For 92-year-old George Costello, his key to happiness is his family. He’s primary caregiver to his wife and spends time with his grandchildren, taking them fishing and boating. He’s outlived his parents, aunts, uncles, siblings and buddies.
“There’s nobody ahead of me,” says the Dearborn Heights man who is the oldest person on his block. He was born Jan. 1, 1924. “I’ve always been a family man,” he says. “I loved my wife from the beginning and loved my four children and couldn't get enough time with them.” Now, it’s his seven grandchildren who keep him busy.
“He rarely misses any of my kid’s hockey game,” says his daughter, Donna Van Antwerp, whose four children play the sport. He still hits the ice with the grandkids. In good weather, he heads outside to throw a football with his youngest grandson, 14. Or he’s off fishing and boating with kids of all ages.
One thing stays constant through all of life’s challenges
George’s life is not all milk and honey. His wife, Diane, was diagnosed with dementia 10 years ago. At 83, she still functions well, but she sometimes repeats questions because she’s lost some of her short-term memory. It’s also hard for her to walk. George savors his time with her, including their talks as they sit in front of the television at night. “We don't talk about anything big,” he says.
But being alone is not the same as being lonely, notes Peter A. Lichtenberg, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Gerontology and professor of psychology and physical medicine and rehabilitation at Wayne State University. “For many people, isolation leads to loneliness, but some people are actually quite fine with time alone,” Lichtenberg says.
The problem is having too much solitary time. “We are social beings,” he says. “Some seniors disconnect as a way of winding down their lives but that’s not always healthy.” Pain, illness and hearing loss may keep older adults from doing what they enjoy, and they may not even realize what they’ve given up, Lichtenberg says.
3 ways to avoid isolation
Seek joy. “We need pleasurable events on a daily basis – small things that we do regularly,” Lichtenberg says. He suggests writing about what you do in a day and how you feel about it. This can help you remember what’s important to you, which could be something as simple as going to the library, listening to music, calling a friend or getting back to an old hobby.
Go outside. “If you feel disconnected, nature connects you,” he says.
Be selective. Spending time with negative people can be worse than being alone, Lichtenberg says. Assess your relationships to make sure you’re spending time with people who support and uplift you.
Without George’s help, Diane likely would have to move to an assisted living facility, but keeping her at home with him is George’s priority. “He’s very unselfish,” Donna says.
George does all laundry, cooking and cleaning and still mows his 6,500-square-foot lawn with a self-propelled mower. “I enjoy it. I like doing something outside,” he says. He tells Donna that she can take over “when I get old.”
George hosts Thanksgiving and Christmas family dinners for more than 20 people,plus outdoor events in the summer – anything to be with his kids and their growing families, who all live nearby. When his children were younger, George gave up his accounting career and switched to insurance sales for a flexible schedule.
“My boss always said my skin got darker, and my sales got smaller in the summer,” George says. He spent lots of time outdoors with his family then, too.
“He’s always been a hands-on dad,” Donna says. “And now he’s a hands-on grandpa.”
He figures he has walked 3,000 miles around the block at his home, where he has lived for 53 years. He lost part of his left foot in an accident 68 years ago that left him hospitalized for 14 months but said “It doesn't stop me from walking.”
And he appreciates his occasional solitude, just sitting on the porch enjoying the outdoors and watching airplanes go over or heading out in a fishing boat alone – as long as there’s family on the shore. To learn more about staying healthy as you get older, visit HAP Senior Health