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Marilyn Heins: Old dog learning new tricks

Marilyn Heins: Old dog learning new tricks

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Marilyn Heins

The submicroscopic virus that has attacked the human race is still winning the war but, so far, I have been lucky and escaped the disease. And despite my membership in the AOL (Advanced Old Age) Club, I have actually been able to learn some important lessons from COVID-19.

Why did the webs of my fingers feel sticky? I realized the zeal of my frequent hand-washing as prescribed did not always include proper rinsing. I have added another few seconds of rinsing with my hands spread out like a pianist playing the presto movement of a concerto.

It took a while but I have finally mastered the task of the mask! I wear big glasses and experience has taught me to tuck the top of my mask under my glasses to keep it from slipping. Because this is not a perfect system, I carry spare masks in my purse along with sanitizing spray and a sealed baggie full of approved wipes. New fact: Won’t work if they’re not wet.

One of my early columns on parenting touted the importance of providing your children with the three Parenting Vitamin A’s: Affection, Acceptance, and Attention. They, like all vitamins, are essential “nutrients” which children need to thrive. They must be supplied by a parent. So, love your kids. Accept them for who they are. Pay attention to their needs.

Because of the privilege of longevity, I have realized there comes a time when we have to parent ourselves. We now must find a way to give ourselves these essential Vitamin A’s. Let’s love and accept ourselves for who we are (teaching oldies new tricks is a difficult task in all species, especially Canis familiaris and Homo sapiens!) and pay attention to our own needs.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is to accept the world as it is today. A dear friend taught me the meaning of, “It is what it is.” There are things we cannot change. At first, I was upset and angry due to my enforced isolation from friends and family. I now know this is futile.

Life has taught me to accept the bad as well as the good, especially if you dwell as I do in the land of Geriatrica. I have learned to allow myself to feel my discontent just long enough until I can shift gears and use my energy to accept that it is what it is. Then comes the fun part: what can I do about it? I admit I am too old to join a protest march or work on a campaign but I can still write a check to support causes that I believe in and I sure can vote.

COVID-19 has taught me to appreciate what I call “substitutes.” Instead of going out to see a movie, we stream a movie, or two if they are short, every night. Flexibility in all things is my new motto. I like that I have more time for reading my books of choice, a well-written work of literary fiction. And even time to reread an old favorite.

I have learned to laugh, or at least giggle, at the minor and inconsequential changes in my life. For example, since this plague started, I have not worn anything but what I still call my “dog-walking clothes” although Mindy is in Doggie Heaven. These are old, cool, and comfortable clothes I wear for our morning walk. And wear them until bedtime as there is no need to dress up now.

And I have given myself four new freedoms: no jewelry, no daily shampoo, no nail polish on either fingers or toes. I have developed new habits like leaving mail in the mail box for a day before picking it up and not putting groceries away until they are swiped off. I know there are those who are learning new recipes and making elaborate dishes but we are simplifying meals especially in the heat of a Tucson summer.

Am I reconciled to what we are missing and cannot do? No, but I have stopped the previous moaning and groaning. I hope my readers have also realized it does no good.

I asked my daughter what she has learned from the pandemic. Her answer: “Because I survived this upheaval these many weeks, I now know of a resiliency I didn’t know I had.”

Nobody likes coronavirus solitary confinement, but we can get through it.

I made a secret bargain with myself. As I once taught distraught medical students who felt they could not take another nanosecond of med school, there was a simple formula to stay in school and become a doctor. Go through the motions and attend every class. Get vigorous exercise every day. If you manage to do these two things, give yourself a pat on the back and a little present every night — watch old TV reruns or give yourself a treat like a piece of chocolate. Many years later I make myself go through all the motions in these stressful times, do my walk and exercise, and give myself a chocolate square present every day.

Finally, a word about those who live alone. Living alone these days with no contacts with others, except maybe a masked person at the checkout counter or a masked doctor, can be doubly dangerous. In an AARP article “Is There a Cure for Loneliness?” research scientist Louise Hawkley at the university of Chicago said “There is a human need to be embedded, connected, integrated in a social network.” When that is missing, “the consequences are very real in terms of mental and physical health.”

An assignment for my readers: Try to make frequent virtual contact with friends and relatives who live alone in these times of forced solitude. This will be good for both of you.

Dr. Heins is a retired pediatrician, parent, grandparent, columnist, and author. She welcomes your questions about people throughout the life cycle, from birth to great-grandparenthood. Contact her at

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Being happy and laughing can help promote growth of new neurons, the nerve cells that help make us intelligent humans. This no-prescription-needed medicine can help us better manage stress and foster resilience, Marilyn Heins writes. 

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