For most of my childhood our family lived in Glenside, Pennsylvania, but from 1934-39 we rented a house on the trolley line in nearby Roslyn. Those were our years of poverty, caused by the Great Depression, and the most excitement I remember was when the WPA men came to work on the tracks. During that time (and most of my life before I went off to college) we didn’t own a car. If we wanted to go somewhere, we walked and thought nothing of it. My earliest memory is of going for a hike in the woods with my brothers and sister when I was about three. The elementary school was a little less than a mile from our house, which meant we did not qualify for the bus. In all kinds of weather my brother and I were bundled up and hustled out the door for the walk to school. It was a three-mile hilly trek to Glenside where all the fun stuff was, but we did it regularly especially in the summer. We were often sent on an errand to take something to a neighbor, mail a letter at the post office, buy some stew beef from the butcher or run to the grocer for a missing ingredient while Mother was in the midst of stirring up a casserole. That habit of walking was a gift of my childhood that has never stopped giving.
Our days were punctuated occasionally by the tradesmen who came to the door: the ice man carrying a large block of ice with mammoth single-handle tongs, the uniformed meter reader, the coal man, farmers selling vegetables in the summer and apples or pumpkins in the fall. My favorite was the Seventh Day Adventist peddler, who drove a beat-up old delivery truck full of strange groceries and literature explaining the Adventist beliefs about food and health. He was a small wiry man with a pointy nose, a ruddy complexion, and he always wore a rumpled old fedora. I would hang around and watch, hoping the peddler would give me a little piece of healthy candy. After chatting a few minutes and accepting a leaflet to read later, Mother would buy nourishing things like hot cereal mixes with weird grains, whole wheat Fig Newtons, black strap molasses, lentils and dried fruit. If she had enough small change left, she would buy toasted, salted soybeans. Although I liked peanuts more, I was happy to get the soybeans, since we didn’t have many snack foods. Little did I know that I was absorbing an attitude toward food and the choices we make about our diet that was the cornerstone of my interest in healthy eating.
Bill and I and our three young children lived in Guatemala from 1964 to 1967, where we were co-directors of a Peace Corps-type program with the American Friends Service Committee. Each year when a new group of volunteers arrived to join the unit, we had an orientation program, which included a discussion of disease prevention with our physician. Dr. Carlos Perez. A handsome man with a keen sense of humor, he was one of the best doctors who ever provided our care. He warned the volunteers that they would be living in the rural areas where the conditions were unsanitary and dysentery was rampant. He urged them to eat only cooked foods when they ate in restaurants or private homes. When they fixed their own meals he urged them to wash all vegetables and fruits including melons, papayas, bananas, and other fruit before peeling or cutting into them. He explained that if they didn't do that, bacteria could enter the fruit on the knives they used. Bottled water was not yet available, and he directed them to boil all their drinking water for twenty minutes. Then he said, “Our digestive system is designed to protect us from things like dysentery, but it only works when you are healthy. So the best way to prevent disease is to eat a good diet, and get enough sleep.” He didn’t worry about enough exercise, because he knew they didn’t have vehicles and most of them lived a distance from public buses.
We quickly discovered that many of these young adults didn’t know what constituted a good diet, and none of them knew how to cook when everything had to be made from scratch. The ones who learned—often from the Guatemalans they worked with—how to use the local foods and fresh produce, were healthier. An unexpected result from the experience was our determination to make sure our own children learned all the skills that the many of the volunteers lacked.
It’s hard to imagine that there is anyone in America today, given the plethora of media health messages and ads, that doesn’t know smoking is bad for you, exercising and maintaining the right weight are good, and some food groups are better than others. For anyone reading this who is uncertain about the best lifestyle choices as you age, I recommend Andrew Weil’s book Healthy Aging. He covers all the bases (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social).
As I’ve been thinking about prevention, defined as the action of stopping something from happening or arising, I’ve been struck by the fact that while an ounce of prevention may well be better than a pound of cure, it’s just not possible to stop everything bad from happening. About fifteen years ago, a friend about my age had a heart attack. When I took her a pot of soup and stayed for a visit, she was lamenting that she had done everything right to be healthy, and what good did it do, because she had a heart attack anyway. However, she recovered and is still active, busy, and generally in good health. My own experience in dealing with a range of medical problems in the last ten years has led me to believe that a lifetime of good habits sets the stage for the best possible recovery if medical problems do arise. I also believe that there are decisions that each of us can make later in life that will help prevent or mitigate the normal aging problems that affect our vision, hearing, bone density, balance, cognitive function and general well-being.
My concept of pro-active aging is that, in partnership with whatever health practitioners meet our needs, we look squarely at our own health and safety issues—current or potential—and then consider the resources available to us to maximize our ability to deal with them. Then it behooves us to take whatever preventive actions are reasonable and possible. High on my prevention list are tending the life of the spirit; physical and mental exercise; acupuncture and massages, nourishing myself with enough sleep and good food; and saving time for the activities and people that bring me joy.
A word to North Carolina readers on another subject: I was deeply moved by Governor Perdue’s short statement on Amendment One on the ballot May 8. She thinks that it is just plain wrong to write discrimination into the N.C. Constitution. Here is the link.