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How to Be Old

Old has so many definitions, but what I’m looking at here is how we advance in years. And I have become a bit of a snob about it. This surprises me since a few years ago I was rather put off with a local newspaper columnist when she pronounced “I’m not interested in interviewing anyone unless they are over 70.”

Now I’m limiting my own admiration for amazing things done in advanced age, to people not over 70…or even 80. I save my awe for what folks in their 90’s are doing.

My first dose of this was a newspaper article about a local retired teacher that came out a couple months ago. This nonagenarian is just doing what she likes to do but she’s still going strong and making a huge difference to young readers with her effort.

After she retired, she decided to volunteer as a reading tutor with kids who were having problems. But as she worked with these kids, she realized the materials available weren’t what the kids really needed. So she created her own materials.

Cool, huh? That was just the start. The materials worked so well that teachers in the schools noticed and wanted the resource themselves.  So with the help of her daughter–who did the illustrations–she made them into a formal set of materials. GoPhonics was born.

When I read the article, she was just embarking on even another step–to create a program for teaching teachers how to use those materials–because that’s what is needed now. Sylvia Davison is in her 90’s. You would never know it by how she is living her life.

Just this last weekend, I read of another amazingly active person who’s less that a decade from the century mark. Fred Oldfield is has been a commercially successful artist for over three quarters of a century, specializing in Western art,but also doing a lot of murals. He still paints, but even more amazing, he’s active in teaching kids painting and in raising money to help fund art education for kids.

Don’t picture this as doddering old guy who shuffles between his easel and his bed for a few hours every day. Don’t think this guy is just the facade for other, younger volunteers.  He still rides his horse regularly and makes his way around the Heritage Center where he teaches with the ease of someone much younger. Fred Oldfield is 95.

A recent AARP interview with Dustin Hoffman reveals I’m not the only one intrigued with these outliers of continued vibrance. Hoffman mentioned two whom he’s noticed. Manoel de Oliveira is still directing at 104. And then there’s the 94-year old guy who, after finishing a triathalon, was asked if he was going to run anymore. His reply, “Oh, yeah. I got to keep going until I get old.”

That’s a funny line, but it’s also the gyst of what’s going on with these folks. They do not see themselves as “old.” And that is the best way for all of us to advance in years. How many birthdays you’ve had is completely irrelevant to what you will be happiest doing with your time, effort, and resources.

These people are all deeply interested in something and spend a lot of time and effort on it. Age is a totally useless concept for them–at least in terms of themselves. (The ones who are working with kids may have age parameters for the kids they work with, but that’s a whole different thing.)

I preach a lot about having a sense of purpose–something to do that goes beyond your personal comfort and pleasure. That is definitely an essential piece of becoming a centenarian superstar. But there’s another piece to this that we all need as well.

We need to stop thinking the “old” thoughts. When something aches or I don’t have the energy, I can often make it go way if I’m not excited enough about what I am planning to do.  I won’t do that if I tell myself “Well, that’s just what happens when you’re my age.”  It’s way too easy in this culture to start telling yourself that!

I want to be like Grandma Moses.  She got to into painting in earnest when she was 78 and created over 1,500 canvasses before she died at the age of 101.  She went from displaying her art at a local drugstore for $3 each to national renown (and $10,000 price tags) in less than a decade. Her example is far more compelling than that of my maternal grandfather who retired from a corporate job at 65 like everyone else and then just sat there because he “had a heart condition.”  He kept breathing for another 20 years, but he wasn’t really living  them.

The more energy you use, the more you have–no matter how many candles were on your last birthday cake.  Dustin Hoffman, quoting Bill Connelly about the point of the movie Quartet in which they were both involved, had it right: “Don’t die until you’re dead.”

 

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