I had the pleasure, on a recent cruise vacation, to help celebrate a woman’s 100th birthday. She clapped with such joy when the entire dining room chorused Happy Birthday. She blew out her candles with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old.

This is what a long, happy life looks like, I thought to myself as I posed for a snapshot with her. This is how I want to be when I’m old. I told her about my 100th Year Project and asked for a bit of wisdom.

“I have wonderful people who care for me,” she said, glancing around at the dozen family members who’d joined her on the cruise. It was obvious she is much loved, and her family gives her plenty of reason to enjoy life.

Not everyone who reaches old age is so lucky. Even if they don’t live alone, too many are emotionally alone. Some don’t live near family or may not have family of their own. For others, it’s just a matter of circumstance.

A Reciprocal Relationship

I have a good friend in her 80s who moved to Florida years ago because her son lived here. Then, because of his work, he moved across the country. While they are still very close and talk regularly, he can’t be there for her everyday needs.

As our friendship deepened, we’ve adopted each other. She’s like an aunt I visit every week, filling her in on what’s happening in my life. I’m the niece she can call for any reason: when she needs help with her car or she’s traveling and wants a trustworthy cat sitter or she’d just like to chat.

If my mom lived nearer, I’d spend this time with her. But she lives across the country, too. My 80-something girlfriend is terrific at offering a more experienced perspective to problems I face. I don’t think any of us are ever too old for a little motherly advice.

As a bonus, I’m a cat lover too, and my friend gets a kick out of hearing my kitten’s latest adventures. It’s symbiosis at its best.

Painting a Brighter Population Picture

The ‘oldest old’ – the 85 and up – are the fastest growing group in America. We’ve been warned for a long time about how our world is changing. Remember the 1977 Newsweek cover “The Graying of America?” Well, we’re there. We’re gray.

Now let’s add a little color to the picture. The Milken Institute’s 2016 Purposeful Aging Summit pulled together thought leaders from around the world. The concluding report offers a challenge for us.

“With the opportunities of extended longevity ahead, baby boomers must step up and join in efforts to redefine this stage of life rather than accepting yesterday’s norms. Summoning their sizable reserves of confidence and creativity, they can establish a new era of aging as a multifaceted, productive experience.”

For all of us in our 60s or 70s, there’s something we can do right now to improve the future of aging. We can befriend one person who is a generation older than us.

Embracing the Older Generation with a Purpose

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink talks about what happens to some people when they hit the bit 6-0. “Sixty, they think, is old. They tally their regrets and confront the reality that Mick Jagger and crew were right, that they didn’t always get what they want.”

But the 80 million of us crossing the 60 line each year aren’t even ‘youngest old’ yet. There have never been so many talented, creative people with so much time left after what have traditionally been the wage-earning years.

Pink says, “When the cold front of demographics meets the warm front of unrealized dreams, the result will be a thunderstorm of purpose the likes of which the world has never seen.”

If every one of us took just a smidge of that purpose and put it into genuinely caring about one person 10 or 20 years older than us, we could put a bit of sparkle on a lot of people’s days.

Some of the oldest old prefer to be alone. As Einstein said, “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.” Still, just knowing someone cares is a longevity builder, as is the caring in itself.

Aging Responsibility for the Younger Generation

Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies projects that people over 75 who live alone will nearly double to over 13 million by 2035. That’s us, my friends.

The economic impact of caring for the world’s largest, longest living population will be enormous. The better we care for ourselves, the smaller the economic imprint we’ll make.

It is a big responsibility, but the payoff is living independently and full of purpose for decades to come. And the generation behind us will thank us.

19 years from now, when I reach the big 8-0, I sure hope I have younger friends who care about me and enjoy spending time with me. I plan to stay young enough to hop in my driverless car and meet them at the latest cool spot for lunch.

Then I’ll check in with my dear 100-something girlfriend and see if she feels up to company. Maybe I’ll bring half of my sandwich, and we’ll play a game of rummy. One thing I know for sure: we won’t run out of things to talk about.

What are your experiences with an older friend? Or a younger friend? Is there an older person you can reach out to, just to brighten their day?

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