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.

“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.

Realistic New Year’s Resolutions – from the Wisest (and Oldest) Americans

Are you tired of New Year’s resolutions lists by now? I am pretty much satiated with blogs and media telling me how to lose weight, start exercising, get rich, etc., in 2018. And I recall reading that only a tiny fraction of New Year’s resolutions are ever acted upon. Is there a better source of wisdom for the new year? I think there is.

I reviewed the data we gathered from more than 1,200 elders in the Legacy Project, who shared their lessons for living for future generations. Based on the surveys and interviews, here are  resolutions in five areas of life that are worth a try. These suggestions from the oldest Americans may serve you better than the typical ones we make (and break) each year.

Work. “Ask yourself: Are you glad to get up in the morning?” When it comes to your job, the elders propose a diagnostic test: How do you feel when you get up on a workday morning? You may be ambivalent about your job and have your ups and downs. But when it comes down to it, how do you feel when you are having that first cup of coffee?

Are you at least in a tolerable mood, looking forward to something about work? If instead you feel dread and foot-dragging, the elders say it may be time for a change. As Albert, 80, put it: “It’s a long day if you don’t like what you’re doing. You better get another job because there’s no harsher penalty than to wake up and go to work at a job you don’t like.”

Marriage. “Let your partner have his or her say.” From marriages lasting 40, 50, 60 or more years, the elders find that deliberately showing your partner that you are listening is a major way to defuse conflict. Natalie, 89, told me: “I learned that when you’re communicating, to really listen to what the other person is saying. When I got married, instead of listening to my husband, I would be thinking what to say in reply, to contradict or to reinforce what I was trying to say. That is not the best thing when you communicate. You’ve really got to listen and let them have their say. When I was in my twenties, I had all the answers. Now that I’m in my eighties, I’m not so sure my answers are always right.”

April, 70, offered a specific technique: “If we were in some sort of struggle over something we would stop and say: ‘Which one of us is this more important to?’ And when we could figure that out, the other one found it so much easier to let go.”

Child-rearing. “Abandon perfection.” The elders we surveyed raised over 3,000 children, and from that experience they had a clear lesson: Resist the temptation to seek perfection, both in your kids and in your parenting. We logically recognize the futility of creating perfect children, but emotionally we often hold ourselves up to a perfect standard. The elders, in contrast, are the first to tell you: No one has perfect children. They admit that each of their kids experienced difficulty, a period of unhappiness, a wrong turn. They suggest we lighten up regarding our children and assume that failure is inevitable at times. Gertrude, 76, said: “We were going to have perfect children, and we were going to be perfect parents. It doesn’t work that way.”

Aging. “Accept it.” Unless you’ve been living in a bomb shelter over the past decade, you’ve seen the barrage of advertising for “anti-aging medicine.” There’s a whole subculture of practitioners promising to defeat the aging process. To this the elders say: Forget about it! Instead, they encourage you to accept the aging process and to adapt activities to your changing physical abilities and circumstances. The very active Clayton, 81, noted: “You kind of grow into it. You realize that if you can’t be running this fast, well, you just go slower, but you keep on running. Do what you’re able to do and accept that there might be some limitations.” And don’t waste a penny on “anti-aging” products.

Regrets. “Go easy on yourself.” I recently was asked to do a post for CNN on the topic of how to avoid having regrets later in life. The elders do in fact have some good suggestions on that topic. But there’s another point they make: The goal of living a regret-free life is unrealistic. Their recommendation: Go easy on yourself regarding the mistakes and bad choices you have made. Alice, 85, pointed out: “What I have learned from the mistakes that I’ve made is that you can’t change what’s happened in the past. You have to accept yourself, warts and all. Once a decision is made, you don’t get anywhere by looking back and second-guessing it. As somebody taught me years ago: “if you’ve bought a pair of shoes, don’t look at the shoes in the next store window!”

And a last resolution: don’t forget to seek advice from elders you know. They have practical tips for living a more fulfilling life. Happy New Year!

Don’t Put It Off and Be Sorry When You’re Older

Gail, 91, has one piece of advice for avoiding regrets: Do it now. What young people will regret, she suggests, is not pursuing opportunities while they can.

Well, I kind of regret some decisions because I wanted to have a certain skill and I didn’t pursue it and I really regret it and that’s what I’d like to say to young people: If they’ve got an idea, for example, if they want to be a veterinarian, they should do it and not put it off and be sorry when they’re older that they didn’t.

That’s what happened to me, and that’s something that they can learn from older people: Don’t wait because you only have one life. If you mess it up when you’re young, then it might be too late when you get older or maybe you just don’t feel like it or you might have some kind of health problems or something and you just can’t do it. But I think young people are more energetic and they should pursue what they’re going to do when they’re young, not wait, that’s what I learned.