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Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself. — Eleanor Roosevelt

This is good advice for any phase of life, but especially the second half. I’ve been observing and learning from others since I was a kid, but I’ve been especially interested in older adults — what they did that helped and what they did that hurt them.  

It seems like this could be a great practice for anyone today, given our fast-growing aging population. For the first time in history, lots of us have the opportunity to live longer and age better than ever before. But how many have role models and teachers for the road ahead?
   
My role models aren’t those who failed, but the successful agers who lived fully under many different circumstances. They’re my teachers for how I want to grow older.

Since there’s so much positivity to gain from this practice, I want to share about one of my favorite attitude role models, Hazel. She was one of my “other mothers” and someone very special to me. Hazel was 99 when she died, a fact we only learned after her death. She’d kept her age a secret to even her closest friends, because she was many years older than her husband. This seems silly now, but it didn’t then and it didn’t seem silly to her.   

No matter. What only counts is how she lived those 99 years — especially the ones at the end. She always had a great zest for life, but this was tested big time when she grew old.  

That’s when everything seemed to fall apart for her physically. She had an eye disease and became blind. She had a “leak” no doctor could ever find that required regular blood infusions. She was on dialysis for many years and she had a serious heart condition.  Hazel lost her mobility and was confined to a wheelchair. She eventually ended up in a nursing home when her husband could no longer handle her care. No matter. She didn’t let any of this affect how she lived.  

I still vividly remember visiting her in those last years and leaving filled with laughter and a big smile on my face. It seemed crazy, but going to see Hazel in the nursing home was pure fun!  She was always curious and interested and started asking questions the minute you walked in the door. She also loved joking and laughing. Most importantly, she didn’t focus on what was wrong with her or let her physical circumstances affect her quality of life. 
 
Despite this, I know she had sad moments too. Her husband told us about her daily “pity party” time, when she grieved her losses. Afterwards, she put a smile on her face and sunshine in her heart and blessed all those around her — staff, other residents, visitors and more. Needless to say, she was a “favorite” for many and a magnet for anyone who needed a “day brightener.”  

I still smile every time I think of Hazel. What an incredible role model she was for me, teaching me what it looks like and feels like to put attitude above all else. I pray I won’t experience the physical ailments and adversities she faced, but I vow to never forget Hazel and the way she lived all of life.  

There's much to learn from those who are blazing the trail ahead of us. We must strive to learn from both their achievements and their mistakes. Good choices can make a big difference. So can actively changing and adapting. No one needs to wait to age well. Benefits can be reaped now, and quality of life can be enhanced at any point.    

Finally, we must remember that others are watching us. We must make sure that we are positive role models for how to live fully, instead of serving as a warning for what not to do. It's a choice, so why not follow the ways of Hazel and opt to be positive?

Sue Ronnenkamp

Sue Ronnenkamp has over 30 years of experience in aging services and health care.

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