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    They do not become obsolete, outdated, or beside the point.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.

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