Q: I visited my 84-year-old grandmother in her assisted-living home recently, and she seemed lonely. I visit as often as I can, but what else I can do for her? — Irene, S., Tucson, Ariz.
A: Visiting your grandmother is worth your weight in gold (and platinum), Irene. It's important you help your grandmother feel less isolated. An AARP survey reveals that up to 33 percent of older folks feel lonely. And it takes a toll on more than their emotions; it ups their risk for stroke, heart disease and premature death.
So here's a great gift you can give your Gram, and you might want to rope in some of her friends from down the hall: a short course in daily meditation. We have always been big proponents of meditation (we both do it twice a day), and now a study from Carnegie Mellon University finds that when older folks do mindful meditation, they become less lonely and that reduces their risk of health problems.
How does it work? This calming practice decreases stress hormones, which reduces inflammation — an all-around disease trigger — and releases feel-good brain chemicals.
So here's how to get Grandma and friends (and yourself) into mindful meditation:
1. Sit together in a quiet room. Make sure everyone is comfortable.
2. Close your eyes. Breathe slowly in. Slowly out. Do not strain.
3. Now gently tense your toes as you breathe in. Relax them as you breathe out. Repeat this tense-and-relax pattern as you move slowly up your body to your face.
4. Now try to let your mind go blank. When thoughts start popping up, exhale through your nose or mouth to the count of 1-2-3, and expel the thoughts with your breath. As you exhale, make a sound — OMM, if you like.
5. Now sit peacefully for five minutes. Breathing in and out, letting your mind release your thoughts. That's it!
Another inexpensive and effective way to help your Gram feel connected is through online video chats. See if the assisted-living facility can set up a few stations, so your grandmother (and other residents) can see and talk with friends and family every day.
Q: Every time I pick up the paper, it seems there's some mention that a food is contaminated with deadly bacteria. Now it's apple slices; before it was melons and spinach. What's going on, and what can I do to protect my family? — Charlene J., Charleston, N.C.
A: The apple slices (melons, etc.) were infected with bacteria called listeria (not E. coli or salmonella, the other food-borne bacteria that cause trouble). Listeria can cause gastrointestinal problems and spread through the body, triggering sepsis, meningitis, fever, aches and pains, confusion, loss of balance and even convulsions.
This infection generally hits the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, their fetuses and newborns. In 2011, listeria-contaminated melons made 146 people sick; 30 died. Recently, fast-food chains removed contaminated apple slices from most outlets.
If you want to protect your family from listeria (and other food-borne infections), follow these safety tips.
•Thoroughly rinse raw fruits and vegetables before eating, cutting, peeling or cooking.
•In the fridge, keep cooked and uncooked foods separated, and all produce separate from meats. Listeria can grow in the fridge — unless it is 40 degrees or below. Check the temperature regularly with a thermometer. And clean up all spills in the fridge immediately.
•Counters and cutting boards should be washed with soap before and after putting uncooked foods on them.
•Wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds after touching and preparing any food.
•Don't hang on to leftovers and deli-sliced meats for more than four days.
•Pregnant women should avoid all packaged meats, hot dogs and smoked fish.
•You can't know for sure that restaurant foods are infection-free, but try to stick to healthy, fresh foods prepared in a clean environment.