Pat Summitt R Us

When we talk about Pat Summitt, we’re talking about ourselves.

We’re talking about her, too. Alzheimer’s is a progressive, terminal illness. Unless a cure comes along, the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach was recently handed a fatal diagnosis. Her legendary steely resolve notwithstanding, this is a heart-breaking situation for her, her family, and everyone who cares about her – and millions do.

But when we talk about Pat Summitt, we’re also talking about ourselves. All of us who admire brilliant female leaders are reeling from yesterday’s news. One reason some of us are reeling, I believe, is because we identify with Pat.

This is often true of sports fans. When we celebrate a Women’s World Cup soccer victory by saying, “We won,”  we’re identifying with the team. “We” won because we feel empowered by their victory.

In Pat’s case, we identify with her because she’s incredibly strong and successful. We don’t share her career victory total (no one does) nor her determination or drive (“You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” she told one doctor) but like her, we care about success. We care about young women. We love basketball. We’re athletes.

I have only met Pat a few times, have interviewed her briefly, edited a book (The Summitt Season) about her back in 1988, and last saw her at the 2011 Final Four, where we chatted about the agony of defeat. Yet I feel like I’m taking this news personally – and surmise that others (especially athletic Baby Boomers?) might be as well.

She’s vulnerable; therefore we’re all vulnerable. An unsettling reminder.

My father has Alzheimer’s, and lives nearby. For the past seven years I’ve been visiting him, overseeing his care, and watching as he loses the ability not only to remember, but to read, write, tell time, shave, bathe, dress, speak clearly, understand what I’m saying, and manage the telephone, the remote control, and silverware.

It can be a strangely blessed thing, shepherding someone through the mystifying haze of Alzheimer’s. But for caregivers, it’s also just plain upsetting.

And I identify with Dad and Pat. So I have to wonder: Will Alzheimer’s be my fate?

I’m not alone. Baby Boomers are notoriously nervous about memory lapses that physicians try to assure us are “normal at your age.” A recent international AARP poll showed that Alzheimer’s is the second-most feared disease after cancer – despite the fact that many people polled do not even realize Alzheimer’s is fatal.

Exercise, healthy food, mental stimulation, quality sleep, stress management, and active social engagement are the six “pillars of a brain-healthy lifestyle,” according to researchers. Sally Jenkins tells us in a heart-breaking article in today’s Washington Post that Pat is determined to improve her cognitive abilities through reading, puzzles, and math problems.

But Ponce de Leon was wrong. Ballroom dancing and sudoku will not save us. Yoga will not save us. Nor all the Body Flow classes at the new gym. With each step, we’re descending toward death, just like every other living being.

My friend Kate Cudlipp died last month after a bicycle accident in Rock Creek Park. Kate was an avid cyclist with an inner strength reminiscent of Pat’s.

Kate knew how to ride a bike. But accidents happen, and Alzheimer’s happens. The strongest women in the world are also vulnerable. They (and we!) live in bodies that will decay, or break, and die.

Last week I had lunch with a colleague in her thirties, a committed weightlifter. “After menopause, it’s harder to build muscle,” I told her. “Fortunately you don’t have to worry about that for a while.”

“I don’t think it will affect me, because you’re thin, whereas I’m bulkier,” she responded.

“She doesn’t get it,” an older friend commented later, laughing. I don’t blame my young colleague for not getting it; I didn’t get it either, in my thirties. But each news flash about a friend, relative, or basketball icon who succumbs to death or disease deepens our growing sense of “getting it.”

Like Pat, we are mortal. When Pat gets sick, we all feel sickened – and reminded that we, too, will die.

I hope you don’t think I “should” be focusing only on Pat, and not on myself. I do grieve for Pat. “It’s not going to be a pity party,” she insists. I hope it will be a “compassion party” instead. My heart goes out to her, and I’m sure yours does too. I admire her courage, and feel sure her candor will help raise money for Alzheimer’s research and treatment.

But our feelings about other people are never just about them.

It’s always about us too.

Mariah Burton Nelson played basketball at Stanford and now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.

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Don’t Forget Exercise! When Discussing Depression

The Washington Post reported this week (“Antidepressants Can Be Helpful but Risky”) that the use of depression medication has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s.

The article mentions dangerous side effects — drowsiness, feelings of panic, nervousness, sexual problems, and thoughts of suicide or weight gain — but fails to mention this proven alternative method of treating depression: exercise.

We have known for a while now that exercise can be as effective or more effective than medication for treating depression. A 1990 meta-analysis of 80 studies on exercise and depression showed that:

  • “Exercise was a beneficial antidepressant immediately and over the long term.
  • “Although exercise decreased depression among all populations studied, it was most effective in decreasing depression for those most physically and/or psychologically unhealthy at the start of the exercise program.
  • “Although exercise significantly decreased depression across all age categories, the older people were (the ages ranged from eleven to fifty-five), the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • “Exercise was an equally effective antidepressant for both genders.
  • “Walking and jogging were the most frequent forms of exercise that had been researched, but all modes of exercise examined, anaerobic as well as aerobic, were effective in lessening depression at least to some degree.
  • “The greater the length of the exercise program and the larger the total number of exercise sessions, the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • “The most powerful antidepressant effect occurred with the combination of exercise and psychotherapy.” — “Exercise Can Keep Your Psyche Fit,” Psychology Matters

A September 2009 article in the Washington Post (“Running for My Life”) made this same case: that exercise can cure depression at least as well as drugs — and of course the “side effects” of exercise beat the side effects of depression medications hands down.

Yet The Washington Post and other media outlets tend to forget about exercise when bemoaning the escalating use of anti-depression medication, and the drugs’ myriad side effects.

True, it’s difficult to persuade depressed people to get off the couch and lace up their running shoes. Pill-popping requires less effort. But we need more medical professionals to prescribe exercise, and we need consistent media reminders that the path to mental health, as well as physical health, is through fitness.

Fit Tip #11

Older and stiffer? Older and sore? To avoid that fate: Do stretches galore. (Yoga, too: Good for U! :-))

Returning Home: Playing Basketball at 51

“Take a camera,” suggested a friend. But I wasn’t attending as a spectator. My goal was to PLAY.

Ever since I heard about the senior women’s basketball league in my area, I was intrigued, enticed, and drawn to return to this place — the basketball court – that had been my home as a child and young adult.

I knew people over 50 competed in softball, golf, and dozens of other sports in the Senior Games. Friends rave about this experience, and my own mother has competed in swimming meets there, winning medals in the 75-79 age group.

But basketball? Who knew that women between the ages of 50 and 85 can still play HOOPS?

Having turned 50 myself not long ago – and having retired from college, professional, then recreational basketball in 1981 – I was fascinated to learn that women my age, and MUCH older, are still playing.

My own retirement had been forced by chondromalacia (softening of the cartilege) in both knees – and it had not occurred to me that other hoopsters my age had escaped a similar fate. Though I successfully grieved my disability and shifted my attention to swimming — SUPERB — and golf — GREAT — basketball is simply THE BEST.

So when Helen White, coordinator of the NOVA United teams, invited me to “coach or give a pep talk or something,” I said, “What I’d really like to do is play.”

I then explained my knee situation – I cannot even go downstairs without limping; picture O.J. Simpson, of all people, as he painfully descended the staircase after his latest arrest – but somehow I just had to try.

When I pulled up to the recreation center, the first person I saw, as she unfolded her long body from her car, was a five-ten sixty-two-year-old with white hair.

“This must be the right place,” I thought. My peeps!

For the next three hours, about thirty women (up to age 72 on this particular evening) ran, rebounded, set screens, executed give-and-go’s, shot, high-fived, got knocked down, got back up, and kept moving, moving, moving.

And it WAS moving – to see the delight on their faces. I’ve met so many women over the years – easily hundreds – who have told me that they didn’t get a chance to play sports when they were young. Those women were angry about that, and sad.

No longer. Some of the women were from that three-dribble generation, when players were limited to one half of the court. Others had no athletic background at all. “Sports were not for girls,” said 71-year-old Jeannie, a children’s book author. “We were supposed to do embroidery.”

But the times, they are a changin’. “When we looked around for a gym, they didn’t know what to make of us,” reports Bonnie, a-62 year-old who plays on the 50-54 team and coaches the 60-64 team. “Rec centers are used to seniors playing bingo, but not seniors playing basketball.”

“I teach senior fitness at a local community college,” another player told me. “It used to be chair exercises. Increasingly, they want sport skills.”

The other early-arrivers welcomed me warmly and tossed me a basketball while they stretched. A standard women’s ball, it was smaller than the traditional (now men’s) ball I’d usually played with, and lighter – much easier to handle, lift, shoot.

(Karen Logan, with whom I played in the WBL, actually invented this smaller ball and we did use it in that first women’s pro league.)

For a while I was alone with the hoop. As in a dream, everything I shot went in. From the right, from the left, from the corner, from the free throw line: Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

Shooting a basketball through a hoop, and seeing it – no, FEELING it – swish through the net is one of the most satisfying physical activites, in my experience. Being back on the court felt so natural, so right, and so downright ecstatic, I’m sure that if someone else had brought a camera, they would have caught me BEAMING.

When it came time to scrimmage three on three, reality hit. I could not jump for a rebound, race after a loose ball, or even drive to the basket and extend upward, leaping off one leg (a basic layup). My knees are just plain too sore for such maneuvers.

Still, I could pass. I could shoot. I could play defense, in a gimpy kind of way. And since we played half-court, I was able to keep up enough to enjoy a few key assists, a few blocked shots, and a few more of those smooth swishes.

Peggy is a former history teacher who now works for the Department of Justice. Carol played college basketball at Indiana with Tara Vanderveer, Stanford University women’s coach. Sue played at the University of Pennsylvania. Gwen, a software engineer, is “just a rec league player” who recruited another player she met in her church league. Mothers and grandmothers, business owners and assistant bookkeepers and government employees, they have an easy camaraderie, joking with each other and encouraging each other: “Good shot!”

“We’re changing the face of aging, and changing the perception of aging,” said Bonnie.

We all chatted for a while afterward, and I cautioned them to take care of their bodies, especially their knees.

“Will you be back?” asked 60+ player named Hope.

I smiled at these happy, sweaty women. They’re having the time of their lives.

“YES,” I said.

(Want to play? Contact Helen White: hmwhite3004@comcast.net)

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation MNelson@aahperd.org

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Not-Overwhelming Disability

At my Aunt Mary’s recent memorial service, my mother, describing her sister’s “severe, paraplegic stroke,” said that “the stroke was overwhelming, but Mary was not overwhelmed by it.”

For 16 years, between the ages of 63 and 79, Mary could not use her left arm, could only limp on her left leg, and could not speak – at least, not the way most of us do.

She could say only five words: “Yes,” “No,” “And,” and “Oh Boy.”

But oh boy, did she communicate. With intonation, inflection, facial expression, and sheer willpower, Aunt Mary asked myriad questions and expressed surprise, doubt, alarm, fear, humor, amazement, pride, compassion, excitement, gratitude, and every other conceivable message.

It didn’t happen automatically, or fast. To communicate with Mary required incredible, almost saint-like patience on the part of her husband, Peter, and other family members and friends. Every conversation started with 20 questions, and expanded from there. “Are you asking about something in this room? Something that happened today? Are you hungry? Is the person you’re talking about in our family?”

In Mary’s case, the problem was not just aphasia – the inability to speak – but apraxia: the inability to indicate what one wants. So she couldn’t point to a water glass, or move her good hand the way one might if one wanted to mime drinking. She could only say her five words. And we could only guess.

Did we all get frustrated? Sure. We also gave up sometimes. When all the “yes no and oh boy’s” in the world failed to tell us what she wanted to say, we shrugged and smiled together. Mary was a good sport about that, laughing rather than crying after her sincere and focused efforts to tell us something, or ask us something, proved fruitless.

My friend Madelyn Jennings tells me that, incredibly, her brother-in-law, also a stroke survivor, has the exact same vocabulary as my aunt did. Maybe those are the core essential communications: that’s all any of us really need:

1) Yes: affirmation

2) No: Negation

3) And: Let’s continue the conversation, and

4) “Oh Boy”: The whole range of emotion.

Many people become depressed in response to such a stroke; Mary did not. Although “the stroke was overwhelming, Mary was not overwhelmed by it.”

And therein lies Mary’s legacy. She amazed us all with her positive spirit in the face of devastating loss.

All of us face the prospect of losses, changes, and disabilities, in ourselves and our loved ones, over time.

May we all rise to the occasion, as Mary did, with humor, persistence, and grace.

Yes. Yes. Oh boy.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation
MNelson@aahperd.org

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Stephen Hawking and Flight

I talked with the cartoonist John Callahan shortly after the late Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in his riding accident in 1995. Callahan’s a quadriplegic too. He’s a shaky-handed cartoonist who lampoons social attitudes toward disability.

One recent cartoon shows a beggar on the street. Instead of hands, the beggar has sharp scythes. The sign near his cup reads, “Will refrain from shaking hands with you. $5.00.”

When Reeve responded to the accident not only by resuming his acting and directing career but also becoming a spokesperson for spinal cord research, Callahan jokingly complained about Reeve, who was best known for his movie role as Superman.

“He’s making it hard to be a self-pitying crip,” Callahan told me. “The SuperCrip is setting the bar awfully high.”

Now Stephen Hawking, 65, set the bar even higher – and soared over it. The accomplished astrophysicist and author of A Brief History of Time has used a wheelchair for nearly four decades, but he “flew” during a buoyant journey on a Boeing 727. The plane created a zero-gravity effect for passengers by looping through the sky in huge arcs.

“It was amazing,” said Hawking, who pirouetted like a “gold-medal gymnast” during the 25-second segments of weightlessness, a crew member reported in the Washington Post.

The stunt raised money to combat several diseases, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the one that has severely disabled Hawking.

It also raised awareness of people with disabilities. “I hope many people will follow in my path,” Hawking said.

Callahan and comrades, watch out. Another SuperCrip is refusing to be limited by even by the laws of physics, such as gravity.

Hawking believes space exploration will save our species when we destroy the earth.

Personally, I don’t believe we need to go that far, literally. We just need to stop polluting our home.

But I do believe that people, including disabled people, often limit themselves with “ground rules” that restrict their achievements.

And I do believe that all of us can fly.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation
MNelson@aahperd.org