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Friday, February 8, 2013

Life lessons from our elders: Stay positive

I anticipated the now viral “Viva Young” Taco Bell ad with dread. As someone who studies and promotes elder wisdom, I have hated just about every ad I’ve seen that tries to portray “with-it oldsters” engaging in hijinks. But Taco Bell’s Super Bowl ad was a genuine—and pleasant—surprise. I’ve watched it many times now, and I like it. In fact, I like it a lot. 

It somehow manages to convey freedom and an openness to experience, while using older actors who look, well, the way a lot of older people look. It didn’t make them, or their situations on their wild night out, cute stereotypes. 

As the director of the ad, Tom Kuatz, put it: “I didn’t treat them differently than I would 20-year-olds. That’s part of the concept. Kissing was kissing on the mouth, dancing was dancing, doing the robot was doing the robot like a 20-year-old would do.” 

I’ve spent the past five years talking to the oldest Americans about, among other things, how to make the most of the later years of life. And what they told me is a lot like what this commercial manages to convey in a very short time. For successful aging, they endorse principles like this:  

Become more of a free spirit
Over and over as they reflected on their lives, I heard versions of “I’ve given up worrying” and “Why do people worry so much about everything?” Indeed, from the vantage point of late life, many people see fruitless rumination about the future as a young person’s game. As one 83-year old put it: Don’t believe that worrying will solve or help anything. It won’t. So stop it. 

Focus on the short term rather than the long term
In the ad, the actors are clearly living in the moment. And that’s what most of the elders we interviewed suggest: focus more on the short term. As a 102-year old told me: The most important thing is one day at a time. You can plan ahead but it doesn’t always work out. 

Savor the moment
When people seek happiness, they often think about big-ticket items: buying a house, finding a partner, having a child, getting a new job, making more money. Elders tell us that a positive attitude depends on thinking small: unexpected momentary pleasures that are experienced intensely. Not everyone wants a wild night of clubbing as shown in the commercial, but they do love to immerse themselves in the present. 

Take risks
We think of older people as more conservative, but in terms of living life to the fullest in old age, the opposite is the case. They tell their peers (and those of us who will, if all goes well, be old someday) to let go in the last third of life. A 94-year old laughed: My advice about growing old? I’d tell people to find the magic!
Many elders described life past 65 as a “quest” and “an adventure.” Their advice to us? Endorse embracing excitement, creativity, and risk-taking well into our 70s, 80s, and beyond. And Taco Bell (whether you like their food or not) managed to convey a bit of that spirit during the Super Bowl. 

About the author: Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging and the author of “30 Lessons for Living.” 


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ltci quotes said...

This post is a great way to encourage seniors to stop worrying. They should make the most of their time and just seize the day. There's nothing to worry about because they have already accomplished a lot and they deserve to live the life they deserve and enjoy their retirement life. Also, this is the best time for them to take risks, do something they've never done before and make their dreams come true. I just hope seniors will realize that instead of taking it slow and doing nothing, they should engage in new hobbies, activities and be free spirited at all time.

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John smith said...

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