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.
It’s the time of year when extended families – who may not see much of one another during the year – come together to celebrate the seasonal holidays. If popular culture is to be believed, many parents and their adult children (and in-laws) look forward to the holiday with a mix of pleasure and worry about how everyone will get along. My surveys of approximately 2000 elders translate to the experience of around 160,000 Christmases or Hanukkahs. Here’s their elder wisdom for how families can have a harmonious holiday together.
Eliminate Politics from the Dinner Table Discussion
When you are together at Thanksgiving, the elders advise, make contentious political arguments out of bounds. The elders say that these conflicts are simply unnecessary. Often, the urge is to make your loved ones “really understand” what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. The elders’ advice: Get your family to make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember, we’re not talking here about a lively, enjoyable political discussion; they mean the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car).
Gwen Miles, 94, after many angry family fights over Democrats versus Republicans put her foot down: “I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: “If Dad starts in about politics, I’m going to walk out of the room and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.” The elders recommend applying this same rule to other “hot-button” issues When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, “just saying no” to the debate is an excellent – and potentially relationship-saving – option.
Don’t Try to Fix Each Other’s Life at Thanksgiving
When it comes to parents relating to their adult children, the elders are unequivocal: Let them live their own lives. They sum up this principle as: Don’t interfere unless they ask for your help. As Harriet, age 79, told me: “Give your kids their own lives. Don’t make demands on them. Just be there for them when they need you. And certainly don’t tell them what to do.” Joyce, 90, agreed: “It’s their life. It’s not my life. They all have their own way to do things and if they get into trouble and want some help, they’ll come to me.” Thanksgiving is not the time to exhort your child to get out of a relationship or get into one, to get a new job or stay in the old one, or to get his or her life on track. And the same holds true in the other direction: This is not the time for adult offspring to push the folks to sell the house or to start exercising. Let the holiday also be a break, the elders say, from trying to change one another.
Don’t Take Everything Personally
The elders recommend an important strategy when the family is all together: de-personalize negative interactions as much as you can. By considering, for example, how parents’ (or parents-in-law’s) background and upbringing influence their attitudes and behavior, it’s possible to take conflict less personally and achieve some emotional distance in the relationship. Annie, 81, lived near her parents-in-law for most of her married life and the relationship was not an easy one. But when they got together on holidays, she made this rule: “Rather than assume the worst, it’s more helpful to assume that they are saying things to you because they want to help their child and you. Try to realize that their intentions are good and sometimes people, especially as they get older, can’t change the way they deal with others in their life.” Parents can take the same approach toward their adult children.
Remind Yourself Why You Are Doing It
This final tip from the elders is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult family situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer – both to them, and to yourself. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into a Thanksgiving gathering, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your family. Talking about in-laws, Gwen, 94, said: “You may not like your in-laws very much but you certainly can love them and stay close to them.” According to our elders, stepping back and taking this larger view can get you through the pumpkin pie with a minimum of stress.
I can summarize the lessons I have learned in 71 years of life. I’ve had two marriages: the first one unsuccessful and the second spectacularly successful for the past twenty years. I have two daughters and two stepdaughters and have excellent relations with three of the four. I also have six grandchildren. My husband and I agree that the most important things for a happy life are: luck, flexibility, and keeping one’s options open.
First, luck. No matter how conscientious and hardworking one is there is a limit beyond which one has absolutely not control. One’s health, circumstances, and children are subject to all sorts of outside influences. A catastrophic illness, accident, job dislocation, etc. can wreak havoc with one’s best laid plans. As far as children, no matter how carefully one supervises them at home, once they are away from hoe, other forces come into play and one can only hope that they do not come to harm. So it pays to be lucky!
Second, flexibility. To build lasting relationships with loved ones and to adapt to unforeseen problem situations one has to be flexible. You must be able to “roll with the punches” or you will be broken by them.
Third, keeping one’s options open. Often one is faced with forks in the road, choices which must be made. If one is wise, one will try not to leave oneself with no other recourse. It is not true that one can always retrace one’s steps. So one must carefully weigh the possible consequences of one’s actions. When I found myself with two young children in an unfortunate marriage, I was fortunate that I had the educational background to get a job that enabled me to obtain a divorce and support myself and my family. If I had not had this background life would have been far more difficult for us all. And that is why I always stressed to my daughters that they have a good education.
It’s been a while since we posted one of the elders “Lists for Living.” We love these organized lists, in which some of the Legacy Project elders were able to sum up a lifetime of wisdom in a few key points. Liza, 68, has some thought-provoking ideas for living the good life:
1. You will NOT experience regret over a decision to remain single and childless. Creating your own life can be as exciting as the predictable stresses (and even the joys) of the procreation and education of progeny.
2. Friendships should fit your emotional and intellectual needs. You should have many different kinds of friends – never depend upon just one or two. Understand that you, and thus your friends, should be expected to change over time. Llife is far richer if you vary the nature of your relationships – it is stifling to hitch yourself to/depend upon/share experiences with only one other person.
3. Always take advantage of an opportunity to have new experiences – travel, activities or in the realm of ideas. You learn as much from unpleasant experiences as you do from pleasureable ones.
4. Strive throughout your life to achieve a clear sense of who you are, what you want, what you want to be recalling as you die, and how you wish to be remembered.
5. Devote as much time as possible toward understanding the evolution and history of the universe and of humankind This long-range perspective makes you grateful and more generous.
Last week, many readers helped out Jenny, who was struggling to find a career in today’s difficult job market. This week, I received a request for life lessons for living on a different topic: How to stay connected and manage relationships later on in life. Please share your life wisdom with Ed – what advice do you have for this couple when it comes to evaluating how to spend their social time?
Here’s Ed’s letter to me:
I want to first say that after seeing you discuss your recent book on TV, Lessons for Living” I promptly obtained a copy, read it cover to cover, and realized by intent or just good luck that my wife of more than 60 years and I are still on our honeymoon. We are very lucky , have had a wonderful successful family and friends, many of whom are younger than we are. We are both 80 and are blessed by excellent health, vigor and and youthful appearances. We look and act as if we were in our early sixties, although our three boys are in their fifties.
It is becoming difficult for us to continue a friendship with some of our contemporaries when their entire conversations seem to be focused around their physical problems, illnesses, and subtle disapproval of our life style, friends and family. As a result we tend to spend time with couples who are ten to fifteen years younger than we are.
My question to you: A couple our age with whom we have had a good friendship for more than 10 years now seems to be focused entirely on their illnesses, and criticizing our life style and interests. The husband rarely talks but the wife criticizes our life style, religious (Unitarian) background, and almost anything else that comes to her mind. Is it wrong for us to cut gradually down on the number of encounters with this couple, because we see little likelihood of having a positive continuing relationship or should we just continue to be there for them?
Many thanks for your thoughts.
Please weigh in – what do you suggest, based on your own life wisdom?
I was recently interviewed on WLRN radio, which covers South Florida. A caller to the show told me about her 94-year old father whose lesson for living is: “Keep learning.” I found this to be a very strong sentiment among the Legacy Project 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!
Many of you loved the video with lessons from Gert, 101. I had the pleasure of meeting with Gert again earlier this week, and she is as chipper, and as wise, as ever. When she told me she had taken part in a “flash mob” in Union Square in New York City, however – well, I wasn’t sure what to think.
But I learned that she and other residents of her retirement community, the Hallmark at Battery Park, had in fact done just that: been in a dancing flash mob in busy Union Square. And here’s the video to prove it! You will see Gert front and center.
I’ve got my role model for the later years! Go Gert and friends!
Jim, 82, told me that as people get older, they need to stay connected – and you may have to work at it. He gave the example of how he has branched out in his social life after retiring:
At 70 or 80 my lesson is: Learn to be social. Learn to be an extrovert socially. Enjoy the people around you, don’t criticize them so severely. Yes there are pluses and minuses associated with all people, but be sociable. Enjoy their company and share what’s germane in your own experience with people outside. They too are lonely at times and need somebody to support them. I happen to live in a county that’s dominated by conservative republicans, there’s some good people among them, I’m learning [laughing]. For a liberal democrat to say that- what heresy!
Let me give a little surprise for you. I read in the newspaper two years ago an ad by our county development office, chamber of commerce. And they were advertising for people on the cusp of their careers in their late twenties, early thirties, to apply for admission to a leadership training program. It was an attempt by the county to find people who were going to be the leaders of tomorrow and give them more background on how the county operates. I read and thought: This looks kind of interesting. I bet I can meet some good people and expand the circle of my acquaintances if I get involved in this thing.
So I called up the Chamber of Commerce on sort of a whim and I said ‘can you use another person to enroll in you course?’ And they said ‘oh yes, we’re interested in another person’ ‘Do you have any criteria for experience, for age and so forth’ they said ‘no, we don’t have any criteria’. ‘Well I’m rather old, elderly, would you like a senior person in the class with these younger people’, ‘oh yes, that would be beneficial’. They gave me a scholarsihp to attend this year long course with people that were in their late 20s and 30s. I made a lot of good friends, I enjoyed myself hugely and I’m still called upon to participate in subsequent events. And you know, when you think about fundamentals like that, youhave an opportunity to improve, to increase your value to the community around you. So I had afun time for a year, I was past 80 when I graduated and we all had a wonderful time. It was fun.