Love Your Kids – But Don’t Be a Pushover

One thing that surprised me in interviews with the Legacy Project elders was that, in general, they don’t approve of physical punishment of children. But that definitely does not mean they don’t believe in setting firm limits.  They believe in firmness, but they also acknowledge the need to strike a balance between respect and discipline. Here’s what some of them told me:

Yes, you need to set limits on them, don’t wait until they are teenagers and say you have to do this, you have to start when they are quite young. In fact, from the day they’re born; you start from the day they’re born and you set limits on your children. You have to love them but you also have to be stern enough to set limits. (Jeanette, 79)

 Well, you’ve got to be firm but not overbearing, you have to set a good example, and you don’t need a lot of rules, you just need to let them know what you expect and you get their respect. (Manuel, 83)

It’s a case of being consistent. When you’re raising a bunch of kids you’ve got to be consistent in your discipline and your handling of them, and yet at the same time understand them and help to see their point of view and help them along the way with what they want to do with their lives without being too pushy on the whole subject. (Guy, 72)

Well,  if you’re going to raise children, you’ve got to raise them right. You can’t turn them loose and let them go and do things that they want to do because they get into too much trouble. Discipline is important. I don’t like no squabbling in the house, if they’re going to do that, let them get in the yard and fight it out. (Queenie, 85)

Don’s List For Living: One for the Refrigerator!

Don, 77, offers a clear and succinct list of the lessons he’s learned throughout his life. Another good “refrigerator list!”

1. Apply yourself to everything you do.

2. Always be fair and honest

3. Be sociable even to those you may not like.

4. Greet everyone with a smile.

5. Always remind your family that you love them.

6. Be an optimist.

7. Always look for the good in people.

8. Life is for living. Enjoy it to the full.

9. Respect other people’s points of view.

10. But be prepared to fight for what you believe in.

11. Take time to smell the flowers.

12. Never get into debt.

Jane and Will: A Love Story

For Valentine’s day, I have been thinking of a question that comes up when I talk about my book 30 Lessons for Living: Was romance and marriage different for the elders I interviewed, or was it the same? And to that I answer: “It was the same – except where it was different.” The elders experienced the same anxiety – “Will I ever find someone to love?” – young people today go through. The were nervous before first dates, and they wondered if their relationships would last.

But they also remember a time of old-fashioned romance, where there was an element of surprise, mystery, and sometimes sacrifice involved in finding a mate. This week, I’d like to share a few stories about how the Legacy Project elders met their life partners. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!

Jane Scripps has lived what she sums up as “a good life.” Raised in the south, as a young woman she got a job in the PX on a local army base, where she met Will in 1943.

We were in our twenties. He was a first lieutenant. Well, he was terrific.  I fell in love really quick.

It happened like this. I had to go to the warehouse to check on some things.  And he and the troops he was in charge of were just passing by when I was walking on the platform of the warehouse.  They were on the base for two weeks for training because they were going to go overseas really soon.  And I heard him say to his men, “Eyes right!”  Of course I did not respond.  I knew there were a group of soldiers looking at me and I was way up on the platform with high heels on.  And I was a little shy about that!  But then he took his men off to where he was supposed to.  I found out that he spent his afternoons looking for me.  And finally we met at the PX which was on that same building.  And we talked for a while.  He asked me for a date.

I didn’t give him a date, not right away, but I said I would give him my phone number.  “And if you call me Tuesday between six and six thirty, I will consider it.”  He did, and I gave him a date and we had a great time.  We double-dated.  We had a wonderful time and from there on we were together.  I don’t mean we were together, like they mean today – No!  But we had dates for four weeks, then he was going to go to another base.  We still corresponded and in four weeks he asked me to marry him, and two weeks later we were married.

I had only known him for eight weeks when we married.  And then we were married for six weeks, then he went overseas. He was over there during the war for fifteen months, and when he could he wrote to me every night. We’ve been married for fifty-eight years, and so it did work.  It wasn’t always perfect, of course.  I don’t think it ever is, but we’ve always loved each other, and did the best we can, and were faithful,  and we worked through whatever we had to work through.

When asked for her thoughts on what makes a successful long-term marriage, Jane pointed to commitment, and to a belief that the institution of marriage is important in and of itself. As she put it:

Be committed to it.  Because there are lots of people in my age group that were committed.  And marriage was marriage and family.  And they stayed together.  We never ever talked about divorce or separation or anything in my marriage.  It wasn’t perfect, of course.  I don’t think it ever is, but we loved each other and we worked through whatever we had to work through. I guess I didn’t have a big problem that we couldn’t discuss and get over in a day. So be committed to it.

Elder Wisdom, the Pope, and 30 Lessons for Living

I have to admit that I never expected to be compared to Pope Francis! Now if I am totally honest, I wasn’t exactly compared to the Holy Father. However, my book, 30 Lessons for Living, was just favorably compared to a book by Pope Francis and Friends, which still feels pretty flattering. And the Pope’s book is a very interesting one.

Pope Francis published a earlier book with his answers to children’s questions. He followed it up with this one:

Now in his 80s, Francis has published Sharing the Wisdom of Time, along with 250 interviewees, as well as editors and writers at Loyola Press and elsewhere — curated by Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica.

Ranging in age from their 60s to their 90s, the participants muse on the meaning of events in their lives that relate to work, struggle, love, death and hope as they share pivotal moments and the lessons learned.

Both wealthy and poor, educated and unskilled, the participants had worked as farmers, historians, teachers, recyclers, priests, pastors, chefs, nurses, writers and film directors, among other occupations. There’s also a 98-year-old veteran (he died several months before this book was published), who reminiscences about his bombing runs during World War II.

Whether Catholic or not, the book is of interest (and possibly inspiration) to anyone interested in elder wisdom and how it can transform our lives.

Lighten Up! A Good Lesson for the New Year

Isn’t it ironic to see all the media stories at this time of year about “holiday stress?” How did what should be a relaxing and restorative time become yet another stressful event? As I think about the life lessons of the Legacy Project elders, one message seems to me helpful in staying relaxed over the holidays: Lighten up.

The elders often pointed out that a key to savoring each of life’s wonderful moments is developing and maintaining a sense of humor. Here are two takes on that theme from Alison and Margaret.

Alison, 79, has traveled the world after her retirement for a career as a teacher. She gave this advice:

You should see the fun in the world instead of dwelling on the unhappy things. Take each day and live it, love it, it might be your very last day here. Don’t be aggravated, don’t aggravate anybody else, and just keep a smile on your face. You’ll be happier and everyone around you will be, too. Try to remain upbeat, no matter what, and never lose your sense of humor, even if your jokes are awful. Keep cracking your jokes to whoever you see. Find something fun and pleasant and happy to say to them. You’ll lead a much better life that way. Look at the glass as half full – be positive – look at a problem as to how it can be made to work out, not that it cannot.

Margaret, 71, whose responses sparkled with good humor, wrote:

It’s like I’ve taken the attitude of what difference does it make? So I eat my chocolate, I have my martini at night, I don’t take as good care of myself since I’ve gotten older. But I feel pretty darn good to be as old as I am!

Many elders have learned to take a lighter attitude toward life – perhaps this is a good New Year’s resolution for all of us!

Do You Need More Stuff? Some Christmas Elder Wisdom

First, let me say that I love the holiday season. But, as Christmas approaches and we are inundated with advertisements and messages to spend wildly, it’s worth taking a break for elder wisdom. In the Legacy Project, over and over the elders told us that people and experiences matter more than things. In hundreds of interviews, they unanimously caution that time spent getting a lot more stuff than you really need is time wasted. The holidays seem like the right time to listen to our elders and think twice about how much we buy.

Steve, 78, tells how he learned to put material rewards in perspective, focusing instead on the accumulation of love for family and friends. As I’m planning my Christmas shopping, I try to keep his lesson in my head!

We were among the very lucky ones. Both my wife and I were born into middle class merchant families, with caring parents in small communities where you knew and were known by your neighbors. My wife lost her father when she was only 13. She, her mother and sister moved to another, beautiful small community where life was comfortable though not luxurous and values for the young were set by the example of parent and community. My childhood with loving parents and an older brother was uncomplicated and also filled with good values set by example. Owning and accumulating was not an important part of life for either of our families.

This upbringing undoubtedly established most of our values and attitudes for the adult years. Honesty, integrity and compassion for ones fellow human beings remained the anchor for all decisions. As we matured, reared and educated four children and attempted to pass along those values to them, we learned that listening is far more important than lectures, and though it sometimes seemed we were not heard, the example of our lives spoke loudly to our youngsters.

Now, at 71 and 78, as we progress through our senior years, living comfortably — not luxurously — we are increasingly aware that accumulating STUFF is of little importance. The accumulation of love for each other, of our children and of life-long friends and extending that love to those less fortunate than we have been is the centerpiece of our lives, of humanity and civilization.

A Good Day for Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our Legacy Project readers! We hope you have appreciated the elder wisdom we’ve shared this year, and perhaps you have been inspired to seek advice from your own significant elders. On Thanksgiving, It’s worth noting that one of the strongest pieces of elder wisdom we uncovered in our studies was: Be grateful.gratefulness

An attitude of gratitude” is an expression that popped up frequently among the elders. Research shows that promoting a feeling of gratitude can lead to improved psychological well being, Here are a few lessons from the elders that can help motivate you in a grateful direction:

Be grateful for every day you have. I’m serious about that. Just be grateful of every day you have and enjoy. (Purnima, 81)

It’s an everyday thing, because I like to be thankful, I like to be thankful for what I have and my good health. And the blessings that the Lord gives us from day to day we should be thankful for. And another thing is to try to live your life daily, one day at a time. Look ahead but still make the most of each day. (Tanya, 79)

Take time to replenish yourself – sleep, quiet time, music, reading, enjoying nature. It’s difficult to keep going when you are running on empty. Be grateful in your everyday life for the small stuff. (Rudy, 84)

And my favorite, from Becky, 89:

In spite of growing up and attending college in the Depression years, the “good life” for me began in earliest childhood when I was raised in a loving and encouraging family and enriched by many inspiring role models. Then, fortunately, our marriage was a happy and rewarding one that enabled us to meet ups and downs together.  For both of us, gratitude and giving thanks to our parents and others along the way was simply a way of life.  I am not sure the importance of a simple “Thank you” or caring gesture is stressed enough today.

And let me leave you with a wonderful quote on gratitude, this time not from one of our elders, but from the brilliant psychiatrist and author Oliver Sachs. Terminally ill from cancer, he wrote this in the last few months of his life:

My predominant feeling is one of gratitude, I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Make Thanksgiving “Elder Wisdom Day!”

Once again this year, I propose a new holiday. Or rather, a new use for an old holiday. I believe that we should make Thanksgiving the day when we celebrate elder wisdom by asking older people to tell us their advice for living. Here’s why.

Occasionally, the question runs through younger people’s minds (whether they admit it or not): What are old people good for? Our society’s unremitting ageism portrays older persons as sick, frail, unproductive, and even the culprits for busting the federal budget.

Earlier retirement and increased residential separation of older people has broken age-old contacts between the generations. Indeed, our society has become extraordinarily segregated by age, such that young people’s contact with elders is almost exclusively within the family (and even that is limited). Combined with the persistently negative images in the media, this question – What good are old people? – lurks in the background.

But the answer is amazingly simple. For as long as humans have been humans, older people have played critically important roles as advice-givers. Indeed, anthropological research shows that survival in pre-literate societies was dependent on the knowledge of the oldest members. It’s easy to forget that it is only in the past 100 years or so that people have turned to anyone other than the oldest person they knew to solve life’s problems.

Now here’s the important point: Old people are still a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders. That’s why I’m proposing that we make learning elder wisdom a part of our families’ Thanksgiving holiday.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

Now for the holiday. Thanksgiving is something most Americans celebrate, regardless of religious persuasion. And it’s the one time in the year when families are most likely to gather — and include their older relatives. What if we all take a half hour (okay, it can be before or after the football game) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on Thanksgiving (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. We’ve used these questions in interviews with hundreds of elders in the Legacy Project, and they work very well). More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.

So let’s declare Thanksgiving (or a part of it) Elder Advice-Giving Day. Our elders won’t be here forever, so this year is a good time to start!

Questions for the elders:

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Now add your own!

And if you would like more ideas, I was interviewed by NPR with one of our wonderful Legacy Project Elders about holidays and elder wisdom. You can listen here.

 

The Pleasures of Learning: Tony’s Story

One of our wise elders in the Legacy Project told me that his lesson for living is: “Keep learning.” I found this to be a very strong sentiment among many other elders as well.

Their message is that old age can be highly enjoyable and filled with new opportunities, if you remain curious and open to learning experiences. Let’s  visit with a prime example of active aging. I have purposely selected someone who doesn’t consider himself “exceptional” – not a 90 year old triathlete or best-selling novelist. Instead, here’s a realistic look at successful aging.

Sometimes after an encounter with an exceptional older person, you will year someone say: “When I grow up, I want to be just like her (or him)!” I had that reaction after listening to Tony, who at 73 is having the time of his life. A positive, open, and energetic person, Tony enjoyed his worklife, but it’s in his later years that a host of new avenues for interest and pleasure have opened up for him.

After Tony retired, he decided to expand his lifelong interest in art history.

I became very friendly with all of these teachers and it was just wonderful to know them. I then became a docent – an interpretive guide – at an art museum. Then I got to the point where I was giving solo gallery lectures. That led to teaching courses at our local senior center. I’ve always had this ability to just jump at whatever it is, even though it maybe seems like it’s a lot of work and very difficult, might take a lot of time, but the idea is great, so I do it.

He joked: “I’m busier now than when I was working. I probably should have worked at this level!”

Staying physically active is also very important to Tony.

I play tennis. I’m thrilled that at 73 I can still run. In fact, there are times when I run that I feel like I kid again. You feel the wind going by you and you’re running up to hit the ball. On a tennis court I will run and go berserk. And it’s true for all the other guys. I’m basically the youngest guy there. The others, I just respect and admire them. They’re in their mid- to late seventies and so active and able to play. And I think most of the people I play with always have the same credo. They wouldn’t mind dropping dead on a tennis court.

As long as your health is good, it’s not going to be a problem. Your health is good, your mind is good, you just have to keep your interest level up. I don’t know what determines that, what makes a person still passionate late in life. Certainly I am. To me, it’s just every day is a revelation. I have such a great time.

One thing we learned from our interviews is this: The elders believe that a key to successful aging is to “say yes.” Tony expresses this lesson eloquently, and links it to his childhood experiences:

I don’t turn anything down, I really don’t. That’s another credo. I think when I was younger, I didn’t realize the importance of what people were asking me to do at that time. It may have sloughed off things that I should have done, but I don’t anymore. I just don’t turn anything down. That’s a credo.

I was the kid that roamed all through the neighborhood’s great parks near us, myself and a bunch of kids were just on the loose. Our family never knew where we went. We roamed everywhere, miles and miles. We were like Huckleberry Finn type kids. And I would turn stones over and collect all of the creatures and keep them home and keep them in aquariums and stuff like that. And at 73, I’m still like that. I’m still turning over stones.

May we all continue to “turn over stones,” no matter how old we are!

A Dog Story: What our Pets Can Teach Us

We don’t own a dog, but we have enjoyed a relationship with our granddog, Max (pictured here in his puppy days). This reminded me of a number of elders who had learned very important lessons for living from the experience of owning a pet. Francine’s interview especially came to mind.

Francine, 74,  lives in a small, tidy home in an urban neighborhood. She was married for many years, but lost her husband to Alzheimer’s disease after years of caregiving.

One of her dreams was to have a dog, but circumstances never permitted it. Recently, she fulfilled this dream, and it changed her life. I met the dog in question, whom she refers to as her “little buddy.” A bit of a misnomer, as her “little buddy” was an large and very energetic fellow. She told me that loving a pet is a a special enhancement to living (and a motivation for staying healthy:

I got my dog when he was about four months old, so we’ve been together now two years. People asked whether at this stage of my life, I really wanted a dog, and I said, “Oh yes, I’ve been waiting all my life.”

He loves me so much, I have to put him out every day for a certain time, just to have time for myself. If he’s here he’s right next to me like Velcro.

I couldn’t have a dog before because of my husband and work, and I did wait a year after Marty died before I got one. So now we live together, just the two of us.

I’ve learned that everything in life is on loan. And all these years I’ve been waiting to have my buddy, my dog. But I have seen people would lose their pets and be so upset. And I would say to them, “I know, it would be awful. But you see, the day you take that pet into your care and you’re responsible for it, you have to start letting go.”

When I asked her later in the interview about her attitude toward dying, she said:

I would say that I’m not worried about it, I’m peaceful about it. But now, I have wanted my little buddy who’s waiting out there so long, and I’ve accepted that we will have ten, possibly longer years in his life and he’s my big joy. So now I want to stay fit so that I live as long as he does.