Vantage Point

Living Long, Living Well


A few days after the death of Queen Elizabeth II at age 96, I visited another nonagenarian, one whom I know very well: my uncle, James McDonnell, known to us as Uncle Jimmy. I went to see him with my sister, Betty, and her husband, Frank, the day before Uncle Jimmy turned 98.

That started me thinking about the gift and significance of living a long life.

I never thought much, one way or another, about Queen Elizabeth—leaving issues of politics aside. As a public figure she was known for having a strong sense of duty and a deep concern for her people, for whom she was a symbol of strength and endurance during difficult times. I admired that.

I can’t compare my Irish-American Uncle Jimmy with the queen; their lives were radically different. But I’m wondering whether people who live a long time have more in common than just a great many birthday parties.

Uncle Jimmy has his own ways of being steady and dependable, getting things done and setting an example. An old saying applies to him: “There’s no grass growing under his feet.” He’s a man of action.

Uncle Jimmy is a younger brother of my late father, Edward, and the last one alive of six children. He told me once that he started working at age 9, soon after their father died. It was the time of the Great Depression, and his mother—my grandmother—was a widow with five children to support. (One son died in early childhood.) She found Jimmy a job making deliveries for a local storekeeper.

“I’ve never been unemployed since,” Uncle Jimmy remarked several years ago. After finishing school he entered law enforcement and remained in the field for decades. He was still working in his 90s.

That’s one characteristic of long-lived people: working and staying busy at something they do well and enjoy.

Uncle Jimmy is never more himself than when he is hosting a party or picnic. There were so many get-togethers through the years, and he and his wife, my late Aunt Kay, always seemed to be in three places at once, making sure everyone had enough food—second helpings were encouraged—and that all were having a good time. That’s another habit that can extend life: getting together with family and friends.

Once I heard my father end a phone conversation with Uncle Jimmy by saying, “Keep the faith.” I asked him about it, and he replied, “It’s an Irish expression.” But it was more than an offhand phrase; my mom and dad kept the faith, and so did Aunt Kay and Uncle Jimmy. They set an example for the next generation. That’s yet another longevity predictor: scientific studies have shown that practicing one’s faith can extend life. In no way do I suggest that longevity should be one’s motive for loving God—God and His goodness are the reasons—but living one’s faith can add to one’s years.

While Betty and Frank and I were talking with Uncle Jimmy, I asked him, “What’s your secret for a long life?” Instantly he replied, “I’ll let you know when I get there.” We burst out laughing because the quip was classic Uncle Jimmy—fast, funny and true. His birth certificate says he’s elderly, but his conversation and his involvement in life say he’s in his prime. He isn’t focused on his age; he’s focused on whatever he wants to get done, and, most of all, on the people in his life.

Uncle Jimmy was always there if you needed help; all you had to do was call. Today he’d probably say that he was happy to be there whether you needed him or not, and to speak his mind whether you agreed with him or not. That’s the way he is—although disagreements about anything never lasted. What lasted was the fun, the laughter, the faith, the sense that we are family.

That’s the secret of living long and well. When I hear more about it from Uncle Jimmy, I’ll let you know.