“What I’ve Learned from an Elder”

There’s one fundamental premise of the Legacy Project: The oldest Americans have invaluable practical advice for younger people. Their unique experience of challenging historical and personal events makes them the best “experts” we have on negotiating life’s problems and living more fulfilling lives. And here’s some of the evidence.

In the Legacy Project, we usually ask elders for advice. But this time, we asked younger people what lessons they have learned from elders in their lives. It turns out that people find life-changing wisdom from grandparents, people they care for, older friends at church, and many others. Here’s a sampling of responses that have recently come in – we think you will enjoy them!

From Jessica:

Since I’m 36 and in between the elder and the young I’ll share a life lesson and something I learned from the greatest elder in my life. My grandmother who passed away in 2008 left me a life legacy to love people unconditionally. She understood everyone has their faults and deserves to still be loved. My 90 year old grandfather taught me to drink milk everyday, how to plant a fig tree, enjoy some cookies and to do it all without complaining.

From Sondra:

My grandma says, “Don’t save and hoard money to the point of not enjoying yourself or indulging in something you really enjoy. When you die, money doesn’t go with you. Save enough to get you by in an emergency and use whatever is left to go out and enjoy the world.”

From Margie:

I work in long-term care, and therefore am fortunate enough to be able to harvest hundreds of tidbits every week from the men and women I am so proud to serve. I have seen people required to downsize everything they own to fit into a wardrobe and a few nightstand drawers, yet deeply understand that those were only things and that the real riches in life are their relationships and their wisdom.

One gentleman, noting that I had my third cold of last winter, asked me why I wasn’t taking better care of myself. “Look at me,” he said “you don’t want to be in a scooter, crippled and in pain. Pamper yourself now, eat right, get enough sleep, don’t worry so much about the work here – it will be here tomorrow.” Wise words, Mr. K.

Another resident, a woman who grew up in the still mostly rural county in Maryland where we live, gave me a book of poetry she’d written as a thank-you for helping her take a trip to the County Fair several years ago. She wrote about the simple things – working on the family farm, swimming in the creek with her siblings, enjoying the scents, sights, and sounds of country life. By sharing, she was telling me to appreciate the every day joys and not be so busy as to overlook them.

I gather nuggets such as these every day, and consider myself so blessed to be able to do so!

From Abbie:

One of our more memorable family mantras was started by my Great Uncle many years ago, and has been a favorite line of my parents every since. It goes, “Your sister is your best friend is your sister is your best friend is your sister is your best friend is your sister….(and so on).” This lesson has always been a useful reminder for my sister and me, and has helped keep our relationship strong.

And let’s give Nancy the last word (with a smile):

I’ve never forgotten what my Grandma told me when I was a teen: “You can live on love…till breakfast!”

We can’t get enough of these lessons you have learned: If you would like to share what you have learned from an elder, please join in the conversation here.

Learn to be Social – From an 80-Year Old Graduate

Jim, 82, told me that as people get older, they need to stay connected – and you may have to work at it. He gave the example of how he has branched out in his social life after retiring:

At 70 or 80 my lesson is: Learn to be social.  Learn to be an extrovert socially.  Enjoy the people around you, don’t criticize them so severely.  Yes there are pluses and minuses associated with all people, but be sociable.  Enjoy their company and share what’s germane in your own experience with people outside.  They too are lonely at times and need somebody to support them.  I happen to live in a county that’s dominated by conservative republicans, there’s some good people among them, I’m learning [laughing].  For a liberal democrat to say that- what heresy!

Let me give a little surprise for you.  I read in the newspaper two years ago an ad by our county development office, chamber of commerce.  And they were advertising for people on the cusp of their careers in their late twenties, early thirties, to apply for admission to a leadership training program.  It was an attempt by the county to find people who were going to be the leaders of tomorrow and give them more background on how the county operates.  I read and thought: This looks kind of interesting. I bet I can meet some good people and expand the circle of my acquaintances if I get involved in this thing.

So I called up the Chamber of Commerce on sort of a whim and I said ‘can you use another person to enroll in you course?’  And they said ‘oh yes, we’re interested in another person’  ‘Do you have any criteria for experience, for age and so forth’ they said ‘no, we don’t have any criteria’. ‘Well I’m rather old, elderly, would you like a senior person in the class with these younger people’, ‘oh yes, that would be beneficial’.  They gave me a scholarsihp to attend this year long course with people that were in their late 20s and 30s.  I made a lot of good friends, I enjoyed myself hugely and I’m still called upon to participate in subsequent events.  And you know, when you think about fundamentals like that, youhave an opportunity to improve, to increase your value to the community around you.  So I had a fun time for a year, I was past 80 when I graduated and we all had a wonderful time.   It was fun.

Take Each Day, Live It, and Love it!

Although limited by a serious disabling illness, Janet, 79, had this to say:

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, 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 you’re jokes are awful. Keep cracking your jokes to whoever you see. Find something fun and pleasant and happy to say to them. You’ll be much happier and 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.

The Wholehearted Enjoyment of Change

The elders looked back on phenomenal changes of the course of their lives. But rather than being stuck in nostalgia for days gone by, many of them embraced change, and suggested that younger people do the same. Terrence, 83, described this attitude.

I have had and am having a decidedly wonderful life, with a wife, family, and job which I still work at full-time.

I guess the life lesson I want to talk about is the wholehearted enjoyment of change. For example, I had celiac disease from ages one to two and almost died of it; my cousin got mastoiditis (ear infection) and the pain was so severe he had to quit high school which severely marred the rest of his life. Today due to a constellation of wonder drugs these former health scourges are barely known in the US;

What wonderful changes I have seen in my lifetime:

–“Old” used to be considered 60 to 65; now it’s 80 to 85; moreover research suggests it may be possible to extend life maybe even reverse aging!

–Two radio stations have morphed into hundreds of television channels.

–It seems to me I can get more current information from the internet in an hour than I could once get from the New York Public Library in a month.

Of course we are not without little problems like world hunger, the spread of the HIV virus, rampant terrorism and the continuing possibility of a nuclear holocaust, but I have considerable faith in human capability and technology and after all what is life without a few challenges? In my optimistic way, I strongly suspect we will overcome these things and keep on progressing exponentially.

A Chinese seer once said it is pleasurable to live in interesting times. You are living in the most interesting times ever. All you have to do is enjoy them!

Never Give Up

An inevitable part of moving through the life course is loss. The elders tell us that we must learn to live with what life hands us, and learn ways to be happy in spite of loss. For example, Gloria told me that widowhood can be  survived and that there is life after loss:

I am a 94-year old woman living in a retirement facility. I am able to live alone in my apartment that has a bedroom, den, living room and kitchen. Many years ago I chose a “catch phrase” by which I live; “ an attitude of gratitude.” I have learned that, if I look, I can always find something good. When my husband, Nelson, was dying of pancreatic cancer, I was glad that after a few tests in the hospital, he was able to be at home until he died. When he became bed-ridden, we had his bed in the living room where people could visit him. We celebrated our 62nd anniversary while he was ill.

Even more devastating is the loss of a child or grandchild in old age. The implicit contract – that you get to die before your children do – is violated, and the pain is not diminished because the parents are older and the children are middle-aged. And yet, the resilient elders mourned deeply but still recommend striving to be “happy in spite of.”

I feel very fortunate to have had a good college experience, a happy marriage and three children, and to have reached the age of 95. Even though I was widowed at 59 and lost my son to cancer at age 34, I have had a very good life. I have learned through this to accept adversity and keep going. One should not ever give up or accept discouragement because there are many routes to fulfillment and a happy life.

I’ve learned that life keeps going on regardless of whether you’re struggling, because you’re going to struggle a whole lot. You’re always going to have problems, but there’s always a brighter tomorrow, too. I think when you find that out when you lose people in your family, like I lost a son, I lost my husband. When you find out there’s faith, life keeps going on. I made a lot of mistakes but everybody does. I wish we could go back, but none of us can, that’s what you learn, you have to keep going whether you make a mistake or not. We all make mistakes.

Getting Beyond the Need to Please Everyone

Agnes, 74, moved beyond trying to fulfill the expectations of others and the need to please everyone. She discovered daily joy in small things.

From the time I can remember, I tried to please first, my parents, then my friends, followed by my husband and children. It was hard work, and many times I did not do as well as I would have liked. I spent a lot of energy trying to live up to others’ and my own expectations. As I age, I have come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or expects: the only one I have to answer to is myself. If I feel good about something, then it is good for me. If I try to please someone, it is because it pleases me to do so. I no longer stub my toe on details that shouldn’t matter and have much more energy to spend on those things that make me happy. I have ordered my priorities with the realization that my days are numbered, even if I don’t know how many there are. I watch the moon rise and the sun set, smell the roses and love deeply the many people who enhance my life.

Learning to live in the moment: Why not do it now?

In our interviews with hundreds of America’s elders in the Legacy Project, I learned that older people know some things on a deep level that the younger generation doesn’t. Perhaps the most important of these insights is a simple one: Life is short. The elders, from their vantage point, know how quickly life passes, and they urge us to savor it along the way. Rather than focusing only on our long-term plans and ambitions, the elders tell us to learn while we’re young how to live in the moment.

This point was brought home to me in an interview with John, 70, who lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic career. His lesson is to learn to savor life’s daily pleasures. He learned this in his sixties, but suggests younger people learn it sooner.

I don’t say people shouldn’t think about the future. But when you really give yourself up to the present, when you’re in the room and you look around you, and there are other people in the room and you’re able to really zero in on those other people, and being able to really sense what they’re feeling and tap in to their own presence, then it’s not aimless at all. You feel very connected, very grounded, and it’s energizing. So you receive energy by making those connections in the present moment.

And it’s not just with people. The same thing is true with a walk in the woods. If you can really open yourself up to hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, and feeling the touches, the wind, and all those things, then you increasingly feel like an integral part of that system, so that you too have feelings, and they begin to connect with what’s going on around you. You may feel small, but it’s not a very frightening smallness. Instead it’s a feeling of being a part of a larger something. There’s a connectedness that is very, very reassuring. So that’s what I mean by being present and being connected to now.

I think you inevitably look at the future, but to the extent that you can still appreciate what is going on today and at the moment, then exactly what that future is going to be continues to be an open question, and that openness I think has great value. You’re allowing in some sense your intuition to play a role, and not being afraid that somehow that intuition is going to compete with and overwhelm your reason. That the two can work together, and support one another, influence one another.

It’s not easy, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in academic institutions or other jobs where the rational part of you is applauded. Living in the present and enjoying life isn’t something that you complete, or accomplish; it’s something that you strive toward, something that you work on, something that you engage with. It’s a process, at least in my experience.

I suggest, based on John’s insights, that we all take at least a little time each day to stop and enjoy the present moment. Many of the Legacy Project elders point to peaceful savoring a major key to happiness.

Jeanie, 90, An Inspiration to Girls Everywhere – Our Intern Reports!

We are so lucky at the Legacy Project to have wonderful student interns who join us to learn about aging issues, and elder wisdom in particular. We ask them to profile lessons from an elder they interview. Emily Hoyt is a junior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, majoring in Human Development. Here’s what she learned from Jeanie.

Jeanie, age 90, has lived and continues to live an incredible life. Born in 1927, Jeanie overcame adversity to become a successful career woman. According to Jeanie, “you could be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher; that was about it.” Jeanie broke out of these traditional roles by going back to school in her thirties to complete her undergraduate degree and receive a graduate degree in Art History. She noted:

If I hadn’t made that decision, I wouldn’t be where I am now.. One of the reasons I made it was because I had a group of friends, our husbands were successful, and we weren’t quite sure what we were doing. One of them said ‘You know when you get between 35 and 45 you either just gel and become frozen into what you are, or you really develop,’ and I thought, “Oh my God!”

Inspired to go back to school, Jeanie pursued her dream of completing an arts education. Because careers in art are hard to come by, Jeanie found the collegiate atmosphere “backbiting and competitive.” This pressure, however, taught Jeanie “how to handle [her]self and handle other people.” A great life skill for anyone in any field of study.

Jeanie told me that going back to school “absolutely was a life changer.” Her advice to girls today? Take advantage of every opportunity you are given. According to Jeanie, “the horizon [for girls] is so much greater now.” She advises girls to capitalize on the groundwork laid by previous generations of women.

After a successful 25-year career as a museum curator, Jeanie has learned a thing or two about working life. The saying “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life” rings true for Jeanie. In fact, Jeanie felt “guilty about being paid for her job.” The intrinsic benefits she received from her job were payment enough.

Jeanie serves as an example for girls everywhere of breaking barriers and further progress for women. As women, it is our job to continue down the path that Jeanie has paved for us. We must jump at opportunities and continue to chip away at the glass ceiling until it shatters.

 

 

“It All Boils Down to Choices”: Marge’s List of Lessons for Living

A profound list of lessons from Marge, 84. Two pieces of advice stand out to me: “It all boils down to choices. Make a bad one in a few seconds, and live with the consequences for the rest of your life.: And: “Those who make a plan for their lives have an advantage over those who just float merrily along.”

I write poetry for children and for the old. The media generation escapes me. I really would like to know what is going on, but it all seems as alien as the planet Mars. What could I tell them out of my experience that would have any meaning for them?

The world has changed in so many ways, most of them unhealthy . Perhaps the Indian elders are able to talk to their youth, since they have the tribal background and are traditionally respected. In my 84-year-old case, I feel that I have lost their attention. If I could re-capture it for fifteen minutes, I would say this:

It all boils down to choices. Make a bad one in a few seconds, and live with the consequences for the rest of your life. When you are young, lots of the choices have to do with sex and relationships. Use your head, and go carefully.

If you have a chance, get as much education as you can, because it gives you options you would not have otherwise. Find out what your strong suite is, and follow up on it. Don’t be afraid to seek advice . If words are your thing, and you think you might make a writer, don’t wait until you are 70 years old as I did.

Those who make a plan for their lives have an advantage over those who just float merrily along. This, in fact, is what I did, and I had a wonderful ride – but if someone had asked me “What do you want to do with your life? You’re only going to get one.” I might have focused more, and perhaps made a difference . But no one ever did. Too late for regrets!

One must make a living, and it is not easy these days. But don’t insist on being a millionaire. Focus on making enough money to bring up your children, educate them, save and invest anything extra for your old age.

If you have children, spend time with them, doing “stuff” like going on beach picnics, going to the zoo , reading poetry and stories at bed time, making cookies, at Christmas, singing with them, using art materials( Kids clean up well.) These are things they will remember in later life.

I think I’ll stop here. If I get preachy, no young person is going to listen.

Don’t Play Favorites with Your Children: It Can Last a Lifetime

There’s a theme that struck me in talking with elders about the families they grew up in. Of all the things that left an unhappy feeling about their childhoods, parental favortism was right up at the top. I had respondents in their seventies, eighties, and nineties tear up about memories of being the unfavored child.

Christine, 77, was the middle child, with one brother and one sister. When asked about lessons she learned from her childhood, she emphasized the dangers of favoritism.

I would say my family was dysfunctional, as most of them are, I suppose. I don’t look back a great deal on my childhood because it was what it was, and I accepted it, and I don’t have any excuses for my own life because of my childhood. I don’t really think that’s a great thing to do. Life progresses, and everybody has their own issues with growing up, and you have to get past that. But I think being a middle child, it was difficult.

My brother went in the service because he got in some trouble and that was the way out. You know what I mean? And my younger sister was always favored very much so in the whole family, especially by my dad. I think it bothered my mother tremendously.

The unequal treatment had lifelong repercussions for Christine:

I think the hardest think in life, for me, is relationships with people. I think because we’re all so very different and I think that’s one thing that I was not taught was that we are different and especially in my immediate family, with my sister. And I think we were never taught to believe that we were different people, and that we had to accept each other’s differences. And therefore it caused an awful lot of friction in our lives.

That experience taught me a great deal in accepting people the way they are. Not to say that I can always do that, because as I said, that’s the hardest thing in the world to do for me. But like I say, I got through that through the grace of God.

The message I took home from stories like this is: Be very aware about showing favoritism to children. If kids are treated very differently, it’s not something they easily forget – even after seventy or more years.