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!

The Pleasures of Learning: Tony’s Story

One of our wise elders in the Legacy Project told me that his lesson for living is: “Keep learning.” I found this to be a very strong sentiment among many other elders as well.

Their message is that old age can be highly enjoyable and filled with new opportunities, if you remain curious and open to learning experiences. Let’s  visit with a prime example of active aging. I have purposely selected someone who doesn’t consider himself “exceptional” – not a 90 year old triathlete or best-selling novelist. Instead, here’s a realistic look at successful aging.

Sometimes after an encounter with an exceptional older person, you will year someone say: “When I grow up, I want to be just like her (or him)!” I had that reaction after listening to Tony, who at 73 is having the time of his life. A positive, open, and energetic person, Tony enjoyed his worklife, but it’s in his later years that a host of new avenues for interest and pleasure have opened up for him.

After Tony retired, he decided to expand his lifelong interest in art history.

I became very friendly with all of these teachers and it was just wonderful to know them. I then became a docent – an interpretive guide – at an art museum. Then I got to the point where I was giving solo gallery lectures. That led to teaching courses at our local senior center. I’ve always had this ability to just jump at whatever it is, even though it maybe seems like it’s a lot of work and very difficult, might take a lot of time, but the idea is great, so I do it.

He joked: “I’m busier now than when I was working. I probably should have worked at this level!”

Staying physically active is also very important to Tony.

I play tennis. I’m thrilled that at 73 I can still run. In fact, there are times when I run that I feel like I kid again. You feel the wind going by you and you’re running up to hit the ball. On a tennis court I will run and go berserk. And it’s true for all the other guys. I’m basically the youngest guy there. The others, I just respect and admire them. They’re in their mid- to late seventies and so active and able to play. And I think most of the people I play with always have the same credo. They wouldn’t mind dropping dead on a tennis court.

As long as your health is good, it’s not going to be a problem. Your health is good, your mind is good, you just have to keep your interest level up. I don’t know what determines that, what makes a person still passionate late in life. Certainly I am. To me, it’s just every day is a revelation. I have such a great time.

One thing we learned from our interviews is this: The elders believe that a key to successful aging is to “say yes.” Tony expresses this lesson eloquently, and links it to his childhood experiences:

I don’t turn anything down, I really don’t. That’s another credo. I think when I was younger, I didn’t realize the importance of what people were asking me to do at that time. It may have sloughed off things that I should have done, but I don’t anymore. I just don’t turn anything down. That’s a credo.

I was the kid that roamed all through the neighborhood’s great parks near us, myself and a bunch of kids were just on the loose. Our family never knew where we went. We roamed everywhere, miles and miles. We were like Huckleberry Finn type kids. And I would turn stones over and collect all of the creatures and keep them home and keep them in aquariums and stuff like that. And at 73, I’m still like that. I’m still turning over stones.

May we all continue to “turn over stones,” no matter how old we are!

What You Do When You’re Young Will Hunt You Up When You Get Old

Manuel, 79, has stayed healthy for nearly 80 years. His lesson? Start thinking about the consequences of your health behaviors while you are young:

What you do when you’re young, it will hunt you up when you get old.  If you’re young,  take care of your body and live right and go to the doctor and keep your self in good shape. And don’t abuse your body in any way, shape, or form and everything.

Like the good book says, too much of anything will hurt you.  Too much smoking will hurt you, too much drinking, too much drugs will hurt you, too much medicine will hurt you.  So you can’t overdo any of those things, that’s what it takes to keep your body in shape so that when you get old your body is not hurt.  Now if you don’t do that, a lot of things might come out later on in life.

Why I’m Looking Forward to December

I’ve spent a lot of the past decade interviewing wise and fascinating older people. But I think I’m in for what may be my most exciting interviewee ever: Tao Porchon Lynch. For anyone able to get to New York City on lynchDecember 17 to join us, it should be a memorable event.

At 98 years young,Tao Porchon Lynch is still teaching yoga.  She marched with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930 Salt March, helped Jews escape the Nazis as a French Resistance fighter during World War II, and walked with Martin Luther King. It would take much more than a blog post to list her other achievements, from being a contestant on America’s Got Talent (at age 96), to writing about the “spiritual side of being, to maintaining an active yoga teaching schedule.

The organizers of the series on life wisdom at the Rubin Museum have invited us to discuss “the secrets to a good life.” I can’t imagine a better source for information about that theme than Tao!

“It’s Not Dying You Should Worry About” – Elder Advice on Staying Healthy

I’ll bet you’ve never heard of Lester Breslow, who died last week at the age of 97.

But for people interested in public health, he’s the man. In a famous series of studies, Breslow found that certain simple behaviors lead to much better heatlh. We don’t need fancy diets or regimens; what we need is to do is: maintain normal weight, exercise at least a few times a week, stop smoking, have breakfast, sleep 7-8 hours, and drink in moderation.

Okay, I said “simple.” But many of us struggle to do even a few of these healthful practices. I wondered if people who have lived most of their lives would have any special advice to help motivate the rest of us. So in our surveys of over 1,200 older Americans, we were interested in what people in their 70s, 80s and beyond would propose the young do about their health.

 It turns out that the elders indeed have a profound insight that can transform how younger people look at their health behaviors — before it’s too late. In a nutshell, here’s what they told us:

It’s not dying you should worry about — it’s chronic disease.

This insight — that we should motivate ourselves to healthy behavior based on the threat of chronic illness, and not of dying — can be a powerful motivator for behavior change. Here’s why.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when people engage in a bad health habit, they try to justify it by talking about dying. Acquaintances who are obese, or smokers, or non-exercisers frequently say that “No one lives forever,” and “Well, if it just cuts a few years of my life, it’s worth it to me.” In fact, I’ve had a couple of beloved family members who said things like: “I love to smoke, so who cares if I drop dead a year or two earlier than I might have?”

According to the oldest Americans, this perspective is all wrong. Because older people know first-hand that the likely penalty for bad health habits isn’t an early death. Instead, dying young is the least of your worries — what you are likely to be in for is years of chronic disease.

Their view is crystal clear: Forget the comforting notion that smoking, over-eating, and other lifestyle choices mean dropping dead one day, a little earlier than other people, perhaps, but so what? In fact, this kind of easy way out almost never occurs. Instead, people sentence themselves to an enormous burden of heart problems, lung disease, and chronic pain, sometimes lasting decades.

So the elders’ lesson is that what you do now for your health is critically important for your future. But, they say, what should really motivate you (I’d even say scare you) is not how long you live, but how well you are going to live. Remember: Your body may need to last you a hundred years — so live that way.

Charlotte, age 84, summed it up nicely:

What you do when you’re young, it will hunt you up when you get old. If you’re young, take care of your body and live right and go to the doctor and keep yourself in good shape. Don’t abuse your body in any way, shape, or form. Now if you don’t do that, a lot of things come out later on in life.

And our interviews show that some of the most regretful elders are those who made bad choices and wound up with debilitating chronic disease. Tina, 80, sadly reported about her beloved husband:

We were married 47 years. He promised me we’d have a 50th anniversary, and he lied to me. He left me at 47 and a half. He was sick for quite a while. He had a heart attack and prior to that he had carotid surgery, first one side then the other. He was a smoker. The kids saw how he had to suffer. And when you told him something about it, ‘Don’t smoke like that’ or his drinking, he’d say ‘So what? You’ve got to die sometime.’ But who suffers? The family.

Examples like this aren’t meant to depress you, but to get you to take action. Stop justifying bad habits by saying “Who cares? We all have to die of something.” Because believe me, there’s no certainty that anyone will just “drop dead” from smoking or obesity — there’s no guarantee of an easy way out after a life of poor health choices. This life lesson from America’s elders is backed up by research — ignore it and you may be looking forward to a long and difficult old age.

How to be 89: Lenore’s Advice for Aging Well

Lenore, 89, sent her lessons learned in a remarkable letter. She reflects on what makes for a good life, as well as a good old age. Some secrets: Keep learning, keep active, keep laughing.

I am 89 years young at heart. I am living in assisted living. I have six children, four are mine and two are my husband’s children. My two husbands are deceased. I have 11 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren, so far. Your letter reached me recently and I would like to participate in your project.

The following are some of the most important lessons I have learned over my long life.

Keep learning every day that passes. Education is important and you are never too old to learn something new- i.e. computers and the latest technology or a new way to cook something or how to make a quilt. Take classes that are offered by your local library.

Satisfy your curiosity. Read the newspaper each day as well as listen to the television. Make up your own mind on current events. Keep a dictionary by your side to look up new words.

Keep active both mentally and physically every day. Life has so much to offer. Take a walk if you can. Even if you are wheelchair bound do some movement of your arms and legs. Read magazines or books and share your thoughts with others.

Keep your sense of humor. Life is so much fun and a laugh lightens whatever is wrong.

Be responsible for your acts. Don’t lie. It is easier to tell the truth and the truth always comes out the same without thinking about it. Finally, have a strong faith in God no matter what life deals you.

Sincerely yours,


P.S. Someone typed this for me because I type only with my left hand index finger.

Adapting to Aging, with a Positive Attitude

One thing I learned from the elders in the Legacy Project is that they generally do not see aging as a fearsome process of decline. Instead, it can be enjoyed, based on a positive attitude, despite problems.

Rebecca, 92, told me:

Aging can be a wonderful experience. Don’t misunderstand me, there are aches and pains, they do come along and you think when you’re young, that’s not going to happen – but, oh yes, it does. But you learn to live with it and enjoy what you have been given by God.

And Sharon, 76, put it this way:

It’s hard sometimes, growing old is hard. But you just have to accept it and live each day to the fullest. A lot of people, if they get an ache or a pain or something then they think, “This is it.” Well you’ve got to just keep going and get the most out of every day.

Act Now to Stay Healthy

Terry Chang, 77, made looking out for your health when you’re young his top lesson for living:

Well I know this: age is okay. But you need to have your health.  If you have to be pushed around in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank, if there’s anything in life that you know right now that can prevent that, do it.

Because as you get older, that’s when you really have an opportunity to sit back and enjoy life a lot more if you’re not in terrible health because you’re obese or something you can’t help or something like that. Whatever you can do to maintain your health, and like I say stay away from cigarettes or whatever, because it will definitely make a difference later on in life. Put enough money away every year to go have an annual physical.