This is the first in a 13- post series on living well, adapted from Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond
If you were to write your autobiography, what would the chapters be? This is one of my favorite questions to ask when doing a life history interview. The answer may clue you into a person’s guiding themes in life, whether it be romance, nature, family, or beyond. True, our lives and passions change; but some things stay the same.
When I asked Alice this question, her chapters mostly had to do with education (e.g. primary school in downtown Albany, secondary education at St. Agnes, college years at UAlbany, graduate training at Radcliffe College and Columbia University, and then decades as head of libraries at UAlbany, with a short stint at Smith College).
Indeed, education was a guiding theme in Alice’s life. It defined how she was shaped (her parents were educators), who she became, and how she lived her life. And when I met Alice in her late 80s, Alice was still prioritizing education. She listened to talk shows and books on tape, was a member of research and antiques clubs, visited with her former colleagues often, and sponsored a scholarship for future librarians in her name. For Alice, education intersected with other major themes in her life, particularly friendship. At 94, Alice was still doing what she always did – continuing her lifelong education.
Eddie’s guiding themes include people and humor. After a hardscrabble childhood as a first-generation Italian immigrant, Eddie spent many decades working as an elevator operator at the state capitol. Today, Eddie is still greeting people and cracking jokes as a nonagenarian. He has become the informal “mayor” at his local community center, greeting the morning crowd with a twinkle in his eye.
In contrast to Eddie, Lore has led a painful life. She has written the story of her life in her journals, and on those pages (see image above), she used watercolor painting and drawings to animate the hardship, and assuage the pain. As an adult she taught ceramics in New York City. And in her 80s and 90s, she took figure drawing classes. At 93, Lore’s paintings, drawings, and collages were shown publicly for the first time in a gallery near her home in Albany. A life’s artwork, laid bare. Lore’s guiding theme may have been tragedy; but creativity gave her an outlet, and a sense of purpose.
A recent NYTimes piece told the story of Boyd Lee Dunlop, an aging musician. His piano playing in a nursing home brought him an opportunity to record a CD and headline a concert. He’s still doing what he loves to do at 85.
We all carry stories about who we are, where we come from, and what gives our lives purpose. In this way, we work at continuity across our lives. The elders I have come to know over the past five years have taught me this: we can nurture lives of purpose and meaning by doing what has always brought us joy.