Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” And, in 2016, author Rachel Cowan said, “Ours is the first generation in human history to move into elderhood with 20 years or more of vitality and good health ahead.” Cowan was one of the founders of the Wise Aging movement, which helps people focus on the generative aspects of aging to share wisdom, meaning, a sense of belonging, purpose, and vitality to deeply experience the fullness of all that life has to offer.
Generativity breaks down barriers between ourselves and others—distance that can feel feels especially isolating as when people age. Generativity allows people to move beyond a problem-solving orientation that might focus on physical ailments or medications to allow us to explore what’s possible through seeing, hearing, respecting, and connecting to others and our deepest desires. Abraham Lincoln said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years.”
When my 73-year-old mother-in-love went to Miami Beach for a two-week vacation, she unexpectedly extended her stay for several weeks. During the fourth week, an ebullient phone conversation revealed that she had met Sidney, a widower, and they were going to get married. Although she was not actively pursuing a relationship after being a widow for seven years, she was open to reimagining new possibilities in her later decades, which allowed her to experience the generative benefits of companionship and love. They got married a few months later.
I remember when my father Charlie started rollerblading in his 60s. He also became a zone gardener for the Central Park Conservancy, and that four-hour volunteer shift was one of the highlights of his retirement. Both of these exemplars—my dad and mother-in-law—embody the wise words of Seneca, a stoic philosopher of ancient Rome, “Not how long, but how well you have lived is the main thing.”
I hate the fact that many western cultures do not respect the wisdom and life experience of our elders. I am committed to sharing the latest scientific discoveries with older adults as a way to inspire them to live all the decades of their lives with joy, grace, and gratitude. That’s why I’m so honored to share a new Soaringwords SOARING Into Positive Wellbeing seven-module, virtual, asynchronous workshop series that we created for seniors who live in long-term care facilities throughout North America. The goal of this initiative is to change and elevate the language and culture of residents in these long-term care facilities to amplify their resilience, wellbeing, sense of community and joy.
Chip Conley, bestselling author, serial entrepreneur, and inspiring speaker, is someone who truly embodies zestful wise aging. We first met at a TED Conference and made a strong connection. A few years later, we ran into each other when he was filming a new TED Talk. His latest endeavor, The Modern Elder Academy, has inspired thousands of people to turn their midlife into a calling.
When thinking about how we move forward and grow through the stages of our lives, I was reminded of the fascinating growth phenomenon of snakes. As a snake grows, it sheds its skin as a roomier new layer is generated and the old layer is discarded. Throughout my life, there are many experiences that marked major life transitions for me. One that comes to mind is the sudden death of my 35-year-old brother. When this happened, I outgrew certain relationships that no longer served me or fit into my needs. I shed these relationships and found new ones that could hold me where I was in my grief. When people realize that there are simple thoughts and activities that they can embrace to grow into new habits and generative experiences, then they can expand their sense of optimism, altruism, resilience, and gratitude—even in the face of difficulty.
It’s often human nature to equate aging with the harrowing narrative of decrepitude and “inching towards death.” However, when we shed this limiting belief about the confines of what aging can be, we can try on a new definition of wise aging that has room for deep appreciation and gratitude for the blessing of each day. When we are open to the possibility of growth, connection, and joy at any age and stage of life, then we can truly celebrate the wisdom of aging for our elders and ourselves. Attitude is a choice and here’s what poet laureate Maya Angelou said in her powerful poem On Aging:
When you see me sitting quietly, like a sack left on the shelf,
Don’t think I need your chattering, I’m listening to myself.
Hold! Stop! Don’t pity me!
Hold! Stop your sympathy!
Understanding if you got it,
otherwise I’ll do without it!
When my bones are stiff and aching, and my feet won’t climb the stair,
I will only ask one favor: don’t bring me no rocking chair.
When you see me walking, stumbling, don’t study and get it wrong.
‘Cause tired don’t mean lazy, and every goodbye ain’t gone.
I’m the same person I was back then, a little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind. But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.
In honor of National Senior Citizens Day, tell an elder what they have meant to you while honoring their life experience and wisdom.
I’m sending you strength and love.
Soaringwords is the power to heal.