#43 What Can Betty, Sidney, And Desmond Teach Us?
About Aging Well
Aging well can be defined as being the best one can be despite life’s circumstances. We recently lost three well-known nonagenarians: Betty White, Sidney Poitier, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. From my perspective, they did! What can we learn from them?
Betty’s motto was “I’m still here, and gotta keep going.” Her agent said, “She lived a great life and the life she chose to live.” Betty died of natural causes in her sleep - 18 days before her 100th birthday.
Her family moved to California during the Great Depression. Her mother was a homemaker. Her father built crystal radios and sold or traded them to pay the bills.
Betty was a television star, animal lover, and animal activist. Her third husband and the love of her life, TV show host Allen Ludden, died of cancer, and she never remarried. Her favorite foods were hot dogs and french fries.
Because of COVID concerns, Betty stayed at home, but she walked outside with help, did crossword puzzles, watched nature documentaries, Jeopardy, and sports. Her recipe for happiness was “definitely working,” and she claimed to have been born a cockeyed optimist.
If you can live life on your terms, be active and sharp at age 99, and remain as popular as she was – that is aging well.
The youngest of seven children, Sidney Poitier was born prematurely. Uncertain whether he would survive, his dad purchased a tiny casket. However, a wise woman that Sidney’s mom consulted with said, ‘Don’t worry about your son. He will survive.” “He will walk with kings.”
The center of Poitier’s activism was his principles on screen and his commitment to avoiding stereotypes as an actor and director. He became a major box-office draw and paved the way for other Black actors.
Sidney stopped acting in the 1970s to write his autobiography. After returning to acting briefly in the 1980s, he retired permanently to pursue a political career in The Bahamas.
Poitier was an ambassador from afar; the Bahamas didn’t have an embassy in Japan. He received an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth and the Presidential Medal of Honor from then-President Obama.
Sidney was a health and exercise advocate for years. He swore off alcohol, red meat, milk, sugar and referred to his occasional scoop of ice cream as” falling off the wagon.” He ate an omelet made of egg whites to avoid cholesterol and often had broccoli to keep up with his habit of eating vegetables every meal. He died of “natural causes” at age 94, but had been ailing for a while.
He and his wife were married for 43 years. He had six daughters, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Accomplishing all of that despite poor health says his life was well-lived.
The third nonagenarian was Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Prize-winning, modern-day activist for racial justice and LGBT rights. He worked passionately, tirelessly, and non-violently to tear down apartheid — South Africa’s brutal, decades-long regime of oppression against its Black majority.
The buoyant, blunt-spoken clergyman used his pulpit as the first black Bishop of Johannesburg and later as the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town to galvanize public opinion against racial inequity.
Though he formally retired from public life in 2010, Archbishop Tutu remained a powerful advocate for what he saw as right and fair, like social and climate justice. He stood against corruption and lack of accountability under the African National Congress and discrimination, calling out the Anglican Church for not taking a firmer stance on gay rights.
He died at age 90 of cancer. Yet, years of ill health never dimmed his determination to fight against injustice in all forms.
Tutu's most extraordinary and unique feature was his infectious laugh, usually triggered by one of his jokes. He almost always launched his sermons with an amusing tale and, the more distressing the moment, the more likely he was to tap into his endless reservoir of stories to ease the tension.
He loved to eat samosas, marshmallows, fat cakes, and Yogi Sip. When hosts asked what his culinary tastes were, his wife responded: "think of a five-year-old.” Tutu woke at 4 am each morning for an early morning walk, prayer, and Communion. On Fridays, he fasted until supper.
Tutu was married to his wife Leah, a teacher he met while at college, for 66 years. They had four children and seven grandchildren.
Despite his illness and life circumstances, Desmond made the most of his life.
As I read about these people, it seemed that laughter, purpose, and family played a role in their longevity.
Betty White and Archbishop Tutu were known for their ability to laugh at situations and themselves. All three had compelling purposes. Betty was an animal activist. Throughout his 40-year acting career and life, Sidney spoke for Black Americans. The Archbishop was a modern-day proponent for racial justice and LGBT rights. They had close family ties, although Betty’s family consisted of animals.
Betty was alert and engaged just before dying - even planning her 100th birthday. Sidney had declined over the years, and the Bishop had health issues throughout his life. Yet each of them lived long and fulfilling lives. To me, they aged well despite their life circumstances.
About 30 years ago, I went to a workshop. My takeaway was that I didn’t want to be on my death bed thinking about all the things I wished to have done and didn’t.
So, I do my best to live my life with that in mind. This year has been a struggle; at 83 years old – or young, I went from being a married woman and partner to being a widow and single person.
While not an entertainer, actor, or Archbishop, I intend to continue growing, learning, and doing as much as I can for as long as I can while keeping in mind the lessons that Betty, Sidney, and The Archbishop taught me about laughter, purpose, and importance of family.
What will you do with the rest of your life?