4: Staying Sharp at 95

4: Staying Sharp at 95

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Staying Sharp at 95

Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.

~Betty Friedan

I’ve been interested in ways to boost brain power for quite some time. I’m not getting any younger and I am finding it harder to remember names — something I did effortlessly in my youth.

The people I know who continue to have sharp minds into old age have certain characteristics in common. They are all active physically as well as mentally. Case in point, my mother-in-law. My husband and I regularly talk to and visit his mother, Lillian, a woman of ninety-five. Up to the time she broke her hip six months ago, she was physically active. However, she has managed to adapt.

“Don’t you want live-in help?” my husband asked on our last visit.

“I had help when I couldn’t get around. Now I manage quite well with my walker. I need to do as many things for myself as possible,” she said.

Lillian hired a cleaning lady, has food delivered much of the time, and remains living independently in the family home, a large Victorian house. Her mind is as active as ever and she is on the mend from her injury.

“Okay,” she said, “let me see if I can stump you.” She looked down at a sheet of paper on which she’d written questions. Then she asked us questions she’d collected from her favorite quiz shows on television.

Over lunch, which we shared in her kitchen, I decided to interview her. “I know you never forget a phone number, anniversary or birthday. How do you manage it?”

“Simple,” she responded. “I write everything down and study it. If I see it, then I can remember it.” She then rattled off our phone number to prove her point.

“What keeps you young in spirit and sharp in mind and memory?” I asked her.

“For me, it’s contact with family and friends. Since I can’t get around the way I used to do, I talk on the telephone. It keeps me connected. I also sit out on the front porch and observe what’s going on in the neighborhood. I particularly like to watch and listen to children playing. Sometimes neighbors drop by and visit.”

My mother-in-law, besides being feisty and strong-willed, is very interested in people. It keeps her going. Talking to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren also keeps her mind active and agile, as does watching game and talk shows on TV. She feels connected to what’s happening socially and politically in the world. Human interaction is a crucial element in keeping her mind sharp and boosting her memory.

She frowned at me because I was serving the lunch we brought to her house. She stated she wanted to order in from a restaurant and treat us as guests. We would not hear of it. We like to pamper her when we visit. We shop for her. My husband does minor house repairs. We bring pictures of her great-grandchildren.

“Do you do anything special to keep your memory sharp?” I asked her.

“Every night before I go to sleep I recite the alphabet backwards.”

On a number of occasions, I’ve taken my mother-in-law to her doctor for a checkup. Lillian’s doctor has observed that genetics and lifestyle both enter into whether or not a person will eventually suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

People suffering from high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes are particularly vulnerable. Scientists have found associations among Alzheimer’s disease and high blood pressure, which can damage blood vessels in the brain. So controlling high blood pressure is also important. My mother-in-law does, in fact, take medication to control this problem. And she watches her dietary salt intake as well. Seniors also have to be careful of drug interactions, which can affect their memory and thinking.

Lillian stimulates her mind with activities such as reading books and completing crossword puzzles. She’s kept her mind active and curious in past years with such activities as reading, writing, attending lectures, and even gardening.

For those of us who are in good physical condition, walking, swimming and dancing are some of the activities that can help keep our minds sharp. My in-laws were active swimmers and square dancers for many years. They also enjoyed traveling to new places and meeting new people. All of these activities build cognitive reserve. A variety of leisure and physical activity has kept Lillian’s mind sharp over the years.

I have observed that those who are active physically, mentally and socially show the least signs of cognitive decline. This was confirmed by Lillian’s doctor, Barbara Paris, who encourages socialization and staying mentally active to keep your mind sharp. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” Dr. Paris emphasizes, and she also says that committing to a sense of community and socialization are important. These are the very things my mother-in-law does each day.

“So why do you think you’ve lived such a long and relatively healthy life?” I asked Lillian.

She was thoughtful, running her fingers through her white hair. “Well, I believe in eating healthy foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, but not overeating. I try to be optimistic. I appreciate each day, and I keep myself as busy and active as possible. I try to find solutions for my problems as much as I can.”

This is all true. Essentially, Lillian sees the glass as half-full. She doesn’t harp on negative things. She also sees the best in other people. Her positive outlook on life, strength of character and determination to live life to its fullest and overcome all obstacles, keeps her mind sharp and sound. When there are problems, she looks for solutions. She doesn’t throw pity parties. We can all learn a great deal from people like Lillian about how to boost our brain power.

~Jacqueline Seewald

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