How to Redeem Winter

For those of us who are unable to get away for a break, the winter can seem unbearably long and confining. I have a dear older friend who is even afraid to take her car out to run necessary errands. She is the sole caregiver for her husband, who is wheelchair bound. If she slips on the ice, falls and injures herself, who will be there to care for and support him?

One thing that has brought some relief to her cocooned indoor life is the joy she has found in looking through old photo albums. In preparation for a personal memoir that is soon to be published, she is going through all her old photos to select those what will best represent various chapters in her long and fascinating life. It is a task that has helped her to remember long ago friends and places she lived or visited. For her, it has been great fun and brought back wonderful memories that she gets to re-live whenever she looks at the photographs.

Kelly Walker, who will be leading a workshop at Siloam United Church on April 6th, has some important things to say about winter:

“This season has a great deal to teach us about living and dying. We being to prepare for a slower time — a time when the weather takes us by the hand and leads us into the unknown. It is impossible for us to control the weather in the months ahead. Snow can keep us indoors for days on end. Ice can isolate us. Cold and wind can stall us in our tracks. We are not always in control.” (p. 177, Walker, Growing Somewhere)

Elsewhere Kelly writes that this is a good time for reflection, something we don’t often take the time to do when the weather is pleasant and our health is good. He talks about looking through old photo albums with his aunt and listening to her tell stories about the people in those albums, some of whom Kelly remembers fondly and others whom he only remembers vaguely from childhood and still others not at all.

Maybe like Kelly and my friend, it is time to get out the old photographs and and recall the precious memories embedded in them. If you have an older parent, or an aunt or uncle, who can tell you more about the stories behind those photos, take the time now to talk with them and write those stories down. And if you are now the elder, be sure and sit down with your child or grandchild, or your niece or nephew, and welcome them into the world that is their legacy. And if they cannot be with you in person, speak the stories into a tape recorder or commit them to print. You will be giving your loved ones a rich and valuable gift — the gift of memory. Moreover, you will be bringing some warmth and light into these cold winter days.




Let’s Talk!

This past Wednesday was Bell Let’s Talk Day, a day when millions of Canadians were encouraged to really open up and talk to each other about mental health.

Mental health affects everyone, including those of us who now find ourselves in the second half of life. According to a 2012 report of the Canadian Mental Health Association, those aged sixty-five and older have a higher suicide rate than other generations. Studies also show that the rate of depression in both men and women over the age of sixty-five is 25% of the total population, which is approximately 10% higher than the rate of depression in the population under sixty-five.

Paul Links, former Chief of Psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, says that his own extensive research in the field also bears this out. He has seen the increase in depression among seniors firsthand in his practice. As he notes, men over sixty-five who have enjoyed highly successful careers are most susceptible to depression and suicide. Links points to the lack of “connectiveness” these men feel to others, their sense of isolation, and loneliness as chief causes of deteriorating mental health among older adults.

What can help to relieve the sense of loneliness that so many older Canadians experience? A clue may be found in the research of Harvard scholar George Vaillant.

In a book called Aging Well, Vaillant, wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for a group of Harvard men who were part of a study that began when they were all young, back in 1938, and which has continued to the present day. One of these men was the late President John F. Kennedy. Today only 19 of the original members of the study group survive. The six factors that predicted healthy aging were: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. No surprises there.

What did surprise the researchers was the role that community played in the men’s ability to age well. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

In fact, the study showed that the role of genetics and long-lived ancestors proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife.

Canadian author and psychologist Susan Pinker agrees. She argues that social gatherings are critical to our health and well-being, especially as we age. Indeed, the lack of close personal friendships may shorten our lives faster than cigarettes, salt, sugar and animal fat.[1] Real time, face to face contact, can help us to live healthier and longer lives. Chatting with friends on the porch or over the back fence, playing cards once a week, meeting friends every Tuesday morning at the coffee shop, having friends over to dinner regularly, or going to choir practice every week, can actually lengthen your life and bring you more happiness. And get this, study after study shows that these kinds of activities will do far more to promote health and longevity than “slathering on the sunscreen, downing fistfuls of vitamins, practicing mindfulness meditation, or sweating it out at the gym or with hot yoga.”[2]

Again, the key to healthy aging is “relationships, relationships, relationships.” Moreover, “our choice of communities can actually be a matter of life and death.”

In other words, get talking!


[1] Susan Pinker, The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us healthier and Happier. (Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2015.), p. 7.

[2] Ibid.