LH (Lafayette Henry) Mayfield. LH was a Methodist minister with a brain and body in perpetual overdrive. “I think all the time,” he confided, “my mind is always working.” Going on annual pilgrimages to the Chautauqua Institution in New York, LH said he needed the stimulation to keep his brain going.
2. Don Spencer. Genteel, soft-spoken Don had led a lifetime of civil rights activism around integration and justice. He also excelled as an educator, real estate broker, pianist, composer, and swimmer.
3. Clara Genther, shown with her son Hank. “As long as my legs and mind are working,” she said, “I have no complaints.” She was a voracious reader and was the longest active member of her church.
4. Gordon Maham. Gordon described himself as a “peaceful planet person,” with an activist stance against violence and a creed of peace and helping others.
5. June Edwards. June’s favorite place to be was the outdoors. With a passion for gardening, she turned empty land around her apartment building into beautiful flowerbeds. Her advice was: “Don’t dwell on your age – just keep your body moving.”
6. Helen Licht. Helen was blind in later years. She felt she read so much that maybe she had used her vision all up. Her friend described her character in these words: “She accepts her situation, lets go, and moves on.” Indicative of this trait was her determination to return to knitting after she lost her sight.
7. Saimi Read. Saimi always tried to see the best in people. She was a Finn, and her daughter felt her background made her resilient and unflappable.
8. Florence Heater Wesley. Florence’s favorite expression was “To stay youthful, stay useful.” When I met her she donned a Mardi Gras mask she had designed earlier that day in an art class. This photo became the cover of my book, emblematic of a person full of spunk and spirit.
My mother started acting strangely in her late seventies. She had lost my father years earlier and had never recovered. She would habitually talk to and attempt to feed the mouth of an 8×10” black and white photo of my father, line up Time magazine covers on the couch in front of the TV so they could watch programs, and call me late at night from her New Jersey home saying there were strange people in her backyard.
She was so confused that my brother and I arranged to put her on a plane to come to my house in Cincinnati so I could look after her. My husband and I changed the locks on our outside doors because she constantly tried to run away. At one in the morning she would regularly pack her bags saying she wanted to go home. And she would ask odd questions such as, “Who’s older, you or me?”
After five months of being on edge with her erratic behavior, I explored assisted living situations in nursing homes where she could be safely cared for. I hesitatingly moved her to one that I had carefully checked out. On the day I moved her there she told me, “You’re putting me out to pasture.”
Watching her severe mental decline over the next seven years, I often wondered whether one was doomed to end up like this if one lived long enough.
Watching her severe mental decline over the next seven years, I often wondered whether one was doomed to end up like this if one lived long enough. Visiting her at the nursing facility, I regularly encountered vacant stares and aimless stances.
Changing my perspective
As a freelance writer, I assigned myself an interview that was to change my perspective. A friend of mine had a neighbor who was an energetic and life-affirming 90-year-old gardener. I profiled this woman for a local magazine.
June the gardener lived in an apartment building with empty plots of land bordering it. She became inspired to plant flowerbeds and converted the bleak patches of dirt into stunning floral arrangements. She told me her goal was to be perpetually active, with her days full of yoga, Tai Chi, an exercise class, line dancing, reading, and keeping up with current news. She firmly believed that having family support gives your life meaning, and weekends were devoted to her children.
Uplifted by my interview with June, I embarked on a two-year project called POSITIVELY NINETY: Interviews with Lively Nonagenarians to interview and photograph other vibrant and engaged people in their 90s. The project gained momentum when I was awarded a City of Cincinnati artist grant for the undertaking.
I interviewed 28 animated individuals in their 90s who were sharp in memory, purposeful, and caring, and who were actively involved in life. One individual was a peace activist who protested in picket lines and spent his days helping others by sharing his pension money with struggling friends and distributing food to the needy. Another, a Methodist minister, was a voracious reader and a member of a weekly intellectual discussion group to share ideas, books, and conversations. A third was a Holocaust survivor who spent her time visiting sick neighbors and speaking publicly about her hellish war experiences to bear witness to the evil of this time in history and to work against repeating it.
Laughing, living simply and trying new things
I found personality traits in common among the nonagenarians I interviewed, including having a sense of humor and a dedication to living simply. They were always open to meeting new people and trying new things. They spoke of doing things in moderation, getting regular exercise, and continuing to learn new things. Most of all the nonagenarians embraced an optimistic attitude, which was embodied in this comment I heard from several nonagenarians: “When you’re invited to go somewhere, go!”
The nonagenarians embraced an optimistic attitude, which was embodied in this comment I heard from several nonagenarians: “When you’re invited to go somewhere, go!”
The one factor not under the nonagenarians’ control was being just plain lucky – being blessed with good genes, good health, and meaningful relationships.
POSITIVELY NINETY was exhibited in nine venues around the Cincinnati area. Viewers expressed that they found great inspiration from stories of people who were actively engaged at every stage of life. I subsequently published a book POSITIVELY NINETY.
The daughter of one of the nonagenarians I interviewed put it this way: “What’s really wonderful about what you’ve done is that you make old people look beautiful as well as important. The elderly often feel ugly and are treated as if they don’t know anything because they are out of touch with the modern world and a bit slow. You have done something really important for these people.”
Another visitor to my exhibit wrote:
“Driving over here, I commented to my husband how old I felt. Coming out of the exhibit, I feel inspired to lead an even more active and positive lifestyle.”
I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome to my interviews and photographs than to inspire people (and myself) in how to age well. Sadly, my mother died a decade before I produced this work, but I know that in her more lucid times she would have highly valued my findings on how to live life to the fullest.
For my part, since I published this work I have created new paths of being engaged: becoming a working watercolorist sharing a studio with other artists, a swimmer, and a publicist who promotes artistic ventures. And I hope that when people invite me to go somewhere, I just go!
Connie Springer is an award-winning and widely-published freelance photographer and writer who specializes in human interest themes, including adoptive families, elderly, children, and intergenerational and multicultural images. Her work can be seen on http://conniespringer.com.