Joy in the golden years

Story and photo by Jenna Cannon

What is the key to being happy in life’s later years? Riches? Career? Health? These are some of society’s theories about happiness. Clyde and Nancy Neilson have a different outlook on the subject.

Clyde and Nancy Neilson spend time with each other at their home in Cottonwood Heights.

“Feeling like you have a purpose and being needed by the ones you love is what makes you happy,” Clyde Neilson said.

Elderly people often become depressed when they realize they are nearing the end of their lives, said Kenneth Poulsen, gerontology care manager at the Magna Senior Center in Magna, Utah. But those who have meaningful relationships have a more positive outlook on life, he said.

“Relationships and social connections appear to be the key to aging well,” said Scott D. Wright, director of the Gerontology Interdisciplinary Program Center on Aging at the University of Utah.

These relationships can be found in friends, family members, a spouse or a neighbor. “Studies have shown that having someone to spend time with improves the quality of life for the elderly,” Poulsen said.

The Neilsons say their relationship is a positive influence in their lives. They have been happily married for 54 years. Although they have trials and problems they say they find joy in the little things.

At the age of 79, Clyde’s face holds a youthful expression of wonder rather than that of worry that so often comes with age. His wife said she long ago gave up trying to tame his hair. It sticks up in various places as though he’s a young boy who has been outside playing.

Nancy Neilson is 72. Unlike her husband, she reveals some worry in her face. But with a word or two her husband can crack her nervous exterior and have her giggling like a teenage girl.

The Neilsons give off the distinct impression that they really care for one another. “It makes me feel special when I can do something that brings my husband joy,” Nancy said.

“I’ve seen many couples that love each other, but are too concerned with themselves to make it work. Some people don’t understand that you have to put your spouse’s needs first and vice versa to truly be happy,” said Carol Washburn, a psychologist of marriage and family relationships.

The Neilsons said they try to look out for one another in every aspect of their lives, from work, to family, to health.

Both have fairly good physical health, but Nancy’s mind is slowly ebbing. “She has trouble remembering things all the time,” Clyde said. Because of her memory loss, he takes her to work with him at Miller’s Honey Company at least once a week to stimulate her mind.

Clyde retired many years ago, but he still works because he finds it entertaining. He laughed at the idea of retiring.

“The best part of retirement is the anticipation. When it actually gets here it’s not that fun,” he said.

He also likes to work because he can bring in extra money for things like vacations and an inheritance for his four children, he said. They make him feel needed.

“I think it’s important for us to have enough money to leave to our kids when we’re gone,” he said.

Nancy expressed concern that her husband does more for her than she does for him. With this assessment she anxiously began picking at her nails. With a loving smile, Clyde reached across the table and held his wife’s hand gently in his callused fingers.

“You do more for me than I could ever dream of,” he told her genuinely.

These small acts of charity illustrate the importance of having someone to care about and care for you in return.

“When the elderly people at the senior center have the opportunity to help one another, the joy on their faces is truly memorable,” Poulsen said.

Another couple in their late 60s said doing little things for one another keeps them happy. Jim and Connie Carter like to surprise one another to maintain the youthful joy in their relationship.

“Jim knows I love cupcakes from Backer’s so he brings me home a delicious chocolate cupcake every once in a while,” said Connie. “It’s a welcome surprise that I will never tire of.”

The Carters also try to spend plenty of time with one another. They recently started doing financial consulting together.

“The time we spend working together has become a real treat in our lives,” Jim said.

Many elderly people have lost their spouse but are still content and happy with their lives. Washburn attributed this to the other relationships they maintain.

“Surrounding yourself with family members or other people you love is an ideal move towards happiness,” she said.

Grace Pace, an 86-year-old widow, said when she starts feeling lonely she remembers her children. With the click of a button she can call a family member to ease the burden of loneliness.

“It’s been hard ever since my husband passed, but having my family around keeps me upbeat. Sharing my life with my family truly makes me happy,” she said.