Pawing through some items that were on their way to the circular file, I came across an article in the Spring 2007 LSA Magazine published by my alma mater, the University of Michigan College of Literature Science and the Arts. The author, Katie Gazella, described a study by Professor Jacqui Smith on wisdom in elderly people. She focused on a frail 103 year old lady in Berlin who daily wrote a letter to a classical music radio program requesting a work to be played. After listening to her request for the day she went outside to the bus stop and chatted with the mothers who were picking up their children from school. Smith reported “ I think that this was an extremely wise strategy, she knew the world doesn’t come to you so she reached out”. Wisdom she defined as “knowledge about the fundamental pragmatics of life.” She noted further many older adults are not wise about how to deal with old age. “Some are fearful, depressed and lonely.” Professor Smith wants there to be further studies on aging to focus on wisdom in the setting of old age which is “ potentially a period of psychological vitality as well as one of losses”. “Getting older is not all down hill…and it is important that people understand that.”
Diane and I frequently advise our elderly clients to realistically appraise their capabilities and capacities, which may still be considerable, and as fully as possible engage what is still there. We urge our clients to remain as physically active as possible, manage their finances as long as they can, listen to music, talk about politics and life over tea or wine with friends and keep active in that bridge or mah jongg club. Physical, mental, and social engagement are the keys to staving off the ravages of dementia. We know that it is increasingly easier to withdraw and not take the trouble to keep engaged, but consider your alternatives: Would you rather model yourself on the feisty 103year old Berliner or the unfortunate relative or friend whose short term memory can be measured in minutes? The end is there for all of us; it is a question of how we get there. So if you take our advice you will keep your foot off of the clutch.
As an exercise in this “wisdom of engagement” how about writing a Christmas letter to your grandchildren and great grandchildren and recount for them what life was like at Christmas in the midst of the Great Depression, and without haranguing about the excesses of modern “youth”, describe what a delight it was to get an orange in your stocking (of course to go with the lard on toast that you have already told them about). Invite them to come for a visit and a nice chat. If you stop by the office we can make copies of your letter for all of your grandchildren and great grandchildren so you only have to write it once. Or better yet, we can scan it for you and if you get their email addresses we’ll send it for you by email (unless of course you have your own email account).