90, if you want

A friend commented on another blog post of mine about how we're told that loneliness shortens a life span like a smoking habit does. Her married parents are now within waving distance of 90; she doubts she'll get to that age.

I have a theory, or maybe it's just a good ol' opinion about longevity and it's this: People live a long life because they want to.

I know where my friend's coming from. I have thought the same: That making it to 90 (or even 80) just might not be in the cards for a single, childless woman who has nothing but seated hobbies like knitting, watching TV, surfing the 'net, blogging…

I grew up with "The Greatest Generation", the people who practically starved to death during the Great Depression, then went through a world war (and maybe starved then, too) and still made it into their 90's before giving up this earthbound life.

So the researchers think they lived long because they ate little. Underfeeding yourself makes your metabolism slow down which makes you live longer (is the theory I've read). I have, however, also read the opposite: That people with a hearty appetite for food also have a hearty appetite for life. And we do know that for both people and animals, going off your feed is not a good sign.

Here's the thing: The folks I grew up with, my "Greatest Generation" grandparents (or maybe they're the generation before), made it well past 90 before deciding to leaqve this earth. Grandpa was torpedoed and divorced during the war—and subsequently estranged from his son ; Grandma has been widowed twice and never got along with her own mother. They've moved countries, getting stuck with a kid in their retirement that they weren't planning on. Both had a past as smokers. Grandma was always overweight and hypertensive. Big stressors. They went through a lot of unhealthy shit and still they made it past 90.

Yes, they were married. They had each other and they got along, and they both had a positive, friendly disposition. They had both stopped smoking decades earlier, and I guess having me around in their old age was also a positive.

These are my two data points. Still, the question is: With everything going on, why live into your 90's? Why did my grandparents?

Nothing says "I've been here a while" like a moss veneer

Nothing says "I've been here a while" like a moss veneer

For Grandpa, the end started when the war came back to him. Psychosis brought on by PTSD robbed him of the last of his strength and he spent his last months in a nursing home. He was hard of hearing, had cataracts and was basically hard to communicate with but also restless. He calmed down when Grandma and I visited and just talked like we always did. Us gals yapping, Grandpa just listening—the way it had always been.

He didn't die until I gave him permission to. I didn't know that's what I was doing at the time. Same thing with Grandma. She didn't die until she knew I would be OK without her.

With Grandpa, it was a Sunday visit, him oblivious to Grandma's and my presence. Knowing he would never come home again, I started talking, telling him that bringing me to a foreign country, away from my parents, was OK. It turned out well. I wasn't angry; I was grateful. The deaf man turned his head towards me as I was speaking, his cataract-covered eyes looked clear and focused and he was: Focused on me, on what I was saying, alert. And I am damned sure he heard every word I said. Two days later the nursing home called and said he'd died.

He needed closure. Then he could go.

Grandma was 9 years younger than Grandpa and we got to enjoy another 11 years of talking about everything and anything before it was her turn. With her it was the body that gave out first. A lot of sitting probably gave her more pain than necessary. It was frustrating for me with her in the nursing home; I handled being the adult and having to be responsible for both of us rather badly (sorry, Grandma). Bless her, she always stayed patient with me. Our last conversation ended with me telling her I had as much in my savings account as she had in hers. "You do?" she said. Later than evening she had a stroke that put her in a coma and she died within a week.

She was always after me to save, always worried about my finances (she had worried about her daughter the same way, so I guess it was habit). Knowing I'd got the message and was doing fine let her know she didn't have to stay around any more, so she left. Keep in mind, this was a woman who would wonder why she'd lived so long. What for? Now you know.

So if people actually choose when to leave this earth, what is all the advice regarding longevity about?

It's actually about 1) pain avoidance and 2) purpose. Taking care of the body through regular movement and eating well helps mitigate problems with aging or illness. Having meaningful relationships and hobbies gives one purpose.

It's like making sure your aging car is well-maintained; it won't break down as often if it is. Also, a car needs to be used regularly so the battery doesn't go flat and the oil doesn't turn to sludge. That analogy of regular use also applies to human minds and bodies.

Here's the thing, though: We can't all do all the things researchers think will make us live longer. If you want to live a long and happy life, do it your own way. I mean, if you hate exercise, exercising will just be another life-shortening stressor in your life, especially if skipping it makes you feel guilty. Likewise with anything mental. Creating stress and guilt in ourselves defeats the purpose. Find something that lets you move that works for you. And for your mind, same thing. Find something that sparks your own creativity, something that makes the hours fly by. And if it's done sitting, so what. Peace of mind and joy far outweigh sitting.

Speaking of peace of mind, my adventures with Norwegian sick leave, therapy and having a depression have taught me a few things about myself. I thought I was strong and positive about myself, but whadya know: I too have a skeleton in a closet. I made the closet; I put the skeleton there. It's named Guilt and it has very strong bones. (Obligatory Astrology: This whole blog post is nothing but Saturn/Capricorn stuff.)

So the new lesson I'm learning is how to be gentle with myself, how to have a healthy perspective on who I am and what I am capable of. Also: Practicing forgiveness. Forgiving myself, and forgiving others (mostly myself, these days). The healthiest thing I have found I can do for myself is to be my own best friend, to accept and love myself.

We have to make our own rules for living. Knowing how to make ourselves happy has huge value. Who wants to be ancient but miserable? Find your peace of mind and your joy, and enjoy for as long as you want.

My grandma. I try to be like her.

My grandma. I try to be like her.

Longevity: My maternal grandmother when she was 93. Those are her paintings on the wall. Art was one of her joys.

#astrology: Transitting Mercury in Capricorn is right on my natal Saturn today.