My Tía Dorie leads a full and active life.
Tía (Spanish for “aunt”) lives with her daughter, Chris, in a continuing care community, but she spends much of her time independently, painting, reading, playing online games and puzzles, watching shows, videos and podcasts, Googling subjects of interest to herself, her children and grandchildren, and emailing family and friends.
Oh yeah, Tía Dorie is 101 years old.
Dorie Royer was born a few days before Christmas during the Roaring ‘20s of the last century. She grew up with my dad, the children of immigrants, a Mexican father and Hungarian mother, in Brooklyn (where else?). She lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War, married an engineer from Ohio, and raised three spirited and successful children. Our families have remained close over the years, despite the natural American diaspora. Tía Dorie and my mom (a Cuban immigrant) were both porcelain painters who often referred to each other as hermanas (sisters).
Dorie continues to paint most days, not pieces of porcelain, but an impressive array of watercolor posters: local flora and fauna, bucolic landscapes, colorful scenes and greetings celebrating every holiday season. (You can see a sampling of her many pieces at the top of this article.) Her posters get hung in exhibitions for residents of her community to enjoy. She also takes photos of the posters and emails them to us every week.
I have learned a lot about living a long life from Tía Dorie, but two lessons stand out.
The first one is about attitude. It’s a subject many aging experts are writing about these days, and not surprisingly, an issue that pervades my 45 Forward podcast, whose theme is, “Make the Second Half of Life Even Better than the First.” Technically, Tía may be part of what sociologists call the “oldest old,” but I never think of her that way. I get annoyed when I hear comments about the accomplishments of older people like, “That’s really amazing—especially for someone their age.” It’s time to retire the second part of that sentence. Many people are leading longer and more vital lives well beyond the conventional milestones of aging, and unless we’re talking about feats of extraordinary physical strength, we should start acknowledging people’s accomplishments, no matter their age.
I believe Tía’s longevity is largely attributable to her steel-spined resolve to live life with curiosity and appreciation for the opportunity to learn something new and enjoy something unexpected every day. Not that it’s always easy. Like many older folks, Tía has has had to cope with the usual vicissitudes of aging, like diminished hearing and eyesight.
But that hasn’t stopped her. Her attitude reminds me of the stories that journalist and author John Leland, tells in his book, “Happiness is a Choice You Make,” an account of the lives of several New Yorkers aged 85 and up. Many of these folks faced daily hardships and obstacles, but they learned to accept these setbacks as part of life, not dwelling on them. (If you want to hear my encore presentation of my conversation with John, click on https://roelresources.com/45-forward-episode-104/.)
Tía Dorie, too, gets up every morning with meaning and purpose, connecting with her work, her family and friends, to the world right in front of her or across the internet. “You shouldn’t feel sorry for yourself,” she told me in a phone conversation just before her birthday. “Keep busy. Live every day. I’m doing posters; I enjoy it, and hope it inspires people.”
And that leads me to the second lesson I learned from the indomitable Tía Dorie. The old stereotype about seniors not being able to manage technology—well, Tía has exploded that myth. Sure, older people may not be facile users of social media, but with a little coaching they can handle a lot more sophisticated stuff than Jitterbug phones.
The consequences of such techno-competence are enormous: In today’s society, where it’s easy to get isolated as we get older, our cell phones, laptops and tablets have become critical tools in keeping us connected to the world, less vulnerable to depression and physical decline—and, researchers say, offering a sense of connectivity that can add years of healthy longevity. (To learn more about how the science of connectivity relates to the extension of a healthier lifespan, check out my upcoming podcast with longevity authority Scott Fulton on Jan. 9th.)
Chris Royer, who came to live with her mother several years ago, told me that her family gave Tía her first computer when she turned 80. Initially, she was a bit circumspect. Why would she need a computer now? But she began emailing her grandchildren to stay in touch, exchanging photos, sharing news about vacations, school—the typical stuff of busy American families. Now, decades later, the iPhone and iPad have become indispensable tools for her daily activities.
It’s often tough for seniors who move from a large house to stay active in the small space of a retirement community apartment, Chris notes. But with these devices, she says, her mother “has a certain independence again.” She makes her art, takes pictures of it and emails it out—communicating with people without the drama of not being able to hear well.
Tía loves doing online Scrabble and crosswords; she can watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune or do virtual tours of the Museum of Modern Art. She has a “tremendous amount of creative self-activity,” says Chris. “She goes through her routines every day; she feels happy.”
So what is the ultimate lesson I’ve learned from Tía Dorie about how to lead a long and happy life? Simply this: Live every day like you're 101.