Interview: Ashton Applewhite on Her New Book, “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism”

It is an enormous pleasure to devote a post to a conversation with author and advocate Ashton Applewhite. Her new This-Chair-Rocks-Ashton-Applewhite-Author-and-Bookbook, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism, was just published to great acclaim. Cultural critic Katha Pollitt captured what all the critics are saying: “Vibrant, energetic, fact-filled and funny, This Chair Rocks is a call to arms not just for older people but for our whole society.”

We joined Ashton for a fascinating dialogue about where the book came from, and where she’s going next in her work to combat ageism. To learn more, check out the video at the end!

Thanks for joining us here at the Legacy Project! Let’s begin with a background question. You want to reframe the way American culture sees age and aging. What got you started on this path?

About eight years ago I began interviewing people over 80 for a project called “So when are you going to retire?” and reading about longevity. It didn’t take long to realize that almost everything I thought I knew about aging was wrong. I had no idea that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, for example. That the vast majority of Americans over 65 live independently. The older people get, the less afraid they are of dying. Why don’t more people know this stuff? Because we live in a culture that drowns out all but the negative about growing old, or even just aging past youth. Why is that? Because social and economic forces frame aging as a problem, so they can sell us remedies to “fix” or “stop” or “cure” it. Aging is a natural, lifelong, profoundly enriching process—experience tells us so. Aging means living, which is why it’s so damn interesting. And to paraphrase British journalist Anne Karpf, it makes no more sense to be anti-aging than anti-breathing.

How did arrive at the arresting design on your book cover?

We gave brilliant designer and friend Rebeca Mendez a tough commission: come up with a cover that feels warm and human but also sharply political. And will jump out at readers from a crowded bookstore window. She was scratching her head until my partner suggested that the epigraph of the book might serve as inspiration. It’s a quote by the wonderful writer Anne Lamott: “We contain all the ages we have ever been.” Rebeca’s painting beautifully captures that idea.

An ageist society aspires to “agelessness,” an artificial and unattainable goal that strips us of our years. I love the way the cover represents the opposite, which I call “agefulness”— a rich accretion of all the things we’ve done and been, stored within our bones and brains, that makes us who we are.

If you could banish one stereotype about aging, what would it be?

The notion that older people are alike! It’s why people think everyone in a retirement home is the same age—“old”—even though residents can span four decades. (Can you imagine thinking that way about a group of 20- to 60-year-olds?) It’s why the last box on those marketing checklists – you know, 18-26, 27-39, etc., end at 65+—as though everyone over 65 buys the same stuff and does the same things.

Stereotyping—the assumption that all members of a group are the same— underlies all the “isms.” It’s always a mistake, but especially when it comes to age, because as the years pass, of course we grow more different from one another. It’s why geriatricians say: “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.” We all age at different rates —mentally, physically, and socially—which is why there’s no such thing as “acting your age.” Chronological age tells you almost nothing about an individual—not what they’re listening to or who they’re voting for or where they’re headed—and the older the person, the less reliable an indicator it becomes.

You make a case for an anti-ageism campaign as a public health initiative. Tell us about that.

A growing body of evidence shows that attitudes towards aging have an actual, measurable, physical effect on how we age. There’s no inherent reason for the effect to be negative. But an ageist culture tells us that wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. When we assimilate these stereotypes, they become part of our identity, and this influences how our brains and bodies function.

In one experiment, social scientists primed a group of college students with negative age stereotypes—words like “forgetful,” “Florida,” and “bingo”—that they flashed on a screen too briefly for the subjects to become aware of them. The students then walked to the elevator measurably more slowly than a control group! Imagine the effect on older people for whom the terms are more relevant, and thus more likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

People with more positive feelings about aging behave differently from those convinced that growing old means becoming irrelevant or pathetic. They do better on memory tests and have better handwriting. They can walk faster and are more likely to recover fully from severe disability. And they actually live longer—an average of seven and a half years. Everyone agrees that health has the biggest effect on how we age—and how much it costs. So think what a national anti-ageism campaign would do to extend not just the lifespan but the “healthspan” of all Americans.

Why do so many of us have such a hard time actually admitting our age…saying it out loud?

You’d have to live in a cave to miss the messages all around us that old=bad, and that aging is to be feared and avoided by any means necessary. No wonder so many of us are reluctant to part with the equivalent of a cultural “sell-by” date! It’s an understandable strategy. Attempting to “pass” for younger, the way people of color have passed for white and gay people for straight, is a way to avoid being discriminated against. But “passing” takes a psychological toll, because it’s rooted in denial and distaste, even disgust. We’re reluctant to divulge our age because we’ve internalized the profoundly ageist notion that our older self is inferior to our younger one.

Do you honestly think that the person you are now has less to offer than the twenty- or thirty-something you once did? That you’re less interesting now? Less valuable? How about less attractive? If that gets a nod, consider the industries that make billions by commodifying our dissatisfaction with our bodies—especially women’s. Who gets to decide that wrinkles are ugly? It’s time to look more generously at ourselves, the way the body-acceptance movement urges, and to stop colluding in devaluing ourselves as older women.

When we claim our age, the number loses its power over us. It’s a little like a spell breaking. We can’t stop aging, even if we wanted to, but we can change the way we feel about it—the first step in any revolution. Then we can start to see where those ageist messages come from, and work together to challenge the structures that benefit from them.

Why do you dislike the term “successful aging?”

Terms like “successful aging” and “productive aging” and “active aging” are popular, and provide an upbeat counterpoint to the standard narrative of aging-as-decline. They’re seductive, because we really, really want to think we can keep doing the things we love for as long as we live. We often can—versions of them, that is—especially if we have access to healthcare, and exercise, and eat well. But the goalposts shift. In addition to taking care of ourselves, we’d do well to decouple self-worth from longstanding measures of earning power or physical prowess. Much is not under our control, and making the necessary supports available to all older Americans will require implementation at the policy level.

It’s important to keep in mind that many of the resources that help us “age well” are predominantly available to the lucky and reasonably well off. Sanitized or romanticized exemplars of “successful aging”—those silver-maned couples waltzing on the foredeck of a cruise ship—set an unreasonable standard and suggest that less “successful” agers are responsible for their circumstances. Everyone can make sensible choices, but barriers like heavy caregiving responsibilities, inadequate health care, and neighborhoods with few resources make it more difficult. Blaming the poor for “bad choices” makes aging another arena in which we succeed or fail based on terms that are far from neutral. There’s a lot of harsh judgment of olders who aren’t physically mobile or conventionally economically productive, and that’s not OK. All aging is successful—not just the sporty version—otherwise you’re dead.

Are olders really as much of an economic drag on society as the media portrays?

Absolutely not! People 50 and up fuel the significant, fast-growing, and often-overlooked “longevity economy,” which according to AARP accounted for 46 percent of US gross domestic product ($7.1 trillion) in 2012. By 2021 the 50-plus age group is projected to drive more than half of US economic activity, as their spending fuels industries that include apparel, health care, education and entertainment. These statistics capture only part of the economic contribution of older Americans, whose unpaid volunteer work in 2013 was valued at $67 billion. And while “entrepreneur” might conjure up an image of a kid in that proverbial garage, twice as many successful American entrepreneurs are over age 20 as in their early 20s.. More resources have always flowed from older generations to younger ones than the reverse.

This is despite widespread age discrimination in employment, which prevents older workers from finding challenging work of which they’re eminently capable, and relegates them to jobs that don’t take advantage of their skills and experience—Wal-Mart greeters, say. It also makes it harder for them to find part-time and volunteer positions. Discouraged and diminished, many become economically dependent, contributing to the misperception that olders are a net burden to society, but it’s not by choice.

Society has grown far less tolerant of sexism and racism. Why do ageist attitudes and behaviors still get a pass?

That’s what I’d like to know! Can you imagine anyone (not counting Donald Trump) complacently identifying himself as sexist or racist? Yet no one even blinks when older people are described as incompetent, or boring, or even repulsive. (And most people are unaware that younger people also face age bias.) Older people can be the most prejudiced of all, having had a lifetime to internalize negative myths and stereotypes that have gone unquestioned—until now. Diversity became a buzzword because society grew less tolerant of racism and sexism and homophobia. We want different faces around the table because we don’t think access to opportunity should depend on what someone looks like. Graying hair and wrinkles count. It is high time to make the last socially sanctioned prejudice as unacceptable as any other kind.

If that seems like a tall order, look at how much has shifted in how we look at gender, and how rapidly. It used to be viewed as a rigid binary, male or female, but we now understand that it’s far more fluid. If gender can be conceived of this way, why on earth not age, which is inherently, obviously, a continuum? Why not shake off our fear of being on the “wrong” side of some imaginary old/young divide and embrace a more flexible, friendly, and far more rational view of age?

You call yourself an Old Person in Training. Why?

I’m 63. I know I’m not young, I don’t see myself as old, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. We spend a lot of energy pretending that the old are somehow not us—not even future us—and that we’ll somehow never get old. Even though it’s irrational. Even though we’re doomed to fail. Even though it fills us with needless dread. Even though that denial is where ageism takes root. That’s why I’ve become an old person in training, a phrase I appropriated from geriatrician Joanne Lynn.

Becoming an Old Person in Training bridges that divide between our younger and older selves, and connects them empathically. It acknowledges the inevitability of growing old while relegating it to the future, albeit at an ever-smaller remove. It swaps purpose and intent for dread and denial. It’s a relief. It feels right and it makes sense..

What’s does becoming an Old Person in Training involve? It means looking at older people instead of past them, remembering they were once our age, seeing resilience alongside infirmity, allowing for sensuality, enlarging our notion of beauty, and acknowledging that an apartment, or a room or even just a bed can be home to an internal world as rich as ours—and very possibly richer. It means thoughtful peeks through the periscope of an open mind at the terrain we’ll inhabit when we are finally old. I see the ninety-year-old me as withered and teetery, but also curious and content. Envisioning her won’t make it happen, but the aspiration will surely help. The consensus from people over eighty, who should know, is that young people worry way too much about getting old. So the earlier we make this imaginative leap, the better—and the better equipped we’ll be to benefit from the journey.

You’d like your book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, to help catalyze a mass movement against ageism, the way Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring catalyzed the environmental movement. What kind of actions would you like to see?

My book lays out a blueprint in every domain. Change starts between our ears, with the difficult task of unlearning beliefs we’ve held all our lives. Some places to start:

  • Look for ways in which you’re ageist instead of looking for evidence that you aren’t. You can’t challenge bias unless you’re aware of it, and everyone’s biased some of the time.
  • Talk to people significantly older and younger than you, and listen carefully. If you don’t know many of them, seek them out.
  • The next time you wonder whether an outing or an outfit or an attitude is age-appropriate, reconsider the question. There’s no such thing.

Change ripples outward when we point out ageist behaviors and beliefs in the world around us. Some places to start:

  • Train yourself to notice when everyone in a group is the same age, and unless there’s some legitimate reason, speak up about it.
  • Assume capacity, not incapacity. Don’t assume someone is too old—or too young—to weigh in on a topic or take on a responsibility.
  • If you’re on the receiving end of an ageist comment, ask gently, “Why would you say [or think] that?” Then just be quiet.
  • If you’re feeling ambitious, start a consciousness-raising group around age bias. This powerful tool catalyzed the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. You can download my guide, Who Me, Ageist?,

Changing the culture is a tall order, but look at how women’s roles have changed in a single generation, and at the amazing progress we’ve made in this century alone against homophobia and transphobia.

If this new radical age movement had a slogan, what would you like it to be?

Age pride! Age pride is for dissed teenagers and dismissed olders and everyone in between. Age pride is for Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, who said, “We must be proud of our age” and who, if she’d lived long enough, would have beaten me to “Occupy age!”—my other favorite slogan. If marriage equality is here to stay, why not age equality? If gay pride has gone mainstream, and millions of Americans now take pride in identifying as disabled, why not age pride? The only reason that idea sounds outlandish is because this is the first time you’ve encountered it. It won’t be the last. Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is aging. Dismantling ageism benefits us all.

Bonus video:  I’ve figured out what to call ourselves.

“Until Death Do Us Part” – Here’s What It Really Looks Like

do us partMany marriage ceremonies contain a promise to stay together “until death do us part.” Among the hundreds of long-married elders we interviewed for the Marriage Advice Project, we interviewed people who had lived that phrase. Often after a period of intensive caregiving, a husband or wife had to say goodbye to a beloved partner after 40, 50, 60 or more years together.

Eugenio was one such husband, and he shares what this promise to stay together for life really means.

An Amazing Year for “30 Lessons for Loving” – Thanks to All!

Usually we devote this blog to sharing our elders’ practical advice for living. But I’d like to start out the new year by thankingthanks! all of you for helping to make the book based on the Legacy Project – 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage – such a huge success. Based on surveys of over 700 elders – most married for three decades or more – the book provides guidance for finding a partner, keeping the spark alive, and making it to the finish line of a long and happy marriage. The book was published a year ago and just came out in paperback. And what a year it has been!

First, many thanks to wonderful folks in the media who kept me extraordinarily busy and helped spread the word about the Legacy Project. The hosts of the CBS Morning News made me so comfortable, I forgot about stage fright, as did the team at Fox & Friends and many other media outlets. I’m also grateful for major coverage from USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and so many others. It’s great how many journalists really understand the importance of elder wisdom.

Second, I’m grateful to the many reviewers who responded so positively to the book. One of the wisest people I know is renowned advice columnist Amy Dickinson (“Ask Amy”), who called the book:

“A must-read for anyone contemplating marriage. The knowledge and wisdom gathered from this huge group of elders is both modern and timeless. It is inspiring, insightful, witty, and often — surprising. This is everything about living — and loving — in a long relationship I wish my grandmother had told me. I highly recommend it for engaged couples and newlyweds.”

Publisher’s Weekly said that “The advice is astute, fresh, and well selected by Pillemer. This book would serve as an excellent gift for newlyweds. And Blogcritics noted: “I highly recommend anyone considering getting into a relationship, having trouble with a relationship, hoping that a relationship will last, or questioning whether it’s time to get on with a relationship or leave it behind not just read this book but believe what’s in this book. It just might save a broken heart or two.”

Third,  I’m grateful to all of my readers, whose response to the book has been nothing short of overwhelming. You told me:

  • This is the best book I have read of its kind on this topic because it is simple and real advice from actual people who have been in long term relationships. Nothing is sugar coated and there are no quick fixes. After reading this book, I’ve been given new insight into other relationship behaviors that I will definitely cherish for the rest of my life whether I remain single or meet someone. Truly inspiring and touching. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but this book was life changing for me.
  • Learning from those who are older and wiser, who can speak from experience is an excellent approach. Well written and a very enjoyable read. I have purchased this book as a gift for others three times since reading it. The advice given is invaluable, practical and straight forward.
  • My husband I both read the book and found it to be full of helpful advice. It’s a good reminder of what it takes to have a long, success marriage at any stage. I not only recommend it to married couples, but more importantly, to those looking for the love of their life. Older adults have a wealth of knowledge and experience that we don’t always get to hear. It makes me think of my own grandparents – who have since passed – and the advice they might have shared. Love this book!
And I especially loved it when so many readers told me they purchased the book for loved ones getting married! I signed copies for some of them, and I am always happy to do so on request.
Finally, thanks to all of you who join us on the Legacy Project Site – around 15,000 people every month. You are the best endorsement of all of the value of elder wisdom and the ways it can enrich our lives!

 

 

Older People and Sex: Prepare to Be Surprised

I’d like to share a revelation with you. It took me months of pondering my interview data from hundreds of
long-loving couplemarried elders, but I finally got it. It’s about sex and older people – not something younger folks think about a lot. However, when I have given talks to 20- and 30-somethings about my book of advice from people married a half-century or more, I know there is one question in the back of their minds, even if they don’t come out and say it:

How can sex possibly stay interesting for a lifetime?

I have good news for you. I’m going to allay your worst fears and help you to relax about the idea of sex in the later years of marriage. I will tell you the spoiler right now. The message from our elders is: don’t waste your time worrying about sex in later life, because its pretty good. But first, here’s the revelation. Ready?

The reason you are worried about this issue is because sex between people a lot older than you always seems kind of gross. I don’t know if this characteristic is bred into us through evolution, if it is the product of ageist stereotypes, or some other reason.

The problem I discovered with younger people thinking about sex in later life is that they envision themselves now, at their age, somehow with an 80-year old. But the revelation is this: Its just fine when you have grown old together. You’ve learned what your partner is like (and likes), you are comfortable with one another – and you’re older, too. The beauty of staying married for a long time is that you enjoy each other and giving each other pleasure is fun. And there is absolutely nothing yucky about it.

Alfredo, age 77, captured this phenomenon succinctly. He pointed out that when you are aging together, a lot of things just seem pretty much the same:

Somehow as you get older you kind of get blind to the infirmities that affect the other party. And you always see them the way they were. You don’t see aging. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t know if the brain is wired for that, but that’s the way it is. You just need to have a spark to begin with. And whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it. We’re in our mid-70s, and we still have a fine sexual relationship, it’s wonderful. You make do with what you’ve got, basically.

And the elders assure you that you are likely to feel the same way.

I have some credibility on this issue, because I don’t know anyone who over the past few years has talked to as many very old people about sex as I have. At first it was awkward, but after the first two or three elders eagerly embraced the topic, I was no longer embarrassed. It’s something they have thought about a lot and still think about. And indeed, they have some lessons for you about it.

First, let’s be clear: many elders continue to have sex, and most believe that it is important to keep up a sexual relationship. Although younger people often hold a negative image of the “sexless older years,” research shows that in marriages (or long-term committed relationships), rates of sexual activity are actually quite high. Indeed, for married people whose health does not interfere with intimacy, the vast majority of people age 65 and over are sexually active.

And that’s what the elders will tell you. Diane, age 74, speaks for many of the elders:

I think sex is very important because it’s kind of the glue that keeps the spark alive in a marriage. The one special expression that a married couple has is through sex—sexual intercourse—through keeping your bond just very close and very tight. It’s that expression that makes your spouse know that they’re loved and well cared for and you put all the other things with it.

To be sure, there are elders – just as there are people at any age – who are sexually incompatible or for whom their sex life is contentious or unfulfilling. In some cases, physical illness leads to lack of sexual interest or ability, causing distress for one or both partners (and again, such maladies can occur at any age). But the majority of the elders in long marriages found that sexuality can remain interesting and fulfilling into the ninth and tenth decades of life. Indeed, they believe that young people are just plain mistaken when they worry about “the sexless older years.”

As Rachel, age 86, told me:

If you’re really physically and sexually attracted to somebody and your head is working right, then you should be able to feel that all the way until the end of your life. And what fun that is! I don’t know whether young people hear that kind of thing. They think, you know, when you get to have gray hair that the sex just removes itself from your life, but that’s not true. Not at all.

So for many, sexual activity doesn’t stop. But there’s even better news: As you grow older, the idea of sex expands. It grows to include – and even to emphasize – a much wider range of loving and romantic behaviors. Over and over, the elders used the term intimacy, which they believe goes beyond sexual intercourse itself. Many described the deep joy of emotional and physical intimacy with a partner of many years, adding that having sex itself was additional spice in the stew – or a tasty side dish, as Gertrude, age 73, says:

How important is sex? Well when I was young, I thought it was 90 per cent! But at 71, it’s a very lovely side dish. And I do think it’s important—yes, I do. At our age, it’s not as much the hot romance kind of thing as it is for young people. But there’s a certain wonderful friendship that exists if you have the basic foundation for it; if you’ve made that, you’ve got each other. And it’s quite nice! Of course this is a woman’s viewpoint, but the comfort of touch: a hug, a kiss . . . those are things that mean I love you.

Or as Beverly, age 69, put it: “The great thing at our age is that sex is not about procreation; this is purely about recreation!”

Given my own stereotypes, I was surprised to hear many of the elders describe intimacy in later life as satisfying as (or even better than) when they were younger. They tried to convey – sometimes with difficulty – the sublime pleasure of physical intimacy with a partner of 50 or more years. Mason, age 77, described his feelings, based on his 40-year marriage, in a way I found deeply moving:

I think what happens is the spark changes.  You know, initially there’s a lot of physical attraction and that continues. But it changes over time so that the romance or whatever you want to call it becomes actually much more profound.  It’s less, what’s the word – frenetic maybe. For me anyway it’s really wonderful just to be able to sit together reading or watching TV, and I’ll just hold her hand or touch her arm or whatever.  There’s a kind of a quietness there that’s quite deep. It’s very fulfilling.   You feel a peaceful intimacy that’s in a way really more meaningful than the frenetic thing.

So here’s the lesson to carry with you, whether you are a 25-year old pondering marriage or a 60-year old wondering about the future. According to the elders, the sexual side of things – barring a troubled history or serious physical problems – is going to be at least good enough to keep you happy, and may be much better than that. There are lots of things to worry about in life. But fretting about sexless later years isn’t one of them.

CONTEST! Win a Free Autographed Copy of “30 Lessons for Loving”

We’re so grateful to the tremendous feedback we’ve received about 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest 30LL-book-cover-t53bi3Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage that we want to give something back! So we’re holding a contest where you can win an autographed copy of the book delivered to your front door. All you have to do is share your lessons for loving. Or you tell us about the lessons you’ve learned from a wise elder in your life about love, relationships, and marriage.

To enter, here’s what you need to do:

1. Go to www.marriagelegacy.org.

2. Scroll down the page to the Share Your Lessons for Loving section.

3. Enter your lessons in the box provided, as well as the other information requested. Give us one lesson or many; it’s up to you.

4. Be sure to include your email address, so we can contact you if you are a winner.

5. Please note: The contest closes at midnight, Friday, March 20!

We’ll select the two best entries. These two winners will be mailed an autographed copy of 30 Lessons for Loving. And we will post other responses on our blog.

So let’s hear from you!

Join Me January 20 on 30 Lessons Radio Tour!

I’m spending January 20th on radio interviews around the country, talking about 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Radio tourWisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. Hope you can join me! Here’s the schedule – and if you miss it live, ceheck the station for the recording. And your comments are always welcome!

Karl’s January 20 Radio Tour

Time

Location

Show

8:35-8:40 Cleveland, OH “Wake Up   Lake County” – WINT-AM
8:40-8:50 Atlanta, GA “Morning   Show with Bill & Joel”- WDUN-FM
9:05-9:20 Albuquerque, NM “Morning   Show” – KDAZ-AM
9:20-9:30 Minneapolis/St.   Paul, MN “The Morning   Blend” – KTOE-FM/AM
9:30-9:40 Baltimore, MD “The Laurie   DeYoung Morning Show” – WPOC-FM
9:45-9:55 Cedar Rapids, IA “Dean &   Don” – KMA-FM/AM
10:45-11:00 Burlington, VT “Mark   Johnson Show” – WDEV-FM
11:10-11:25 Regional “Roundtable”   – WAMC-FM/AM (NPR affiliate)
12:58-1:15 Atlanta, GA “CONNversations with Conn Jackson” – WAEC-AM

 

New Interview on the Legacy Project and Book!

I had a great time talking with Terry Jaymes yesterday on his show “Terry Jaymes Alive.” Terry has been a great supporter of the Legacy Project and has helped spread the work on the importance of elder wisdom. In the interview, we talk about key lessons learned from older people (including how they learn to “kick out the jerks” from their social lives as they age). Take a listen here – and we TerryJaymeslook forward to your comments!

 

Elder Wisdom, Elder Justice, and Elder Abuse

As readers of this blog know, much of what we do in the Legacy Project focuses on the positive aspects of aging and the potential for growth and development in later life.

It’s also true, however, that there can be a more negative side to aging, and one of the more serious problems an older person can experience is elder abuse and neglect. Over the past two years, the Legacy Project has partnered with the New Yorkelder justice City Elder Abuse Center on a project that trains interns in both the topics of elder abuse and in elder wisdom (you can check out past posts from the interns elsewhere on this blog).

So I was thrilled when the Elder Abuse Center invited me to do a podcast, based on my years of work in both the fields of positive aging and of elder abuse. The podcast looks at the problem of ageism in our society, and how ageism holds back attempts to create elder justice. I also got the chance to speculate about how the Legacy Project might be used in preventing ageism.

Click here to visit iTunes & download the Ageism & Elder Justice Podcast.

Pearls of Elder Wisdom to Help You Get Through the Day

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six years interviewing the oldest Americans about their lessons for living — advice they pearlswould like to pass on to future generations. As described in the book 30 Lessons for Livingthe elders have outstanding advice on the “big picture” issues: love and marriage, child-rearing, choosing a career, health and of course, aging well.

Sometimes, however, I have had an epiphany from hearing a brief thought or phrase from the elders. When confronted with a work problem, a stressful event, or just the usual tension that can build up during the day, I find that the voice of one or another of the elders will come to me and help me re-think the situation. I’ve come to call these my “elder mantras.”

Here are a few of these “mantras” that I find particularly helpful, all from wise people in their 80s and beyond. They reflect some of the core elements of elder wisdom.

Swimming in the sea of life

Paul, 85, had a successful and high-powered career as an architect. After both a hectic career and personal life, he has found old age to be a time of both clarity and serenity. When asked: “What have you learned during your life that you would like to pass on to a younger person,” he said:

“I’ve learned how to swim. ”

That was a surprise, and when questioned, Paul went on:

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.

This image of learning to swim in the river of life, of going with the flow of living, is a powerful and serene image when called up during a busy day.

Let it be

This mantra comes from Sister Clare Moran, whom I interviewed shortly before her 100th birthday. (I can’t give all the details here, but believe me when I say: If you want to hear about an interesting life, sit down for a while with a 100-year old nun!)

Reflecting on her nearly 80 years in the religious life, Sister Clare pointed to doing away with worry as her lesson for younger people. Early in her career as a nun, she learned a technique for reducing worry through pursuing acceptance:

There was a priest that said mass for us, a youngish priest, very fragile and frail. Beautiful, beautiful man. He said that at a certain time of his life, something happened; he didn’t tell us what it was. I heard that he had been working on a mission and they asked him to come back to the States and it broke his heart. It must have been a very hard thing to do. And he was very angry, he just couldn’t be resigned, just couldn’t. He got back into work here, but he couldn’t get his mind off it. Just couldn’t see why it had happened.So he went to an elderly priest and he talked to him about it. He said, “What shall I do? I can’t get rid of it.” And the priest said, “Every time it comes to your mind, say this.” And the priest said very slowly, “Just let it be, let it be.” And this young man was saying it just the way the priest said it and he said, “I tried that and at first it didn’t make any difference, but I kept on. After a while, when I pushed it aside, let it be, it went away. Maybe not entirely, but it was the answer.”

Sr. Clare, one of the most serene people I have ever met, has used this technique for well over three-quarters of a century.

So many things come to your mind, now for instance somebody might hurt your feelings, you’re going to get back at him or her, well — just let it be. Push it away. So I started doing that, I found it the most wonderful thing because everybody has uncharitable thoughts, you can’t help it. Some people get on your nerves and that will be there until you die. But when they start and I find myself thinking, “Well now she shouldn’t do that, I should tell her that…” Let it be. Often, before I say anything, I think, “If I did that, then what?” And let it be. Oh, so many times I felt grateful that I did nothing. That lesson has helped me an awful lot.

A feather from an angel’s wing

Flora, 80, is a poet who writes about her love of the landscapes of the Southwest. Her approach to living is to embrace the pleasures each day can hold, and she reinforces that attitude with a daily habit. One phrase stands out as a mantra.

If I were to give any particular word of advice I would say: Go about the business of the day, hum-drum as it might be, but walk on your tip-toes waiting for the “ah-ha!” experiences. That happens when you’re going around the corner doing the normal everyday things. So be prepared for those ah-ha experiences that may happen any time. That way, you’re always open to and watching for something different — watching for a feather from an angel wing.

It’s sorry you didn’t do…

One last mantra I carry with me is from Eleanor, who says about regrets: “Mostly it’s sorry you didn’t do than sorry you did!”

You can meet her (on video) as well as other elders sharing their wisdom.