Summer Reading for A Cause

Dear Friends,

The Fourth of July weekend is a wonderful time to relax with family and friends by the shore, near the lake, or around the barbecue at home. To thank you for your support this year, I am offering a 20 percent discount for Don’t Give Up on Me! during the month of July. This discount is available only on purchases made through my blog, Don’t Give Up on Them.


As you may know, we donate all profits from book sales to innovative non-profit organizations that support elders or their adult care partners. Thus far, we have made donations to the Alzheimer’s Association, the Marino Center for Integrative Health, the Women’s Health Initiative at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Memoir Project at Grub Street.  We have a long list of organizations that do outstanding work with elders and their families; it is our hope to support them as well.

My best wishes for a weekend filled with joy and laughter.

©Circle of Life Partners™

Fighting Cancer

by Joan DiGiovanni.

My dad is always giving me books to read. Whether political, historical or health related, he hasn’t given me one yet that I haven’t enjoyed or found worthwhile (wait a minute, I take that back, he once gave me a book about survival and it made me anxious so I never finished it). The most recent book he passed on was Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber. As I mentioned in a prior blog, my mom has been undergoing treatment for bile duct cancer so I wasn’t surprised by the title…what I was pleasantly surprised about as I made my way through it, was the fact that it’s a great book for everyone whether they have cancer or not. It’s a book about healthy living with practical, commonsense ways to help ward off cancer.

David Servan-Schreiber is a physician who, at the age of 31, discovers he has brain cancer with his own brain-scanning equipment. He chronicles his journey through his initial treatment, his relapse and then the creation of what he calls, ‘anticancer practices’. Seventeen years later, he now finds himself cancer free.

As Dr. Servan-Schreiber writes, all of us have cancer cells in our bodies but not all of us will develop cancer. With certain life adjustments, we can discourage the growth of these bad cells. Are you aware of the foods that can slow down and even prevent cancer or a relapse? Do you know that refined sugar, bleached flour, and vegetable oils directly fuel the growth of cancer? Amidst his personal story, Dr. Servan-Schreiber discusses a 3-pronged approach to combat cancer cells. He addresses nutrition, the environment and the mind-body connection.

  • Relative to the foods we eat, some are cancer ‘promoters’ whereby they fuel cancer growth while others, the ‘anti-promoters’, block the mechanism that cancer cells need to grow. Getting to know which foods are anticancer foods will help you on your journey to staying healthy. The book provides a quite handy section detailing various foods that will benefit your diet. You may find those foods here.
  • Environmentally, we have drastically disrupted our surroundings with toxic chemicals whether they are in the air we breathe or in the foods we eat. Starting in our home, eliminating harmful chemical household cleaners and insecticides will reduce our daily exposure to cancer causing substances. Get to know which foods in the produce section at your local grocery store have significant pesticide residue and buy organic instead. Reheat food in glass or ceramic containers and always avoid plastics made with PVC.
  • Lastly Dr. Servan-Schreiber emphasizes the importance of a mind and body connection and its role in promoting a healthy immune system. Incorporating mediation, yoga and ‘mindfulness’ into our lives has been shown to help keep our body functioning harmoniously and healthfully. While I was reading the book, I even felt compelled to download a guided mediation of mindfulness to my laptop. I can now incorporate this quiet time into my life in an easy, practical way as my laptop is never far from my fingertips; I even have the benefit of selecting the duration of the meditation (3, 10 or 20 minutes) depending on what’s going on in my life on a particular day.

As you can see, Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s advice is practical and by making gradual changes to our lives with his anticancer practices, we can effectively keep cancer cells in our bodies at bay. His practices promote healthy living. If you are living with cancer, Dr. Servan-Schrieber does not advocate that his methods should be used in lieu of conventional treatment like radiation and chemotherapy; they can be used to complement traditional approaches. To become and remain healthy, eating right, controlling our environment as best we can, and connecting our mind and body are life adjustments from which we can all benefit.

If you don’t have time to read his book, you’ll find much of Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s advice on his website (click here).

Keep the books coming dad!

©Circle of Life Partners™

Vitamin D

by Jan Simpson

I just finished shoveling a path through a foot of snow on my walk, envious of friends and family who fly south or southwest toward their winter homes chasing the sun. For centuries, the sun has been worshiped for its therapeutic and life-saving properties, and today there is renewed energy in the medical field about Vitamin D and its potential healing powers. Sunlight is nature’s source of vitamin D, essential to bone health, that researchers believe may play an important role in the prevention of some cancers and other health ailments. To learn more, I attended a medical conference for primary care providers organized by the Marino Center for Integrative Health. One of the speakers was Dr. Michael Holick, PhD., M.D., a professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University Medical Center whose thirty-year career has involved extensive research of Vitamin D and its benefits. According to Dr. Holick, Vitamin D plays a critical role in the prevention of certain cancers such as prostate, pancreatic and colon; and the prevention of depression, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. An energetic speaker, Dr. Holick led us through a rapid-fire history of Vitamin D deficiency and current clinical findings, captured in his book, “The Vitamin D Solution, A Three-Step Strategy to Cure Our Most Common Health Problem.”  If you have time, watch a video of his entertaining presentation Dr. Holick on YouTube

Among the findings:

1. Vitamin D receptors are found in every tissue and cell in our body and play an important role in cellular health.

2. With adequate amounts of sunshine, your body can make sufficient Vitamin D even when you’re 90 years old.

3. Excess Vitamin D is stored in body fat and released as needed through winter months in northern climates, where sunlight is too weak for the skin to manufacture Vitamin D between October and March.

4. People with very dark skin, especially those of African descent, find it difficult to make vitamin D from limited sunlight. The CDC recently reported that 42 percent of African American women of childbearing age are vitamin D deficient by the end of winter.

Dr. Holick recommends sensible sun exposure, noting that vitamin D made in the skin lasts at least twice as long in the blood as vitamin D ingested from diet or supplements. Acknowledging the concern about sun exposure and skin cancer, he recommends exposing arms and legs, two to three times a week, for 10-30 minutes (depending on skin type and latitude) between the hours of 10am and 3pm before applying sunscreen. For example, a white adult exposed to sunlight in June at noon for 10-15 minutes on a Cape Cod beach would take in 15,000-20,000 IU of Vitamin D.

The growing numbers of people taking supplements to boost Vitamin D levels has raised concern among experts at the Institute of Medicine, who recently updated the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for Calcium and Vitamin D, emphasizing that most American already receive enough of both without taking supplements. For women 51 and older, the RDA of Calcium is 1200 mg (upper limit 2000 mg) and the RDA for Vitamin D is 800 IU (upper limit, 4000 IU); men between 51 and 70 require the same Vitamin D level but have a slightly lower Calcium requirement, 1000 mg. Read more here.

Several clinical studies are underway nationally to test the role of vitamin D in cancer prevention and heart disease. These studies may confirm what snowbirds have long known about the dreary winter months: head south.

Do your older loved ones spend adequate time outside in the sun?

©Circle of Life Partners™

Grandma’s Turkey Stuffing: Grist for a Memoir?

by Jan Simpson

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, a calm oasis between the frantic back-to-school rush and the December holiday frenzy. In most families, children ask, “What’s for dinner?” My children ask: “Who’s cooking tonight?” If the answer is their father or grandmother, they’ll make every effort to be home. If it’s me who’s cooking, they’re less than enthusiastic.

Last Tuesday, my son arrived home from college just a few hours before his grandmother arrived with my husband from New York City. On Wednesday morning, we prepared our favorite holiday recipes: a cranberry and apple compote, sweet potato casserole, Grandma’s succulent zucchini-and-peppers dish, and her turkey stuffing. Minutes turned into hours as my mother-in-law stood by the stove, patiently instructing my daughter and me on the secrets to our favorite dishes. Mouth-watering aromas filled the kitchen as I recorded Grandma’s instructions in a cookbook that hides recipes taped among the printed pages, with hand-written notes scribbled in the margins. As she and my daughter bent heads over the stove, I used my cellphone surreptitiously to snap a photograph, and later, despite Grandma’s protests, I took several more.

On Thanksgiving, I served a common red wine, Barbara D’Asti, bottled near the Italian city where my American-born mother-in-law lived from age 7 through her early twenties, years filled with the untold horrors of war as a child and teenager during World War II.  As I had hoped, the wine prompted joyful stories about her childhood spent on her grandfather’s farm, stomping grapes with her bare feet, as the family bottled their own wine and grew produce for sale. Later, sitting near a blazing fire in our family room, she recalled how her grandparents cooked in a pot hung inside the fireplace in the farmhouse kitchen and how they drew water from a well before indoor plumbing and a stove were installed. Like many women and veterans of war, my mother-in-law does not talk much about her past and so, between bites of turkey and the crackling fire, I relished each morsel of her tale, knowing how much of her story will be lost when she is gone.

Recently I met Priscilla Stevens, a journalist whose parents and in-laws are in their late eighties. Priscilla showed me a small bound book that she had written with her father-in-law, the story of his life in the textile industry. She is now working on a similar story with her own father. “It’s something I can do with him when I visit,” she said, noting how she tapes her interviews so she can craft a story that fully captures the vibrancy of his life and the challenges of his time. I admire her skill and how she is using the time spent with her elderly father to write his life story.

Few of us are professional writers like Priscilla, but there are other ways to record your parents’ past. Like me, you may enjoy StoryCorps, the oral history project begun in 2003 that has captivated so many of us, a project that has collected 30,000 interviews from 60,000 people across America and shares some of those stories each week on national public radio. Through StoryCorps, your parents could record their own story, receive a free CD to share, and have the interview preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Learn more here.

A similar effort with the written word is the Memoir Project, launched in 2006 by Grub Street, Boston’s creative writing center.  In partnership with the City of Boston and Grub Street’s professional writers, the Project’s aim is to teach seniors the craft of writing and to collect and preserve their stories, providing “a greater understanding of the city’s past and present for all its residents.” Watch a videoclip from one writer here.  Three anthologies of memoirs, Born Before Plastic, written by 40 seniors from the North End, South Boston and Roxbury, My Legacy is Simply This, written by 50 seniors from Charlestown, Chinatown, East Boston and Mattapan, and a soon-to-be-released Sometimes They Sang With Us, capture vividly the living history of the city through the stories of its seniors. Each book costs $12.95, all three for $35.00. You might consider purchasing one of these anthologies to spark the writing bug in your own family. Email to place an order. (A reminder: I do not have a financial arrangement with Grub Street or StoryCorps).

In the fall of 2010, Grub Street extended its reach. Working with the Nantucket Writers Studio, they offered an eight-week instructed course in memoir writing to year-round and summer Nantucket residents, aged 65 and older. The price of the course includes a weekly lunch or tea, course materials, and a copy of the bound anthology once it is published. I don’t summer on Nantucket but programs like this exist in other communities across the country as well. Consider sharing those you know with us.

My mother-in-law may never write her memoir or agree to be interviewed for StoryCorps, but her story will remain with us each Thanksgiving as I flip open my cookbook, prepare her turkey stuffing, and open a bottle of Barbera D’Asti wine.

Have you documented any of your parents’ story?

©Circle of Life Partners™

Blueberries: The Aging Secret

by Jan Simpson

It was one of those brilliant summer days upon a crystal lake in New Hampshire: the kayaks rested by the water; the motorboat glistened white, its leather seats hot from baking in the sun; and the lake seemed to sigh happily, sitting perfectly still beneath the late morning sun. We had arrived to the lake house just after breakfast, to visit my brother-in-law on vacation with his wife’s family.  We said our hellos, gave our hugs and kisses, and then stood aside as my sister-in-law’s elderly parents marched purposefully out the front door with their daughter, off to their favorite local farm, just down the street, where they’ve been picking blueberries for the past twenty years. He’s 99 years old and she, a sprightly 86.  They’ve been visiting this lake since their grandchildren were in diapers, and today, it was the four college-bound teens turn to do the dishes. After cleaning up the kitchen, marked by excited chatter about the coming adventures in their lives, we all went out onto the lake in their motorboat, laughing and yelling as the two oldest hopped on a tube and were dragged wildly across wakes created by their uncle who hoped to topple them, unsuccessfully.

While we were out on the water, their grandfather returned from the farm with buckets of blueberries totaling five pounds, and found a corner of the couch where he could take a much-deserved nap. Later, I chatted quietly in the living room with his wife who was sporting sunglasses in the house to protect her eyes from recent cataract surgery; seated beside a coffee table that held a Scrabble board and a pocket-sized dictionary, she clutched a half-finished paperback.  For lunch we all moved to the back deck, nestled beneath a grove of trees that cast shadows out onto the sparkling water, and over salad, fruit, steak, and lemonade, I breathed in the deep aroma of fresh pine.

Recently, I re-read “Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Well-Being,” by Dr. Andrew Weil, a book about staying active while growing old and enjoying the benefits of age.  Dr. Weil has spent the past thirty years “developing, practicing, and teaching others about the principles of integrative medicine,” an approach to health care that encompasses body, mind, and spirit.  He scoffs at those who want to deny the aging process and even devotes an entire chapter to a discussion on how to embrace the benefits of being older.  He likens people to violins and wine: we become richer over time, our character deepens. He explains how an anti-inflammatory diet of few processed foods and more vegetables and fruits can extend life; how rest and sleep and appropriate exercise will strengthen and renew our bodies; and how maintaining “social and intellectual connectedness throughout life” is a chief characteristic of successful aging. It’s a great read, a book I return to when I see a few more laugh-lines in the mirror.

I don’t have to look beyond that day on that New Hampshire lake to see the value of Dr. Weil’s advice. An extended family gathered for respite and bucolic play; a simple yet delicious meal; a board game or a good book for relaxation; and an older couple who demonstrate by their presence and their determination to stay active, that one of the secrets to a long life can be found on a blueberry farm near a pristine lake on a gorgeous summer day in southern New Hampshire.

Do you have any favorite family vacation stories to share?

photo credit

©Circle of Life Partners™

Consumer Reports “On Health” Newsletter

Like you, I read a lot of material about healthy aging, and it’s often hard to sort out the good from the bad.  I’ve found Consumer Reports “On Health,” a 12-page monthly newsletter, to be one of the most informative quick reads, addressing a broad range of health-related issues.  “On Health” offers practical, trustworthy, and generally unbiased advice on a wide variety of topics, often aging-related, that doesn’t have the feel of an old person’s magazine.  It’s colorful, engaging, and easy to read, and at $24.00 a year (12-issues) it might make a fantastic and inexpensive gift for your aging parent. (I should mention that I have no financial arrangement with Consumer Reports and offer this idea simply as one who reads the magazine and finds its content useful.)

A recent issue, for instance, discussed specific foods to help prevent cancer, heart disease, and cognitive decline while boosting immune function.  It offered tips on sleeping better and reducing anxiety, alongside articles about prescriptions that put on the pounds, how to manage a bloody nose, and how to treat and prevent food poisoning.  The previous month I learned about anti-aging head to toe, how to monitor one’s blood thinner at home, and how to treat varicose veins.  Visit the Consumer Reports “On Health” website for more information.

Do you have a favorite magazine or newsletter that focuses on issues related to healthy aging?

©Circle of Life Partners™ 

Celebrating the Fourth at Home

Do you have plans for the fourth? Last year, with our kids away for the holiday, my husband and I visited an elderly uncle who had valiantly fought cancer through repeated rounds of chemotherapy. Too weak to join his daughters and grandchildren for their 4th of July plans, we found him napping in his recliner facing a snowy television, his frail body nestled comfortably under an afghan. Awakened gently by his wife, his blue eyes sparkled at our request to borrow his grill to prepare a steak dinner for all of us later in the day.  While we chatted, my husband tinkered with his television to eliminate the snow, and then labeled his remote controls, hoping to dampen the confusion created by digital converters.  I still don’t know how ours work!   Our uncle resumed his nap as we quietly repaired the front door bell  that hadn’t rung when we arrived, and replaced the broken latch on his back door with a new one found at the local hardware store.

After all these years, I still find it difficult to know what to do when someone you love approaches the end of their life.  Is it enough to give an older person a sliver of your time, an opportunity to reminisce about the past, or to join in a holiday celebration?  Why would someone who is dying want to celebrate the 4th of July?  The Irish in me says, “Why not?” Our uncle was past the point where a few sparklers would brighten his day, and a full family party would have been overwhelming; but  he smiled as the smell of steak sizzling on the grill wafted through his screen door into the TV room, and I like to think that it evoked in him fond memories of other parties with our family.

Last fall I attended his funeral, and as the soldiers folded his flag and saluted this veteran’s life, I thought back to his fourth, glad to have given him one last time to celebrate the birth of his country. What are some of your favorite memories of celebrating the fourth with your family?

photo credit:

©Circle of Life Partners™

Don’t Give Up on Me!

I wrote Don’t Give Up on Me! from an outline of the 50 things I wish I had known before entering the last decade of my parents’ lives.  It’s a fast-paced, show-and-tell book that brings you ringside during those very crazy years, helping you to understand not just the what but also the how of providing support.  How do you wrestle the checkbook or the keys away from mom?  How should you and your parents navigate the medical system to get the care they need?  What happens if one shows signs of dementia?  How can grandchildren be supportive? What legal documents really matter? What influences longevity? Is the doctor always right?

Today, there are thousands of websites and dozens of books that offer information, but Don’t Give Up On Me! is a great place to start, the place to find the initial and critical pieces of information on caring for your parents.

I hope you will read my book and join forces with me to share your knowledge with others.  All profits will be used to fund programs that serve our elders and support their caregivers or care partners.

©Circle of Life Partners™