More on Aging Gracefully

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The following article by William Van Ornum appeared in the Hudson Valley News on January 19, 2010.



As a clinical psychologist, resident of the Hudson Valley, and recent member of the +55 Club, what might I offer to a subject that is on a lot of our minds—getting older? And are there some tips along the way? or specific opportunities in the Hudson Valley to implement these? Is this a good place in which to grow old?

About aging, Nora Ephron said, “Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut a redwood open to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.”

I don’t think we need to adopt this attitude.


One of the most highly regarded books among psychologists who study aging is
Aging Gracefully, written by Harvard University psychiatrist George E. Vaillant.

One of the best things about Vaillant’s book is that it is based on a scientific study of hundreds of people over eight decades. His research team followed both talented and impoverished individuals not only by means of questionnaires but by lengthy conversations and home visits. They got to know these people well. They just didn’t look back to those whom they were studying—a research design fraught with logical problems, but instead accompanied these folks on a journey through life.

They came up with six key findings:

(1) Good relationships help serve as a buffer when crises or traumatic events happen
(2) Attitudes of gratitude and forgiveness and a willingness to allow new people into your life are very important
(3) A good marriage at 50 is very helpful in ensuing decades
(4) Active alcohol abuse is detrimental to positive aging
(5) Play and creativity are more important than income
(6) How you view your infirmities and physical problems is of more importance than the objective problems themselves


Those who were born and brought up along the Hudson often have deep roots—knowledge and pride going back even centuries. For them, a cumulative bond of many family members friendships and relationships is at their disposal throughout life. (Of course, some of these might be wearisome!) Although the call of warm weather is tempting, many remain here for life, or find the best of both worlds by being snowbirds.

Greater movement of people in and out of the Valley creates opportunities in meeting new people both for long-term residents and newcomers.

Pastor John Heller of the Lutheran Care Center emphasizes the importance of friendships at the program off Route 44 in Poughkeepsie: “Most residents here have strong relationships with each other—they enjoy being with each other, and they are always thankful. One of our ladies said to me on Sunday, this is the closest thing to a country club I’ve known!”

Oprah (and Vaillant) are not the first to recognize the importance of gratitude—they reaffirm an ingredient to happiness known for thousands of years. Acknowledgment of gratitude occurs, not only in Pastor Heller’s program, but in copious amounts on Sundays in churches hundreds or decades old as well as through many newer ways of expressing this, be it a seminar at Omega Institute or just a good discussion with a friend over coffee. Every day, seeing Hudson Valley reminders of FDR and others who kept our freedom going can be another source of thankfulness, and may even occur in a subliminal manner.

Is the Hudson Valley conducive to having a healthy marriage at age 50, which Vaillant and his team say is more important than even a reading of low cholesterol? On this it’s hard to offer thoughts specific to the Hudson Valley. Many achieve, many struggle, and many hope for—whether in traditional marriage or partnerships.

Active alcohol and substance abuse is detrimental to aging—and to all areas of life. Community mental-health programs, ranging from those sponsored by Dutchess County Mental Health and a continuum of private programs, 12-step groups meeting throughout the day, offer immediate and direct help. Marist College Social Work Department offers an outstanding course on the topic by Dr. Cheryl Whitely, and there are courses at Dutchess Community College leading to certification as an alcohol and substance- abuse counselor.


On Vaillant’s fifth finding—play and recreation—many would say the Hudson Valley is singular. Many of us moved here or stay here because of river, mountains, antiques, trains, horses, skiing, canoes and kayaks, boats on the Hudson, rail trails and mountain trails, New Paltz or Rosendale or Rhinebeck or Saugerties or Millbrook, Hudson Valley Renegades, dinner at the Beek, or thousands of other ways to unwind and appreciate life. For even more ideas, see Dana Gavin’s column each week.

Carolyn Brazil, Director of Recreation at Lutheran Care Center, described the Car Show for both residents and community members held monthly during the summer: “They’ll look at all the cars, spot one with particular enthusiasm, and exclaim, ‘I had a Chevy like that in ’54.’ The past comes alive. The Car Show is open to anyone in the community, and everyone has a very good time.”


What about medical care and how we view it? Dr. Alfred Frontera and Dr. Leonard Pickard, neurologists in Kingston, New York, have seen their clinical neurology practice grow from a comfortable red-brick building on Albany Avenue in Kingston to a full-service neurology center on Broadway with twelve neurologists, MRI, PET Scan, and many support services.

“It’s no longer necessary to go to Albany or New York City for topnotch care,” said Frontera, who is also Clinical Professor of Neurology and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Both Frontera and Pickard find that the Hudson Valley keeps them happy as they age. Frontera’s favorite activities include strolls amid the beautiful architecture on and off Albany Avenue in Kingston, or doing weekend chores on his farm in West Shokan.

Pickard has been caught by the lure of world-class trout fishing on the Esopus and enjoys Ashokan-Pepacton Chapter of Trout Unlimited Fishing Banquets out Route 28 at the Boiceville Inn.


State Assemblyman Frank Skartados (D-10th) since his election to the State Assembly has been a continuing advocate for services in the Hudson Valley that support graceful aging.

“As a State legislator”, said Skardatos (D-11th) it is so important to help ensure that our seniors have plenty of advantages to secure a desirable quality of life. Creating opportunities for them will sustain their optimum health, sound mind, and positive morale which are critical to their well-being.

“To that end, I obtained funding last year for programs and services to benefit our seniors, for The Bardavon in Poughkeepsie, for matinees and a music program for seniors, plus in-state transportation; Town of Newburgh Friends of Seniors to provide in-state transportation for medical appointments, grocery shopping assistance, friendly visits and reassurance phone calls to the elderly and disabled; Ann Street Gallery/Ritz Gallery in (City of) Newburgh which exhibits contemporary art by famous and upcoming artists to foster understanding and art appreciation; and Hudson Valley Rail Trail in Highland to upgrade its pavilion for community events.

It has been gratifying to have helped retain the initial earmarked funds for the splendid Walkway over the Hudson to enable it to open on time.”


Pastor Heller can be seen on Tuesday mornings leading a small choir practice in Lutheran Care’s Chapel. After finishing with a vibrant “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” choir members returned to their program. Afterward, Pastor Heller asked me if I saw a particular lady that was 105 years old leaving the Chapel. I was surprised, as I didn’t think anyone was older than 70 or 75. Indeed, there is a great deal to be learned from the Hudson Valley about aging gracefully.

William Van Ornum is a clinical psychologist, parent of a son with Down syndrome, and Board Member of the American Mental Health Foundation in New York City.

See his weekly blog on psychological topics at

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