By Valerie Minard
Agnes Zhelesnik bends over to tie an apron on a 5-year old girl in the home economics class she teaches at the Sundance School in North Plainfield, NJ. Preschoolers through fifth graders, who affectionately call her “Granny,” learn from her how to cook and sew. “I just love it here,” says 102-year-old Agnes, believed to be the oldest active teacher in the US.
Agnes, who has no plans to retire, started teaching in her 80’s; and her doctor says her heart is like a 40 year-old’s. Her story is an example of a growing shift in longevity statistics where seniors not only live longer, but are living healthier, more useful, and productive lives well past the age when people are expected to retire.
Interestingly, this new trend coincides with a recent announcement of the world’s first anti-aging drug that will be tested on humans next year. The Food and Drug Administration has approved clinical trials on humans to see if it will be as effective as it is on animals. If it works, a person in his or her 70’s could have the same biological health as a 50-year-old, proponents claim. Other scientists caution that they may not understand the drug’s sides effects for decades. And the treatment’s end result might be no better in extending longevity than the common sense behavior of regular exercise and eating healthy food.
Researchers like Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer, author of Counterclockwise, are taking a different, drug-free approach to longevity by exploring the mental nature of aging. “Social conditions may foster what may erroneously appear to be necessary consequences of aging,” she says. Her studies show how a change in “mental attitude can reverse the effects of aging and improve physical health.”
Nineteenth century theologian Mary Baker Eddy, who studied the connection between thought and health, would agree with Langer. She understood the mental nature of aging but went a step further in finding a spiritual basis for reversing its negative effects. In her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, she says, “Never record ages. Chronological data are no part of the vast forever….Except for the error of measuring and limiting all that is good and beautiful, man would enjoy more than threescore years and ten and still maintain his vigor, freshness, and promise. Man, governed by immortal Mind (God), is always beautiful and grand. Each succeeding year unfolds wisdom, beauty, and holiness.”
Eddy saw God as the very source of life, and Life itself, maintaining and supplying His children with everything they need, including health, vigor, and promise. She proved this to be true, living twice the life expectancy of her time and establishing The Christian Science Monitor newspaper at 87 years old.
Ex-swimming competitor Jack Kavanagh found that this spiritual view of life helped him put off the limitations of aging in his advancing years. As an athlete, he rebelled against the notion that sporting competitions were only for young people. So in 2013, he signed up for a 2.4 mile swim race across a large lake. Since there were no categories for older swimmers, he signed up for the “open category” that included the strongest swimmers. It had been years since he had competed on a swim team. And the swimming pool had prepared him for none of the lake conditions he would encounter, like wind, waves, and murky water.
Yet, on the day of the competition, he found himself among 400 other swimmers running to the lake and splashing to take their dive. In the process, his goggles fell off and he couldn’t see where he was going. Then a wave hit him and he inhaled a lungful of water and began to sink. Although his first thought was, “What are you doing out here, racing against these young athletes?” His next thought was of the Bible story about Jesus walking on the water, in which Peter tries to follow his example, becomes afraid and starts to sink. Then Jesus grabs him and tells him not to doubt God’s power to help. These ideas calmed Jack and he was able to reach the surface. He finished the race in a respectable time, feeling refreshed.
Jack and Agnes both refuse to be limited by society’s beliefs about aging. So can we. Each day, we can choose to identify ourselves from a spiritual standpoint, as expressing the newness and freshness of Life with God-provided strength and vitality. So whether it’s teaching, swimming, or any other activity whereby we can use our talents to bless others, we can look forward to growing and advancing with each new year.