Aging provides the opportunity to learn, grow, and accumulate experiences and wisdom. It is unfortunate that, oftentimes, the contributions of elderly people are overlooked in American society. As a result, some of the most eloquent voices are not heard, and the ideas of bright minds are dismissed. The 2018 documentary Lives Well Lived reminds us that the elderly can be quite witty, kind, wise, and admirable. This compilation of 40 inspiring stories of seniors with a collective age of 3,000 years captures the essence and values of individuals full of life and hope.
On LTC Heroes, Bergman revealed that she dedicated six months to making this documentary and worked in cooperation with psychologists in devising thought-provoking questions that produced the inspirational stories senior citizens shared in her documentary. Here we share some of the themes and lessons presented in Lives Well Lived.
Safeguarding Stories About the Elderly
Historically, elders have had a powerful and important role in the storytelling process that allowed us to develop civilizations and cultures. This is lost on many today, when the values of work, industrialization, and hyperconnected worlds are emphasized more than oral tradition. Stories about the elderly and their collective wisdom deserve far more attention than they are getting.
Today, we have grown so distant from the stories our elders share that there is even a company dedicated to ghostwriting stories about grandparents in Europe and the US. Bergman shared in the podcast that in her research to make the film she learned that the last 100 years is the first time in human history that we have not looked to our elders for advice.
Bergman gives viewers a peek into the collective wisdom that is only accessed through older generations. Further, it bridges stories and values that make them relevant today by using an accessible and engaging format for younger generations. It should be noted that much of what we learn is articulated in the form of stories. In Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger writes, “People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.”
On LTC Heroes, Bergman revealed that she wanted to preserve memories about her grandma and soon decided to expand her efforts to include the stories of others. Along the way she realized that “all these people that are in this facilities, all have amazing stories to tell if we just take the time to listen.”
A Method to Be Replicated by Long Term Care Facilities
As Bergman mentions on the LTC Heroes Podcast, the documentary and questions in it are a great tool to engage on a deeper level with residents and remind them and others that they have lived amazing lives. Further, she noted, “It helps to validate everyone’s life if we collect the story.”
Here are some tips she shared on the podcast on how to engage with residents and their stories:
- Build an archive of stories: It is the residents who must decide what stories to tell. Your staff, meanwhile, can help facilitate those conversations by asking questions. Bergman says that the questions asked in the film are great as a starting point, as they have been tested and found to be good icebreakers. Still, facilities should limit questions to about one every week, she suggested, so as to avoid overwhelming residents.
- Talk about mortality: Bergman also encourages LTC Heroes listeners to have conversations with elders about mortality saying, “It’s so much easier having that on the table and knowing exactly what they wanted.” By this she intends that, while mortality is a tough topic, openly discussing it can give the facility and the family of the resident an idea of residents’ expectations for the rest of their lives.
- Share the film with residents: Bergman mentioned in the podcast that, in her experience, showing the documentary in long term care facilities has been met with great reception. She noticed high engagement with the material, as it calls to mind the memories of elder viewers and asks them to recollect their own stories.
- Ask follow-up questions: It is important to give residents time to think and redirect the conversation when asking about their personal experiences. If you feel that an answer you received may have more room for stimulating conversation for which you have not planned, do not be afraid to ask a follow-up question, Bergman suggested, as it may give you better results than what you originally expected.
Inspirational Stories Senior Citizens Tell in Lives Well Lived
The stories shared in Lives Well Lived convey both joyous and painful moments. They all, though, provide value and lessons. Susy Eto Bauman,95, narrated her experience as a Japanese-American woman living in the US during WW2, which is heart-breaking but also gives us a window onto our trajectory as a nation. Here are some of the themes and lessons we can extract from these stories:
1. Think Young, Act Young
It is important to have a positive outlook even during times of difficulty, emphasized Bauman in the documentary. The inspirational stories senior citizens tell in Lives Well Lived make clear that acting young is something that shows in little things; it is the repetition of small acts that gives us a sense of purpose.
Elders may think they are too old to do the things about which they dreamed when younger. Some may have always wanted to go paragliding, travel to Bucharest, or learn to play a musical instrument. Well, as the elders showed us in the documentary, age is clearly just a number, and the possibilities you can unlock by simply thinking and acting with a young heart are infinite. “Think young, act young, feel young and forget the number,” said the 86-year-old Emmy Cleaves.
2. Live in the Present
Gurus, spiritual guides, and wise individuals often emphasize living in the present. The seniors in Lives Well Lived agreed with that sentiment, as they highlighted the significance of taking the time to enjoy life and how it unfolds. “Make the absolute most out of every day and out of every minute because you’re never going to get it back,” said the 83-year-old Dr. Edward Okun. “Try to enjoy each minute as if it is definitely the last minute.”
3. Work Hard
One of the most important takeaways from these conversations is that staying physically fit has helped these seniors maintain their mental health as well. “Health is really where everything is,” said Cleaves. “The quality of your life is completely governed by the state of your health. At my age, if I hadn’t done yoga, I would probably be sitting here, you know, and be sad and tired.”
Previous generations emphasized the contributions stability and hard work make to a successful lifestyle. “You can’t get out of life if you don’t put anything into life,” said Marion Wolf, 84. “Like anything else, there’s no free ride.” That, of course, does not mean one should focus on the results. Rather, it is putting in the effort that ultimately matters. “No matter what you are, do the best you can,” said Dr. Lou Tendone.
Working hard is a lifelong commitment. And hard work and learning to do new things go hand in hand. For this reason, Rose Albano Ballesterons, 80, said, “No matter what age you are, education never stops. You still keep learning.”
4. Love Yourself
A common misconception about love is that it is something that primarily exists outside ourselves, which discounts the role of self-love. Loving and forgiving ourselves is essential to living well, and, as the seniors in Lives Well Lived demonstrate, it is a crucial component to becoming who we are meant to be. Ciel Bergman, 76, encouraged others to embrace imperfect beauty and be “very content within your own skin” as well as “very self-accepting.”
5. Senior Stories About Respect
When it comes to relationships, these senior stories suggest that the secret ingredient is respect; if you want to connect in a meaningful way with others, meet them halfway and accept them for who they are. “Probably the most important thing in a relationship is absolute honesty and absolute respect,” said Ciel Bergman, 76. “And what I’ve learned is never try to change anyone. When the only person who can adjust is yourself, leave the other person totally alone.”
This principle applies to marriage as well. “You can only stretch [marriage] so much,” said Santi Visalli, 81. “And then after that, it may break. So if you don’t want to break your marriage, just relax, and you still laminate that rubber band.”
Seniors deserve to be heard. In fact, society needs to hear their stories in order to learn from their insight, mistakes, and strength in overcoming hardship. Long term care facilities would be wise to put systems in place that encourage dialogue and make their residents feel comfortable in sharing their life experiences. Initially, facility leaders will want to start small and simply prepare a limited number of questions. From there, they should allow seniors to steer the conversation as they see appropriate. This will make them feel valued and enrich the lives of others as well.