Since I started educating myself about menopause and trying to spread some positivity about this next chapter, I've been gifted with countless links from friends and family relating to menopause: the latest medical research, tropical retreats and programs for women in their fifties, ways to replenish estrogen, and humorous anecdotes about hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.
One of the things I've learned is that it is important to establish practices in our forties and fifties that will minimize the cognitive decline that comes in our sixties and seventies. There is a recent correlation between Alzheimers and the decrease in estrogen so obviously women my age are concerned! What can we do to stay sharp and maintain our current mental, physical and emotional health?
We know that intellectual stimulation and human interaction are two important factors in staving off cognitive decline. If we start now, in our forties and fifties, the practices will be set and we won't have to start from scratch when we are sixty or seventy. If we wait, it's harder to introduce the brain to new habits. Once the decline starts, it's very difficult to introduce these preventive practices.
I'm in a rare and very fortunate position in my life right now. Having just sold my business, I have time to follow different curiosities and learn new things. I've had time to read and contemplate some of this menopause research more thoroughly. And, unlike before when I read something and tabled it until I had more time, now, like a mouse following cheese, I have time to follow one thought to another. I have time to create some practices that will help me as I get older.
One of my friends in New Orleans recently told me that her seventy-eight-year-old mother plays Mahjong three times a week and is fit as a fiddle mentally. My daughter Lucia is reading the Joy Luck Club and told me that Mahjong is a big part of the story, and so, as I tend to do, I took these two Mahjong references as a sign that learning Mahjong was an important part of my path.
I searched online and found that they teach both Chinese and American (also referred to as Jewish) Mahjong at the senior center near my house. I called and found out that even though I'm only fifty-one, I would be welcome there. I imagined a big room with multiple tables, like a poker salon, but when I got there it was just me and two other women, not even enough to make a full table of four. Suzanna and Louise gave me an extensive private lesson including the Chinese words for all the suits and numbers. Eventually a few more women joined in so we had a rotating table of four with the experienced players helping the newcomers.
Mahjong was hard. Learning the different parts--- The Winds, Dragons, and other symbols as well as learning the Chinese characters and sounds felt a little like taking piano at age forty-five-- like I was trying to dig new neural pathways with a shovel, but what I really needed was a back hoe.
I had moments of self-consciousness for myself as I sat with these five senior citizens. Was it weird that I was going to the senior center way before I was a senior? At one point all of the women were talking about how to use their Medicare benefits to pay for Silver Sneakers and I felt like a total imposter. I was the youngest by twenty-years in our little party of six. And I was the dumbest. All of the seventy-somethings used Chinese for the numbers and suits while I stuck to awkward English descriptions for each tile.
The feeling I had during my two hours of Mahjong with these lovely elders was one of presence and ease. These women modeled for me the true sense of just being. I (even though I don't actually have a job to go to!) am still heavily burdened by the idea that I am supposed to be doing something important, that I am supposed to be working towards becoming something. But what? I'm sure all of the women around the table have duties and responsibilities-- family, homes, maybe even jobs.
I had to wonder, was it the twenty years of life these women had on me? Had they experienced life -- kids growing up and moving away, deaths, illnesses and other experiences of grief, loss and aging-- that, in some amazing way, opened up a clear path to their pure expression of joy and presence?
I don't know. I'm still learning about menopause and aging. New research is always happening and the jury is out as to whether injecting estrogen directly into the brain is going to be the cure for cognitive decline for us women. I'm thankful for that little two-hour window of Mahjong where I got to learn a new game that might curb my own loss of mental acuity, but more importantly, I'm grateful for the chance to witness the bigger picture-- the potential for joy and presence in the years to come.