Thursday, September 13, 2007
On a stiflingly hot day late last month, a group of mourners celebrated a life well lived. "Martha was a fine woman," said the preacher. And she was. Miss Martha, as we are fond of saying in the South, was just good people. Never married, Martha dedicated her life to helping others. She helped set up one of the first homeless shelters in Atlanta. Martha made people feel special.
Even though Martha was 75, she seemed younger -- younger than some 30 year olds I know. As the preacher reminded us, Martha had taught classes on "positive aging" at a local retirement home. Driving home, I started thinking about attitude and aging. I did a little research and decided to call some experts. "Those who are under the most stress have higher mortality," says Dr. Brian Carpenter, who studies aging at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. "A positive attitude has been shown to lead to reduced stress hormones, hypertension and blood pressure. It's also beneficial to the immune system." Another study found that seniors with positive emotions are less likely to become frail.
But as my grandma is fond of saying, "Growing old is not for sissies." As our bodies break down, it can be hard to keep a positive attitude and look towards the future. "You need to be circumspect about things that can be changed and can't be changed," says Carpenter. "You want to have some control... but don't beat your head against the wall over the things you can't change."
While we can't control growing old, we can choose how we are going to live. One of the things I always admired about Martha was her passion for learning. She had the curiosity of a child. Martha also invested in the people around her. Keeping friendship networks strong as we age is extremely important, says Dr. Carpenter. Looking out at the congregation, I was struck by the diversity of friends Martha had made over the years. Some she had known since she was a schoolteacher in the 1950s; others were young women she met through her volunteer work.
I am grateful for the lessons of Martha's life. I will miss the twinkle in her eye. Martha indeed was a good woman. Do you have a "Martha" in your life? What do you think is the secret to staying happy as we grow older?
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