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BEACON Senior News

My dad's best medicine: "Taking a dip"

Jul 26, 2021 11:11AM ● By Sharon Love Cook
older man, wading out into the ocean water, chest deep

When it comes to aging, my dad was always my role model. He lived to be 100, taking no medications outside of a daily spoonful of baking soda in a glass of water. 

His diet certainly wasn’t responsible for his longevity. Following my mother’s death, he lived on coffee, donuts, baked beans and pea soup. Now, looking back, I’m convinced what kept him going was “taking a dip” in the cold ocean waters of Rockport, Massachusetts.

Coming out of the surf, skin puckered from the cold, he’d announce, “That’s the best medicine.” My dad was convinced there was nothing in life that “taking a dip” wouldn’t cure. Oddly enough, recent studies are proving this to be true. Cold-water swimming lowers blood pressure and strengthens the immune system.

Back in the 1950s, when school got out our family would pack up Dad’s truck and move to our cottage at Long Beach. There, Dad swam every day. Early mornings he’d set up our umbrella on the beach and head into the water. He liked it cold. Too warm—over 60 degrees—he labeled “sissy water.”

Today, people have grown accustomed to global warming’s effect on ocean temperatures. But back then, I remember how ankle-numbingly cold the New England water could be. It didn’t stop us kids, of course. We leapt into the waves, shrieking our heads off.

Dad in his 90s on his porch in Long Beach.

 

My dad swam for decades until, in his mid-90s, he had a scare. Venturing into a rough surf, he was knocked down by a wave and couldn’t get his footing. When he struggled to his feet, another wave came along to spin him around. Luckily, a neighbor spotted his struggle and raced into the water.

After that close call, he was reluctant to go back into the ocean. It wasn’t so much fear, it was the feeling of humiliation. At the time I scoffed at the idea, but today I understand. No one wants to appear helpless, particularly in public.

Nonetheless, my siblings and I found this new development alarming. How would Dad survive without his daily dip? Was this the beginning of the end? Was he giving up...on life?

I tried encouragement, reminding him of the December day when the temperature had reached 62 degrees—incredible for New England. We went for a swim. Changing into bathing suits inside the cold, dark, shuttered cottage, I’d had second thoughts. Finally, standing ankle-deep in the surf, I asked him, “We don’t have to duck under, do we?” His response was immediate: “It won’t count unless you do.” With that, he charged into the surf, leaving me no choice but to follow.

Now, when I mentioned that December dip, my dad became indignant. “I was a young man then,” he sputtered. “I was in my 80s!” His remark stayed with me, a reminder that attitudes about aging are relative. Dad, in his 90s, had viewed the episode as something zany he’d done in his youth.

Having given up swimming, Dad turned his attention to the cottage. Something always needed repairing and he never shied from hard work. For his 90th birthday, a grandson gave him a new chain saw. One morning, while replacing shingles on the roof, he grabbed a section of brittle “gingerbread” trim for support. It broke and he tumbled 10 feet to the ground. A neighbor called 911.

At the hospital, an orthopedic surgeon told me Dad’s leg was broken in three places, and that it would require metal rods. Fearfully, I asked if he’d walk again. I’ll always remember the surgeon’s words: “Old bones, if they heal, heal poorly.”

I saw my dad before they wheeled him to the OR. He motioned me close. Gripping my hand, he whispered where he’d hidden his money: in the dirt cellar, rolled inside a stack of toilet paper. I promised to take care of it.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to remove the money. Dad soon came home to recuperate. After weeks of physical therapy, he graduated from an aluminum walker to a cane. On his 95th birthday, he walked into the surf surrounded by family, friends, neighbors and his physical therapist. At the water’s edge, he handed the cane to his grandson.

Then he took a dip.


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