Wednesday, 26 March 2014

#368: Knit Wits

For three years my mother lived in the Dementia Unit of the very retirement home where I volunteer. That floor is now known as Memory Care, but I am not fooled by the softer overtones of this more benign term.  Memory loss, whatever you call it, terrifies me.  I started to read Still Alice and couldn't finish it; I will probably never see the movie Away From Her.

But that doesn't mean that I wasn't interested yesterday when 84-year old Hetty, one of my dear, spunky retirement home readers, told me that she had been tested for Alzheimer's.


I asked her about it and she proceeded to describe the battery of tasks and questions used to detect the disease:  draw a clock face that shows 10 minutes to 11; give today's date, month and year; give your age and birth date; count back from 100 by 7s; recall the three items named earlier....

Surely someone who can itemize the details of a test for Alzheimer's passed it.  I wondered why they bothered to test Hetty in the first place.  We speculated that every resident was being tested.  I had just come from another part of the building where everyone who used a scooter was being given a driver's test.  Perhaps it is the "screening season".

However, thanks to Hetty, if I ever get screened I will know what to expect and I will be prepared. I can start right now practicing subtraction by 7's.  Math was never my best subject.

But it might be more to the point if I just kept on with a new knitting project. 

It appears that knitting  (or any kind of crafting or creative pursuit) is faaabulous for the brain. A recent item from CNN Health  enthuses about its extraordinary benefits. It is relaxing, it stimulates neural activity, and releases dopamine. The zen state that accompanies a period of intense concentration while we figure out a tricky pattern is as good as meditation.  Don't knock us knitting grannies.  We are doing more than making mittens. We are engaged in dementia prevention and enjoying a perfectly legal knitter's high.

Hetty has always been a knitter.  Last winter she made so many frilly scarves that she got sick of them. 

Lacy Layered Fashion Scarf, Knitted Lacy Scarf, Frilly Knitted Fashion Scarf
One frilly scarf = lots of new neurons + great satisfaction

She passed the Alzheimer's test, of course. "With flying colours!" she assured me.

I never doubted it.  I'm sure all that knitting gave her an edge.


Sunday, 2 March 2014

#367: Stepping Out with Fitbit

10,000 is a number to be reckoned with -- the steps we should all be walking every day in order to stay fit and stave off slug-dom.   And now, from the fitness front comes the urgent message that sitting is very, very bad for our health.  Sit less and move more!  Walk those 10,000 steps throughout the day or risk early death.   

But I am here to tell you that it is easier said than done, especially in the middle of a long, super-cold winter when the winds howl and the sidewalks are like poorly maintained skating rinks.  Besides, Canadians just know it is counter-intuitive to go walking in a blizzard unless you have roped yourself to the front door.

Nevertheless, back in January the combined onslaught of the Worst-Winter-Since-Dear-Knows-When and my 70th Birthday made me think long and hard about the importance of exercise.  Because even though I would much prefer to sit out the storm in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a book ( and the older I get, the more appealing it seems), I know that is The Way of the Slug.

I needed help. Enter Fitbit.

I first heard about this item of wearable technology when my friend Judy gushed enthusiastically about hers.   According to Judy her Fitbit kept track of everything she did, counted calories, and monitored sleep patterns. It encouraged her.  It rewarded effort. It was like a new BFF who understood her perfectly. She would never ever break it off.  It was love at first bit.

I was enchanted. I wanted to feel the love too, so with that birthday looming, I made my wishes known.  I wanted a Fitbit of my very own.

Bruce, the gift-giver, was less enthusiastic  "It is just a fancy pedometer", he argued.  Do you really need it? You can tell when you've had enough exercise."

He had a point  But I was sure the Fitbit would be much more.  It would be a fitness buddy,  tracking more activity than a mere pedometer, and it would report on calories and sleep.  (How many times did I wake at night, anyway?)  It would constantly update my performance online, estimating the intensity of my activity -- all the while counting steps.  I had already decided to set my goal at the magic number, 10,000.  But best of all, my Fitbit would be my personal cheerleader, exhorting to me to greater effort if I needed a push, and sending congratulations when my target was reached or exceeded.

Then my birthday arrived...


Oh joy, a Fitbit!!! Just what I wanted! How did you know?


That was six weeks ago, and since then my Fitbit Flex and I have been joined at the wrist.  As I get to know my new pal, however,  I feel like phoning Judy and asking her if she is still on her Fitbit honeymoon. Because as the days go by,  I am no longer quite so infatuated. I have never explored the world of online dating, but I suspect that what I am now experiencing with Flex Fitbit is not unlike what other women discover when it turns out that "loves music" actually means "loves heavy metal".  It takes time to really know a new suitor, and they may not be exactly as advertised.

As I learn the truth about Fitbit, I realize that it offers both more (and less) than I require.  The calorie counting and sleep tracking functions that seemed so seductive?   I don't really need them.

And Fitbit is not quite as good-looking as I had hoped.  The rubbery wrist-band has all the appeal of a throwaway watch strap, and it is almost impossible to fasten.  First I blamed my 70-year old fingers until I checked online and discovered lots of other whiners.  No wonder we never take the Flex off. We know what a misery it is to put back on.  

But my biggest complaint is that Fitbit and I do not quite agree on the interpretation of "activity".  Activity, for me, casts a very wide net and includes energy-expending tasks such as cooking, dusting and ironing, whereas housework appears not to register much at all for Fitbit unless it involves walking or at least moving the lower extremities.  Walking over to the oven?  Good.  Chopping and peeling 4 carrots?  Not good.  Cleaning toilets?  Don't ask. If it were summertime, I know I would get credit for cutting the grass but not for weeding.  It is possible to add specific "activities" to one's profile each day, so I had hoped to find a place for miscellaneous chores like folding laundry or preparing dinner, but the only permitted activities are swimming, cycling, walking and running. In fact, all Fitbit's preferences seem somehow very masculine.  No wonder I think of him as Mr. Fitbit.

I appear to be in a relationship with a fitness freak and he is not too happy with me unless I play the game his way.

But when I do, he gets very excited.  HOORAY! he exclaims from a big lime-green happy face on the Fitbit Dashboard when I hit the 10,000 step mark. (I can't help but feel extraodinarily pleased at this outcome, and if it occurs early in the evening, I celebrate by plunking down in front of the TV for the duration.)  Fitbit encourages in other ways, too.  If I am close to the target, he sends reminders to my Google tablet: Nancy -- only 2,245 steps to reach your goal!  Bruce interprets this exhortation as harassment. He tells me to change my goal.  "It would stop doing that, you know, if you had a target of 7,000 steps".   What I am more likely to do is head for the treadmill or the exercise bike in the basement.  2,000 steps is not really so much.

And some days, it actually isn't too hard to keep moving in a Fitbit-approved way.  A morning of grocery shopping, combined with an afternoon delivering books to my 15 retirement home readers is a 10,000-step day for sure.   I think I am also acquiring better 10,000-step habits. When the phone rings now, I do not automatically grab a cup of tea and head for the couch.  I walk and talk.  I can log 1,000 steps easily that way.  And I no longer chafe if life gets in the way of completing a task efficiently.  No place to park the car near the retirement home?   I'll have to walk further!  Yeah!  Did I discover at the checkout that I forget the milk?  Well thank goodness it is several aisles away because there and back to the dairy case is at least 250 steps.

And so on.

We are finding our way, Fitbit and I.  I haven't given him his walking papers yet, but I still wish he were more responsive.  Doesn't he know that schlepping the heavy vacuum up and down the stairs requires more than light effort? That knitting expends energy?  There is so much I'd like to teach him, but I'm not sure he'd get it. As in so many relationships, I may have to be one to compromise.  Perhaps I can learn to walk and peel carrots at the same time...  



Friday, 7 February 2014

#366: Slopestyle, Double Slalom and Extreme Driveway

The Winter Olympics begin today, and Canada has golden hopes.

Why are are we soooo confident?  Because We Are Winter.  At least that is what our Olympic promos promise.

And this winter, one of the coldest and snowiest in years, I feel very winterized indeed.  I am Winter,  I told myself this week as I pumped myself up to shovel yet another driveway. I am Canadian, I live to shovel snow!
6 ft of snow -- Our own little hill, big enough to slide down.   

In fact, as I cleared a path to the garage again, I briefly considered shovelling as a new Olympic event. Surely those 12 cool and exciting new categories with their extreme snowy gymnastics (designed to attract younger viewers) should be balanced by a more sedate sport, one that would appeal to an older demographic: Olympic Shovelling. Think of the possibilities:  Solo Sidewalk, Team Driveway, Moguls (or whatever you call that snowpile at the bottom of the driveway after the plow goes down the street).  Synchro Shovelling!  The challenges are endless.

And how to judge a gold medal performance?  Easy. It is all about technique -- the art of propelling one shovelful after another onto a growing mound.  Speed and distance count.  Neatness counts. A tidy, cleared driveway is a thing of beauty.

The students across the street know nothing about shovelling.  We have helped them dig out this truck. 

Canada could totally dominate this new sport because We Know Snow.  We know the variety of snow that lands on driveways and paths, and the shovelling techniques required:  feathery, fluffy snow that is a snap to shovel;  gritty, sandy snow that packs down in 5 minutes unless you remove it immediately; heavy wet snow, one step removed from slush. And wet snow that freezes hard?  Wise shovellers get to work before the cold snap.  But whatever sort of snow awaits, it is all made so much worse by the arrival of the dreaded plow,  Every man, woman and child with a house and driveway knows the sinking feeling that accompanies the announcement:  "Here comes the snowplow!"  Gaaaagh.   Out come the array of shovelling tools -- pushers, scoopers and choppers. No-one is going anywhere by car until that heaped-up ridge is removed.    

But would Canadians embrace Olympic Snow Shovelling?  Of course!  Snow removal is a trending topic in February when its challenges are always top-of-mind.  Arrive at any winter gathering where there are two or more adults and you will be subjected to at least 10 minutes conversation about snow clearance. Everyone has a snow removal story.  Since we have all been shovelling since November here in Southern Ontario, the current theme is a reflection on space: Where do we put the @%&* snow??  We are running out of room and everyone is contemplating the implications of sneaking surplus snow onto a neighbour's property. Would they notice?  Would we be caught?

As far as I can see, there is only one problem that might stand in the way of introducing this new snow sport, and it could be a deal-breaker.  It would be hard to put together a team.  We may know all about shovelling, but we do not practice the way we used to.  Kids no longer trawl the neighbourhood packing shovels looking for work.  And their dads are whizzing up and down driveways and sidewalks with new-fangled snow blowers. The best and most experienced snow shovellers are retirees--like me.  But when we start a job, we are in no hurry to finish.  We shovel, we chip away at the mogul, we wander across the street to talk to our shovelling (retired) neighbour.  We take a tea break. Unless there is a pressing appointment, this task doesn't really need to get done until supper time.  Watching a team of shovelling retirees would be like watching cricket. Spectators could have to plant their lawn chairs in a nearby snow bank and sip hot cocoa for 10 hours.

But most importantly, it must be accepted (reluctantly), that the greatest impediment to Olympic  Snow Removal is this: Canadians do not actually enjoy snow shovelling.  A trip to Sochi to shovel for the nation?  Forget it. Yes, we have the skills and the experience.  But the best that can be said for shovelling is that it is good exercise -- if you like to work out at 30 below.

We hate to shovel. And by mid- February after a Polar Vortex Winter?  Who am I trying to kid?  We LOATHE shovelling.  And that's the truth.

But we do love to talk about it.        


Sunday, 26 January 2014

#365: Learning from Loss

Last week was hard.

This past Wednesday, we lost Bruce's colleague Gerald Adams to pancreatic cancer.  We had been blindsided when we learned of his illness because, of course, we knew the outcome.  Such a diagnosis was not one that could be argued with or negotiated. Gerald did have wonderful hospice care and an amazing, supportive, loving family so in that sense, I suppose, he died a "good" if inevitable death.  But it is all so sad. He was such a lovely man.

Then on Friday we attended the funeral of Janet Wardlaw -- Bruce's former dean (and, incidentally, the first female dean at the U of G).   For the last 15 years she was also our regular companion at the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony.

When I learned that Janet was in the hospital as the result of a fall at Christmas, I was aghast. I did argue. Janet couldn't possibly fall!  How could that happen? (I have to admit that I felt somewhat betrayed.  Janet, how could you?  And I am not alone-- others have sheepishly confessed to having the same initial reaction.)

Because Janet really did seem invincible. She was a role model for her younger friends; we all wanted to be just like her, perpetually youthful and active.   She went swimming several times a week.  She walked downtown. She was so fit that I never once thought to suggest that we take the elevator to our second-balcony symphony seats!  She kept her brain fit playing Bridge and Scrabble and serving on many committees where her intelligence and administrative skills were highly valued.  An international traveller, she always seemed to be going to the States to see former students and colleagues, or to Europe with tour groups from her church.  Even last September as the symphony season recommenced, we asked the usual question, "Janet where did you go this summer?" She told us that she hadn't intended to go away, but that friends or family had talked her into this or that adventure. Friends were always asking her to go along on trips because she was the best possible company -- agreeable, upbeat, curious, and energetic. She was also very sensible, even pragmatic.  Perhaps she developed this habit as a single woman, although I prefer to think that decisiveness was in her nature.  Nevertheless, it was a lesson to us all when, at 80, she sold her beautiful two-storey stone house with its lovely garden and moved into a nearby condo.  Physically she had no need to move and she admitted it.  But she had decided that it was time.  "Less bother eventually for my nieces and nephews" is how she explained it."

When I read Janet's obituary I learned even more about this remarkable woman, including her actual age. I came across the phrase, "Janet Wardlaw in her 90th year..."  . 


A few months ago I had a conversation about death and age with "Hetty" one of my retirement home readers.   Hetty has had a bad year -- two bouts of cancer along with the usual surgeries and radiation. Just as she was between procedures, I visited her and remarked on a bouquet of her favourite yellow roses.  The blooms looked a little droopy, but they had been very pretty when fresh. "Well, Nancy", she observed, "that is the way of the world.  Flowers die.  Old ladies die."  She wasn't being gloomy -- she was telling it like it is because she wasn't really sure I had it all figured out. Hetty knows me so well.

 Janet, how could you?    

But I think I now understand my astonished reaction to Janet's death.  I just never thought of her as OLD.

Of course, Hetty was right.  "Old ladies" of 89 do die, but if they are like Janet they will be well and healthy right up to the finish line.

Janet, forgive me. In your 90th year, you betrayed no-one.  Ever the educator, you were still teaching us about life--and death--even as you left us.  And we won't forget.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

#364: Christmas Stress

Two days to go, and Christmas is in hand.   I am not freaking out. The tree is up, most of the presents have been wrapped, and I know what we are eating on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day.  I have even managed to contract out a lot of the cooking to my clever son-in-law. 

I won’t say that the run-up to Christmas 2013 has been completely without stress, but the anxiety has certainly been manageable.  Perhaps my standards are slipping as I age.  Perhaps I simply have more time in retirement for Christmas prep.  Whatever it is, I like it.  I like it so much that I even envision a future, as I move into my 70's, in which the weight of Christmas responsibility is light as an angel's wing.  A true Christmas miracle. 

Then again...

As I entertained this sanguine fantasy, I made pre-Christmas visits to my female readers at the retirement home where I am volunteer librarian/book fairy.  That is when I realized that I would never, ever get off the Christmas treadmill.

For the last couple of weeks the ladies have asked me the same question:  Are you all ready for Christmas?  And I have assured them that I still had lots to do, but that I would be ready or at least done by December 25.  They nodded with understanding. They knew all about Christmas pressure.  So many cards to write!  (This was no fantasy – I could see addressed envelopes waiting to be mailed.)  I also admitted that the sweater I was making for my grandson was still unfinished.  Just one more sleeve to knit!  “Oh", sympathized Ethel, “I know.  I still have to knit the neck on my son’s pullover and I don’t think I have enough wool.  Don't bring me books until the New Year. I won't have much time to read!  ”

To Irene, I sheepishly confessed that at 69, I still “do” stockings for my daughters and their partners.  “Yes”, she agreed, ”and it gets harder to find nice little stocking presents when you can’t get out much.”  90-year old Irene, it seems, is still filling a stocking from Santa for her daughter Marilyn. (I've met this Marilyn and she is easily my age.  We've even discussed the challenges of retirement.) 

I guess it would be weird if I went out this January and bought 20 years' worth of stocking stuffers for 4 people and then squirreled the treats and trinkets away.  What do you think?  Totally weird?

Or completely brilliant!

Because now that I know my future, I am sorely tempted.

Friday, 22 November 2013

#363: Anniversaries: The Bitter and the Sweet

November 22.

Now there is a date to conjure with, especially for those of us who vividly recall the events of 50 years ago.

Such was power of the Kennedy mystique, that even out on the Canadian prairies we were shocked to learn of the news from Dallas.  It was a 9/11 moment for my generation. (And for the record, I was having lunch in a U of A classroom with my friend Alexis Dryburgh when another student burst through the door shouting “Kennedy’s been shot!"  It is a testimony to the significance of the pronouncement that I do not remember what I was wearing.)

But, powerful as this memory is, I would not likely have commented on the 50-year anniversary except that falls on a much happier occasion: my grandson Erik’s birthday.  Our busy little boy is one year old today.

We won’t be there to celebrate, nor do I think his parents are planning a birthday extravaganza.  The little guy had his big moment a few days ago when he and a group of year-old friends participated in an over-the-top shared 1st birthday experience—a cake smash. 

I had no idea what this entailed, but it is apparently the coming thing for 1st birthdays.  The ingredients are simple: one or more babies clad for cake combat (diapers and not much else) and an iced cake (nothing too special because this cake is destined for a bad end).  The instructions are equally basic: put the babies on the floor with the cake and let the smashing to begin. 

That is the way a cake smash is supposed to unfold.  But there is no accounting for baby behaviour; at Erik’s event most of the birthday celebrants were not terribly interested in the cake, and the mothers, chagrined at this turn of events, had to demonstrate technique.

Curious Erik, however, apparently needed no such urging.  He was covered in cake in short order, to my daughter’s dismay. (Jenny says she felt somewhat embarrassed by his enthusiasm.  She had been a bit iffy about the cake smash from the get-go.  She didn’t even take photos.)

I thought about this shared birthday party on Wednesday when I went out with my ladies’ hiking group.  One of the members had very much enjoyed a 75th birthday planned by her grandchildren.  “There were kid games and kid food!  It was a hoot”, she enthused.

I was 19 when Kennedy died so I have a significant birthday this coming January, and I can’t help but think Erik should be the party planner.  We would have a cake smash of course!  I can imagine the scene: Nancy and her age mates (I could invite my entire book group) attacking a supermarket sheet cake emblazoned with an appropriate message: 70 SUCKS!

Take that, symbolic representation of my aging mind and body!  SMASH! SMASH! SMASH!    

Aaaah, but could we do it?  Could we wantonly waste food and create a sticky mess that someone would have to clean up?  I don’t think so.  We are, after all, children of the 60’s.  We still hold on to Kennedy values.

What would Jackie do?

I rest my case.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

#362: Adios Espana


We are now home and up to our armpits in laundry, but I'm posting a few pictures and observations about our trip on my travel blog, The Reluctant Retiree Abroad. Here is the first entry.