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4 Life Lessons From Tony Bennett and Other 89-Year-Olds

Bennett and Dick Van Dyke are going strong and happy

Part of the Artful Aging Special Report

Singer Tony Bennett, at 89, isn’t resting on his laurels.

He recently released a new album, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern. In an interview with NPR, he recalled how much he loved singing for his relatives as a boy. “It created a passion in my life that exists to this moment as I speak to you, that is stronger now at 89 than in my whole life,” Bennett said. “I still feel that I can get better somehow. And I search for it all of the time.”

Bennett’s not the only 89-year-old who is defying stereotypes of older age.  Actor Dick Van Dyke  just wrote a memoir titled Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging.  Queen Elizabeth continues to carry out the royal responsibilities she inherited in 1952. And Marilyn Hagerty, my friend and former colleague, continues to write regularly for the Grand Forks, N.D., Herald.

Their daily lives offer four lessons for all people of all ages:

Lesson 1: Spend Time with People of Different Generations

With her sky-high shoes, infamous meat dress and outlandish theatrics, Lady Gaga stands opposite Bennett on the pop star spectrum. Yet Bennett saw an opportunity for an interesting collaboration, so he reached across their 60-year age gap and created a hit album of jazz standards and toured the country with the artist he calls ‘Lady.’

By working with artists who are younger than he is, Bennett is living in the present and learning how younger people interact with each other.

People like Hagerty and Bennett focus on what they physically can do; they don’t dwell on what they can’t do.

Lesson 2: Don’t Bow to Pressures to Retire

Actors, writers and professors are among the professionals who are leading the way to prove that there isn’t one right age for people to retire.

Like Queen Elizabeth, who hasn’t bothered to respond to speculation about her retirement, so are a slew of women in the public sector. Janet Yellen, 69, plays a key role in guiding the nation’s economy in her post as chair of the Federal Reserve System. Following deadly ISIS attacks in Paris, two American women have important roles in proposing U.S. policy to combat terrorism at home and around the globe: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for president, is 68, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is 82.

Lesson 3: Look for the Silver Lining

On his new album, Bennett sings, “A heart full of joy and gladness will always banish sadness and strife. So always look for the silver lining.”

During the many years I’ve known Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty (you may recall reading about her Olive Garden restaurant review), she has always exemplified this attitude. I’ve watched her lose her husband and daughter, overcome breast cancer and pick up the pieces after her home was flooded. Despite her sorrow, she perseveres by being out and about in the world and moving forward. She enjoys her grandchildren, regularly plays bridge, cheers at college games and volunteers at her church. But Hagerty has loved being a journalist her entire life, so she makes time to report and write informative and wry columns laced with her self-deprecating humor.

People like Hagerty and Bennett focus on what they physically can do; they don’t dwell on what they can’t do.

Lesson 4: Indulge Your Passion

In his new book, Keep Moving, Van Dyke writes about how he danced in celebration of his 89th birthday: “I shimmied and shook, my hips going right and then left, my arms and wrists undulating like long snakes.”

When someone told him, “You don’t act your age at all,” Van Dyke concluded that “old age is part fact, part state of mind, part luck.”

He loves to dance, so he indulges that passion. And to ensure that he can keep dancing, he works out daily by walking on a treadmill and lifting weights.

Van Dyke has another wise piece of advice for people of all ages: Don’t worry. “The less you worry, the better your attitude is, and a positive, worry-free, guilt-free attitude is key to enjoying life at any age — especially old age.”


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