The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.
It is nearly one year ago that my father passed away. On that day, the headline of the Buffalo News proclaimed, “He was a man with a purpose”, with a smaller headline saying “Manny Fried, a guiding presence to area’s actors, writers and social activists, dies at 97.”
Anyone who observed my father as he surpassed the 80-year-old mark, then the 90-year-old mark, and eventually the 97-year-old mark wondered what kept him “so young”. At age 80, he was still jogging. At 90, he was still acting, writing and going to political meetings. And at 95, he performed a one-man autobiographical show, sitting on stage at a reputable Buffalo, New York theater, telling stories about his life with passion and vigor, for over a month of weekend performances. As heirs to 50% of our father’s genes, my sister and I hope that we can only be so lucky! The other side of the family is gifted with tons of creativity, but unfortunately rifled with bi-polar disease and plenty of medical problems. The former we welcome; the latter, we rationalize were the result of poor “lifestyle choices”.
What is it that keeps people ticking for a long time? My father claimed it was a function of good genes from his hearty immigrant parents who lived until they were nearly 100. That, coupled with eating judiciously (he had a sign on his fridge that said “EAT LESS”!), consistent exercise, and staying involved intellectually… He had a rough life trajectory, but developed a resilience he absorbed from his father, who told him, “When you fall down, you get up.” In the 1940s and ’50s, as a labor organizer for the radical Electrical Workers union, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Rather than “taking the 5th”, and saying that he refused to speak on the grounds that anything he said could be used against him, he refused to respond to the Committee’s questions, challenging the right of the Committee to exist. He was unable to find work in the U.S., and ultimately worked for a Canadian company, and also wrote plays about his life experience.
As I move closer to what we define as “young old age” in our society, I am recognizing the elements of my father’s life that continued to fuel his sense of purpose. In fact, just about everything he did mirrors much of the research on aging and longevity as a combination of genetics and lifestyle choices. According to some twin studies, around 20-30% of an individual’s lifespan is related to genes, and the rest is due to individual behaviors and environmental factors which can be modified. Other studies demonstrate that some people have fewer choices than others, particularly given the greater environmental pollution in poorer neighborhoods, and differential access to quality health care for poor people and people of color.
Dan Buettner, in his Blue Zone project, traveled around the world looking for key areas that foster centenarians, people who lived to be 100 or more. He wanted to know what factors contributed to a long life.
Beuttner and his team spent seven years studying four “Blue Zones” where they met people who were aging in an extraordinary way. They interviewed dozens of centenarians, worked with local medical experts, and studied local cultures and lifestyles. Buettner said that each Blue Zone revealed its own recipe for longevity, but many of the fundamental ingredients were the same. Ultimately, he identified nine common lessons of living longer, which he felt were deeply embedded in the cultures they studied.
He found that the Italian island of Sardinia has the highest number of male centenarians in the world; Okinawa, Japan has the longest disability-free life expectancy; and in Loma Linda, Calif., a community of Seventh Day Adventists has a life expectancy that’s around ten years more than that of other Americans. What contributes to these long-living elders? Buettner says that first off, they eat a healthy diet and they get “natural” exercise, where physical activity – like walking around the community or climbing up and down hills – is a natural part of their daily lives.
They remain socially engaged in their communities, whether it be in a village or with a group of strong friends and family in which they are valued. And these centenarians continue to find meaning or purpose in their lives. Buettner describes 104-year-old Giovanni Sannai of Sardinia, saying,
“He was out chopping wood at 9 in the morning…He started his day with a glass of wine and there was a steady parade of people coming by to ask his advice. That’s one of the characteristics of the Sardinian Blue Zone — the older you get, the more celebrated you are.”
For those of us who don’t live on an island, or in a culture that reveres old age, how will we shape our lives moving forward, to maximize healthy aging? It is not “natural” for older people to disengage with their lives; in fact, contemporary aging research provides evidence of the importance of being involved in activities that inspire interest or passion, whether it be with one’s family and friends, in volunteering to help others, or in any endeavor that creates a sense of purpose and brings older people in contact with others.
Clearly, one of the hardest things about growing older is loss – loss of friends and partners whom we outlive. In observing my father, I saw that when many of his contemporaries had passed away, he continued to be surrounded by younger people of all ages who were both inspired by him, and revered him as the “elder” in Buffalo’s labor movement and theater community. I believe that this buffered the pain of overwhelming loss, and provided a critical community of friends and colleagues who sustained him for many years.
How can we create a sense of community – through family and friends, or a social or political group, or an artistic endeavor – that engages us, provides support when needed, and challenges us intellectually?
Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.
Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
I was always taught to respect my elders and I’ve now reached the age when I don’t have anybody to respect.