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7 Lessons from a 97-Year-Old Wonder


A friend of mine (let's call her Sylvia) recently celebrated her 97th birthday. That's right 97. She takes no prescription medication, is moderately mobile with the use of a walker, and can still spin a yarn better than a sea captain. 

Over the years I have worked on and off as my friend's caretaker, stopping in to check on her, running errands, accompanying her on walks, taking her to concerts, lunch, and more.


This part-time job has had a surprising positive impact. Not only have I enjoyed my one-on-one time with Sylvia, admiring her passion for art and social justice, I have been enthralled by her stories about working in the navy in World War II, meeting James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart, and receiving a letter from her friend Oona announcing she would not be returning to New York because she had met the most remarkable man in Hollywood—a film director named Charlie Chaplin. On days when I have been feeling low, simply connecting with Sylvia improves my mood and my mindset. 

But there is one area where Sylvia's influence has been most powerful: as a role model. She is a remarkable example of how to move through the world with grace, compassion, strength, and self-assurance. 

Like so many of you, I struggle to make self-care a priority. Because one of my many jobs is taking care of someone else, it is easy to put myself last on the "to do" list. But my relationship with Sylvia provides continual lessons in the art of self-care. When I feel frazzled or worn out or confused, I pause and ask myself this important question: Can I treat myself in this moment as lovingly and compassionately as I treat Sylvia?

Consider your own state of mind and physical health for a moment. Do you feel spent? Is your energy depleted? Are you angry, resentful, or exasperated from giving so much and getting too little in return? If so, perhaps you are not treating yourself as well as you treat your Loved One and others around you. 

Here is a simple truth—it is our responsibility to meet our own needs. That's right. While others may generously help out or offer support, it is up to us to express what we need, to set boundaries, and to look after ourselves. To expect others to do this important work for us is to give away our power. Our loved ones are not mind readers, after all. If we cannot look after ourselves, why should they do this critical work for us?

Seven Lessons in Self-Care


Here are some valuable lessons about self-care I have learned from the remarkable, 97-year-old Sylvia:

  • Simplicity works marvels—simplicity of routine, of diet, of wardrobe. Sylvia eats a salad for lunch most days. When she can't sleep she drinks warm milk with nutmeg. She loves turquoise so buys clothes in her favorite color that can all be worn together. She exercises at 9 a.m. each morning and goes to church every Sunday. The bottom line: fill your days with as many things that bring you joy as possible, let go of the things on that could-do-if-I-turned-into-superwoman list, and then repeat. And repeat again.

  • Be sincere. Say what you think. Ask for what you need. Don't expect others to read your mind. Sylvia is a pro at this. "It's too hot out today for a long walk. Let's go back and drink a glass of wine instead."  "I didn't care for that doctor. I want to find another."  "This fish is cold. Can you please let the kitchen know?" Sylvia expresses her needs and voila! most of the time her needs get met. For those of us who have been taught that speaking our mind is selfish or unladylike, this may sound like a radical concept. But it does not take manipulation, passive aggressive maneuvers, or voodoo to get our needs met. It simply requires honesty and self-awareness.  

  • Take care of your mind. Sylvia reads constantly. There is always a stack of magazines and books beside her on the couch. She goes to concerts, lectures, and engages in conversation about the latest news. When walking around the retirement community, she observes the different flowers and trees, remarking on their unique characteristics, trying to remember their names. Sylvia is engaged with the world and retains a sense of curiosity. As a result, she is never bored, even when she spends time alone. 

  • Take care of your body. Even at 97 Sylvia does gentle yoga, stretching, and daily walks. She schedules a massage when she needs one. She is certain to get regular eye exams, physicals, eats simple, fresh foods, and takes an assortment of vitamins and supplements daily.

  • Get outside. Sylvia loves being outdoors. She enjoys watching the clouds and feeling the sun on her skin. She waters the small pot of flowers outside her apartment. She watches the robins build their nests and feed their young. She puts on an extra sweater to keep the chill off her arms as she "rolls" around the community with her walker. It is an effort for her to get outside whether because of a sore hip or the need to lean on my arm, but it doesn't stop her. Sylvia understands that being outside in the fresh air allows her to also get outside of her own head. How often do we—the able-bodied—take time to *literally* smell the roses?

  • Be social. Sylvia is an introvert. She doesn't like chatter or small talk. But this doesn't stop her from having dinner and wine with the "The Merry Widows" once a week. On rainy days, she enjoys sitting with me and talking about art, animals, politics, or Downton Abbey. This one-on-one connection allows us both to get outside our own heads and experience the ideas and world of another human being.  

  • Have a spiritual practice. Sylvia goes to church each Sunday morning with friends at her retirement community. It is a time for reflection, connecting with her community, and pondering larger questions about love, life, and death. While Sylvia is no longer able to attend meditation retreats as she once did, she still takes time to sit silently on the porch and clear her head. Watching the birds is part of her spiritual practice, as is walking quietly about the retirement community. No matter what your own spiritual beliefs are, creating time for reflection, prayer, silence, or positive connection relieves stress and calms our racing minds. 

Regardless of your income, resources, or personal struggles, you should never take better care of others than you do yourself. You deserve loving, compassionate treatment as much as anyone. You really do. In fact, self-care enables you to be a better friend, spouse, partner, or parent. What lessons can 97-year-old Sylvia teach you?

Journal Exercise

Think of someone you love dearly, perhaps your Loved One, who is struggling with an addiction problem, or someone else who is important in your life. In what ways do you express your love to them? Perhaps it is through listening, cooking a nourishing meal, offering small gifts, or going for walks together. Are there ways in which you could express love in the same way for yourself? Record your answers in  your journal.

Go through each item on the list above and reflect on which areas of self-care may need more attention in your life. List one or two action items you can start doing now to take better care of yourself.  Write your action items in your journal and also on your personal calendar.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)