How to live—and age—with purpose
Deena Kara Shaffer
1Does it feel like life is zooming by? Instead of focusing on living longer, let’s take a closer look at living purposefully. Research shows that engaging purposefully as one ages can elongate one’s life and may lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. Purpose is a preventive health measure! For insight, I interviewed four 60+ folks who each exemplify purpose, passion, and flat-out carpe diem. Joanne Dallaire, 68, Shadowhawk Woman, Wolf Clan, Omushkego, is an elder and traditional counsellor. Ron Cameron-Lewis, 74, is a lifelong dramaturge, professor of performance, and writer. Fredelle Brief, 76, has worked as a social worker, teacher, facilitator, and peace activist. Michael Brecher, 94, is a political science professor at McGill University.
Curious to know about the very best aspects of aging, I asked each what they love about getting older. “It is daunting and exciting, both,” says Dallaire, “this interesting phase of life.” Instead of seeing life now by months or years, she views it in “decades and milestones.”
Feeling grateful for more time was what Cameron-Lewis emphasizes: “With each passing year, I am thankful.” Brief points out, “I love the perspective of my age.” And for Brecher, it is the love of and pride in his three children—watching them flourish and succeed.
“As of my sixties,” explains Dallaire, “I started to focus on myself. Just myself. Enough about everyone else!” She adds, “Aging has brought with it freedom.” Freedom about making choices on one’s own terms. “I really trust myself—I can get myself through anything.”
Dallaire attributes having aged well to her personal healing, going back to school and following her heartfelt pursuits, and shifting her perspective to “life happening for me instead of passively to me.”
Cameron-Lewis sees how his father’s athletic encouragement has inspired a lifelong commitment to physical fitness. “No one can look after my body and health for me, so I take control. While the body doesn’t get more resilient with age,” emphasizes Cameron-Lewis, “one’s strategies about keeping well do. I do 400 crunches a day and track my physical goals and accomplishments—I still have a six-pack!”
Brief feels that her “sense of wonder and curiosity” have supported aging well. “All my life,” she explains, “I have been fortunate to never suffer from boredom. I can wait for a half-hour for a streetcar and watch people moving up and down the street, see the different shades of green, watch the changes in light, look for birds, and on and on, and if there are people waiting with me, I will chat with them.”
And for Brecher, it is his lifelong commitment to academic teaching and writing that he regards as pillars of his remarkable age.
Instead of equating age with decline, Dallaire, Cameron-Lewis, Brief, and Brecher exemplify what the latest research shows—that aging can be “a time of continued activity, growth, and enjoyment.” Indeed, studies indicate that stereotypes about aging actually decrease an older person’s quality of life and that maintaining an optimistic, buoyant perspective about getting older has positive impacts on mental and physical health as we age.
Despite so much life experience, I was keen to learn what sweet surprises each are encountering on their aging journeys. “All my ‘I have to get this done’s have gotten done,” says Dallaire, “and now I have time and space for the fun stuff! Life has become about what I want to do. I am living with my achievements and accomplishments—I’ve arrived!”
Receiving “unexpected respect,” is one delight of aging that Cameron-Lewis appreciates. “I never anticipated the kind of courtesy that comes from the younger generation or the respect earned from my career.”
The sweetness and richness of long-term friendships has been a wonderful surprise for Brief.
And a life of “gratifying good physical and mental health” has been the sweetest surprise for Brecher.
With so much life lived and loved, what do each look forward to about future aging? “More of the same,” says Dallaire. “Doing what I want to do without concern about whether other people understand it—it’s no longer about what I should be doing.”
“I don’t have time to look forward to getting older,” reports Cameron-Lewis. “I’m still so active; 2019 has been one of my busiest years ever. I haven’t stopped to think about what’s ahead because I keep getting such interesting new opportunities; I embrace each one that comes along.”
In one’s thirties, twenties, or perhaps even earlier, vocational searching, job training, and gaining experience can occupy so much time and worry. With the perspective and wisdom of age, I wanted to know when each felt they had hit their stride career-wise. For Dallaire, it started in her forties when she finished transformational personal healing, moving to a new city, going back to school, taking her first solo trip, and “working toward [her] own dream.”
Each decade has brought Cameron-Lewis different stages of accomplishment—his thirties came with leadership, forties with publication, fifties with international recognition, sixties with integrative opportunities, and seventies with acclaimed fellowship.
Brief feels that career success really struck in her fifties, and for Brecher it was a pivotal, well-reviewed publication in his late thirties.
In the day-to-day, I wondered what each insisted upon to keep healthy and well in order to keep pursuing their passions. “I am as active as I can be,” says Dallaire, “eat all the correct foods, drink lots of water, and splurge on what keeps me mobile.”
“In light of demanding work,” Cameron-Lewis makes clear, “I need my personal time. I have been with my life partner for more than 51 years. We met in 1968 and, other than for work, haven’t spent a night apart. He and I were married six days after the law permitted us to marry, 16 years ago, and he is my top priority. No one, no job, no outside influence gets between us.”
Brecher’s two non-negotiables are continued academic teaching and research and a daily physical exercise regimen that includes 90 minutes of working out in the gym and an hourlong afternoon walk.
That nutrition and exercise were highlighted by each of these purposeful seniors is not a surprise. Geroscience—the study of aging—shows that diet and exercise are crucial to healthy aging.
Led by researcher Angela Brooks-Wilson, the Healthy Aging Study, or “Super-Seniors Study,” looks at those living healthfully beyond 85 years. This research explores what factors are at play in supporting good health and quality of life in our later years.
The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging is studying more than 50,000 Canadians as they age to learn more from those living long and healthfully. The longitudinal study hopes to glean insights about disease prevention, health services, socio-economic impacts, and psychosocial factors.
Does aging come with built-in resilience? “Yes,” says Dallaire, “the older the tree, the deeper the roots—it can tolerate its environment. With age comes recognition of the hurts and the hurdles; these are our teaching ground.”
In terms of advice for those younger in years, Dallaire offers: “Don’t limit yourself, worry so much, or let fear stop you; courage is feeling fear and facing it anyway.” Cameron-Lewis offers: “Embrace lifelong learning.” Brief says to “maintain a sense of wonder.” And Brecher emphasizes pursuing that which one finds deeply interesting, even if it comes with no financial benefit.
Did you know there is an age-friendly community (AFC) movement? Towns and cities around the world—over 280 communities worldwide—are becoming more age friendly. AFCs focus on improved access for seniors to health care, social connectedness, safe outdoor spaces that promote active living, accessible transportation, and opportunities for activism.
Seniors should not be underestimated. Studies are exploring well-being and economic benefits of senior entrepreneurship, encore careers where seniors take on new leadership roles or re-enter the work world, senior tourism, golden age foodie culture, and how innovation in technologies and services for seniors creates job opportunities—all of which support improved quality of life in later years.
Deena Kara Shaffer, PhD, is a learning specialist at Ryerson University, co-creator of the Thriving in Action initiative, and owner of Awakened Learning, resilience-based educational coaching and consulting. @deenakshaffer