By Patricia Abbate
Loretta LaRoche’s advice for the New Year is clear. “Be yourself,” she jokingly implores, as “everyone else is already taken, ” a quote she loves by Oscar Wilde. This directive, delivered with her signature brand of sass and class, could not be more relevant. Not only is she offering this advice to others, she is also acting on it herself.
For more than 30 years she’s delivered keynotes, workshops, and training seminars on stress management all over the world. Her audiences have included US presidents, heads of state, celebrities, and Fortune 500 executives. Audiences have incorporated her entertaining and insightful teachings via numerous Emmy-nominated PBS programs and seven books she has authored, including The Joy of Stress, Life is Short Wear Your Party Pants, and Juicy Living, Juicy Aging. LaRoche’s innate sense of the absurd along with her common-sense view of life leaves her audiences inspired, motivated, and wiping tears of laughter from their eyes.
I recently had the chance to meet with the stress management guru at her Plymouth home to discuss her new ventures as well as the path she’s traveled to reach a place in her life where she’s still saying with excitement, “What’s next?”
Her home is a peaceful, Zen-like retreat, surrounded by quiet woodlands. A wall of windows overlooking the Asian-inspired outside landscape serves to expand the inside living area, creating a contemplative, creative space. A large sign that reads “Laugh” is affixed to the front of the house. Even with the absence of a street number, this calling card revealed the property’s owner.
A dampened spirit
It’s ironic that when we discussed the importance of authenticity, of “being yourself,” LaRoche found this ability alluded her for years. Raised in Brooklyn, her early childhood was spent singing, laughing, being funny, performing skits, having fun, and in general, being free to be her authentic self. But, at seven years old, things changed. “I was sent away to spend the summer with my Godmother. When I came back home, my mother had remarried.” Her mother and new husband had a tempestuous relationship, would argue every day, with some becoming “nasty.” The household unrest and uncertainty caused LaRoche to experience fear and anxiety for the first time. “This was the beginning of not being myself, and not being myself changed my spirit. I would navigate that fear and anxiety, but then I began having panic attacks at age 11. So my humor became more about self-preservation during this time,” she says.
“I found myself always being nice to people, making sure they liked me,” she says with a loud chuckle. “My mother was very controlling. She was bright and savvy about culture and was well educated, but there was a lot of fear and anxiety.” LaRoche was sent to Catholic boarding school, where she would act out skits about the arguments she witnessed at home. “I was always the class clown, and always in trouble. The nuns would call my mother, saying, your daughter is bright but foolish. I was always getting in trouble. I was not being myself.”
The fear-based behavior did eventually stop, but it took a long time. LaRoche married at 19, and says in some ways it was to “get away from my mother.” She quickly had a child, finished degrees in speech therapy and communications at Hofstra University, and was a full-time mom. Eschewing a career while raising her child, LaRoche delayed working until she was divorced and in her 30s. “I didn’t have an idea of what it meant to be autonomous financially, so I had to learn the ropes. I was a single mom and would do anything and everything to make a living—clean houses, cook for people.” It was during this time that LaRoche met a woman with a similar situation and interests. “We started teaching exercise classes to music, which was highly innovative in the late 1970s. People had a good time and laughed when I taught.” This experience prompted LaRoche to study yoga, then start teaching credit courses at Massasoit Community College, which was one of the first extension courses offered in yoga and aerobics.
Before hitting it big with her first PBS special, the Joy of Stress in 1992, LaRoche had teamed up with a nurse and launched a seminar business. “I started out teaching communications skills, but then I started reading about how laughter is a healing agent. Norman Cousin’s writings on the subject inspired me. Together we produced seminars on laughter and healing, truly pioneering work, as hospitals were only fixated on illness.” LaRoche generated attention from this cutting edge work and was invited to participate in a PBS special. This first five-minute segment airing at the end of a program was enough to convince producers that LaRoche could carry her own show. “With a $40,000 budget, the show was aired live, with no edits allowed. My mother was at the show, so there I was a nervous wreck, and she says to me, ‘now don’t embarrass me,’ and that’s who she was,” she recalls with a chuckle.
The show was an immediate hit and the offers started to pour in. Hyperion press contacted LaRoche and a book deal was signed. “I was an anomaly in those days. Using humor to show how stress invades the thought process was new and different, and it worked,” she says. LaRoche was a sought-after lecturer and trainer. Contracts with NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US Senate, various government agencies and organizations, Fortune 500 firms, and with corporations and governmental agencies in Canada were on her plate. She shared the stage with the likes of Quincy Jones, Gloria Steinem, Presidents Clinton and Bush, and other high-profile individuals in government, entertainment, and sports. Looking back, LaRoche says, with a laugh, “Been there, done that. I was like fertilizer…I was everywhere!”
Still on the lecture circuit today, and blogging and writing on a regular basis, she delights at finding something new to satisfy her curiosity and appetite for the next thing, saying, “I have to do something new, I don’t want to become my own Ground Hog Day, repeating myself over and over.” This desire to stay fresh and challenged brought her down another creative path when she decided to sing. A jazz lover, she produced her own CD a few years back, accompanied by seasoned musicians. LaRoche covers standards such as I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Too Marvelous for Words, and I’ve Got the World on a String, with the singing chops and phrasing of a master. Creating the album put her in the right place at the right time to meet acclaimed jazz musician Kenny Wenzel, who is now her boyfriend and musical collaborator. You can catch them every Tuesday night performing with Wenzel’s band at Martini’s Bar and Grill on Court St., in Plymouth. LaRoche finds performing jazz not only feeds her creative soul but also reduces stress. “It’s the juicy life that keeps us going,” according to LaRoche.
Just recently LaRoche and Wenzel put together another group of accomplished, seasoned musicians, wryly calling themselves the I’m Not Dead Yet Quartet. Band members have regular practice sessions at LaRoche’s home and are now booking gigs. The youngest band member, 64, is decades younger than the others.
The culture of reinventing oneself
In today’s world of better medical care and a focus on healthful living, many of us find ourselves in reinvention mode after raising a family or retiring from a career, as we are living longer and healthier lives. LaRoche says that, “the Baby Boomers have exemplified this cultural of reinvention. I couldn’t have explained this concept to my grandmother, she wouldn’t have understood it. This reinvention is analogous to how the brain functions. Every time you learn something new, you force yourself into a new pathway that’s called neuroplasticity, creating new dendrites and connections in the brain. So, to just keep on keeping on, with the same things, doesn’t help your brain. Growth continues throughout life, it doesn’t stay the same. It’s a place that can continue to grow.”
With eye to the coming year, LaRoche’s schedule is filling up, but she still would like to connect with people on a personal level. “I really want to do more intimate workshops with people,” she says. “So many of us spend our lives questioning ourselves, who we are, what we should be doing, why did I do that,” she laughs out loud. “It’s not about becoming selfish, we will extend ourselves and do the best for those around us, but unfortunately, we are not given a lot of ways to be ourselves and what we truly desire from the get go. Wouldn’t it be great if we could encourage people from a very young age to go after and develop their innate abilities? I’m not putting down the educational system, but how many of us are allowed to be what we want to be?”
What are you thinking?
LaRoche wants to know what people are thinking. “Everything is about your thinking,” she says. “I want to know, why are you thinking that? Where did that come from? How many thoughts are real and how many are based on what you were told as a child? We have 60,000 thoughts a day. How many are real? Where do our fears come from? What dampens our spirit?”
LaRoche credits one of her mentors, Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, for her passion on the subject. “His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is the quintessential tome on how to survive life. He invented the concept of Logotheraphy (based on the premise that we are motivated by an inner pull to find meaning in life) and survived the concentration camps.
“If we can take a step back and really hear the things we say to ourselves, now that’s a Seinfeld routine,” she laughs. For example, “we’re driving and say to ourselves, where did all this traffic come from? Well, you’re on a road, and that’s where the cars are. This is what I riff off of. I hold up a mirror and say, have you really examined your thoughts, and the possibility that you are a joke?” she laughs some more. “The message is, lighten up, you’re going to die anyway (laugh)! You’re only here to distract yourself until you die, so what do you want to do with that time? You only have time. Everything you do has some kind of benefit or a problem, it depends on how you choose to look at it.”
LaRoche also has strong feelings about living in the moment and appreciating where you are, right now. She says, “I love mindfulness. Be present to the present, if you’re absent from the present, where are you? You’re in a future that isn’t here yet, and that exacerbates stress. It’s a hurry mentality. It’s what this culture is about. Let’s hurry and go someplace else we don’t like. Let’s take a picture of this moment we’re in so we can look at that moment later and be absent from the moment we’re in. (she laughs) This phone fondling and picture taking! When are you really here? I used to go to a doctor’s office or other place while waiting and would actually chat with people next to me. Now people don’t even look up. There is a very serious side to this behavior. It’s rearranging the brain and we’re losing social interaction. Loneliness is now linked to people dying too early. Loneliness is epidemic. How many people are on antidepressants just because they are lonely?”
Social connections, Changing times
LaRoche stresses the importance of keeping connected through social interaction. With a culture that is youth-centric, it can be challenging for older folks to find meaningful engagement. LaRoche is a fan of the recent HBO documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, that focuses on living into your 90s. “I thought it was wonderful to showcase the abilities we have into our 90s and beyond, our culture absolves itself from the culture of youth. Where did the older people go?” she laughs. “We all have those days when we don’t feel well. But, we rise to the occasion if we have something interesting going on, it’s the endorphin effect. It lets us overcome and forget the aches and pains.” She advises, “Find something—a group, an activity, anything that is of interest to you. Don’t get mired in the darkness. Keep yourself engaged, Social connections are so important.”
LaRoche laments some of the cultural changes she observes, but remains optimistic. “We are living in very difficult times Things change, but also our values seem to be changing, values that were intrinsic to the cohesiveness of a family. People don’t want to cook any more, they just watch a food show. There is no one to leave all of our stuff to, because they don’t want it, but that’s not a bad thing. Less is more. You don’t need that much stuff.”
Age has its benefits. LaRoche explains, “The older I get the more I try not to be so judgmental and controlling. I now travel with duct tape (laughs). Duct tape therapy is the best thing! Just get a piece and put it over your mouth. You have to figure that you don’t have very much time on this planet so why do you have to fix everything? My mother used to say, ‘You’ll see!’, and it’s so true! Now my son does this to me. He tells me I have work on my core. I tell him that I’ve had two knee replacements. If I get on the floor, I’ll have to call an ambulance to get me up. To him I say, you’ll see!”
Despite the challenges that come with aging, experience and wisdom can ease and even make the journey enjoyable. And, there is no substitute for being your authentic self and adding some pleasure into your life. “Understanding your thinking is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself,” LaRoche says. “Go out and buy the book, Cognitive Thinking for Dummies. You may be distorting many things. Traffic is not the end of the world.”
Live. Laugh. Love.
“It’s funny, our culture thinks our longevity and health are predicated on what you eat like kale smoothies that look like green slime. I’d much rather have a meatball smoothie,” LaRoche enthuses. “Social interaction, a sense of humor, a light-hearted attitude, and being socially engaged, overrides everything. These are more important than kale smoothies. But, if you’re angry and alone, you’re going to die sooner. What’s the end point? Live, laugh, love.” And LaRoche does just that. Often, and with great enthusiasm, and juiciness.
Top photo by Nancy Green
Reprinted from the January 2018 issue of the South Shore Senior News