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 The Virtues of Aging

Interview of former President Jimmy Carter by Barbara Walters February 17, 2003

During a television interview, Barbara Walters said, "Mr. President, you have had a number of exciting and challenging careers. What have been your best years?"

President Carter's answer: 

Now is the best time of all.

These have been the best years for Rosalynn and me. We've been through some severe tests since I left the White House. We have struggled to find the best way to retain our self-confidence, evolve an interesting and challenging life and build better relations with other people.

As we've grown older, the results have been surprisingly good. Here's what we have learned about the virtues of aging that can make the older years the best time of all for you:

Bridge the differences. When you were younger, you and your spouse had your own separate interests - built around your careers and rearing your children. Now it's just the two of you. You are drawn much more closely together, and the differences that separated you must be smoothed over.

I was dominant when we were a young married couple. That has changed. The sharper differences have faded during the 52 years Rosalynn and I have spent together. We each have had to accommodate the preferences of the other.

My habits and interests still are different from Rosalynn's, but the gap is narrowing. Rosalynn has worked at my interests - and has become a good tennis player and an excellent fly fisher. She runs with me several times a week and climbs mountains with me. Her interest in business, politics and global activities now equals mine. In turn, I have accepted with increasing fervor her preference to stay at home, with each other and with our family.

Give each other space. As with most couples, profound changes have taken place between Rosalynn and me as we've moved into our retirement years. We've had to continue reconciling our natural personal differences. One thing we learned very quickly was that we had to give each other some space - a clear separation.

We still have our share of disagreements, but we've finally become mature enough not to dwell on them nearly as long. After a brief time, we either ignore the differences or confront each other frankly and discuss them rationally.

Helpful hint: I once prepared in my woodshop a thin sheet of walnut about the size of a check. I carved on it, "Each evening, forever, this is good for an apology - or forgiveness - as you desire." I gave it to Rosalyn. It sometimes has been difficult, but so far I have been able to honor my promise.

See your life as expanding. A person my age - I'm 74 - now has the remaining potential that only a much younger person had just a few decades ago. We not only have longer to live, but in some ways, each year now equals several years in the past. We are exposed to 15 times as much knowledge as Aristotle was. Many of us travel much more in a year than Marco Polo did in his lifetime.

My own life has been greatly affected by computers. Every day I am at home, I use word processing software for writing books, newspaper and magazine articles, poems, letters - even my diary. When I'm traveling, I stay in touch with Rosalynn and my friends and family by E-mail. I correspond much more now with all of them than I did when letters had to be written and mailed.

However, don't be seduced into inactivity by the same computer that offers such expanded access to knowledge. There is a great world away from a soft chair and the flickering screen. Preserve your health. We do not face an inevitable decline in our health as we age. Moderate exercise can have dramatic results in maintaining our lung capacity, bone strength and mental sharpness.

Some of the best advice I've ever gotten is it is better to use recreation to preserve health than to use medicines and treatment to regain health.

A diverse life - filled with changes, experiments, innovations and adventures - is one that is much less likely to be filled with illness. A few dollars or days pursuing a hobby or pastime is a sound investment that pays off twofold: You will enjoy life more...and you will avoid costly medical expenses. People our age certainly cherish each day more than when we were younger. Our primary purpose in our golden years is not just to stay alive as long as we can, but to savor each opportunity for pleasure, excitement, adventure and fulfillment.

Give some of your time to others. The most useful, fulfilling thing we can do as we get older is to help others. One of our society's greatest mistakes is the failure to measure, or even acknowledge, the tremendous contribution that older people make. People who spin roulette wheels are considered to be productive, but not people who care for a disabled friend or family member or who do volunteer work in a hospital.

In every decade after age 55, unpaid work is the main form of productive activity for both men and women. Rosalynn and I are active in Habitat for Humanity - raising funds and going each year to a different site to help build at least one home for a family in need.

There are other organizations that are equally interesting, but require less physical effort. Consider The Friendship Force (www.friendshipforce.org), which we helped organize when I first became president. Groups of people travel from their own countries to other countries, stay for a week or two in private homes, and then welcome their hosts for a reciprocal visit to this country. More than two million people have participated in the program - many of them between 65 and 75. My mother went to Ireland with a group from Iowa when she was 79.

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