Do You Need More Stuff? Some Christmas Elder Wisdom

First, let me say that I love the holiday season. But, as Christmas approaches and we are inundated with advertisements and messages to spend wildly, it’s worth taking a break for elder wisdom. In the Legacy Project, over and over the elders told us that people and experiences matter more than things. In hundreds of interviews, they unanimously caution that time spent getting a lot more stuff than you really need is time wasted. The holidays seem like the right time to listen to our elders and think twice about how much we buy.

Steve, 78, tells how he learned to put material rewards in perspective, focusing instead on the accumulation of love for family and friends. As I’m planning my Christmas shopping, I try to keep his lesson in my head!

We were among the very lucky ones. Both my wife and I were born into middle class merchant families, with caring parents in small communities where you knew and were known by your neighbors. My wife lost her father when she was only 13. She, her mother and sister moved to another, beautiful small community where life was comfortable though not luxurous and values for the young were set by the example of parent and community. My childhood with loving parents and an older brother was uncomplicated and also filled with good values set by example. Owning and accumulating was not an important part of life for either of our families.

This upbringing undoubtedly established most of our values and attitudes for the adult years. Honesty, integrity and compassion for ones fellow human beings remained the anchor for all decisions. As we matured, reared and educated four children and attempted to pass along those values to them, we learned that listening is far more important than lectures, and though it sometimes seemed we were not heard, the example of our lives spoke loudly to our youngsters.

Now, at 71 and 78, as we progress through our senior years, living comfortably — not luxurously — we are increasingly aware that accumulating STUFF is of little importance. The accumulation of love for each other, of our children and of life-long friends and extending that love to those less fortunate than we have been is the centerpiece of our lives, of humanity and civilization.

Home for the Holidays? Here’s Wisdom on How to Enjoy It

It’s the time of year when extended families – who may not see much of one another during the year – come families holiday timetogether 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.

 

Four Tips for a Happy Wedding- From the Real Experts!

What do the oldest and wisest Americans – some married for 50 years or more – advise for a meaningful and enjoyable wedding? Here are four “trade secrets” they have learned for couples getting ready to tie the knot. There’s much more advice in the paperback edition of 30 Lessons for Loving, due to come out on December 1!30 Lessons for Loving.paperback

Be an Optimist as You Go to the Altar

The media often portray marriage as under threat, doomed, or dying. Therefore, many young people enter their marriages with a pessimistic attitude. The hundreds of long-married elders in the surveys provide a much more hopeful picture. They weathered the dry spells and difficulties, and made it to the finish line – and are very glad they did. Their lesson is that a long marriage is in fact sometimes hard: it takes drive, spirit, and determination to “hang in there when times get tough,” as one 94-year old declared. But in their view, a great lifelong marriage is possible – and they are living examples of that fact. And remember that research shows many marriages do last, and divorce rates are going down. So go into your new life together feeling positive about your chances at a lifetime together.

A “magic bullet” for resolving disagreements

Wedding discussions can breed conflict for two reasons. First, in some decisions couples can’t have it both ways – you can’t both get married in the college chapel and have a destination wedding in Aruba. Second, the decisions have deadlines – the guest list can’t wait weeks while you debate his old girlfriend can some or not.

Fortunately, the elders I interviewed offered a great tip to break an impasse. April, 74, suggested:

There was one thing that we came to early on that really stayed with us. 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. But you have to consciously stop and figure it out.

In your next argument about some wedding feature, stop and ask: “Who cares more about this?” And if possible, let that person have his or her way. Grace, age 70, suggested a variation:  that each member of the couple gets to declare one thing they cannot live without in the wedding; everything else is negotiable.

Use the Wedding for Communication Practice

It’s no question that husbands and wives can experience tension around weddings. Juggling the cost (Can we really afford a live band?), the invitations (Do second cousins get to come?), and well-intentioned relatives (Can I hang up on my mother when she calls with one more worry?) lead to stress. Stop to remember: If this is the most stressful experience you have in your married life, you will be very lucky. Learn to use some good conflict resolution techniques recommended by people married a half century or more, including:

  • Let the other person have his or her say before interrupting.
  • Avoid letting anger lead you to contemptuous remarks, like insults or sarcasm
  • Take at time out if you need it – not everything needs to be discussed until resolved; drop a contentious issue and come back to it.

Why not take advantage of the golden opportunity to practice good communication early on?

People and Experiences over Things

The elders worry about young people focusing too much on “stuff” at weddings, and not enough about savoring the people and experiences that come with it. Psychologists make this distinction, finding that greater happiness comes from activities that are rewarding in and of themselves rather than acquiring material possessions.  When thinking about a wedding, you can be sure that 50 years from now, you will remember sharing the joy with friends and relatives and taking a great honeymoon trip than you will the cappuccino maker and the steak knives. When budgeting, thing about doing rather than getting. For example, having a wedding in a cheaper venue and lower-cost catering so you can invite more people you care about, in their view, is a good choice. And those gifts? Don’t forget to ask for help funding a trip that leaves life-long memories.

Lessons for a Long Marriage – Our Intern Reports!

It’s time for the second elder wisdom report from our summer interns! Rachel Tannenbaum is a senior Welcome-Interns-Signmajoring in Human Development at Cornell University. Here’s what she learned about marriage from a wise pair of elders:

I had the privilege of conducting the interview with Selma in person. Upon entering her home, I was greeted enthusiastically by Selma and her husband Arthur. Only minutes had passed before it become evident as to why they are considered “one of the sweetest and most genuine couples in the community.” Arthur sat by Selma’s side, ensuring that she was comfortable throughout our time together. I was truly looking forward to hearing their advice about maintaining a loving relationship.

Selma, age 88 and Arthur, age 90, have been married for 66 years. Selma was very excited to tell me about their relationship. To start, she shared what she considers a critical trait in a good partner:

One that respects you and treats you like a lady. We’re married for 66 years, and my husband still treats me as a lady and with a great deal of respect.

Selma continued to explain how they have managed to live happily together for so many years:

We lived a very good life – not monetarily, but we realized our limitations and we just lived that way. We learned not to expect things that are difficult for a husband or wife to achieve. Whatever my husband earned, that was okay, we made out.

Arthur added, “We had fun, we enjoyed life.” That is not to say that the two perceive marriage as an easy process. They do agree that marriage is tough, and that differences and complexities arise along the way. However, they have developed practices that have helped them successfully overcome these issues.

Arthur was eager to join our conversation and share what he believes has contributed to their strong marriage:

We started off by saying to each other that we resolve our arguments if we can, before the night comes, and try to wake up with a clean slate. If you take your arguments to bed, they become enlarged and the next morning you wake up and don’t remember what the argument was about but still retain your anger.

From the genuine interactions I witnessed between Selma and Arthur, it was clear that they continue to adhere to this practice. Many people have a tendency to leave conflicts unresolved and questions unanswered, hoping that “sleeping on them” will improve the situation. As Selma and Arthur have demonstrated, discussing even the most minor differences allows for a successful relationship!

Jeremiah’s Lesson for Living: Wisdom Gathered by our Summer Interns!

Our summer interns are back! Two great undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older Welcome-Interns-Signpeople about their advice for living. Here’s the post from Margo Rieman, a junior attending Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, majoring in Management and Psychology and minoring in French. While conducting her interview, Margo learned the importance of thinking wisely, working hard and saving your money. Here’s her report:

When one is young, it can be difficult to make smart decisions and spend your time wisely because understanding and effectively anticipating the long-term costs and benefits associated with a given choice can be challenging. Many people rely on past experiences and invested costs when making life decisions. However, ignoring other factors – particularly the future – may result in a short-sighted perspective.

Jeremiah, a former World War II veteran and now a 99-year old New Yorker, had some wisdom to offer on this topic. Jeremiah made it clear that there are certain things in life that should be prioritized when making major life decisions, despite your immediate wants and needs. Jeremiah recants his experiences below and emphasizes the importance of thinking wisely, going to college, and saving your money.

I was a veteran in World War II. I could have gone to college on the G.I.’s Bill of Rights but I wanted to live, more or less. If you grew up in the 30’s you didn’t have the same opportunities as you do today because of the lack of money. So once you’re in service, and you accumulate some money, after you get discharged you have this money supposedly – what they call, “on the books” – coming to you, so you want to go out and buy a car, which is a mistake. I should have used it to go to college. I wasn’t a gambler or anything like that so I kind of accumulated quite a bit of money.

That perspective, the war, changed me, you know. Plus I had a high school education, and I wasn’t real smart, in fact I was below level but I could have went to college. I didn’t want to, I wanted to have a good time. Well, now I’m pushing 100. I never saved any of my money, and I’m broke. When you see on the television that you need hundreds of thousands of dollars for retirement, they’re not far off.

Jeremiah concluded:

Work hard, save your money. You’re always going to have stressful experiences, but if you know what you’re doing, you can do it. Be conservative. Be very dedicated to what you’re doing. You gotta have fun but it should be 20 percent of your efforts. The thing is if you do it when you’re young, you’ll be better off when you get older.

Jeremiah’s advice forewarned me of the importance of saving while I’m young and to work hard in all my endeavors. He gave me confidence that I will succeed if I am knowledgeable and experienced in the work I am pursuing.

 

 

Learn to Be Grateful

It’s World Gratitude Day today – and it’s a day we like to celebrate here at the Legacy Project!
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.

From Lee Woodruff: “What My Mother-in-Law Taught Me”

Spending the summer in Scotland, I think often of my mother-in-law, Clare. She was a funny, woodrufffamily2bfeisty, kind, loving woman, who immigrated to the U. S. from Scotland shortly before my wife was born. She became a second mother to me after my own died too young.  In the seven years since she left us, I still miss Clare greatly. I am reminded of daily of her here, when I hear the Scottish accent and  the familiar expressions she used (most frequently, to me, “Don’t be daft, laddie!”), and visit her home town, Glasgow.

So I am delighted to post this guest blog by the wonderful Lee Woodruff, who writes eloquently about family and many other issues (check out Lee’s blog here). She beautifully sums up the wisdom she learned from her mother-in-law – it’s really a tribute to mothers-in-law everywhere.

What I Learned from My Mother-in-Law, by Lee Woodruff

These are some of the things I know to be true about my mother-in law:

  • She believed without a doubt that her four sons were perfect.  And even if they weren’t, she never said otherwise in public.
  • She taught me to set up the coffee maker in the evening so all you had to do was push a button in the morning.
  • The definition of a 1950’s era lady, she wore her Revlon Moonrise Pink lipstick at all times.  Like most of us, she was never fully satisfied with her hairdo.
  • Her signature saying, “It only takes a minute,” applied as equally to doing four loads of laundry or whipping up a steak dinner, as it did to driving from Detroit to New York to visit her grandchildren.
  • It was her personal philosophy to never say a bad word publically about other people.
  • Homemade chocolate chip cookies were her calling card.  They had verifiable magic powers to change the course of an illness, heal a broken heart, brighten up a new home, refresh a friendship, thank people, wish a Merry Christmas or just simply say “hi.”  To know Frannie Woodruff was to have eaten one of her ultra thin and crispy chocolate chips, the secret of which she liberally shared — extra butter and cake flour.
  • She was an early convert to “transition” glasses, which meant her Jackie-O size  lenses were usually a shade of dark purple, even when indoors.  Although her sons teased her, I now realize it was a clever way to have “eyes in the back of her head.”
  • No matter what she ordered at a restaurant (usually Fettuccine Alfredo), when it came, 90% of the time, before she even tasted it, she remarked that she should have ordered what we did.
  • I’ve tried to imagine all the places she went in the pairs of white and black formal gloves that she gave to my daughters for dress-up, including one elegant opera length kid leather pair smelling faintly of smoke.
  • She knew bank tellers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, hairdressers, T.J. Maxx employees and just about everyone else by their first names.
  • Raising four boys in the 70’s who played every sport imaginable, she inexplicably cooked only one package of frozen corn at dinner, causing them to develop a lifelong habit of eating too fast.
  • She knew the names of every one of our neighbors in all of the cities we ever lived and kept up with some of them—adding them to her Christmas card list– long after we’d moved.
  • She worshipped butter, whole milk, and cream sauces.  Her sister Lynnie bought a framed poster of a stick of butter and Frannie coveted it so much that she dragged Lynn to every Homegoods store in the greater Detroit metro area looking for its duplicate.  In the end—they agreed to share it.
  • She could not have told you what NPR stood for and did not listen to it.
  • She danced the Charleston like she had rubber bands for legs and enthusiastically taught my children how.
  • She was an avid reader of mass-market fiction.  We both shared a secret love of Sidney Sheldon.
  • Bob and I moved to nine places in 25 years of marriage (seven were domestic) and she was physically there for all seven.   In each house she would unfailing set up the kitchen (my version of plunging toilets after an intestinal virus) and unpack boxes with me from dawn until long after the kids went to bed.  I always gave up first.
  • She was such an enthusiastic and regular patron of TJ Maxx and Marshalls that on her 70thbirthday, her local store had a nametag made for her.
  • She never spent a second worrying that she needed to fulfill herself, find her passion or broaden her horizons, and she could not have accurately defined the word “feminist.”  She was 100% happy being a wife, mother and the “World’s Best Grandma,” although she never would have worn the T-shirt out of the house.
  • Never once in my presence was she able to work the TV controller, program the VCR or operate the cable box.  She did, however, have a grasp on the volume button.
  • She set a gold standard, real life example of the word “devotion.”  Watching her move through the world, I learned many important things that go into the secret sauce of being a wife, mother and good girlfriend —  not just in the placid times, but when the going gets choppy.
  • She taught me you could drive a car with your left leg up on the console, a coffee cup balanced on the dashboard and the seat belt alarm circumvented by clever buckling.
  • She was the oldest sister of three girls (like me) and two brothers.  Watching her interact with her siblings was my preview for how that bond would further strengthen, long after the kids are grown and flown.
  • The famous story of Frannie — one Pappagallo shoe on the flank of their black lab as she extruded a long stream of black plastic garbage bag out of the dog’s butt (he had escaped and eaten a neighbor’s garbage AND the bag)  — became an iconic metaphor in our house for some event, issue or what-have-you that just won’t end.
  • Her cornflower blue eyes and signature dark “Dawson” brows and lashes were passed on to her lucky, lucky boys. (Why is it always the boys who get this gene?)
  • She was fortunate enough to die exactly the way she would have wanted — in her own home, in her own bed, surrounded by her devoted husband and her beloved boys, and the repeated assurances (not that she needed them) that she was the most loved, most wonderful Mom in the world.  And she was.

Rest in Peace Frances Dawson Woodruff – 1933 — 2013

Follow Lee Woodruff on Twitter: @LeeMWoodruff

Check out Lee’s website: http://leewoodruff.com/

 

 

Vacation: A Time to Learn from Your Family’s Elders

In these last weeks of summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great time for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Genevieve, 77, advises young people to learn history (and ways of living better) from their older relatives. She prepared this letter for children everywhere. Perhaps yours can act on it when visiting with Grandma or Grandpa (or other older relatives)?

Dear Children,

            For you the world began only a few years ago. All of what happened before that is a jumble. The grandpa you never knew who died in The War – was it Vietnam or World War II? I know it doesn’t seem to matter. You look to the future. The past, whether of family, friends, country, or the world, doesn’t matter because you are planning to change everything for the better.

            I choose to believe that you will change at least some of everything for the better. But, you need a solid foundation on which to stand first. The Greek scientist Archimedes knew this; he said he would move the world if he had both a lever and a place to stand.

            Without a foundation in the past and present, you could shift ‘everything’ out of our grasp or even send it crashing backwards. There is a way you can make sense of past and present and avoid future problems.

            Find time to ask Mother, Father, Grandparents, Uncles and Aunts and other family members about their lives before you were born. Get them to tell you stories of the funny, foolish things they did as well as the things in which they take pride. Try to learn about friends and relatives they remember that you will never know. Some of them will be thrilled you asked about their lives; you may have to coax others but it is worthwhile.

            When relatives tell you these tales, pay attention and ask questions. You may find out why they moved to a particular place, took a certain job, what they thought would happen in the country at that time, and how events and people changed their lives. We all, even you, live in a moving world, not a static one. If you want to change the world, you must also know how the world changes you.

            When you can, keep a diary whether on computer, on tape, or in a book. Include things that are happening in  your own life. Put in it lots of events and names of friends and family. You may not think so now, but someday after many years your mind will be so cluttered up that memories and names you think you’ll know forever will simply start to drop out and disappear.

            When you are grown and have children, pass on to them, in turn, as many as you can of these stories heard and lives lived. You will be giving your children a great gift that they too will learn to appreciate as time moves on.

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.