The secret to successful aging

I recently arrived home from a youth service trip to St. Louis. On the 11-hour ride home in a 22-year-old, 15-passenger van with no A/C and no tape deck, and the cigarette lighter powering a small portable fan in the third row of the van, we listened to more radio than I have listened to since I was a sophomore in high school.

Several members in the van love country music, so I was introduced to today’s country hits. I was pleasantly surprised. Compared to the vacuous and often sexually explicit lyrics of today’s pop music, I felt oddly empowered and adored when listening to country. Of the lyrics I caught, it seems that most of the women enjoy running around barefoot in the country shooting things and what they hate most are boyfriends who cheat on them. The men may drive their trucks too fast, but they like to tell ladies that they’re pretty, and they willingly offer to love you to the end of time. My politics and perspective tend to veer at this point, but overall, how refreshing.

In the midst of working in soup kitchens and shelters, our youth group stopped by a St. Louis area nursing home to visit a retired former minister of the church and his wife.

“She was a million dollar babe in a five and dime store …”

A perfect opening line to a country melody, but, in this case, how Mr. G. begins his story of meeting Mrs. R. over 72 years ago. At 95, he speaks of that day as if it were yesterday, and though Mrs. R.’s short term memory evaporates before her, she smiles. Our youth group members smile as well. Who doesn’t want to believe that someday, at 95 years old, their spouse could not only be alive, but could also speak with quiet wonder and deep affection of first meeting them, decades ago. But Mr. G. made it clear that joy is not limited to the past or to when we are young; every year of life should be lived fully, whether 5 or 35 or 95. Mr. G. continued, “I am 95 and I am glad to be 95.” He looked into the eyes of our group and talked of sermons he had preached, how he tries to read at least one book a week, and how he enjoys corresponding via e-mail. Most of all, however, he speaks of his faith and his love for his wife.

“We’ve been married 72 years and I don’t think I’ve loved her more than I have in the last few years.”

He turned to our teenagers and spoke of love, and how easy it is to mistake the flutters of affection for lasting love.

“I have learned that love means sacrificing yourself for the other person. As I look back on my life, I am humbled to see that I was at my best when she was living for me.”

I thought of Dr. George Vaillet’s analysis in Aging Well, a book that chronicles and reflects upon the findings of three groundbreaking prospective studies that assessed and interviewed individuals for six to eight decades. On page 13, he lists the common traits they found that tended to lead to being considered “happy/well” at age 80:

  1. It’s not the bad things that happen to you that doom you; it’s the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.
  2. Healthy relationships are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude, for forgiveness, and for taking people inside.
  3. A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80. But surprisingly, low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not.
  4. Alcohol abuse consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, in part because alcoholism damaged future social supports.
  5. Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones add more to life’s enjoyment than retirement income.
  6. Objective good physical health was less important to successful aging than subjective good health … It is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick.

Successful aging often means growing old in a relationship that eventually leads to caregiving. The Chicago Tribune recently highlighted the growing trend in men caring for impaired loved ones. They trace the story of Herbert and Ruth, both former pediatricians in the Hyde Park neighborhood. As Ruth suffers from dementia, Herbert cares for her everyday needs, and they undergo a move, in with their son and his family:

“As his wife began to lose the ability to communicate or care for herself, Herbert Lerner dutifully cooked and fed her. He dressed her for the day and took her to the bathroom …

‘This is the person you love,’ Lerner said. ‘You’re not going to abandon somebody you love after 60 years.”

One thing I love about service trips is that I am forced to lose my illusions. In my world, it is easy to presume that my safety nets of family, friends, income, health, and mental capacity are entitlements and not blessings — blessings that can be lost. Serving those who have lost due to addiction, mental illness, hardship, aging, even choice, forces me to be grateful for my safety nets and reminds me to use my excess as a safety net for others. I imagine that we all long for a love that will last — one that will withstand the times when we are sick or weak or demented, when we hope that the memory of all that we have been can trump the reality of what we have become.

Amy Ziettlow blogs at Family Scholars.

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