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Advice from the life of my grandpa
The world is obsessed with discovering the fountain of youth. We are bombarded with hair dye to hide the gray and creams to stop the wrinkles. Hollywood is full of celebrities that barely resemble their former selves thanks to the plastic surgery they hope will fool the hands of time. Rather than worrying about living to be 100, we run from old age, kicking and screaming.
But what if, instead of trying to stop time, we simply made more of an effort to grow old gracefully? What if we embraced our wrinkles and saw our gray as stripes that signify our rank and achievements?
My grandfather represents the perfect example of a man that has grown old gracefully. Papa, as his grandkids lovingly call him, has lived a life full of hardships and joys; tears and laughter; heartbreaks and successes. While his nearly 96 year old body may not be as nimble as it once was, his mind is as sharp as ever. When I visit him, I find myself in exactly the same position I assumed as a child: sitting at his knee, anxious to soak up his stories and wisdom. As I near a milestone birthday that once felt impossibly ancient, I realize that his stories represent more than just a glimpse into his fascinating past. They are life lessons; tips that can help all of us live a full, beautiful life and grow old gracefully.
Tip 1: Don’t Use Life’s Hardships as Excuses
My grandpa did not have an easy childhood. When he was nine years old, his mother died, leaving his father a single parent to six small children. His father realized he couldn’t raise them alone, and my grandfather and his siblings were eventually sent to various foster homes. It had to be excruciating for a nine year old child to not only cope with the loss of his mother, but to be ripped from his surviving parent and siblings and placed with perfect strangers. As you could imagine, not all of those foster homes treated him kindly. No doubt, he spent many of his days lonely, hungry, and mistreated.
Many people use life’s difficulties as excuses to explain away their failures. They believe they shouldn’t be held responsible for their inadequacies because life drew them the short straw. My grandpa did no such thing. He took his hardships and turned them into opportunities. Eventually he was reunited with his father and siblings. He became a self-made man and a successful restaurateur. In all of the stories that I have heard my grandfather tell, I have never once heard him complain about his past or use it as an excuse for any shortcomings in his life.
Tip 2: Work Hard
Papa came from nothing. Even before his mother died, his parents were Italian immigrants raising six children. They were far from wealthy. But he never let his meager beginnings stop him from dreaming big. Even as a child, he was an entrepreneur of sorts, finding ways to raise money for his needs. He drove a city bus and worked a variety of odd jobs before he and his brother-in-law decided to buy into a restaurant franchise. That decision eventually led them to the opening of their own successful restaurants throughout southern Indiana. Their restaurants were popular spots, often frequented by celebrities of the day like Nat King Cole, Jack Dempsey, and even Robert Kennedy and his entourage.
Life does not owe us anything. Some people are blessed with fame and fortune, but for the rest of us poor saps, we have to work for it. When you are trudging along, barely making ends meet, it might seem like you’ll never reach your aim. But with hard work and perseverance, any goal can be attainable.
Tip 3: Be Kind to Everyone
My grandfather’s success in the restaurant business put him in the perfect position to help those around him. He found jobs for the less fortunate and donated food to the needy. He used his experience and expertise to help other people find success in the restaurant business. He served everyone with the same kindness and consideration, whether they were a wealthy food critic, or a group of high school students heading to prom.
Even today when his restaurateur days are far behind him, he shows kindness to everyone. When he needs odds and ends done around his home, he will hire the person that seems to need the job the most. And if that person works hard for him, he will come back to them again and again, even if someone else might offer a better price. He has never forgotten his meager beginnings, and so he recognizes the value and potential in everyone.
Tip 4: Dress to Impress
When I was growing up, I found it mind-boggling that Papa had never owned a pair of jeans. My grandfather would put on a jacket and tie to go grocery shopping. I don’t think he has ever been overly fashion-conscious, but he has always been concerned with how he is represented. Dressing well actually motivates you to be successful. It encourages others to look at you with respect and view you as powerful and influential. In a day and age where leggings and joggers are the uniform of youth, nothing will get you more positive attention and help you grow old more gracefully than donning more sophisticated attire.
Tip 5: Love Fiercely
My grandparents married in 1950, and the love between them was as evident during my lifetime as I imagine it was on their wedding day. They were the perfect pairing, my grandma fun, a little frivolous, and very social to compliment Papa’s serious conscientiousness. Grandma and Papa raised my dad and his sister in an environment that fostered that love, which they each then poured into their own families. Despite living three hours away, my relationship with my grandparents was as close as if they had lived down the street. We took trips to Indiana once a month, and even spent summers vacationing together. Nothing at home was quite so fun as the games and silly antics we played with Grandma. No memories are held dearer to my heart than sitting at the dining room table long after the dishes were cleared, listening to Papa’s stories . Once we were home, Papa would call our house nightly, and every conversation ended with “I love you.”
While it is clear that loving relationships might make you happier throughout your life, can they actually make that life longer? An article from Harvard’s medical school suggests that it can. People with strong relationships, romantic and otherwise, sleep better, have fewer health problems, and even eat healthier diets. So cherish your relationships, and love fiercely.
Tip 6: Play Brain Games
When you walk into my grandfather’s house, the first things you see are two blue recliners flanking a side table and lamp. Littering that side table will no doubt be stacks of newspaper crossword puzzles. Papa has always religiously completed the crossword puzzle. Thanks to him, I know that the puzzle gets progressively harder through the week and that many clues are repeated from one edition to the next. As I child I would look over his answers and revel in his brilliance. I couldn’t believe one person could know all of those random facts.
Studies prove that brain games help cognitive skills and processing abilities. As I like to tell my students, the brain is like a muscle, and lack of use makes it flaccid and weak. Exercising your brain can help you to avoid dementia and forgetfulness.
Tip 7: Stay Informed
Papa is a news-junky. For as long as I can remember, he has read the paper cover to cover and has watched every news segment on the television. He knows everything going on in the world of politics, commerce, and world affairs. I do not doubt for one second that his constant drive for knowledge and information is what has kept his mind as sharp today as it was in his youth.
Tip 8: Enjoy Food
Meals at my grandparents’ house were an affair. It wasn’t just about eating to satiate; it was an experience that awakened the senses. Meal times were about delicious foods and boisterous conversations that celebrated our togetherness. Inspired by his years in the restaurant business, Papa loved to cook and it was a trait that was passed down through the family. A meal might have taken him hours to prepare, but that love and time was evident in every bite. My grandparents, always a healthy weight, never dieted. They were able to enjoy and appreciate food without stigmatizing it.
An article from U.S. News and World Report called “Enjoy Your Food: It’s Good for Your Health” explains the actual science behind this idea. The unhealthy trend of associating certain foods with guilt and judgement actually impedes digestion and can lead to binge eating. Learning to enjoy meal time can lead to an improved outlook towards food, and direct you to a longer, healthier life.
Tip 9: Be Spiritual
Both of my grandparents were steadfast Catholics. We went to church every weekend. We said Grace and the Hail Mary before every meal and my grandma went through a long ritual of prayers every night before bed. Although Papa will tell you that Grandma was a far better Catholic than he, there is no question that his faith is deeply rooted. It is thanks to his faith that he has been able to survive the death of his first born son, the loss of his wife, and a million other hardships that may have devastated a lesser man.
While Catholicism may not be for everyone, spirituality is important for living a full and beautiful life. WebMd confirms that people who are spiritual tend to be happier and have a more positive outlook. Believing in something bigger than yourself can help you maintain mental strength when going through difficult times; it gives you reassurance that you are not alone. Spirituality helps to reduce the fear of death. Growing old gracefully tends to be much easier if you aren’t fearful of what may happen when you reach the end. If nothing else, finding your spirituality can lead you to a social network of like-minded companions. And nothing keeps you young like a strong group of good friends.
Tip 10: Always Keep Learning
When my grandma passed away in 2015, I felt the distance between us acutely. I hated that I wasn’t there to help alleviate his sorrow and boredom. I wanted to be there for him, but I’ve always hated the telephone, and I know he doesn’t love it either. If only I could text or Facetime with him! I decided to buy him an iPad. The salesman at Verizon actually laughed at me when I said my purchase was for my 92 year old grandfather who had never had internet a day in his life.
But my grandfather didn’t let his age or lack of experience stop him from learning that new device. He jumped right in, learning all the nuances of his first Apple device. He even entertained the idea of joining Facebook! And let me tell you…nothing makes me happier than opening my phone to a good morning message from Papa, emojis and all.
Will these tips increase your longevity?
Of course, when it really comes down to it, living to be 100 is partially influenced by your daily habits, but also has a lot to do genetics and just pure luck. But even if these tips don’t help you near that century mark, I have no doubt they will make the years you do have more fulfilling. And perhaps they will help you embrace the aging process, rather than fearing it.