Gardens, Grandchildren, and Generativity
"The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright
My father was a professor who wrote a lot of books. In his late sixties, after he retired, he and his friend Al began to plant lilac bushes on the farmland around Al’s house. Each year they planted more lilacs— purple, blue, pink, and white. Gradually, they transformed the farm into a mammoth lilac garden. My father remained engaged with his lilacs and his life to his very last day.
Even though my father is long gone, we can still visit Pelham, Massachusetts in mid-May to saunter along the pathways of what is now called Lilacland. My father and Al ensured the unbelievably sweet scent of more than a thousand giant lilac trees, some of which are rare species, would be available for generations to come.
Most older people like my Dad, are impressively resilient. I noticed this when I interviewed more than 130 people for my book, Eightysomethings. Almost all of them had been able to adapt to whatever difficulties they encountered in their life situations and thrive. And in the last two years of Covid, I observed again that older generations were less stressed on the whole than younger people, including their adult children. Not only were they less stressed about the virus, but they were also able to manage the ongoing uncertainty of the times with more equanimity.
It turns out there is other research supporting this. A 2020 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association authored by Ipsit V. Vahia MD and three others, found that, yes, the virus had more adverse effects on older people than younger people and, yes, older people died at higher rates than others. But counter to what was expected, their data also indicated that older adults were more resilient than younger people in terms of having less anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues related to Covid.
But what, I wondered, are the sources of this unexpected resilience?
I did expect to find that the older people who were flourishing were vitally engaged in some ongoing project or activity. And they are. But so are people of all ages. I wanted to learn: What is the particular source of resilience that keeps us older people resilient despite the many losses we experience as we age?
As I talked with older people two themes leaped out— their love of gardens and their grandchildren. And since Father’s Day was just around the corner that got me remembering my father and his lilacs. The fact that my father would never see the full growth of his lilac garden did not matter to him. His pleasure came in believing that people in future generations would enjoy them. This is what we psychologists call generativity – caring that goes beyond the self, working for a better future that we will never see.
All kinds of gardens seem to bring pleasure to all kinds of older people. Many gardens, unlike my Dad’s, aren’t planned to last. Here at my retirement community residents grow amazing flowers and vegetables in their mini-plots in the common garden. It is the activity of gardening that is deeply satisfying and rejuvenating for so many. One Swedish study found that gardening can prolong life as much as 30% for people age 60 plus. I know I get a surge of joy each day as I look at my balcony with its hanging red and pink geranium plants and two large pots of pansies.
Most older people also find energy in getting outside and into nature. Forest bathing is the Japanese practice of immersing yourself in the restorative powers of trees. I join the Hardy Walkers at my retirement community for weekly walks on the many trails in my town. Even those on walkers regularly head out into nature.
A few weeks ago my friend Jenny was finally able to fly across the country to see her son and meet her year-old new grandchild. But a few hours after she arrived, her son was diagnosed with Covid. She was crushed that she could not see him again until the 9th day of her visit although she could spend time with the baby. She focused on adapting as best she could to her unexpected situation. There were long days where she kept her equanimity by walking in a nearby marsh and looking at the birds. She explained, “All my anxieties vanished and the hours were timeless as I dissolved into the beauty of the birds and the marsh.”
But clearly, there is more than gardens and nature that heals and energizes us older people. There is also the restorative power of being vitally engaged in causes to make the world better like climate change or racial justice. Plus, there is the connection to younger generations.
What rejuvenated me this year is being more involved in the lives of my grandchildren. When I went to my grandson Victor’s graduation from the New Jersey Institute of Technology a few weeks ago it was more than a celebration of Victor’s achievement. It was a whole family celebration, his parents, his aunts from Brazil, and me. We had all cheered him on over the years of hard work and the daily grind through difficult courses. It also filled my energetic wellsprings because I had helped out with his tuition. I know I will not live to see how Victor’s life unfolds, but I was deeply involved in his launch into adulthood. A personal example of generativity.
We, seniors, have much to offer and almost always underestimate our ability to make a real difference. I often feel despair about what’s happening in the world—with the ongoing shootings, the war in Ukraine, climate change, and polarization of the nation. But, I also feel an imperative: those of us in the older generations must keep doing our part for the larger good. What matters most is for us to keep sharing our acquired wisdom and our values with people who are adrift. Our generosity of spirit not only benefits those around us, but it's also an essential ingredient in our ongoing resilience and ability to age well.
Yes to gardens, grandchildren, and generativity!