“Gather the Elders” Marilyn Heins, M.D., speaks from experience

Who knew that elders, especially those ages 82 to 85, score higher on happiness scales than millennials? Whether octogenarians are more active than in previous generations, or that contentment accompanies aging, Marilyn Heins, M.D., advises individuals over 65 to “say yes to opportunities.”

Although Marilyn has slowed down since retiring in 1989 as vice dean and professor of pediatrics at Tucson’s University of Arizona College of Medicine, saying yes is still her preferred mantra. The pediatrician has written more than 1,000 parenting columns for the “Arizona Daily Star,” along with a 1999 parenting book titled ParenTips for Effective, Enjoyable Parenting. She still writes columns and maintains her website, parentkidsright.com. But these days, Marilyn, 86, says she “spends more time giving advice to myself than to new parents.”

“I’m an immigrant to a new land,” she told 70 people in her “Journey to Geriatrica” keynote speech during the 7th Annual Gather the Elders Conference, which I attended this past January at the YWCA of Southern Arizona in Tucson. “The most important thing I’ve learned so far is how grateful I am to be in Geriatrica. Not all of us make it.” Marilyn recalled her father saying, “Every day over 80 is pure velvet.”

Currently, there are 41 million people over age 65 in the U.S. That number will double by 2050. Elder Circles, offered through various organizations around the country, help to promote conscious aging. The Tucson conference, sponsored by the Elder Circles discussion group project at the Center for Community Dialogue, is a program of Our Family Services. Other Elder Circles, including the one at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, have operated for around 13 years.

Following her husband’s death in 2007, Marilyn realized she had a new chapter to write in her life. True, longevity brings challenges: Almost 25% of senior men and 46% of senior women live alone. But while old age tends to cause less anxiety and negativity about the world, falling and loneliness can pose the greatest problems for even healthy seniors. Above all, it’s important to stay connected to old friends and make new ones.

Another obstacle to getting older is that “our memories may be shaky,” said Marilyn. “I know mine is. But we serve as a bank of memories for younger generations.” From her perspective, “It’s a good time to review successes and failures. I went back to all the bad things I did since kindergarten,” she said. “To balance with the bad, I wrote my obituary.”

It’s also essential to acknowledge those who helped you along the way. Have compassion. Exercise curiosity by Googling new ideas or things you’ve forgotten. Be courageous, Marilyn advised, adding that “all of us descend from immigrants who had great courage.”

As the daughter and granddaughter of secular Jews who valued education and “worshipped” books, art, and music, Marilyn has continued that tradition. A graduate of Harvard University and a physician trained at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, her path wasn’t typical for a woman of her generation.

Growing up, Marilyn recalled that her family “was proud of being Jewish, as am I,” although her first time in a synagogue was as a teenager. “So I was determined to raise my own children differently. We joined a Reform temple and my children went to religious school from kindergarten on.”

Her mother lived to be 99 and resisted moving out of her own home. “I’m grateful I can walk, talk and drive,” said Marilyn. “We all fear losing our independence. I’ve started to take baby ‘goodbye’ steps, divesting myself of possessions. No one teaches us to say goodbye to our old way of life. If we learn to say goodbye, maybe we’ll find space for something new.”

Surveying the audience, she said, “Yup. I’m almost always the oldest person around. But as Lady Luck [would have it], I’ve got good genes, a loving family and friends, and I had the resources and stamina to visit more than 100 countries.”

At this point in her life, said Marilyn, “Aging really astonishes me. There’s no app for dealing with a rapidly changing world and an aging body.” She noted that in kindergarten, it took forever for five minutes to pass; but now, a week flies by. “I get increasingly annoyed when my time is wasted.”

If having a sense of humor is essential throughout life, it’s no less true for octogenarians. “It seems to take me longer to open a package than it took for Amazon Prime to deliver it,” she quipped, admitting that she has scissors in every room.

As a pediatrician, she advised parents to subscribe to the three As: Affection, Attention and Acceptance. Now Marilyn encourages elders to do the same for themselves: “One of the most important things I’ll say today is ‘parent yourself.’”

Sheila Wilensky is a writer, editor and educator living in Tucson.

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