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!

Vacation: Use It to Learn from Your Family’s Elders!

During the summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great opportunity for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Why not use this time to encourage your kids to have meaningful “elder wisdom” conversations with the elders in your family?

Older people are 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.

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.

So while we are visiting older relatives, why don’t we all  take an hour (okay, it can be before or after the trip to the beach) 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 vacation (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. More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.(and you can watch elders sharing their lessons on our YouTube channel).

  • 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 go ahead and add your own. I guarantee it will enrich your summer vacation this year!

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.

“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.

Take Each Day, Live It, and Love it!

Although limited by a serious disabling illness, Janet, 79, had this to say:

You should see the fun in the world instead of dwelling on the unhappy things.

Take each day and live it, love it, it might be your very last day here. Don’t be aggravated, don’t aggravate anybody else, and just keep a smile on your face. You’ll be happier, you’ll be happier, and everyone around you will be, too.

Try to remain upbeat, no matter what, and never lose your sense of humor, even if you’re jokes are awful. Keep cracking your jokes to whoever you see. Find something fun and pleasant and happy to say to them. You’ll be much happier and lead a much better life that way. Look at the glass as half full – be positive – look at a problem as to how it can be made to work out, not that it cannot.

The Wholehearted Enjoyment of Change

The elders looked back on phenomenal changes of the course of their lives. But rather than being stuck in nostalgia for days gone by, many of them embraced change, and suggested that younger people do the same. Terrence, 83, described this attitude.

I have had and am having a decidedly wonderful life, with a wife, family, and job which I still work at full-time.

I guess the life lesson I want to talk about is the wholehearted enjoyment of change. For example, I had celiac disease from ages one to two and almost died of it; my cousin got mastoiditis (ear infection) and the pain was so severe he had to quit high school which severely marred the rest of his life. Today due to a constellation of wonder drugs these former health scourges are barely known in the US;

What wonderful changes I have seen in my lifetime:

–“Old” used to be considered 60 to 65; now it’s 80 to 85; moreover research suggests it may be possible to extend life maybe even reverse aging!

–Two radio stations have morphed into hundreds of television channels.

–It seems to me I can get more current information from the internet in an hour than I could once get from the New York Public Library in a month.

Of course we are not without little problems like world hunger, the spread of the HIV virus, rampant terrorism and the continuing possibility of a nuclear holocaust, but I have considerable faith in human capability and technology and after all what is life without a few challenges? In my optimistic way, I strongly suspect we will overcome these things and keep on progressing exponentially.

A Chinese seer once said it is pleasurable to live in interesting times. You are living in the most interesting times ever. All you have to do is enjoy them!

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.