Lessons from the Oldest Old | Home Care Assistance Lessons from the Oldest Old

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Lessons from the Oldest Old

Audrey Meinertzhagen

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As a Volunteer Caregiver to the Zen Hospice Project and a Course Manager at the CareGivers Project, Audrey is passionate about improving the standards of care for older adults and educating caregivers on the principles of mindfulness and self-care.

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How to live longer, happier lives

It seems that every generation is certain that it has mastered this thing about being human and will conquer life on its own terms. And yet, over that edgy gift of time, what unfolds is the recognition that there is little about the human condition that has changed. The circumstances shift, technologies descend and disrupt, empires come, and empires go and as people grow into their lives, some with the cock-eyed notion that they have it all figured out when in fact as they get older they realize how false that notion really is. It takes a lifetime for many to realized how incredibly alike we all are, how precious it is to be born at all and how simple it is to live a truly fulfilling and beautiful life.

Lessons for Living Longer

Lessons for living longer and happier is not something that many intentionally seek out unless one is lucky enough to have a relationship with one who has circled the sun many, many times. It seems to be a bit of a quizzical reality in our society that there is this taboo about looking to the older folks among us for wisdom and guidance. Or never mind looking for wisdom, simply connecting with an elder. This youth culture that we inhabit is for the most part, completely out of touch with what those who came two or three generations before them have to offer.

The thing about knowing and spending time with old folks is that they embody resilience and a brilliance that comes from living through the ups and downs in their passage through life. Growing old is, as they say, not for the faint of heart and yet as many age and confront the hardships of aging they also embrace things to be grateful for and opportunities to be happy. As John Leland wrote in his series ‘85 and Up’ in the New York Times, one of the gentlemen that he was following for a year offered his definition of happiness as, “what’s happening now.”

The Benefits of Intergenerational Connections

It is humbling to meet and spend time with people who have, to an impressive degree, mastered resilience. They have good times and bad and they persist. And at their very best, they thrive despite what the past has served up for them. It seems that with age comes this ability to let go of the past and be present to what simply is. This is not very sexy or exciting, but it is real. It is authentic.

The benefits from intergenerational connections are plentiful. Spending time with someone of advanced age is surprising and poignant. I found myself not too long ago visiting a man once a week who was in his mid 90s. A sweet humble man with an extraordinary curiosity about the world. He was very hard of hearing and refused hearing aids, his six-foot-three-inch frame was bending and week by week he would get weaker. He was surrounded by a series of fun, funny, and beautiful watercolors that he had done in the last 20 years, as well as a pile of large notebooks that were filled with notes, clippings, quotes, ideas, and questions about the world. There were poems by Emily Dickinson, verses about Socrates, headlines from Germany in the 1940’s, his own poems about living simply and pictures drawn of his beloved dog too long gone. He was generous to share all of his interests and was grateful that among others, I was interested in paying attention to his “yammerings” as he called them.

What was wonderful about these interactions with him was that he appreciated the connection and I always walked away in awe of his endless love of life and his curiosity of the world. Age is truly a number and our bodies do weird things as we age, but that edge of wonder and ability to surf the stormy waves of life are magnificent to witness when we let ourselves connect with someone we call ‘old’.

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