The Old Cliches about Living the Good Life Apply

It’s summer and the livin’ is easy, which leads us at the Legacy Project to ponder what “living the good life” really means. Miguel, 79, tells us that tried and true wisdom pretty much gets it right.

Past generations had it about right.  Most of the old cliches about living the good life apply.  One should eat healthfully, get a full night’s sleep, exercise regularly, set priorities, not sweat the small stuff, spend a lot of time with family, follow your heart, plan ahead, never look back with regret, give it your all, not take life too seriously, try everything — you only go around once.

Live beneath your means, make new friends, but cherish the old ones, admit mistakes, learn to listen, keep secrets, don’t gossip, never take action when you’re angry, don’t expect life to be fair, never procrastinate, call your mother.

Most important: (1) choose your parents with care – they will provide the good genes and set you on the right path; (2) pick the right spouse — everything else pales by comparison.

Life Gets Better after 90: Cecile’s Lesson

In Cecile Lamkin’s living room, a wall of windows looks out through the still-bare trees to a calm lake below. This house has been Cecile’s home for over 50 years, only she recently gave up daily swims, she said, “Because I can’t get down the stairs anymore.” Widowed several years earlier after 68 years of marriage, Cecile, 93, explained that live after turning 90 has brought her a sense of wholeness, acceptance, and the ability to enjoy small pleasures.

I am much clearer now. I say that as an older person, not just as an adult, but as an older person, things are much clearer. I was just telling my daughter, I think I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’ve been thinking about why it is that I’m happier now. I came up with a lot of stuff. First of all, things that were important to me are no longer important, or not as important. The second thing is, I don’t feel responsible in the same way that I used to feel. I’ve been a pretty responsible person, but I don’t feel that responsibility anymore. My children are in charge of their lives, and whatever they do with them, they will do with them.

And I live in a place, my house, that I love. In the summer here it is wonderful, and I live outdoors at that time. My family comes, friends come, and I use it like a vacation. I’ve also given up feeling that I have to entertain people. If there’s someone coming up, they will bring such and such. It’s very liberating for me. And I just feel a contentedness that I’ve never felt before. I’ve heard other people my age say the same thing.”

In the Legacy Project, so many people told us that they were happier than ever in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. So why do we all fear growing old so much? Please comment and share your thoughts on that question!

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.

Make Thanksgiving “Elder Wisdom Day!”

Once again this year, I propose a new holiday. Or rather, a new use for an old holiday. I believe that we should make Thanksgiving the day when we celebrate elder wisdom by asking older people to tell us their advice for living. Here’s why.

Occasionally, the question runs through younger people’s minds (whether they admit it or not): What are old people good for? Our society’s unremitting ageism portrays older persons as sick, frail, unproductive, and even the culprits for busting the federal budget.

Earlier retirement and increased residential separation of older people has broken age-old contacts between the generations. Indeed, our society has become extraordinarily segregated by age, such that young people’s contact with elders is almost exclusively within the family (and even that is limited). Combined with the persistently negative images in the media, this question – What good are old people? – lurks in the background.

But the answer is amazingly simple. For as long as humans have been humans, older people have played critically important roles as advice-givers. Indeed, anthropological research shows that survival in pre-literate societies was dependent on the knowledge of the oldest members. It’s easy to forget that it is only in the past 100 years or so that people have turned to anyone other than the oldest person they knew to solve life’s problems.

Now here’s the important point: Old people are still a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders. That’s why I’m proposing that we make learning elder wisdom a part of our families’ Thanksgiving holiday.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

Now for the holiday. Thanksgiving is something most Americans celebrate, regardless of religious persuasion. And it’s the one time in the year when families are most likely to gather — and include their older relatives. What if we all take a half hour (okay, it can be before or after the football game) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on Thanksgiving (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. We’ve used these questions in interviews with hundreds of elders in the Legacy Project, and they work very well). More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.

So let’s declare Thanksgiving (or a part of it) Elder Advice-Giving Day. Our elders won’t be here forever, so this year is a good time to start!

Questions for the elders:

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Now add your own!

And if you would like more ideas, I was interviewed by NPR with one of our wonderful Legacy Project Elders about holidays and elder wisdom. You can listen here.

 

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.

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 Swim – in the Flow of Living

Charles, 83, told me about growing older and how to do it gracefully..His advice is that we must learn to adapt. To make that point, he offered a profound metaphor for how we should approach aging: learning to swim.

I think when one is 20, one probably doesn’t realize how important the ability to adapt is to your happiness. So that people who cannot grow and change are sort of stuck with their own personalities. We need insight, which is something that has to be either consciously or unconsciously sought after. One sees people who don’t seem to have the insights they need to be happy.

You asked me what I’ve learned growing older. I’d put it this way. I’ve learned how to swim. Not in water; I’ve learned how to swim in life. I’m not a particularly good swimmer in water, but I’m a reasonable swimmer in the flow of living.

Seek Contentment

Sometimes, the advice of the Legacy Project Elders is short – and  sweet. Here’s an example.

Acording to the elders, much of what is most enjoyable about their lives are the little things, the day-to-day features of creating a contented life.  Ivan, 84, summed it up an a short but memorable way.

It sounds corny and trite, but I would tell people this lesson: Take time to turn off your cell phone, your tablet, your electronics. Get outside. Enjoy a walk in the forest. Savor the fragrances of nature after a summer storm. Watch a sunrise or sunset with someone you love. Listen to the birds sing. Lie down in a field of flowers and watch the clouds.

A happy life is a lot of contentment but with surges of joy and a minimum of sorrow. You can find contentment a lot easier than you can find continuous joy.