A heartwarming, delightful, and profound new HBO documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, highlights amazing people living, and thriving in their 90s and 100s! These are individuals, like iconic friends, Carl Reiner (95 years), Mel Brooks (90), and Norman Lear (95), who live life vibrantly, passionately, with meaning and purpose. They also have a lot of laughs. The title comes from Carl Reiner, who says he checks the obituaries daily and if he doesn’t read his name, he eats breakfast.
“Think: This is going to be the best day ever. It is the dance of life within us.”
– Patricia Morison, age 102.
Intersection with My Mission
I am passionate about the field of aging, human movement, and thriving. It is the subject of my doctoral dissertation, research, and practice. Over the past 30+ years, I’ve designed positive health, re-creation, and functional fitness programs serving older adults and their families. I created a community Dance/Fitness program, FitDance for a government social services grant to reduce alcoholism, (prescription) drug abuse, and improve mental health in older adults.My participants are younger than the people in the documentary, only in their 60s through 90s. My objective is help them figure out how to live long, to be happy, and to experience meaning. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I discussed Vibrant Aging, a “positive way of looking at growing older into the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond, based on their putting forth positive energy and moving toward realistic optimism.”
In addition to highlighting the humor, grace, growth, and openness around incredible role models of longevity, this documentary helps demonstrate the value of increasing physical, intellectual, emotional, social resources. It promotes new positive models of aging, and shows us bold ways of growing older vibrantly.
Building Character Strengths of Transcendence
In writing about this inspiring show, I think of Ryan Niemiec, Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character, and his wonderful work on positive psychology at the movies. Following his lead, I’m framing this piece around the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA), especially the Strengths of Transcendence, which align so well with this program’s messages. The transcendent strengths are:
- Humor: Bringing a smile to others is important. Liking to laugh.
- Gratitude: Being aware of goodness and not taking it for granted. Being thankful.
- Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence: Noticing and appreciating beauty and excellence in your life.
- Hope: Expecting the best for the future and working at it.
- Spirituality: Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning in life that shape your actions.
This enjoyable documentary features long-lived, talented, passionate artists, athletes, and musicians, who, like my vibrant research participants, make us rethink what it is to be a “person of a certain age.” All the older people featured are thriving, despite misconceptions about life at 90, that are not necessarily positive. A question comes up about whether modern medicine, good luck, or genes, are responsible for this level of vitality and passion in later years. Looking beyond these factors, there is an exploration about what contributes to a person having fun and enjoying life after 90. Walking, moving, dancing, and having friends are very important parts of the recipe for healthy longevity.
Younger longevity experts, like Dan Buettner and comedian, Jerry Seinfeld offer a younger perspective. Jerry Seinfeld, in the spirit of George Burns, who lived to age 99, has a “save the date” to perform in Las Vegas on his 100th birthday.
Humor in Action
Carl Reiner is a comedy legend, and he regales the audience with delightful, sometimes laugh-out-loud, stories about his career and friends. He has written 5 books since he turned 90, and looks forward to writing every day. At one point, cracking up, Norman Lear, says “You can’t laugh that hard without it adding time (to your life). I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”Gratitude in Action
Iconic and charming, Dick Van Dyke, 91, who wrote a book, Keep Moving, in 2015 about staying youthful, is prominently featured, singing, dancing, smiling, and laughing. His advice is, “Never lose the wonder,” saying, “New experiences are the only thing you can collect in life that end up being worth it.” He encourages us to “indulge your inner child,” emphasizing the importance of imagination, creativity, and dreaming!
Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence in Action
Stan Harper, celebrated as one of the world’s greatest harmonica players, talked about being poor and finding a harmonica on the street when he was a kid. He said he went into his room with it for 5 hours, and came out playing. He never looked back. Asked about one of his favorite things in life, he said, “Breathing.” A master of classical music on the harmonica, here he plays Vivaldi.
Portrait painter Raymond Olivere, marathoner Harriette Thompson, actor/comedienne Betty White, singer Tony Bennett, and celebrated musical theater actress Patricia Morison (102) are also interesting, exciting, and prominently featured. Irving Fields (100) an artist and pianist said, “The more I play the happier I am.” With his quick, nimble fingers playing beautifully, he said, “I do things today I was afraid of 40-50 years ago!”
A Spirit of HopeA particularly poignant piece is about Ida Keeling, who started running at age 67 after her two sons were murdered. After being in the pit of despair, her daughter reached out and said, “You have to get up and keep living. Let’s go for a mini run.” It was a 5K! Afterward, she said she felt different, and started racing every week. She began strength training, and in 2016, set a record, running 100 meters at 100 years, to thunderous applause at the Penn Relays. Ida Keeling believes “Do what you need to do, not what you want to do,” believes in “competing with herself,” and “the goal is to be of encouragement to others and to stay strong.” She sums it up, “I’d rather exercise than go to the doctor.”
Lithe and limber, Dick Van Dyke describes the importance of training. He talks about being in theater, and how the dancers would fitness train to stay strong, vibrant, and to prevent injuries. He talked about training at age 30 to look good, at age 50 to feel good, at age 70 to stay ambulatory, and at age 80 to avoid assisted living. He continues to train in his 90s, so he “can look good, and not look dead.” He encourages us to understand that “Living in the present is all we have.” That is indeed, the gift.
Spirituality in Action
“I used to think every night before I went on stage, a lot of people think of the audience as one mass, but it’s not — it’s all individual people. And that’s why I love the theater … And I always feel that if in some way you can touch somebody, either touch them emotionally, or if it’s a young person who wants to be an actor, touch them so he or she, too, wants to be an actor … it’s so worthwhile. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done in life.” Patricia Morison (102)
Norman Lear talked about how there is a preconception “to behave a certain way because he is 93” (now 94). Like Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman and other Marvel Comics heroes, he believes culture does not understand what it is to be older. Norman Lear says, he “becomes the age or the peer of whomever I’m talking to.” Norman Lear talks about vitality – the intersections of long life and active life – still being physically fit, cognitively aware, living out passions, contributing, feeling ongoing achievement in your life.
In the United States, Buettner mentions, the capacity of the human body is 90 years but life expectancy is 78! Buettner discusses culture around the world where the older you are, the more celebrated you are. You matter. If there is a need, as an older person, you rise to the occasion.
Wisdom in Many Voices
Here are some concluding thoughts.
- “Live with curiosity; otherwise you will want to lie down and die.” Mel Brooks (90)
- “Take advantage of being alive; don’t worry about being old.” Carl Reiner (94)
- If you are doing something, you are living. “Life is Action!” Jerry Seinfeld (63)
- “Do physical labor, no tobacco, no alcohol, and have lots of sex.” Skydiver, Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, who parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne (96)
- “Harness your vitality; you can do whatever you want regardless of what the clock says.” Betty White (95)
- “Enjoy music to stay young at heart.” Irving Fields (100)
- “Life is the main gift we have. As long as you are here hold it – Eat it up.” Patricia Morison (102)
- “As long as you live, meet wonderful people in your life; hold on to them because they are gifts.” Patricia Morison (102)
- “Being old is a whole new adventure; you can’t describe it.” Stan Lee (94)
- “You CAN find perfect love; do what you love. Do it every day.” Norman Lear (95)
O’Brien, E. (2015). Positive, active, older but youthful, women, and “FitDance”: Uplifting motivation and adherence in community dance exercise. Dissertation for Temple University. Abstract.
Buettner D. (2008). The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.
Buettner, D. (2010). Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way. National Geographic.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2013). Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Character Strengths and Well-Being Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reiner, C. (2013). I Remember Me. AuthorHouse.
Van Dyke, D. (2015). Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging. Weinstein Books.
Photo Credit: from Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Carl Reiner courtesy of mhbagtoons
Octogenarians out for a walk courtesy of JIGGS IMAGES
Dick Van Dyke courtesy of Gage Skidmore
Dick Van Dyke dancing courtesy of classic_film
Betty White courtesy of Wicker Paradise