Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

When social benefits outweigh health risks

Written by Juliet Simone, MPH, MBA, national health program director, OASIS

My dad was not the model of health by anyone’s measure. He had diabetes for 40 years, didn’t get much exercise, and had a heart attack accompanied by a valve replacement 25 years before he died. He was a lifelong smoker and an (almost) lifelong heavy drinker. His vices outweighed his good habits about 3:1.

The man was also ritualistic and did not like it when his routine was challenged. Mondays were for playing poker at the bar. Wednesdays were also devoted to playing poker at the bar. Thursday was set aside for dinner with family. Fridays were spent playing poker at the bar. Saturday mornings began with breakfast at the casino, followed by some daytime poker. Trips to Vegas for gambling and to Mississippi for golfing were the only acceptable interruptions to the routine. This was his life for years. Slowly, over time, he was able to do less and less because of his declining health. I watched the trips disappear, as walking through airports and on golf courses became too painful due to his blood vessel disease.  The casino even became too expansive for him to enjoy.  It was sad to watch him be unable to do things he loved to do. He replaced those activities with watching more TV and I was concerned he was becoming socially isolated. I think he became depressed, but who would know? He didn’t talk about that stuff.

The two things that he was still able to do as his health declined were playing poker at the bar and having dinner with family.  Sure, playing poker at the bar came with some props: a scotch, a beer, and a pack of cigarettes to accompany his royal flush. The tiny South City corner bar was smoked-filled, but there was a sense of camaraderie among the people who had played cards there together several times per week for years. Even though he didn’t talk about them much, I knew he felt closer to those people than he probably ever did with most of his family, myself included.

I never gave him a hard time about his bad habits that accompanied his card playing. I figured the socialization he got out of those nights was probably more beneficial to his health than the bad habits were a detriment to it. But it can be hard to reconcile that acceptance with my work in community health for older adults. I desperately wished he would take better care of himself. I even got him to attend a Better Choices, Better Health-Diabetes workshop I was teaching, but he went to support me, not himself. It was sweet, but didn’t inspire him the way I had hoped. He did make a few minor changes, though; I considered this a win.

How am I supposed to reach someone like my dad with health programming? I think about him a lot as I try to entice people, especially men who seem to become more isolated, to participate in health programs in the community. If I weren’t his daughter, my father wouldn’t have attended the ones I invited him to. I still don’t know how to reach other people out there like my dad. It’s tough. People have to be open to change and my dad wasn’t interested. He was of the ilk that believed, ‘I have to die from something, so I’ll live how I want today.’  He has a point, but had he taken better care of himself all those years, maybe he could have continued going to the casino and golfing for several more years.

We lived together for the last four years of his life. A few things about that experience surprised me. One thing that I didn’t expect was how much my cats ended up being a source of company for him. He talked to them in the third person and called himself ‘Grandpa’. It was adorable. I hope living with my father with my pets made his last few years a little less lonely. They weren’t always easy, but I wouldn’t take them back.

I think about all the people out there, like my dad, who would benefit from St. Louis Oasis’ programs and opportunities to volunteer. I think he would have loved reading with little kids, talking current events with other Oasis participants and practicing Tai Chi in our neighborhood. It would have enriched his life and given him a broader sense of purpose. He may have still died from the same infection, but he could have had a better life to the end.

About the Oasis Institute

Oasis is a national education organization that promotes healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles and service. Offering stimulating programs in the arts, humanities, health, technology and volunteer service, Oasis brings people together to learn, lead and contribute in their communities. The Oasis Institute in St. Louis is the headquarters of a national network that serves a broad audience in 42 U.S. cities through nine educational centers and community partners.