“Life always changes. If you don’t accept the changes, what are you going to do? You’re going to suffer.”
“But what do you expect? No one ever promised us that life was going to be easy.”
“Well, that’s life: you turn around and see what happens.”
These are the voices of the very elderly people I have interviewed this year: Gloria de Castro López, Juan Llop Plans, and Miguel Ortega Sánchez, among many others. Gloria, Juan, and Miguel are among the few surviving Niños de Morelia, a group of refugees who fled the Spanish Civil War as children, without their parents, and ended up settling, somewhat unexpectedly, in Mexico.
My interview subjects are remarkable not only for surviving their childhood flight from war and assimilation; they are also among the world’s oldest of the old, part of the demographic that reporter John Leland thinks of as “old age pioneers.” Leland, a New York Times reporter on old age, says that elderly people who are living into their late 80s and 90s are in “uncharted territory.” It is a function of our present moment — with its medical technologies and innovations, to say nothing of public health interventions dating back a century — that significant numbers of people are living this long. According to Dr. Thomas Perls, a physician and centenarian researcher at Harvard Medical School, people who are 100-years-old and older are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States.
Curious how people like Gloria, Juan, and Miguel come to live so long? Dr. Perls and neuropsychologist Dr. Margery Silver, a fellow centenarian researcher at Harvard, have found that very elderly people share one common personality trait: the ability to “wobble,” that is, to experience the losses and difficulties of life, and then to recover from them.
Says Dr. Silver, “[very old people] are able to manage stress very well. And this doesn’t mean that they’ve had stress-free lives…some of them have had really very difficult, and even traumatic lives.” But, she continues, “they’re very good at handling losses, and they seem to accept their losses, grieve them and then move on.”
I learned about the research of Drs. Silver and Perls only recently; before then, I had been left on my own to wonder about the considerable resilience and optimism of the elderly people I had met this year. Indeed, my research subjects had led difficult and traumatic lives. They had recounted to me horrifying memories of bombings, death, family separation, flight, and exile. Many had left their parents at an early age, never to see them again. And yet, in talking about these experiences, they exhibited attitudes of active acceptance — not acquiescence exactly, but a groundedness, a way of saying: This happened to me, but everything still turned out okay.
They had wobbled, but they hadn’t fallen down. They had bounced back. What accounted for this resilience?
In the course of these months, as I have collected their oral histories, I have noticed a similitude in my elderly research subjects’ attitudes. These observations are purely anecdotal; there are too few among the surviving Niños de Morelia to claim causation. But it should be noted that the remaining members of this group are rightfully called survivors. As Dolores Pla Brugat reports in her book Los Niños de Morelia: Un Estudio Sobre los Primeros Refugiados Españoles en México, as a whole, the nearly 500 Niños de Morelia experienced a much higher suicide rate than the national average. The ones who are still alive are the ones who have persevered, who have made it; if for no other reason than this (and I assure you, there are other reasons), their wisdom deserves our attention.
And so, here I present to you the lessons I have gathered about what we need to live into old age, from a small group of the most elderly among us:
An understanding that life means change
One of the gifts of interviewing very elderly people this year has been their perspective; what I have heard again and again is that life is nothing but change, that nothing can be controlled or kept static, that the only constant reality is the reality of dynamism, and that our options are either to resist or embrace this reality: one option leads to suffering, the other to acceptance.
As a surviving Niño de Morelia, Florentino Sáez Múgica, 89, told me, “There are some who ended up traumatized. But not me. Not me. Because I adapted immediately in the midst of whatever was happening. And I think that has helped me a lot.”
An ability to take meaning from one’s life story
At one point in my research, I asked two brothers, both elderly, both surviving Niños de Morelia, the same question separately: Had they found themselves in their parents’ position, trying to survive a civil war, would they have made the same decision? Would they have chosen to send their children to the other side of the world?
The brothers, Juan, 85, and Jordi Llop Plans, 92, answered the question completely differently. Juan movingly said no: not because he thought the decision was wrong, but because he didn’t think he would have been brave enough to take that risk. Jordi, his older brother, said that he wasn’t sure but that likely yes, he would have, and that he believed his father had made the right decision in doing so.
What is significant is not that their answers are different, but that their answers both make the same narrative move. They each have found ways to reconcile the reality that their father sent them off and never saw them again. The story could have been told differently: theirs could have been a narrative of parental abandonment. Instead, it is understood as a courageous choice, an act of love.
I observed the same in my interview with Miguel Ortega Sánchez, 91, who also answered that yes, he would have made the same decision as his parents, and yes, he did think that it was the right choice. At the end of our conversation, when I asked if he had any final thoughts to add before we closed, he included this: “The only thing I know is that between all the Niños de Morelia, many things have happened for the good of Mexico.” He went on to mention businesses that had been founded, schools built, architecture designed, and classes taught. “We are all doing well,” he added, “and we all love Mexico.”
These are life narratives that begin and end with meaningful sacrifice: from parental love to patriotic legacy. These are stories that make sense of the horrible moments of the past; redemption tales that given reasons for continuing on in the present.
Research bears out the value of these kinds of stories. “What really matters is whether people are making something meaningful and coherent out of what happened,” says Monisha Pasupathi, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah, in an Atlantic article about the power of life narratives. The article explains that studies have found that finding a positive meaning and a sense of agency through storytelling leads to a greater sense of well-being. “Life is incredibly complex,” notes Jonathan Adler, assistant professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering, in the same article. “There are lots of things going on in our environment and our lives at all times, and in order to hold onto our experience, we need to make meaning out of it. The way we do that is by structuring our lives into stories.”
A capacity to forgive as a way to let go of bitterness
My own grandmother, Rosita Oldham-Lazar, the youngest among the surviving Niños de Morelia at a youthful 83, has spoken emotively about her process of forgiving her mother, Segunda, for her failings as a parent. For years, she said, she would wait in vain for Segunda to call on her birthday. She never called. Each year the pain of this rejection accumulated, an ongoing embodiment of the parental rejection she had experienced as a child. But when I interviewed my grandmother this past year, she told me that she had learned to understand Segunda differently and that she had managed to let go of her hurt.
What’s more, she said, she realized that she had taken away a valuable lesson from her mother: how not to parent. Rather than hold on to her bitterness and, even worse, pass it on to her own daughter, she had interrupted a cycle of dysfunction and replaced it with a love of the purest kind.
“She was a lesson in what I shouldn’t do,” she said to me. “She was a very good lesson…and my sisters and I, the three of us, have been so caring with our children, and we have loved them so much, and we have said it to them so many times.”
In Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, Donna Jackson Nakazawa writes about the power of forgiveness as a tool to disrupt harmful generational patterns, and the value of reframing these patterns into negative challenges that have been positively overcome, just as my grandmother has. “If you can perceive past stressors in your childhood as catalysts to your growing into who you hope to become, that reframing can be a critical step in your personal journey in healing, forgiveness, and transformation.”
Dr. Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist meditation teacher and psychologist continues this line of thinking in the same book. He says that forgiveness is not just an act of generosity for the forgiven person, but in fact a service to one’s own self; forgiveness serves “your own capacity to fulfill your life.”
My grandmother is a testament to the fulfilling potential of this kind of forgiveness. Now, and always, she has been known as a loving, gentle, and tremendously kind soul. As she said to me recently, “May you live in peace and with a happy heart,” and then added, “that’s what I want for everybody.”
A grateful outlook
I’ve written before about Lucia Michelena, 92, and her gratitude for all the “good luck” she’s had — despite living through more grief and trauma than seems possible for one human being. And yet she insists: she’s been very lucky.
This appreciative perspective has also been a through-line in my research. My great-aunt, Elisa Pellico Daroca, another Niña de Morelia, was famous among her family and friends for responding to any stressor with, “Well, we lost more in the war.” Though this attitude sounds gloomy, in fact the opposite is true; what she was offering was a reminder that things in her life had only gotten better in the years since her childhood, and the belief that they could continue to improve.
Dr. Mark D. Seery, associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, corroborates this perspective through his research. As he says in Childhood Disrupted, for some people, coping with past stress helps them cope with future stress: “[These people] seemed to have gained a sense that when bad things happen that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be that bad.”
“She’s always been a happy person,” says Teresa Fernández of another Niña de Morelia, her mother, María Ventura Becerra, 94. “She doesn’t stay negative.” I witnessed this attitude myself when I interviewed María. Even as she spoke to me about difficult memories — memories of living through the Spanish Civil War, for example — she laughed, and then she thanked God. And while we did talk about the challenging moments of her life, she also frequently redirected the conversation to the wonderful things: how beautiful her children were, how much she loved to sing and dance, and how proud she was of the artwork she had recently made.
An investment in relationships
Though it’s true that most of the Niños de Morelia were permanently separated from their families as children, it is also true that they made families out of each other. This group grew up together, lived together as young adults, went into business together, witnessed each other’s marriages, became the godparents to each other’s children, and celebrated the anniversary of their arrival in Mexico each year without fail. More recently, they have watched each other grow into old age and pass away.
Says Fidelia Sáez Espínola, daughter of Florentino, “Their annual reunions were so sweet because they were a family. A beautiful family. They would sing their childhood songs together and immediately you would see how these older adults would become like kids again whenever they got together.”
The presence of loved ones
The last observation I made was not about a particular perspective or attitude, but instead about the physical presence of family. Each of the elderly people I interviewed had adult children present, active in their lives and care. There is a silent army of caregivers around the world whose attention is largely unseen and unnoticed, but who are largely responsible for ensuring that their parents, grandparents, and elderly friends are extending their lives well into old age.
Why this is noteworthy
Today, we have resources that my interview subjects didn’t have when they were growing up, or even when they were young(er) adults. They didn’t go to therapists or psychiatrists or grief counselors. They weren’t taught to meditate. There were no yoga studios on their blocks. There was not the understanding of trauma, childhood adversity, PTSD, and resiliency that our psychologists and neuroscientists are beginning to develop now. All of this makes their perseverance that much more noteworthy, and should encourage us to listen to them that much more.
Because what we know now is this: the brain has a plasticity that renders it malleable and highly resilient. Early life adversity does make us susceptible to mental and physical health issues later in life. But our brains and immune systems can be rehabilitated by adapting to change, taking meaning from our lives, forgiving past hurts, letting go of bitterness, maintaining a grateful outlook, and investing in relationships.
Says Dr. Silver, “I do believe that the centenarians probably have a natural temperament that enables them to handle stress well. But we also know that we can all learn to handle stress well, and that one of the things they’re telling us, or one of the things that we’ve learned from them, is that it’s really important to manage stress well in order to live a long time.”
We can all learn to handle stress well in order to live long and, I would add, to live well. If you’re not sure how to start, I would suggest talking to the very old people in your family or community, and asking them how they have done it. They’ve lived a long time, and they’ve likely learned some things along the way.
Update, April 26: Miguel Ortega Sánchez, the gentleman smiling in the first photograph and quoted here, passed away on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, just an hour before I published this article. He was 91-years-old. His were the words: “Pues así es la vida. Darle vueltas y vea que viene.” (“Well that’s life. You turn around and see what happens.”) In our interview he also added his perspective on how we should treat child refugees of today: “They should be sent anywhere around the world so that they’re in peace, so that they’re well. Because in the end they’re going to grow up. They’re going to educate themselves well.” Optimistic, grounded, Miguel was inspiration in large part for what I wrote here. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have met him and his family of caretakers, and very glad that he had the opportunity to live long and well into old age.