Is there any single secret for aging well?

The word “doctor” derives from the Latin verb docere: to teach and, as a doctor, I do often offer instruction. But when a woman in her eighties comes in for her annual physical and tells me she’s still dancing, mowing her own lawn, and helping out herolder neighbors, I have no illusions about which of the two of us should be doing the teaching.

Particularly since reading this lovely feature story about Ethel Weiss, the 99-year-old Brookline woman who’s still running her toy and card shop on Harvard Street after an incredible 74 years, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from my patients about aging well.

Ms. Weiss is not my patient, but many of my older patients share several things in common with her: good genes, a positive attitude, and a determination to stay active and engaged. Many, like Ms. Weiss, have made the choice to incur some risk by continuing to live alone, in order to maintain independence. As one of my older patients once told me: “There are worse things than falling.”

But here’s where it gets tricky: I also have patients who are aging well who’ve made very different choices. Some have moved to assisted living facilities and tell me that the safety net provided by on-site dining and medical care gives them the freedom and peace of mind to do the things that they really enjoy: reading, socializing, volunteer work, whatever.

I have an older patient who’s been doing great since moving in with her kids and another for whom this arrangement has been a disaster.

Some retirees come back from a winter in Florida and and pronounce it heaven on earth. Others call it a geriatric ghetto or, more morbidly, “God’s Waiting Room.”

So, beyond a few common sense basics — keep moving, eat well, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, keep up with routine medical care, stay intellectually and socially stimulated — is there any single secret for aging well?

I’m concluding that aging well isn’t much different than living well at any age. My contented older patients, like my contented younger patients, are honest with themselves about what works best for them, they don’t expect everything to be perfect, and they have good senses of humor.

That woman in her eighties who still mows her lawn? As she left my office she said to me: “Listen, be happy … and be well.”

Was that a pleasantry, or advice?

Suzanne Koven is an internal medicine physician and a Boston Globe columnist.  She blogs at In Practice at Boston.com, where this article originally appeared. She is the author of Say Hello To A Better Body: Weight Loss and Fitness For Women Over 50

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  • Suzi Q 38

    My husband’s aunt just turned 100. Actually, she is his mother’s aunt.
    His mother died at the age of 62 (lung cancer w. mets), but this lady is living so well.

    She is active and cares for a special needs relative in a nursing home. She visits her every other day. On the days that she doesn’t go there, has people visit her. She works in the yard, with the assistance of two gardeners, as her house is on two acres of land.

    She has outlived two of her doctors, and her present physician is the son of one that died. He(her physician) is so good, he does whatever she wants, LOL. He figures that it is “working” for her. My husband has the same doctor and he asked ” Are you going to see Aunt Clara today?” (She lives 5 minutes from the doctor’s office).

    She said that she worked in the garment industry making those fancy women’s dresses until she was 80. The company closed, as most of the work went overseas. She said she liked working that long, because it kept her busy. She also liked collecting a sizable social security check due to waiting so long to retire.

    He nephew took her driver’s license away about a year ago at the age of 99.

    She is still miffed about that.

  • meyati

    The good die young and we’re so mean the devil doesn’t want us. That’s the motto for both sides of my family.

    My paternal grandfather was running across the street to the bus station to meet my father and my oldest uncle. It was my grandfather’s 98th birthday, and his son’s were coming from Ft. Riley to be with him. A speeding teen-aged drunk ran over Grandpa. Every church refused to have the funeral service, so Grandpa was laid out in his favorite bar. All of his buddies from the Civil War were dead. All of the troopers that served with him during the Great Plains’ Indian Wars were dead. By the way, he was thrown over a telephone pole and hung on until his last son arrived from Ft. Riley. Iowa had to have a complaint from the family to arrest the driver. Grandpa made his children promise to not file a complaint. The kid became a lawyer and helped poor people free. His family was rich. The sheriff wouldn’t leave the my family alone. He was picked up, carried out of the hospital, dropped, and then kicked a few times. The doctors ran the sheriff off. Grandpa died with his loving family-honorable army sergeants that later became engineers and professors, my father was part of the UCLA math department, and his beautiful daughters that married well. This was 1936.

    My other grandfather was then labeled the meanest man in Iowa. He died in a hunting accident when he was 96. Before, he was one of the 2 meanest men in Iowa. There was about 20 year difference between them. They never let anybody beat a dog, horse or woman. They both began putting food on the table when they were about 10. Let us respect the other side of the coin-there are people that live long and never had a soft life in any form, except for being deeply loved.

    • SarahJ89

      Oh meyati, I so love this! Thank you so much for it.

  • http://www.dpsinfo.com LaurieMann

    Good genes do matter, but there are times when they aren’t enough. My grandparents generally died in their 70s, but their parents lived into their 80s and 90s. The big difference seemed to be much more smoking among my grandparents than among my great grandparents. My folks are still alive and kicking in their mid-80s, but being active matters at any age.

  • SarahJ89

    I was lucky enough to live with my mid-80 year old grandparents as a child. I’ve always thought of old age as a time of fruitfulness and productivity. I’m now 65 and this is happening to me. My hands are beginning to be wrinkley and have some age spots. I look at them and think “Hey, they’re becoming like Nana’s! Working hands.”

    At the age of 80 my grandmother took care of a bed-ridden husband, three grandchildren and a double-decker house in which we and our tenants lived. She made her own bread, cod fish cakes, etc. And left me with the knowledge that I can and will keep moving for as long as possible. Longer, actually.

    I work for a farmer who is 81. He and his wife milk their cows by hand, can their own food, process their own meat, have a never ending stream of boarders and assorted helpers at the daily table. I’m the young kid on the block there.

  • Rginsberg2

    Well said. All of us in health care need to take bold, important lessons from our patients. They are our classroom and a large part of our continuing education.