Health As We Age

by Hannah the Zebra

To say that a lot has happened in my life in the last two years would be an understatement. But today I would like to focus on something good: the fact that our moving back north and into a retirement community has improved my health significantly.

My husband and I had lived in a communal living situation before we were married. While no one had the full responsibility of the house, or meals, repairs, etc, we all needed to pitch in and help. But living in a retirement community, especially in the heart of the City of Oakland is very different. Essentially our monthly fee takes care of almost all of those chores. It has given me the wonderful freedom of time that I did not have while living  in our house. I no longer have to spend hours at the grocery store, as dinner, the most complex meal, is provided in our monthly fee. The few things I do need in drug stores, grocery stores, or hardware stores are only 2-5 miles and about 5-15 minutes away. And while I prefer to support local merchants, if I am ill and cannot get out of the apartment, I can always order things on line – something I find I am doing with more regularity now. Oh, and our medical care? We specifically chose a retirement community that is very close to our Kaiser: only 1 mile away!! Also, I am no longer responsible for repairs. While it still gives me great satisfaction to fix things so that they work again, the whole process of finding the replacement part you need, and then of course almost always discovering that the repair takes way more time than you thought it would, is exhausting. I’m willing to give up that “It actually works!” thrill in exchange for being able to pick up the phone and have the repairs done by the staff in the building. Each time I am able to do that, I realize that it has saved me several hours of hard work. And more importantly, saved me the extreme exhaustion that comes from that.

However, the biggest improvement in my health since the move back to the coast of Northern California has been getting out of the terrible smog and traffic congestion of Los Angeles. While the Bay Area does have some smog, it is quite mild compared to LA. And traffic congestion, while it certainly exists, is also not as bad. And the bottom line? I don’t need to get on the freeway during rush hour.  (Insert very very happy face here.)

Friends are even more important as we get older, in part because we no longer have the daily interactions with people at work. In fact, in older age, one of the predictors of poor health in general, and poor outcomes of medical events in particular, is isolation. My husband and I were lucky enough to have moved into a 23 story building with 250 residents. We are a community with a common dining room and many activities, so I have the pleasure of meeting many friends. Far more friends, in fact, than I think I have ever had at one time. And with so many residents in the building, it’s possible to find a few close friends right here. And perhaps the best part? One of our daughters, her husband, and our grandchildren live only 6 miles away, so I am able to be very much involved in their lives. The presence of people I know and love has been wonderful.

As my husband’s and my health steadily declined over the years that we were living in the house in Pasadena, we invited fewer and fewer people in. It happened slowly, and so we didn’t recognize how isolated we had become until we moved into this retirement community. After only a couple of months here we realized that not only did we have family close by, but that we were once again surrounded by friends and had interesting things to do, all without leaving the building if we didn’t feel well enough to go out.

And on a final note, I just have to say that the weather here in the East Bay always feels as if it was created in heaven. The moderate climate has been a huge help. It rarely gets as low as the 30’s at night, and it is very unusual for it to be as high as the upper 90’s in the summer.  The area in which we first lived in Southern California for 25 years could get up to 114 degrees in the summer. I’m not making that up. The extreme heat would often start in April and last until the end of October. (With the June Gloom giving a short respite.)  It was routine during those months for the temperature to be 102 – 106 degrees. But 110 – 114 was a special hell. When we moved to Pasadena, the summers were at least better, but still ranged from 96 – 102 degrees. I have never tolerated heat well, and after my immune system collapsed, the hot summers left me constantly feeling ill and unable to do much of anything.  In the Bay Area’s temperate climate, I am able to be much more active, which in itself improves both my health and energy. Adding to that I can tell you that we have practically no flying bugs. I’n not saying that flies won’t buzz around garbage, but we have so few flies and mosquitoes that in general we don’t even have screens on our windows. The wall in the living room that opens out to the balcony is made entirely of glass. (Tempered glass in a temperate climate.) When I open the sliding glass doors, and there is not even a protective screen, I feel that there is no separation between me and the outside. Living on the 10th floor and standing just inside those open doors, looking out over roof tops and towards the hills makes me feel almost suspended in space, and gives me the sense that I am one of the luckiest people alive.

I am deeply saddened that my husband didn’t have longer to enjoy our life here, but I am  profoundly grateful that we moved when we did. He thoroughly enjoyed the two and a half years he did have here, and I am healthier, have half of my family close by, and am surrounded by many people who truly care for me. I sometimes think about what my life would be like if my husband had died while we were still in our house, and I realize that it would have been so much harder. If I had been left on my own in the house, I wouldn’t have eaten adequately, I would have wandered around in an empty house with only the dog, I wouldn’t have had the health or the energy to meet up with friends, and I would have become extremely depressed even beyond mourning the death of my husband. I would have known that I couldn’t have continued to live in the house alone, but would have had such feelings of conflict about the process of leaving, that it would have felt overwhelming to sort it out. Neither my husband nor I were blessed with good health, and at first I was angry that we needed to give up our beautiful Craftsman home and move into a retirement community when we were so young. But I am so very grateful that we did.