Facts and options

“Two up and an addict, mix ‘em.”

That call can still be heard on warm days in the parking lot of Leon’s, just south of Oklahoma Boulevard on South 27th Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On the warmest days of the year, a short line emerges before the small glass door is opened where orders for frozen custard are taken. This slightly-frozen dairy confection, while no longer completely unique to the state, nears sacramental status with Leon’s, Kopps, Gille’s, and (newcomer) Culvers serving the faithful year round from drive-in locations.

In my early 30’s I was assigned a brief school psychology internship placement at Pulaski High School, about one block away from Leon’s. Two or three days a week I would go to the school and test students, meet with teachers, and write reports. Depending on the schedule for the day, I stopped at the drive-in before or after my shift for an Addict, three scoops of custard in a plastic cup. I elected to mix it – get two flavors in the dish – if the daily alternate to vanilla and chocolate was butter pecan. This latter flavor featured buttery-flavored frozen custard topped with salty, toasted pecan halves.

Getting ready for community-organized run/walk along the shores of Lake Michigan

Getting ready for community-organized run/walk along the shores of Lake Michigan

At the time of the internship, I was running an hour a day with my buddy, Dick. He worked second shift and we had worked out a routine that lasted several years in below-zero winter and scorching summer; rain or snow did not stop us. On very snowy days, we often helped push cars that were stuck in snow banks. In the summer heat, we frequently ran through sprinkler systems on front lawns on our route near Lake Michigan. I vividly recall the large quantity of laundry and the number of running shoes I went through to keep up our regimen.

Because of this running, the regular consumption of frozen dairy was a net zero calorie intake. Weight training, running, and age conspired to give me the metabolism of a bird. I cannot say that I consciously thought that my family’s propensity for overweight had missed me, I do remember bragging more than once that it seemed I could eat anything and not gain weight. Later, shortly after age 40, I also remember wondering how it was that I could be in the same room with a dessert and seemingly gain weight from the proximity alone. Even after Dick moved out of the city, I maintained much of the same pace of exercise at the time, but needed to start managing my dietary calorie and fat intake.

My family doctor pronounced the diagnosis: even with exercise, my metabolism was slowing.

Throughout the decade of my forties, I episodically visited nutritionists and dieticians to consult on what I ate and which supplements I took. I felt particularly frustrated by their routine of showing me what they had to sell, like whey protein and lutein, with absolutely no rationale for why I would buy it. They were also often keen to get me up to speed on how to read the content labels on packaged food. They would not really believe that I absolutely never ate packaged food that was not a single ingredient, like oatmeal, maple syrup, or garbanzo bean meal. In the end, the doctor appeared to be correct. The issue was my metabolism. I just needed to reduce calorie intake and shift the type and duration of my exercise. But by then an exercise fix to the issue also became increasingly complicated because of running injuries and joint pain.

In his NY Times best-selling book, Spring Chicken, Bill Giffords discusses the national craze for anti-aging. He encourages the maintenance of rigorous daily exercise to stay healthier longer. He also skewers many of the crazes and trends that flood markets, both public markets and black markets. One surprise for me was his description of the wide-spread use of human growth hormone to reverse the aging process. In the U.S. we are spending over $1.6 billion on these drugs that actually increase the rate of aging after some initial period of increased muscle mass and improved skin tone. (Dave Davies interviewed Giffords on Fresh Air which you can find here).

Normal aging is associated with changes in bone density, muscle strength, metabolism, weight, and even height. Maintaining and improving physical functioning takes time – time that anyone planning their encore career must address in their scheme. Ignoring these basics can lead to other problems like Type 2 diabetes, cholesterol increases, and muscular-skeletal injuries. These can complicate and even truncate encore work.

These basics also have implications for community development. Plans for built environments, everything from community housing codes to public transportation, should consider the availability and accessibility of opportunities for aging populations to maintain optimum health while also accommodating physical changes associated with the aging process. Consider air travel. Seats and leg room are becoming smaller. Many people over 65 who may have more options for travel experience these changes in accommodation as problems because of joint pain. But, they are also uniquely challenged by the facilities available to them in the airport as well. Some airlines are making internet access easier and even offer use of electronic tablets free of charge. They provide stools to sit on and lower lounges in which to relax. While their waiting areas at the gate seem smaller and smaller, the length of time waiting in them appears to be increasing. At the same time, it is not unusual to see lines of travelers waiting to purchase food of dubious nutritional value from vendors in concourses already jammed with people dashing between planes or flowing over from packed seating areas. All travelers are screwed by these environments, but older travelers are especially hard-pressed to maintain their needs to move about freely, eat healthfully, and to sit comfortably.

Community development requires many people to make complex decisions. Ignoring the physical challenges of aging hampers our ability to make the best decisions that can improve the lives of community members across the life span. To remain healthier longer, decisions about our built environments need to improve. So does our candor about aging and its consequences, both rational and irrational. This candor, with facts over fantasies, gives us real options for healthier, happier, longer lives.

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