‘Spiritual health is finding joy in life’
Questions for Jane E. Brody
Jane E. Brody, “Personal Health” columnist for The New York Times, follows her own advice regarding “How To Get The Most Out Of Your Older Years,” the subject of the talk she will give Nov. 14 for Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County and Greenwood House.
Now 72, she bicycles, mows the lawn, climbs ladders, swims, and eats healthy foods, and she continues to work, half-time, writing a weekly column for The Times’s “Science Times” section. She also takes biking vacations.
Brody has twin sons and is the grandmother of four boys, including a set of twins; two are on the West Coast and two are in Brooklyn. “I try to spend time with my grandsons and impart whatever wisdom and experience I can to them,” she said. “I take them on trips and on hikes and try to do things I enjoy that they might enjoy.”
Semiretirement also gives her more time to pursue cultural activities like theater and opera and to visit with friends.
In March 2010 Brody lost her husband, Richard Engquist, but has found her way back to a life on her own. It amuses her that she finds herself reporting to him when she does the jobs that he used to do: “I talk to him and say, ‘Richard, I didn’t forget to clean out the gutters. I remembered to recycle everything.’”
In advance of her talk, NJJN spoke with Brody by phone:
NJJN: How do you suggest that people handle the transition to retirement?
Brody: If you have a job where you can work a few days a week, try to do that. If you must fully leave what you have always done, it is really, really important to have something lined up to do, especially if you’re a man. Many men think, “Wonderful, I won’t have to go to work,” and suddenly they have nothing to do.
If you can capitalize on your talents, whether for moneymaking or volunteer activities, it is really important to have something to do; it makes you feel valued and that supports your ego and gives you a sense of accomplishment. I’ve often heard women complain that when their husbands retire, suddenly a person is hanging around the house and getting in the way. It’s not healthy for relationships; you shouldn’t be depending on your life partner to provide the satisfaction that your job has provided.
NJJN: What advice would you give older people who are unwilling to use technology and assistive devices to improve their lives?
Brody: I have not seen that people are unwilling to be out there. At concerts on Sunday afternoons at the Brooklyn Public Library, they have handicapped access to their theater and people come in wheelchairs and with walkers and whatever.
It is extremely important for people to get over their self-consciousness about things like hearing aids; that irritates me no end, and what irritates me more is that Medicare doesn’t pay for hearing aids. They cover cataract operations and other kinds of sensory deprivation, but if people can’t hear, they are cut off from all the things that gave them pleasure.
NJJN: What kinds of adjustments do people have to make as they age?
Brody: We need to make adjustments, and thank God we can. The tools are at our disposal, and we should make use of them, whether it is a cane, walker, or wheelchair. In order to maintain a quality of life, you have to be able to get around; the world’s not going to come to you all the time. It will come some of the time, but that gets old pretty fast.
An adjustment that I’m now making is to talk to my sons about my having some way to call for help should something happen to me. I live alone and do things that are quasi-dangerous. They said, “Forget about Med Alert, just carry your cell phone wherever you go.”
NJJN: Another challenge of aging is the death of a spouse. What are the best ways for people to deal with this?
Brody: Two things I think are important are, one, not to be joined at the hip to begin with; you have to have some independent life from your partner. My work was independent of my husband, and I have friends that weren’t his friends.
I’m not saying that it is easy. I am not having such an easy time being third, fifth, seventh, or ninth wheel when I’m out with couples; that is definitely tough. But I know any number of single people, either never married, widowed, or gay men, and I do social things with them, and I’m trying to do more and more of that.
If you are having difficulty adjusting to the loss of your partner, you should get help. If you are sitting in your home, isolated, and feeling sorry for yourself, you’re not going to meet anybody or look attractive. You should maintain interests that get you out and among other people.
NJJN: The subtitle of your talk is “Keeping Yourself Physically, Emotionally, and Spiritually Healthy.” What do you mean by “spiritual health”?
Brody: Spiritual health is finding joy in life. For example, when I was…doing a morning walk around a lake, what gave me joy was seeing the pink sky and pink reflected in the water — that is a spiritual experience. Or, when I walk down the street here in New York and chat with a little kid — that is a spiritual experience.