August 31, 2012

What We Teach

A few days ago Betty, my amazing wife, and I were talking about the power of a parent's or grandparent's words on others. After my mom died I discovered several notebooks filled with recaps of vacation trips she and my dad had taken from 1996 until 2001. They included day trips, long weekend jaunts, weeks-long driving trips, and a few vacations overseas...all part of their satisfying retirement. Mom was a detail person: virtually every meal and every experience was recorded. Some were good, some bad, some just average daily events. But nothing escaped being recorded in her journals. 

In reading them Betty and I were reminded of how much mom and dad loved to take road trips. They wouldn't let more than a month pass without a trip somewhere. I hadn't remembered their 6 week long driving excursion to the East coast and back home to Arizona through the deep south and Texas.

We also noted mom's health decline as each year passed: trouble walking because of numbness, then the transition to walkers, and eventually rarely getting out of the car. Trips to emergency rooms for heart problems or dizziness were recorded. At this time she was in her mid 70's, really too young for so many issues. But, as Betty and I talked about why she had slipped physically so fast we came to an important conclusion: she was at least partially a product of what her parents taught her.

My maternal grandparents did not believe in much physical exercise. Walking was to be avoided by ladies if other transportation was available. A cook and maid took care of household chores. Vacations never involved much exertion. While summers were often spend at their "farm" north of Pittsburgh, most of that time was spent sitting in easy chairs while talking or reading. 

Apparently, my grandparents also had one firm rule that I believe directly contributed to my mom's health problems: they rarely drank water. The beverage was banned from the dining room table at all meals. Coffee was believed to provide the liquids needed to function. An occasional glass of wine or scotch and soda was just an added liquid bonus.

Living in Arizona for the last twenty some years of her life, mom continued to do as she was taught: avoid water. To survive in the desert water isn't a refreshing choice, it is essential to prevent serious dehydration. With an average humidity of less than 10% the human body loses hydration rapidly. Without replacing that liquid all sorts of health issues can occur. Team up that that parent-taught aversion to water with a belief that ladies didn't exercise or exert themselves and mom's too-soon physical problems were a foregone conclusion. Genetics certainly played a part in what happened to her, but I firmly believe her quality of life failed her at least a decade before it had to because of some "lessons" she learned from her parents.

Unfortunately, my father is following in some of her footsteps. After living with mom for 63 years, he adopted the same reluctance to drinking water. He simply refuses, except to swallow pills. When I try to remind him that certain problems he is encountering are likely related to dehydration he puts on his stubborn face and tells me his three small glasses of skim milk a day are plenty. 

I remind him one of the reasons he had to give up his independent lifestyle and driving was due to several fainting instances, directly related to dehydration. He has digestive problems also tied to his fluid intake. Even so, he says water makes him full and he doesn't need it. He learned his lesson well from mom and isn't about to change now.

All of this is to make an important point: what we say and teach our children and grandkids can affect them for the rest of their lives. If they learn unhealthy eating and personal care habits, they will likely follow suit. If they see us doing what will help us live a happy, satisfying retirement the odds are good some of that will rub off.

We carry an important responsibility. Little eyes and ears (and not so little) are watching us. How we take care of ourselves, how we treat others less fortunate than us, and how we show love and affection are not actions performed in a vacuum. Teachers are not just in classrooms.

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  1. Interesting post. I can't imagine living without water. Our generation especially are bottled wateraholics!

    One thing about the last generation and their lack of exercise, they didn't wear out their parts the way we are doing. It seems everyone I know is having knees or hips replaced at an alarming rate from all the jogging, exercising etc. I just had back surgery. The damage was caused by years of repetitive stress from sit ups and crunches. Who knew?

    1. My mom had two knee replacements without exercise. She was probably 30 pounds overweight which put too much stress on her joints and didn't help matters. I also come back to water which helps keep the joints and tissues lubricated.

      Even if too much exercise can damage joints, the evidence seems too strong about the benefits to avoid it even though there is an increased risk of damage. Maybe the key is moderation.

  2. Interesting observations. Perhaps another lesson is that we need to try really hard not to lose our willingness to accept new factual information and change our behavior.

    1. Isn't it odd that life is all about change, yet humans have the hardest time accepting it.

  3. Sometimes the elderly don't want to drink fluids because they fear incontinence.

    Both my parents contributed to their own demise--both were smokers. However, they were of the generation where everyone smoked, everywhere, all the time.

    1. My grandparents taught my mom that drinking water at the table during meals was low class. I wonder where their parents came up is that notion.

    2. It is very European- where water was often contaminated. Beer and wine were the beverages of choice *and* still are.
      My mom- who grew up in Phoenix- will nurse a glass of water all day. Drives me nuts!

  4. What a true and factual post. My 82 year old mother was hospitalized this summer due to a UTI...probably caused or partially caused by dehydration...she hates water and says she isn't thirsty. Her doctor says it is probably partly because she doesn't want to have to go to the bathroom that often as it is difficult for her to be mobile. I feel that her difficulty with mobility is due to the fact she has never wanted to move more than absolutely than necessary. Walk is a four letter word for her! So many of the observations that you had regarding your mother apply to my mother. And trying to change her ways is like banging into a brick wall. God gave us the wonder of is a shame that we don't take advantage of it! And when my father or her children try to reason with her, well that is in one ear and out the other.

    1. Yes, my mom suffered from bladder problems and UTI most of her adult life but never made the connection between those issues and insufficient water intake. My dad simply refuses to accept water. It is like your brick wall and a mule. Nothing budges.

  5. Interesting observations for sure. I don't recall there being a lot of water drinking in my childhood. I suppose I became more aware of the need for water when I owned a health spa but can't recall encouraging (or discouraging) it for my kids.
    My father-in-law drinks way too much soda. He rarely drinks coffee and I've never seen him drink water except, perhaps, at a restaurant. He won't be dehydrated but he's not getting any good nourishment from soda.
    I suppose at 94 he can drink whatever he likes... what's the difference? really.

    1. At 88, I try to be realistic about my Dad's longevity and his preferences, too. At the same time, he has had health issues, has had to stop driving, and has various other maladies directly tied to his lack of hydration. His quality of life could be improved if he'd just have several tall glasses of water a day !!!

      My youngest daughter has about a half a gallon of water a day (64 ounces), so she is one family member I never have to worry about.

    2. Bob, you might research over hydration. That too
      is a big problem for some. What with all the hype
      of drinking 8 glasses of water a day. It is causing
      health issues too.

      Not all of us are the same size or,
      as active. If you aren't losing the water you don't
      need as much replacement. Too, some eat foods that contain
      lots of water. Like mostly fruits and, veggies. They won't
      need the same in water. Those who eat a dense diet of meat,
      cheese, yogurt, etc... They would need more water. Just as
      those who are active need more water than the sedentary.

      I learned this lesson the hard way. I began to have health
      issues. Every health site said, drink more water to flush the
      toxins. It turned out that what I was flushing was my electrolytes. It was bad.

  6. I love reading your articles. I'm 67 and the only surviving member of my immediate family (parents and siblings succombed to cancer and Alzheimer's). I really believe that eating right, exercise, drinking water, and an optimistic attitude is helpful (definitely not a guarantee). And I find that I have to 'choose' to do these things as they don't come naturally. But I also believe that you are a product of your choices (for the most part).

  7. Have you tried any of the flavored waters for your dad, Bob, or perhaps weak iced tea without the caffeine?

  8. You are right of course -- as parents our actions speak louder than words. I remember when I was a kid. Required to eat fish on Fridays. It was slimy. Tasted terrible. It was BRAIN food, for heaven's sake. Yuck. I HATED fish.

    But now? We have fish every chance we get. Dunno if it's adding to my brain power; but it's gotta be helping my health somehow. And I LOVE fish.

    Thanks, Mom!

    P. S. I lost 15 pounds when I switched from ginger ale and Diet Coke to bottled water. Now . . . I'll even drink it out of the tap!

  9. The suggestions to get my dad to drink more water are all appreciated. I have tried everything except flavored water, but I know that it a non-starter: he doesn't drink any kind of soda or anything that is flavored. In the last few years he has even given up coffee.

    The important point for me to remember is how much what we say and do influences others...maybe even through another generation. There is also the issue of habits that are in place for no reason other than that is the way it has always been done. The power to affect lives is rather impressive.

  10. Steve in Los AngelesSun Sep 02, 03:40:00 PM MST

    My Mom loved to drink ice water especially late at night. I also drink a lot of cold water throughout the day and especially at night. I always have cold water in my refrigerator. It is not unusual for me to drink at least a half gallon of cold water each day.

    There is one thing that I definitely do NOT have in common with my parents. Both of my parents smoked cigarettes. I never smoked a cigarette and I never will smoke (never, never, never!!!!!) I did pick up my parents' good habits, but I avoided their bad habits.


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