5 lessons we can learn about life from the elderly
‘If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.’ Excuse me? That sounds so wrong-headed.
But this was journalist John Leland’s conclusion after visiting six elderly people (85 years and over) in New York for 12 months for a newspaper series called ‘85 & Up’. His book Happiness is a Choice You Make (published 2018) details his experience.
So why should we learn to think like an old person? Here are five reasons from his book.
1. Their sense of well-being is high
‘Older people report a greater sense of well-being and fewer negative emotions than younger people.’ In fact, well-being grows until the seventh decade and then begins to drop, but it’s still higher at 90 than at 20.
One of the reasons for this is that the elderly tend not to dwell on the negative experiences as much as those who are younger. ‘Experience helps older people moderate their expectations and makes them more resilient when things don’t go as hoped.’
2. Their focus is on what can be done
The six 85-and-overs he visited had developed their own strategies for getting through the day, ‘but their strategies boiled down to the same thing: spend your dwindling time and energy on the things you can still do that give you satisfaction, not on lamenting those you once did but now can’t.’
Leland suggests that there’s an arrogance among those younger who think that life isn’t worth living ‘once you can’t do the things you do now’. Not so—think back to point 1.
3. They practice happiness
Each of the six elders ‘practiced happiness differently’. ‘Fred gave thanks for each day, even though objectively those days looked pretty hard.’
Ruth had become like glue holding her family and extended family together.
Jonas, a filmmaker, hadn’t yet stopped working and didn’t take vacations, but enjoyed good company and good food both in his films and life.
Ping had her daily games of mah-jongg with other women in her building.
John was almost blind and had difficulty feeding himself, but ‘willed himself back to better times, in vivid colour and detail’.
And Helen had her friend Howie.
‘Each of the six was showing me ways to stop stewing in life’s problems,’ says Leland.
4. They live full lives
This was a major lesson for Leland who was also dealing with his own elderly mother at the time. He was surprised to hear a friend describe her as ‘light-hearted, outgoing, always in good spirits’.
Noticing the surprise, his friend said this was typical among visiting relatives who did not realise ‘what full lives our elders lived’.
He found that to be true among those he was visiting and explains it this way: ‘Where we focused on day-to-day changes, which were almost always for the worse, they lived more in continuities.’
Ruth was 93 and, ‘kind of proud of myself. ’Cause I’m still independent.’ At one point she stood (it hurt her to stand) and walked across the room to get a bowl of chocolates for Leland.
‘“Take a few,” she said, and sat back down. “I hate getting up from the chair.”’ There’s a sense of both achievement and reality in what had happened.
‘Old age remains a topic on which we middle-aged people think we know it all. . . . I realised I still saw my mother’s life through my prejudices about old age.’
5. They create lessons for life
After visiting with these six seniors, Leland offered this advice: ‘Live your life, put on a show, take a chance, give thanks for your failures along with your successes—they’re two sides of the same coin.’
And, if we live long, ‘maybe we have an obligation to live better: wiser, kinder, more grateful and forgiving, less vengeful and covetous. All those things make life better for everyone, but especially the person trying to live by them.’
He adds the rider: Even ‘when we fail in our attempts to get there.’