Senior Living: Sunshine and an active brain help keep me happy

A visit to Vancouver means mental and physical adjustments.

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I have been in Vancouver since March 18, visiting a bit-younger friend from University of Manitoba days who needed some help.

For me, this is a novel experience. I love the city’s hedges, but I am a “flatlander,” born in raised in the Netherlands, where in its entire 41,780 square kilometres the highest point is 323 metres above sea level, and the fifth-highest point is just 56 metres above sea level. And I have spent much of the past nearly 70 years on the Canadian Prairies or in the relatively flat country around Ottawa.

Although an avid bicyclist, I would find this difficult in Vancouver, where much cycling is uphill. Where flatland cycling is gentle exercise, doing so uphill is hard work.

And Vancouver may not be the best place for old people. Decades ago already, research in Holland found a strong relationship between hours of sunlight in winter and the mortality rate among seniors: The more sunlight, the lower the death rate, and vice versa.

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In my first five days in Vancouver, it was cloudy and rained incessantly. On the other hand, my 760-square-foot apartment in Edmonton has three big windows facing east and one facing south. So when the sun shines there in January (at almost twice the frequency of Vancouver), it is bathed in sunlight from sunrise until late afternoon. And it is within one block easy walking distance of the LRT system and major bus lines, whereas in Vancouver the driveway of 40 metres or so to the street is very steep and walking back from the bus stop involves an equally steep uphill walk of a few hundred metres. So I typically take a taxi coming back from my outings.

But it has two meritorious features: One is a big and overgrown yard down a hillside with lots of scope for putzing around outside when it gets a bit warmer (which the forecast promises). And the bungalow where I’m visiting is much more roomy than my small apartment.

I spend much time on my computer, writing. So to boost blood circulation and keep fit, at home I walk, several times a day, five times up and down my building’s long corridor. And I believe it behooves us old fogeys to make as many decisions as possible, no matter how tiny, to keep our brain in gear. When I walk the hall back home, I have only one chance to do so, at each end of the hall, whether to make a left or a right about turn. But here, in this now L-shaped bungalow, each trip is longer and provides more scope for decision-making by going around furniture, and detouring through the dining room, kitchen & other rooms, or down dead-end halls. I welcome the variety of choice.

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Before my trip, I packed several books. One, The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard, had been gathering dust on my bookshelf for years. Published in 1994, it documents how political correctness threw sand in the gears of progress and undermined productivity growth in the U.S.as there was more focus on how to divvy up the pie than on how to grow it.

The other two were recent purchases. One is by Jeff Rubin, whom I first met decades ago, briefly, when he was a young economist at Wood Gundy. It is an easy read and the title tells it all: The Expendables: How The Middle Class Got Screwed By Globalization.

The other is a must-read for all who want to have the best possible quality of life in their later years. Titled Keep Sharp: How to Build a Better Brain at Any Age, it is by Sanjay Gupta, whom you may know from his regular appearance on CNN. But he has more credibility when talking about the brain than as a “talking head,” since he has a daytime job as a neurosurgeon at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital and thus has a regular, direct, firsthand and hands-on relationship with that important human organ.

Here is a nugget from his book that I came across this very morning when I spent an hour or so on a balcony in the sun reading it. He observes that “it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that large-scale studies were performed that physical fitness both prevented illness and protected health … And now a new study seems to emerge every week showing … that sedentiarism (a.k.a. couch potato syndrome) appears to cause the brain to atrophy, or physically shrink, while simultaneously increasing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.”

As of mid-April, I was not quite halfway through either book. Rubin’s is an easy and entertaining read that chronicles how North America got into the socio-economic pickle it is in today. And while Gupta’s is anything but easy to read when he talks about the medical aspects of the brain, in its more practical parts it is not hard to follow and should serve as a welcome self-help book for those aspiring to make the most of their later years.

— Nick Rost van Tonningen writes the Life in the 80s column. rostvann@gmail.com

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