“We are obviously living longer and more vibrant lives than previous generations could have imagined”
When, at the age of 90, former President Jimmy Carter revealed that he had metastatic brain cancer, no one even so much as flinched when he declared that he would begin treatment – and afterwards, travel to another Habitat for Humanity build if his doctors agreed. He was at peace, he said, and he was going on with his life’s work.
There was a time not long ago when people would have thought him crazy. In fact, they would have marvelled that he was still alive. But, today, living into one’s nineties is not that unusual, nor is remaining productive upon reaching that major milestone.
Tao Porchon-Lynch, 95-year-old world’s oldest yoga teacher, emerged as an elderly icon for the world after her picture in a flowing red gown recently went viral on the web (Photo: Robert Sturman)
Take a look at the obituaries. On one recent day alone, in a set of obits that have inspired this commentary, ‘The New York Times’ recorded the passing of a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights movement at 99, a German political architect of Cold War policy at 93, and a decorated World War II fighter pilot at 104. Almost every day now there is likely to be an announcement of someone dying in their 90s or even reaching 100 or more. No wonder some people like to claim that 100 is the new dead!
Personally, I don’t believe that 80 is the new 60, or that 70 is the new 50. Let’s be real: those of us who have reached those decades know we’ve slowed down a bit, and we certainly don’t look like we did 20 years ago. We’ve gained weight, lost hair, and find exercise a growing challenge.
But it seems fair to say that there is a new 80, or that 70 is a decidedly new 70. We are obviously living longer and more vibrant lives than previous generations could have imagined.
And as Victor Hugo wryly noted, “When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable. There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age.” Later Mark Twain added, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.”
On a more serious note, we all know Dylan Thomas’s poetic adage: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Jimmy Carter’s courage and spirit remind us that we can go gently, and with dignity, into the good night, but that doesn’t mean that we are not still burning with the fever of a life well-lived right up to the very end. Wise elders know that if we can live our lives that way there might not be so much need to rage against the dying light.
I’ve been blessed to know and call “friend” many people in their 80s, 90s, and even a few who were happy centenarians. Many of them were role models and mentors.
Esther Peterson, whom I met in Washington, D.C. and with whom I shared a love of Vermont, my home town today, spent her entire adult life in politics.
She taught me the importance of collaboration with people on the other side of the aisle, literally and metaphorically. (She also taught me to count the number of times a person said “I” in a job interview; if it was too many, she advised, “don’t give them the job!”)
There is Elizabeth Campbell, who had helped found the Washington, D.C. area’s PBS station where she worked until her death at nearly 100. She showed me the importance of media as an educational tool, and the reward of community activism.
A local 82-year-old friend, who trekked the Arctic long after most people would dream of doing such a thing, reminds me that, in Yogi Berra’s words, “It ain’t over till it’s over”.
There are so many examples of spirited, talented, energetic elders. Take 83-year-old Sister Madonna, known as the “Iron Nun” because of her prolific triathlon and Ironman career, which includes having completed over 360 triathlons and 45 Ironmans, a three-part race which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a full marathon.
Or 95-year-old Tao Porchon-Lynch, the world’s oldest yoga teacher, whose picture in a flowing red gown recently went viral. In addition to these icons, there are politicians like Jimmy Carter, religious and community leaders like Desmond Tutu, and artists or cultural figures like Ian McKellen, Vanessa Redgrave and Betty White, who are still going strong. George Burns, Grandma Moses and the Queen Mother all made it past 100.
One of my favorite examples of people with longevity was a French woman named Jeanne Louise Galment. She died in 1997 at the age of 110, the oldest person in France at the time. "I had to wait 110 years to become famous,” she said. “I wanted to enjoy it as long as possible."
I don’t expect to mark a century of living but like Galment, I want to enjoy a healthy, productive, and, yes, pleasurable life as long as possible; I’m aiming for another 20 years.
The way I see it, the best mantra for meeting that goal comes from Zelda Fitzgerald, who famously said, “Good living is the best revenge!”
(Elayne Clift writes, and ages, in Saxtons River, Vermont.) - Women's Feature Service