Jim Firman on His Third Phase: The Best Time of His Life! [Interview]
May is Older Americans Month and to celebrate, we sat down with NCOA’s CEO Jim Firman to ask about his personal experience of aging.
At 65, how do you define this stage of life?
I truly believe this time of my life is a blessing. I and the rest of my generation are lucky because we’ve been given the wonderful gift of time. In the history of the world, two-thirds of the people who have ever lived to be 65 or older are alive today. Most of the men in my family—my father, my grandfather, my uncle—died well before 65, and if it wasn’t for modern medicine, I wouldn’t be here either. So I can honestly say that I am grateful to be alive and able to enjoy life.
Sure, there are some realities about aging that don’t make it the rosiest of times all the time. My body is not the same, more things hurt, and I can’t do all the things I used to do when I was younger. But being alive today is a lot better than the alternative! So I try to approach each day with gratitude and joy, as well as enthusiasm because it’s really cool that my generation gets to define what this new phase of life entails.
What are three of your favorite things about aging?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve always tried to have a “glass half full” outlook on life, so I think the first thing is appreciating what I can do, and not focusing on what I can’t do.
Being aware of my mortality, I also savor the time I have with family and friends. I especially appreciate being a grandfather. In some ways, I have more time to spend with my family now than I did when my children were younger because back then I was always working.
Finally, I believe I am much more able to do better in the world now than when I was younger. I’m lucky because I’m still working and am blessed to be working in a mission-driven organization that allows me to do good. I think I’m a lot smarter now—I’ve made a lot of mistakes and believe that all my life experiences have been in preparation for the opportunities before me right now. So, I’m grateful that my ability to make a difference in the world is increasing, not decreasing.
What do you believe your responsibilities are as an older adult?
I believe each of us has a sacred responsibility to make the most of our gift of years and to make the world better in some way. So, my personal mission—growing out of nearly 40 years in the aging field—is to promote and encourage my cohort to think differently about their mission and responsibilities in later life.
I’m Jewish. When you have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, you get presents, of course, but it’s also about marking your entrance into adulthood and taking on sacred responsibilities, about teaching and learning, helping others, and making a difference in the world. And my personal belief is that these responsibilities shouldn’t expire when you turn 65.
When I was in my 40s, I had the privilege of working closely with an extraordinary group of people in their 80s and 90s who became my mentors and role models. Each of them was passionate about making the world better and continued to be active in civic and community affairs. They kept going despite the aches, pains, and losses that come with growing older, and I admired them for that.
I’m very lucky because my job has “doing good” built into it, and I enjoy doing good, too! But when the time comes when I’m no longer paid to do good, I hope I will keep doing it anyway.
Do you think your 40 years in the field has made you more mindful of what successful aging entails?
I’ve had a hearing impairment since childhood, and I think that has made me more empathetic to the challenges of aging. But despite working in aging for a long time and being a so-called expert, it wasn’t until I was 60 that I realized I had little idea about how to age well on an individual level. That’s why NCOA’s Aging Mastery Program® has been so much fun for me—because it’s personal and because I think there is such a great need and opportunity to educate people about this new phase of life.
How have you come to define and model successful aging?
I think it starts with daily practices, such as gratitude and mindfulness, making sure I am doing small things that help myself and others, and savoring each day. I try to focus on simple things, such as staying hydrated, meditating, exercising, and being kind to others.
Often we’re so busy that we forget how we can make a real difference in the lives of others in just a few minutes. For example, I have a 97-year-old uncle in assisted living in California, and if I call him and chat with him for 10 minutes, it makes his week. All of us should incorporate more things like this into our daily routines.
I’m also learning about the importance of developing good health habits and sticking to them. The warranty on my body ran out around age 40, so now it’s all about maintenance. I have a friend whose father is a federal judge, and he’s 95 and has been going to the gym five days a week for the last 40 years. And if you look now at YouTube videos, you’ll see 95-year-olds doing yoga. There’s a reason they’re fit at 95—it’s because they’ve been working at it each day for 40-50 years.
I also work at trying to have a rich and fulfilling life—because it doesn’t just happen automatically. I remember one of my mentors in her 80s was actively cultivating friendships with younger people to fill the void caused by her own friends dying. But a lot of people aren’t that proactive. So, I’m just trying to be smarter and better about navigating aging.
Any words of advice for how to master this new stage of life?
You can have a great old age, but you need to work at it. Luck and genes are a contributing factor, but you can greatly increase your odds of living long and well by learning the art and science of longevity and by cultivating daily habits like mindfulness, regular exercise, watching what you eat, being kind to others, and constantly learning and growing.
You have been given a gift of today. Savor your gift and spend it wisely. Plan your life like you are going to live to 100, but live your life like you might die tomorrow.
Most people I know who are thriving in their 80s and 90s are leading mission-driven lives. They are passionate about making the world better—each in their own way—and their passion energizes them, creates meaningful connections, brings them joy, and compels them to make the most of each day. I recommend that everyone—but especially people who are “retired”—make time to discover and live their mission.
Think of it this way: You have been in training all your life for this moment. How will you use your lifetime of knowledge, wisdom, experience, and capabilities to make life better for yourself and others?
Tell us what you most value about aging or share your words of advice for mastering this new phase of life in the comments below!