Vacation: A Time to Learn from Your Family’s Elders

In these last weeks of summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great time for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Genevieve, 77, advises young people to learn history (and ways of living better) from their older relatives. She prepared this letter for children everywhere. Perhaps yours can act on it when visiting with Grandma or Grandpa (or other older relatives)?

Dear Children,

            For you the world began only a few years ago. All of what happened before that is a jumble. The grandpa you never knew who died in The War – was it Vietnam or World War II? I know it doesn’t seem to matter. You look to the future. The past, whether of family, friends, country, or the world, doesn’t matter because you are planning to change everything for the better.

            I choose to believe that you will change at least some of everything for the better. But, you need a solid foundation on which to stand first. The Greek scientist Archimedes knew this; he said he would move the world if he had both a lever and a place to stand.

            Without a foundation in the past and present, you could shift ‘everything’ out of our grasp or even send it crashing backwards. There is a way you can make sense of past and present and avoid future problems.

            Find time to ask Mother, Father, Grandparents, Uncles and Aunts and other family members about their lives before you were born. Get them to tell you stories of the funny, foolish things they did as well as the things in which they take pride. Try to learn about friends and relatives they remember that you will never know. Some of them will be thrilled you asked about their lives; you may have to coax others but it is worthwhile.

            When relatives tell you these tales, pay attention and ask questions. You may find out why they moved to a particular place, took a certain job, what they thought would happen in the country at that time, and how events and people changed their lives. We all, even you, live in a moving world, not a static one. If you want to change the world, you must also know how the world changes you.

            When you can, keep a diary whether on computer, on tape, or in a book. Include things that are happening in  your own life. Put in it lots of events and names of friends and family. You may not think so now, but someday after many years your mind will be so cluttered up that memories and names you think you’ll know forever will simply start to drop out and disappear.

            When you are grown and have children, pass on to them, in turn, as many as you can of these stories heard and lives lived. You will be giving your children a great gift that they too will learn to appreciate as time moves on.

Older People and Sex: Prepare to Be Surprised

I’d like to share a revelation with you. It took me months of pondering my interview data from hundreds of
long-loving couplemarried elders, but I finally got it. It’s about sex and older people – not something younger folks think about a lot. However, when I have given talks to 20- and 30-somethings about my book of advice from people married a half-century or more, I know there is one question in the back of their minds, even if they don’t come out and say it:

How can sex possibly stay interesting for a lifetime?

I have good news for you. I’m going to allay your worst fears and help you to relax about the idea of sex in the later years of marriage. I will tell you the spoiler right now. The message from our elders is: don’t waste your time worrying about sex in later life, because its pretty good. But first, here’s the revelation. Ready?

The reason you are worried about this issue is because sex between people a lot older than you always seems kind of gross. I don’t know if this characteristic is bred into us through evolution, if it is the product of ageist stereotypes, or some other reason.

The problem I discovered with younger people thinking about sex in later life is that they envision themselves now, at their age, somehow with an 80-year old. But the revelation is this: Its just fine when you have grown old together. You’ve learned what your partner is like (and likes), you are comfortable with one another – and you’re older, too. The beauty of staying married for a long time is that you enjoy each other and giving each other pleasure is fun. And there is absolutely nothing yucky about it.

Alfredo, age 77, captured this phenomenon succinctly. He pointed out that when you are aging together, a lot of things just seem pretty much the same:

Somehow as you get older you kind of get blind to the infirmities that affect the other party. And you always see them the way they were. You don’t see aging. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t know if the brain is wired for that, but that’s the way it is. You just need to have a spark to begin with. And whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it. We’re in our mid-70s, and we still have a fine sexual relationship, it’s wonderful. You make do with what you’ve got, basically.

And the elders assure you that you are likely to feel the same way.

I have some credibility on this issue, because I don’t know anyone who over the past few years has talked to as many very old people about sex as I have. At first it was awkward, but after the first two or three elders eagerly embraced the topic, I was no longer embarrassed. It’s something they have thought about a lot and still think about. And indeed, they have some lessons for you about it.

First, let’s be clear: many elders continue to have sex, and most believe that it is important to keep up a sexual relationship. Although younger people often hold a negative image of the “sexless older years,” research shows that in marriages (or long-term committed relationships), rates of sexual activity are actually quite high. Indeed, for married people whose health does not interfere with intimacy, the vast majority of people age 65 and over are sexually active.

And that’s what the elders will tell you. Diane, age 74, speaks for many of the elders:

I think sex is very important because it’s kind of the glue that keeps the spark alive in a marriage. The one special expression that a married couple has is through sex—sexual intercourse—through keeping your bond just very close and very tight. It’s that expression that makes your spouse know that they’re loved and well cared for and you put all the other things with it.

To be sure, there are elders – just as there are people at any age – who are sexually incompatible or for whom their sex life is contentious or unfulfilling. In some cases, physical illness leads to lack of sexual interest or ability, causing distress for one or both partners (and again, such maladies can occur at any age). But the majority of the elders in long marriages found that sexuality can remain interesting and fulfilling into the ninth and tenth decades of life. Indeed, they believe that young people are just plain mistaken when they worry about “the sexless older years.”

As Rachel, age 86, told me:

If you’re really physically and sexually attracted to somebody and your head is working right, then you should be able to feel that all the way until the end of your life. And what fun that is! I don’t know whether young people hear that kind of thing. They think, you know, when you get to have gray hair that the sex just removes itself from your life, but that’s not true. Not at all.

So for many, sexual activity doesn’t stop. But there’s even better news: As you grow older, the idea of sex expands. It grows to include – and even to emphasize – a much wider range of loving and romantic behaviors. Over and over, the elders used the term intimacy, which they believe goes beyond sexual intercourse itself. Many described the deep joy of emotional and physical intimacy with a partner of many years, adding that having sex itself was additional spice in the stew – or a tasty side dish, as Gertrude, age 73, says:

How important is sex? Well when I was young, I thought it was 90 per cent! But at 71, it’s a very lovely side dish. And I do think it’s important—yes, I do. At our age, it’s not as much the hot romance kind of thing as it is for young people. But there’s a certain wonderful friendship that exists if you have the basic foundation for it; if you’ve made that, you’ve got each other. And it’s quite nice! Of course this is a woman’s viewpoint, but the comfort of touch: a hug, a kiss . . . those are things that mean I love you.

Or as Beverly, age 69, put it: “The great thing at our age is that sex is not about procreation; this is purely about recreation!”

Given my own stereotypes, I was surprised to hear many of the elders describe intimacy in later life as satisfying as (or even better than) when they were younger. They tried to convey – sometimes with difficulty – the sublime pleasure of physical intimacy with a partner of 50 or more years. Mason, age 77, described his feelings, based on his 40-year marriage, in a way I found deeply moving:

I think what happens is the spark changes.  You know, initially there’s a lot of physical attraction and that continues. But it changes over time so that the romance or whatever you want to call it becomes actually much more profound.  It’s less, what’s the word – frenetic maybe. For me anyway it’s really wonderful just to be able to sit together reading or watching TV, and I’ll just hold her hand or touch her arm or whatever.  There’s a kind of a quietness there that’s quite deep. It’s very fulfilling.   You feel a peaceful intimacy that’s in a way really more meaningful than the frenetic thing.

So here’s the lesson to carry with you, whether you are a 25-year old pondering marriage or a 60-year old wondering about the future. According to the elders, the sexual side of things – barring a troubled history or serious physical problems – is going to be at least good enough to keep you happy, and may be much better than that. There are lots of things to worry about in life. But fretting about sexless later years isn’t one of them.

Advice From Wanda, 84: “It All Boils Down To Choices”

Wanda worries that young people won’t be interested in her life lessons. I think she’s wrong about that, choicesbecause her hard-won lessons for living are ones we all can use.

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? 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.

Seven Things Elders Want to Tell You About Marriage

Many young people today find the issue of love, relationships, and marriage to be complex, difficult, and marriage pic.2confusing. But in spite of the negative reports you read in the media, they still believe in marriage. Recent surveys show that almost everyone in their 20s and 30s plans to get married, hopes it will last forever, and expects to be faithful to their partner.

But where can they get the advice they need to reach those goals? Five years ago, I went on a search to answer the question: What can people do to have a happy, fulfilling, lifelong marriage? I sought out an unusual source of information, however. I didn’t ask psychologists or consult self-help gurus. Instead, I decided to go to the people with the most experience: older Americans who have been married 50, 60, 70 years and more (described in my recent book). I believed that the view from the finish line of marriage would be uniquely valuable.

And I wasn’t disappointed. America’s elders provided a treasure trove of lessons, tips, and advice for how to find the right mate and keep the spark alive over decades.

Here are seven things they would like younger people to know – from those who are looking for a relationships to those who are in one and striving to make it last “as long as you both shall live.”

  1. Marriage is hard. Even though this is not on the minds of couples getting engaged or standing at the altar, the elders want you to know that marriage is hard. It’s tough – both because of the range of stresses and problems that confront all couples, but also because of the fundamental difficulty of merging two separate and different people into one single life. I learned that they see marriage as a discipline, like becoming an athlete or a musician – you never reach perfection, you are constantly learning, and you sacrifice short-term gain for something more rewarding later on.
  2. But marriage for a lifetime is worth it. Being with someone for a half century or more, they told me, is incredibly good. It is a sublime experience, a connection to another person unlike any other relationship. The elders describe it as the experience of a lifetime. For people who make it, it even beats the heart-pounding passion of falling in love for the first time. So making a marriage last may be hard, but the elders also want young people to know that it’s worth the effort.
  3. Marry someone a lot like you. There’s a powerful theme in American romantic culture – that opposites attract and make good mates. The idea is that two very different people from divergent backgrounds come together and love conquers all. Not so much, say the elders. Their strongest recommendation is to marry someone who is generally similar to you. Marriage is difficult for anyone, but it’s much easier with someone who shares your interests, background, and orientation.
  4. Think small. What can you do to keep the spark alive and the marriage interesting for decades? The elders advise you to think small. The view from the end tells you that a marriage is made up of hundreds of daily interactions. In each of those you have a chance to be positive, to be cheerful, to be supportive. They suggest that you make a habit of doing small, positive things. One idea that came up often is doing your partner’s chore. Say it’s 6 AM on a cold, rainy morning, the dog is scratching on the bedroom door, and it’s your partner’s turn to walk him – but you get up and do it. That’s money in the bank for the relationship.
  5. Talk, Talk, Talk. The elders believe that many marital problems can be solved through open communication. One man put it colorfully: “Keep yapping at one another.” According to the elders, the strong, silent type may be initially attractive – but probably doesn’t make the best marriage partner. As one 80-something told me: “If you can’t communicate, you’re just two dead ducks.”
  6. Stop trying to change your partner. When you are getting serious about someone, the elders say you must accept your partner as is, or don’t get married. You should never say to yourself: “After we’re married, she or he will lose weight/get a job/like my family/change heart about having kids” – or any other behavior or attitude you don’t like. Instead, ask yourself: “Can I live with this trait for a lifetime. And at any point in a relationship, making your partner a do-it-yourself project only leads to anger and disappointment.
  7. Are we hungry? Here’s one that surprised me. When a couple is having an argument that threatens to become a truly major blow-up, the elders suggest that what you may need is – a sandwich. That’s right: these long-married folks say that you should never argue on an empty stomach. Offer your partner something to eat when he or she is about to fly off the handle. According to the elders, rather than a therapist you may sometimes need a pastrami sandwich or a piece of pie. It’s cheaper and more fun!

And if you want more wisdom – ask the elders in your own life what makes a marriage work!

Four Warnings from the Elders that Your Marriage May Be In Trouble

We;ve interviewed over 700 older people about love, relationships, and marriage (described in a new book on the topic). Sifting through hundreds of responses, I learned about three warning signs that should make you very concerned a relationship. Most people know these signs are wrong – but hope that they can change their partner or that they won’t matter. The elders say this self-delusion is a huge mistake. The elders have the view from the finish line of marriage, and they offer diagnostic tool for deciding whether your marriage needs a fix (or an exit strategy).

Warning Sign # 1: Violence toward you of any kind

Yes, this point may seem obvious. But I have to put it first and foremost, because entering marriage after experiencing dating violence is still shockingly common, despite decades of warnings from researchers, physicians, and counselors.

On this issue, the elders are unequivocal: If your partner hits you or tries to hurt you in any way, get out. If it happens while you are dating, they firmly state, it will happen in your marriage. As Joan, age 84, put it

Don’t ever, ever get involved with somebody who is abusive at all physically, because you are asking for trouble. They may say that they are going to change and you may think that you will change them – News flash: you are not going to. I tried changing him and I gave up and left. I don’t care how many times person tells you they’re sorry and they’re never going to do that again. I think you find that they do.

I could spend a long time offering you detailed accounts from the elders who made the mistake of marrying someone who had been violent toward them, only to have the physical abuse escalate after marriage. But you probably know it already – make sure to act on it.

Warning Sign # 2: Explosive and Unexplained Anger

The elders assert that a huge warning sign is explosive and disproportionate anger. They tell you to beware of a person who seems to “get angry over nothing” or “has a bad temper” – anyone whose anger is disproportionate to the situation.

They want you especially to be aware of angry outbursts while you are dating. Because initially, these outbursts initially may not be directed toward you. During courtship, the elders say, people are can keep their anger toward their prospective partner under control. Therefore, you need to look carefully at how he or she responds to frustrating situations and to other people.

Annette, 76, dodged a bullet with a man she was getting serious about. She told me:

I dated someone and I was in the subway with him in the city, and we missed the train because we were on the wrong side of the platform. We were walking up the stairs and he took a whole bunch of change out of his pocket and he said some terrible things and threw all of his money down the stairs because he was very angry that we had missed the train.  And when that happened, I looked at that person and I said: “This is not a person I want to spend my life with!”

It only was a minute, but you know, it was very telling. You can tell what kind of a person a person is if you miss your plane, if you lose your luggage, if you are caught outside on a rainy day, or something like that. In those stressful situations if they’re going to just stand there and curse up a storm or throw something, ask yourself if want to spend your life with a person with those coping skills.

In fiction and film, someone like this can be attractive in a dangerous way. But in the elders’ long experience, anger that can’t be explained or controlled – even if directed toward others or toward inanimate objects – is a warning sign that can’t be ignored.

Warning Sign 3: Dishonesty – in Things Large and Small

Everyone tells little white lies (in answer to things like “Do these pants make me look fat?”). But the elders say pay careful attention to someone who is dishonest. Clearly, dishonesty to you is a probably deal-breaker. As Pamela, 91, warns:

All the sudden not coming home. Lying about where they’ve been or been with or what they’ve been doing. Secret phone calls. All kinds of things like that. Trust is a big issue and once you lose that, it’s very difficult to regain. You might put it on the back burner but you’re always going to be suspicious.

But the elders also suggest you look for dishonesty in your potential mate, even in small ways. Does he or she cheat on tests? Take small items from work? Routinely lie his or her way out of situations? They believe that these are all warning signs of dishonesty that will spill eventually into your relationship.

Warning Sign 4: Sarcasm and Teasing

The problem with these two behaviors is that they are often portrayed as “just in fun.” When you get angry in response, you are accused of “not having a sense of humor.” The elders advise you to beware of anyone who engages in mean-spirited sarcasm or whose teasing crosses the border into aggression.

Barbara, age 70, left her first husband after a few years because she sensed the dark side that lurked behind his sarcasm:

Pay attention to behavioral signs. Somebody who is persistently, consistently, always sarcastic and critical, that should have been a warning sign to me that I was dealing with somebody who couldn’t function very well in the world. So I think that’s something that a young person can look for – this profound kind of sarcasm.

Margaret, age 90, had to reach an agreement with her husband to end teasing in their relationship. She told me:

Teasing is very dangerous. Teasing is like bullying. It demeans the other person, that kind of mocking behavior. It’s supposed to be kidding, but it’s a good warning sign, because it really devalues the other person.

Sometimes love and marriage seem incredibly complicated. But a great thing about talking with the elders is they make it simple and crystal clear: Far too many people make a dumb decision in choosing a mate, and live to regret it for years. By avoiding these four dangerous traps, you can make an intelligent decision – and one that increases your chances of living happily ever after.

Our Graduation Gift to You: Advice from the Wisest Americans

What would the wisest Americans like to tell today’s college and high school graduates? From our surveys of over 1200 older people (most in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond) here are a few gems for those heading out to college or to the “real world.” Like the elders themselves, their advice is by turns serious and funny. Pass these on to the graduates in your lives. Continue reading

For Veteran’s Day: Life Lessons from a Tuskeegee Airman

As we think of our veterans today, let’s remember one of the 20th century’s amazing stories: the Tuskeegee Airmen.
TUSKEGEE-AIRMEN

Documented in the film “Red Tails,” the Tuskeegee Airmen became the first African-American aviators in the U. S. military and despite unremitting discrimination, they flew missions with great heroism, shot down German planes, and garnered a slew of medals. The also struck a massive blow to the forces of segregation and racial prejudice in the Armed Forces. Continue reading

Advice for the Bachelorette – One Thing to Know about Choosing a Mate

Yes, the reality show The Bachelorette premieres tonight, and the nation will be treated to the suspense over who will get to hand out that last rose: Britt or Kaitlyn?

The question occurred to me:  Is there one thing every young woman should know about picking a life partner (even if it’s in a more conventional way and not on TV?). I decided to ask the real experts: Elders who have been married 50, 60, even 70 years (Imagine Britt/Kaitlyn looking back over married life from 2085). What would older women tell younger women about picking a mate? Continue reading