Staying Alive

By staff June 1, 2003

Anthropologists say that a society has moved from savagery to civilization when it attains two benchmarks: It begins to value its elderly and to create art. That makes Sarasota, with its artistic energy and enormous population of seniors-who not only get respect here but in many ways run the show-very civilized indeed.

But much as we may respect our seniors, few of us long to enter that stage of lives ourselves. In our youth-obsessed culture, it's easy to picture advancing age as a sad and lonely time of diminished health, horizons and happiness. But that's not true today.

At 82, with near-crippling osteoporosis, my mother looks fragile and bent. But she walks her dog for an hour every morning, stopping to visit with a host of much younger friends, then swims some laps at the pool. And though she complains that she can't get much done because she has to rest most afternoons, that didn't keep her from refinishing a bureau last week, or from helping my 11-year-old nephew create the winning class project. "She is never, ever in a bad mood," my brother marvels; and she still notices more of the world around her than her absent-minded children do. When he mentioned a house that was for sale a few miles away, she said, "You mean the one with the porch that sags a little on the southern side?"

In "Senior Spirit" on page XXX, we profile some other remarkable retirees, who have used their later years to discover new passions and challenges. They range from a business executive who became a nurse after she turned 65 to a 76-year-old who took up swimming and now ranks among the top 10 in the nation. One of our editors, whose elderly parents have suffered severe health problems this year, scoffed when I told him about the story. "Believe me," he said, "I have seen the reality of old age, and that's not it."

Well, yes, it is; and the reason I'm so sure is that I just read Aging Well, by Dr. George E. Vaillant.

A Harvard professor, Vaillant reports on the final phase of a landmark 60-year study, which has followed about 750 people from youth to old age-or death. Among his findings: The majority of old people-including the very old-are not depressed; and, until they get the disease that will kill them, most are not sick, either. Yes, he concedes, you might die young from disease or an accident. But many of the factors that cause premature death are within our control. If we make it to 50, we have a good chance of living past 80 if we follow these guidelines: Don't smoke; don't abuse alcohol; maintain a normal weight; get regular exercise; and develop nurturing relationships (a good marriage is a strong predictor of a good old age). Mature coping styles-replacing fantasy and passive-aggressive behavior, for example, with humor and altruism-also lead to longevity.

What's more, although our intelligence and temperament are pretty much set in stone-an introverted baby becomes an introverted adult-our character is not. People really do change, often in astonishing ways, and they can also overcome terrible adversity and handicaps. Some of the most contented, productive old people in the study were born to abusive parents in filthy tenements. What's more, writes Vaillant, people who even at 50 seemed "ordinary and forgettable" often grow into a remarkable old age, becoming, like a great wine, "full-bodied and richly memorable."

I was inspired by his portraits of those who had successfully aged over the course of the study. Their homes were full of personality and history; their faces glowed with delight as they recounted stories about their grandchildren, their friends at churches and clubs, the young people they had met in the neighborhood. They viewed earlier trials in their life with forbearance and former foes with forgiveness. They were full of plans and projects-writing their memoirs, learning a language, entering Scrabble tournaments; one was even building an ocean-going boat. Most laughed frequently and heartily-often at themselves-and downplayed any ailments and limitations. A normally restrained man grew tearful talking about what his wife of 50 years had meant to him-"Everything," was all he could manage to choke out. And to a person, they all viewed each new day as an adventure and a gift.

And that's the surprising, satisfying crux of 60 years of scientific study. Barring disaster, and given a sensible lifestyle, it's joy-not cholesterol, wealth or even our parents' longevity-that lengthens and enriches life. 

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