Encouraged by a grandfatherly professor at Cornell, in my sophomore year I gave a speech asking my fellow students “when you come to the end of your days, will you be able to write your own epitaph?”
I urged them to focus on establishing meaningful goals and the legacy they may want to leave when their physical lives end. By legacy, I did not mean money, structures or any other tangible object. I meant the positive impact they might have that would help to keep them alive in the memories and lives of others.
Thus, when I read Marc Freedman’s new book, “How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations,” it spoke volumes to me. It reminded me of that dear professor, George Eric Peabody, who was in effect my mentor, encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and develop talents I never knew I had.
Professor Peabody, who died in 1967 at age 70, did indeed leave an enviable legacy. As stated in the university’s memorial, he was “an inspiring and challenging teacher in helping thousands of students develop poise, self-confidence and, in his concise words, the ability to ‘stand up — speak up — and shut up.’”
Mr. Freedman, the founder of Encore.org and co-founder of Experience Corps, both dedicated to helping older adults find purpose later in life, calls himself a social entrepreneur. Asked what it takes to be a mentor, he said succinctly, “Showing up and shutting up: Being consistent and listening. You don’t have to be a charismatic superhero. You don’t need an advanced degree. It’s more about the relationship than imparting sage advice. The key is not being interesting. The real key is being interested — being present and paying attention.”
Mr. Freedman points to a vast untapped resource of mentors in this country that could be deployed, to the mutual benefit of mentor and mentee. All it takes is getting the two together, a task made more challenging by the growing segregation of older adults in senior citizen communities devoid of children.
“Older people are uniquely suited for a mentoring role,” he said in an interview. “The critical skills for nurturing relationships — emotional regulation and empathy — blossom as we age.” And, of course, those who are retired also have more time to devote to younger people, be they grandchildren, neighbors or strangers.
Mr. Freedman’s latest endeavor, now in its second year, is called Generation to Generation, a foundation-supported nationwide project that aims to “build a movement of older people focused on the well-being of future generations.”
The annual increase in life expectancy attests to the importance of this effort. More and more people are living 20 or 30 years beyond traditional retirement age. Do they all want to spend those “golden years” watching TV, playing cards or golf, reading or traveling? Or might some prefer a more productive and meaningful old age, one that could enrich them physically, mentally and socially, and in some cases economically?
“The real fountain of youth is the fountain with youth,” Mr. Freedman said. “It’s spending less time focused on being young and more time focused on being there for the next generation.” As the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said nearly 70 years ago, “I am what survives me.”
Lest you think this is all for the benefit of young people, major long-term studies have demonstrated the incomparable value of such a personal investment to the health of older people.
Social engagement is a well-established benefit to the well-being and longevity of senior citizens. In Alameda, Calif., researchers found that those with better social connections were 80 percent less likely to die during a nine-year study.
Dr. Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, now in its 81st year, reports that as people age, close ties help sustain vitality and happiness and forestall decline. Dr. George Vaillant, psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, who led the study for four decades, reported in his book “Aging Well” that middle-aged and older people who invested in the well-being of the next generation were three times as likely to be happy as those who didn’t make such an effort. They also lived longer.
At Washington University in St. Louis, researchers found that older volunteers who participated in an Experience Corps program to improve students’ academic achievement were less likely than a matched comparison group to be depressed and to decline physically.
In a study of people recruited to help low-income children thrive, Michelle C. Carlson at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-authors showed that by participating in Experience Corps, older, poorly educated African-American women with signs of cognitive decline improved their decision-making ability and brain function while the schoolchildren they interacted with improved academically.
One of the co-authors of that study, Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, put it this way: Participation in Experience Corps dusted off the cobwebs in their brains.
Even living in an age-segregated facility need not preclude a mutually profitable interaction between seniors and children. In the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, the Rainbow International Learning Center & Child Care Program operates side-by-side with senior centers. The older adults get supplemental income, relief from isolation and youthful stimulation by providing affordable child care and engaging in creative and educational activities with young children from low-income families.
A British program called Now Teach creates an avenue for retired professionals to impart their hard-earned life lessons to those starting out on life’s often challenging journey. The program’s motto: “You’ve had a successful career. Now do something more important. Now teach.”
Alas, Mr. Freedman wrote, what we’ve been doing in recent decades in this country is “pushing older people to disengage from society, extolling a ‘golden years’ existence around graying as playing, peddling age-segregated playgrounds,” which he says is “at odds with the developmental imperatives of older generations, the needs of younger ones, and the requirements of a society that for the first time ever has more of the former than the latter.”
So consider, if you will, becoming a member of a kind of intergenerational Peace Corps. It’s a great way to secure a legacy that eases the pain of knowing that all lives must come to an end. One possibility is to become a Foster Grandparent in the national program that engages adults 55 and older with limited incomes to serve as role models, mentors and friends to children with exceptional or special needs.