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Monday, October 31, 2016

Telling Our Stories: Being Truthful vs. Accurate

One of the purposes of this blog—and of my teaching—is to encourage people to write their personal and family stories, whether for themselves, for friends and family, or to publish. Often these stories will describe events that happened many years ago and involve people who may no longer be living.

And unless we’ve kept rigorous private journals over our lifetime—recording the conversations we’ve had with people not long after they took place—we will be “making up” some of what they actually said. Some would say that even with those recorded conversations, we may be “making them up,” in that we are describing what we heard, which is often not the same as what was said.

All of which means that when we include dialogue in our personal stories—and doing so is critical to making them compelling and interesting—we are in some way imagining what was said, i.e., fictionalizing parts of it.

Published memoirists have written much about this issue; in fact, one of the earliest pieces I read on personal narrative was Patricia Hampl’s essay, “Memory and Imagination.” That title pretty much sums up what those of us who write our personal stories must rely on.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we can make things up that we know didn't happen; it does mean, though, that we have to rely partly on our imagination when reconstructing, i.e., remembering, what happened.

What got me thinking about this was an article in yesterday’s New York Times, about the new Netflix series, The Crown, which is about Queen Elizabeth II’s “unexpected reign” that began in 1952. Interviewed by Roslyn Sulcas for the article was, among others, the series writer, Peter Morgan, who also wrote the 2006 movie, The Queen, and the play, The Audience.

Here’s what Morgan had to say about writing the personal conversations between the historical characters in the series. In this one sentence, he captures the essence of what it means to write true vs. write accurate:

“Of course I have to imagine the private conversations, and those are necessarily fiction, but I try to make everything truthful even if you can’t know whether it’s accurate,” he said.

Monday, October 24, 2016

When Aging in Place Means Aging in Community

I’m pleased to report that the Aging in Place conversation that started with my July 30 blogpost continues. People who agreed to fill out and return a questionnaire on the topic have not only done so, but forwarded it on to friends and family throughout the country, people living in cities, small towns, suburbs, and rural areas.

And just last week I held the first in-person AIP discussion at a local support group for gay seniors. In November, the Budlong branch of the Chicago Public Library is hosting a round-table discussion on the subject.

At the same time, the articles with an aging-in-place focus continue to show up in print and online, including an October 14 piece in the New York Time’s Business Section, “The Future of Retirement Communities: Walkable and Urban,” by John F. Wasik.

(Please note: I do not believe that “aging in place” and “retirement” go hand in hand. Many Boomers & Beyonders interested in the AIP process are still working and plan to do so indefinitely.)

There are several important points made in Wasik's article, and for me they start with the phrase “aging in community” used by one of the people he interviewed, Ben Brown: “We realized ‘aging in place’ means a lot more than just a comfortable house,” Mr. Brown said. “So we began thinking more about ‘aging in community.’”

This broader use of aging in place makes the process a genuine reflection of what we value in a place beyond the walls of a particular residence. If understood from that perspective, then our search begins with a clear understanding of those values. 

For Mr. Brown, 70, and his 66 year-old wife, Christine, that meant urban and walkable, a community where they could live comfortably without a car. The place they chose? Not the obvious major urban centers that might first come to mind, but West Asheville, North Carolina.

To read more about what Wasik describes as “clearly a growing demand for walkable, urban retirement communities” no matter where they are situated:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Where'd I Put My Keys?

I’ve had some middlin’ memory lapses these past two weeks, most related to where I’ve put things in my new apartment: house keys, wallet, sunglasses, and cell phone, for starters.

In the old place, each had their spot, easily retrieved as I headed out the door or down to do the laundry. Oh, yah, and I knew where the laundry detergent was too. (I think I put it in the storage area in this place.)

I had a little bit of a panic the other day when I couldn’t find my faculty ID from the Lutheran School of Theology, where I’m guest lecturing in a course this semester. At the old place, it was in the dining room. But now I don’t have a dining room, instead a dining “area” in this large loft-like studio. Just minutes before leaving for class on Monday, I finally saw it on a wall shelf in the “office” area.

But these are less memory lapses than the need to acquire new habits. And when those circuits are finally laid down, retrieving the keys et al. will be automatic.

But what about maintaining memory in general? Especially as we age?  Lucky for us, it turns out to be as easy as taking a walk.  For more about that, here’s part of a Chicago Tribune article from October 13, by Keri Wiginton: “Brain-training apps don't work. Here's what does.”

It turns out games aimed at training the brain will likely only help you get better at those specific games. So you're out of luck if you're hoping those Sudoku apps will help you focus more at work or remember where you left your keys. 

There's no compelling evidence that any brain-training product enhances cognitive performance in real-world activities, reports a study published last week in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

So doing crosswords will help you get better at crosswords, but it won't help you remember your new coworker's name. 

"A company might claim benefits for memory, but you should ask whether the benefits extend to memory tasks other than those you practiced, including ones that you want to improve," said Daniel Simons, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and first author of the review.

Lumo Labs — which claimed their Lumosity app could prevent age-related memory decline and help kids do better in school — even had to pay $2 million to settle a false-advertising suit brought by the Federal Trade Commission.

So in honor of National Train Your Brain Day, we're here to offer two techniques that actually work.

For memory, focus on movement.

This is bad news for people who hope to maintain their mind by playing on their smartphone. But it's great for those who want to actively sharpen their focus.
"Exercise is the only evidence-based activity that will improve cognitive fitness," said Ken Weingardt, a professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

People who engage in higher levels of physical activity are less likely to develop heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke — all factors related to developing dementia, he said.

A recent study by the National Institute of Aging shows that exercising causes muscles to release a protein that stimulates production of new cells in the hippocampus — a part of the brain that controls memory.

Try Nike+ Training Club if you want a personal-fitness app to keep you moving. It's free and you can choose from four- to eight-week programs, or pick from more than 100 single workouts ranging from beginner to expert.

(NOTE: the second technique described—meditation—is not related specifically to memory. To read more about what that practice does help, click here:)

Saturday, October 8, 2016

On Moving, Moving On

A pre-move gratitude list inevitably leads to a post-move one.

And so sitting here in my new place a week following my move, I am happy to list what I am truly grateful from the actual day, a day--from this vantage point--that feels more dream than reality:

--my wonderful movers who showed up 30 minutes late, allowing me to actually have everything packed;

--friend Helen who helped me move the fragile stuff in her car;

--my new landlord who met me at 8:30 am on moving day with the keys to the apartment;

--my former landlord who showed up late to get the keys to my old apartment, allowing me to finish cleaning the place for the new tenants;

--cell phones.

And finally, a new neighbor, who I met while going back and forth between the old and new apartments. Turns out, he is a former colleague from my adjunct days at DePaul. He made my heart sing with his enthusiastic welcome.