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

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

1. Apply yourself to everything you do.

2. Always be fair and honest

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

4. Greet everyone with a smile.

5. Always remind your family that you love them.

6. Be an optimist.

7. Always look for the good in people.

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

9. Respect other people’s points of view.

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

11. Take time to smell the flowers.

12. Never get into debt.

Jane and Will: A Love Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighten Up! A Good Lesson for the New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Need More Stuff? Some Christmas Elder Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

A Good Day for Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

And my favorite, from Becky, 89:

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

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

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

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.