She and her dog stopped along the trail through the chaparral. She bent over and took something out of her cargo pants pocket. “Is that a pedometer?” “Yes,” she responded. “I try to walk three miles a day, between these walks and walking around the house.”
And that tiniest of stories, my dears, is the inspiration for this blog post.
I have an 85-year-old aunt, C. When I lived in the Bay Area, I had the luck of visiting her and her partner, P, several times a year, as they lived a reasonable drive away.
Nowadays, I live in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s no longer just a matter of a two-hour drive. It’s a plane trip, and I’ve got a family to arrange around. So, the visits are annual. And due to the pandemic, I didn’t see C for at least two years.
In early December, I went down to the Bay Area for a quick trip just so I could see C. While I have long admired C for a variety of reasons, I was so favorably struck by her and her life that I decided the world—or at least the people who read this blog—needed to hear about it. I want everyone to be inspired by my aunt. Or to find inspiration in the 80+ year olds in their lives.
C is 85. She lost her partner of 49 years about 7 years ago. (Her partner, P, was another woman who boggles the mind of this 45-year-old woman who has never known much hardship. She was a nurse in World War II and had some tales to tell about going into…Nagasaki? after the bomb was dropped. She taught sociology—after getting her masters degree in sociology in her 40s—and was a college provost. She served as a probation officer and assistant superintendent of a juvenile hall. Breaking gender barriers left and right.)
Conjure up in your mind what an 85-year-old woman looks like. And now tear that image to shreds because it ain’t my Aunt C. Except for the gray hair and wrinkles. 😉
The way I understand it, the loss of a long-term partner, especially one whom you love as wholly as C loved P, can often usher in a smaller and smaller life for the surviving spouse. Not so for C. She is thriving. (And during Covid, no less!)
I actually took notes while I was visiting her because I found myself time and again just blown away by her intentionality around living a healthy, fulfilling life. She is clearly doing a great job, because she is happy and healthy…and one of the best conversationalists in my life. (I think a lot about what makes good conversation. I end up frequently whinging to my husband about how online communication seems to have highlighted/distilled/accelerated/encouraged really horrible conversation skills.)
I’m not really a “New Year’s Resolution” kind of person, but this post does come coincidentally during that time of the year. I’m more of an “intention” kind of person. “Goals” don’t do it for me. In no particular order, here’s what I saw my aunt intentionally incorporating into her life that has helped her build such a beautiful life.
What new intentions can you identify and start to incorporate—in a structured, repeatable way—into your life?
The structure in C’s life is mostly because of her dogs, much in the same way that we parents of young children have structure because of our children’s needs. C has raised dogs for decades now, although she herself stopped breeding a few years ago.
C must feed the dogs in the morning and the evening. And she must feed each dog their particular food/nutrition needs. (Picky toddler, anyone?)
Each day C takes one dog out for a walk.
She used to (pre-pandemic) take her tamest dog to a local nursing home twice a week for dog therapy.
She also joined a few social groups (more about that below) that meet on a regular basis, so she “must” get out of the house and interact several times a week.
C has told me explicitly that she knew it was important for her to develop new social connections after P died. I assume she has her background in psychology (she was trained as and worked as a psychologist) to thank for being so attuned to this need.
She had long been involved in the dog breeding community, so I’m not sure if her participation changed (increased) or remained the same. But when I was visiting, she did describe that about three times a week, she got together with Dog People for one reason or another.
She also joined a music group full of… Austrians? Where yes, she can learn about music, but also have an entirely different group of people to interact with.
She has also arranged for a friend to text her every morning, and C has to text back to let her friend know she’s fine.
Once a month, a friend an hour away drives down with her dogs and all dogs and humans commune.
C mentioned outright at one point that because P filled her emotional needs so fully, that while P was alive, C had little need to establish other relationships. So, after P died, C was forced to broaden her social horizon, forced to make new connections, and she is so much better for it. I just marvel at the self-awareness….
For a long while, my aunt’s purpose was caring for her partner, P. They were together for 49 years when P died. During the last several years of P’s life, she needed a lot of care. C provided it. Meals of certain foods at certain times. Doctor’s appointments. Other stuff (I don’t know many of the details).
All along, C and P also had dogs. Lots of ‘em. They had bred and shown English Setters for decades. After P’s death, C no longer had P to serve…but she still had (and has!) those dogs. Those dogs depend on her, and C has to be there for them.
This has also carried over into C’s estate planning. She has explicitly arranged for another dog friend of hers to take the dogs when C dies, and C has set aside a specific pot of money to go to this friend to help fund the care of dogs.
My aunt has always been physically active. She has long bred and shown dogs. She gardens. She used to ride horses. She has a large plot of land that she has to maintain. She chopped wood for her fireplace.
As life evolved, some of those specific activities fell away. I know she still gardens.
While I was visiting her, each day we went for a walk with one of her dogs. One day it was by the dunes on the beach. The other day it was in a municipal park.
It was during the latter walk that the “pedometer in my pocket” story that started this blog post happened. She set a goal (three miles/day). She got an accountability tool (the pedometer). And it’s baked into her daily schedule.
[My dad, C’s brother, is also a physical fitness nut. He’s 80 years old…and a Cross-fit hound. It’s a little disconcerting to see guns on an 80 year old, but I’m sure impressed by it! Let’s hope I inherited the family’s enduring affection for physical fitness.]
Intellectual Stimulation/Mental Activity
In my view, C finds stimulation in two ways:
- in an obvious fashion through watching Great Courses DVDs about economics and physics and the like and through reading books, and
- in a more subtle way through being curious about everyone and everything in her life. When she goes to the doctor about her hearing aid, she learns about how the brain processes sound! When she goes to her CPA, she learns more about taxes! When she meets someone in her community while out on a walk, say, she takes time to learn about them. “Oh, you have a PhD in oceanology? Interesting. Oh, you grew up locally and run a small business? How interesting.”
Especially since becoming a financial planner, I have learned how important curiosity is to self-discovery and discovery of others…and how important it is to simply being engaged and having fun learning. Some people seem to do this effortlessly, and C is one of them. Maybe it’s her professional background as a psychologist. Or maybe she became a psychologist because she was naturally curious.
For that music group I mentioned above, she has to occasionally present on a piece of music. While I was visiting her, she was preparing for a presentation on a Mendelssohn piece: full on internet research and preparing presentation materials.
Here’s what we ate in my first 24 hours visiting her:
- Dinner: salmon fillet, steamed sweet potatoes, hearty salad (beans and the like). She doesn’t add salt to anything (which I hear is quite doable but mostly my reaction is: Uh, no. She thankfully had salt for me to add).
- Dessert: unsweetened chocolate (she swears she likes it; she’s clearly made of sterner stuff than I) and persimmon slices
- Breakfast: coffee, steel cut oats, berries, unsweetened almond milk, nuts
- Lunch: We went out! To a fantastic restaurant on the water that specializes in fish. We both got monkfish. Hers came with a salad. (Mine came in tacos.)
- Afternoon snack: red wine, unsalted peanuts in shell, raw fennel bulb
And this is typical for her. In fact, she eats almost exactly this every day. ‘Cause when you’re 85 and have dogs with special nutrition needs, the last thing you want to do is expend much effort on your own food.
And while she is thin, she eats a lot! She is not the stereotype of the little old lady who just picks at food.
Her diet is absolutely #goals.
Since my visit in December, I have been asking myself: How can I be more like my Aunt C?
How can you be more like my Aunt C? Or the older woman in your life who has clearly Got It Figured Out?
Lastly, go hug—virtually or physically—the older women in your life. And ask them about their lives. They’re just…amazing.
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