If you are one of the five percent of Americans still alive at the age of ninety, you may be one of the sixty percent of women or sixty-two percent of men who rate yourself as very healthy physically, and one of the seventy-seven percent who report good emotional well-being with zero symptoms of depression. Although it may seem counter-indicated, depression is far more characteristic of young and middle adulthood, that it is of the older and very old population.
A ninety-year-old man born in 1932 had a life expectancy of 61 years, a woman of 63. In comparison, a baby born in 2022 has a life expectancy of 80 years. Advances in medical science, and recent attention to exercise and “eating healthy” are responsible for the increasing longevity currently occurring in the United States. Nevertheless, few people ever imagine that they will live until age ninety, reasonably healthy and depression free. For those who do live that long, every day is a new surprise.
That each new day is a fresh surprise filled wonder and with zest for life is undoubtedly what keeps them going, this group of nonagenarians, who seem to be doing so well. Their mental acuity and emotional wellbeing relates to their ability to accept and relive in memory all that has been and at the same time embrace what is new and different. These folks are open to physical, social, and attitude change.
Take, for instance, Irene, a widow aged eighty-nine. She lives alone, loves to garden, dabbles with water colors, writes poetry, and sings in the shower. She has given up driving distances but still drives to the local grocery, the post office and to Shabbat services at her temple. Irene grew up in a modern orthodox family. She remembers Purim carnivals when she dressed as Queen Esther, finding favor with King Ahasuerus and obedient to him, thus saving the Jews.
She didn’t think much about Vashti then, but years later when her granddaughter dressed as Vashti, who asserted her independence as a woman, Irene began to take a new look at old stories. Why, she wondered, was Sarah important and Hagar not. Did not Hagar represent all women who were slaves, abused, discarded?
In her late eighties, Irene re-examined her early beliefs. With her granddaughter, she became an advocate for a new way of thinking about women’s issues. Most recently she carried this into the political realm and joined in a pro-choice march in her hometown.
Now, consider 92-year-old Jason, a retired chemical engineer. He had always enjoyed history which he studied on his own. On his ninetieth birthday, he gave himself a gift and enrolled in an online course in ancient history at his local community college. He found that he already knew much of the material, but stuck it out and got an A. That was all that he needed for encouragement. The next semester he enrolled at an online university for a master’s degree in history.
Sheila Stern is a ninety-four-year-old meditator. She takes what she calls a Sabbath every Wednesday. On her Sabbath Sheila does what she calls a lot of nothing. Sometimes she “just sits.” Not infrequently she watches a movie on Amazon Prime or Netflix. Sometimes Sheila reads. Point is, Sheila has been doing this for years. Talk to her and she will tell you that lots of things happen when you are doing nothing.
One of the things that happened to Sheila occurred on a Wednesday when she was eighty-three and a widow for ten years. She had walked to the park and was sitting alone on a bench, book in hand, but not really reading when a man who was about her age sat down beside her and began a conversation. After that the two met in the park every Wednesday throughout the late summer and early fall. They discovered that they had a lot in common. Her children gave her many reasons not to marry him, but she did. The two spent nine happy years together before Jacob died.
Sheila uses a walker now, but in decent weather she still goes to the park, sits on s new bench with an old book she does not read. Things happen, when you take the time to do nothing, she thinks, knowing that she has been and still is her own person
If you live to be ninety years old, you may be like Sheila, like Jason, or like Irene, healthy and with zero depression. But to do so you must embrace life, be open to wonder, and the element of surprise.
Lee J. Richmond, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in the State of Maryland. She is a professor emerita of Loyola University Maryland. and former professor of counseling and human development at the John Hopkins University. Additionally, she has been a human resources consultant and leadership development trainer for national and international organizations including the United States Postal Service and Recruit Ltd. Japan. She is widely published in books, monographs and journals. Dr. Richmond is known for blending her interest in the nexus between psychology and spirituality, Dr. Richmond holds a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.
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