Aging well is hard work

Aging well is hard work

Three Dummerstonians talk about how to grow older with grace, grit, and humor

DUMMERSTON — “The final chapter of my life might be the richest,” said Bill Schmidt, 82, at the beginning of a panel discussion he was moderating Sunday at the Dummerston Congregational Church on the topic of “Aging Well.”

“We begin aging when we're born, and we're aging now,” he said. “Aging well isn't something that just happens. You have to work hard at it.”

On the panel were three people who know well of which he speaks: his wife, Mary Lou Schmidt, who is 91, John Wilcox, who is 80, and Tom Zopf, who is 85.

Vermont is known for its aging population, and Dummerston has at least eight or nine people who are over 90 years old right now. No one in town knows of anyone over the age of 100, although there was one gentleman of that age who died a couple of years ago.

The event was organized by Dummerston Cares, which was founded in 2005. Bill Schmidt resurrected it two years ago with the motto “Helping hands for our neighbors,” and now serves as its president. There are seven “Cares” groups in Windham County; each one has its own emphasis.

Close to 40 people - many of them also graying - showed up to discuss aging, to visit with their neighbors on a beautiful early spring day, and to gently needle friends they've known for decades.

Affectionate fun

Zopf came in for the most needling, since he recently abandoned Dummerston for the “bustle” of the big city - he sold his house and moved into the Brooks House in downtown Brattleboro.

“When I lived in Dummerston and I wanted to take a walk, I could leave the house and turn left or right,” Zopf said. “It was the same trees and plants every time. In Brattleboro, I have a choice of streets to walk on, and there are people doing things on those streets.”

Humor is clearly an important part of aging gracefully.

“I've been predeceased by my foreskin, my tonsils, and my gall bladder,” Zopf said. “And I didn't know I was getting older until Bill asked me to be on this panel.”

Zopf speech was filled with one-liners.

“At one point I thought I'd be a stand-up comedian,” Zopf said. “Now I think I'm a lie-down comedian.”

Zopf, who has traveled widely and lived in many foreign countries, said that his initial plans for aging went awry.

“I married a nurse who was younger than me,” he said. “But she died when I was 80, so it wasn't a good plan.”

Zopf called the cemetery a “post-age office,” and quoted author Barbara Ehrenreich, who said “We treat aging as an outrage and a sin.” He suggested that people age “less timidly.”

“Argue when you feel like arguing,” Zopf said. “Eat a rich meal now and then. Give up country life for the bustle of the big city. Exercise. Increasing activity lifts your spirits and increases your endurance. Fifteen minutes of brisk walking lowers the risk of premature death. Have some fun. Have a positive attitude.”

Wilcox, whom Schmidt called “Mr. Volunteer” and described as “a real saint,” talked about the illnesses he's battled in the last five years: he was undaunted, he said, by gall stones, cancer, a hernia, and a pulmonary embolism. Cardiac arrest led to open heart surgery. All told, he was in the hospital seven times.

“Through all of it, I just had a certainty that I would be okay,” Wilcox said. “It was basic optimism bolstered with good thoughts. I'm in good health now and I treasure this time without all the [medical] nonsense.”

Most important to Wilcox was gardening.

“We try to keep the gardens full of flowers,” Wilcox said. “It means a lot to us to have them.”

Serenity Prayer

Mary Lou said that at an early age she adopted the Serenity Prayer: “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

In 1978, Mary Lou was diagnosed with MS, and “the Serenity Prayer kicked in,” she said. “It would sustain me over the next 40 or 50 years.”

Then, in the 1990s, she was diagnosed with scoliosis. “I had my back x-rayed and my spine was a corkscrew,” she said.

Body therapy once a week for 25 years has helped correct her spine and keeps her body in working use, Mary Lou said.

But taking sleeping pills made things worse, Mary Lou said. She would fall into a deep sleep and never turn over during the night. She dug a hole in her mattress.

“My expensive memory foam mattress developed dementia,” she said wryly. “Doctors like to prescribe, but they don't tell you the consequences. My sleeping medication turned my mattress into a hammock.”

A bed sore she got from this took forever to heal while she was being treated by professionals. She racked up over $4,000 in medical costs before she and Bill healed it in a few weeks with made-in-Vermont Bag Balm.

For many years, the Schmidts owned and ran the Elysian Hills Tree Farm, which raises and sells Christmas trees.

“The first part of my life was horses,” Mary Lou said. “The second part was Christmas trees.”

In 2014, the Schmidts sold their farm to the Manix family; it became part of Walker Farm. Under the sale agreement, the Schmidts continue to live in their historic 1791 cape home on the property. Mary Lou said the thing she missed most was her tractor.

“I was 87 and having terrible trouble getting on and off the tractor,” she said.

Wisdom of the aged

Mary Lou offered advice to the audience.

“Don't be proud,” Mary Lou said. “Use an aid, like a walker. I've used a walker for 23 years. Watch your nutrition. Watch out for salt. Don't eat spicy foods. Install hand bars in your home. If you live alone, get a medical alert and use it.”

The Schmidts hire someone to clean their house, and since Mary Lou has difficulty standing for long periods of time, Bill has become “a pretty good cook.” They also recommended downsizing.

“Go through your file cabinets,” Bill said. “You can't believe what you thought you should save. And heirlooms make good birthday presents. A few years ago we held a large party at a local hotel and put out 60 pieces from our collection of heirlooms as party favors. We only had to take two back home with us.”

The Schmidts have a pet cemetery on their property, and plan to be buried there.

“Bill says, 'We're going to the dogs,'” Mary Lou joked. Then she grew serious.

“What am I grateful for? For Bill. For 43 years of loving and caring. I could not be here without him.”

After the panelists told their stories, audience members added their own advice:

• Keep on working. Don't retire.

• If you can't do regular yoga, take classes in the more gentle chair yoga.

• Don't scorn alternative medicines like chiropractors and acupuncturists.

• Change things up: if you live in the country, for example, like Zopf, then move to town.

• Consider taking advantage of Vermont's assisted suicide law, but be aware that it takes several months to earn the right to get the life-ending medications; several area hospitals will not let their practitioners offer the drugs.

• Create advanced directives for health care, especially for end-of-life care.

• If you are living alone or feel socially isolated, consider sharing a home with other compatible people.

• Write your own obituary.

• And most of all, keep busy.

“I'm grateful that I don't have arthritic hands,” Mary Lou said. “I'm always embroidering and sewing. I make lap quilts for the people at Thompson House who are in wheelchairs.”

“Create and live your own lifestyle,” Bill said. In closing, he talked about a Japanese philosophy called Naikon.

“I ask myself each day, 'What have I received today?'” Bill said. “'What have I given? What difficulties or problems have I given someone today? Or what did I miss doing?' Gratitude is the quality to develop. Recognize the benefits and rewards of growing old.”

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