Over the past several years I’ve had the privilege of getting to know three older men in my community, and from each I’ve been able to take away a few lessons about how to live or how not to live, offering me glimpses of how I’d like to be a few decades down the road. Bette Davis once quipped, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” and as expected, all three men have experienced various hardships, some quite debilitating, but two of them – and one in particular – have managed to live extremely fulfilling lives, while one seems determined to wallow in a state of regret and helplessness.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to call the men Al, Bob and Carl. All three are over 85 years old. Al and Carl lost their spouses between five and ten years ago. Bob is still married. All are physically able, especially Carl, who walks three miles a day and shovels his own driveway. I also shoveled my own driveway this winter, but whereas I’ve been managing severe shoulder pain as a result, Carl – at thirty-five years my senior – suffers not one iota from the physical labor. Not too shabby! He’s also mostly blind, which makes many things difficult, but he’s fortunately still able to read, take walks and watch TV. Al is in good physical shape as well, though a little less robust, and to date he still keeps up an amazing travel schedule, visiting numerous countries each year. Bob is in fair shape, able to get around but not do anything too strenuous.
Physical attributes aside, the biggest differences between these men is mental.
Al is the kind of guy who always has a smile on his face, who loves to talk and listen, and who’s endlessly curious. When he was well into his 80s he decided he wanted to record a collection of old children’s songs for his great-grandchildren. I helped him with this project, but not before he insisted on attending months of vocal lessons at a nearby music store to help with his voice technique. His rhythm wasn’t so good, but his singing voice was loud and clear, and he successfully created a piece of art for his descendants. Al works out regularly, sings in a group, drives, goes out to lunch with various people, and keeps a travel schedule that just thinking about exhausts me. He has a female companion to accompany him on various trips, which is undoubtedly helpful, but much of his travel is spent visiting relatives and friends. A World War II veteran and widower, his life has not been without hardship, but he’s overcome these hardships with vigor and a zest for life. When he underwent a medical procedure a few years ago and had to spend a few nights in a hospital, he told me about his experience with a smile and couldn’t stop mentioning the cute nurse who had taken care of him. This is the man I want to be when I grow up!
Bob still travels some, but doesn’t appear to be as physically able as Al. He does still drive, and this allows him to go to work almost every day for a few hours, and his wife of similar age does the same! He is acutely concerned about the future of the Earth and the political changes happening world-wide, but that hasn’t kept him from working zealously at archiving his family records for future generations. I’ve helped him publish his father’s diary, am in the process of helping him publish his memoir, and we’ve digitized old family movies and photos. Smiles are a little harder to come by for Bob, but when we visit in person his eyes light up and we enjoy each other’s company. He is comedically self-effacing despite his significant life achievements, he has a strong relationship with his children and grandchildren, and he is quite adept at using technology, allowing him to communicate with his younger relatives. It took him a few tries to get going on adding audio to some old home movies, but he’s embarking on this task with determination. Although Bob is still married, his life hasn’t been free of hardships, having lost much of his extended family in the Holocaust and having left his immediate family in the 1940s for the U.S., never to see his father again. More recently, aside from many physical ailments, he lost his cousin, his last link to his European past. Still, he perseveres, and doesn’t face a day without an agenda of to-dos.
Carl’s blindness makes life more physically challenging, and while he’s overcome this condition in some ways, in other ways he uses it as an excuse. Smiles have to be earned for Carl, and even then, they look like he’s practicing for the real thing. He reads, he watches movies, visits the library, has lunch with a men’s group a few times a month, and sees his three children at various times. This doesn’t sound too bad, but he’s alone most days with little contact with other human beings, and there is a veil of sadness over everything Carl does. I would best describe him as doleful, lugubrious, qualities that are funny in a character like Eeyore, but in the daily drudgery of human life are something else altogether. Carl is disappointed in his children because they don’t visit him and take care of him as much as he would like. When I suggested that he invite them over to his house for dinner, he said, “And have to cook for all of them? No thank you.” After I proposed that he offer to make a salad if they could bring the main course, he answered, “I don’t want to appear needy.” I said to him, “Carl, we’re human beings. We’re all needy.”
He resents his children taking vacations to interesting places without him, but he’s wealthy enough to take them all on a vacation that would include him, if only he would set thing into motion. He won’t do this. He has a lot of regret over past events – the details of which are unclear to me – and when I recommended that he see a therapist to get his thoughts out, he says, “Well, I’m a little tight with the money.” No kidding! I’ve implored him to spend some (“What are you saving it for?”) but old habits die hard. I’ve suggested getting wifi so that he can explore podcasts, movies, works of music, etc., but he doesn’t want to spend the money. Although he’s done some amazing things in spite of his blindness, he won’t take advantage of the services that are so easily available to people that would expand the radius of his life. He says he can’t get out to shop or eat lunch. “Have you heard of a cab? Or an Uber?” He doesn’t want to do this. He wallows in his dour disposition, almost seeming to take pride in it. On the one hand, he recognizes his predicament, for he’s the one who reached out to a local service to ask for the weekly visits that I now perform, but that seems to be all he’s willing to do for himself. Most importantly, it’s apparent to me that he went through life without friends. His wife was his social life, and now that she’s gone, he’s left with the results of a friendless life.
So what to take away from these three old men? Nothing earth-shattering, but watching real-life can help to clarify what we perhaps already know, and you can’t start implementing life’s lessons in your 80s; you have to live these throughout your life, practice them, become proficient at them. Being happy may in many ways be a choice, but if you’ve never practiced being happy before it’s going to be difficult to do so when you’re old. Here’s a list of some of my takeaways:
1) Express gratitude daily. Without question, this is number one for me.
2) Share your time and expertise with others. Without question, this is number two. If you only practice these two things, you’re half-way home.
3) Stay curious.
4) Keep old friends.
5) Open yourself up to opportunities to make new friends. Cast as wide a net as you can.
6) Stay in close contact with your children and beyond – don’t eschew opportunities for love and companionship.
7) Look for reasons to say yes to things instead of finding excuses to say no.
8) Surround yourself with things that make you feel good. Music. Art. Flowers. Nature. Pets.
9) Experience new things, challenge yourself
10) Stay active despite whatever limitations you may have.
11) Overcome the desire to stick to a routine.
12) Laugh at yourself.
13) Accept other people’s shortcomings as you hope they will accept yours.
14) Proactively reach out to people for lunch dates, gatherings or calls for help. Needing companionship isn’t being needy - it’s being human.
15) Stop bitching.
16) Get happy, and don’t forget to tell your face.
17) Stop talking about yourself for one fricking second and listen.
So there you are. Trite? Cliché? Perhaps, but if living the right way were easy, we’d all be gloriously happy, successful and fulfilled. This stuff is work, and I’m glad that I have some real-life examples to guide the way.