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Is there a Key to Longevity?

long life

There comes a time in life when we all begin to realize that we are not immortal. However, some people seem to live longer. Is there a key to longevity?

I recently attended the memorial service for my friend David. He died in his 87th year. David was a war hero and veteran of the Second World War and the Korean War. He lived a long and productive life, the last 40 years of it with his wife Arlene.

What we human beings quite naturally do at memorial services is mourn for all our previous losses as we grieve our present loss. That is why you see people crying at funerals when they did not even know the person who had died. It is a healthy part of the human condition.

My thoughts quite naturally went back to earlier this year when my wife’s brother died at 89, my son Colin died at 40, and  two years ago when my son Richard died at 41.

I had the privilege of reading David Reynolds’s autobiography. On that day as I reflected further on David’s life, I recalled recently losing a friend and colleague in her 50s. My thoughts went to my father’s brother who died at 99 and to my maternal grandmother’s brother who died at 106 that same year… and to my parents who died in separate violent accidents when I was a child and youth. There have been many others…

Even when you remove accidental death, suicide and war from the equation, there remains a huge variation in how long we live. Some have their lives cut short through cancers, tumors and other illnesses; others through poor lifestyle choices. ‘Twere ever thus.

Research among the very old — 85 and older – has identified several characteristics they shared. One of them was that they had all learned how to accept and recover from loss quickly. The other side of this, of course, is that those who had not learned the lesson were no longer with us.
We have all seen the phenomenon of an older person dying and the spouse following within a year or so. During the period of intense grieving, the survivor’s immune system is not working fully, leaving him or her vulnerable to any opportunistic disease that comes along. This may be the typical reason for the early death of a spouse.
There is another factor in longevity, and that is having purpose and meaning in life. It seems that there has to be a reason to live in order for the elderly to keep on living to the end. If the meaning goes out of life when your spouse dies, you are doubly vulnerable to following quickly.
The uncle who lived to 99 was still on the executive of the Legion at 90. He had served during the First World War, spending 1914 to 1918 in the trenches in France. At 96 after his wife died, he took a trip across Canada to see friends and relatives. When I visited him at 98, he told me it was rather lonely being the last one alive of his huge network of friends and acquaintances of his generation.
He quickly added, however, that he was really enjoying his new activity of bread making.
My elderly uncle embodied both principles. He had learned to deal with loss quickly, and he always found things that gave his life meaning.
I invite you to reflect on just how well you are doing in finding meaning and purpose in your life, and how skilled you are at accepting loss and moving on while you are still grieving.
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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide.

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