Marilyn Heins

Today on our morning walk a neighbor and his wife, who had not seen me for a couple of weeks, asked where I had been. I explained my right knee was giving me trouble.

“Only one knee?” he queried! We all burst out laughing. To those of us who live with elder pains, it was hilarious. And factual. Our aches and pains are frequently multiple. All Darwin and Mother Nature expect of us is to pass on our genes. After that we are superfluous, so apparently we were not designed to live to Geriatrica age.

But many of us do. In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was 47 years. It rose steadily to 78.7, although suicide and opiates are messing this up so it has decreased in the last two years. Sadly, our life expectancy is also affected by household income and ZIP code. Poverty does not lead to a ripe old age.

Lifespan is the maximum number of years a human being can live. At this point in time, the winner of the Lifespan Olympics is a French lady named Jeanne Louise Calment who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days. She was described as being relatively “healthy and mentally intact until her 122nd birthday.”

The human lifespan has lengthened in industrialized nations. This happened because of public health and medicine that brought about good hygiene, safe water, breathable air, less crowding, immunizations and antibiotics. Longevity, defined as a long duration of an individual life, is becoming more common in recent years thanks to the availability of medical care and medications that cure or manage diseases like cancer or heart disease.

Yet the age to which most of us in the U.S. can expect to live is 44 years younger than the human lifespan. Scientists are working on finding a modern-day Fountain of Youth to close that gap.

Those of us in Geriatrica will no doubt be long gone before water from such a fountain can benefit any of us. Readers know I advise us elder folks to take care of ourselves, avoid falls, and beware of loneliness. Here is a fourth: laugh a lot, especially about old age. Though longevity is not dependent only on optimism and a positive attitude, it sure can’t hurt, and laughing is more fun than bewailing and complaining. It has been said that laughter is the best medicine and we don’t need a prescription.

Dr. William Quinn, a fellow pediatrician, wrote in the AAP Senior Bulletin, what he learned through the ages. At 82, “I’ve learned that even when I have pains I don’t have to be one.” At 92 he admits, “I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.”

Two items from an email I received. “Think positively. I fell down the other day and wow it was the fastest I moved in years!” “Remember that when you follow the masses, sometimes the M is silent.”

Will Rogers kept America laughing and had lots to say about aging though he died in a plane crash at age 56. “You know you are getting old when everything either dries up or leaks.” “One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day has been.” “If you don’t learn to laugh at trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you’re old.”

Aging is no joke (although we oldies can be the butt of jokes) but laughing makes us feel good while moaning and groaning does not.

American writer Ambrose Bierce gathered his satiric definitions into a single book, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” first published in 1906 under a different title. I cannot pick up my dusty paperback without laughing out loud. The word life is defined as “a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss yet when lost it is not missed.” “Longevity: Uncommon extension of the fear of death.”

A delightful book by Father Gander (Douglas Larche) “Father Gander Nursery Rhymes” brings equality to the nursery where it belongs. One reviewer used the term “Equal Rhymes Amendment.” An example, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick! Jill be nimble, jump it too, If Jack can do it, so can you!” (Grandparents, take note. You can entertain the young ones with such poems and teach them a lesson at the same time.)

Gilbert, the lyricist half of Gilbert and Sullivan, had a sharp wit and sharper tongue. When a woman not very knowledgeable about music asked: “Is Bach still composing?” he retorted, “No, madam, he is decomposing.” From comedian Fred Allen: “When Jack Benny plays the violin it sounds as if the strings are still back in the cat!”

Limericks, both clean and dirty, can make me laugh. Even infirmities like hearing loss can lead to a laugh when you realize what was said and what you heard were very different. When it comes to TV and movies, I have to be selective as I like clever more than farce or cruel humor.

Grandchildren can tickle our funny bones with their cute sayings. Lilah, age 20 months, had been taught sign language by her mom so she could communicate before she became a fluent talker. She was high-chaired when her mother sat down next to her at a big family gathering. Lilah immediately signed, “Wash your hands first!” All I could say was if she was able to correctly correct her mother as a toddler, Mommy had a lot to look forward to.

Joshua, age 5, was asked if he wanted ice cream. “No, Daddy, I have no room. I’ll have it when the food in my stomach has gone down to my poop.” A budding physiologist?

Joshua’s mom, stuck in L.A. traffic: “Maybe we should move closer to the school.” Joshua thought a moment and said, “I don’t think that will work, Mommy. The house is too heavy and it’s stuck to the ground.” Maybe an engineer?

My message for fellow Geriatrica dwellers: A house that rings with laughter or even a few chuckles is good for us.

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your questions. Email