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Aging well and staying connected through service and community

Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say that the world is hungry for our help and our love. Whether we seek to help people, animals, or the earth itself, the world's need for our service has never been greater. And the funny thing is, the more we help, the more energy we get. That's because when we make a difference in life, we forget about our own problems, which are really what make us feel old.

Of course it fills us with sadness when youth passes away and we face deeper, very difficult issues of life. This may, for example, mean coming to grips with spendthrift tendencies not reconcilable with our earning power; or even the onset of depression, due to traumatic events from childhood that don't surface in us till midlife. I believe that, more than the wrinkles and the aches and pains, such a process of facing an account with ourselves comprises much of the pain of aging. But we can gain a vitality different from the easy energy of youth when we participate in others' lives, alleviate the plight of the disadvantaged, or help heal the earth. And this vitality can endure even into our last years.

If you make the effort to find fulfilling and meaningful ways to spend your time, contributing to the world and making a small difference, you will be valued by everyone you care about. Age will then be just a number. So here are some things to keep in mind as you choose the ways you can best tap into your inner power to make a difference in life.

1. Conserve your strength. No question, meeting others' needs is one of the trickiest areas in human life. Some individuals are perpetually needy; we with the best motives may try to rescue them from their difficulties when it would be better both for ourselves and for them to let them help themselves. Similarly, you may come home drained from volunteering for an organization because resources there are so badly stretched. Whether you're helping a friend or a nonprofit group, make sure your own legitimate needs are reasonably fulfilled, your own personal boundaries healthy, and that you are giving from personal fullness, not taking away vital resources you need for yourself.

2. Think big, start small. When we were young, energy was abundant and seemed to automatically connect us to many friends. But as we age and this energy ebbs, we may feel depressed and alone. We can find that joy we knew in youth, only now it's necessary to reach out and work for it. It might seem small, but just pick up the phone and call that friend you have lost touch with and offer to meet for coffee. Or help your neighbor prune her roses or apple tree. If you just look for small opportunities, your attention will leave your problems and a greater energy will fill you as your life makes a difference for someone else.

3. Find a need that meets you "in the heart." My grandfather, a lifelong do-it-yourselfer, discovered his passion by offering to fix things free of charge for other residents of the Florida retirement community where he lived. I don't believe he felt old even on the day he died. He remained continually happy because he was able to help many people out of his very nature. You may not have fix-it skills, but every one of us has something we care deeply about. If you are not sure what your passion is, ask those close to you how you have been most helpful to them. You may be surprised. I heard of a man who was taciturn but loved dogs, and he ended up training companion dogs to visit the elderly. He may not have been much of a talker, but his passion brought much happiness and companionship to many lonely people.

Use your wisdom. Keep in mind the unique gifts and skills you've developed over a lifetime. The years ahead stretch out endlessly before the 25-year old, but for us, every action counts. Any help we can extend to others is bound to be appreciated, but we work best when we find a context where our own unique skills can grow and bloom. For example, a retired actress I know trained as a reading-skills tutor to help at-risk kids in a nearby elementary school. The children she tutored improved in school and often went on to higher education. As they moved into careers and became parents themselves, her influence expanded to reach a whole new generation.

So when you have found where you can most help others, realize that you and what you create can change the lives of people for the better. The longer you live, the more people will benefit from your life, as your happiness grows exponentially.

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