5 holiday gift ideas for baby boomers

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Even though most of us don’t need more “stuff,” it’s still fun to give a gift someone can really use. Here are a few ideas (one product and four books) for those over 50 who still love giving and getting useable—books are also recyclable—gifts.

I love this mat for exercising while watching movies
I love this mat for exercising while watching movies
Anti-fatigue mat. Feet hurt when you’re standing by the sink or the stove? Love to go barefoot when you cook, but it makes your legs ache? Recently received a sample of a super-cushiony anti-fatigue mat from Wellness Mats. It was a pleasant surprise to feel such firm-softness underfoot by the kitchen sink. The mats have beveled edges, come in multiple sizes, and are guaranteed for seven years not to curl—important to prevent falls—or deform or lose their cushiony-ness. Plus, they’re made 100% in the USA. These mats ought to make a big difference in comfort for a bunch of scenarios. For example, if you:
  • Don’t have a dishwasher—or just like washing dishes by hand
  • Love to cook…
  • Stand and fold laundry…
  • Have a bad back or simply for better health want to use a standing desk
  • Want to cushion a hard seat at sports or entertainment events…
  • Work at a tool bench on a concrete basement or garage floor…
  • Kneel when you garden…
  • Have to stand a lot when you travel…
  • Like to exercise while you’re watching television, and so on.

You can buy cheaper mats, but many are more industrial-looking. These will go with almost any décor. Prices range from ~$70 for a small companion/travel size, ~$130 for a 2’x3’ professional-grade for medical, industrial apps, to $260 for a 6’x2’ mat from one of the designer collections. The designer collections are beautiful and look classy on your floor, almost like a sculpted rug.

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Good stuff in here for anyone thinking about life
Good stuff in here for anyone thinking about life

Book—Act III: Your Anti-Retirement Playbook. Received a review copy of this book and found it clearly written, easy to read, and full of positive ideas and practical tips for getting more out of life after retirement, along with a bit of history about the concept of retirement. Did you know the idea of retiring was introduced in most countries only in the late 19th century? Before that, people didn’t live all that long, and so mostly they just worked until they died. Lucky for many of us, we get to think creatively as we age about how we want to nurture our interests and even expand our relevance.

If you haven’t yet discovered the paths you want to take in this last part of life, this book uses mind mapping and questionnaires to help you discover your passions and set goals in the areas of technology, relevancy, relationships, health and finance. Sounds overwhelming, but don’t let this intimidate you. A quote from the book, “Find the smallest possible thing you can do to make an improvement and start with that.”

And even if you’ve already settled into a nice routine, the book may help you discover something new about yourself and what you care about. It takes a straightforward, no-nonsense approach to finding and pursuing your purpose in life—I think it would be good for anyone—even younger—who has free time and for whom the bills are mostly taken care of. Written by Cecilia Williams, PhD and Paula White, CPA, MBA. Price ~$15 ($9.99 for Kindle).

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Book—How Memory Works—and How to Make It Work for You. Are you lost without your smartphone? Can’t call your friends without speed dial? Never remember names? A review copy of this book reveals that its title is succinct and accurate—it contains a lot of scientific research about memory, explains a number of common tricks (acronyms, acrostics, rhymes) to sharpen mental skills, and gives practical tips to strengthen your memory as well as exercises to test yourself.

The author, Robert Madigan, PhD, says learning about memory is akin to walking rather than driving in the sense that “walking offers opportunities for self-reliance, healthy exercise, and personal satisfaction.” He details the following ideas for remembering something, saying you must:

  1. 1intend to remember it and have a plan for doing so (hmm, pay attention!);
  2. 2attach a deeper meaning to the item;
  3. 3add it to some existing memory;
  4. 4attach a visual image;
  5. 5associate it with another easier-to-recall memory;
  6. 6practice remembering it; and
  7. 7organize it, if possible, into categories (which automatically reinforces meanings you’ve attached per #2).

The chapter on “Remembering Life” may particularly appeal to anyone thinking of writing a memoir. Did you know that people over 50 tend to most vividly recall, except for very recent events, their memories from ages 15 to 30?

Though clearly written, this is a complex book. Not designed for a quick read but very good if you’re seriously into the topic. ~$12 paperback or e-book. $9.99 for Kindle.

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Book – The Noticer’s Guide to Living and Laughing: Change Your Life without Changing Your Routine, by Margery Leveen Sher, gives readers a light-hearted guide to paying attention to the ordinary people, places, things and events that make up a typical American life. Her premise is that we are overly scheduled and too much on our screens, that our anxiety is increasing, and that there’s a realistic solution. Her book relates anecdotes about her life and offers tips on how to enjoy and appreciate life more by truly noticing the things and people around us. She says “Noticers” seem to have less anxiety, experience more joy and make deeper connections.

Even though the author is a professional life-work-balance consultant, she writes in a cheerful, easygoing voice. The conversation-starter ideas in each sub-chapter consist of questions you ask and answer with grandparents, kids, friends or co-workers. Resulting discussions might be like little mini-workshops you conduct together. The ideas encourage talking to each other about simple things that are worth noticing—some cute, some tough (like how to act when we make a mistake), and some that are just there (like the stuff that accumulates in closets and junk drawers). She uses quotes from great authors and often suggests conversations based on content from books.

This one’s an easy read. Something you could keep on a shelf by the coffeepot to leaf through each morning and pick something to notice that day. Price ~$12 paperback, $6.99 Kindle.

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Book – Cookies & Beer: Bake, Pair, Enjoy by Jonathan Bender. Yes, you read it right: Cookies and beer. While this may seem like heresy, the more you read about it, the more sense it makes. Both things have important ingredients in common: grains, spices and fruits. The book points out how the perfect beer can bring out unexpected flavors in a cookie, and how the right cookie can awaken flavors hardly noticed before in a beer.

The cookie recipes are fascinating—some of them even include beer as an ingredient as in, for example, Rye IPA Apricot Crumble Bars, which are made up of an apricot-beer-lemon-maple-sugar compote, a rye-flour-sugar-butter shortbread, and a caraway-black walnut crumble. Isn’t your mouth watering just thinking about that? The chef’s notes say: “Rye beers (IPA or otherwise) will amplify the rye and caraway seeds in the bar cookie and tease out a bit of sweetness from the apricot filling.”

How about a beer milk shake? Made with vanilla ice cream, milk, chocolate syrup and beer syrup (made out of dark beer and raw sugar—the result of which can also be drizzled by itself over ice cream) sounds like a dessert that would love the company of almost any cookie. You’ve heard of pumpkin ale, right? Check out his recipe for Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies served with Russian Imperial stout. The chef says: “When you add the stout to the cookie, it’s like you’ve just invented creamy pumpkin pie without the pie. The cookie pops up to lend lushness to this big, dark beer.”

You can tell this guy’s a food writer. This book is fun to read and dream about—even if you never make any of the recipes. Price ~$15, $9.99 for Kindle.

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Movie review: Runoff

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If you’ve ever spent any time on a farm, you know the sound of the wind through the leaves on the trees and vines. You know the blend of sound and silence that’s totally unlike the sometimes-muffled, sometimes-raucous but ever-present cacophony of the city. You know how the trees and the solitary buildings delineate spaces in the sky, the way stars stud the nighttime heavens, and how manmade lights punctuate the darkness. People who inhabit such places tend to be hearty types who partner with the earth and with the animals they raise.

But you may not know what a brutally unending battle with nature—insects, wild creatures, viruses, weather and more—such people continuously engage in to bring produce and meat and poultry to market so we can all eat.

Whether you’ve spent time of a farm or not, you can get some of those feelings from watching the movie Runoff, a film by biochemist Kimberly Levin. The whole film is a compassionate yet clear-eyed depiction of how human beings, including those who partner with the earth, can be led to sacrifice their dearest-held beliefs when desperation strikes—when their own survival and that of their families is at stake. The movie intersperses shots of sparkling brooks and crowded animal pens with heart-rending scenes of souls torn by feeling they have no choice.

English: Actress Joanne Kelly at the Big Apple...
English: Actress Joanne Kelly at the Big Apple Convention in Manhattan. Photographed by Luigi Novi. This photo may only be used if the photographer is properly credited. (See Licensing information below.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joanne Kelly stars as the main character, Betty—a farmer, a farmer’s wife, a beekeeper, a mother, and a woman with a conscience. She and her husband are struggling to maintain their living in the face of overwhelming competition from agri-giant Grigas, which threads farm country roads with its massive white trucks, dispensing chemicals, fertilizers and antibiotics at prices impossible to match.

Betty is made fully human by first showing her at her best in each of her roles. In one scene she surprises her older teenage artist son by suggesting they stop pretending to themselves. “Let’s fire up your pipe,” she says with a little smile. “It’s a bong, Mom,” he says as they climb out on the roof to light up and enjoy the stars. Then we feel the rift in her as her husband’s health declines and she slowly realizes she must take on the burden of their survival. And soon faces moments of agonizing choice—live by her beliefs or relieve her own immediate pain, consequences be damned.

It’s interesting to note that many of the older characters—old-hand farmers of baby-boomer age and older—seem to have the resignation that comes from having fought the battle so long, they’ve given up worrying about principles and just do what has to be done.

Poignant moments of love and simple depictions of the harsh realities of farm life build a multi-layered backdrop for this powerful eco-tale of compassion, conscience and compromise.

To be released in theaters on June 26 by Monterey Media.

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Blueberries as medicine?

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A single blueberry.
A single blueberry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

News about blueberries. A small study—48 post-menopausal women who were pre- or stage 1 hypertensive—showed that participants who took 22 grams (that’s .77 of an ounce for those of us who are gram-challenged) of freeze-dried blueberry powder (equivalent to about 1 cup of the fresh fruit) every day for a month lowered their blood pressure and limbered up their arteries compared to those who took a placebo. And they lost 10 pounds!

No, sorry. Just kidding on that last one.

But they did lower their systolic (top number) blood pressure by 5% and their diastolic (bottom number) BP by 6%, raised their nitric oxide (NO) levels by a whopping 68.5% and decreased arterial stiffness by 6.5%, as reported in a paper by Sarah A. Johnson and several other exercise and nutrition professors. Johnson has an impressively lengthy title: assistant director of the Center for Advancing Exercise and Nutrition Research on Aging (CAENRA) and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences at Florida State University.

Previous studies had shown impressive benefits for blueberries, but most involved consuming huge quantities (13 cups per day in one study).

Considering the cost of both freeze-dried blueberry powder (sample online price ~$2.50/oz) and fresh blueberries (a sample Peapod grocery delivery price as of this out-of-season writing ~$.50/oz, 5.2 oz = 1 cup), you’d need to spend between $1.95 and $2.60 per day to consume the appropriate amount of blueberry material. That would be between $58.50 and $78 a month—and not covered by Medicare or other health insurance.

The cost of blood pressure medication (angiotensin receptor blocker ARB) varies wildly, depending on the type prescribed and the place you buy it. One site gives ARB prices ranging from a discounted $9 to a top price of $183 for a 30-day supply.

One caveat: The study was paid for by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. The Council is industry-funded and is in the business of marketing blueberries. But at least the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service monitors their operations.

Another study done at University of California Davis states that consuming freeze-dried blueberry powder in smoothies every day can increase insulin sensitivity – and is thus very good for anyone at risk of developing type II diabetes, a risk that grows for us Baby Boomers as we age. Too bad the participants had to cut back 500 calories on other foods to accommodate the calories in the two smoothies they drank each day.

Here’s what I conclude:

  1. Freeze-dried blueberry powder looks like a nutritionally equivalent substitute for the fresh fruit at a similar price—plus it keeps longer and is easier to store.
  2. Don’t substitute blueberries for your ARB medicine. Talk to your doctor before you invest in months’ worth of blueberry powder.
  3. I might have to break my rule against getting nutrition in liquid form and start making the occasional smoothie with some o’ that blueberry powder.

Update 2/23/17. I’m now the owner of a “high-powered’ blender to make fruit-veggie blends and – yes – smoothies. Read more about these potential powerhouses of nutrition in the review of the Sneaky Blends cookbook here.

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Top 10 ways to feel good – w/o diets or punishing exercise

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Still working, fellow boomers? Whether you’re retired, working in your home office or employed at somebody else’s place of business, you might find something useful in this list of top ten ways to feel good every day. And not one of them is “run on a treadmill ’til your butt falls off” or “live on 1200 calories a day.” Not that there’s anything wrong with those things…

My first source for this Top 10 list is a practical and encouraging book called The Healthy Programmer. Since I worked with programmers for nearly a decade, I know how glued to computers such brain workers can get. They are passionate about writing the hundreds and thousands of lines of code needed to make your computer software do what you need it to do. They are masterful puzzle solvers. This book is written specifically for them – among the most sedentary of all office workers – and offers detailed practical advice for keeping healthy and fit despite the job requirements.

Second source is an article called “8 Ways to Work Happier” from the January 2014 edition of AARP magazine. I love the tips they give because I actually used several of them in my post-divorce years as a cubicle-or-not office worker. And they still work great today in my home office.

Herewith, my list of Top Ten Ways to Feel Good:

  1. Change positions about every 20 minutes. If you can’t actually work in a different position, do some in-place calisthenics. Swing your legs. Clench and unclench butt, thigh and calf muscles. Stretch arms.
  2. Get up and move at least 5 minutes out of every hour. Preferably out of every half hour. If necessary, set yourself a quiet timer for every 25 minutes. Do sit-ups or knee-lifts or whatever in the break room. If don’t have one of those, go outside or go in the bathroom and do knee lifts, (or if you’re ambitious, run in place). If people are allowed to go outside to smoke, there’s no reason you can’t go outside to move.
  3. Keep your desk clean – or at least leave it clean at the end of the day. Back when I was re-entering the workforce after my divorce, I coughed up some for-me serious dough to attend a training program that taught me how to keep track of my day and organize my desk and papers. I recently started re-using what I learned then, and I can’t tell you what a load it is off my mind not to have to constantly live with piles of paper everywhere.
  4. Use full-spectrum light bulbs – if you don’t sit near a window in your office. “Workers in offices with windows get an average of 46 more minutes of sleep each night than their windowless colleagues do. They also report higher quality of life and get more exercise during the day.”
    I used to hate those awful overhead fluorescent lights in offices. The only way I could combat it was to bring in my own lamp – living-room-size with incandescent bulb. It created a small pool of warm light – and improved my mood and productivity considerably.
    Nowadays, with the outlawing of incandescent bulbs on the rise, your best solution is to find energy efficient bulbs that contain the full spectrum of light waves – as much like natural light as possible (at least so far as we humans have been able to discern).
  5. Keep some plants around. Not only do they improve air quality – and look nice – but they also “decrease stress and enhance productivity by 12 percent.” Yikes.
  6. Have a glass of wine at lunch. Okay, you may guffaw at this one (and so might your employer, so check the rules), but a study of young males with a BAC (blood alcohol count) of .075 percent (that’s just short of the .08 legal limit) were consistently better at creative problem solving than their sober counterparts.
  7. Get out of the office for lunch. Eating at your desk is bad for your mood. Eating with coworkers can promote office harmony and creativity. But if you prefer peace, like me, go somewhere else (sit in your car if it’s close by) and read or just rest. Better yet, meditate. I can get a serious second wind from doing that.
  8. Listen to music you enjoy. You’ll be likely to work quicker and come up with better ideas than folks who don’t listen. It’s also known to reduce stress.
  9. Drink a glass of water every hour and eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I don’t need to run this one into the ground when so many have done it so ably.
  10. Do something physical for 5-10 minutes about 30 minutes after dinner. Walk, do kneelifts, leg raises, whatever. Research shows being active after meals is a powerful tool for good health. Plus, it’s a way to fight the insidious onset of diabetes. A few months after I started doing this (as often as I could fit it in), my blood sugar level went down by 25 points!

P.S. Here’s a bonus for those of you have dogs.

  1. Bring your dog to work. How many companies are going to let you do this? But there’s hard evidence that pet dogs at work reduce stress, improve morale, boost collaboration and raise efficiency. And just think, your dog is a perfect excuse to take a break, go outside and walk (see tip #2) for a few minutes.

One day, more and more businesses are going to catch on to all this. They’ll realize that letting people get physical during the workday can be one of the greatest productivity tools known to humankind.

Oh, and P.S. When I do my kneelifts indoors at night, I don’t want to put on my heavy gym shoes. I found these unique non-slip socks to wear that protect my feet and give me a bit of cushioning. They’re called Shashi socks, and they’re super for doing yoga. You can brace yourself in your down-dog and not slide and yet not have to show off your how-long-since-the-last-pedicure? bare feet. I kinda like the mesh they have on the top – a little sexier looking than regular ankle-highs. exercise, exercise, exercise. exercise for improving health

 

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Chicago Boomers, what if you didn’t have a car?

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Have you ever thought about getting rid of your car? The older I get, the more I think about it. I try to drive as little as possible. In fact, I just opened a second small business account at a bank where I can walk over to deposit checks instead of having to drive 25 minutes through the often-torturous trek west along Diversey Avenue from the lake. [See 2017 updates in the middle and at the bottom of this post.]

English: Honda Civic Hybrid used by Zipcar, a ...
English: Honda Civic Hybrid used by Zipcar, a carsharing service. Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I never think of driving in Chicago as a green experience. But it can be – sort of – if you drive a shared car. Now you may or not be able to do that conveniently, depending on what part of the city you’re talking about.

A recent NBC article says Chicago won the number 3 spot as the most car-sharing city. Good to hear. But the article goes on to talk about how Chicago is such a divided city – modern white lakeside communities, traditional white neighborhoods northwest and southwest, and then poor black and Latino communities on the west and the south. None of the car sharing services has a location in the west or south. And to be honest, based on my experience it’s tough to get a cab to show up only as far west as the dodgy end of Logan Square.

So what are your travel options in Chicago if you don’t have a car? In some but not all areas, you can become a member of your local I-GO (2017 update: closed and now operated by Enterprise CarShare) or Zipcar service and rent by the hour or day. You can also use RelayRides or any of several car rental companies. Be sure to read the Yelp reviews on these car sharing options.

Cabs are great if you’re in the right area, but they’re simply not in a hurry to pick you up in some areas. (Update 2/23/17: Nowadays, of course, you also have Uber, UberPool and Lyft – private cars on call all over the city and even in the ‘burbs. The pooling services don’t take much longer – their routing software is amazingly efficient – and as of this writing, can be highly affordable.)

But if you’ve never ridden Chicago’s extensive public transportation systems, I can tell you this is good option, generally available no matter where you live in the city. Obviously it’s more convenient in some areas than others, but getting around in Chicago almost anywhere is doable using CTA.

A CTA brown line train leaves Madison/Wabash s...
A CTA brown line train leaves Madison/Wabash station in the Chicago loop. Photographed from 41°52′58″N 87°37′34″W / °S °W / ; latd>90 (dms format) in latd latm lats longm longs looking south (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I first moved back to Chicago I lived in the then-predominantly Hispanic Fullerton-Pulaski area. I could catch the Fullerton bus to the Brown Line station (at DePaul) and be downtown in 45 minutes. Or I could catch the Pulaski bus and take it to the Green Line (at Lake St.) and be in different parts of downtown in about the same time. Naturally I didn’t always want to transfer bus or train and spend 45 minutes traveling, especially if the weather sucked, but the point is I could get wherever I needed to any time of day.

Now I live in one of those sadly-not-very-diversified neighborhoods along the lake where the CTA is ridiculously convenient. I can take any of half a dozen bus lines – transfers rarely needed – and get almost anywhere downtown in 25 to 35 minutes. It’s city travel nirvana. And now I’ve joined a gym to which I can take a single bus and get there in 12 minutes, including the walk to the bus.

Getting rid of your car will save you a lot of money. Gas, insurance, parking, repairs and tickets can add up – not even counting if you’re making payments – to $5000 a year easily. But one of the additional advantages of not driving that you might notice, as I did the first time I took public transportation downtown when I first moved back, is a sense of freedom.

Say you’re walking down the street downtown and you get an urge to go look at a building, or stop somewhere for a drink or whatever, and you find yourself walking around the corner to look at something in another shop. You can do this when you’re not tied to a car parked somewhere. You don’t have to worry it’s going to cost you another ten or fifteen bucks if you stay a little longer. You can go out of your way because you can always catch the train or the bus at a different stop or even take a different one home.

And by the way, since CTA has installed GPS on its vehicles it now operates something called CTABusTracker. Look up your bus or train route, put in your direction and your stop, and you’ll get the ETA for the next several vehicles to be arriving at your stop. So if it’s nasty outside, you can stay warm inside somewhere until the thing is supposed to arrive. It’s a great service. Oh, and of course, you’ll be walking much more, which will probably make your doctor happy – and make you feel better.

I know you’re not going to dump your car without a lot of deliberation, and maybe you never will. For what it’s worth this has been a little food for thought.

(Update 2/23/17. The day came for me this past June, 2016: I sold my beloved 15-year-old Honda Accord – with only 76,000 miles on it! – and haven’t looked back. Oh, and for heavens’ sake, use Peapod for your grocery shopping when the weather sucks.)

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Travel, fun and curiosities for Chicago women over 50