Lessons from a year among the oldest old.
by John Leland
She made choices. She didn’t like to exercise, so she tended plants on her windowsill to keep her body active. When her Medicare Part D plan stopped covering lidocaine patches for her arthritis pain, she cut the patches she had in small pieces and supplemented them with Tylenol—enough relief to get her through her daily activities and mah-jongg games. Mah-jongg, too, forced her to move her arms and exercise her brain, and kept her in the social world where she thrived. Playing regularly, she said, kept her from getting bored or lonely. “It has so many benefits for your health,” she said one day at the table, after winning a trick and asking the others to push the tiles her way because it hurt her to reach that far. “You use your mind. You use your body, even if it’s just your hands.” A good day, she said, was “when I play mah-jongg and win. I feel happy. We don’t play for money, but winning makes my brain better.”
When I asked Ping the secret to a long life, she said, “The first thing is you must make yourself happy. No one can say I haven’t got bad times, hard times. Of course in a lifetime you have good times and bad times. When my son died, for two years I couldn’t sleep well. Every night for two years. After that I adjusted myself, because I have a very good daughter here. I’m quite satisfied with my life here. I’m very lucky to live in this building.”
This is what Ping taught me about thinking like an old person: try to be flexible, always recalibrating goals or what made a life worth living. A younger person might have camped out in her disappointment over canceling the trip to Atlantic City, wallowing in the sense that it made her special. Instead, Ping released it. She knew how to give up things that once seemed important but no longer did, choosing happiness from among the stuff available to her.
This lesson made my life immensely easier. Attending to my false needs was a lot of work. Once I started letting them go, it freed me to focus on things that were more rewarding or lasting. It also meant I could stop feeling guilty about all the things I thought I should be doing but wasn’t. Somebody else could practice daily mindfulness or find a shredder for my old bank statements. The right microgreens from the farmers market, it turned out, passed the test. They required minimal effort and enabled me to eat well. But other things in my life, not so much: half my clothes and other possessions, arguments at work or on social media, certain friends and family members who just brought me down—I let them go and didn’t miss them.