The problem of ageism is coming out of the shadows and into the public eye. I had the opportunity to be part of a fascinating panel hosted by The Atlantic, where we discussed the growing problem of age discrimination and what can be done about it. I was able to talk about my work with the World Health Organization, which is working to combat ageism around the world. Please share your thoughts on this important issue!
When we’re young, we tend to associate aging with loss. We often look ahead with concern or even dread at losing favorite activies. What you learn when you talk to a lot of older people, however, is how well many of them adapt to the inability to do favorite activities, substituting other enjoyable pastimes for them. I talked with Manny, age 73, about this, and he told me:
I mean, when somebody says, “Jeeze, you’re 73,” I think, “Yeah, well if I was dead, I wouldn’t be, you know?” So I’m quite happy. But I think that as you age, you are unable to do things that you could do, but you change your thinking such that you don’t have the same need to do whatever it is.
And I’ll give you an example. When I was young, I loved to play baseball, and I was pretty good at it. And there was a period of time, I couldn’t wait to spring, I couldn’t wait to get out and practice, to do any of that kind of stuff. But I got to college, I played one year, and I wasn’t good enough to play – there were several better ball players around,. So, I found something else to do, and then I played softball and did things.
But after about 35, I stopped doing it and I didn’t miss it. When I was 18 years old, I never dreamed I wouldn’t miss getting out and throwing a baseball or hitting one. But the body changes, the mind changes, and you adapt. At least, I did. And I think most people adapt if they allow themselves to. For most people, you know, you have to adapt to what happens to you to the best you can. And try to look at the upside of it, not the downside. I don’t have the need or the want to do the things that I at one point in my life I would have died for, if you know what I mean. I went on to other things.
The experts on the issue are oldest Americans, the last surviving witnesses to the Great Depression. Bonita, 96, tells about a childhood most of us can hardly imagine. Living on very little, Bonita, her family, and her friends found it possible to be very happy.
Here’s her story:
People now think they need so much to be happy. We were happy in my family, and just think of what we didn’t have!
To give you an idea of what we lived without, here are a few practical things that I have had to learn over my life:
• To use electric lights rather than kerosene lamps.
• To use electric stoves and later a microwave oven instead of a wood stove.
• To use an electric washing machine instead off a scrub board, boiler on the stove, and three galvanized wash tubs.
• To use an electric clothes dryer instead of hanging the clothes on the line outside.
• To have a faucet in the kitchen rather than getting water by the pail-full from a spring in the meadow a fourth of a mile away.
• To have an indoor bathroom rather than taking a bath in the wash tub in front of a kitchen wood stove.
• To have toilet paper rather than an old Sears and Roebuck catalog.
• To use an indoor toilet rather than the privy behind the house.
• To live in a home with an electric iron rather than a sad iron heated on the stove.
• To listen to a TV rather than a Victrola.
• To answer the telephone when it rings rather than having to check out the special ring on a party line.
• To use frozen and prepared foods from the store rather than baking bread and eating garden and home canned foods.
• To buy ready-made clothes in a store instead of those made by a dressmaker who came to our house.
There are so many things people take for granted today, that we didn’t have. For example, life without a bathroom is hard to describe. One has to live it to know what it is like. Our bathing in those days was done in a basin of water that we carried to our bedrooms. In the winter, this meant trying to undress as near as possible to the stovepipe which added a bit of heat to the bedroom. During the winter, Mother tried to see to it that we each had a bath of some sort once a week. In the morning we washed a bit in the kitchen.
Our toilet was a small shed about six feet square. They were always built with three holes so daily trips to the privy often meant that it could be a social affair. My other memory of this building is of the swarms of flies in the summer. They buzzed and hummed around beneath you and kept you company whenever nature called you to this place.
The other big job before running water was doing the family washing for ten people. It started on Sunday night when a big copper wash boiler had to be filled with water from the spring up in the meadow. This would bring the water up to the room temperature during the night. Then Mother would heat the water to boiling on the wood stove. All the white clothes were boiled first and then washed. It was supposed to be more sanitary to boil the sheets and underwear. Then the hot clothes were removed with a “clothes stick”- a long bleached pole- and carried by the pail-full to the back wash room where we had three galvanized tubs on a large bench. In one tub, we rubbed the clothes on a wash board with Fels Naptha Soap. We rinsed the clothes in the second tub and then put them thru bluing water which seemed to counteract the yellowish color that the clothes often had.
The four older girls all took turns at the wash board in 15 minute shifts. The clothes were put through a hand wringer that had two rubber rollers and squeezed out some of the water. The clothes were then hung outside on a clothes line in the side yard or on the porch in the winter. I can see the long underwear during the winter as it froze stiff almost as soon as it was put on the line. Later in the day we had to bring the clothes back into the house and thaw them out and finished drying them on racks by the wood stove. The clothes really did smell sweet and clean after being out in the fresh air. Mother’s hands were always cold and sore as she went out on those cold winter days to hang out the clothes. Often she would heat the wooden clothes pins in the oven so that they would warm her hands for a few minutes.
Ironing was started on Tuesday and often took all week to do. Flat irons called “sad irons” were heated on the stove and then wiped on a cloth containing paraffin. I think this was to wipe off any smoke from the stove and to make the irons slide easier. We had both irons with handles fastened to the iron and detachable handles which we preferred. As the iron cooled off it had to go back on the stove and we’d try to find a hotter one to use. In those days we always ironed the sheets and pillowcases, and usually had two tablecloths along with everyone’s personal clothes. It was a really big job.
This house was lighted with kerosene lamps. They were smoky and smelly. On Saturday we had to collect all of them and wash the chimneys, rinse them and dry them. The wicks had to be trimmed. The base of the lamp was filled with kerosene and then the lamps were each returned to the rooms where they belonged. The light that they produced was not very good.
The lamp was usually placed in the middle of our large dining room table and at night we all sat around it to do our homework. The older members of the family checked on the younger ones to see that pages of addition were completed and correct or that we had memorized our spelling words for the next day. We practiced our reading assignments by reading to some older member of the family from our reading books. Our teachers wanted each of us to memorize a short poem each week and we were expected to recite it in front of the class during a Friday afternoon assembly. “October’s Bright Blue Weather” and “Robert Reese” were two of my favorites.
With no television or record players, we had to make our own fun and entertainment. When we were through working on our school work for the next day, we often played games. We had checkers, dominoes, caroms, and card games like flinch, authors, concentration, and spit. Sometimes we played hide the thimble or spin the platter. We loved to play dress-up in the old clothes that were sent to us from relatives in California or the Lessells family in New York. We had names like Mrs. Colburn and Mrs. Osborn and would talk to each other at great length about our children, our husbands, and our lives while dressed in long black skirts, fancy lace blouses, and pretty old evening dresses form our relatives who were a bit better off than our family financially.
It’s summer and the livin’ is easy, which leads us at the Legacy Project to ponder what “living the good life” really means. Miguel, 79, tells us that tried and true wisdom pretty much gets it right.
Past generations had it about right. Most of the old cliches about living the good life apply. One should eat healthfully, get a full night’s sleep, exercise regularly, set priorities, not sweat the small stuff, spend a lot of time with family, follow your heart, plan ahead, never look back with regret, give it your all, not take life too seriously, try everything — you only go around once.
Live beneath your means, make new friends, but cherish the old ones, admit mistakes, learn to listen, keep secrets, don’t gossip, never take action when you’re angry, don’t expect life to be fair, never procrastinate, call your mother.
Most important: (1) choose your parents with care – they will provide the good genes and set you on the right path; (2) pick the right spouse — everything else pales by comparison.
In Cecile Lamkin’s living room, a wall of windows looks out through the still-bare trees to a calm lake below. This house has been Cecile’s home for over 50 years, only she recently gave up daily swims, she said, “Because I can’t get down the stairs anymore.” Widowed several years earlier after 68 years of marriage, Cecile, 93, explained that live after turning 90 has brought her a sense of wholeness, acceptance, and the ability to enjoy small pleasures.
I am much clearer now. I say that as an older person, not just as an adult, but as an older person, things are much clearer. I was just telling my daughter, I think I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’ve been thinking about why it is that I’m happier now. I came up with a lot of stuff. First of all, things that were important to me are no longer important, or not as important. The second thing is, I don’t feel responsible in the same way that I used to feel. I’ve been a pretty responsible person, but I don’t feel that responsibility anymore. My children are in charge of their lives, and whatever they do with them, they will do with them.
And I live in a place, my house, that I love. In the summer here it is wonderful, and I live outdoors at that time. My family comes, friends come, and I use it like a vacation. I’ve also given up feeling that I have to entertain people. If there’s someone coming up, they will bring such and such. It’s very liberating for me. And I just feel a contentedness that I’ve never felt before. I’ve heard other people my age say the same thing.”
In the Legacy Project, so many people told us that they were happier than ever in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. So why do we all fear growing old so much? Please comment and share your thoughts on that question!
Why not use this time to encourage your kids to have meaningful “elder wisdom” conversations with the elders in your family?
Older people are a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders.
We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.
So while we are visiting older relatives, why don’t we all take an hour (okay, it can be before or after the trip to the beach) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?
Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?
Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.
Give it a try on vacation (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.(and you can watch elders sharing their lessons on our YouTube channel).
- What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
- Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
- As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
- What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
- What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
- What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
- What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?
Add go ahead and add your own. I guarantee it will enrich your summer vacation this year!
Need a wedding gift? Why not elder wisdom?
I’ve heard about many creative uses of my book 30 Lessons for Living. But this has to be the best one so far!
I received the following message from Shannon, of Washington State:
I loved the concept for The Legacy Project! I wish someone had gathered advice in such a meaningful way when I was younger.
When I first heard of the project, I thought: How could I introduce it to my step-son? A short time later he announced his engagement and a great idea came to me.
I purchased the book and will present it to him and his finance tomorrow night at their rehearsal dinner. During the dinner I am inviting people to add their own words of wisdom by sharing those on the blank pages of your book! Not only will the bride and groom have very personal wisdom but also that collected during your research! My hope is that they refer to it often.
I was thrilled (okay, maybe even a little choked up). So I asked Shannon if Adam and Lisa – the happy couple – would be willing to let me blog about it. They did me one better, and sent me some of the wisdom that the guests contributed!
Here’s what some of Adam and Lisa’s well-wishers – grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts, friends – advised them about marriage:
“Commitment, compromise, and communication will get you through the hurdles every couple will face throughout their lives together”
“Adam, buy Lisa flowers every now and then for no reason!”
“Look forward to a lifetime of happiness… Some times will be tougher than others, but the love that you share will overcome it all. Adam: listen to Lisa and love her. Lisa: love Adam with all your heart.”
“One very important advice: communication is key.” “Always take a deep breath and remember the first time you kissed!”
“Sense of humor!”
“In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths! Live a little, give a little, forgive a lot and laugh a lot”
“You can just tell by the way you two look at each other that this is meant to be! Your marriage will be full of happiness and you guys won’t ever lose that special connection.”
“Pick your battles! Always remember that a good relationship takes work, including lots of love, compromise, giving, trust and more love.”
“When naming children, make sure it’s one you can yell clearly out the back door!”
“Know that you can’t always be right and know that being wrong happens more often than you realize; know forgiveness truly and deeply and you will be able to overcome anything.”
So here’s to Adam and Lisa, and to the day when you may pass along your own wisdom about marriage to your next generation!
Like many others, we at the Legacy Project have been following the D-Day commemorations. In my book 30 Lessons for Living, I was privileged to interview many members of the War and Crisis Generation, capturing their wisdom before they left us (only a few WW II veterans are still alive).
If there is one lesson for a good life that nearly all of the Legacy Project elders agree on, it’s honesty. This may be worded in different ways: being truthful, being a person of trust, or having integrity. But it shines above all others in the advice elders give about core values.
And this isn’t just some hollow platitude. The elders believe that honesty is not a lofty ideal; rather, it’s a daily practice that is highly beneficial for every individual.
Max, age 95, passionately summed up this lesson and how he learned it:
My father died when I was 12, and my mother appointed me head of the household. After my freshman year in college (1942-43), I was drafted into the Army. In World War II, I was a combat medic attached to infantry in the 95th Infantry Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army. In December of 1944, I was wounded by a German machine gunner while I was trying to rescue a fallen comrade. Gas gangrene cost me my left arm for which I have worn a prosthesis ever since. After honorable discharge, rank of PFC, I completed my undergraduate education in biology and then got a Master’s Degree. My career, influenced by the War, was as a high school teacher of biology and English.
As a fatherless boy I soon learned to be skeptical of authority, institutional and religious. However, I realized intensely – and still do – that trust is the most valuable bond that keeps us civil and loving. Cheating and lying, of every kind—in school work, business, friendships, sex, marriage, parenthood, social contracts, just as examples—weaken that bond.
Just think of what a dissolving marriage does to the sense of trust children have in their parents! Just think of what a dreadful toll the failure of trust in our current federal administration is taking on us as a people and on our international relations! Just think of what casual sex has done to the bonds of trust and love! Trust keeps us together in marriage, as families, as social groups, in business negotiations, as a nation. Betray that for personal gain or pleasure and you lose more than your integrity; you weaken the fabric of society.
Patsy, 90, offers advice to her grandchildren (and young people of all ages). Some of the advice she gives is unexpected, and it shows us how life experiences from 70 years ago can lead to highly relevant lessons for living.
I’d like my 16 grandchildren to learn a few of my favorite things that helped me live a good life. Not necessarily in order of importance, these include:
Be moderate in your eating and drinking habits. Eat everything in moderation and step on a scale daily to ensure you are maintaining your ideal weight. Drink the drinks you like, but use moderation in carbonated drinks, especially cola drinks that harm your teeth. As a teacher, I often placed a child’s first tooth in a glass of cola to show it disappeared in about a week.
Engage in after school activities from the time you enter school through high school. Participate daily in whatever you enjoy – sports, dance, music, art, drama, science, writing, etc. These activities will not only keep you busy but help you get into college.
When you get advice from a smart source, take it. In the long run it could help you. During WWII, my college advisor said, “Someday, Patsy, you may have to work.” I took his suggestion and earned a Masters in Education and Government and so became qualified to teach in any school in the country. Eighteen years later as the single mother of six, I was able to get the “perfect single parent job” – a teacher with the same schedule as my children.
When opportunity knocks, go for it – even if it necessitates moving. As a teacher I moved from St. Petersburg, FL to Ft. Lauderdale, FL. to Los Angeles, CA, to Santa Clara, CA.
Don’t buy anything you can’t pay for on the spot. Use a credit card and pay it off at the end of each month. Never waste money on interest. Except for my house, I buy everything for cash, including my car.
Start your children with savings accounts when they receive their first allowance or gift of money. Encourage them to save all or part of all the money they receive or earn and amaze them with compound interest. My parents encouraged me to do this so on my 16th birthday I was able to buy a $1600 car (a new Buick in 1937) for cash. And it all started with 5 cents per week in a grammar school savings program.
Teach your children the sounds of the letters of the alphabet before they go to school. They will then be able to sound out most of the words in the English language. They can succeed as early as two or three years of age. Knowing how to read enables you to learn everything else. I taught Remedial Reading this way for 20 years and every one of my students learned to read.
I’m sure I will think of other things I have learned in attaining my good life. But these came to mind immediately. I note that most are not generally taught today. I hope that some of the methods I used in achieving a good life will help others do the same.
Although many people today delay getting marriage, all of us know young people who have rushed into relationships. Sometimes people fall head over heels in love; others feel that their “time clock” is running out. For anyone seeking a mate, the elders tell you to be very careful – and don’t rush in!
Fern, 71, suggests looking toward the future of the relationship:
Some of the things that I am telling you are some of the things that I have made mistakes with. I have been married a couple of times and very fortunately, I have a second husband who was a very wonderful husband who was a wonderful father to my children. And I think when you look for someone to marry you should sort of forget a little bit about the love connection and look ahead. Do we want a family, what do we want out of life, do we a career or how are we going to provide for this and that, how are we going to pay for a home. I think they need to take a step ahead and look at the future before they make that step.
Dina, 80, tells us to wait until we are mature enough for the commitment:
I’m always a little bit leery of relationships for young people that are established really young, before I think people are mature enough and know themselves well enough to be in a really satisfying relationship. Women make too many compromises in that kind of a situation. I’m really glad for my kids, because both of my boys were a lot more mature than I was when they got married, farther along, had much more life experience. I think that that is really good because I think you come into relationships better prepared.