FFH Note: Our founder, Barry Segal, is featured in a chapter of the author’s latest book, Life Lessons from the Oldest and Wisest: Inspiration, Wisdom, and Humor for All Generations. Learn more about the book on his website.
In 2010, my last surviving grandparent passed away. I sensed a growing sadness as she neared the end. She lived in a brand new old age home in Los Angeles. And yet, it felt like this was a place one goes to die.
It’s hard getting old in America.
Our elders in their 80’s, 90’s and 100 lack a voice in popular culture. We tend to put them out to pasture in aging facilities. Like my grandmother, they are often disconnected from the pulse of life. We can do better. We have to do better.
Our elders have this precious resource of wisdom.
They survived the Holocaust, fought in World War II, marched for civil rights. They have so much to share and so few are asking for their stories.
Over the past two years, I interviewed over 100 elders in researching my latest book. In seeking the elder perspective on health, love, and happiness, I discovered a few consistent responses that may enhance your perspective, reset your relationships, and remind you to loosen your grip and enjoy the journey.
These are a few of my favorite life lessons from the oldest and wisest:
1. Invest in Love
Of all of the elders interviewed, I never once heard them tell me about their material accomplishments and rewards. The elders who invested the greatest amount of energy in their relationships were the most well-adjusted and happiest in older age.
Love the Best You Can
The single moms struck me as most impressive.
Corinne, 93, lost her husband in his early 40’s. She raised five kids on her own. She put all her kids through college and four of them went on to get graduate degrees. Her secret, “The family drew very close. We had rules. Everyone worked and everyone contributed. And through it all, I always let my kids know how much I loved them, no matter what.”
Another single mom, Florence, 81, was working so much when she was young, she never could attend her kids’ games. But when she would get home at 2am from her waitressing job, she would sit on her kids’ beds and run her hands through their hair, for hours.
In the current day, Florence is very close with her adult children.
As a working parent, trying to figure out how to balance everything, I was particularly moved by Florence’s story. She reminds all parents — love your kids as best you can, when you can. That’s the most anyone can ask of you, and the best you can do.
Invest in Relationships
It’s about investing in relationships when you are young, so they pay off when you are older. Call it love, family, connection, community.
That being said, loneliness in our culture is a health epidemic. It’s not just the elders who feel isolated. According to WebMD, the nation’s 75 million millennials (ages 23-37) and Generation Z adults (18-22) are lonelier than any other U.S. demographic and report being in worse health than older generations.
Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, said the epidemic of loneliness in our society rivals the risks posed by tobacco and the nation’s ever-expanding waistline. “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”
Those elders who are surrounded by family and even better, community, fare much better.
Eula recently turned 106. I visited her at her home in Byram, Mississippi. There is a lot of family and love in her life. Her niece lives in the house across the road. She wakes up each morning, and looks to make sure Eula’s little light is on. Not only does she look out for her, as do most of the people in their local church (many of whom are related to Eula) but she is very much integrated into her rural Mississippi community.
This Southern lifestyle might not be a realistic option if you are living in a big metropolis. But if you are looking for the investment that pays off in retirement, invest in loving relationships with family and friends. When you get older, the accomplishment is not what you have to show for yourself, but who is showing up for you.
2. Joie De Vivre
I met one lady, Katherine, who was 108. She lived to be 111. Of the seven billion people on the planet, there are only approximately 60 people at any one time who are 110 or older. Part of it is genetic, and part of it is attitude!
Secrets to Happiness
- This 111 year old, Katherine, was married five times. Let’s call that BOUNCING BACK!
- She had a great sense of humor. When the social worker tried to help her lie down and put his hands on her shoulders, she said, “Are you propositioning me?”
- Her three secrets to health and happiness: Sex. Vodka. Spicy food!
We call that “joie de vivre.”
Who couldn’t stand to benefit from loosening their grip on life, pushing back from your desk, laughing, savoring, and enjoying life a bit more often?
Jack, 105, remembers the night the armistice was signed to end World War I. Make sure you read that correctly. World War ONE! He said people were throwing furniture off the roof and burning it in the middle of the street to celebrate.
Amazingly, he goes to the gym for over an hour, two to four times each week. Jack has the blood pressure of a 20-year-old. He lives alone. And he still drives.
When he told me this, I said, “WOW!”
Focus on Positivity
He replied, “No wow. Open your eyes and look for things to be good. Keep your mind on being positive. Get away from negativity and everything is automatically good. We have our bad times. We have to live through them.”
According to researcher Ed Diener, happiness comes from frequency of positive experience, not intensity. In other words, instead of the stiff drink at the end of your day to relieve all the stress…take more time throughout your day to savor the chocolate, turn up the music, and stop to enjoy the street musician on your weekend stroll.
If you have the privilege of living for 80+ years, you undoubtedly will face intense challenges…sometimes impossible challenges.
As long as you make the decision to be resilient, and keep going, you’ll get through it, and you’ll see the light again. But you have to make that decision to get back on your feet and keep truckin’!
Rose, 94, grew up in a lovely part of Germany. Then Hitler rose to power, and before long, Rose lost her parents in the Holocaust. Suddenly, she was a refugee, smuggled to Belgium and then to England. She barely survived the Nazi bombing blitz over London.
And here she was, alone in the world at the tender age of 14.
Nowadays, when her grandchildren complain they have issues, Rose will put everything into perspective: “You don’t even know what an issue is.”
Along with perspective comes her belief that love will regenerate… if you give it a chance. “I always have to believe better days are coming.”
I spoke with a 90-year-old lady, Frouma. As a young child, she came down with Polio and was paralyzed from tongue to toes. She was one of only two children in the region who made a complete recovery.
In her early 20’s, Frouma joined Israel’s secret defense force, the Haganah. She fought on the front line of Israel’s War of Independence. Captured by the Jordanians, Frouma spent 5 months as a POW. She almost died of starvation and dehydration.
Hold on to Hope
Today, she spends most of her time at home, flat on her back, because her pain is so intense. But her message and strength prevails. She says, “HOPE IS YOUR GREATEST WEAPON. NEVER GIVE UP HOPE!”
The sad part is that Frouma, like so many elders, spends most of her time alone. The elder generation has so much wisdom, and yet many are dying with their story and life lessons tucked away, without being shared.
Over the last few years, I have created intergenerational events that bring these elders together with younger people to talk about life, love, parenting, business, everything under the sun. The elders are rejuvenated by the sense of community. And the community is enlightened and strengthened by the elders.
Most everyone is going through a life challenge in marriage, career, health, finances.
Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, said, “Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships.” The power of that one strong adult relationship is a key ingredient to getting through tough times. And when that relationship is intergenerational, it’s even better.
Find Intergenerational Support
According to the Stanford Center of Longevity, “The future of aging can only be enhanced if we recognize that our success and the national interest depend on connecting generations for good. True intergenerational programs are, as Nancy Henkin of Temple University says, ‘not nice, but necessary.’
When implemented correctly and intentionally, intergenerational programs can provide a multiplier effect in which both children, especially those from low-income families and communities, and older adults benefit, and transformative, measurable results can be created for society as a whole.”
Or as one admittedly lonely 71-year-old lady told the audience at an intergenerational event I hosted in NYC, “We need each other, now more than ever.”