7 Life Lessons From Those Who Have Lived it.

We’re always looking for solutions.  There are tons of blogs, books and websites that offer advice on how to live well in retirement.

What credentials do the supposed experts to the good life have?  Many of them are just in the first few years of retirement – or maybe not even there yet.

Where do you find advice based on lived reality, has stood the test of time, and offers a chance of genuinely helping us make the most of our lives?

Experts in living

Regular readers of mine know that my mother lives in a retirement home.  This is not a nursing home, but an assisted living facility.  Even though the topic of conversation often leans towards aches and pains and other health matters, and the main mode of locomotion is with a walker or motorized chair, these residents are very much active, sociable, funny and talkative – very talkative – and fun to be around.

At an average age of around 85 – 90, these elders have surpassed the average life expectancy by several years – and even decades. 

They’ve seen it all, from the Great Depression, World War II, boom times and busts. They’ve got great stories, individual quirks, unparalleled perspective and sage advice, but it’s often ignored.

But our elders have lived life and have learned from it.  Wouldn’t it benefit us to tap into that wisdom?  

Here are 7 life lessons from our elders (heavily edited).

1. Lessons for a happy marriage

Although a few of these elders are now widow(er)s, their marriages have lasted for 40 to 60 plus years.  They found their life partners and are experts at staying married.

“I didn’t know it when we got married but thinking back, we both had the same values and we really never argued about anything.  We made our decisions just by realizing that usually we had the same goals, whether it was how we raised our children or saving money.”  Emma, 87

“Don’t be a know-it-all.  I was a foreman at (a major manufacturing plant) and organized work schedules for over 50 workers.  When I retired, I tried to “help” my wife be more efficient around the house.  Well, she’d been doing it for over 40 years and didn’t need or want my help.  It was upsetting at first because I thought we’d be spending all our time together, but she needed her time too, without me.  She encouraged – made – me to get out of the house and find my own friends to do things with.”  Gerald, 82

“Find yourself a younger man (big laugh) and never go to bed angry.”  Wilma, 75

2.  Lessons on parenting adult children

The parenting role doesn’t end when children leave home.  Some children still live near their parents, but many have settled quite far away and don’t have much contact.

“Fifty-seven! My baby is fifty-seven!  Well, I learned not to interfere in their lives once they were on their own.  Kids consume a lot of your energy when they’re growing up and it’s your instinct to keep trying to control what they do so they don’t make mistakes.  But they’re in charge of their lives now and they’ll be okay.  I’m really proud of them.” Betsy, 84

“I didn’t spend much time with my boys because I travelled a lot in my work – my wife took care of all the parenting.  Plus, when I was with them, I was always thinking about work and didn’t really pay attention to what they were saying.  I know other fathers who have hardly any relationship with their children now they’re older and it’s a shame.  My sons turned out to be remarkable men.  Even though they work hard and spend time with their own families, they still take time to hang out with their old man and we just have fun.  I’m extremely lucky.”Mike, 79

“Lighten up.  Be supportive.  Don’t complain.  You want your children to like you and want to be around you.” Mo, 75

3.  Lessons in aging fearlessly

Younger people dread the idea of getting old, but according to the elders – being old is much better than you think it is.

Time is going by so fast.  You should enjoy your life.  I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by.  Well, that’s not for me.  There’s no reason for anybody to ever be bored.   I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.”  Edwina, 94

“Being old is great.  You can do as you darn well please and enjoy whatever!” Cecile, 98

“You kind of grow into it.  I can’t run as fast, so I just go slower, but I’m still out there.  Do what you can and accept that there might be some limitations.  I just think, well I can at least do this much.” Clayton, 89

4.  Lesson on dying

Our experts statistically are much closer to the end of life no matter how active or healthy they may be today.  Not surprisingly, many did not expect to live this long. 

“I go to church every Sunday and I often wonder if there really is life after death.  I guess I’m going to find out.  I wouldn’t bother worrying about it too much.  I’m not ready to die or anything like that, but I’m not afraid.” Rosemary, 90

“If you go to heaven, how wonderful.  But if you go to sleep, what’s wrong with that?” Emma, 87

I think it’s something you just have to accept.  The one thing I’m concerned about is that I tidy up my life so that people don’t have to do it afterwards.  I have boxes of papers and books.  I need to tidy up my finances.  I want to do that for me.” John, 84

5.  Lessons on staying connected

Research shows that social connectedness and satisfying relationships are strongly related to psychological and physical health. 

“I didn’t want to move here at first.  I didn’t want to live with a bunch of old people.  But my friends started dying off, they moved away or ended up in the nursing home not really knowing who I am anymore.  I’ve made a lot of friends here.   There’s lots of activities to get involved in, and outings – you can pick as many as you’re interested in and I’ve even tried some new things I didn’t think I’d like.  I like to kid around.  I’m very popular here.” Irv, 77

“After my husband died, I was very lonely and missed him a lot.  I had to deliberately make myself see other people.  I accept every invitation even if I don’t want to go, I’ll do it.  I didn’t realize how much I missed the fun of being with people on a regular basis.   April, 84

I’m learning to get along with all people and not criticize the ones who have lived a different life than me.  They can be lonely too.   I’ve learned to be sociable and enjoy the company and share life experiences.”  Henry, 84

6.  Lessons on living with no regrets

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption. Frank Sinatra – “My Way”

“Don’t dwell on things in the past that you maybe should have done differently.  You can’t go back and fix your mistakes. Forgive yourself and let them go.” Alice, 69

“Most regrets are just small, silly things anyway – I wish I hadn’t eaten that third Italian sausage, I hadn’t snapped at my co-worker, or I had remembered to change the oil before the engine started smoking.  But these kinds of second thoughts happen all the time.  You can mope around a bit, then just forget them.” Gerald, 82

“I grew up in a family where there was a lot of worry and guilt.  But you need to appreciate all you’ve done in your life. People are too hard on themselves.  We’ve all made poor choices sometime.  Try not to be judgemental.  Take it easy on yourself.” Marilyn, 85

7.  Lessons for being happy

Happiness doesn’t depend on how much we have.  A more satisfying life is based on learning to appreciate simple pleasures, having a sense of humour, helping others, and being grateful.

“I’m learning to live in the moment and try not to worry about things that might not happen.” Emma, 87

“Embrace life now.  Don’t put things off.  There are no wheelchair ramps at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, so if you want to go there, you have to go while you’ve still got your feet.” Valerie, 74

“You can’t control a lot of things that happen to you.  But you can control your attitude.  I’ve learned that happiness is a choice – not a condition. You have to be responsible for your own happiness in life.” April, 84

The bottom line

Our elders have lived through experiences that many of us today can barely imagine – and survived.  Times of deprivation shaped their attitudes.  But they also remember a time when the air and water were cleaner, when people didn’t lock their houses and when neighbours could be called on for help.  They have lived life and have learned from it.

These experts at living can serve as an exceptional guide by bringing first hand knowledge to the table.  We’d be wise to listen.

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2 Responses

  1. Gary says:

    Marie — thank you, thank you, thank you! This is the best post I have read in years. It will be the first one I have ever printed off and kept so I can read it again as a reminder and pass it on to those who can’t make the right decision (my 92 year old mother being the first!). Please keep up the great work.

    • Marie Engen says:

      Thanks, Gary. I’m glad you liked it. Our parents went through a lot and have a lot of stories and advice to pass on to us. I, for one, didn’t listen when I was younger, but I’m paying attention now. 🙂

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