It often seems as if portrayals of older adults in the media, in films, or on TV – when they’re portrayed at all – follow one of two models: frail, doddering, addled, foolish; or super-strong and courageous in feats like skydiving or marathon running.
The truth is, most of us will live our lives in between these polar opposites. Many of us, if we’re fortunate, will live our lives with a sense of well-being, meaning, and purpose undimmed by the passing of years.
And there is a near-infinite number of ways to do that. The problem is, we haven’t had an opportunity to see real examples highlighted and celebrated.
Apparently, filmmaker Sky Bergman has felt the same frustration. Her solution: to make Lives Well Lived: Celebrating the Secrets, Wit and Wisdom of Age, an outstanding documentary film that does just that.
Bergman interviewed some 40 elders, ranging in age from their early 70s to their late 90s, about their lives, how they define a life well lived, and any advice they might have for younger people.
In the process, she has also recorded their vivid and personal recollections of modern history’s major events and movements. Among them fall World War II abroad and in the U.S., the Holocaust, the internment camps in the U.S. for Japanese-Americans, the civil rights and women’s rights movements
It’s an invaluable history lesson. The “stars” of the film are Caucasian, African-American, Asian, and Hispanic and, they are, among other things, artists, a yoga instructor, physicians, and photographers.
How did Bergman begin her inquiry? She has said that her inspiration was her then-103-year-old Italian grandmother who “enjoyed exercise, making the best lasagna you’ve ever tasted, and being with family. She showed me by example that age is truly just a number.”
Bergman started filming when her grandmother was 99, showing her working out at the gym. And she asked if her grandmother could offer some words of wisdom.
Bergman said, “[grandmother] was my guide for how to gracefully move through life and how to age with dignity, strength and humor. I began a quest to search out other people, who, like my grandmother, were living life to the limits.”
The filmmaker observed that although her interviewees “may have seen the worst of humanity, their outlook is still optimistic. Their stories are about perseverance, the human spirit, and staying positive in the midst of the great challenges.”
Here are a few highlights of the wisdom these people shared:
“A lot of people, my friends, they say, ‘Oh I’m getting too old! I can’t do this; I can’t do that.’ If I want to do something, I do it. And if you say, ‘I can’t do it,’ then you won’t be able to do it. Just go out and do it.” – Susy Eto Bauman, age 95
“Happiness is a state of mind. You can be happy with what you have or miserable with what you don’t have. You decide.” – Dr. Lou Tedone, age 92
“I look forward to the next hour, next day and no plans. I take what comes and absorb it as much as I can, mentally, physically, emotionally, visual, audibly. I drink it up.” – Botso Korisheli, age 93
“Never try to change anyone at all, not one iota. The only person you can adjust is yourself… We are each the imperfect beauty that we are.” – Ciel Bergman, age 76
“Even though I’m 80, I still want to finish my PhD… No matter what age you are, education never stops, you still keep learning.” – Rose Albano Ballestero, age 80
“My secret to a happy life is to live life to the fullest every day of your life, be good to everybody you know, do a good deed when you can. Be happy.” – Evelyn Ricciuti, age 103 (Sky Bergman’s grandmother and lasagna maker par excellence.)
Watching this documentary, I felt as though I was spending time in the best company possible. What struck me was how resilient these women and men have been, so often in the face of enormous difficulties and challenges, both societal and personal.
Viewing the film was a reminder, as if we need reminding, of the importance of living in the present: cherishing the present moment rather than fretting about the past or worrying about the future. It’s about appreciating the simple pleasures – being kind to one another, enjoying nature, taking care of one another.
It was also a reminder of the importance of dedicating oneself to finding meaning and purpose in life. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale; it can be as simple as literally cultivating your garden. And do what so many of these “stars” have done, which is to find joy in doing what they love, be it creating various kinds of art or music – or even writing.
If you’re looking to be inspired about what lies ahead, watch this film. And watch it with someone from a younger generation – there’s wisdom aplenty here for all.
How do you live life to the fullest? What wisdom have you learned from people older than you? Have you watched Lives Well Lived? Please share your thoughts with our community!