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A member of the millennial generation shares the top five things she's learned from seniors

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Larissa Peck photo
Helene Dobel has seen more tragedy in her life than most but still keeps a positive attitude.

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Larissa Peck photo Helene Dobel has seen more tragedy in her life than most but still keeps a positive attitude.

I spent the last eight months interviewing and photographing seniors in Winnipeg for my book, Decaf Coffee Dates: Stories & Insights From Winnipeg Seniors.

The book features stories from 11 seniors -- nine individuals and one newlywed couple -- ranging in age from 70 to 100 and is meant to promote the idea of young people taking the time to have a face-to-face conversation with, learn from and be inspired by someone outside of their generation.

We conversed and I was inspired, and here are the top five things I've learned:

1. We're not the first generation to spend some years 'finding ourselves.'

I think we millennials have a bit of a reputation for being aloof and spending all kinds of time travelling the world to find ourselves before we choose a direction in life.

I learned Murray Burt, born and raised in New Zealand, found himself in England, and then he found himself in Spain, and then he found himself sailing across the Atlantic Ocean before finding himself shipwrecked on a coral reef in Central America for 13 days. He eventually found himself working for a newspaper in Moose Jaw, where he also found his wife. He later became editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. He said his wanderings drove his mother nuts.

In George Dyker's post-post-secondary travels, he wound up in Nigeria, where he and a few friends bought their tour guide a wife for Christmas. He said it was the strangest thing he's ever done. He's a huge advocate for travel -- he gave each of his three children airfare to leave the continent for a year or two after first-year university.

2. Individualism doesn't work

Fagie Fainman told me this. She said Mother Teresa didn't do a hell of a lot -- she made a few people happy. Fainman said what we all need is a network of like-minded people to get things done and make a difference, and in her retirement, she's done just that. In fact, she's on the no-fly list in the Philippines after she went there in 2002 as a human rights activist to support the women's movement and labour movement.

3. We never act our age

Age really and truly is just a number. And after chatting up all these people decades older than me, I think it matters less than I ever did before.

In fact, I called one of the women featured in the book a few days ago because I had a question for her. We ended up chatting for half an hour -- me sitting on my bed, on the phone with an 80-year-old, talking about changing the world like I would with my best friend since Grade 7.

I learned from Mary Benedictson and Harvey Schmidt, who are in their 70s and just got married in September, dating gets no less awkward over time. I learned from Alice Strachan even when you're 81, you still giggle at the thought of meeting a boyfriend. And Margaret Morran, who is 100, reminded me age doesn't have to come with limitations, as she motored around her apartment without a walker or cane, laughing and cracking jokes with the best of them.

4. Look on the bright side

In their long lives, all of these people have experienced heartbreak, illness, challenges and devastation.

Helene Dobel lived through the Stalin regime and the Holocaust and then lost her brother and sister to drunk drivers in separate accidents after immigrating to Canada. Merv Worden just came home from a nine-month stay in the hospital after some complications during his recovery from an aneurysm and Dennis Kenny's wife suffers from dementia.

But despite everyone's challenges, there is an overwhelming positivity and happiness for the present, and I think Margaret Morran summed it up best when she said we all have to just accept changes for what they are.

5. Do things that energize you

Peggy Pendergrast can take the credit for this one. She is 80 years old and she does all kinds of stuff: teaching meditative watercolour painting classes, working in the Winnipeg School Division pairing seniors and students, teaching urban poling (walking with ski poles) to seniors three days a week, teaching a goal-setting class for seniors and playing trombone in a band called the Sassy Cats.

She says when she's feeling tired or out of sorts, sometimes it's her knees (she has a bit of osteoarthritis) but more often than not, it's something else that's sucking away her energy.

So her advice is not simply "do what makes you happy." It's "do what makes the time fly by." Spend time with people who excite you. Do what gives you the energy to do more of it.

I realized after my conversation with Peggy this project gave me energy. Often I'd meet someone for an interview after a long day of school when I wished I was going home for a nap instead. But a few hours later, walking back to my car, I would feel excited and inspired and full of energy.

My hope is this book of these seniors' stories inspires you and gives you energy.

Decaf Coffee Dates: Stories & Insights From Winnipeg Seniors is available at McNally Robinson Booksellers or by emailing decafdates@gmail.com.

You can celebrate these seniors and their stories at a book launch at McNally Robinson March 5 at 7 p.m.

Read more on the blog at www.decafcoffeedates.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2014 0

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