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.

Develop Interpersonal Skills for Career Success

Jack, 72, has had a varied and highly successful work life. Forced to drop out of full-time college for financial reasons, he worked at demanding jobs while pursuing his engineering degree at night (he eventually got a Master’s degree in the same way). He began working in “a really arcane area” in the electronics industry. He did well, but was denied a permanent position because his superiors thought – incorrectly – that his part-time degree was somehow inferior to a  conventional one. This set-back proved to be an opportunity that shaped his career; he landed an excellent job in the airplane industry, which in the 50s was taking off  (literally and figuratively).

Jack was thrown in with a hundred and fifty other employees, in an exciting, intense environment. And it planted the seed of the most important lesson he learned about work: Develop interpersonal skills. Jack’s views have even more weight because he worked his entire life in highly technical fields – the kinds that when you start talking about your job, people stare uncomprehendingly until their eyelids start to flutter. Nevertheless, it was the people skills that counted.

Our job was to make sure that the government got whatever it paid for. I was able to work at the top level of the company. At that time it was very, very hard to hire engineers, and I loved it. It was a completely different world. You’re just on your own with your wits, you’re dealing with people who have twenty, thirty years experience running departments with hundreds of people. It was enormously exciting. And it was scary and I loved to be in a little over my head. Right, you developed a cool under pressure, you develop a sense for not saying more than you had to, you developed a sense of being in command but being respectful of the other people’s positions.

When I asked about the key to his success, Jack made it clear that people often fail not because they don’t know their jobs, but because they don’t know people. He was known in his jobs as a problem-solver, and the more insoluable a problem seemed, the more likely it was to be handed to Ed. His people skills helped each time. He gave the following example.

In one of my jobs, they developed a new machine to replace the old ones, supposed to be four or five times more reliable. And  it wasn’t looking that way.  We were sending them it out into the field and the reports were coming back rom service, “Oh, it’s terrible, it’s really bad.”  And I pondered and pondered and pondered and I thought, “Look, this can’t be.’ And there was acrimony between engineering and service, people weren’t communicating. It had to do with interpersonal issues, lack of communication.

I said, “This can’t be.” Something was fishy. So here’s what we’re going to do. I made a proposal, which I sent to the board. We’ve got to take several thousand of these reports from the field and we’ve got to have a team with field staffers,  technical services, engineering, quality, manufacturing – bring everybody together. And we’ve got to go over every single one of these complaints and we have to classify it as to what the problem was, what’s the outcome, who’s responsibility it was. We’ve got to do this by service person, and by account, and whatever. And I had enough credibility that they agreed to do it. So we took five or six people, we went through thousands of these things. We laid the whole thing out. Low and behold, it was completely different from what everybody thought. My ability to bring people together helped solve the problem.

Jack attributes his ability to work so effectively with a wide range of employees, ranging from scientific experts to sales staff, to one basic principle: take yourself down a peg (or two). The idea is to focus on the others in the workplace as experts who need to be consulted, including (and perhaps especially) those who are lower in the hierarchy. The concept that one should enter a leadership position as the overseeing boss who knows best works far less well than a position of humility and willingness to learn from others.

Jack put it like this:

I think I had the attitude that I might have certain skills but mostly everybody here knows more than I do. Everybody. And that if I’m going to add value it’s going to be by making use of these people or by collecting information from them or marshaling what it is they’re doing. The last thing you want to do is assume you are superior. Everybody there is a genius, I knew nothing. I had a lot of innate skills which came out of my background, and I tried to diligently do my work. You really have to have the attitude that ‘I’m really going to honestly do my best to do a good job. And that doesn’t mean fudging it, doesn’t mean sucking up to anybody. It just means that whatever they give me to do, I’m going to try to do that to the best of my ability, working with whomever I have to work with.

Amazing Lessons for Living: From You!

We take time today to share new elder wisdom from a wonderful source: Our readers! We have had so many interesting contributions on our “Share Your Lessons” page.

Here are a few gems you submitted. Enjoy!

Communication advice from Lois:

Before you speak, ask yourself:

Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?

I was taught this when I was in my 20s. At almost 61, I use this every day and would like to pass it along.

Sharon points out that we sometimes forget how much of a gift it is just to be cheerful:

I am seventy one years old and would like to share with the readers what I get from my eighty nine year old mother everytime I call her {which is mostly each day}. She answers the phone with the most cheerful voice of anyone else I talk to during the day. What that does for me is make me feel positive about my day . My mother is telling me everything is wonderful, even though she is taking care of my 93 year old father, who is a World War 11 Vet, my brothers twenty three year old autistic son, {she has had him since birth}, and she is loosing her eyesight. Answering the phone with a cheerful voice can be a lesson for all of us in a world that revolves around the negative, this is my becon of light.

From Audrey, beautiful testimony to the influence of grandparents:

I am almost 52 and am blessed with 5 generations living. My grandmother is 93 and this morning I am holding my breath waiting to see if she made it through the night in the hospital. Growing up in a military family we moved around the world and she was my only constant and best friend no matter how many miles between us. She encouraged the adventure when I was uncertain about a new place. She encouraged my dreams no matter how small or childish. It was always her face I saw in my heart when I was afraid. When I married she gave this one piece of advice and I’ve held to it…never go to bed angry. Even in their worst of fights, Grandpa put his arm out for her to come to him when they went to bed at night. I lost my Grandpa 32 years ago and am still sad from the loss. I know that the days to come will be the most difficult of my life….but I will never go to bed angry and will try to find comfort in knowing that Grandpa will be there waiting for her with his arms out.

And from Joan, a tip for child-rearing:

Don’t let the kids manipulate you by checking with you first and then your spouse. Have a clear line of communication with your spouse to avoid this and have a plan on how to deal with it. Teach your children to be independent and creative thinkers. Teach them not to follow the crowd and be blindly led, even by you as parents!

Thanks to all of you for contributing elder wisdom to the Legacy Project – and keep those entries coming!

“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.