As a 30-year-old, writer John McPhee met the then 66-year-old Thornton Wilder, the author and playwright. Wilder was working on cataloguing all 431 plays of Lope de Vega, a monumental task that would take years, decades, for even a team of folks, much less a single 66-year-old.
Nearly 60 years later, McPhee wrote an article for The New Yorker saying he finally understood why Wilder would have taken on such a “monumental, un-completable, project.” According to McPhee, the plays “were serving to extend Thornton Wilder’s life. Reading them and cataloguing them was something to do, and do, and do. It beat dying. It was a project meant not to end.”
“Old people projects keep old people old. You’re no longer old when you’re dead,” McPhee wrote.
On November 14th of last year the Progress ran an article featuring 100-year-old World War II veteran Roy Hughes who had very similar sentiments to McPhee. In the piece, Hughes was quoted as saying, “If you just sit around, you’ll die.”
Apparently Hughes and McPhee both figured out what Wilder himself discovered decades earlier. Hughes said it succinctly when he encouraged our readers to: “Get up. Get out. Get involved.”
Truer words could not be spoken. Get up by staying physically fit - any kind of movement is beneficial. Get out - mingle with other folks because we humans are social beings. Get involved - keep yourself mentally stimulated by joining a group, attending an event, or volunteering with the countless organizations throughout the county.
Regardless of our age, humans thrive on interaction with others. As people age and retire they often wind up spending more and more time alone - to the detriment of their physical and mental health. Picking up a project, any project, keeps us engaged and encouraged. On the one hand, what’s the point in cataloging the works of a writer most people have never heard of? But on the other hand, why not? If you are retired, you can pick how to spend your time.
The National Institute on Aging links social isolation and loneliness to higher risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and more.
Activities such as volunteering, hobbies and travel are ways people can remain socially active and connected throughout our lives.
We recently toured the Community Thrift Store and found their dedicated army of volunteers quite happy sorting, repairing and selling other people’s discarded items. One person admitted to being a hardcore organizer who loved the challenge, while others remarked that their work put them on a team and gave them a purpose.
However social we are, finding meaningful projects is essential to aging well. Lifelong learning stimulates our brains and keeps our most important assets sharp. While most of us don’t want to catalogue hundreds of plays from a 17th century Spanish playwright, there is a lot to be gained by joining any of the numerous church and social groups around the community, undertaking some project or attending a Master Gardeners class or trying out for the community theater.
Whether you want to build 200 porch swings, build a habitat for birds in your backyard, or task yourself with figuring out how accurate David Thoreau was in his descriptions of various plant species in Walden (a very sharp senior came in a decade ago to use our copier to aide in this endeavor), find a project that suits you, then go do it and do it and do it.