than we did years ago. Rereading connects us to our younger selves: how we thought and felt, what was important to us then, and how we look at things now. Things that didn’t make sense before make sense now. Jay Gatsby, who seemed so charming and flamboyant when I read The Great Gatsby years ago, now appears manipulative and grasping. When I read Animal Farm as a teenager, I was mostly intrigued by the characters and interactions of all the talking animals. Now I recognize in Napoleon the pig a chilling portrayal of a dictator masquerading as a liberator. Some books may not live up to our earlier experience. I loved Little Women as a child, but now I’m put off by all that tedious moralizing, and I’ve shattered a happy childhood memory.

I’ll leave the final word to Robertson Davies:

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.