Out of the Mouths of Elders

by Amy Shouse

Seniors reflect on what they would tell their 21 year-old selves if they could

19203945_s As every life is lived, wisdom is accumulated, be it from mistakes or triumphs or just plain old experience garnered over time. If you’re anywhere over 30, take a moment to consider what you were like at age 21. What information or advice might have helped you get through early adulthood and on with the rest of your life? We asked some seniors from a variety of backgrounds to contemplate this question: If you could go back in time and talk to your 21-year-old self, what wisdom would you like to impart, knowing what you know now? Here’s what they had to say:


Whatever you like to do and have a love for it, do it! All creative endeavor is of value, regardless of how you may perceive your status to be in the eyes of your contemporaries. Whether you have athletic ability, artistic ability, an interest in mathematics or a passion for science, you will be fulfilling yourself—and adding to the human spirit for centuries to come.

—Rolf Korstvedt, 87


When I was still in high school I saw a photo-article in a magazine that profiled a college professor who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The photos showed him living his daily life not only at the university but also at home, playing music with his children, eating dinner with his wife, enjoying his simple house with bare wood floors and white walls. It was a kind of vision for me of what I wanted my life to be.

Fifty years later, after a short career as a teacher and a long career as a graphic designer, I realize that I made that vision come true for me. (I hadn’t even thought of grandchildren back then, but they have more than completed the picture.) So here’s my advice: visualize what you want your future to look like and then work to make it happen. Marry for love. Work for love. And never make money the most important thing in your life.

—Ron Gordon, 71


Don’t let your parents or anyone else define you. Be your own friend. I have lived a very long time now and what I have found is that all the competition that besets us in youth and in middle age disappears in our older years. I am free now to enjoy the earth and all its wonders as never before. Free to love and to flirt and to do or not do. Know this: You are a sweet, caring, competent [person], and don’t you forget it.

—Barbara Korstvedt, 83


Follow your dream, not somebody else’s.

—Ron Saxon, 68


Know that the events of your youth, good, bad and ugly, do not define you. If you see each event as a gift and make it your job to find the benefit, you will maintain your personal power and not be a victim.

—Sharon Rogers, 71


I would teach myself how to become a better listener and to really hear what someone else is saying. Too often when I was younger I nodded “understanding”—pretending to understand when, in fact, I was too proud to ask a question because I judged it to be “stupid.” Any question that leads to greater understanding is a good question. It takes the virtue of humility to overcome obstacles to greater knowledge, which is a priceless resource.

—Howard Sann, 72


My advice is to slow down and smell the roses.

—Barbara Lever, 71


You are fine by yourself. You don’t need another person to complete you. You are whole. When you have a relationship, it should be because you like the person. Make sure you will have something to talk about over breakfast, and that you will be enjoying your conversation so much, you will even have more coffee. Lust fades. Loving a person for who they are sticks around.

Find your passion. It may be tough, but make the effort. Get out there and look for it. Don’t settle. If you do, you will be working at something you don’t really like for a long time. It is true what they say, “If you are doing what you love, you won’t work a day in your life.”

Don’t smoke; be good to your body. Exercise. Your body won’t be young forever, and when it’s not, you will be so happy you took care of it. It is your most prized possession.

Material things don’t matter, family does. Friends do. People you love and a passion for what you do, that’s what matters. All the rest is filler.

—Hilary Cooper-Kenny, 67


I do not know if, at 21, I would have had the maturity to handle wise advice. The basis is­—you are what you eat. Hey, let’s find out what I am eating. Are chemicals being added or anything that’s harmful to my body? Why hurt my body if I can eat healthy, have a better quality of life? Now what reason could I find to say no to my body? The best is yet to come, plus I wish you health and more than wealth, I wish you love.

—Herbie Fisher, 86


At 95, horizons are compressed. Stay close to your family and the friends you love, and try to make new and younger friends if possible.

—Barbara Dolgin, 95