We were all (slowly) scrambling to get changed into bathing suits and pack up some towels to go to the pool. Being in vacation mode makes everything less urgent. But I was all ready, obnoxious gaudy pink flower flip flops and all, and Elsa was ready, too. Being away for a few weeks on vacation in Florida has not given me much time to write, but when I heard she was going to be down here too, I knew what I wanted to write about. Elsa is our friend’s mother who just happens to be celebrating her 102 birthday next week. We went to her 100 year celebration 2 years ago, and when the dust settled the next day I remember popping in to her apartment (attached to my friend’s home) to take advantage of the time to chat. To me, anyone older than me is a rich source of knowledge and experience just waiting to be tapped….it you take the time. I feel many of us are so busy with our own lives and problems that we forget that older people who have been around a lot longer than we have, probably have experienced what you may be struggling with today. They often have the answers you may have never considered just because they have “been there, done that”. They have learned priceless lessons (we may be blessed to learn ourselves if we live long enough)….but I want to know now!
Anyway, back then, 2 years ago, we did sit and chat as she sipped her tea and ate a few Milano cookies (which mean cookies are ok if you ask me, Elsa would know). The problem is that I was so mesmerized by her stories of family, passion, love and the changes in her life and how she coped that I did not write down anything. So here I was again, with a bit of time with Elsa, and although I did not want to bother her as she was relaxing in her comfy chair overlooking a peaceful lake, I knelt down beside her to chat. Her hearing is not as good as it used to be apparently but she had no problem hearing any of my questions and answering me in her straightforward, honest and crystal clear way.
Elsa has been through a lot in her life. Early on she married, then after having had 4 children, through unfortunate circumstances, had to raise them on her own. Back then, it was an unusual woman who could do this, but being the strong woman that she is, she did. She also was unusual in that she had a career: she was a nurse. She worked during the war and because of her passion for her work, the doctors all sent their patients to Elsa’s ward. Elsa worked on all areas of medicine and loved it all. When she talks about nursing, you can feel her pride. “I have never given it up” she tells me. “I will always be a nurse”. She explained that in her daily life she is always aware of people in need. If she sees someone struggling with groceries or their jacket, even a complete stranger, she will offer help. This gives her great joy and really touched me. Helping others. That definitely is going on the Live a Long Life lifestyle list. In fact, some of the words that came out of her mouth yesterday were so simple yet so profound….advice she had because of what she lived through. Easy to say, not easy to do.
Eventually, Elsa met an Italian man that stepped into her life and changed it forever. She says “he was the love of my life”. When she talks about him you can still feel her love for him. Her eyes well up and so do mine as she describes their lives together. This love clearly nourished her and fulfilled her in a way that she still feels. Love. It should go on the list if you ask me.
Anyway, there is no way to truly capture all the details, however here are the golden nuggets of advice I heard from Elsa. Her daughter-in-law used one word to describe her: “dignified”and it certainly does. Remember, these are Elsa’s answers to my simple question: what advice do you have for a happy and healthy life?
- Eat Well: by eating well, Elsa means “eat everything”. Her sister was a picky eater according to Elsa, but everyone loved Elsa because she would eat anything that was put in front of her. She did explain that she also eats healthy however it seems to me, in my few experiences with her and food, that she chooses a wide variety of foods. At the pool that day (which was a bit cool and breezy for a Florida day) she ordered a clam chowder from the restaurant. It was thick and creamy, and yummy and I did not hear Elsa make one comment about calories or fat. Savoring a variety of good food is eating well.
- Stay active: Elsa walks. She used to walk longer and now, although she still does short walks, she “does not do anything strenuous”. She does not want to hurt herself. To me, this is wise advice. How many of us think nothing is good enough unless it gets our heart rate up to a certain point, or makes us sweat, or burns X amount of calories? And so we never start moving because it is just too NOT fun. Instead, why not take Elsa’s advice and simply “be active”. Skip the ridiculous criteria we place on ourselves and just move and have fun. Elsa also dances. Oh, and she sings in the church choir, too. Singing counts.
- When it comes to drinking alcohol, Elsa is “moderate”: Elsa says “I avoid extremes”. She may have a glass of wine with dinner, but other than that it sounds like smart advice. This is a hard one for those of us on vacation!
- Forgive others: Elsa told me she has learned not to hold on to anything, especially if someone hurts you. Holding a grudge only hurts you, and you should try to let go of it. I have always believed forgiveness is really for yourself. Being angry and holding on to a anger affects your body in all kinds of negative ways. When you truly forgive, YOU get the gift of feeling better. The other person really does not matter, and is not the reason to forgive. It is for yourself. It is amazing to me that of all the lessons learned over 102 years of life, this is one she felt so important that she mentioned it (I remember 2 years ago she mentioned the same thing). Must be important.
- Have a passion: Elsa’s was nursing. To this day, when she talks about it, you can see her light up. I don’t think it matters what your passion is, but if you don’t have one, if there is nothing in your life that lights your soul it might be something to reflect on.
- Help others: this goes hand in hand with Elsa’s passion. It could be why she went into nursing in the first place, because she enjoys helping others. Although it is even more than that, more than simple “enjoyment”. You can tell it is part of who she is, it fulfills her. I don’t think we need to be a nurse or change our professions to reap this benefit. You can start today to help others, even in the simplest of ways. Open a door, pick up a bag, hold the elevator. Help someone and see how it feels. Feeling joy is definitely good for your body.
- Accept what God gives you in life: Elsa emphasized that we are not in control of everything and it is important to learn to accept our circumstances and make the best of it. She certainly did. We all know people who have been dealt some difficult hands and yet they remain joyful and thankful, with energy to spare. And then there are those who blow up the simplest of problems into giant size issues in their own minds, negatively affecting those around them, and even their own health. From Elsa I have learned you can either complain and stay stuck, or you can move on and make the best of it. It is our choice (although for some with depression or other mental health issues, we can’t always do it on our own). I always say, if you find yourself miserable and truly can’t get out of it, get professional help. It is not your fault.
- Faith: although Elsa did not come out and use the word “faith”, she told me that for her entire life, as long as she can remember she has said the same prayer every single morning. She was able to tell me the prayer, which I am including with her permission at the end. Clearly, from the words, she relied on her faith every single day of her long life.
Obviously, genetics plays a role in how long you live, but how you live is a choice we all make daily. How we think, our feelings that we choose to have all affect our body’s and health even more than the food we put in (and we all know people who fret about food but not about how they treat others). With the New Year approaching, and resolutions coming to mind, I hope you consider shifting your focus off of changing your body to changing your mind and heart.
Elsa’s Morning Prayer
“Good Morning Lord,
You’ve ushered in a brand new day untouched and freshly new,
And here I come and ask you God if You’ll renew me, too.
Forget the many errors that I made yesterday, and let me try again dear Lord to walk closer in your way.
But Father, I am well aware I can’t make it on my own,
so take my hand and hold it tight for I can’t walk alone.