Health Column: Conversation improves health

Recent experiences have started me thinking about the importance of communal activities in enhancing the quality of our lives. Whether this activity takes place in a physical therapy setting or talking to the cashier at the local supermarket, it’s the sharing of one’s life with others through storytelling that creates healthy connections.

After more than 25 years of practicing in a healing profession, I’ve learned that enthusiasm and shared laughter enhance the rehab experience and everyone goes home feeling better.

I love the communal activity I see going on around me on the North Fork, and I have recently witnessed similar communications while walking on a boardwalk in New Jersey and on visits to Nassau County and to Brooklyn, where I’ve overheard groups of older people sitting together in the morning sharing stories while sipping coffee, their chairs in a circle. They’re always dressed for the weather, with light clothes when the sun is shining or sweaters and jackets in cooler weather. They’re laughing and at times moving closer to one another to capture an important moment in a story. They all live, at the most, a few blocks from their chosen gathering spots and can get there easily, either independently or with the help of family or friends, to share a morning ritual.

After one of these experiences, I called my mother-in-law, thinking she is isolated living in her apartment building in Albany and assuming she was without such a gathering place to go to after church. It has been years since her husband and her son, my husband, passed away. She tells me of her day and, yes, there are immediate concerns — her teeth, her hearing aides — and, of course, the sweetest stories about her new grandchild, Isabella, who is now 6 years old. But most of our conversation is about the new people she is meeting on the bus to the shopping center, or in the bingo room in her living facility. She lives in an apartment building in Albany city, with a diverse group of tenants. There is a city-funded bus that takes the tenants to various shopping centers.

She hasn’t cooked in years. She had moved from a moderate house in suburbia, where she entertained as many as 30 people almost every weekend for Sunday dinner, to a small apartment in Albany to be close to my brother-in-law. She has the Greek recipes that have been handed down for years, and the other ladies on the bus have their recipes to share. That’s what they talk about and share. They are women of diverse cultures sharing recipes, sharing spices, gabbing and seeing each other for the first time. Will they purchase the new spices, will they cook outside their norm? Maybe not, but they have shared what has been their life, and nurturing with food has often been the center of those lives. Going home, writing down the recipe and handing it over the next shopping day is a mission and the ultimate sharing. It makes me realize that such sharing goes on in all environments if people give themselves over to the experience.

I am so blessed to work in an environment where stories are shared. We share stories with patients and they share stories with each other. The stories most of the time start out with the obvious “Why are you here?” We then go on to discuss specific body parts or joint replacements and the shared symptoms in a discussion that often culminates in agreement that “it’s tough to get old.” Then almost ultimately the talk goes to food, whether it be new restaurants or farm stands or recipes; soon everyone in the room is chiming in. The one thing that all humans do is eat, and the desire to make that experience better for others is the most common form of caring.

The psychologist Eric Erikson named eight stages to define life and its conflicts. He felt that life stages one through six gear up to stage seven’s conflict, which he named “generativity versus stagnation.” Generativity is defined as care and concern for people besides family and self and develops during middle age. It is the positive side of the conflict, and I believe it can be experienced every day by getting out and sharing stories — listening compassionately and laughing about how alike we all are.

Denise Plastiras is a physical therapist at Maximum Performance in Greenport.