May 13, 2013 in Features

Group interaction helps aging men remain happy, healthy, studies show

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photoBuy this photo

Dennis Johnston, right, and members of the St. Patrick’s eighth-grade class of 1953, including, from left, Bud Young, Bill Warner, Bob Abel and Dick Casey, have gathered once a month since 2003. Here they have lunch at Ferraro’s in Spokane.
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Men who gather together for any reason – coffee, golf, walks, fishing, hunting, lunch, a couple of beers – often live longer and healthier than men who don’t.

The older men get, the more important socialization becomes.

But after men retire, they often lose the work structure that keeps them easily connected to others.

Then – unless they already have a group of men outside of work to gather with – men often rely too much on their wives, partners or immediate family for their socialization.

Kent Hoffman, a Spokane psychotherapist who has led a men’s group for 27 years, said, “Men are taught to be individuals, just to get up, go to work and be successful. That’s not conducive to community.”

Men without friends don’t just risk becoming crabby old guys who shoo kids off their lawns. They risk their lives.

“Studies show that if we belong, we live a lot longer,” Hoffman said.

It doesn’t matter what men do when they gather together; the gathering itself matters most.

“Many men get together to golf, and they think they are just getting together to golf, and they are, but it sure makes a difference,” Hoffman said.

The two groups of men profiled here are doing everything right for long-term mental and physical health, according to numerous recent studies that link socialization with lower risks for heart disease, cancer, strokes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are relational beings,” Hoffman said. “We do better when we don’t feel alone.”

The hockey players

Don Scherza, 70, Dave Cox, 69, and Dwight Carruthers, 68, all grew up in Canada playing hockey, and after settling down in Spokane, they skated together on the Spokane Jets senior amateur hockey team that won the Allan Cup in 1972.

The men still play hockey together at Eagles Ice-A-Rena, twice a week between October and April.

They belong to the Spokane Oldtimers Hockey Association, founded in 1975. It’s made up of about 80 players who range in from their early 20s to early 70s.

Some are former amateur and professional hockey players, but the group also includes “lawyers, teachers, doctors, real estate and sales people,” Scherza said.

He and his two buddies skate in the masters division of the Oldtimers – men 55 and older.

These three hockey guys – and their skating peers – have hit the trifecta of health benefits for older men.

• First, they exercise – vigorously.

The men – along with about 25 other masters-division players – pick teams and play 75-minute-games. It’s tamer hockey than they played in their younger years – “we don’t slam each other against the boards anymore,” Scherza said – but it’s still a demanding workout.

Off season, the three men skate at least once a week.

“You do a lot of moving your feet and twists and turns,” Scherza said. “You don’t have to be a fast skater, but you have to have good balance. You are getting good circulation of the blood. “

The sport is also good for hand-eye coordination – and for their brains.

“Your eyes are always following the puck, plus you have to watch you don’t hit other people,” Scherza said.

The men must also stay in shape off the ice to perform on the ice.

Carruthers skis, kayaks, golfs and bikes. Scherza walks all the time, despite a bad back the result of a car accident.

“When you get up in the morning, sometimes your body doesn’t feel like going. This pushes you to go,” he said.

Cox’s knees are bad – no cartilage – and so “I can’t walk a city block, but I can play hockey. I’m a goalie.”

• Second, the men socialize. The twice-weekly hockey games get them out of the house. In retirement, men around the house can lead to tension with spouses who desire their own space – and time alone – in the home.

Scherza said: “My wife often says to me: ‘Aren’t you going to hockey this morning?’ “

After the games, the men hang around together.

“We have a coffee room,” Cox said. “We have a hot dog machine.”

• Third, the men give back. Older people who reach out to the next generation are better able to move beyond their own complaints and disappointments.

Oldtimers group members built a deluxe locker room for players. It’s decorated with photographs of historic teams, a flat screen TV and a poster with this slogan: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”

The group sponsors several hockey tournaments throughout the season, and a golf tournament each summer. Proceeds benefit charities, such as the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.

“And we provide scholarships and help support young hockey players,” Carruthers said. “Hockey is an expensive sport.”

Younger skaters look to the older men for inspiration.

“I grew up watching these guys. They were my heroes,” said Paul Delaney, executive secretary of Spokane Oldtimers Hockey and author of “Saturday Nights Were Special: A History of Hockey in Spokane.”

Delaney recently turned 60.

“I have friends who don’t do any activities at all,” he said. “I see these guys out there…what great role models.”

The St. Patrick’s School ‘boys’

In 2003, the St. Patrick’s School eighth-grade class of 1953 held its 50-year reunion.

It was the first time some class members had reconnected since their childhood days in Hillyard.

Some of the men agreed to have lunch together once a month. Dennis Johnston stepped in to organize.

Since the reunion, without fail, between five and 10 of the “St. Patrick’s boys” gather for lunch the first Tuesday of every month.

“Every month, it’s something stable for us – like a rock,” said Bob Abel. “We trust each other.”

Bud Young said: “It’s a bond for me. I have a sister, but no brothers. They are like my brothers.”

Last Tuesday, nine of the regulars showed up at Ferraro’s restaurant on the North Side, at 11:30 a.m. sharp. They ordered sandwiches, fries and iced teas.

The men are now 73 and 74. Six of them are married; three are widowed.

There were about 30 class members in that St. Patrick’s graduating class; some classmates have died since the reunion 10 years ago.

And though the men who lunch together have undergone knee and hip replacements, pacemakers, bypass surgery and cancer, none among the Tuesday lunch regulars has died.

“None of us wants to be the first,” joked Mike Thompson.

The men didn’t dwell too long on the deeper, more emotional significance of their monthly lunches. Instead, they joked about their lunch rules – “no nudity, no wives, no lies.”

They talked sports and current events, and they reminisced about the past.

Some grew up poor in homes without insulation. They all walked to school, though Reg Vollmer remembers, on snowy days, grabbing onto the fender of the Rogers High School bus to “ski jog” to St. Patrick’s.

They called the kids in the richer South Hill Catholic schools “cake eaters.”

They remembered riding to their basketball games in an old hearse that belonged to a parent.

Dick Casey told a story about meeting the trains in Hillyard carrying World War II soldiers.

“We sold them week-old newspapers as ‘extras,’ “ he said.

Aging researchers say that piecing together a coherent narrative of our lives is essential to healthy aging. Through storytelling, we understand how experiences fit together, shaping the people we become.

“When we share our stories, life begins to feel safer and kinder and we have a better sense of the future,” Kent Hoffman said. “Your story may be about the Seahawks or about your personal life, but you need to have someone to tell your story to.”

Many of the St. Patrick’s boys have known each other since first grade. They remember together the characters in their shared narrative – neighbors, parents, the Holy Names sisters who taught them.

It’s a luxury most older men don’t have, and it’s life-enriching.

But don’t get all warm and fuzzy on these guys. They’ll joke it away. Or Johnston – the organizer who calls everyone the Sunday before to remind them it’s lunch week – will share a limerick like this recent one:

Some grads went to G-Prep, some to Rogers.

Passing time has transformed us to codgers.

Tuesdays first for 10 years.

Camaraderie brings cheers.

Now we dare to be Alzheimer’s dodgers.

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