Column: On Aging Well

By Marek P. Zabriskie

A parishioner in my former church drove himself to church on his 100th birthday.  His name was Wally Smith.  His family spent a month honoring his century of living.  They held special lunches and dinners. 

At one luncheon, they seated me beside him.  I asked Wally, “When did you retire?”  He looked perplexed.  I thought to myself, “He’s 100.  He probably doesn’t hear that well.  So, I asked in a louder voice, “Wally, when did you retire?”

Wally shot back, “I haven’t retired.”  His son, seated on my left side, quickly confirmed this.  “Yes, I call Dad every morning around 8 a.m. and read him the weather report.  If it’s good, he drives 20 minutes to work, and I take him out to lunch.”

Dictionaries define “retire” with verbs like “to surrender,” “to withdrawal,” “to become isolated” or “to be cut off.”  Wally didn’t want this.  He was determined to be active.  His wife died, but he carried on.  He loved her, but he chose to continue on the journey of life. 

I so admire that.  They are fully alive until the end of their lives.  Here’s what I see people doing who are successfully aging, and it’s so admirable:

• They focus on the next generation.  They take interest in them and make younger friends, so they never get in a position to say, “All of my friends are dead.”

• They give back.  They find a cause or an organization that they believe in, and they give themselves to it, trying to ensure that they leave the world better than they found it.

• They’re generous.  They invest in things that they believe will improve the world.  They have mastered the words “Thank you.”  They are wise with their finances, but they know that a death shroud has no pockets.  They rejoice in giving gifts to transform the world and to bless other people.  They plant trees under whose shade they will never live to rest.

• They are not afraid of dying, but recognize that they will die, which makes each day precious and helps them to make the most of life.

• They keep their minds agile and sharp.  They are life-long learners.  They learn a language (which is the best way to keep your brain agile) or plant a garden, or take up a new sport or how to paint or do sculpture.  Peter Drucker believed that he had to learn one thing each year.  He was studying Chinese when he died at age 93.

• They read great books and feed their brain.  They keep up with current events.  They are bright and challenge themselves.

They stay socially connected, create community and bring people together.

• They take care of their bodies, often exercising every day, and they take care of their spirit worshipping each week.

They are resilient.  They understand that suffering and death are part of life.  They grieve, let go and continue moving forward. Their emotional intelligence carries them far.

• They take their grandchildren on life-changing experiences, truly get to know them and create a sense of family connectedness that lasts for generations.

• They love their spouse in a profound way and speak highly of them, and they allow their spouse to evolve and begin a new person with each passing decade.

• They exhibit fine values that inspire others around them to live at a higher level – to be more generous, patient, caring, considerate, forgiving, gentle, loving and kind.

Last week, I interred the ashes of a woman who failed to reach her 100th birthday by ten days, but she failed at little else.  Her obituary noted that:

• She was an extraordinary wife of over 70 years.

• Her life was always about her family, her communities and supporting [her spouse] and his… business.

The guiding principles of her life were instilled by her early [religious] upbringing.

• Her parent’s believed in the education of the whole person, intellectual, physical, spiritual and moral.

• She was a relentless athlete and an early supporter and volunteer of Planned Parenthood…

• She drove developmentally challenged adults in the family’s station wagon, often accompanied by her children.

• She volunteered at St. Luke’s Hospital and in the reading program in the local public school system… always sharing her thoughts on content, length and relevancy. 

• She loved sketching and was an exceptional and prolific letter writer

• Her words to all her friends and family had a way of making all feel that they were the most special and most beloved of all.

• She was blessed with… an optimistic nature, an inquiring mind and valued living an honest and mindful life.

• She was a most gracious, kind, loving, inclusive, supportive and enthusiastic mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, wife, and friend to all those she leaves behind.

That’s a great life and a woman who aged well and contributed to others until the very end of her life.

The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie is the Rector of Christ Church Greenwich