The Medical Benefits of Caring for Your Emotions

Many people develop Type II Diabetes when they enter the second half of life. My mother was unfortunately one of those who was diagnosed with this disease when she was in her 58th year. She battled this illness for many years. One thing I noticed, however, was that whenever she was under some form of emotional stress or experiencing excessive worry, her blood sugars rose and her physical health diminished. She later developed heart disease, which eventually took her life, not an uncommon outcome for people who suffer from diabetes.

I have since learned that my mother could have been greatly helped if, in addition to the medical care she received, she had also been given counselling to help her cope with the anxiety and fear she was facing. In research that has emerged from a study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine with more than a thousand men and women who had suffered a first heart attack, those women who went on to suffer a second heart attack were marked by high levels of fearfulness and anxiety. Subsequent studies have shown that women (and men too) who were offered personal counselling or taught relaxation techniques were not only able to handle their turbulent feelings better, but they also experienced some reprieve from their illness, in many cases lengthening their life and enhancing the quality of their life.

Daniel Goleman, whose work on Emotional Intelligence is well known, suggests that a good preventive strategy in dealing with the physical challenges that people face in the second half of life would be to teach them emotion management. He says that, since emotional well-being is one factor that determines whether an older person declines rapidly or thrives,  those entering into retirement, or already in retirement, could benefit greatly from regular sessions with a personal counsellor or therapist. Certainly, the scientific evidence shows that, just as we need to care for our physical health, so also we need to care for our mental and emotional health, and that both physical and emotional health go hand in hand. Our emotions can and do affect our ability to recover from surgery or cope with chronic illness.

Reflections on PRIDE Month: Gay and Aging

As we begin the second week of Pride Month, it behooves us to pause and consider what life is like for most older adult members of the LGBTQ+ community. Studies show that many seniors suffer from loneliness and isolation as they age; but these factors are heightened for LGBTQ+ seniors.

For example, close to 50% of LGBTQ+ seniors do not live in conjugal relationships and many have no children or certainly fewer children than most heterosexual seniors.

According to the Government of Canada[1], other significant factors put LGBTQ+ seniors at greater risk than their heterosexual siblings. While all seniors can and do suffer from loneliness, loss of social network or interactions, or fear the loss of autonomy due to illness or disabilities, there are additional factors that contribute to the sense of isolation many older adults who are LGBTQ+. Here are just a few that the government identifies:

  • Having to conceal sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Fear of discrimination
  • Past or current discrimination
  • Stigmatization associated with discrimination based on age, sex and ethnocultural community
  • Fear of going into a private seniors’ residence or long-term care facility
  • Lack of support or feeling unwelcome at programs for seniors
  • Lack of opportunities to contribute to the community and perform volunteer work
  • Housing discrimination
  • Heterosexist or homophobic culture within society and within organizations that provide care and services
  • Being HIV positive or having developed HIV/AIDS
  • Difficulty that others have in accepting gender reassignment or transition
  • Interpersonal difficulties and rejection by family, social network or broader community

Clearly community centres for seniors, senior residential communities and residences need to do a better job of making it known that LGBTQ+ seniors are welcome. Staff need to be trained to understand and promote healthy, inclusive attitudes and should be held accountable if they do not. Films that include members of the LGBTQ+ community need to be shown and discussion circles developed to help break down the barriers of prejudice and discrimination. Opportunities for LGBTQ+ individuals to tell their stories – if they wish – should also be made available.

There is much more that we can do to build trust and affirmation between and among all seniors, and indeed among all generations. There is a very great deal still to be done to create a healthy aging environment for LGBTQ+ seniors. Please share your ideas and experiences. I would love hear from you!

Happy PRIDE Month!


Was It Really Curiosity that Killed the Cat? Or Was it Boredom?

You have heard the saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” I beg to differ.

Richard and I once had a delightful cat. Her name was McGonagall, called after Scotland’s worst poet, William Topaz McGonagall.  She lived to be 17 ½ years old, dying in old age and from natural causes. She managed to survive four busy toddlers and as many manses, all built across from high traffic roads and highways. She always went out every evening to explore the great outdoors, not returning until the sun came up. On two occasions only did she stay away longer than one night. Although she played her cards pretty close to her chest, it seemed to us that she enjoyed a pretty exciting night life, certainly far more riveting than anything we were getting up to with four small children in tow!

McGonagall definitely did not die from curiosity! But a lot of people do and that’s a tragedy.

Many years ago when my mother was a very young woman trying to make a living during the Great Depression, the company she worked for finally decided to shut down the plant and give its employees a week’s paid holidays. Everyone was over the moon. Everyone except one ornery Scotsman. (I know the Scots are not faring well in today’s blog!) He was furious about being forced to take a week’s vacation. When everyone returned to work a week later, filled with stories of what they had got up to on their holidays, he did not. It seemed he had died during his week off work. Sadly, my mother said that she suspected he had died of boredom.

We see this frequently when people retire. I remember an old school principal in my congregation warning another parishioner who had just retired from teaching, “Be careful. Many teachers have a heart attack and die after six months into their retirement.” What he should have said was not “Be careful,” but rather “Be curious!” Fortunately, his younger colleague is a very curious man and his curiosity has led him to meaningful pursuits with Big Brothers and Big Sisters and also to places as far away as China, where he taught English for several years.

After interviewing a variety of individuals for his illuminating study on finding your vocation, author Gregg Levoy, concluded that the people who are most responsive to their calling are those who have a high level of curiosity about their world, other people, and their own selves. They are also happier and healthier. “Curiosity is the cure.”

So if you are struggling to find a calling or purpose in the second half of your life, consider those things about which you are curious. Not really curious about anything? A good way to hone your curiosity skills is to “pay attention” to what is going on in and around you. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell, whom Levoy quotes, said that often our problem is one of “inadvertence, of not being alert, not awake.” Start by looking around your neighbourhood to see what the needs are.

Get curious. It just might save your life!

Victoria Day: A Boomer Memory

Today is Victoria Day in Canada. Celebrated only in English Canada and Scotland, and not in the rest of the UK, this holiday has always signified the start of summer.[1]

          Its history goes back to the nineteenth century, commemorating the birthday of Queen Victoria, who was born on May 24, 1819. Victoria reigned for just over 63 years. Her birthday was declared a Canadian holiday by the government in 1845. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Canada’s parliament officially named the holiday Victoria Day, and it was decided that it would always be celebrated on the second last Monday in May. In 2021, that’s May 24th.

          When I was a youngster I remember that my Dad would always fly the Union Jack from our house. If the weather were nice, which it often was, we would head to my grandmother’s cottage for the weekend, which we loved because we got to swim in the lake. On the evening of Victoria Day we celebrated with fireworks and sparklers. Unfortunately, I also remember getting my hands burned a few times when I was given a sparkler to wave around, at least until my mother said enough is enough and wisely put an end to that practice. While we continue to celebrate Victoria Day today in English-speaking Canada, and some towns and cities still have firework displays, I think many have forgotten the holiday’s connection to Queen Victoria and our British roots. But for those of us who grew up in the Boomer generation, as well as our parents and grandparents, the links to the British throne were still very strong. Every day, as part of the morning exercises in elementary school, we pledged our allegiance to the Queen (Elizabeth II) and then sang “God Save the Queen”, followed of course by the Lord’s Prayer.    

          While I have fond memories of those days, times have changed. I still admire the present Queen for her devotion to duty, her incredible stamina, and her willingness to embrace people from all cultures. She has been a strong, stable and non-anxious presence in times of crisis and upheaval. However, no longer do schoolchildren in Canada pledge allegiance to the Queen or sing “God Save the Queen”. Instead they sing: “O Canada”. Occasionally they say the Lord’s Prayer, but they also include rituals and spiritual traditions from other religions and from First Nations Spirituality. The vision, even if it is not yet realised, is for a far more inclusive society, one that seeks to tear down the vestiges of colonialism and racism, while promoting right relations with our indigenous siblings, along with justice for all people within our borders and beyond them. Now that’s something to celebrate!

[1] Quebec celebrates Journee nationale des patriots — National Patriots Day.

Diagnosing and Labelling Another is a Very Slippery Affair, says Edwin Friedman

Lately I have been re-reading Edwin Friedman’s classic Generation to Generation. On page 55, when discussing individuals who have recently been given a particular medical diagnosis, Friedman notes how “the labelling effects of diagnosis destroy the person.” When others in the family or organisation learn the diagnosis, they start to see the diagnosed individual as now being limited in terms of their capabilities. As he adds, “eventually a family member’s label will become confused with his or her identity.”

          This is especially true, Friedman says, when we are talking about older adults. As family members anxiously worry about their aging relatives, they often expect that their older loved one cannot function any better because of “the condition”(p. 56). So they rush in to be supportive, often over functioning and over helping, and thus inhibiting their loved one’s potential. The older person is now seen as one who is no longer capable or as one who is not able to change and grow. The diagnosis thus limits the person’s potential.

          This is another example of how ageism adversely impacts older adults and robs them of the dignity and respect they deserve. When people of any age become identified by labels or diagnoses we fail to see their humanity and potential as God’s precious children. Friedman suggests that when we are tempted to label or diagnose someone else, it is important to look inside ourselves first and see what we are trying to hide. (p. 56) What is going on within us that is causing us to think this way about someone else?

          It is important not only that we do not label others, but also that we do not label ourselves negatively either. Pejorative labels are often self-prophetic. If we think we are stupid or unattractive or clumsy or useless, our thoughts and actions will reflect these feelings. If we think we are too old, washed-up, or that no one values our opinion because of our age, others may well disregard us. Indeed, negative self-talk can greatly restrict our potential by keeping us confined to inhibiting labels.

          Instead it is important that we remember all the good things we have accomplished in life, the love and friendship we have shared, and the good that we continue to do for those around us. Best of all, let us remember these words from Ephesians 2:10: “We are God’s masterpiece!”

Do You Reminisce or Do You Ruminate?

The value of life review has been shown to be a particularly helpful tool in dealing with the aging process. Erikson talked about this in relation to his eighth and final stage of psycho-social development. In order to achieve what he called “ego integrity”, he believed that older adults need to spend some time reviewing their life story. In this way they would be able to make sense of their life, including their accomplishments and relationships. Examining the meaning of past experiences can lead to greater self-understanding and in general creates for greater happiness in life and fewer depressive moods. In this sense “remembering” and “reminiscing” are good things.

Ruminating, on the other hand, probably something many of us do, can lead us to dwell too much on the negative experiences in our lives as well as feelings of guilt and remorse. Typically defined as repetitively thinking about the causes, consequences and the “what if I had done this or not done this”, in other words, our regrets. Sometimes physical decline can lead us into a place of rumination, as we reflect on those things we can no longer do with ease or enjoy.

While ruminating is not always a negative practice, nor something that occurs all the time with older adults (children and older adults in fact ruminate the least), there are things that one can do so that it does not take over one’s life. Things like setting a time limit for how long you will allow yourself to ruminate, journaling about what is troubling you, calling a friend or finding a new distraction (a book, a movie, a crossword puzzle, gardening, going for a walk, playing a musical instrument or listening to some beautiful music). Physical exercise, meditation and prayer are also helpful. Remember to pay attention to the things you ruminate about. Identify your triggers. If acceptance or letting go is not possible or easy for you, consider seeking out the services of a therapist. We all need help from time to time in dealing with the ghosts of our past or the underlying causes of our ruminations. We can all benefit from the wise counsel of a friend or counsellor in dealing with the frustrations of the present too. So whatever you decide, know that you are not alone. And know that you don’t have to go it alone. Speak to your family doctor or contact the Canadian Mental Health Association for further help. There is help nearby!

Invest Wisely

The late Gene D. Cohen, a gerontologist at George Washington University, came up with a simple but brilliant concept to help all of us stay engaged with life as we age. The concept is the “social portfolio,”[1] and it looks something like this:

Gene D. Cohen’s Social Portfolio

 Group EffortsIndividual Efforts
High Mobility/ High EnergyYour activities listYour activities list
Low Mobility/ Low EnergyYour activities listYour activities list

What does this mean? Simply put, you can think of your activities much the way you think of your financial investments. A savvy investor plans a financial portfolio with four things in mind: liquidity, diversification, emergency funds, and long-term growth. Just as you are wise to diversify your investments, so too are you wise to diversify your activities and interests. The reason for diversification is similar to an investment portfolio as well: some of your activities can go badly over time, much as some of your investments can. Think of the social portfolio as a kind of “insurance” in the form of vital activities that can be engaged in even in the face of disability or loss.

The same four concepts that make a good financial portfolio apply to our lifetime investments in relationships and activities. As you read the following, note also that a sound social portfolio balances individual with group activities, high-energy with low-energy endeavours, and high-mobility with low-mobility activities[2]:

  1. You need to have liquidity—hobbies, interests, and relationships to which you can easily gain access. These might include gardening, woodworking, painting, photography, cooking, reading, playing the piano, researching your family history, meditation—things that you may enjoy doing on your own. They may also include book clubs, choirs, theatre groups, walking groups, golf, curling, playing bridge, helping at a soup kitchen, working at the food bank, serving in a local service club or on a church committee—things you enjoy doing with others. Some of these activities require more physical energy while others require less. I have some boomer friends who play ice hockey every Sunday morning before church. I have another friend whose struggles with arthritis do not allow her to exercise or garden the way she used to do. Now she plants box gardens and does water walking at the local YM-YWCA.

Putting together an effective social portfolio takes time and thought. For this reason, Cohen recommended that it should be done with others who know you well. It needs to be noted, too, that one size does not fit all. Extroverts may find it more challenging to engage in solo activities, but having hobbies you can pursue on your own can ease the disappointment that comes when an important social event is cancelled due to inclement weather – or worse: COVID-19! More importantly, they can also be richly rewarding.

On the other hand, introverts (and only twenty five percent of us are true introverts[3]) may find it more challenging to engage in regular social gatherings. Their social portfolios may include fewer large group activities and involve only a few close friends. But as Susan Pinker points out, “being human, introverts still need people.”[4] Indeed, their very health depends on it. As she notes, “the evidence tells us that introverts have a greater risk of dying from cancer, and even an increased susceptibility to catching colds, if they hunker down alone.”[5]

Just as many of us need to force ourselves to build in time for physical exercise, so also must those of us who are more introverted make a real effort to spend time with others. Moreover, one social outlet is not enough. As Pinker writes:

You may be married to the person of your dreams. But if he or she is the only person you feel close to and confide in, you’re one person away from having no one at all. Immunologically speaking, you’re almost naked.[6] I saw this happen with my father when my mother died. She was really his only social contact, and because of this, his already intense grief was greatly compounded. He eventually just faded away. The only time I saw his face light up again was during a brief stay in hospital. Although he had private coverage, the only bed that was available was in the ward. Dad loved it because he finally had other people with whom to converse. When a private room eventually became available, it was no surprise to my brother and me that he declined it. He now had people with whom to chat and visit.

[1] Gene D. Cohen, The Creative Age. Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (New York: Quill, Harper Collins, 2001), 265.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Susan Pinker, The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. (Toronto, Vintage Press, 2014), p. 292.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ibid.

[6] Pinker, p. 291.

Living Affirmatively as We Age

As I celebrate another birthday today, I draw inspiration from Progressive theologian and minister Bruce G. Epperly, who writes about the power of living affirmatively as we age. He notes that Boomers and older adults often suffer from discrimination based on nothing more than their chronology.

Indeed, many Baby Boomers and older adults complain that they are often the butt of “old geezer” jokes. Their complaints are backed up by research. A survey by Duke University’s Erdman Palmore, PhD, has also revealed that many older adults report being ignored or not taken seriously by younger adults. This in spite of the fact that we have many examples of people who made their mark well after the age of 60, people like actor Judi Dench, author Frank McCourt, or British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In the face of ageism, Epperly encourages those in the second half of life to practise affirmative faith. “Affirmative faith,” he argues on page 85 of The Jubilee Years, “challenges us to let go of our self-imposed limitations and embrace God’s possibilities.”  

Here is an example from his book that you may wish to try.

When reciting Romans 8:38-39:

“ For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Why not try changing this to:

“ For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither ill health or old age, neither people’s jokes nor their failure to recognise my wisdom or true worth can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Epperly grounds his spiritual affirmations in one of my favourite verses of scripture:

” Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8

Keeping Your Mind Agile, While Finding Joy, Meaning and Friendship by Reading with Another

Today I am thinking of my Aunt Grace. Warm and fun, she was a real people person. She was interested in everything you did and thought. Moreover, she possessed a wonderful curiosity about life which I think helped to keep her vibrant. She remained intellectually curious until her death at the age of 86, often asking me questions about characters in the Bible or scriptures she found puzzling.

One great sadness of her life was losing her eyesight, which began to deteriorate in her early sixties. But she never complained. She loved to listen to audio books and derived much pleasure from this pastime.

Navigating the newspaper was much harder for her. So she developed a practice every morning of speaking with her elderly friend on the phone. Her friend was nearly 100 years old, but thankfully her eyesight had not been affected by the aging process. So she would phone my aunt every day and read the highlights of the local newspaper to her. Aunt Grace often joked that they would start with the obituaries, just to make sure their own could not be found there. Then they would go on to other sections of the paper, my aunt’s much older friend reading aloud to her over the phone, and then the two of them engaging in some lively discussion about the most controversial news items or editorials, or tackling that day’s crossword puzzle. (My brother William, a real logophile and lexicographer, would receive almost daily phone calls from Aunt Grace, asking about the meaning of a particular word or seeking out his advice on the more vexing word puzzles.)

I truly believe that my aunt’s morning ritual with her friend was a double blessing. It kept their friendship alive and their minds agile.

Today we know that exercising our mind is just as important as exercising any other muscle in our body. Indeed, our mind flourishes when we do crossword puzzles or read a good book. The latter can be made even more meaningful when shared with another. As the research carried out by psychiatrist George Vaillant has shown, the key to successful aging is “relationships, relationships, relationships.” This is why couples who read to each other grow even closer and why adult children and friends who read to older adults find their relationships taking on new meaning. It is why people who volunteer as reading coaches at their local elementary school often experience renewed energy and increased personal satisfaction, and why grandparents who make a regular habit of reading with their grandchildren, even via Zoom or Skype, find that their relationships deepen and blossom.

In Matthew 22:37, Jesus says to his followers: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ Boomers may have more time to engage in physical exercise, crafts, hobbies and social justice causes. Along with the former, one of the healthiest, easiest and most pleasurable endeavours we can pursue is taking the time to read with a spouse, a parent, a grandchild or a friend.

Helping You to Prepare for Retirement

The famous psychoanalyst Karl Jung once said: “A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” In other words, life has a meaning and purpose beyond work and career and child-rearing. Moreover, it’s not just about having enough money to live comfortably when you are no longer punching a time clock.

          Sadly, most retirement preparation seminars talk only about preparing financially for retirement and say nothing about the emotional, physical and spiritual sides of this period of life. Retirement coach Janet Christensen says that “most people spend more time planning a two week vacation than they do planning for the years they will spend in retirement.”

          Some people of course do very well in retirement. I have some retired friends who are remarkably resilient. My guess is that, even without knowing it, they have been unconsciously preparing for this period all their lives. They have developed interests and hobbies over and above their work that they can build on once they leave the workforce. They have lots of things about which they are deeply curious. They love to help others and find new ways to use their gifts and talents. What’s more: they have already diversified their interests and have not depended exclusively on their career or children to bring them life satisfaction and meaning. As Atlantic Monthly columnist and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks writes, these people know that the 10,000 hour rule may be the path to excellence, but unless you want to become a world famous concert pianist, you are probably far better to balance your vocation with several other interests. While the former may lead you to stardom, the latter has a better chance of guaranteeing your happiness.

          The above notwithstanding, even for those of us who have tried to diversify our interests, retirement may still pose some challenges other than financial ones. Talking with other people about their experiences can help you to prepare well for this period, so that you are not thrown into a state of shock or even depression six months after you leave the job. Exploring some of the challenges that many folks do face in retirement can help you to consider what your growing edges will be and where and how you can learn from others and thereby build a more meaningful and healthy retirement.

          To this end, I would like to invite you to join me for a Retirement series for clergy (and hopefully helpful for others too!), starting this coming Thursday afternoon, April 15th. We will meet over three Thursdays from 1:30p.m. to 2:45p.m.via Zoom. You can register at 

          I look forward to seeing you then!