All of us are role models, whether we see ourselves that way or not

All of us are role models, whether we see ourselves that way or not.  Of course I love to imagine myself as a positive role model, but my eleven-year-old daughter has already informed me that things will be way different at her house when she’s a mama.  However, we’re not going to focus on how uncool I am, instead, I’m going to share the stories of a couple of people who served as positive role models for me and some of the things I learned from them.

A few years back, I had the privilege of interviewing one of the most beautiful women in the world. No, I wasn’t talking to Angelina Jolie, Sharon Stone, or Sophia Loren.  Her name was Ethel Birnbaum.  At 96 years of age, she proudly walked without a cane, and she spoke with a twinkle in her eye.  Admittedly, she was growing frail of stature – but not of mind.  Ethel had been a librarian by trade and stated that she’d never lost her love of reading or learning.  When bored, she liked to “surf the net” looking for a new subject to conquer.  She still lived alone, and while she lamented being unable to drive any longer, she gracefully accepted the support of her 75 year-old son, who came to check on her every day.  She enjoyed the company of her friends when they played cards and the opportunity to inspire her children, grand children, and great grand children with her stories.   She inspired me too.

Then there was Vernon, who came to see me in my clinic because he wanted a flu shot.  At 98 years young, he still bowled in a league twice a week and drove himself wherever he needed to go.  When I heard this, I politely explained that senior citizens are more likely to die or be seriously injured if involved in a motor vehicle crash, and I suggested that he visit the local DMV to update his driving exam.  He laughed at me when I said this and told me that he had already done so the year before.  He was pleased to show me his driver’s license set to expire at the age of 132.  After listening to this gentleman, who had never taken a regular medication nor undergone a surgical procedure of any kind, I told him that I believed he might still be using that driver’s license by then and quickly shooed him out the door before he could be infected by some kind of bacteria sitting on my counter.

I don’t know about you, but these kinds of stories amaze and embolden me. Certainly genetics play a role here, but in my experience, rarely does a person live to 98 purely on luck.  So I have made it a point to ask anyone who reaches the age of 90, and is cognitively intact, the secret to his good health.   Without fail, these folks have told me two things, “One, I didn’t smoke, and two, I exercised everyday.”  Most of them also touted the immense power of spiritual practice and a positive attitude as well as the importance of laying off the hooch.

Now, I spent my teens and 20s learning things the hard way – by putting my hands in the fire and getting burned.  When I began seeing patients as a third year medical student, however, I came face to face with the consequences of a lifestyle like mine, and I realized this was not what I envisioned for my future.  I could be overweight, dragging an oxygen tank, and riding around at Walgreen’s in my scooter by age 60, or I could be playing cards with Ethel and bowling with Vernon in my 90s.

As a nation, we fear getting old.  We associate aging with confusion, forgetfulness, incontinence, disability, chronic pain, and a medicine cabinet full of expensive pills. Truth is, none of these scenarios is a normal part of aging, if we take good ourselves now.  The biggest threats to our health as Americans are preventable, but worrying about them is not enough.  It’s not enough to simply want better health or even to set goals to live better.   Each of us has to fully embrace responsibility for our own health, get motivated, and then put healthy decisions into action every day.   We are all role models, but we get to choose whether we instruct others through the rewards of our actions or the misery we bring upon ourselves.

So how can you and I enjoy a long, vibrant, joyful senescence like Ethel and Vernon?

First, let’s spend time envisioning our senior years.  Let’s really get clear about how we want to look, what our surroundings will be like, and what we want to be doing.  Let’s write that down or create a vision board, and revisit this vision monthly or even weekly to keep it fresh in our minds. Let’s consider what role a healthy body plays in our stories.

Second, let’s cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Whether you believe we are the divine creation of God or the culmination of billions of cosmic coincidences, each of us is extremely fortunate to experience life in human form.  After all, we could have been a platypus or a stinkweed.  Let’s not just notice what hurts and what’s wrong with our bodies.  We can spend some time thanking it everyday for everything that’s going right.  We are much more likely to treat something we appreciate with good care.

Lastly, we need to find something we enjoy doing, and if at all possible, do it with others.  Staying socially engaged and mentally and physically active are key to keeping our bodies, minds, and spirits strong and happy.

In conclusion, it is my belief that we are given this human life to enjoy and to grow into our full potential like Ethel and Vernon.  I want to grow up to be like my mom, who still does 2-3 half marathons every year, hikes in the mountains, and travels around the world volunteering her time and talents.  I want to be a trailblazer for my daughter and her kids too.  Who knows?  Maybe someday I’ll be as cool to her as my mom is to me.

So who do you want to be?

What are you grateful for?

What kind of role model will you be for the rest of us?

Melanie Lane is a family physician who blogs at The Doctor Weighs In.

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