A Dog Story: What our Pets Can Teach Us

Although we don’t own a dog ourselves, we are very excited to have a new granddog, Otto (pictured below). This new arrival in the family 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 that 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 a 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 the end of life, 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!

Edwina’s Advice about Growing Old: “Find the Magic!”

Edwina Elbert, 94, on the adventure of aging:

I tell people: “Each person born has been chosen by fate from a trillion possibilities. How then can you complain of bad luck when you have won the greatest lottery of them all?”Now isn’t that true?

People have to learn to be thankful.  To see the wonders of this world – you know, we are here for such a short time.  I didn’t realize I was old until I was ninety years old.  There’s still so much to see and so much to read, and so much to learn.  We should be thankful that we’ve had this opportunity to live.  It’s strange about this…the way that it’s all set up so that we only have a certain length of time. But we’re lucky.  Aren’t we lucky to have seen the Empire State building and all of this stuff?

My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.  The world is a magical place in lots of ways.  To enjoy getting up in the morning and watching the sun come up.  And that’s something that you can do when you are growing older.  You can be grateful, happy for the things that have happened.  You should enjoy your life.  Grow a little.

Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need to stop growing. I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by.  Well that’s not for me and that’s not for a lot of people.  I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.

There’s no reason for anybody in this world to ever be bored.  That’s one thing I’ve always said.  Well if I died and went to heaven, I’d be bored to death with how they say heaven is.  There’s no need for you to be bored in this world.  There’s so much out there.  And your attitude, be optimistic.  I’ve been optimistic all my life.  Even as a little girl I can remember that no matter what happened it would turn out all right.  In this country almost everybody is taking antidepressants.  Why in the world are people taking antidepressants?  It should be a wonderful world.  Mine has been a great ride, believe me.

Goodbye to a Wise Elder – And Thanks for the Marriage Advice!

Over the course of the Legacy Project, we’ve talked to hundreds of elders, asking them about lessons for living they would like tobluesky pass down to younger people. In the interviews, I often feel a deep connection to respondents, especially over the course of a long conversation about profound and personal topics.

So one of the hardest parts of this project is when I learn of their passing. News will trickle in that one of these sages in our midst has died, and despite their age, I always feel surprised and saddened that this particular light has gone out. But I am also grateful that I was able to record their practical wisdom so younger people can use it.

Antoinette Watkins was one such elder. Her advice for a happy marriage is featured in my forthcoming book 30 Lessons for Loving: The Wisest Americans Advice onLove, Relationships, and Marriage. Then age 81, Antoinette had overcome troubled early years in her marriage and achieved a warm, loving relationship with her husband of 55 years.

Her lesson for younger people is that to keep the spark alive throughout a long relationship, you must make a habit of doing small, positive things. That’s what keeeps a relationship warm, supportive, and fun.

I have never forgotten this suggestion from Antoinette – and one I try to personally practice (not always successfully, but I try!).

There is one practical piece of advice I have givenn to my children. This is just one little jewel that I passed along to them. And that’s when you wake up in the morning, think: “What can I do to make his day or her day just a little happier?”  The idea is that you need to  to turn toward each other and  focus on the other person,  even just for that five minutes when you first wake up. It’s going to make a big difference in your relationship.

She taught me that the build-up of such simple, positive gestures can transform a marriage. And this is why we should be sure to ask our elders for advice about things like love and marriage.



Faith – and Poetry – at the End of Life

Peggy, 89,  found her religious faith to be an enormous help when her husband, Larry, died suddenly several years ago. And she found release for her sorrow in writing poetry.

Peggy and Larry deeply loved one another and shared many interests and an intense closeness for over 60 years of marriage. For Peggy, her spiritual beliefs were intertwined with themarriage: “Well the basis for my understanding about what marriage is about is my faith, the idea of God before others and others before you. My faith has supported me constantly. Knowing and learning the hymns and reading the bible, all these times. There’s always something that comes to mind so you know that the spirit is leading you.”

I met Larry when I was fifteen and he was twenty. He had just been invited to come to our church by my cousin. And we had a Halloween party and I was dressed like a colonial maiden and he was dressed like a French gentleman. After the party he went to my cousin and said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”

They were married for a year and a half when Larry enlisted in the Marine Corps and went to fight in World War II. They stuck together “through the ups and downs” of a long married life, running a business and raising four children. In his eighties, Larry developed a series of health problems but remained mentally intact. So Peggy was not prepared for what happened one day:

He sat there late one morning  and I had gotten him to do the crossword puzzles which I’d done for years, and I got him involved with them. And he was doing the crossword puzzle, had his breakfast, then went over and sat on the couch and he said, “Peggy,would you come here and rub my back?”  And so I went over and rubbed his back and he said, “Oh that was fine that’s enough.”  And I went back, walked back right here, and I heard two loud sighs, and he was gone.

The loss was devastating, but Peggy adjusted.” In the end I thought it was a blessing, that Larry didn’t suffer. He didn’t want to go to a nursing home. And he would say, ‘Peggy, don’t you ever die before me or I’ll kill you.’

How does one cope with the loss of a partner after a life that began at a magical costume party and lasted over six decades? For Peggy, it is her deep religious faith. A poet, she used her writing to convey the experience.

Larry and I both decided to donate our bodies to the university here. Larry’s body was sent there and we’d have the ashes. When we went for the ashes, which they only had Larry’s body for about a month, sometimes they have them for three years. The doctor told me that they used his body for a very special lesson, so I was happy.

We took the ashes and we went to a park which has a place where Roy and I used to stop called Poet’s Garden and he was a poet and I was a poet. So I sat I wrote this in the garden of poets:

I’m thinking of you constantly as through the days I go

Aware of love eternal this I surely know,

That mingling with the wildflowers  the ashes that are you

Are waiting for the time that I will be there too.

The May apple, the umbrella that shields you from the rain

The scent of valley lilies softens any pain,

Waiting for our union which indeed will come,

When the Father of the Universe sees fit to call me home.

"Children Who Break Your Heart": A Reader Asks for Your Advice

Many people who have come to this page are looking for answers to the problem of family estrangement. I’m excited to be able to offer an brand new resource. For my book, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, I interviewed hundreds of people in estrangements, including those who have successfully reconciled. The book is filled with compelling stories, concrete advice, and strategies and tips for healing family rifts. I hope you find it helpful!

In an earlier post, one of the Legacy Project elders shared her mixed feelings about having children. Loraine,89 , talked about accepting both the joy and the pain children can bring. She stated: “If you don’t have children now, when you have them you will have these moments.  When you look at them and your heart – it’s like your heart takes all the pain and all the love for them that you have.”

We just received a comment on that post from one of our readers, who would like your advice:

What about when your children are disappointments? I would like to hear how parents handle situations when their most loved children are cause for a broken heart? Comments please!

We asked some experts for their advice, which you can find here.

Can you help? Does anyone have advice for overcoming the heartbreak children can sometimes cause? Please share your comments!

The Marriage Advice is Coming In!

We asked America’s elders to tell us their advice for love and marriage, and the lessons are pouring in! In this new project, we’re taking all we’ve learned from the Legacy Project, and applying it to the specific topic of love and marriage (and long-term committed relationships).

If you’re 60 or over, come to the site for the Marriage Advice Project and tell us your lessons for how to have a good marriage (or how to avoid a bad one!). And if you are not over 60, please pass this information on to friends and relatives who are!

Here’s inspiring advice we just received from an 82-year old – she and her husband were married 62 years ago!

What is the most important advice to give someone when at 82, you still hold hands with your 85 year old husband? How quickly the 62 years have gone by. We have five children and we always told them the reason for our long and happy marriage – whoever left first had to take all five children with them!!! They toasted us with this saying at our 60th anniversary celebration!

Humor can be the best resource in marriage – next to belief in God. In our family, God automatically came first and belief in His way has led us.

To have a sense of humor really takes the edges off of a tense situation – this is a nice way of saying “fight.” Do not tell my husband and me that you do not fuss or disagree – we will not believe you. For you are human and have differences of opinion and isn’t it wonderful – that way you have a choice!!!

From the start, we recognized that we were definitely individuals who had definite “likes” and we appreciated and respected that in each other. We led separate lives – together. I traveled, he hunted and fished – I did handwork and sewed – he played music. I loved romping with the children – he liked silence! We both love football. Together we made it by respecting each other.

Never lose touch – we call each other several times a day just to say hi. I am still working at 82 – he is home in a wheelchair, having lost his ability to walk – both cell phones have one special # we punch to reach the other to just say hi. It is still a thrill to answer the cell and hear him say “hi.”

A Reader Writes: Bob’s Lesson on the Transitory Nature of Life

One of the joys of hosting this blog is the elder wisdom we receive from our readers. I would like to share this reflection from Bob about the need to acknowledge our limited time horizon, and to life fully in the face of loss.

Bob wrote:

In Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out,” a young man dies tragically, and for a moment all those around him are affected by the tragedy of his loss. Yet soon, “…they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

I recently lost my brother, and in the gathering at his funeral the members of our family were, for a time, more closely united with one another and with the deeper wisdoms of life than we had been for quite some time. We felt our kinship, and the transitory nature of life. We considered the legacy of the one lost, and wondered what essence of worth and goodness we ourselves would leave behind. We searched for that worth in a history too often filled with days of mundane business and busyness. And for a brief time we connected with each other, and deeper truths about love, and service to others, and humility, and faith.

But soon we returned to our mundane affairs, our busyness, our separations, our self-absorbed pursuits. My wisdom is this: live a good life today; give and receive selfless love; serve others – so that when you come to a time of reflection you can say: “I have made good choices. I have lived, and loved, and been loved, and served others well.” It will make all the difference.

If Not Now, When? Anita’s Lessons for Living

Here’s a post for our summer intern, Jackie Santo. Thanks to Jackie for sharing what she learned from Anita, age 67.

 I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Anita about what she believes are the most important obligations that we, as people, owe ourselves and that we owe others throughout the course of our lives.

Anita maintains that we have an obligation to enjoy life, to make the most out of it, and to savor it. Below, Anita mentions the some of the most important pieces of insight that she wished she knew at age 20:

To be true to oneself. To try and know who you are. To appreciate who you are. And to try and live with integrity in all that you do and how you live

It’s important to know how to savor what you have, to not take things for granted and to help inculcate in yourself a sense of gratitude for what you have and not focus on the things that are absent from your life.

Live life to its fullest, you know? “If not now, when?” has become very much my motto. My companion and I have done a lot of travel, and every time I suggest a new place to visit he’s sort of like “are you kidding?”, and I always say “If not now, When?” so I am very fortunate to be in a position where at this point in my life I can do, sort of, whatever I want to do, and I’m doing it.

Aging is coupled with certain risks and resiliencies. Although many people encounter illness and mental deterioration as they get older, they also gather wisdom and life lessons. Anita asserts the familial, societal, and generational obligations that we owe each other to aid the ill and pass wisdom on to the young:

My father used to say that if you can do a good turn for someone else, why wouldn’t you do it? And I think that that’s been a perspective that I have had, as well about caring about other people. My work certainly has been infused with the notion that we have a social contract, that we have obligations not only to those who are closest to us but to the society to which we live.

I have, as someone once described, a heightened sense of justice and I feel very much that we have an obligation to speak out and to stand up and to struggle to make change. I think we have a generational obligation. I certainly recognize it in terms of being a parent to my child, but I certainly also felt it very much in terms of being a child to my parent, and I guess a lot of my work in the aging field has come from that perspective – that we have an obligation to those who came before us.

Excellent life wisdom we all can use!

The Greatest Lesson – Compassion: New Elder Wisdom Videos

In our hundreds of interviews with America’s elders, one particular lesson usually emerged: the need for compassion toward other people. The word “compassion” had the original meaning in Latin of “suffering with” someone else. The elders told me that as they reached old age, they learned how important it is to empahtize with other people, to understand their perspectives, and to see them as fellow travelers along life’s difficult road. And they learned this lesson from an array of challenging, tragic, and uplifiting life experiences.

Legacy Project elders Jules and Marilyn offer their lessons about living a compassionate life.

Farewell, Sr. Maria – Thanks for Your Lessons!

The Sisters of St. Joseph are a remarkable group of nuns, devoted to the spiritual life, teaching and the pursuit of social justice. In the Motherhouse in Rochester, NY, I visited Sr. Maria, age 93. Although her body was beginning to fail her, she was clear-eyed and enthusiastic. I have thought about Sr. Maria often, and I was deeply saddened to learn last week that she has left this world (or as she would have put it, moved on to the next life!). Her lessons for living, however, stay on in the Legacy Project.

She told me right off that she was born on Election Day, 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was re-elected the President of the United States. Her parents were Polish immigrants, hard-working and deeply religious.

She grew up in a close-knit Polish neighborhood.

It was a close community because all the people in the neighborhood were from Poland, or Russia or Ukraine, so they were all neighbors from Europe and they maintained their own language. It was a homey place with little stores, mom-and-pop stores, and the meat market was a meat market. It wasn’t everything, it was a meat market. The grocery store had groceries, the bakery was just bakery. It was translation from Europe and it was maintained like that for many years. The Polish bakery was just marvelous. And it was a wonderful business, especially around Christmas time, Easter time, you had to buy tickets to wait in line to do your shopping.

And the church was the center of activity, things were centered about the church, and when we think of people not having a social security, well that wasn’t in vogue yet. But the people – the church groups, the people from the same villages of Poland – grouped together and formed societies. So there would be St. Casimir society, St. Stanislas, St. Lawrence, and each society would have certain plans to provide for the members. We paid like maybe fifty cents a month for dues but if you were sick you would get groceries for a week, two weeks and other benefits. And people from these societies had projects like a dinner dance, activities connected with church to raise funds.

It’s sad because people now are not as close. We knew everybody in the neighborhood. I could name every family on our street, the name of their children, and you respected everybody’s family. If someone else’s mother told you not to do that, you had to listen, you had to obey. And growing up we just thought that our neighborhood, that’s all there was. Our own little world, the stores were there, the grocery stores, the meat market, the bakery, the shoe repair shop, everything was right in line.

Sr. Maria didn’t speak English until she started school, “First grade was a little difficult because I had to learn to speak English and learn how to read in English and my mother didn’t help me because she didn’t know the words, she didn’t know the language. If she tried to say it, she would say it with an accent. So in school I sat on a little step and a girl whose parents were Americanized already would sit with me to help me read, listen to me read.” She was determined to speak “like an American,” and achieved that goal.

Some her most important life lessons were learned during the depression. Her father’s work schedule was reduced, and the family had to learn how to live on very little. “Bread and butter was a treat.” Her advice to people going through current economic difficulties is this: “We should be grateful if we have what we need, even if we don’t have all the delicacies we want. We never knew we were poor. There were people who were poorer. We had enough to eat and that was a big blessing.

An even more important lesson Sr. Maria learned during the Depression was compassion. Even though her family had little, they shared with those who had less.

There was one family whose father didn’t have a job. Wherever he worked he lost his job, so there was no income coming. But I remember some evenings, maybe once a week, my mother would fix up a basket with some groceries, maybe a head of cabbage, some potatoes, vegetables, and put it on their porch after dark. And she herself had come from Poland and they had had hard times. And I remember seeing her many times, if she was going to eat a piece of bread she would pray over it first and she would kiss it sometimes too. Yes, they were hungry many times, so we grew up with that respect to appreciate what we had.

As Sr. Maria retired and grew older, the importance of compassion as a life lesson increased.

The idea that everything we do to help someone else, there’s a return value in it. You realize that you did something for that person, and at the time you didn’t understand it well yourself. Sometimes I receive a message, a note or card, from a student that I taught fifty years ago, and they’ll say that they appreciate what I did for them, that if I hadn’t done that they would never have succeeded. Like this one boy told me recently that if I hadn’t coached him special when he was my eighth grader he never could have gone to high school. He wouldn’t have had that motivation. You couldn’t help everyone, but you did as much as you could to as many as you could.

It’s not surprising that someone who had been a nun for over 70 years would recommend include pursuing a spiritual life among her major lessons:

Well. I think that the first lesson would be that you have a relationship with God and you live by his teachings and his commandments. Because by ourselves we can’t really do too much. And we have abilities and powers, but everything that we have is a gift from God to use and to give it back to Him.

For Sr. Maria, this lesson led again to compassion:

And I think being considerate for other people is important. And there are many small ways and gracious ways to do kindnesses and thoughtful actions. And if I know that I have something I know someone would like, maybe I can graciously get it into her possession without her knowing it. You try to help other people, you encourage others, you assist others.

At the end of our interview, we talked about the end of life. Sr. Maria told me:

Well, you do think about it more often and you do realize that we’re not here forever and we have to face God in the end. I’m not sure if I’m completely at that stage yet. Well, God has been good. You know, I don’t know if I pray as much as I ought to pray for death and acceptance. It’s still kind of, I know it’s going to come, and I tell the Lord: ‘I’m ready Lord – but maybe not yet!” Life is a gift from God and it’s important to keep busy – not just busy, but active. Meaningfully active.

It’s never easy when we lose one of the Legacy Project respondents, but we can still profit from their lessons. And that’s a good argument for asking our loved ones about their lessons for living – while they are still with us!