Eight Life Lessons I Learned from my Centenarian Friend: Part 2

5. Look at an older person when they talk to you, and really listen.

When someone has trouble hearing, it helps to look straight at them, so when you speak it’s easier to make out what you’re saying. It also shows interest and respect. Don’t look at your phone, your computer screen, your feet, or the other person in the room.

A note for health care professionals: it is especially important for you to look at your elderly patients or clients. If you take notes on your computer and constantly look away, it will be harder for them to hear and understand what you say, and they’ll feel ignored. Also, try not to talk to a younger companion, just because it’s quicker and easier.

Believe me, I speak from experience. On more than one occasion G.’s doctor and I both got in trouble for speaking to each other about G., instead of to her. The doctor was trying to get the information she needed as expediently as possible, and I was trying to make sure everything I’d observed, and what I felt was important, got communicated.  But it was G.’s appointment, not mine, and she let us know it. No competent adult who has taken care of herself for decades wants to be talked over as if she were a child.

Looking at the person, and listening, shows respect. It will help you both communicate more effectively. It also shows that the person still matters, and you care what they have to say. And you will likely learn something worthwhile.

6. Keep your mind and body as active as possible for as long as possible.

G. had been an athlete when she was young, and stayed active all her life. I think she went swimming often in her later years, but by the time I met her, at 91, she had to be happy with more modest pursuits. Still she had her own little exercise routine that she did nearly every day, and we often went for short walks.

Some of the things she could do — like lie down and lift her leg over her head, or bend over while standing and touch her feet – were beyond my reach, literally. I have never had much flexibility, but she maintained hers when she was decades older than me.

She also kept her mind active. She read a daily newspaper, kept up on current events, and read books. She did crossword puzzles from the paper and we played Scrabble or cards. She could carry on an interesting conversation, and as a retired bookkeeper kept her checkbook, her house, and her life in meticulous order.

G. also worked until she was at least 80, and then did volunteer work after that. She maintained an active interest in life, and still lived it – despite the increasing limitations of age — as fully as she could.

I have observed that if you choose not to use your mind or your body, they won’t come through for you when you need them. But if you keep them exercised, they’ll still serve you well, and your life will be more interesting too, because you are really living it, not just watching it go by.

7. Being a little stubborn can help you survive.

G. went through some difficult times in her life – she lost her mother at a young age; she lived through the depression and several wars; she moved from South Dakota to California as a young woman on her own and supported herself and built a new life; she raised a child on her own, starting in her forties. She worked until she was at least 80, and took care of herself all her life.

You don’t survive and thrive through all those challenges without some backbone, and maybe a bit of an “I can do it myself and my way” attitude. This does not always make it easy for family members or caregivers to help, and there were days when I wished there was just a little less “fight” in her, but that strong will helped her accomplish what she needed to.

8. Cherish your time together.

None of us knows how much time we’ll have. But when you have a friend or family member who has already outlived the average life span, that reality becomes more poignant. Enjoy each day, each moment, each story. Treasure them away, so that person will live on in your heart, and you might even be able to share some of their personal history, and some of the lessons you’ve learned, with others.

It’s often the small things you’ll remember later. Taking time to enjoy a cup of tea and a cookie together, or to look at old pictures; really listening to a story of what it was like to live in other times and places; sharing a good laugh over something small but meaningful to both of you.

And giving of yourself to help someone, even when it isn’t always easy, offering the gift of care, of living at home instead of in a ‘home’, of making a day less lonely — these are all things that make a difference, and become gifts to you as well, enriching your life immeasurably.

And remember, if someone is older and lives alone, sharing a meal together with them, whether it’s something you’ve prepared yourself or just a frozen dinner you warmed up, can really mean a lot. They will feel less alone, and they will eat more, so you have helped sustain someone in two ways, and with much more benefit than if you simply dropped off the food and then left. And this will allow you to enjoy their company as well.

So treasure the living historians in your life. Be as patient as you can. Don’t forget to see, and share, the joy and humor in the little things. You can help make the last years of someone’s life more connected and companionable and a little easier, and you will be storing up memories you can take out and savor for years to come.

Eight Life Lessons I Learned from my Centenarian Friend: Part 1

I have always enjoyed the company of people in their last decades of life, especially if they still actively engage in life, with joy and a positive attitude.

In our culture of youth, constant new technologies, and the latest model of everything, citizens in their eighties, nineties, and beyond can sometimes be dismissed as behind the times or even irrelevant. But I think each generation has something valuable to offer, and we can all enrich each others’ lives, if we just take the time to take a closer look, find common ground, and really listen.

It was my privilege to spend the last nine years of her life with a very special client who also became a good friend. She was almost 91 when I met her, and 100 years and 2 months when she died, in her own home. In those nine years, I gained many cherished memories and learned so much from her – about life, history, relationships, and how to support and honor someone in the last years of their life.

I’ll try to narrow it down to eight of the most memorable things I learned. Some of them I already believed and felt deeply but had confirmed by my friend, whom I’ll call “G.” Others she taught me along the way. All of them I think will help others, whether you’re caring for an aging loved one, provide professional services to the elderly, or just want to see the older generation in a new light. I think closing this “generation gap,” benefits everyone.

And one quick side note: The term “elderly” is a term to be used carefully. Don’t ever use it to identify people like my parents – active, vital people in their mid seventies who go to the gym, play golf, drive, and more.

I don’t often use the word for anyone younger than in their eighties, and then it conveys tender affection and respect for a very special segment of the population who can be wonderful teachers, companions, recipients of much-deserved care, and friends.

So here are a few things I learned.

  1. People are not disposable.

    They do not become obsolete, outdated, or beside the point. Unlike last decade’s cell phone, older people are not replaceable, unnecessary or useless. We have all visited nursing homes where, on our way to visit someone, we encounter others sitting in the hallways looking lost, starved for a smile, a kind word, a bit of attention, mostly forgotten and unappreciated.

    Thanks to her own efforts at maintaining friendships, and the devotion of her only son, this was not the kind of life led by G in her last decades. (More about this in item 4.)

    The elderly are living historians, usually much more interesting and accurate than history books. They have valuable experience, perspective, and life lessons to impart. The way we live changes. Technology changes. But being a human being, managing daily life, family, relationships, work, and all the rest of what it means to be human doesn’t change all that much. So listen. They deserve it, and you’ll learn something, maybe even be entertained. Don’t count out someone’s ability to make a contribution just because they move a little slower and are no longer in the work force. They’ve contributed a lot in the past, and they still have plenty to give.

We are not less human, or less worthy of dignity, just because of how many years we’ve lived. Often it’s quite the opposite.

2. Having a sense of humor is vital.

We all face frustrations and indignities in life, but the very elderly tend to suffer these many- fold. Their eyes, ears, and bodies betray them. Life and technology starts to move too fast to keep up with. People sometimes treat them like they don’t matter. You can rail against all the loss and injustice, or you can remember to laugh it off and still embrace life.

One time when G. overheard someone in the doctor’s office make a dismissive remark about her she told me about it and laughed heartily. I was incensed. So were the other people who cared for her. But we all got a good laugh with her too, and she chose not to take it too personally.

If you can still see the humor in life, even when things aren’t that fun or funny, it gives you a kind of power, and you enjoy life more, because you just rise above and get on with living.

  1. Airplanes and computers are great, but indoor plumbing is even more important.

    Once I asked G. what, in her century of living, was the best invention she’d experienced. She’d seen most of the 20th century, when so much had changed, and a bit of the 21st as well. So I was a little surprised when, of all the amazing things she’d witnessed, she picked indoor plumbing as the most life-changing.

    We’ve taken such a ‘luxury’ for granted for so long that it hardly seems like a technological advance. But she grew up on a farm in South Dakota, and I can imagine how life-changing a switch from outhouses and drawing water for a bath to indoor bathrooms and hot showers must have been. It shows that sometimes the simplest things are the ones that improve our lives the most. And most long-established things were once new and wonderful.

  2. Keep in touch.

G. maintained and nurtured relationships all her life. She stayed in touch with her siblings, nieces and nephews, neighbors past and current, and friends. And when she was the last one surviving of all her closest friends and family, she stayed in touch with their children.

She called. She wrote. She visited and welcomed visitors. And yes, she emailed. Because of her efforts, she didn’t end up like one of those forgotten, discarded people in nursing homes who rarely get a visitor.

She stayed to the last day in the house she’d resided alone in for decades, living as rich a life as possible, with a little daytime assistance but still largely self-sufficient until her final months.

She regularly received cards, flowers, food, emails, letters, phone calls and visits. She was never isolated or neglected. She still mattered to others, and they mattered to her, which made her life full and satisfying, even when she could no longer leave her house.

G. was a living example of ‘you reap what you sow.’ She sowed friendship and connection, and reaped bountifully when she needed it most.

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I’ll save the last four points for next time. I hope to see – and hear from – you then.

What Would You Like to Read About?: An Invitation to Help Me Test My Subjects

I’m going to try something new, again, for the rest of this year. Each publication date, (every other Tuesday), I’ll write a post on a different topic or angle, and ask for your feedback on which subject you are most interested in hearing more about.

I would appreciate claps, comments, suggestions, and hearing about your favorite posts.

My usual topic: “Read. Think. Walk. Write” is both literary and practical, providing insights from daily life – reading, walking, etc., adding the twist of a poet’s perspective, and helping you apply those insights to your life, your job, and your business.

My idea is that we don’t have to just assume there is only one way of seeing and doing things. Sometimes we need to question our assumptions, and “the way things have always been done,” to find a better fit for our needs.

This post will be a short version of the same approach, and a temporary farewell to this type of post. Then next time I’ll start the experiment with something new.

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Well Begun Is Half Done.”

For me, movie quotes aren’t that different from quotes and insights I gather from reading, because movies are often based on books, or real life. At the least, they are also based on words, and created by an artist, just like books.

I don’t remember if this phrase was in the movie “Mary Poppins,” but it was in the film “Saving Mr. Banks,” which was about, P.L. Travers, the writer of the “Mary Poppins” books the movie was based on.

This quote was attributed to the author’s brusque, business-like aunt. She tended to use it to get everyone in the household involved in tackling and completing chores, but I think the phrase applies well to any task, small or large, that we may be dreading or putting off.

I am someone who finds “transitions” of almost any kind a natural challenge and source of resistance. If I’m up I don’t want to go to bed. If I’m in bed I don’t want to get up. If I’m home, I don’t want to leave. If I’m away, I don’t want to go home. If I’m into one activity I don’t want to move onto the next. You get the idea.

This resistance is magnified when I perceive the task at hand as boring, tiring, overwhelming, or just don’t want to do it, or know where to begin.

One especially mundane example is washing my (long, heavy) hair. It’s a tiring chore to me, and really breaks up my day. But once my hair is thoroughly wet and I’m committed, it isn’t that hard to get the rest of the job done. I’ve often found myself saying this ‘Poppinsesque’ phrase once I have begun.

When it comes to a more daunting task, such as beginning a new writing project or assignment, the same holds true, and is even more helpful. Just getting something down on the page helps, because then you’ve already started. You have something to add to, gradually shape, and improve, instead of the dreaded blank page.

In this case, as with other larger projects, you don’t have to do it all at once. In fact, if you’re at all dreading it or uncertain how to proceed, just making a start, however small, takes you that much closer to accomplishing the task, with as little pain as possible.

Many of you will be familiar with the “Pomodoro Method,” where you set a timer for 25 minutes (or in practice any time you want), work on the project at hand until the timer goes off, and then quit until next time. You can get a surprising amount done in short, concentrated spurts, which will make it easier to build on your progress in the next session.

This idea of just beginning, just taking a step forward, however small, can be applied to many aspects of life. Sometimes once you start you can finish a small job all at once and have it off your list. Other times just doing something helps make a large job you do over time much less daunting.

Either way, I encourage you to take that first step today. Sign up for that course you’ve been meaning to take, buy paint for the room you’ve been wanting to redecorate, learn two new words in a language you’ve been contemplating learning, clean out one drawer (or if your desk is like mine part of one drawer) in your desk or dresser.

Once you’ve begun, you’re on your way to being done with something you may never have started otherwise.


I hope you’ll join me next time to take part in my experiment. I‘ll call the first post: “What I Learned From My Centenarian Friend.”