Samantha Gitlin: Interviewing the Lifestyle Leaders

by Taylor Patskanick

This summer, I have been working on an oral history project for my internship at the AgeLab. I have been interviewing Lifestyle Leaders, a panel of adults age 85 and older who meet bi-monthly to discuss different topics. We are exploring how to make the 100-year-life a good 100 years. What can individuals, families, businesses, employers and policymakers do to enable people to live their best life across the lifespan?

The findings from the interviews will be used for a research study with a company sponsor. We are also aiming to capture and preserve the legacies of Lifestyle Leaders and understand their perceptions of their lives, their use of technology, and how life has changed for them as they age. We are creating a digital archive on the AgeLab website with bios and written analyses for each Lifestyle Leader. I have interviewed 14 Lifestyle Leaders, 9 in-person and 5 virtual via Zoom.

Through my interviews, I have been given insight into topics of aging, such as individual behaviors the Lifestyle Leaders are performing to live well at age 85+, ways that they are finding purpose, and challenges they have experienced in old age. I have also found patterns related to a variety of other special topics such as technology, politics, keys to successful relationships, intergenerational interaction, and more. Additionally, I have been given endless amounts of life advice.

One piece of advice a participant gave me was to ask questions. She said that we tend to identify others by the position they hold in our lives: your mother is your mother and your father is your father, but they are much more than that. They had a life before you came into it, and that is a mystery to you. She never understood why her mother would get depressed at times—until she learned it was because she was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. Rather than asking her mother questions, she would just say ‘mom, you’re ok.’

As my interviews progressed, I learned that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening allows us to make sense of what we hear and learn, which stimulates follow-up questions and growth, as opposed to simply taking in information through hearing. It is amazing how much you can learn about someone in just one question as one turns into many when you truly listen.

Through listening, I noticed many patterns in answers across my interviews, such as where people find purpose in life. People are rooted in purpose, which keeps them grounded. Many people find purpose in spending time with and caring for their family. Some even have special family rituals, such as giving each grandchild a reindeer for Christmas as a symbol of commitment to the family. Giving back to the community and helping others also provides a sense of purpose. Some people find purpose in faith, such as saying Jewish prayers in the morning or being involved in church governance. Others found purpose through their careers as they worked in an area of interest with fellow professionals that they enjoyed.

I was advised about the importance of staying engaged and active. Someone told me that life can be difficult, but you have to go through it as best you can and stay engaged mentally, physically, and spiritually. He used himself as an example, as he goes out and walks 5,000 steps every day and has friends and acquaintances that he speaks with regularly. He emphasized the need to vote if you are young and to be mindful of and have a voice in who is in power politically; many of the Lifestyle Leaders expressed concern about our current political landscape. Most of them also read books and the news and noted the necessity of keeping your mind active and learning, even about topics beyond what you are studying.

I learned not to confuse wants with needs; humans too do not need much. Having money is beneficial, but you do not need a lot of it or to accumulate material items to be happy. Stay outdoors, find something you really love, such as traveling, eat a decent diet, and stay active. One need in life is to know yourself. Many people do not know who they are and don’t want to know, so they do not think deeply enough about it. However, knowing and liking yourself leads to finding what will nourish you. If you do not know who you are, you may feel hollow and empty rather than fulfilled.

Unfortunately, life brings many challenges, including loss. One of the Lifestyle Leaders, along with many others, had lost her husband. She wrote a poem called “Widow” that describes her loss and uses an African Violet as a symbol for hope and resurgence of life. Plants die, but they regrow; remember that life moves forward. One Lifestyle Leader described death as a topic that many people are reluctant to discuss. He suggested that there could be group sessions for people like him who want to discuss feelings about their lives ending.

Although life may feel noisy, mysterious, complex, and difficult at times, we must simplify and eliminate distraction. One way to simplify life is to compartmentalize and structure your time. Someone mentioned that she swims, practices yoga, makes sure to get out of the house, and says hello to someone outside every day. She does not accumulate too much baggage or try to recapture past relationships. She wears certain shirts and pants on repeat. Someone else made sure to be home for family dinner every night after work. There are many ways in which we can discipline our day and make our lives feel more manageable and controlled.

As you are compartmentalizing, balance is key. Do not overextend yourself with too much work and hardly any pleasure or the other way around. You do not want too much stress or heavy mood swings; try to remain in a middle state of being. Try to think positively and find something to look forward to, even if it is a cup of coffee in the afternoon. One participant remarked that every day, you have a choice. Either ‘today is going to be a good day or I am going to be angry because my toothpaste flew on the wall.’ She tries to wake up on a daily basis and say, ‘I have choices to make today’ which encourages her to make positive decisions.

Not only should you look outwards for perspective, but internally as well. Someone mentioned that he was having memories from his childhood and young adulthood about disappointments with his relationship with his father and could not figure out why these came back at age 87. He decided he needed to write his thoughts down. For him, writing allows you to examine your thoughts and feelings in a more objective way and be more accurate in your reflection of the past.

No matter how strong and grounded we are individually, we need each other. Relationships are pivitol. Strong relationships require sharing, communicating, and loyalty. They should be 50-50; the telephone works both ways. If relationships become toxic or a burden, we should get rid of them in order to simplify our lives.

Intergenerational interaction is also important. Through interacting, young people learn wise insight and older people keep their minds active and getting new ideas. Someone suggested that older adults should visit schools to teach students in classes or clubs; many have the time, lessons or areas of interest to share, and would be happy to help.

Reflecting on their lives, many of the Lifestyle Leaders expressed gratitude for their health, relationships, careers, and fortune. I could not be more grateful for having the opportunity to speak with each and every Lifestyle Leader that I interviewed and I will cherish their wisdom.

  • Share
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Get Involved

Interested in this area of study? See how you can participate in AgeLab research or become a volunteer.


About the Author

Photo of Taylor Patskanick
Taylor Patskanick

Taylor Patskanick is a Technical Associate at the MIT AgeLab. Her current research explores preventive health and vaccination practices of older adults. Taylor co-coordinates the MIT AgeLab 85+ Lifestyle Leaders panel and contributes to the AgeLab’s AGNES program. She also manages OMEGA, an intergenerational summit and scholarship program. In addition to her work at the AgeLab, Taylor is the president of Boston Bridge, Inc., a Massachusetts-based professional development organization for leaders in the field of aging and is a licensed certified social worker (LCSW). Taylor is an adjunct faculty member at Simmons University in Boston, MA. Taylor earned her MPH and MSW from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and received her BSW from the University of Georgia.

More From the Blog

2020 OMEGA Summit Brings Together Students, Aging Professionals, Past Scholarship Winners

October 30, 2020

2020 Summer Interns Work on OMEGA, Lifestyle Leaders, C3 Project

August 26, 2020

2021 Spring Speaker Series Begins with Presentation from Dr. Catherine García on Social Determinants of Health

March 23, 2021