Aging With Grace: How To Be Old And Happy

Jan 1, 2019

When Jean Houston attended her 60th college reunion, she says her classmates didn’t recognize her. “You must be Jean Houston’s granddaughter,” one crowed. “Where’s your grandma?”

I’m Jean Houston,” Houston, who graduated from Barnard College in 1958, insisted. Her classmate, incredulous, called over another alumna. 

“You’re too young to be Jean Houston!” the other friend scoffed.

An internationally known psychologist and thought leader who lives in Ashland, Oregon, Houston is 81 years old. She remembers meeting Albert Einstein at his laboratory at Princeton University when she was a young girl, and recounts that Margaret Mead lived with her and her husband, Robert Masters, the last seven years of Mead’s life. 

After 43 years of marriage, Houston’s husband died of congestive heart failure. That was ten years ago, but Houston is as busy and energetic as ever. Like Houston, the vast majority of women—nearly 80 percent—will outlive their husbands. 

In a youth-obsessed culture like the United States, where older adults are often isolated, finding happiness in old age is not always easy.

For those Americans who reach age 85, there are about six women to every four men, reports Scientific American. By age 100 there are two women for every man. Any way you figure it, any American who lives past his or her 78th birthday is decidedly in the bonus round. The average life expectancy for Americans these days is just shy of 79 years old, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. 

Life expectancy is a key indication of the health of any given population. So the United States seems to be doing pretty well. But before you pat yourself on your (aging) back, there are some caveats: At least 40 other countries have longer-lived populations than we do—including Greece, Bermuda, and Hong Kong. A downturn seems to be happening already: While the number of Americans living over 90 has increased and more Baby Boomers are living healthy, active, happy lives in their older years, average life expectancy in the United States has actually been falling over the past three years. The CDC released three reports at the end of November that paint an unexpectedly discouraging picture. It seems that more Americans than ever before are dying young—mostly of drug overdoses, respiratory infections, and suicide.

Unbound By Constricting Beliefs About Aging

Back to Jean Houston. Houston spoke at a 2-day conference at Southern Oregon University hosted by the Rogue Valley Metaphysical Library in October. She mentioned during an afternoon workshop that she has recently taken up kickboxing but insisted that her secret to looking younger than her many of her peers has nothing to do with healthy eating or exercise. And her mother’s Sicilian genes, she said, were only part of the explanation.

“Want to know my secret?” Houston asked, brown eyes sparkling. Houston then explained that fourteen was an extraordinarily good year for her—she became the fencing champion for the state of New York, she was getting an excellent education at a school where she was popular and well-liked, she would soon after have the opportunity to meet First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. All these years later, Houston makes a conscious effort to channel her fourteenth year into everything she does. She holds onto her childhood exuberance, energy, and sense of purpose by imagining that she’s still fourteen. 

“We can place ourselves inside of time and culture and be bound by the constricting beliefs surrounding aging, or we can step beyond these boundaries and into a life-energizing matrix of new possibilities,” Houston has written. “Archetypes, internal allies, spiritual grounding and a passion for a meaningful life can provide a whole new level of regeneration.”

Let me translate: Jean Houston’s secret to aging with grace is understanding that your mind and your perception of your reality and of yourself are the keys to enjoying a long, productive, and happy life.

Ligon Luck

Though they might not express it the way Jean Houston does, Janet and Bill Ligon also believe that your state of mind plays an important role in how you feel as you age. I visit the couple in their light-filled high-ceilinged home in Ashland, a few blocks from SOU. Born in Malaysia of English parents, Janet Ligon is 84. Bill Ligon, originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is almost 90. They’ll be celebrating their 62nd wedding anniversary the day after we talk. 

“You’re just a young chit!” Bill teases when I tell him I’m not yet fifty. “I’ve got kids older than you.” 

Outgoing and sociable, Bill golfs with his buddies once a week (and they split a pitcher of beer afterwards), enjoys playing Bridge with Janet (though she’s better than he is) once a week, and also swims ten to twelve laps at the Y three times a week (“I used to do more … been swimming laps for ten years”). 

Ashland-resident Bill Ligon, age 89, enjoys playing Bridge with his wife Janet, age 84, golfing with his buddies, and talking sports with his son.
Credit Jennifer Margulis

Their son came from Seattle to help them move when they recently downsized, and he calls Bill often to compare notes about the Seahawks and golfing. Janet can’t stand sports. 

Bill, who uses a cane for balance, can’t ski or square dance anymore—because of an ankle injury that he got while serving in the army. He gets tired if he stands for too long. He’s also had a heart valve replacement, an operation Janet needed this summer as well. Their younger son died at 32, they’re outliving most of their friends, and they don’t have as much energy as they used to. But they both agree that these challenges aren’t getting in the way of them enjoying their life and each other to the fullest.

“The secret is a sense of humor,” Bill says, smiling broadly. Bill Ligon expects life to be enjoyable and it is. Janet has a different formula for aging with grace and feeling happy later in life. “The secret is having enough to live comfortably but not wanting more,” she says, adding that she feels blessed to be able to afford to hire people to take care of the things they no longer can: the house, the handy work, and the yard.

“I haven’t had any big goals in life,” Bill says honestly. “I take life as it comes. I have a positive mental attitude.” 

The attitude pays off, they both tell me. Bill knows he’ll find a parking place exactly where he needs one … and he always does.

“Bill’s the luckiest person I know,” Janet laughs. “That’s your Ligon luck. He has it. No doubt about it.” 

Eating Matters

Chris Meletis is an energetic, bespectacled doctor who sprinkles his speech with aphorisms (“Humane humans make better humanity,” “A body in motion stays in motion”) and talks faster than I can write. A naturopath based in Beaverton, Oregon, Meletis tells me that some of his patients have been with him for 26 years and now he’s doctoring their great grandchildren. 

“I’ve gotten old with my patients,” Meletis, 53, laughs, adding that his goal is to help his patients not only survive but also to thrive in old age. The first thing he wants to talk about when it comes to healthy aging is food. 

“We are trillions of cells. If all you eat is hamburgers, guess what? Then you’re made of hamburgers. If you’re eating fresh fruits and vegetables and phytonutrients then you are an abundance of live food,” Meletis insists. 

Portland residents Don and Genie Howard, ages 81 and 80, with their doctor Chris Meletis. Meletis says the older patients in his practice are an inspiration.
Credit Photo Courtesy of Dr. Chris Meletis

“I have a saying I share with my patients: ‘Live food for living people, dead food for dying people.’ 

So what should you actually eat? There are hundreds of fad diets, each with its own set of strident rules and recommendations. One well-known longevity doctor in southern Oregon insists eating a lot of meat and following an ancestral diet is key. Another is a vegan who believes a plant-based diet is the healthiest and most humane, a point of view also espoused by celebrity doctors like Joel Fuhrman, MD, and Dean Ornish, MD. In my mind eating should be pleasurable, not restrictive (why live a long life if you aren’t enjoying it?) and the food you eat should make you feel good. You can’t go wrong if you load up your meals with organically grown brightly colored vegetables, healthy fats, high-quality protein, fermented foods (like plain yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchee), and fruit for dessert. Canned, boxed, and packaged foods are better left on the shelf. 

Sidney Baker, MD, a Yale-trained medical doctor based in Sag Harbor, New York, agrees anyone who wants to be healthy in old age needs to eat whole foods. Like Meletis, Baker recommends buying organic and avoiding pesticides and herbicides whenever you can. 

Baker, at 81 years old, is glowing with good health. He continues to publish regularly, give lectures, and treat patients. I met him in person when he gave a speech at a health conference I helped organize in Ashland this fall. 

At age 81, Sidney Baker, MD, is still practicing medicine, giving talks, and publishing books and articles. His mother died in her early 60s of pneumonia and his father at age 49 in a plane crash. Baker credits a variety of lifestyle practices, including healthy eating, daily exercise, a loving wife, and the judicious use of supplements for his lasting good health.
Credit Photo courtesy of Dr. Sidney Baker

But as eager as he is for Americans to eat well, Baker tells me it’s harder to get people to change their diets than to change their religion. Given how resistant Americans are to change, I ask him what is one recommendation he would make for the Wendy’s-eating-Coca-Cola-drinking reader. 

“If I could flip a switch and get people to behave better, I would say getting sugar out of the diet would be a top priority,” Baker says. “The body’s energy system is built on the reasonable supposition for all of our evolution that food naturally comes as a once-living thing—fruits, vegetables, the flesh of animals. If you take and refine those foods, like sugar cane, it can be downright injurious. Sugar is the culprit that is most damaging to the general health.”

Gwen Mootz, who is 81 years old and lives in Grants Pass, says she and her late husband started eating much better after their adult daughter put in an organic garden and started bringing them fresh vegetables. “When my kids were little I had one of those deep fryers on the counter all the time, we just fried everything,” Mootz, who was born in Louisiana, says. “And now people are learning to eat the vegetables and not eat the fried food. So I think that’s good.” 

But Mootz also thinks promoting healthy eating is an uphill battle in Grants Pass. “People aren’t interested in living healthy lives,” Mootz says. “When I come home at night you should see the line at McDonald’s full of people picking up dinner for their children. It’s just ridiculous.”

The Blue Zones

Gwen Mootz has been participating in a Blue Zones project in Grants Pass, which is how I connected with her. The project is based on the work of Dan Buettner, 58, a longevity researcher and journalist. Funded initially by National Geographic, Buettner spent over a decade interviewing people around the world who live the longest, healthiest, and happiest lives. These pockets of longevity are known as “Blue Zones.”

After studying long-lived people from Okinawa (Japan), the Barbagia region of Sardinia (Italy), the Nicoya peninsula (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece), and Loma Linda (California), among other nonagenarians and centenarians, Buettner and his team came up with what they like to call the “Power 9”—Nine lifestyle practices and lessons that they have identified as contributing to health and longevity among the world’s longest-lived people. 

The next phase of his team’s work has been to bring lessons from the Blue Zones to communities across the United States to try to improve America’s health. Grants Pass, a city with a population of 37,700, has scored badly on several health rubrics compared to other cities in Oregon and is also below-average nationwide. So in 2017 Grants Pass was approved as a Blue Zones site for a 3-year project. 

The Blue Zones headquarters in Grants Pass, Oregon. This nonprofit project seeks to bring better health and longer lives to communities across America.
Credit Jennifer Margulis

Community funders (who they call “local champions”) include Asante Health System, All Care Health Plan, Trinity Health, Siskiyou Community Health Center, and Club Northwest. The Grants Pass Blue Zones project is headquartered on A Street, in a space that has bicycles and banners out front, a conference room, and a work area crammed with computers. I sat with the program manager, Diane Hoover, 57, and Jason Maki, 35, who coordinates the project’s marketing, to find out more. Hoover, who spent 26 years in the United States Navy and was the director of the Josephine County Public Health Department for six years, slides a piece of paper towards me—a color graphic of the “Power 9.”

Jean Houston’s strategy of channeling a younger version of yourself and using the power of your mind and your thoughts to enjoy the aging process doesn’t figure on the Power 9 list. Neither does Ligon Luck. The nine healthy habits shared by people who live the longest lives worldwide seem pretty straightforward:

  1. Move naturally
  2. Have a sense of purpose
  3. Reduce stress
  4. Eat until you’re only 80% full
  5. Eat mostly plants
  6. Enjoy a glass of wine at five p.m. (people in all Blue Zones except Seventh-Day Adventists regularly drink moderate amounts of alcohol.)
  7. Belong to a place of worship and attend services at least four times a month
  8. Put loved ones first
  9. Belong to the “right tribe” (a social circle that supports healthy behavior)

If you watch Dan Buettner’s TED Talk, or read any of his books, you’re left with a feeling of optimism about aging. Yet when I sit down to talk to older adults, the reality is different. A friend with hip problems swears she has no intention of living as long as her mom, who died in her 90s and suffered at the end of her life. She’s devising a suicide strategy so she can choose how and when she dies. A relative, 74, admits to struggling with a dozen physical problems, including a sore ankle that makes it difficult to walk. Another friend, who tried LSD for the first time at age 80 in search of a spiritual experience, says she had a bad trip, was discouraged not to be able to find the spirituality she was seeking, and is frightened to let her new boyfriend get too close because she’s been hurt too many times. I think of them as I talk to Hoover and Maki and wonder if the Blue Zones recommendations for longevity are harder to implement than they seem. Gallup Polls and other measurements of “success” that Buettner describes in his book, The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, really tell only part of the story.

Take, for instance, the recommendation to have a sense of purpose. Having a reason to get up in the morning—which can be as simple as a joy of gardening or as involved as being the primary caretaker for an ailing spouse—has been associated with longevity. This Blue Zones idea is backed by some solid science. A 2017 Harvard study found that adults over 50 who could articulate their sense of purpose and life goals were less likely to experience physical decline. Other studies have correlated a sense of purpose with a lower risk of heart disease and death, and even better sleep. Hoover, who leads “purpose workshops,” tells me most participants are thinking about these things for the first time.

Indeed, when I ask Bill and Janet Ligon if they have a sense of purpose, they both find it difficult to answer. After a bit of thinking, Janet decides that hers is getting Bill to 90. 

“Ninety!” he protests, “How about 95?!”

After another pause, Bill says his sense of purpose is to live a good life, be as nice to people as you can, and stay alive for his wife, so she does not end up alone. 

Even more difficult to implement is the seemingly straightforward recommendation that we should all be eating real, whole, healthy foods. In Grants Pass, most older adults live three to four miles away from the closest grocery store. “It’s not just quality food, it’s having food period,” Hoover says honestly. 

For many older adults on a fixed income, like Gwen Mootz, money is a problem. As is finding a community of likeminded health-oriented people (“the right tribe”), and even, sometimes, getting out of the house. Mootz is still recovering from a bad fall she took two years ago, and also grieving the loss of her husband, who died five days after he turned 87. Sure, she’s outlived both of her parents: her mom died at 74 and her dad at 76. She participated in a Blue Zones walking group when the weather was better, even though her injury kept her at the back of the pack. She also joined the altar society at her church, and she volunteers when she can. A social person, she tries to stay busy. But I can hear the loneliness in her voice when we talk. “After being married 58 years a big piece of me is gone,” she says honestly. “Some days I just have to sit around and have a good cry.”

In a youth-obsessed culture like the United States, where older adults are often isolated, finding happiness in old age is not always easy. 

Talent residents Dan Milan, 85, and Iris Milan, 83, recently celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.
Credit Cornelius Matteo

Still, some people manage to age not only with grace but also with great panache. Like my friend, Iris Milan, who some readers may have seen riding her bicycle on the bike path in Talent or zipping around town in her tiny electric car. 

Milan, 83, who lives in Talent, refuses to let aging slow her down. At five feet one inch tall, she serves on the Safety and Security Committee at Temple Emek Shalom, volunteers for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and does English Country Dancing and Tai Chi. Lately she’s been studying Native American history, and she’s just signed up for a full roster of new courses at OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institite. The Blue Zones project talks about how a key component to healthy aging is community, which is something Iris and her husband Dan have purposefully cultivated. Their home in Talent shares a backyard with their best friends, who they see almost every day. “It’s really important to have social connections,” Milan says. “Find out about others, care about others. We’re all connected.” 

Allen Hicks, 70, with his wife Katherine Ng Hicks (also 70), and their dog at Stinson Beach, California.
Credit Louise DuFresne

For Allen Hicks, an Ashland resident and retired commercial artist, life—like fine wine—has been getting better with age. 

Hicks just turned 70 and feels healthier now than he did a year ago, despite some health challenges. He takes great pleasure in speed-walking (which he does for 44 minutes every morning), writing creatively, and painting. 

“You start to realize, ‘well, shit, I don’t have much time,’ Hicks laughs. “The wisdom is starting to kick in at a rapid rate … I have a lot more understanding about things, and I’m really incorporating it into my daily life.” 

Part of that wisdom, I find myself thinking as Hicks is talking, is feeling grateful. Appreciating the small stuff—the bright blue of the sky, the rich flavor of my coffee, the mischievous look in my daughter’s brown eyes. There are some things you just can’t sugarcoat about aging, like the incontinence issues another 80-year-old confesses she is having. But there’s also so much beauty in growing older. In knowing that your life—in this form anyway—will have an end date. May we all be lucky enough to grow old and to find happiness as we age. 

A regular contributor to the Jefferson Journal, Jennifer Margulis, PhD, is an investigative health journalist and book author. She graduated from Cornell University, earned a Master’s degree from University of California at Berkeley, and a PhD from Emory University. Her articles have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine. Her most recent book, The Addiction Spectrum: A Compassionate, Holistic Approach to Recovery (HarperOne), is co-authored with Paul Thomas, MD. Learn more about her at www.JenniferMargulis.net.