Thursday, May 3, 2018

Odds 'N Ends - Building a House As An Octogenarian

This post is an outgrowth of endless comments and questions (and probably quite a few snickers) about house-building at my, let's say, "mature" age.  At the time of this writing, I am 84 and expect to be at least 86 before the project is fully completed.

On the one hand, any thing I have to say about staying active in the golden years does nothing to advance sustainability but, on the other hand, as a former health professional, it's hard to pass up any opportunity to promote healthy living even though I may not be the most perfect example.  So, after debating with myself for several years, I've decided to do it.  But let me admit upfront that I have spent way more time on this post than any other for fear it would be interpreted in the wrong way -- not as a pitch for healthy living, but as some sort of me-ism.

When my access to the health professional literature for 40+ years and my personal experience is coupled with what science is telling us now, I can see dividing this discussion into three topics: work history (wear and tear on one's body); physiological (the medical stuff); and mental (the psychological stuff).


The good news is that it is quite unlikely that I would be building a house at my age had I been doing this kind of work all of my life. I know many in the trades that eagerly anticipate(d) retirement because of the wear and tear on their bodies.  So probably the biggest reason for my able-ness now is that I began strenuous work after "retirement age" but before I suffered enough age-related muscle loss to have made the project too difficult or impossible.  

The bad news is that leaning over dental patients and a lab bench for so many years left me with forward-head posture and acquired scoliosis that have resulted in nagging neuro-muscular problems -- shoulder pain, lower back soreness and sciatica -- that slow me down.  They would be seriously disabling were it not for regular visits to a SOT (Sacral-Occipital-Technique) chiropractor, one prolonged episode with physical therapy and thrice daily stretching of the muscles that overwork (splinting) to compensate for structural imbalances, mainly, the lower back region in response to forward head posture.

 "I have good genes and I take care of them"
Some of us more than others manage to pick parents with good genes.  I chose well -- no history of cardiovascular disease, no diabetes, no mental illness, no debilitating arthritis, no liver or kidney disease, no autoimmune diseases, no serious allergies and normal body weight. My mother died early during corrective surgery for a one-off congenital heart valve problem.  But a black cloud -- prostate cancer --  hung over my Dad's side of the family.  So, knowing that my Dad and most of his brothers died of prostate cancer and my younger brother had already had surgery for it, I was hyper-vigilant and caught it in time many years ago.  I picked healthy grandparents as well.  Most were hard-working farmers that lived well into their 90's.  

Much is known today about the role of nutrition in the prevention of chronic disease but most people seem to lack interest in nutrition which, I suspect, is because its science is fairly technical and constantly evolving, making it easier to be indifferent. The media are no help when they sensationalize nutrition "news", often before peer-reviewed science actually signs off on it, as a way of winning subscriptions and viewers.  And, until recently, the medical profession can be accused of neglecting preventive nutrition for healthy patients (as opposed to dietary counseling for sick patients).

I was an outlier.  In parallel with my pioneering effort in preventive dentistry 60 years ago, nutrition science was emerging and I enjoyed following it, mostly with a dental bias in the beginning.  Then I attended a lecture in 1964 by perhaps the most widely recognized expert in the field at the time, Dr. Emanuel Cheraskin, who had established one of the first departments of nutrition in the US at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.  He was widely published in the scientific literature and had written several lay books on nutrition.  As Dr Cheraskin was summing up at the end of the day-long lecture, he said something like this......
"The surest advice that I can leave you is that your single best chance of staying healthy is to avoid refined carbohydrates for the rest of your life."

Research now shows how right he was.  Refined carbohydrates are increasingly implicated in heart disease, Type II diabetes and other chronic diseases for both the obese and the non-obese.  After the lecture, I gradually, as best as I could, steered my family and patients away from foods high in refined carbohydrates such as sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup and grains that are not whole. And I personally have steadfastly avoided refined carbohydrates for over 50 years and earnestly believe that it is the best thing I could have done to take care of the fortunate genes I inherited.  How rare it must be at my age to have a normal pulse rate, normal cholesterol/triglycerides, normal glucose and only one prescribed medicine -- a mild pill for age-related hypertension? 

But refined carbohydrates are not the whole picture.  After losing our spouses, Dorothy and I met and married late in life.  It has been largely through her that we have followed the so-called Mediterranean diet almost entirely for the twenty years we have known each other.  Except for mild age-related minor problems, she is ever bit as healthy and active as I.  And, I should give credit to my late dental-hygienist wife, JoAnn, for cooking healthy foods for the family, if not quite to the Mediterranean level, to the level understood as optimal in those days.

As for nutritional supplements, I think, if taken intelligently based on the available research, they might provide a leg up -- for example, Vitamin D for my age group, particularly, those of us who cover against sunlight, and Vitamin B-12 for those of us who do not eat red meat.  And a good source of reliable information for making choices about nutrition, including supplementation and healthy living in general, is the Nutrition Action Health Newsletter published monthly online and in hard copy by the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest.  

Aerobic Excercise
Except for a few sporadic years of jogging during mid-life and brisk walking for a few years in my '60s and '70s, I have not allocated time for routine aerobic exercise but I have never hesitated to undertake strenuous weekend projects and activities.  As a consequence, my physical stamina seemed always to have been nearly on a par with most of those who did.  During South Dakota pheasant hunts, guess who jogged back to get our vehicle after we hunted away from it, sometimes as much as a mile away?  Guess who keeps on shoveling after the others have stopped to rest?  Guess who keeps going after fellow mushroom hunters head for camp?  But now age-related muscle loss is taking a toll on my legs, which is frustrating, especially for heavy lifting.  But my upper body and arm strength still seem to be okay.  Curiously, my hands are as steady as they were during practice days but my dexterity has diminished due probably to dry skin and fading fingerprints, both of which provide friction for the fingers.

I have never smoked or used recreational drugs.  I have been a drinker since graduating from college -- sometimes more so than I should at social occasions but typically within the "recommended daily allowances" otherwise.

A habit to which I confess is reading.  As a result, I have missed a good share of the content on television since its beginning (except for PBS).  As a matter of fact, there have been periods of a few years when we had no TV at all and, when we have had it, it was without cable or satellite service.  And, with the advent of social media, I have limited my participation to its bare essentials.  I have lived a busy life so reading time seldom exceeds a couple of hours a day largely restricted to non-fiction -- dental literature early on and books about history and the human condition later in life.

Unknown Factors
I have been talking about numerous health practices that may have paid off in later life.  But the story might be more intriguing -- there could be other, more obscure, contributing factors.  Like a lot of country kids, I was constantly in contact with the soil and the manure from chickens to horses with pigs and cattle in between.  For the twenty-some years before I began wearing masks, I worked within a few inches of the upper end of the alimentary canal and respiratory tree of thousands of patients that teemed with many billions of micro-flora.  With that history, was I exposed to enough potential pathogens to give me immunity without actually making me sick?  As a result, is my own gut microcosm healthier than if I had been raised in a sterile urban environment or had something like rheumatic fever that required so many prophylactic antibiotics as to disrupt and permanently degrade my gut biome?  Who knows?  Recent therapy with fecal capsules for patients with antibiotic-resistant microorganisms seems to validate the importance of a healthy biome.  

A lot has been written about happiness and its impact on health and, while I do not profess to be an authority, I am convinced it has a lot to do with my longevity and and late life fitness.

With the exception of one misspent decade in the business world, I consider myself lucky. Happiness was with me in large measure when I was growing up in a family business in small town USA.  I had a blissful marriage and leveraged it by working side-by-side everyday with my wife for nearly four decades before cancer got her.  Happiness was with me when I chose a profession that I enjoyed beyond words.  Happiness is with me now as Dottie and I forge a life together. And happiness is definitely with me as I check off the most cherished item on my bucket-list -- DIYing a passive solar house!

In a nutshell, my life experiences have made me an optimist and I think optimism and happiness go hand-in-hand.

Risk Taking
For what its worth, I think most movers and shakers in our society are risk-takers.  My entrepreneurial Dad, whom I admired greatly, used to say, "There ain't no such thing as cain't".  His risk-taking rubbed off on me early on and influenced my approach to dentistry, to the short sojourn into the business world and now with the green building project.  It was manifested when we were one of the first white families to live in integrated public housing in St Louis (while in dental school), buying a home in the first St Louis suburb to pass a fair housing ordinance and adopting Annualized GeoSolar conditioning to the complete exclusion of conventional HVAC as part of our passive solar build.  As a result of life-long risk-taking, a philosophy has evolved that goes something like this: 

If everyone else is doing it, suspect that it may be wrong.  Be confident in your own ability to reason things through and to act on your conclusions.  Yes, there may be more stress this way but, self-induced stress, as long as it is monitored, can be healthy. 

As a risk-taker,  I have embraced change and, with the exception of a decade or so when JoAnn was dying and I gave up dentistry for the business world, I have successfully regulated the rate at which change passes through my life so as to be proactive in coping with it and not get overwhelmed and over-stressed by it.  Successful risk-taking builds self-worth/esteem that contributes hugely to happiness, at least in my experience.

Science has shown that self-imposed stress is less damaging and, in moderation, may actually be healthy while externally-imposed stress is more apt to be harmful.  I strongly believe that having been self-employed throughout life has allowed me to regulate the amount of stress I allow myself whereas, if I had been an employee, my health would have been compromised by stress from circumstances beyond my control.

Think Time
I should think DIY construction would be impossible without setting aside dedicated time to think.  By "dedicated time" I mean no distractions -- no talk radio, no background music, no TV, no visitors, no distractions, just alone with ones thoughts. In a project like ours, there are so many critical details to keep track of -- in the present, in the immediate future and in the distant future -- that need a lot of unencumbered mind-space.  Drive time can be think time but the best time for me is while literally staring off into space. 

My schedule has always included think time going back to my early days of practice.  What seemed to others like reckless risk-taking on my part had been well-vetted during think time.  Some of the best ideas conceived and mistakes avoided came about during think time.  It is a shame, in my opinion, that our world is so noisy now that most folks fail to allow themselves the luxury of productive think time

DIY Construction as a Journey
A common question I hear regarding our undertaking goes something like this:  "How do you stay interested for all of the years the project requires?"  To me, undertaking a big project is like going to college.  Completion is the goal but the focus has to be on day-to-day minutia -- classes, labs, study time and exams.  One becomes so immersed in the process as to render the endeavor a journey, not a destination.  Such is our home building endeavor.

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