During a trip to Nosara, Costa Rica, I experienced life in a Blue Zone, defined as a place on the planet where persons live the longest. Each day, I’d eat fresh locally grown papaya and mango while monkeys howled in the trees above. I learned to enjoy beans for breakfast.
Accustomed to East Coast sunrises, I was mesmerized by the fiery Pacific sun setting beneath the horizon, and the slower pace of life. At home, I was always rushing. In Nosara, I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and not just because I was on vacation. No one was in a hurry.
I was captivated by not only the natural beauty of Costa Rica, but also the people. On the beach, I witnessed smiling, aging women bouncing down the sand on motorcycles driven by a grandson. It was unheard of to leave the grandmother behind. I watched generations of families sharing meals, laughing, tending their gardens as a unit. In the day-to-day life of these extended families, elderly persons are integrated and accepted.
There are five places in the world officially designated as Blue Zones, locations where residents live long, healthy lives, often over 100 years. According to Dan Buettner, author of the best-selling book The Blue Zones, the five geographic areas that boast more centenarians than anywhere else in the world are the Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California, home of the Seventh-day Adventists; and Okinawa, Japan.
Buettner’s research identifies the shared lifestyle and habits of the world’s longest-living people: Purposeful living, moving naturally, connection to spirituality, and a diet of fresh, unprocessed, plant-based food. This diet alone contributes to a longer life by reducing inflammation and chronic illness.
But I was acutely aware of another common trait that people of Nosara share with other Blue Zone inhabitants: connection to family and community. People do not age alone in these cultures; they are cared for in close proximity by their families until their deaths.
Aging alone is an American construct, along with our rugged individualism. More Americans live alone than people elsewhere in the world, according to the Pew Research Center. Two-thirds of seniors across the world live in extended family households, compared with just 6 percent of those over 60 in the United States who share intergenerational households.
Close to 100 percent of families live this way in the Blue Zones, avoiding social isolation, loneliness and the mental and physical health issues that arise because of those factors. Having loved ones around also alleviates stress, and stress is a key factor contributing to killer diseases.
I have two adult children who live far from my home. They are thoughtful humans and check in often, but neither is present for day-to-day support. This is fine because I don’t need their help at this point. I’m active and independent, although I have no idea what my needs will be in the future.
I didn’t have children in order for them to care for me when I’m old. While I live in Massachusetts, one of 28 states with filial responsibility laws requiring adult children to financially care for impoverished parents, I don’t want my children to be fiscally responsible for my elder care. Nor do I believe they are morally responsible. My grown children have fulfilling and autonomous lives of their own — exactly what I want for them.
Though I’ll admit that witnessing extended families living together in Costa Rica made me a bit envious of those grandmothers and great-grandmothers.
I watched my former mother-in-law deteriorate and eventually die alone in a nursing home during the pandemic, when her family could only visit for one hour per week. It was an awful end to a life. I remember how robust she had been, full of ideas and opinions and interests, and the ways in which the isolation and boredom of nursing home life broke her.
In the Blue Zones, even the messy or uncomfortable aspects of advanced elder care are rolled into family life without question.
Understandably, many families in our country are not financially or mentally equipped to deal with aging relatives, particularly those with significant medical issues. Many of us live far from our immediate families. Yet, it’s clear that people thrive and live longer when generations are seamlessly woven into the fabric of home and community — a Blue Zone model mutually beneficial to both the young and the old.
In lieu of family support or living in the natural beauty of Ikaria or Nosara, are there aspects of Blue Zone life that we can adopt to increase our odds of living healthier and longer lives? I posed this question to Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D., founder of Blue Spirit Costa Rica, which offers programs in well-being and longevity His reply was prescriptive and inspiring.
“Wherever one lives, it’s important to balance the quickening speed of modern life with periods of contemplation — quieting the mind, turning off the digital machines, slowing the breathing — creating windows of peacefulness in our busy lives,” he advised.
In addition to these suggestions, we can incorporate other components of Dan Buettner’s “Power 9 lifestyle habits.” I chose three areas that seemed possible for me to improve: Health, Connection and Purpose.
The easiest change for me was adopting an anti-inflammatory diet. I turned to a predominantly vegetarian diet, cut out processed foods, GMOs and my lifelong addiction to sugar. I tried a variety of Blue Zone recipes and feel better than I did 20 years ago.
Aging in community reduces social isolation, even without nearby family. Because I currently live alone, I’m looking into cohousing and/or eventually moving closer to my children, nieces or siblings.
Finally, we all want purpose in our lives, whether it’s caring for grandchildren, volunteering, tending a garden or a creative pursuit. As Buettner writes: “Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of life expectancy.” Becoming a tutor several times a week for the children of a refugee family in our community has also brought me enhanced joy and meaning.
Perhaps I won’t live to be 100. But, like people everywhere, I want to enjoy good health, connection and purpose for as long as I can. Wherever in the world we live, small changes can increase our happiness and longevity.
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