Faithful Catholic home schooling parents understand the value of our lifestyles in forming souls for eternity. Recently, however, I read a book that hints we may enjoy a real advantage here and now—living to our 90s or even 100s. In The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner shares the results of his research in four areas of the world that have a large population of centenarians: Sardinia, Okinawa, Loma Linda CA, and Costa Rica. Some of his findings and recommendations are expected: eat less, and base your diet on mostly unprocessed, plant-based foods. Drink lots of water. Build vigorous physical activity into daily life. Other, more surprising results, point to the value of daily life in the typical Catholic home school family, and suggest that it may actually be adding years to our lives on earth.
Today’s centenarians grew up at a time when families were large and close. The Blue Zones explains how such a family adds years of healthy living. In three out of the four zones studied, centenarians almost always lived with their children or grandchildren. These younger people gave the older ones a sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging. One Sardinian grandmother, who was on the verge of death at the age of 100, announced she would not die until her grandson finished university. A Costa Rican man of 101 purchases and prepares Sunday dinner for his extended family each week. One study concluded that a man gains 75 weeks of life for every daughter he has. The Church’s admonition to be generous with life may lead to an abundant reward of healthy years.
Home school moms and dads frequently feel overwhelmed by everything they have to get done each day. That may not be a bad thing. One Costa Rican farmer said, “You have to keep busy. When people have too much time they get involved with vices… We stay busy enough to keep the devil away but not so much that we get stressed. It’s a clean pure life.” Okinawans have an ikigai and Costa Ricans a plan de vida. Both can be simply translated as a reason to get out of bed in the morning. We home schooling parents have an important purpose to our days. The work is hard, but very satisfying, as we watch our children grow into fine men and women.
These vigorous elderly people enjoy a strong social network. They took the time to share meals, a cup of tea, or even a glass of wine. Friends and neighbors provided many benefits. They reinforced healthy habits because they shared the same virtues. They gave each other an opportunity to reduce stress by sharing problems within the community. They allowed older people to remain connected to the world outside their own homes and even provided practical help as well. One-hundred year-old Panchita lives by herself in rural Costa Rica. She prepares food for her eighty year-old son who comes to visit her daily and still does most of her own chores. A neighbor boy helps her catch her chickens and another young woman stops by to help her sweep her floors.
Home schoolers also benefit from the friendship of like-minded people, friends at church and in our support group. There is nothing quite so nice as hearing, “How wonderful!” when you announce your eighth pregnancy. It is important to be able to crab about your messy house or the household decibel level without hearing unwanted advice to put the children in school or even to stop having any more of them. Elderly Okinawan ladies meet every day in a group known as a maoi. More than gossip and jokes, the maoi is a safety net for the community. “If you get sick or a spouse dies or you run out of money, we know someone will step in and help.” Catholics often help one another by preparing meals for a new mom, or taking the kids for an overwhelmed buddy. We offer sympathy when there is a death in the family or just drop off a plate of cookies to show our affection. I can tell you from experience that this type of friendship is a treasure beyond price.
Only two of the blue zone populations, Sardinians and Costa Ricans, are Catholic, but all are religious. One peer-reviewed study showed that people who attend religious services as infrequently as once a month reduced their risk of death during the study period by one-third. It was as effective as regular moderate exercise. (As I am a daily communicant, I might live to see the end of the world!) The book offers lots of possible reasons for this effect, but the bottom line is that religious people are both healthier and happier than their unobservant neighbors.
Speaking from a health perspective, observing the Lord’s Day reaps immense rewards by reinforcing strong family life, and community connections, as well as offering a respite from daily cares. At Sunday Mass, we Catholics run into old friends and meet new acquaintances who share a common faith. The Lord’s Day is a tremendous stress reliever as the faithful pray for Divine assistance, all the while accepting that there is a higher plan behind life’s ups and downs. For those of us who worry about school deadlines, or little Junior who can’t seem to master long division, the Lord’s Day is an enforced break from these cares.
I have heard faithful Catholics joke that we do not need to eat health food and jog five miles a day, since, unlike atheists, death is not an end to us, but an eagerly anticipated beginning of new life with our loved ones, standing before the face of God forever. Stories I hear of the serene deaths of daily communicants are a testament to this. Nevertheless, Sacred Scripture tells us that old age is a blessing. Educating our children, guiding their spiritual growth, sharing good times with friends and family, and worshiping God—all these aspects of life in a home school family may actually help us to be blessed with many years.