Archives for Aging Well

Learning to Live in the Moment: Why Not Do It Now?

John MacGregor, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic career. His lesson is to learn to live more in the moment. 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.

live in the moment.2

Five Tips for Happier Living from Liza

It’s been a while since we posted one of the elders “Lists for Living.” We love these organized lists, in which some of the list for livingLegacy Project elders were able to sum up a lifetime of wisdom in a few key points. Liza, 68, has some thought-provoking ideas for living the good life:

1. You will NOT experience regret over a decision to remain single and childless. Creating your own life can be as exciting as the predictable stresses (and even the joys) of the procreation and education of progeny.

2. Friendships should fit your emotional and intellectual needs. You should have many different kinds of friends – never depend upon just one or two. Understand that you, and thus your friends, should be expected to change over time. Llife is far richer if you vary the nature of your relationships – it is stifling to hitch yourself to/depend upon/share experiences with only one other person.

3. Always take advantage of an opportunity to have new experiences – travel, activities or in the realm of ideas. You learn as much from unpleasant experiences as you do from pleasureable ones.

4. Strive throughout your life to achieve a clear sense of who you are, what you want, what you want to be recalling as you die, and how you wish to be remembered.

5. Devote as much time as possible toward understanding the evolution and history of the universe and of humankind This long-range perspective makes you grateful and more generous.

Accumulating Stuff is of Little Importance

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.

Let’s Make Thanksgiving Elder Wisdom Day!

I’m proposing 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?

Add your own!

Need Motivation?: Four Elders on Living Life to the Fullest

Sometimes the elders spoke with nearly one voice. So it was with their advice to take advantage of every day given to you. They didn’t feel the need to elaborate too much on this point; their message is more along the lines of “just do it!”

If you need motivation, post these four comments from four of the wisest Americans on your refrigerator:

Live each day to the fullest. Life is an adventure worth living. Smile! (Juanita, 87)

Well, my mother used to say live every day as if you had forever to live and yet also it was your last day. So make every day count. (Mei-Zhen, 76)

One of the things that comes to my mind is to do whatever it is that presents itself to you, rather than to let that opportunity pass and then regret a lack of involvement in it. Don’t miss an opportunity! (Eddie, 68)

I’ll put it this way. Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is cash in hand, spend it wisely. (Morris, 91)

Jack’s Lesson for Living: Guest Blog from Summer Intern!

Thanks to our summer intern, Laura Museau, for learning Jack’s lesson for a happy old age, and sharing it in this guest blog!

It is said that experience teaches wisdom. During my time with the Risk and Resiliency Internship Project, I had the good fortune to have been taught wisdom by listening to the experiences of older adults. The Legacy Project interviews that I conducted this summer contain valuable information that will be useful as I journey into adulthood. One of the key themes discussed by those I interviewed highlighted using passion as a guiding force in life. Passion can make the difference between living a life filled with regrets and one of contentment. For even if accomplishments fall short, the heart’s desires have been satisfied.

The thoughts that Jack Bronsen, a writer from southern California, shared with me expressed this best. He was clear that having something that he is passionate about has been the critical factor in having a good quality of life in older age:

At the end of your life or in the latest years is when you look back and you assess what was important. I was passionate about my work. I still am. I did a specialized type of drawing, still doing it, for almost 60 years: making India ink drawings of inventions for patent attorneys around the country. I loved to play golf. I still do even though I’m in my 80th year. I don’t do it very well but I still do it twice a week and I do walk a full course.

I love to write. I’ve written 3 novels and quite a bit more as a restaurant reviewer and newspaper columnist. I’m also passionate about acrostic puzzles which I love to do. I do the New York Times one every other week on Sunday.

My father loved his work. He worked until he was 82. Then he retired and he watched television all day. He went straight down hill. And the same basically happened to my mother who lived to that same fine age of 91 but did not seem to have any real passions. And they both kind of faded away mentally and that would be my concern: that if I let go of my passion, I let go of my mind, of my life.

He emphatically stated that each person should “have something you are passionate about. All through your life. Not a person, but something that you do yourself that you love to do.

Worry Wastes Your Life

What do older people regret when they look back over their lives? I asked hundreds of the oldest Americans that question. I had expected big-ticket items: an affair, a shady business deal, addictions — that kind of thing. I was therefore unprepared for the answer they often gave:

I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.

Over and over, as the 1,200 elders in our Legacy Project reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I would have spent less time worrying” and “I regret that I worried so much about everything.” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people felt that if given a single “do-over” in life, they would like to have all the time back they spent fretting anxiously about the future.

Their advice on this issue is devastatingly simple and direct: Worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime. They suggested training yourself to reduce or eliminate worrying as the single most positive step you can make toward greater happiness. The elders conveyed, in urgent terms, that worry is an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment. And it’s not just what they said — it’s how they said it.

John Alonzo, 83, is a man of few words, but I quickly learned that what he had to say went straight to the point. A construction worker, he had battled a lifetime of financial insecurity. But he didn’t think twice in giving this advice:

Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So stop it.

That was it. His one life lesson was simply to stop worrying.

James Huang, 87, put it this way:

Why? I ask myself. What possible difference did it make that I kept my mind on every little thing that might go wrong? When I realized that it made no difference at all, I experienced a freedom that’s hard to describe. My life lesson is this: Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.

This surprised me. Indeed, I thought that older people would endorse a certain level of worry. It seemed reasonable that people who had experienced the Great Depression would want to encourage financial worries; who fought or lost relatives in World War II would suggest we worry about international issues; and who currently deal with increasing health problems would want us to worry about our health.

The reverse is the case, however. The elders see worry as a crippling feature of our daily existence and suggest that we do everything in our power to change it. Why is excessive worry such a big regret? Because, according to the elders, worry wastes your very limited and precious lifetime. By poisoning the present moment, they told me, you lose days, months, or years that you can never recover.

Betty, 76, expressed this point with a succinct example:

I was working, and we learned that there were going to be layoffs in my company in three months. I did nothing with that time besides worry. I poisoned my life by worrying obsessively, even though I had no control over what would happen. Well — I wish I had those three months back.

 Life is simply too short, the oldest Americans tell us, to spend it torturing yourself over outcomes that may never come to pass.

How should we use this lesson, so that we don’t wind up at the end of our lives longing to get back the time we wasted worrying? The elders fortunately provide us with some concrete ways of thinking differently about worry and moving beyond it as we go through our daily lives.

Tip 1: Focus on the short term rather than the long term.

Eleanor is a delightful, positive 102-year-old who has had much to worry about in her long life. Her advice is to avoid the long view when you are consumed with worry and to focus instead on the day at hand. She told me:

Well, I think that if you worry, and you worry a lot, you have to stop and think to yourself, “This too will pass.” You just can’t go on worrying all the time because it destroys you and life, really. But there’s all the times when you think of worrying and you can’t help it — then just make yourself stop and think: it doesn’t do you any good. You have to put it out of your mind as much as you can at the time. You just have to take one day at a time. It’s a good idea to plan ahead if possible, but you can’t always do that because things don’t always happen the way you were hoping they would happen. So the most important thing is one day at a time.

Tip 2: Instead of worrying, prepare.

The elders see a distinct difference between worry and conscious, rational planning, which greatly reduces worry. It’s the free-floating worry, after one has done everything one can about a problem, which seems so wasteful to them.

Joshua Bateman, 74, summed up the consensus view:

If you’re going to be afraid of something, you really ought to know what it is. At least understand why. Identify it. ‘I’m afraid of X.’ And sometimes you might have good reason. That’s a legitimate concern. And you can plan for it instead of worrying about it.

Tip 3: Acceptance is an antidote to worry

The elders have been through the entire process many times: worrying about an event, having the event occur and experiencing the aftermath. Based on this experience, they recommend an attitude of acceptance as a solution to the problem of worry. However, we tend to see acceptance as purely passive, not something we can actively foster. In addition to focusing on the day at hand and being prepared as cures for worry, many of the elders also recommend actively working toward acceptance. Indeed this was most often the message of the oldest experts.

Sister Clare, a 99-year-old nun, shared a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:

There was a priest that said mass for us, and at a certain time of his life, something happened, and it broke his heart. And he was very angry — he just couldn’t be resigned, he couldn’t get his mind off it. Just couldn’t see why it had happened.So he went to an elderly priest and said, “What shall I do? I can’t get rid of it.” And the priest said, “Every time it comes to your mind, say this.” And the priest said very slowly, “Just let it be, let it be.” And this priest told us, “I tried that and at first it didn’t make any difference, but I kept on. After a while, when I pushed it aside, let it be, it went away. Maybe not entirely, but it was the answer.”

 Sister Clare, one of the most serene people I have ever met, has used this technique for well over three-quarters of a century.

So many things come to your mind. Now, for instance, somebody might hurt your feelings. You’re going to get back at him or her — well, just let it be. Push it away. So I started doing that. I found it the most wonderful thing because everybody has uncharitable thoughts, you can’t help it. Some people get on your nerves and that will be there until you die. But when they start and I find myself thinking, “Well, now, she shouldn’t do that. I should tell her that . . .” Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think, “If I did that, then what?” And let it be. Oh, so many times I felt grateful that I did nothing. That lesson has helped me an awful lot.

Worry is endemic to the experience of most modern-day human beings, so much so that following this piece of elder wisdom may seem impossible to some of you. But what the elders tell us is consistent with research findings. The key characteristic of worry, according to scientists who study it, is that it takes place in the absence of actual stressors; that is, we worry when there is actually nothing concrete to worry about. This kind of worry — ruminating about possible bad things that may happen to us or our loved ones — is entirely different from concrete problem solving. When we worry, we are dwelling on possible threats to ourselves rather than simply using our cognitive resources to figure a way out of a difficult situation.

A critically important strategy for regret reduction, according to our elders, is increasing the time spent on concrete problem solving and drastically eliminating time spent worrying. One activity enhances life, whereas down the road the other is deeply regretted as a waste of our all-too-short time on Earth.

Learning to Live in the Moment: Why Not Do It Now?

John, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished career. His lesson is to learn to live more in the moment. 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.

The Old Cliches about Living the Good Life Apply: Miguel's List

Miguel, 76, 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.  

 

Okay, I Admit It: I Like the Taco Bell Elders Ad – What Do You Think?

I anticipated the now viral “Viva Young” Taco Bell ad with dread. As someone who studies and promotes elder wisdom, I have hated just about every ad I’ve seen that tries to portray “with-it oldsters” engaging in hijinks. But Taco Bell’s Super Bowl ad was a genuine – and pleasant – surprise. I’ve watched it many times now, and I like it. In fact, I like it a lot.

It somehow manages to convey freedom and an openness to experience, while using older actors who look, well, the way a lot of older people look. It didn’t make them, or their situations on their wild night out, cute sterotypes. As the director of the ad, Tom Kuatz, put it: “I didn’t treat them differently than I would 20-year-olds. That’s part of the concept. Kissing was kissing on the mouth, dancing was dancing, doing the robot was doing the robot like a 20-year-old would do.”

I’ve spent the last five years talking to the oldest Americans about, among other things, how to make the most of the later years of life. And what they told me is a lot like what this commercial manages to convey in a very short time. For successful aging, they endorse principles like this:

            Become more of a free spirit. Over and over as they reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I’ve given up worrying” and “Why do people worry so much about everything?” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people see fruitless rumination about the future as a young person’s game. As one 83-year old put it: “Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything.  It won’t.  So stop it.”

 Focus on the short term rather than the long term. In the ad, the actors are clearly living in the moment. And that’s what most of the elders we interviewed suggest: focus more on the short term. As a 102-year old told me: “The most important thing is one day at a time. You can plan ahead but it doesn’t always work out.”

Savor the moment. When people seek happiness, they often think about “big-ticket” items: buying a house, finding a partner, having a child, getting a new job, making more money. The elders tell us that a positive attitude depends on thinking small: seeking unexpected momentary pleasures that are experienced intensely. Not every older person wants a wild night of clubbing as shown in the commercial, but they do love to immerse themselves in the present moment.

Take risks. We think of older people as more conservative, but in terms of living life to the fullest in old age, the opposite is the case. They tell their peers (and those of us who will, if all goes well, be old someday) to let go in the last third of life. A 94-year old laughed: “My advice about growing old? I’d tell people to find the magic!” Many elders described life past 65 as a “quest” and “an adventure.” Their advice to us? Endorse embracing excitement, creativity, and risk-taking well into our 70s, 80s, and beyond.

And Taco Bell (whether you like their food or not) managed to convey a bit of that spirit during the Super Bowl.

[Thanks to Robert Powell, blogger on retirement for the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch site, where this post originally appeared.)