The comments and likes continued pouring in. When I told people my mother was “blowing up Facebook”, they laughed, until they saw her picture and were equally astounded by how fabulous she looks. Not one single person believed she was 98. People were both amazed and in disbelief, expressing what an inspiration she was. An inspiration of what is possible. Naturally most people were curious to hear her “secrets” to longevity. Her vitality and joie de vivre shines from the photo, her blue eyes sparkling with life and energy.
The Fastest Growing Segment of the Population
This reminded me of a recent 60 Minutes show about the aging population in the United States. The piece reported that the over-90 demographic is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.
Looking deeper, I found a report by the U.S. census stating, “The nation’s 90-and-older population nearly tripled over the past three decades, reaching 1.9 million in 2010, according to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau and supported by the National Institute on Aging. Over the next four decades, this population is projected to more than quadruple.” Interesting.
This started me thinking of the people I personally know with parents or relatives in my mother’s generation who are still living vibrant and rich lives. Curious me wanted to understand the “whys” behind this wonderful phenomena.
In the back of my mind lived several questions. “Does my generation and the younger generations after us, have a chance of living to this age? And if we do, will we have the same vitality, clarity of mind and energy to stay active the way many of the 90+ generation do?”
The researcher in me continued asking questions. Several factors stayed consistent in what I heard and read, resulting in what I believe are five key lessons the growing 90+ generation can teach us.
1. Conversation Means Talking to Each Other…In Person
This might seem obvious, however, the 90+ generation did not have technology as their main life focus and it did not comprise their principal form of communication. The ability to interact and engage with others, person to person, makes a huge difference in the quality of their lives and our lives, I believe.
My mother’s socialization took place with friends at the playground, park or each others houses. People got together in groups, spending weekends dancing, hanging out, talking and laughing with each other. Face to face, in person. Their lives were lived in the world, having real conversations, not alone having silent conversations via keyboards.
A 2012 Forbes piece stated: “As human beings, our only real method of connection is through authentic communication. Studies show that only 7% of communication is based on the written or verbal word. A whopping 93% is based on nonverbal body language. Indeed, it’s only when we can hear a tone of voice or look into someone’s eyes that we’re able to know when “I’m fine” doesn’t mean they’re fine at all…” My mother still looks directly into the eyes of anyone she’s talking to, and we both can tell by the tone of the others voice, how we really are.
Watching psychologist Sherry Turkle’s Ted Talk, “Connected, but Alone?“, brought up food worthy for thought too. “Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding. And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.”
This ability to communicate with others through in person conversations, is perhaps one of the most important and overlooked lessons the 90+ generation can teach us.
2. Physical Activity Means Just That
The 90+ generation were definitely more active physically. New research shows that the obesity crisis in the U.S. is directly related to the decline in physical activity over the past 20 years. My mother spent much of her childhood at the local park and became a consummate athlete, playing baseball, swimming or skating depending on the season. Walking lengthy distances was also common to meet up with friends, regardless of weather. The 60 Minutes research showed that those who exercised, even as little as 15 minutes a day, definitely lived longer.
3. Be Kind to Your Brain – Write Longhand
The 90+ generation learned how to write longhand and communicated this way. This is currently a topic of much discussion as it continues to be phased out of early childhood education. The research clearly shows the advantages of cursive writing to the brain and learning. My book Confessions of a Middle-Aged Hippie, was actually written longhand on large unlined pads of paper, as I’m aware that putting pen to paper accesses a different part of our being, allowing our creative self to flow onto the page.
A recent piece in the NY Times reported research that shows “Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.”
A study at Indiana University led by psychologist Karin James, showed that when children write by hand, three areas of the brain become activated– the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex. There was no activation in these areas when children just typed or traced letters.
4. Food Glorious Food
Although this topic warrants an entire piece on its own, the food the 90+ generation ate was less processed and adulterated. Their food was much healthier, food we now call “real” food. My mother has never worried much about what she eats, never smoked, still enjoys a glass of wine, and is a bit challenged to remember what foods have gluten in them, or all the other food rules I’ve adopted in my life. Thanks to digestive health issues from an early age, I’m uber cautious of what I ingest.
5. Attitude is Everything – Really
With so much interest in the secrets to my mother’s successful aging, I picked up my Iphone at a family dinner and asked her what her message for the world is. It mirrored what so many in her generation say. She says it all in a 27-second video. “You’ve got to be positive about things. You’ve got to be happy. No matter what goes on, don’t let things get you down. You’ve got to make the best of everything.” She ends with a universally held truism. “And you’ve got to love everybody!” Then she laughs. Pretty simple formula. Kind of like the Beatle’s message coming from several generations earlier. All You Need is Love.
There is truly a wealth of experience and wisdom to learn from the 90+ generation. Searching for information on how this older generation is teaching and impacting the younger generation, I found little to nothing. Documenting and preserving their stories, their legacy, is so crucial now as a way to offer younger generations a chance to learn from them. My fear is they might become a generation reserved for casual historical mentions of the times they lived in, their memories and lessons forgotten and lost forever.
My unanswered questions remain. Will we have the opportunity to live to be 90+ and to leave such a powerful legacy? What will our lives look like if we do? Love to hear your thoughts.