What Will You Do With the Rest of Your Life?
Gleaning inspiration and wisdom from elderly role models can show us how to make the most of those bonus years
I recently became a member of a small local gym to launch my personal spring renewal program. But despite my good intentions, almost immediately after joining, I found myself making excuses for why I can’t do this or that exercise. Most had to do with my bad knees.
After a few weeks of very limited use, I could see a chain reaction in the making. If I let simple aches stop me now, I reasoned, it wouldn’t be long before I’d have an excuse for avoiding pretty much anything that can keep me active, vibrant, learning and contributing.
Enough excuse making, I chided myself while watching a huge group of seniors practice dance-like t’ai chi movements in Central Park this past weekend. I resolved that I’d look into this ancient Chinese martial art and also yoga, whose popularity has continued to explode.
I read up on the enormous health benefits each of these practices confers and decided I should sign up for a yoga class, either at my new gym (though they offer only one class a week) or elsewhere, but one led by an instructor who can help modify the positions so that my knee problems don’t interfere.
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A Revered Yogi
While doing this research, I learned about an amazing 94-year-old woman, Tao Porchon-Lynch, who has been practicing yoga for more than 70 years and teaching it for 45 while also doing competitive ballroom dancing and sustaining a robust speaking schedule — and all this despite a hip replacement a few years ago.
She’s the founder of the Westchester Institute of Yoga in Hartsdale, N.Y., and over the years has taught more than 400 students, whom she calls her children. A year ago, she was designated “The World’s Oldest Yoga Teacher" by the Guinness Book of World Records.
As I watched Porchon-Lynch demonstrate yoga poses that many people a third of her age would find difficult, if not impossible, to hold, I could see that she embodies the principle emblazoned on every page of her website: “There is Nothing You Cannot Do.”
Over the years, Porchon-Lynch has been asked by many to share her ideas regarding her longevity and purpose. In an interview last October with Julie Bryant of Naked Dragon, she urged people not to procrastinate. “If you do something you believe in, it may not turn out exactly the way you think," she said, "but it’s usually better than what you wanted.”
She also emphasized the importance of continuing to learn on a daily basis. “Every day, the dawn of life starts again,” she said. “I live better each day.”
When Bryant comments on Porcon-Lynch’s sparkling eyes, the yoga teacher says that they’re just mirroring back what she sees in her students.
The incredible motivation and inspiration she provides to others have brought to mind some other remarkable elders with whom I spent time during my early career as a writer — women and men whose youthful appearance, activities and zest for living belied their age.
Each left an indelible impression and, at the time, helped me formulate a personal prescription for aging well. It now seems worthwhile to summon up those long-buried memories and remind myself of that prescription.
A Legendary Potter
I interviewed the renowned potter Beatrice Wood when she was 101 years old. (She died at 104.) She had eaten a vegetarian diet since the age of 17, lived in the spectacular hills above Ojai, Calif., surrounded by loving companions and spent her mornings making lustrous pottery. Decked out in a glorious silk sari, with silver bangles stacked high along her arm, I recall her swooning when a handsome, young man walked into the front hall of her house-gallery. “Hold on!," she said, interrupting our discussion. "I’m in love.”
When she wasn’t making pottery, Wood surrounded herself with visitors of all ages and held court. At the time we met, she was almost deaf but that didn’t stop her from leaning in closely, following my lip movements and telling riveting tales about her life and work. Her sense of delight was evident throughout.
A Renowned Chef
I saw the same vibrant spirit and work ethic in Julia Child, who was a columnist for Food & Wine magazine when I worked there. I once sat across from her at a dinner party and watched her shower attention on everyone around her. She was 82 and had recently lost the love of her life, her husband, Paul Child. Her gracious interactions and open heart showed us all how to fill the gaping hole that opens after a great love exits.
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Not long after, I attended a taping of an episode of her popular PBS TV show, Cooking with Master Chefs, in Jacques Pepin’s recently renovated kitchen, which I would be writing about. After many hours of shooting, we took a break and, as others headed outside to chat and stretch, Child took a few halting steps over to a small café table in the corner where she promptly began typing on a laptop. She saw me looking at her with a questioning expression, smiled and explained that she needed to make progress on a new book project.
A Soulful Woodworker
George Nakashima greeted me in his Pennsylvania woodworking workshop not long after he had written a book called The Soul of a Tree. He was in his mid-eighties. Though more reserved than the female creators I had met, this masterful carver of furniture described his deep and invigorating connection to nature and wood.
During World War II, he and his family were uprooted and moved to an internment camp, where he learned about traditional Japanese hand tools from a fellow prisoner, a carpenter.
After telling me about this experience and emphasizing the lessons rather than the hardships, he quickly moved on to his philosophy regarding craftsmanship, design and his life’s mission. The site that’s dedicated to his legacy and the studio his daughter now runs expresses it very much the way he did: “Our approach is based on direct experience — a way of life and development outward from an inner core; something of the same process that nature uses in the creation of a tree — with one addition, the aspiration of man to produce the wonder and beauty of his potentialities.”
Nakashima, who worked until the day he died in 1990 and whose stunning works are collected the world over, was without question devoted to expressing "the wonder and beauty of his potentialities."
(MORE: 9 Best Things About Being Over 50)
While many of us are going to live a longer, more active life than previous generations due to medical advancements, we can’t assume that extra years will bring greater wisdom or the will to be productive. Wisdom, as we’ve often heard, is something one earns. To grow, we have to commit ourselves to various types of experiences and to gleaning their lessons, both overt and hidden. What gives us the will to keep going is, I believe, a matter of having good reasons to do so. But, as the elders I describe suggest, it’s on us to find and shape the reasons.
Continuing to stay actively engaged in something you love, mentoring others and interacting with people are the well-established keys to aging well, as exemplified by the elders I’ve cited. While each had infirmities and endured huge obstacles, they adapted to their circumstances and didn’t make excuses. They did everything in their power to overcome their hurdles and renew their sense of purpose.
Another powerful example of such persistence was captured in a recent New York Times article, "A Writing Coach Becomes a Listener." It profiles a 91-year-old writer who can no longer see yet continues to teach his craft to students by listening to their written words.
Legacies to Learn From
Those who perhaps haven’t always lived to the fullest can provide additional insight into making not only the bonus years but all of life more meaningful. Karl Pillemer, a Cornell psychologist and founder of the Legacy Project, has made sharing the wisdom of elders his focus. According to the project's site, it “has systematically collected practical advice from over 1,500 older Americans who have lived through extraordinary experiences and historical events. They offer tips on surviving and thriving despite the challenges we all encounter.”
It’s well worth combing through the many categories the site addresses; Next Avenue delivered some career advice from some of the wise people Pillemer interviewed.
Given the likelihood of a longer life, we owe it to ourselves to figure out how to make it worthwhile. Fortunately, there’s a lot of inspiration out there waiting to be discovered. We need only look.