I've Interviewed Hundreds Of Elders: This Is The Key To Purposeful Aging

mbg Contributor By Richard Leider
mbg Contributor
Richard Leider is the founder of Inventure: The Purpose Company, whose mission is to help people unlock the power of purpose. Widely viewed as a pioneer of the global purpose movement, Leider has written or cowritten eleven books. He is the co-author of "Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old: The Path of Purposeful Aging," along with David A. Shapiro
Cheerful mature lady with gray hair smiling and looking away while leaning on window and enjoying sunny day at home

Cheerful mature lady with gray hair smiling and looking away while leaning on window and enjoying sunny day at home

Image by BONNIN STUDIO / Stocksy

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Purpose is a verb; it is a path and a practice. The idea is that any number of practices can help a person avoid or handle a late-life crisis, just so long as the person commits consistently to those practices.

For instance, the practice of journaling can help us better understand ourselves but only if we journal on a regular basis. Engaging in real conversation with family and friends is a way of developing a better sense of what matters to us, but we have to actually have the conversations in order to achieve those insights. Writing a purpose statement gives us an aim, a compass to guide our actions in support of our deepest convictions. Unless we literally write down that purpose statement, however, our direction remains unclear.

The same goes for the practice of growing old on purpose. We have to do the things that enable us to do the thing we're trying to do. Once again, purpose is a verb. Having a purpose is great, but consistent practice is required.

The good news is that later life can be the perfect time to commit to such practices since there are likely to be fewer obstacles in the way of our doing so. We're apt to no longer have the excuses, like a busy work schedule or a long daily commute, that enabled us to avoid committing ourselves earlier in our lives.

All of this is to make the obvious point that there's no time like the present. Sometimes, as we get older, we're inclined to think that it's too late to grow older—to get started doing something new—and besides, why not just relax and enjoy life as we know it?

Point taken.

On the other hand, our recognition that the time we have left is limited can be a spur to action. Knowing that we have limited years remaining to grow in some aspect of our life may be the inspiration to finally do so.

How to live with purpose later in life.

Legendary dancer, choreographer, and wise elder Twyla Tharp at age 79 shared her wisdom on aging in her 2019 book, Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life: "I want to reprogram how you think about aging by getting rid of two corrosive ideas. First, that you need to emulate youth, resolving to live in a corner of the denial closet marked 'reserved for aged.' Second that your life must contract with time."

Another legendary and wise elder, Deborah Szekely, 98, takes those words to heart, eschewing the denial closet for center stage and expanding her life and horizons with each passing year. Since co-founding Rancho La Puerta, the world-renowned health spa in Tecate, Mexico, in 1940, Szekely has become an icon of the active and purposeful aging movement.

Her vitality and deep respect for the body's inherent wisdom are articulated in the spa's motto, Siempre Mejor! ("Always Better!"), which still guides her life and the work of the spa every day. "Nothing in my body is 98 years old, apart from my knowledge," she says, "because the body largely renews itself every seven years, so very few things in me are older than that."

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Her colleague Barry Shingle, director of guest relations and programming, who is half her age, says, "I can't fathom that Deborah is age 98! I've always feared and resisted aging. Deborah helped me over that. A person's soul or essence doesn't have an age. The light that shines in her eyes is not 98 years old."

Szekely embodies Rancho La Puerta's motto in her work with Shingle to create change and happiness for people. "Always Better!" has inspired her to become the poster child for purposeful aging.

She recommends that we rise every day with a sense of purpose in mind. "When I wake up, the first thing I do is take a pause. The computer and phone can wait. The first 20 minutes are a time to communicate with myself. I plan every day to be successful. And I choose to accept only positive thoughts—to look for the good in life. If I have a choice to make, I ask myself, 'Is it life-enhancing or life-diminishing?'"

She shares her perspective on purposeful aging: "Growing old means being purposeful—contributing to life. With elderhood comes the responsibility to share. I see aging as enrichment. Growing means you're never in the same place twice. You're always moving forward. Always better!

"I'm stimulated by nature. I'm seeing trees that I planted 75 years ago now as gigantic messengers. There are so many wise messages from trees; I see their strength, and that gives me strength."

As Deborah Szekely illustrates, the term old has both objective and subjective meanings, a fixed and a relative sense, and descriptive and normative dimensions. It's a fraught term that evokes all sorts of reactions in all sorts of people at all sorts of times.

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What is old, anyway? When does old begin? And who gets to say whether a person is old or not?

As we write this, Richard is 76; Dave is 63. Obviously, we're old. But in other senses, we're not old at all. As we look back across the decades, the words of Bob Dylan in "My Back Pages" come to mind: "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Spoiler alert: You're getting older; everyone alive is getting older. Eventually, if you live long enough, you'll be what is sometimes referred to as "old old." And yet, it's almost taboo to talk about getting old, much less acknowledge being old. Yet in spite of all the denial, most people want to live to be as old as possible.

Always on the move, William H. Thomas, M.D., author of What Are Old People For?: How Elders Will Save the World, is a man with a purpose: to challenge conventional views of aging.

Far ahead of his time, "Dr. Bill," a Harvard Medical School–trained geriatrician, is particularly well known for pioneering the Eden Alternative, a radical system of humanizing nursing homes by introducing plants, pets, and even children into the environment. Now, he has given up practicing in favor of proselytizing about what it means to grow old.

In conversation with Richard, he says, "My view as a geriatrician is that we have to grow up twice—from childhood to adulthood and from adulthood to elderhood. If we don't mature during adolescence, all kinds of alarms go off. But for the second phase, there are no bells, beacons, alarms, or rituals if we miss it. I see aging as a strength, rich in developmental growth. What we need is a radical reimagining of longevity that makes elders central to our collective pursuit of happiness. How we perceive aging to a very large degree determines how we age. It's the story that matters. How people interpret their experience goes a long way to determining their well-being."

According to Thomas, our culture rewards the ideal of an older person who "still" does what they used to do. They fill their life with what has historically given them pleasure and fulfillment. They define success in backward-looking terms. The older person is admirable because they're still acting like a younger person.

But if "still" signifies success, then people who can't "still" do those younger things are failures. "This is wrong," contends Thomas. "We need to push the delete key on 'still.' In older adulthood, the word still is a sign of success; in childhood development, by contrast, the word still is a sign of failure."

As a geriatrician, Thomas believes that embracing death is a path to a more meaningful life. He has observed that "the happiest people are those who have chosen to shed the illusion of immortality. Knowing they have limited time, they focus more on purposeful relationships and less on pleasing others, less on stuff, more on experience. They choose to be their authentic selves."

Currently, Thomas, on the cusp of elderhood himself, is focused on helping people of all ages to live in the place and manner of their choosing. "We're lucky if we get to grow old," he says. "I want to help people grow whole, not old."

This article was co-written by David A. Shapiro.

Reprinted from Who Do You Want To Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro. 

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