My family and I recently traveled to see my father and stepmom in Fort Myers, Florida. We took two days to get there with the beginning of the second day including the obligatory stop at the Florida Welcome Center just north of Jacksonville. We walked into the main area and grabbed a small Dixie cup full of Florida orange juice as the attendant greeted us with a friendly “Welcome to Florida!” No trip into the sunshine state is complete without this stop. Welcome to the land of oranges!
Several hours later, we arrived at my dad’s house within the Riverwood Plantation, a retirement community. Our plan for the next five days was simply to visit. No adventures to theme parks. No roasting days on the beach. Just enjoy hanging out with the family, riding bikes, and going to the community pool. And that’s exactly what we did.
On the first day, however, we discovered that going to the pool would be a rather challenging task. During the morning hours, the pool was used for daily aqua-aerobic classes, so having the kids jumping and splashing wouldn’t be the best idea. We visited in the mid-afternoon but discovered there was really no place for me and my wife to sit as the kids swam. (We chose t relax by reading rather than swimming). Two chairs eventually opened up, but there was no shade available at all. Despite being slathered with sunscreen, I felt very sun-exposed. Eventually, a spot under one of the few umbrellas opened up and we were able to feel a little safer.
On the second day, I took the kids on a turtle spotting adventure at a local state park and we didn’t return until close to dinner time. Before eating, we went to the pool to see what time they closed. Two residents spoke with us (everyone in this community is very friendly!) and said they believed the pool closed at 9:00 PM. As we walked back to my dad’s house, my daughter said, “I’m pretty sure those people know what the pool hours are.” I asked her why she thought that. She replied, “Because they obviously hang out there all day. They’re orange!”
Welcome to the land of the oranges!
She was right. Most of the residents that enjoyed the pool had very deep tans. Their skin looked leathery and had a definite orange tone. My kids asked if I should say something to them about skin cancer, but the truth is I tried that the year before.
Last year was my family’s inaugural trip to visit my dad and stepmom. We had met so many of the residents and neighbors for the first time and each were very interested in our lives. The subject of my brother and his death by melanoma came up a few times, and this usually led to a brief discussion about skin and sun safety. Time and time again, an orange-toned senior would tell me how sorry they were about my loss while they intentionally fried in the bright Florida sun. I had mentioned that tanning was a main cause for all skin cancers, and this was typically met with a story of how they or a friend once had a skin cancer removed from their back or leg. In some cases, I was even shown a scar, although it was difficult to see under the glistening sweat and tanning lotion.
I didn’t get on my soap box. This wasn’t the audience that needed to be preached to about skin cancer…although they still need to know. These folks, these sweet, wonderful people that we’ve befriended over two years, have lived long lives into their 70’s and beyond. They have tanned all their lives and don’t plan on stopping now. Many spent summers with the same lack of sun knowledge that many others had, including me. “SPF” had no meaning and the primary sun care back then was Solarcaine to be applied after one was burned. The only thing to be applied while lying out was Hawaiian Tropic or Coppertone tanning oil. This is simply how it was. And this is simply how it will continue to be for the pool-worshipping residents in Riverwood Plantation.
This is why the message of being sun smart needs to be focused on our youth. Our younger children’s skin is flawless. There are no spots from decades of sun exposure. There are no scars from having had “a cancer” removed from their flesh. There are no orange tones. The skin tones are natural. We must continue to reinforce the beauty of this naturally healthy skin to our kids. To our older children, we need to show them the affects of sun exposure. We need to show them the spots, the scars, the orange tone, and the wrinkled skin of the older generation caused by sun exposure. We need to convince them that their natural tone is the most beautiful tone. But our most difficult task might be to teach them to do as we ask, and not as we’ve done.
To the sun worshipping seniors and near-seniors (like myself) everywhere, I ask that you begin to practice safe-sun, even if you feel like you’re “beyond any danger.” (You’re not). But what I ask the most of you is to educate your children. Show them your scar. Show them the “sun spots” all over your arms and shoulders. Tell them that people know better now. Tell them that spending time in the sun is important and fun, but one has to be smarter about it than we were. We didn’t know. They should. Teach them!
Teach them to be sun safe so that the only orange they’ll look forward to are in little Dixie cups at the Florida border.