Ellen Langer

Don’t buy him another tie or a shirt! Most of us approach Father’s Day mindlessly. The same old presents, the same old brunches, the same old Father’s Day cards. The older our parents get, the more this is the case. That’s unfortunate, because Father’s Day could offer us the chance to think about our fathers in a different way.

At an earlier time, our fathers used to be strong and seemed to know everything –or at least more than we did but now our father is diminishing right before our eyes. He’s less willing to try new things and often there seems to be something new going wrong with his health. Perhaps he is feeling a bit like a burden and we’re feeling a bit guilty about feeling this way.

The trouble is, the way we see him actually has real effects on the way he sees himself, and that has real effects on his life and health. My studies, and those of Becca Levy and others, show that our attitudes affect the quality of our lives and our longevity. We have far more control over our health than we realize, and the good news is that our fathers can have this control as well.

I conducted a study many years ago where we took elderly men to a “timeless” retreat to see if we could turn the clock back twenty years. When they first showed up to be in the study they were frequently accompanied by an adult child who babied them. To a one, they looked like they were on their last leg. For the research, these elderly men lived for a week as if it were twenty years earlier, speaking about the past, for example, in the present tense. Whoever was President twenty years earlier was the president “now.” Same with the baseball world series and football superbowl. When on their own, and without the influence of their worried children’s negative expectations for them, they did just fine. In fact, putting their minds in this younger place had considerable positive effects on their bodies. After a week away many of the men whose children thought of them as invalids were playing touch football with me.

Better than any shirt or tie, giving our fathers (and ultimately ourselves) a new attitude about their health and abilities would be the best gift of all. Instead of mindlessly going through yet another Father’s Day like all the others, give your father a challenge or a vote of confidence. Why not buy him a pedometer to encourage him to take longer and longer walks with pleasure and anticipation. Or challenge him to a scrabble game once a week or month. The winner gets a shirt. Or a tie! Let him see a world of possibilities in his current life, rather than see aging only as a time of loss. If we help our fathers add life to their years, we’ll actually help them add years to their life.