“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.

Learning to live in the moment: Why not do it now?

In our interviews with hundreds of America’s elders in the Legacy Project, I learned that older people know some things on a deep level that the younger generation doesn’t. Perhaps the most important of these insights is a simple one: Life is short. The elders, from their vantage point, know how quickly life passes, and they urge us to savor it along the way. Rather than focusing only on our long-term plans and ambitions, the elders tell us to learn while we’re young how to live in the moment.

This point was brought home to me in an interview with John, 70, who lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic career. His lesson is to learn to savor life’s daily pleasures. 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.

I suggest, based on John’s insights, that we all take at least a little time each day to stop and enjoy the present moment. Many of the Legacy Project elders point to peaceful savoring a major key to happiness.

Realistic New Year’s Resolutions – from the Wisest (and Oldest) Americans

Are you tired of New Year’s resolutions lists by now? I am pretty much satiated with blogs and media telling me how to lose weight, start exercising, get rich, etc., in 2018. And I recall reading that only a tiny fraction of New Year’s resolutions are ever acted upon. Is there a better source of wisdom for the new year? I think there is.

I reviewed the data we gathered from more than 1,200 elders in the Legacy Project, who shared their lessons for living for future generations. Based on the surveys and interviews, here are  resolutions in five areas of life that are worth a try. These suggestions from the oldest Americans may serve you better than the typical ones we make (and break) each year.

Work. “Ask yourself: Are you glad to get up in the morning?” When it comes to your job, the elders propose a diagnostic test: How do you feel when you get up on a workday morning? You may be ambivalent about your job and have your ups and downs. But when it comes down to it, how do you feel when you are having that first cup of coffee?

Are you at least in a tolerable mood, looking forward to something about work? If instead you feel dread and foot-dragging, the elders say it may be time for a change. As Albert, 80, put it: “It’s a long day if you don’t like what you’re doing. You better get another job because there’s no harsher penalty than to wake up and go to work at a job you don’t like.”

Marriage. “Let your partner have his or her say.” From marriages lasting 40, 50, 60 or more years, the elders find that deliberately showing your partner that you are listening is a major way to defuse conflict. Natalie, 89, told me: “I learned that when you’re communicating, to really listen to what the other person is saying. When I got married, instead of listening to my husband, I would be thinking what to say in reply, to contradict or to reinforce what I was trying to say. That is not the best thing when you communicate. You’ve really got to listen and let them have their say. When I was in my twenties, I had all the answers. Now that I’m in my eighties, I’m not so sure my answers are always right.”

April, 70, offered a specific technique: “If we were in some sort of struggle over something we would stop and say: ‘Which one of us is this more important to?’ And when we could figure that out, the other one found it so much easier to let go.”

Child-rearing. “Abandon perfection.” The elders we surveyed raised over 3,000 children, and from that experience they had a clear lesson: Resist the temptation to seek perfection, both in your kids and in your parenting. We logically recognize the futility of creating perfect children, but emotionally we often hold ourselves up to a perfect standard. The elders, in contrast, are the first to tell you: No one has perfect children. They admit that each of their kids experienced difficulty, a period of unhappiness, a wrong turn. They suggest we lighten up regarding our children and assume that failure is inevitable at times. Gertrude, 76, said: “We were going to have perfect children, and we were going to be perfect parents. It doesn’t work that way.”

Aging. “Accept it.” Unless you’ve been living in a bomb shelter over the past decade, you’ve seen the barrage of advertising for “anti-aging medicine.” There’s a whole subculture of practitioners promising to defeat the aging process. To this the elders say: Forget about it! Instead, they encourage you to accept the aging process and to adapt activities to your changing physical abilities and circumstances. The very active Clayton, 81, noted: “You kind of grow into it. You realize that if you can’t be running this fast, well, you just go slower, but you keep on running. Do what you’re able to do and accept that there might be some limitations.” And don’t waste a penny on “anti-aging” products.

Regrets. “Go easy on yourself.” I recently was asked to do a post for CNN on the topic of how to avoid having regrets later in life. The elders do in fact have some good suggestions on that topic. But there’s another point they make: The goal of living a regret-free life is unrealistic. Their recommendation: Go easy on yourself regarding the mistakes and bad choices you have made. Alice, 85, pointed out: “What I have learned from the mistakes that I’ve made is that you can’t change what’s happened in the past. You have to accept yourself, warts and all. Once a decision is made, you don’t get anywhere by looking back and second-guessing it. As somebody taught me years ago: “if you’ve bought a pair of shoes, don’t look at the shoes in the next store window!”

And a last resolution: don’t forget to seek advice from elders you know. They have practical tips for living a more fulfilling life. Happy New Year!

Giving Thanks: The Core of Elder Wisdom

In my surveys of  over 1500 of the oldest Americans for the book 30 Lessons for Living, one thing stands out. Although many of these elders have serious burdens of chronic disease, family problems, or economic difficulties, getting older has bestowed a special gift – gratefulness.

They  told us they are especially thankful for small, pleasant things: a favorite song on the radio, the antics of a beloved dog, a brightly colored bird on the lawn in spring, the morning cup of coffee, being in a warm bed on a snowy night.

If you need help developing a spirit of gratefulness this Thanksgiving, let me share with you what the elders told us. First, here are three quick thoughts to keep in mind this season:

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 in the wonderful spirit of Thanksgiving, we want to share with you the thoughts of one of the wisest elders in the Legacy Project. Pass it on to your loved ones on this special day!

Jane, 90, did not always have an easy path along life’s journey. But as she looks back on her sometimes challenging experiences, she
learned one critically important lesson for living: How to be grateful for all that life offers.

My parent’s’ divorce when I was thirteen was ugly and acrimonious, and my mother, sister, and I suffered severe financial hardship.

 My school life was important to me and I was disappointed that I was unable to go on to college. World War II affected and changed everyone’s life. We truly thought it was to be the war to end all wars. What a bitter lesson that was. I was emotionally and financially unequipped for the grief and difficulties that followed my husband’s death in 1952. When I look back now, I wonder how we survived.

But my later years have been much easier because I learned to be grateful for what I have, and no longer bemoan what I don’t have or can’t do. Saying “thank you” reminds me of my blessings, which are many. When I look back over my life, the most important things I have learned are these.

My small and modest home gives me a feeling of comfort and security.

Being self-reliant and able to care for myself has been part of my mother’s heritage to me. She didn’t give up when life was difficult and I try not to either. Grief, sorrow, and disappointment are difficult to endure, but in time I realized that there usually was a lesson to be learned and memory has allowed me to remember a person loved who is now gone.

Mother taught me not to cry over “spilt milk”:; Iif you make a mess, clean it up.; Iif you break it, fix it.; Aand if you make a mistake, correct it. She also taught me to keep my word, to be dependable, not to rob others of their time by being late, and to promptly return what I borrow. The world would be a better place if we all learned to value each other, to respect each other’s privacy and differences, and, most importantly, not be judgmental.

We are each responsible for our own well-being, and we need to care for ourselves, not only physical health but also mental and emotional well- being. Worrying never solved a problem and only robs you of your peace of mind.

Life isn’t fair. I believe it is important to have arms outstretched, one hand up—, holding one hand up to the person who is giving a you a lift up— and one hand down, giving some else a helping hand up.

This too will pass, whether it is joy or sorrow. So live each moment of every day. Some days will be passed by putting one foot in front of the other to get through, but others will be filled with joy, every moment worth celebrating.

I have had to live simply but eventually I realized that it is the best way for me to live. That to know what is enough, not to use more than my share of the earth’s resources, to recognize the difference between wants and needs, to enjoy the pleasure of making something broken of use again, and learning to appreciate simple pleasures has made my life more satisfying and less worrisome.

Happiness does not depend on how much we have but is based on personal success of skills and artistry, a sense of humor, the acquisition of knowledge, the refinement of character, the expression of gratitude, the satisfaction of helping others, the pleasure of friends, the comfort of family, and the joy of love.

We hope you enjoyed her list of things for which she is grateful, and we encourage you to make a list of your own!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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.

The View from 102: Lessons from a Century of Life Experience

Is there anything more amazing than at long talk with a 102-year old? There is a time-machine feeling as you listen to a century of memories. So it was talking with Wanda, age 102. Living comfortably in a senior community in upstate New York, Wanda is physically active and mentally sharp – indeed, we spent some time discussing books she was reading. Her lessons are grounded both in a childhood remarkably different from today, as well as her over a century of life experience.

She reflected on her childhood:

Well, the changes since I was a child! We had a horse and buggy. We had a telephone on the wall. Things were a lot different than they are today. I mean, we didn’t have any frozen vegetables. We didn’t have anything like that. We lived on a farm, we had chickens, if you were going to the grocery store you’d take your eggs and you’d get so much money for the eggs and then you’d buy sugar and stuff with the money. My grandmother and my mom did that.

There weren’t washing machines. We had washboards, as they called them. Hang the clothes out on the line. In the wintertime you take them down when you split the wood, you’d have to take them inside to let them thaw, a lot of the times they would just freeze. And if the sun wasn’t out then they wouldn’t defrost very well. And I used to wear long underwear. And if they didn’t defrost then it was frozen underwear!

I was eager to see what a 102-year old would offer as her lessons for living. Here are some pieces of advice Wanda wanted to pass on to younger people.

You just have to take one day at a time. And just be thankful for what you have, and try to do the best you can. Get up in the morning and thank the Lord you’re up. Hopefully you’ll have a good day. I don’t do anything special; just depend on the Lord because if the Lord’s going to take me, He’s going to take me.

If you have a big problem, try to figure it out. Talk to somebody that you think could help you.

Don’t do drugs. I just heard somebody on television this morning who shot somebody; he did it because he was on drugs. I think if you get hooked on it, it’s a bad situation. And don’t get drunk. I don’t think you should get drunk.

Try to be as truthful as you can. Honesty, and trying to help as much as you can. Look at what’s happening in Washington, every time you turn around somebody’s greedy, getting into somebody’s pocket.

I think you should do things that are naturally good for you, eat healthy food, and try to do things that will keep you healthy. And have a good time – don’t forget that!