Every so often I think about death, especially when I’m with a group of friends that started out one size and ended up smaller. I have one friend – her name is Eleanor — who by virtue of her age should remind me of death but never does. In fact, she seems immortal.
I’ve written about Eleanor before, but that was way back when she was 94 or 95 and now she’s 98 and 1/2, which she routinely rounds up to “going on 99.”
Recently, I interviewed her to learn her secrets of aging as they relate to a healthy mental state.
As a guide I used a sort of memoir, “On the Brink of Everything Grace, Gravity and Getting Old,” by Parker J. Palmer, who looks back on his life in such areas as work and vocation, staying engaged with the world, and staying engaged, creatively, with the young.
Work and vocation. Eleanor’s list is too long to include here. Her careers range from journalist to costume designer to drama teacher. She’s a founder of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and still actively involved. Recently, she hosted a buffet for thirty of the organization’s leaders who were in town for a conference.
When I first met her, we were both enrolled in a writing program through the University of Washington. She was ninety. She has taken at least one writing course every year since then.
Creative time with younger people. Palmer suggests that as we age we benefit from spending creative time with people younger than we are. Eleanor is a writer and she hosts a writers’ critique group twice a month (with dinner). At “going on 99,” whether it’s in courses or in the writers’ group, she has no choice but to spend creative time with folks much younger than she is.
Engaging with the world. Eleanor is way ahead of most retirees in this category. “I get out of the house every day and announce my age constantly. I talk to everyone, everywhere.” Her local librarian saves books for her. She’s well known by the tech staff at the Microsoft store near her home. The woman who hands out free food samples at Costco attended her last birthday party. “Successful aging is really being genuinely interested in other people. I feel like everyone is a sibling or maybe I’m their surrogate mother.”
But wait, there’s more. She says she has “unbridled curiosity, pays attention to the moment,” though she’s “often undisciplined and unfocused.” She explains the latter, saying, “I grew up wild in a family of eight children, which shaped who I am now. As a child, day and night I was attentive to tangible and intangible details, always alert to the potential for conflict.”
Besides having good genes – her doctor describes her as an outlier – and an outgoing nature, Eleanor attributes her long life to sleeping eight hours a night, taking no medicine, having curiosity, reading avidly, and questioning authority, especially doctors.
Because I believe Eleanor is immortal, I look forward to finding out whether her “secrets” list changes once she reaches 100.