At age 100, Evangeline Shuler—a participant in one of our research studies on healthy aging—was remarkably vivacious. Living in a high-rise senior community in downtown Seattle, she independently rode the bus to doctor’s appointments. She went to weekly senior dances at the Elks Lodge on Shilshole Bay. And she even traveled to Argentina that year with her daughter Lynn.
People often asked Evangeline, “What’s your secret to living so long?”
“I wish I knew,” she would reply. “If I did, I would be a billionaire.”
The more I learn about super-agers like Evangeline, however, the less mysterious their longevity seems. Inherited traits and healthy habits play a part. Exercising regularly, eating a good diet, not smoking, and managing chronic illness are all essential. But I’ve also found there’s an attitude beneath it all that helps people prevent illness and stay vital. They proactively build a lot of positive, healthy, social activity into their daily lives.
Simply put, it’s much better to be surrounded by friends and relatives who care about your health, safety, and well-being than to be alone. Most of the benefits are obvious, especially as we face age-related changes such as limited mobility or the loss of loved ones. Lending a hand to each other in illness, grief, and disability is what friends and family do. But other perks of living and working in a strong community may not be so apparent.
For example, avoiding social isolation makes us more resilient; we’re better able to bounce back from illness when it happens. How social reserves come together for any individual depends on many of factors, such as your culture, family situation, and living arrangements. But those who proactively take steps to connect with others on a routine basis often benefit from their efforts.
In an interview after Evangeline’s death at age 107, Lynn shared stories about her mom’s daily routines.
“Van,” as people called her, made plans each day that would motivate her to get up, get dressed, and get out the door. “She had to think ahead to the friend she was going to meet or the bus she needed to catch,” Lynn said.
While in her 90s, Van would meet a group of friends at 8 a.m. each morning for coffee. There was a ritual quality to the gathering; each person was expected to share a story or tell the “daily joke.”
The meeting also served as a safety check. If one member didn’t show up, the group would contact that person to be sure he or she hadn’t gotten sick or taken a fall.
Over many visits to Van’s senior community, Lynn saw her mother’s friends decline physically with age. “Yet, their enthusiasms, laughter, storytelling, and helpfulness to each other continued,” Lynn said.
This arrangement did not occur by chance. Nor did anybody outside of the group make it happen for them. They formed the social circle themselves, knowing it was good for them as individuals and for each other. They took action to create the daily routines that would keep them connected.
This may have been the “billionaire” scheme that kept Van so vibrant over the decades.
Dr. Eric B. Larson is a senior scientist at Kaiser Permanente Washington and author of Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Active Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).