As life expectancy rises in this country, Canadians face more years with grey hair and creaking bones. In her new book, You Could Live a Long Time: Are You Ready?, sociologist Lyndsay Green interviewed 40 seniors identified as role models for aging well by the people who know them. What she discovered is that money matters far less than learning to laugh about your hearing aid.
In your opening chapter, you give some simple advice: Be charming. Is one of the most important lessons of aging well making sure you are fun to hang out with?
It's absolutely the most important lesson. Once you are older there are often very few reasons for people to hang out with you unless you are charming. You aren't offering them networking opportunities or career advancement prospects. Who will hang out with you when all you have is yourself?
You describe your Aunt Jean who made close friendships with the staff at her nursing home, partly because she couldn't relate to her fellow residents. She certainly appears to have been that great-aunt you'd always like to visit. What are the most important things you learned from her?
She made an enormous effort to put on her face for me - in the metaphorical sense. She prepared herself for her visit with me. She would have clearly boned up on some topical event, some public issues that she wanted to debate and would ask my opinion on.
She did not talk about her failing health or her medical problems. She asked me about myself and remembered things I talked about at our last visit. She stayed really curious, engaged, and genuinely seemed interested in what was going on around her.
But Aunt Jean, she was very mentally spry. She had a lot of advantages in the charming area. What if you can't remember things or you are struggling in those areas?
It's how we accept our diminishing capacity that really will reveal our ability to attract people and become part of the emotional circle that we are going to need so desperately when we age. I've got a wonderful story from a grandson who told me about his two grandmothers, one of whom had really never been as sharp as the other one but as she started to forget things she just laughed it off. The grandmother who had been very clever really resented the fact that she couldn't remember things and bore it with not very much grace. So she wasn't that fun to hang out with any more.
And I guess we know who got the most visits?
As you point out, we image ourselves as grey, saggy versions of our younger selves in the senior years. That's wishful thinking, isn't it?
It is, but one of the most astonishing findings for me is that age isn't just a loss of youth, it's a new stage of opportunity. I had not appreciated that at all. I was assuming that I was just going to have learn to deal with a very difficult future. There are benefits that come with that new stage - worries are often reduced, you are no longer in the thick of things so life is more stress free, you have more control over your time, you no longer have to please others. And one of the most powerful prerogatives of age is the permission to speak the truth.
But doesn't that make your company less welcome?
It depends on how you phrase it. I have seen people speak their truth in a very candid, funny, amusing way. Presentation is everything.
You also make the point that you should have a work plan rather than a retirement plan.
That's a very consistent message I am getting from all the role models. We need a purpose in life, and work provides that for many of us. It doesn't have to be paid work, it can be volunteer work, but we need to feel valued and needed. There's a lovely parable where a young man says to an old man, 'What is the burden that you face growing old?' and the old man answers, 'I have nothing to carry.'
The people you interviewed also cautioned against making wrong choices out of pride.
I would say pride is a huge barrier to aging well, on every level. To maintain the health we have, we need to admit that it's failing - when we need that hearing aid, when we have to take someone's arm. To retain our independence, we have to learn to accept help. … If you refuse to use a hearing aid, people are going to tire of having to shout or they will confuse your odd responses with a failing mind.
One of the central points of the book is that it's not all about money, which most of us intuitively know. But won't having the cash to pay for the top-end nursing home make life a lot easier?
You can sit in a very nice, well-financed retirement home and be completely miserable because you didn't take the time to develop friendships and interests and engagements beyond yourself.
But a lot of what happens in old age is beyond our control. Were the people you interviewed especially resilient when lousy things happened to them?
I thought it would be all about health and wealth. I asked people to recommend people they wanted to be when they grow up - I didn't give any other criteria. All the role models have had physical problems and their level of income spanned the entire spectrum. What we were tapping into was something different - and it was the ability to live fully in the moment and treat life as a gift.
They also gave marriage advice, didn't they?
Yes, they stressed the importance of having the right partner as you age. The reason for this is that you will really rely on them, and if worse comes to worse, they will take care of you and you will take care of them. So either way, you're gonna have to really love that other person and really enjoy their company.
Most people would probably say being able to remain in their own home is key to a good life as they age. Why do you think this is the wrong attitude?
The elders say look at your home and modify it. Wherever you plan to live as you age, you have to be practical about it. You have to assess whether you will get enough intellectual stimulation, whether you will have enough of a community around you. The elders were very clear on that point - you've got to be in a location where you are part of a physically accessible community.
And I guess it's also good advice to learn a few good jokes.
[Laughs]Yes, very good advice.
But just try to avoid telling them too often.
If you are lucky, you've got an emotional circle that won't mind.