Aging parents, aging us

Posted by on Apr 16, 2014 in aging, Guyside, health, general, musings | 0 comments

Do different generations stay different? Do we replicate the patterns of our parents, or do we make different choices?

Like many people my age, I have aging parents. In my case, that’s a mom approaching her 90s with some medical challenges and the difficult adjustment of living alone for the first time in her adult life. It’s a struggle, and I think it has forced her and her two sons to face up to some uncomfortable truths over the last few years, particularly since my dad died in the summer of 2012.

One of those: how I will confront the inevitabilities of old age (if I am fortunate enough to get there). For my parents’ generation, it was common for parents to be taken care of by one or more of their children, either in the family home or by moving into a child’s home. There was (is?) a stigma about nursing homes and retirement homes. My mother has chosen to stick it out as long as is possible in her home, the home she was born in. But unlike her parents, she doesn’t have a child who will “take care of her.” I live a 90-minute flight away, my brother is six hours away by car. Thanks to my father’s service in the Second World War, she receives a number of services that have allowed her to stay in her house — the house her grandfather bought and had moved onto the property before the Great Depression — despite the encroachments of age on her body.

For people in my generation, the rules are a bit different. I have no children to rely on. I expect that any support that my partner or I will need as we age won’t be provided by family members, but by paying people from our retirement savings and investments. While I love our house, I think that when the time comes for us to retire I’ll be able to sell it and leave with no great emotional wrench; including our house, I’ve lived in about seven different places in my adult life, and I think I’ll be able to move again.

But things have been different for my generation for a while. Here I am, typing this in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt with a graphic representation of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series. I never saw my dad with a pair jeans (what he would call dungarees) on or a t-shirt in my lifetime. My partner doesn’t wear housecoats like my mom does, or consider the maintenance of an immaculate home a key goal, as her mom and mine do. She works outside the home, while my mom gave up her job as a nurse in ’53, when she married, and never collected another paycheque.

We are — or at least I think we seem — “younger” than our parents at the same age. We go to concerts by loud bands, we dress differently, we participate in different recreational and sporting activities, we expect that our lives will be characterized by being and acting young for a long, long time. Thinking of Shakespeare’s seven ages, we’re unwilling to enter the fifth age, of justice and solemnity. We want to be lovers and soldiers forever.

So when we age, will we really be different from our parents? Will our expectations be different; will we make different choices? Or am I flattering myself by thinking that I’ll make other choices, better choices?

It’s easy to tell yourself that you know better than the “old folks.” But those better decisions and more logical choices are much easier to make in the world of the distant future than in the world of the cold present.

It seems to me that the real challenge for us all is to strike the constantly shifting balance between independence and dependence, between insulating our elders from danger and allowing them to live as they choose, between being determined and being bullheaded, between giving in and denying reality, between taking responsibility for our health and accepting support when offered. There’s no magic formula, no easy answer.

(photo: cc-licenced by Flickr user Lars Ploughmann

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Guyside: Don’t sell friendship short

Posted by on Mar 5, 2014 in Guyside, health, general, men, musings | 3 comments

You know how we have little routines that we rely on in conversations? Someone brings up air travel and you have your little shpiel about it. Well, one of mine has always been that women’s relationships are like cats interacting with each other: much sizing up and marking of territory. I’ve also said that men’s friendships get formed like dogs’ — we sniff each other’s butts, then we figure out if the person in question is someone we want to play with.

Male friendship can sometimes be discounted, even by the friends themselves.

It might make a marginally funny line, but I’ve come to believe it sells both men and women short in the friendship department.

I currently don’t really have a “best friend.” There are guys that I’m close with, that I’ve been with through good times and bad times, but not a single person I’d tell people, “oh, you know ?Steve? Yeah, he’s my best friend.”

A few years ago, I had someone I considered a best friend. He and I had begun as colleagues, and had immediately gravitated to each other. My partner and his wife also got along, and we found ourselves as a foursome often, but we also were “guy friends”.

The friendship ended for a number of reasons that probably don’t really matter in this context, and anyway, I don’t think it would be right to go into them. The best way I can say it that I ended it because I was no longer comfortable with being his friend.

That was a few years ago, and since that time we’ve exchanged a few words and seen each other at a few events. It’s led to some awkwardness from time to time, probably on several people’s parts — we still share a number of friends.

And on Sunday night, we found each other at a large surprise party celebrating one of those friends’ 80th birthday, and my ex-friend found a moment to tell me that he missed the friendship. I found myself uncharacteristically incoherent, blabbed out a few loosely connected words, and made myself scarce. It was a very awkward moment for me.

I suspect that were I to reach out to reconnect, it might well be received well by my ex-friend. But even if I did, it might not work out. During the years of our ‘estrangement’, things have changed for me. As I said to someone this week, I feel as if the me he knew, who was his friend, isn’t there anymore. So even if I was willing to remake the friendship, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same friendship.

Another part of me thought about all this and wanted to dismiss the thought process itself as a bit much of a muchness, as too much rumination about a friendship. But I don’t agree with that. And I think that while it can be easy for men to think of our friendships as activity-based or transactional (hey, let’s go running, let’s go out for beers, let’s hit a concert), there’s something more to men’s friendships.

It’s easy to focus on our primary relationship — our wife, our partner, whatever the label is. I think it’s common for men to sometimes forget that there are benefits to ourselves and to the people we care about when we build stronger social bonds with other people, whether we have a best friend or a number of friends.

When it comes to emotional resilience, to mutual support, and to good psychological health, friendship is definitely NOT where you want to put all your eggs in one basket.

I miss what I had. But you can’t go back — or at least I can’t; better to build relationships that can be ones of mutual support and positive regard.

Photo: CC licenced by Flickr user Francesco Rachello

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Balance. I have it. Sometimes.

Posted by on Jan 22, 2014 in career, exercise, Guyside, health, general, men | 1 comment

Work and life don't always balance. CC-licenced photo by Flickr user mohit_k In my 20s, I used to work as studio director for a radio morning show. Often, I’d stay up, watch Late Night with David Letterman, and then hit the sack, only to get up and hit the road to be at the station at 5, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with coffee for the gang. A little later on, I worked at a 24-hour news network, and my shifts were almost always 3 a.m.-11 a.m. or 4 a.m.-noon. I’d come home, do some other work, my partner would come home, and I’d almost always be in bed after 10 p.m. Five hours sleep was fine. In an magazine job, all-nighters were common as we got to production.  

If I tried that now, I would implode in a week. And that isn’t always the easiest thing for a man to admit. We’re supposed to be invulnerable, aren’t we? One of the things I’ve noticed as the years have gone on is I can still be as intense as I was in the past (I think!), but that I can’t maintain that level of intensity for same length of time. I attend a music-industry conference each year where part of the deal is attending music sessions that go on until about four in the morning. I can do that, but inevitably there’s a post-conference crash.

Combine the fact that my “energy well” isn’t as deep as it used to be with the lifestyle of a self-employed consultant, where the pace can sometimes oscillate between frenetic and … what now? and you have a recipe for stress.

I have a few things I try to do to combat that stress. I try to keep my sleep habits as regular as I can. I’m lucky in that I rarely have insomnia, so it’s easy for me to stay rested most of the time. That keeps the energy supply high.

If there’s a frenetic period on the horizon, I will try to book downtime to recharge my batteries after the urgency subsides. Better to book it and keep it for myself than to carry on as if I didn’t just complete a herculean task and end up crashing.

And I try to keep my regular appointments sacred. Yoga class, exercise, and the like can sometimes feel like a distraction that I “should” skip “just this once.” But that has an impact down the road. Short-term gain for long-term pain.

It’s not easy to stay energized all the time. But if you can learn — even attempt — to manage yourself a little better, you can perform at a higher level all the time, rather than some roller-coaster cycle of sprinting, and then collapsing.

What are your tips for managing energy levels? Tell me in the comments.

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Guyside: Don’t let winter weigh you down

Posted by on Dec 18, 2013 in bone health, diet, exercise, Guyside, health, general, men, weight, weight gain | 0 comments

Picture of the Rideau Canal

There may not be a five-mile skating rink like Ottawa’s Rideau Canal in your town. But there are lots of opportunities for physical activity, even when the days are short and temperatures drop.

Where I live, this is the darkest time of the year. Instead of a beautiful sunrise when I wake up, it’s dark. When my partner is walking home from her office, it’s also dark. The layers of clothing get added to. The gloves and the puffy jackets come out of the basement.  And the road bike gets brought inside and put on the trainer. Even though the winter solstice in December marks the is a welcome “bottom” to the year, before and after, the days are dark and short and cold.

When I was a kid, winter was the time for snow forts and snowmen and skating in the community rink while Anne Murray tunes scratched over the PA system.

Now, winter is the time of year where I have to shovel the driveway, wear heavy boots that I don’t like, and the time when I can’t ride (I know I could ride, but I’ve never been a winter cyclist type).

When it’s snowy and cold, It’s easy to find that hot new series to watch, to light a fire, pop some popcorn, and wait for spring. It’s just too tempting to simply hibernate in the house over the winter months. And it’s also a terrible idea when it comes to men’s health.

In Canada, studies show that people are nearly twice as likely to participate in any physical activity in summer compared to winter. And if you look at the sporting activities Canadians participate in, only two of the top 10 are winter sports. In Canada, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that ice hockey bumps up winter sports participation numbers, and even with the burgeoning popularity of women’s hockey it’s still predominantly male.

And the irony of all this is that when you exercise outdoes in the winter you burn up to 31% more calories than in warmer weather.

So, some tips for guys like me who don’t play hockey or ski for getting out there:

  • “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing” is an a age-old proverb. So if you’re going to invest, invest in good layers of clothing. Go to a store that specializes in outdoor gear for winter so that you can benefit from knowledgeable staff. Fitness magazine has some tips on how to dress for outdoor exercise.
  • If you’re a beer-league hockey player, don’t just rely on the hockey to keep you fit. The start-stop nature of hockey can be dangerous for people who don’t have a good base of fitness.
  • Some sports — hockey and skiing come to mind — can be pricey to participate in.  But skates and snowshoes are cheaper than fully kitting out for playing hockey or going downhill, and walking (with appropriate footwear that will keep you stable) is the cheapest form of all. I live in Ottawa, where for several weeks each year the Rideau Canal turns into a free five-mile skating rink (your hot chocolate will cost you, though). Also, rent before you buy if you aren’t sure if you’re going to stick to a given activity.
  • Find a buddy. There will be times when you can’t drag your own sorry butt out for that workout, which is when you need the nagging, cajoling, and potential bribery of a friend to get you going. Use that help, and offer it to your workout buddy.
  • If you just can’t stand winter, then bring your sport indoors. My road bike is hooked up to a trainer, so I have the opportunity to ride inside. Other people go to spinning classes to benefit from the motivation of others suffering around them (N.B.: One discovery from spinning — all that sweat that evaporates when you’re riding the bike outside turns into a puddle beneath the bike when you spin. Be warned.)
  • Even if you don’t hit the gym in summer, many will offer “winter membership” or monthly memberships.

If your tendency, like mine, is to go to ground when exercising is no longer just a matter of tossing on a t-shirt, shorts, and going, then you, like me, have to just work a little harder to not give in. Besides, drinking that cocoa will feel SO much better if you skated five miles to get it.

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Guyside: Get advocaty, dude

Posted by on Nov 20, 2013 in aging, Guyside, health, general, men | 0 comments

dreamstime_xs_5928845

My forties have been a tumultuous time for me, healthwise. Essentially, I went from someone who had few problems physically or psychologically — at least ones I was willing to acknowledge, even to myself — to a rare diagnosis of bladder cancer, a bout of clinical depression, and some of the stresses and damages that go along with the clock.

I’ve lost a parent, a parent-in-law, and a number of friends. And one of the things that I’ve learned through my experiences and those of friends and loved ones is the value of being a self-advocate for your own health.

It’s not just a cliche that men don’t take care of themseves. It’s a fact. A 2011 article in Monitor on Psychology points out that not only do men take worse care of themselves than women, they are far less likely to seek health care out. That double whammy could contribute to men’s shorter life expectancy.

So how do we become better self-advocates?

First, we need to go to the doctor (or, in my case, the nurse practitioner), and we need to be more clear about why we’re there. A WebMD article tells the story of one man who visited Dr. Paul Haidet:

“A 50-year-old Boston dockworker with no serious illness in his past, the patient said the cough had been hanging on for three weeks. Haidet noted the details, performed a physical exam, and diagnosed an upper respiratory tract infection. “The guy had a cold,” Haidet tells WebMD. He recommended cough syrup and was about to leave, but something gave him pause. The patient “just had this weird look on his face,” Haidet recalls.

Haidet learned that the man’s best friend had recently died of lung cancer and when his friend was diagnosed, he had a very similar cough. As a longtime pack-a-day smoker, the patient was afraid his number was finally up.”

Second, do some research. I read a lot of stuff. And I try to read it critically, to understand the context. For example, if I read an article about a lawsuit over a bladder-cancer drug, I don’t have an immediate fear reaction; I learn the particulars. Be sure to use reputable sites like the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, the NIH, the AMA, or associations concerned with a disease.

3. When you’re in a doctor’s office or at a clinic, don’t just nod your head. Come in with questions, and be prepared to ask for clarification of terms or concepts that you don’t understand. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has a great checklist of questions for tests. That’s just one resource you can use.

4. Be politely persistent. I recently was searching out a referral to a specialist. Turned out the referral was being sent to the wrong place by my family practice. If I hadn’t been persistent in asking, who knows how long it might have taken to make it work. Because I discovered the error by checking with both sides of the transaction, I was able to ensure the connection was made, reducing my wait time.

These are just a few things we can do. If you’re looking for more ideas about self-advocacy, check out these resources:

And remember: As of January 2014, Guyside will now be taking over the Wednesday Bubble slot, and if you’ve got something to say around the topics of men, health, and aging, we want to know. If you are interested in contributing, drop us a note at flashfree111@gmail.com.

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Guyside: Reach for the middle!

Posted by on Aug 19, 2013 in exercise, Guyside, health, general, men | 0 comments

It’s easy to reach for the top. We’re almost mandated to do it, right? Nike told us: “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.” Vince Lombardi exhorted: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Steve Jobs said: “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life.”

I think men have a particular cultural script that says “more, bigger, better, faster.” It’s powerful. And the tech revolutions of the world have led to startups where the goal seems to be to work harder, pull the allnighters, and generally devote yourself, body and soul, to pursuing your ambition.

Not to say that ambition is bad. But over the last few years, I’ve made decisions — and some decisions have been made for me — that have started to make me think that perhaps we don’t give being average enough credit. Let me tell you a story about a guy who, as a kid, was pretty much the worst sportsman you could imagine.

This guy wasn’t … OK, let’s say it “I wasn’t… much of a skater. Or a baseball player. Basketball? Oh, man. Hopeless. I was pretty tall. But my teenage limbs made me look like a stick insect, and I was about as coordinated as a used-car salesman’s suit. I was pretty much the death of any sporting event I was press-ganged into during phys-ed class. It took me until my thirties to find a sport that I could be passionate about.

I was working at a university about 5 miles from where I lived, and parking there was quite expensive. And, my new house was just a few hundred yards from a network of bike paths.  So I bought a used bike from a friend and became a cyclist.

Well, technically, I became a commuter. Becoming a cyclist came later. What I discovered was that I really enjoyed the riding part. There weren’t traffic jams to contend with. I remembered how free and fun it felt to ride a bike when I was a kid. Sometimes, the weather was not so great. And that was anywhere from unpleasant to nasty to… exhilarating. There was a certain joy in pounding your way home in a sudden rainstorm. Once you got to a certain level of wet, it didn’t matter anymore.

Cyclists approaching Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Ottawa is a great cycling city. If you’re slow enough, you can really enjoy it.

That first commuter bike died a sad death when its frame broke, a mortal injury. So I got another one. Then I heard about a local cycling club’s “Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour,” and decided to try training for a two-day, 230-mile ride.

I put on spandex for the first time. Then I went outside wearing it for the first time. I went from the upright-position hybrid bike to my first road bike. I took a group riding course from my local cycling club and started going out on the weekends to ride. I bought clipless pedals and learned how to ride while bolted to my bike. Commutes became kickoffs to longer early-morning or afternoon rides.

I got to the point that when I went home to visit my family, I found someone who would loan me a bike, got my dad to drive me to the bike, then spent the rest of the vacation taking beautiful summer morning rides.

And for the last 10 years or so, cycling’s been my thing. I can ride 30-50 miles without much forethought; the century (100 miles) is a little bit of a challenge, but not like climbing Mount Everest. But all that is not to say that I’m a good cyclist. Hell no. Let me enumerate the ways in which I’m not a good cyclist.

  1. My iffy fitness regime means that my hill-climbing ability is awful. In the Tour de France, the “King of the Mountains” wears a polka-dot jersey. They oughtta give me prison stripes.
  2. I’ve never raced. Never felt the thrill of sprinting past the pack and crossing the finish line in a criterium (closed-streets race on a relatively short track). By the time I started riding, the romance of racing was outshouted by the reality of crashing.
  3. I possess neither the finances to spend thousands of dollars on the most high-tech components possible to reduce the bike’s weight by a few ounces, or the willpower to reduce my weight by a few pounds, both of which would make me faster on the bike.
  4. My cycling wardrobe tends to jerseys with Sesame Street characters or illustrations of hamburgers on them, rather than team kit.
  5. I might go a week without a long ride. Sometimes two.
  6. In Ottawa, the snow begins in November and the roads clear in March or April. My indoor training regimen is … spasmodic at best.

That’s just a start. And you know what? I don’t care.

One of the things I’ve come to learn is that I don’t mind being a bad cyclist. There’s something to be said for riding slow, and for accepting that the young turk on the $7,000 bike (yeah, that’s not even the top of the top-range) is going to smoke me going up or down the hills of Gatineau Park.

I enjoy going 15 miles an hour as much as I would going 25. I enjoy the feelings of cycling, either alone or with friends, and I enjoy the sensations. Dedicating my life to becoming a top-notch cyclist wouldn’t make me enjoy it more. In fact, it might reduce my enjoyment.

Life is full of things we have to do: obligations. At least mine is. I don’t need to turn a thing I love into another one of those obligations. There’s a joy to being okay at something. And if you’re pushing yourself in one or more aspects of your life, maybe there ought to be room in your life for something you’re … just okay at.

I have tons of friends who are marathoners, triathletes, hockey players, basketballers, and the like. I regularly applaud and admire the ones who are “serious athletes” or “competitors.” But I’m not one of those. And you know what? I’m pretty much okay with that.

Dare to be average. You might just like it.

Photo: Creative Commons licenced by Flickr user Fil.Al, used with permission.

 

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