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My wife and I recently attended a memorial service for Helena, my wife’s mentor and work colleague for 25 years. Family and friends expressed sincere, heart-felt tributes to a uniquely vital woman who knew how to live life to the fullest.

Helena had a number of good things going for her — a loving husband; a large, extended family of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who loved her dearly; disciplined exercise habits, including regular ocean swims and a healthy diet; many friends who kept in regular contact with her; and a 40-plus year career in book publishing, one of the many passions that nourished her keen mind and critical thinking. She had a strong work ethic and a compassionate heart. Helena was truly larger than life.

It was inspiring to contemplate the arc of a life lived well. On the drive home, my wife and I half-jokingly, half-seriously said we wanted to have a similar memorial service for ourselves — that is, we want to live a life that would inspire similar comments from our surviving relatives and friends.

Later, we thought about other vital, age 70-plus people in our lives, and we analyzed the characteristics they have in common so that we could translate that inspiration into action. Based on their examples, here are the characteristics that we agreed made for a vital life:

  • Take a sincere interest in the lives of your family and friends. Ask what’s going on in their lives — demonstrate with your actions that you care about them and what’s going on with them.
  • Have a passion for something that makes a positive difference in the world. It can be a cause, a volunteer position, or paid work.
  • With all of your personal roles — spouse, partner, parent, grandparent, relative, and friend — be the best that you can be. Make time for others, and never take them for granted.
  • Take care of your health, and have vigorous activities and hobbies.
  • Be generous with your time and money.
  • Take the time to appreciate all the good things in your life. Many people make the mistake of taking for granted all that is going well, while obsessing on one or two things that aren’t going well.

We noted that all these age 70-plus people in our lives whom we admired shared similar qualities. For one thing, all were working at something they loved doing, either with paid work or through volunteering. These inspiring individuals include a portrait artist, an interior decorator, a writer and editor, a dance instructor, a yoga instructor, an active volunteer in church activities, and several workshop leaders. For all of these people, their work passion was a second or third career. They had all made major shifts in their lives after thinking about the type of work that would sustain them well into their later years, and then they worked hard to obtain the necessary skills and experience so they could succeed at these other careers.

In addition, all but one are self-employed. My experience is that in spite of the laws against age discrimination, it’s hard to convince someone to employ you when you’re in your 70s. That’s nothing to whine about — it’s just an observation that it’s likely you’ll need to make things happen on your own through self-employment, being an important part of a small business, or by volunteering for a cause you believe in.

Helena’s life had more lessons for us. While we didn’t know much about her finances, it was clear she was neither rich nor poor. But she must have taken the time to make she had enough money to support the life she wanted because the lack of money never seemed to impede her enjoyment of life.

This is consistent with my observations:You don’t need to be rich to have a fulfilling life, but you do need enough money to meet your needs so you’re not stressed out about making ends meet. And think of all the ways you can gain fulfillment that cost nothing! This means you need to do the proper work and planning to make it happen — you won’t get handed a good life on a silver platter.

Steve Vernon, FSA, uses his substantial actuarial experience to help working people make their money last for life. He has developed unbiased, trusted information and strategies for his recent book “Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years: Simple Retirement Planning Strategies That Work Through Thick or Thin” and his DVD/workbook “The Quest: For Long Life, Health and Prosperity.” Steve is President of Rest-of-Life Communications and a research fellow and executive faculty member at the California Institute for Finance at California Lutheran University. For 35 years, he has helped large employers design and operate their retirement programs. He currently consults to Mercer’s U.S. Retirement, Risk and Finance Business.

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