Tale of two grandmothers

Kerry-Burnight-2Guest Post – Kerry Burnight

When giving talks on how to live a full, meaningful life, UC Irvine gerontologist Kerry Burnight often invokes the memory of her two grandmothers. One was a self-centered woman who complained constantly about her health, her various discomforts and her declining appearance. “She was tough to visit,” Burnight recalls.

The other grandmother, she says, was just the opposite: “She was interesting, funny and lovely. And she was truly interested in each of her grandchildren. We could never get enough of her. I often bring her to mind and think, ‘OK, how can I position myself to be more like her?’”

It’s a question that interests Burnight both personally – as someone in her early 40s who hopes to end her days as the good grandmother — and professionally — as a professor of family medicine in UCI’s Program in Geriatrics and co-director of the university’s Elder Abuse Forensic Center.

By interacting with seniors, she’s learned a lot about how to live well and make the most of each day, not just in later years but now. “I’m lucky,” she says. “Working with older people holds up a mirror to my own life. If you can picture the way you want to age, you’ll be much more likely to go down that path.”

With her high energy (she’s a marathon runner) and upbeat personality, Burnight hardly appears in danger of morphing into a cranky crone. Is it simply favorable circumstances or good fortune that makes some people more content than others? She doesn’t think so.

She regularly encounters individuals who’ve endured significant hardships and loss — such as the death of a spouse, neglect or even abuse — but still maintain a positive outlook. Others she’s met have enjoyed all the trappings of worldly success but remain unfulfilled.

“By seeking your own comfort, your own happiness, you often end up less so,” Burnight says. “That’s not a new idea, but now there’s growing research that shows people who are generous live longer, have fewer diseases and are happier.

“Wisdom, generosity, gratitude — these areas are linked to a healthier, longer life and lower depression. Maybe if we cultivate them when we’re young, we won’t feel so alone when we get to the end of life.”

Source:  UC Health  by Kerry Burnight

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