Unlocking the Secrets of a Long Life

By Larissa Breedlove

 Photo by Dave Schroeter*

Dying is nothing to fear. It can be the most wonderful experience of your life. It all depends on how you have lived.”

-Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Author, On Death and Dying

When interviewed by countless media outlets, centenarians seem to have more in common than genetic advantage and a lifestyle that often includes a moderate diet and daily exercise. Beaming in photographs, they glow with the inner light only genuine happiness can ignite. They exemplify a life well lived.

So how can we, perhaps decades younger, pursue similar joy? A long life, it turns out, is not solely dependent on environment—such as living in a mild climate—smart life choices, genetic makeup, or spiritual beliefs. The connective tissue is often the quality of our relationships.

Recent research, published on the Harvard Health Publishing website, shows that “social connections…not only give us pleasure, [but] also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking.” Conversely, a lack of “strong relationships” can increase premature death—from all causes—by as much as 50 percent. That is the rough equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.

For centenarians living in Acciaroli, Italy, the secret to living a long life, above all, was amore. One-hundred-year-old Antonio, for example, cherished his happy marriage. He described his wife as “this beautiful woman, the woman of my life.” This sense of love imbues a rosy worldview toward humanity: one Acciaroli woman advised releasing bitterness and being polite to all.

But good relationships, it should be noted, are not exclusive to human interactions. Richard Proenneke, a self-described naturalist who lived alone for decades in the Alaskan wilderness, passed in 2003 at the age of 86. He left his cabin, which he built himself using rudimentary tools, to the National Park Service. In video footage from the 1980s, Mr. Proenneke discusses the strong connections he forged with wildlife, including songbirds. Further, a new study published on the Time website, shows that pet owners—particularly dog owners—can live longer.

In addition to strong social connections, plenty of sleep and moderate stress levels are also well-documented elements of living well into our eighties and beyond. Many Acciaroli centenarians attributed the fish-filled Mediterranean diet as key to their full lives. Recent studies suggest drinking coffee might promote longevity while reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and types of cancer. One Acciaroli resident, however, claims eliminating caffeine (and alcohol) was an integral part of his long life.

The benefit of preplanning end of life

Many of us aspire to live a long, rich life. Perhaps that is why so many of us avoid discussing an inevitable part of it—loss. Grief is a difficult time. Arrangements such as memorial ceremonies and funeral or cremation services might have to be put together in very little time. At the beginning of preplanning comes the advanced directive.

The document, also known as a living will, can alleviate conflicts that arise when tough end of life care decisions need to be made. Our article, Fears and Stresses: End of Life & Memorial Planning, discusses the importance of advanced directives.

Combined with mental strain, all of these events can be an enormous challenge. Preplanning and prepayment for final arrangements can significantly reduce that pressure. A 2014 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association, however, found that only 19 percent of respondents over 40 had preplanned a funeral. Of that 19 percent, only 26 percent had prepaid their funeral costs.

There are myriad considerations to contemplate when thinking about preplanning and prepaying for arrangements. But planning ahead—from creating a living will to plotting the details of a celebration of life ceremony—can help ease the burden for loved ones later. Organizations like Aging with Dignity help individuals and their families navigate the complex emotional and financial matters involved in creating a living will.  

Cremation: a choice to consider during end-of-life planning

Cremations cost less than a quarter of the average burial. There are many ways to celebrate the life of someone who chooses cremation, from ash scattering ceremonies to traditional memorial services. Likewise, there are many options to consider when choosing an urn, from biodegradable urns to display urns kept in the home.

Many wooden cremation urns, simple in style, are handmade, such as the Floral Wood Companion Cremation Urn. Companion urns, which can accommodate the ashes of two people or pets, are created especially for those who wish to be together always. Beautiful urns for human ashes can range from ornate marble cremation urns, to clean, minimalist designs as in the Twilight Ocean Ceramic Cremation Urn. Loved ones can also choose cremation jewelry to forever keep a beloved close.

The benefit, then, of preplanning, encompasses every detail of a loved one’s end-of-life wishes in an open family environment, from urn choice to ceremony. In addition to minimizing confusion or conflict during end-of-life care, the process allows preparations to be managed with total dignity and respect. This too reflects a life well lived. 

*Image can be found here: http://bit.ly/2t0iFUb

Larissa Breedlove is a writer and editor whose work often centers on loss, healing, and transformation. A fervent animal lover who grew up raising chickens, Larissa currently lives in New York City with her husband and their beloved cat, Winston.




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