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.

A Dog Story: What our Pets Can Teach Us

We don’t own a dog, but we have enjoyed a relationship with our granddog, Max (pictured here in his puppy days). This 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 this 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 an 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 dying, 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.

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.

Never Give Up

An inevitable part of moving through the life course is loss. The elders tell us that we must learn to live with what life hands us, and learn ways to be happy in spite of loss. For example, Gloria told me that widowhood can be  survived and that there is life after loss:

I am a 94-year old woman living in a retirement facility. I am able to live alone in my apartment that has a bedroom, den, living room and kitchen. Many years ago I chose a “catch phrase” by which I live; “ an attitude of gratitude.” I have learned that, if I look, I can always find something good. When my husband, Nelson, was dying of pancreatic cancer, I was glad that after a few tests in the hospital, he was able to be at home until he died. When he became bed-ridden, we had his bed in the living room where people could visit him. We celebrated our 62nd anniversary while he was ill.

Even more devastating is the loss of a child or grandchild in old age. The implicit contract – that you get to die before your children do – is violated, and the pain is not diminished because the parents are older and the children are middle-aged. And yet, the resilient elders mourned deeply but still recommend striving to be “happy in spite of.”

I feel very fortunate to have had a good college experience, a happy marriage and three children, and to have reached the age of 95. Even though I was widowed at 59 and lost my son to cancer at age 34, I have had a very good life. I have learned through this to accept adversity and keep going. One should not ever give up or accept discouragement because there are many routes to fulfillment and a happy life.

I’ve learned that life keeps going on regardless of whether you’re struggling, because you’re going to struggle a whole lot. You’re always going to have problems, but there’s always a brighter tomorrow, too. I think when you find that out when you lose people in your family, like I lost a son, I lost my husband. When you find out there’s faith, life keeps going on. I made a lot of mistakes but everybody does. I wish we could go back, but none of us can, that’s what you learn, you have to keep going whether you make a mistake or not. We all make mistakes.

“It All Boils Down to Choices”: Marge’s List of Lessons for Living

A profound list of lessons from Marge, 84. Two pieces of advice stand out to me: “It all boils down to choices. Make a bad one in a few seconds, and live with the consequences for the rest of your life.: And: “Those who make a plan for their lives have an advantage over those who just float merrily along.”

I write poetry for children and for the old. The media generation escapes me. I really would like to know what is going on, but it all seems as alien as the planet Mars. What could I tell them out of my experience that would have any meaning for them?

The world has changed in so many ways, most of them unhealthy . Perhaps the Indian elders are able to talk to their youth, since they have the tribal background and are traditionally respected. In my 84-year-old case, I feel that I have lost their attention. If I could re-capture it for fifteen minutes, I would say this:

It all boils down to choices. Make a bad one in a few seconds, and live with the consequences for the rest of your life. When you are young, lots of the choices have to do with sex and relationships. Use your head, and go carefully.

If you have a chance, get as much education as you can, because it gives you options you would not have otherwise. Find out what your strong suite is, and follow up on it. Don’t be afraid to seek advice . If words are your thing, and you think you might make a writer, don’t wait until you are 70 years old as I did.

Those who make a plan for their lives have an advantage over those who just float merrily along. This, in fact, is what I did, and I had a wonderful ride – but if someone had asked me “What do you want to do with your life? You’re only going to get one.” I might have focused more, and perhaps made a difference . But no one ever did. Too late for regrets!

One must make a living, and it is not easy these days. But don’t insist on being a millionaire. Focus on making enough money to bring up your children, educate them, save and invest anything extra for your old age.

If you have children, spend time with them, doing “stuff” like going on beach picnics, going to the zoo , reading poetry and stories at bed time, making cookies, at Christmas, singing with them, using art materials( Kids clean up well.) These are things they will remember in later life.

I think I’ll stop here. If I get preachy, no young person is going to listen.

Don’t Put It Off and Be Sorry When You’re Older

Gail, 91, has one piece of advice for avoiding regrets: Do it now. What young people will regret, she suggests, is not pursuing opportunities while they can.

Well, I kind of regret some decisions because I wanted to have a certain skill and I didn’t pursue it and I really regret it and that’s what I’d like to say to young people: If they’ve got an idea, for example, if they want to be a veterinarian, they should do it and not put it off and be sorry when they’re older that they didn’t.

That’s what happened to me, and that’s something that they can learn from older people: Don’t wait because you only have one life. If you mess it up when you’re young, then it might be too late when you get older or maybe you just don’t feel like it or you might have some kind of health problems or something and you just can’t do it. But I think young people are more energetic and they should pursue what they’re going to do when they’re young, not wait, that’s what I learned.

Maureen’s List for Living – The View from 93

Maureen, 93, wrote:

Some of the lessons I’ve learned in my 93 years are:

1) Never judge a book by its cover. In other words, don’t judge people by their looks.

2) Keep confidences told you by other people. Don’t tell stories which are to be kept “only for your ears”.

3) Do not borrow money or valuables from friends. Banks are the place to go if borrowing is necessary.

4) You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Compliment others when they deserve if. They’ll thrive.

5) Avoid solving personal problems for others. If you do, they may backfire.

6) Be a listener. Some people need you simply to listen to them.

7) Keep your physical ills between you and your doctor.

8 ) Keep your political ideas between you and the ballot box.

9) Money can be the roof of all evil but it doesn’t have to be that. Become investor and consumer oriented.

10) Although one has lived a long time, that person must take steps not to become a bore. Criticism of the younger folks gets one nowhere!

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 Values I’ve Learned, Old-Fashioned But True

Some of the elders shared their core values, summing up wisdom gained over a lifetime. One of these responses came from Maureen, who is nearing her hundredth birthday.

I am 97 and 5/6 so I have had a long learning time! (I was at my university in June for my 75th reunion.) These are some of the values I’ve learned over my life; old fashioned but true.

1. Integrity. Without honesty, dependability, truthfulness, and self-respect life isn’t worth living.

2. Commitment. To marriage and sexual fidelity. To good family life, for without it, even though one inherits a good “nature” it is difficult through “nurture” to learn patience, respect for others, cooperation, and love anywhere else.

3. Healthy living. Best learned in family.

4. Respect for racial, cultural, and religious differences. Not only tolerated but understood if possible.

5. Hard work. Setting attainable goals and persistence in attaining them. One doesn’t have to be a wealthy big shot to be a successful person or have a “good life”.

6. Immersion in a “cause” bigger than oneself.

7. Expansion of one’s interests through reading, study of arts and sciences. Keep up to date.

8. Deep but unfanatical faith in a higher being. It is basic to a caring, generous, whole human being who can maintain equilibrium in a turbulent world.

By trying to learn these “lessons” I find that one is bound to be respected, loved, happy, even considered a role model.