Aging Independently and Well Over Decades–10 How-to’s

“As we live our lives, we write our own destiny” Sr. Advisor R 

Sr. Advisor R,, my mil, was a poster child for aging independently, unselfishly and well. She said, to the extent she could, she’d done everything; helped everyone; and given to those she wanted to give. She was ready to go. It was no secret. And I’ve been thinking–since her timely death last week at 101–about how she managed life so well.

R lived by the following:   

 1.Take care of yourself (or you won’t be able to take care of anything else).
2. Be responsible
3. Don’t abuse yourself. (You get enough from the outside)
4. Know when to say “no.”
5. Simplify (as you age)
6. Don’t assume (you can be wrong; it causes unnecessary problems)
7. Don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed
8. Concentrate. (If your hands are doing one thing while your head is thinking another, you forget where you put things.)
9. Remember life is good–it’s the people who mess it up.
10.To bring joy in today’s world there are three things you can count on: animals, flowers, music.


1.  The African proverb “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” resonates loudest. It may sound like an oxymoron. R was clearly not a child and independence was her highest priority. Making it easier for other family members was a necessity in childhood and became part of her being. She was smart–smart enough to know she couldn’t help others without taking care of herself first. At a very young age she was part of the village. Later the village gave back.

2.  “You’ve got to be responsible,” R vividly remembers her father saying when she was 4. It had a huge impact and she acted accordingly.  She recalled their quarantined home during an epidemic, an older sister’s death, another sibling’s health issues, the Great Depression, WWII, being a caregiver for close family and friends. Everyone knew R was 100% responsable. It was who she was.

3.  R’s home was the buffer for any outside abuse. She made it tranquil, lovely and loved–a place to gain strength and renewal. Widowed at 50, she didn’t indulge in activities that would be bad for her. This doesn’t mean she didn’t overdo in certain areas, but she had the discipline to know when she’d overdone and compensated as appropriate. She treated herself to things that brought joy or made life easier. Her easy-care plants symbolized life and joy thus, she replaced and watered them as needed until the week she died–not easy at 101.

4.  R taught us early there was nothing wrong with saying “no” and “I don’t know.” Simply  because someone asks, doesn’t mean we are obligated give the answer we think they want. (This doesn’t make us selfish. It makes us real–my opinion…and we can be very nice while being real.)

5.  Normal age-related changes slow us down. Simplifying allows us to continue life as we’ve known/enjoyed it. Examples:
–R’s many house plants decreased in number and care requirements as she aged. She gave many away and concentrated on the easy-care ones.
–While she went out every day in her younger years, she reduced to only one activity a day, then going out every other day. The last few months she only went out for doctors’ appointments.
–Still making her own meals, R realized she could save dish-washing by putting Trader Joe’s chopped salad greens along with salad dressing in a zip-lock bag, giving it a good shake, and spilling it out onto the plate with her dinner.

6.  Don’t assume. See #6 above. This is so true. Test it!

7.  Don’t expect. See #8 above. Seems jaded, but saves disappointment.

8.  How many times have we forgotten where we put something because our hand did one thing while our mind was on something else? We weren’t concentrating. Shortly after R was widowed she lost something important. She couldn’t remember where she put it. Without anyone to ask for help, R promised herself, from then on, she would never again lose things due to lack of concentration.

9 and 10 above: Life, animals, flowers and music–thoughts R kept front and center as she encountered the challenges of living.

In recent years R acknowledged that she did everything she felt important to do; helped everyone she’d wanted to help, and given what she could to specific charities that served a larger need-base of people and pets. She had significantly contributed to the village.

Since R’s only-child son and I live 2,000 miles away, the village–basically two wonderful neighboring women, Pam and Barb, and a nephew and his wife–made it possible, on a daily basis, for R to continue to live in her own home–with only a cleaning woman working half a day and a gardener. What better “assisted living” could anyone ask for! R had unfailingly done for them over the years and they could never do enough. R was a giver; never wanted to be a taker. In the end, what comes around, goes around.

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.

Aging Parents–Research: Wisdom’s Importance in Successful Aging

For satisfaction in later life–to age well, research has told us that maintaining physical and mental health, volunteering and having connections with others are necessary.
One researcher, Dr. Monika Ardelt, an associate sociology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, wondered could people in poor health, those who’d suffered losses, and those “whose social roles were diminished”–age successfully or would they just have to “give up.” Her recent findings:
Wisdom is the ace in the hole that can help even severely impaired people find meaning, contentment and acceptance in later life.
The above and what follows come from an interesting 3/13/14  NY Times article: The Science of Older and Wiser.” It highlights research confirming the importance of wisdom in aging well–in part: 
  • “People who show evidence of  high wisdom are also more likely to have better coping skills …they would be more active than passive about dealing with hardship”
  • “….when people in nursing homes or with a terminal illness score high on Dr. Monika Ardelt’s wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of well-being”
  • “True wisdom involves recognizing the negative both within and outside ourselves and trying to learn from it”
  • “Wisdom is characterized by a reduced self-centeredness”
  • “If you’re wise, you’re not focusing so much on what you need and deserve, but on what you can contribute.”
  • “Gererativity”–thinking about the next generation, giving back without needing anything in return….the wisest people do that in a way that doesn’t see their lifetime as limiting when this might happen.”
  • Whatever the nature of one’s limitations, simplifying one’s life is also a sign of wisdom.”
(Looking back we find that Erik Erikson, renowned for his 8 stages of human development theory, and his wife were in their 80’s when they added a ninth stage emphasizing wisdom.)
R, now 100 and a Senior Advisor to this blog, is the wisest person I know. She has maintained her mental and physical health as well as her connections with others. While she doesn’t volunteer in the literal sense, she is constantly doing for others–giving support– and advice (when asked), and little gifts. Her “Words of Wisdom,” posted a year ago:
  • As you age, it helps to simplify your life.
  • Know when to say “no.”
  • Don’t abuse yourself; you get enough from the outside.
  •  Don’t assume.
  • Take care of yourself or you won’t be able to take care of anything else.
Is it wise to say more? Perhaps. The above may give an idea of our parents’ wisdom. For specifics–and an “impediment” to wisdom, click the full article.
Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and professionals, plus ideas–to help parents age well.

What Pope Benedict XVI (85) and Sr. Advisor R (99) Have in Common

“I want to quit, ” Sr. Advisor R’s voice came clearly through the phone early Monday morning around 9:30 am. It was the day before yesterday…a cloudy, gray day with periodic rain falling. I phoned her –basically to double-check that there were no new developments in R’s life that I should be aware of before coming to pick her up for her wound care center appointment at 1:45.“The Pope is quitting. I want to quit,” she continued. (Obviously she had already read the paper.) She went on saying something like “I understand his not having the energy for all the responsibilities.

“You know I’ve been feeling this way for some time now. I’m tired. I’ve done everything. Helped everyone I can help; given all I can give–financially not that much, but every bit counts– to help people and the charities I know do good right here in town; and I just don’t have the energy for the responsibilities any  more.”

Of course the Pope can quit and basically remain in the environment he knows with people to take care of his needs. R, on the other hand, would need to give up her home and go to a new environment–a senior retirement place, she decided. Why? Because the responsibilities associated with taking care of her home are feeling overwhelming. That said, she wants to research before making any decisions.

At 99 years of age, she’s dependent on certain people, but… The gardener no longer comes when he should, “the grass looks awful.” She’s alway taken pride in her home. Her cleaning lady (R cleaned until 5-6 years ago) leaves dirt in the corners, always wants to talk, no longer does the heavy cleaning; and the man who comes once a week to take care of the shrubs and citrus trees and do small errands has a bad back. R doesn’t know how long he can continue. Plus the weather–it’s supposed to be warm here but this has been a cold winter. Her bones hurt. R tells me I’ll understand about cold weather and bones when I get older.

My thoughts go back to Dad. He died at 94 1/2 (as he liked to tell everyone). Being a far-away-living daughter it was easy to notice that the last year and a half he began to “pull in,” often preferring to sit in his recliner chair alone in the den, reading his favorite (“because they have happy endings”) Louis L’Amour Westerns with the stock market channel on TV as background noise. Having some of my childhood friends (who he’d known almost all my life) visit, was an added stress, added commotion–even though he liked them. And even his granddaughter (age 2) often generated too much energy and noise for him and he turned down offers to have her come and visit.

So what are we saying? People who have aged well can legitimately feel “old.” At different chronological ages (perhaps 65, perhaps 99) they share commonalities. Their energy wanes, former challenges and responsibilities that they handled impressively before, begin to weigh more and more heavily. They have pride. They want to do. Their mind is still good. They may even feel young inside. But they–if they know themselves–realize the need to relinquish certain responsibilities and simplify and/or de-stress  their lives.

We try hard to help parents age well. If we’re lucky, they do and they live well longer. But there can come a time when they feel it’s time to “quit.” For me, who’s a cheerleader at heart, and my dad it was clear (knowing he had no clinical depression) that I needed to stand back–and basically be a loving daughter.