It’s not always obvious who is an expert and who isn’t. Some experts have all sorts of qualifications and degrees, some have professional experience, and others become experts of life simply by living through more decades than most of us. I happened to meet one such expert by chance through a friend of mine. Her grandmother, Vlasta, is 92 years old and she’s still full of life – and I knew I had to interview her and ask her to share her wisdom with us.

Vlasta is from a generation who was raised through hardship. She could have plenty to complain about – but you will never hear her complain. At 92, Vlasta thoroughly enjoys life still; in fact, I met her while she was on holiday, visiting her granddaughter and great-grandson in another country hundreds of miles away from her home. That’s how Vlasta rolls. 

Curious to learn the life lessons she has learned over nine decades? Then read on, dear reader.

Humility, respect, and duty above all else

According to Vlasta, the most important thing in life, apart from health, is humility. Being humble, never looking down on anyone, treating people with respect: “Don’t humiliate yourself, and don’t exalt yourself either” she says; “and at the same time, don’t look down on people – but don’t look up to them either.” This last one is equally important, and in our celebrity-crazy world it serves as a refreshing reminder that nobody is above us, not really. I love it.

Respect is another thing that Vlasta highlights. Respect for others, and also, respect for yourself. And while respecting someone you don’t like or don’t agree with, or someone who upset you, can be a challenge; Vlasta says it’s important not to show this. “Respect others even if you don’t like them, be friendly and show kindness, but at the same time keep your distance emotionally. Acting calm with detachment and respect is the only way you can build respect for yourself. And that is the most important thing.”

Vlasta feels that there is not enough respect these days, and responsibilities are often seen as optional. “Today it’s absolutely different, younger generations don’t respect anything, they don’t have to. Parents are asking their children ‘are you willing to do this and that, oh you have so many activities so you’re tired, so maybe you do it later’; this is not good.” Upon reflection, I’m totally guilty of making this mistake with my son… perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

As Vlasta sees it, many of the mental health issues we see these days stem from not having order and routine in our life. “Both parents and children are often mentally sick, because you don’t have order and routine, you don’t have respect, and you don’t have duties which cannot stay unfinished” she says. “Maybe at work, that’s only where you have that, career and work. But you have your children, the younger generation, they have to be raised well, too.” 

Embracing responsibilities not just at work but in everyday life as well is very important for Vlasta. She believes that having a sense of duty and maintaining a structured routine that helps you fulfil your obligations can only lead to happiness and contentment.

Less thinking, more doing

One of the biggest lessons I learned from Vlasta is to stop overthinking (which I totally do). “Today you have so many psychologists, but the thing is, you overthink things, it’s too much, and it’s not good” she observes. “You have to do more, and think less. Do not overthink things, just go with the flow. Concentrate on the here and now, and what may happen tomorrow; and that’s that. Be prepared for tomorrow, but don’t look back.”

When I ask Vlasta what advice she would give to the younger generations, her answer is closely related to “doing”. She highlights thoroughness, strictness, consistency – especially in completing tasks. She explains that in her youth, there was no such thing as leaving something unfinished because she was tired or not in the mood; and she still lives by this rule. “If I have to do something, I do it; it’s my job, it’s my work, my duty, I’m never complaining about these things. Maybe that’s why I’m healthy at the age of 92, because I don’t think so much about things, I just do things.”

Maybe that’s why I’m healthy at the age of 92, because I don’t think so much about things, I just do things.

Small, everyday tasks are an important part of Vlasta’s routine and she sticks to them diligently. ”I wake up, and even if I’m tired I prepare my breakfast, my lunch, and my dinner every day. I do all necessary routines as I would if I had my family, even though I’m totally alone. There’s no such thing as I don’t cook because I’m alone. It’s not possible. Most of you young generations say, I don’t have time for that, I’m alone, it’s not worth it. No. I have to do it, because I do it for myself, to have a routine.” Going shopping, buying groceries, greeting people, these seemingly small things are very important, according to Vlasta. She sees many people, especially older ones, who are unhappy because they’re not socially active, they stay at home all day, they complain; that’s simply not possible for Vlasta.

Another thing that’s keeping Vlasta active and busy is creating a nice atmosphere around her. When Christmas or Easter comes, she already starts preparations a month before. She designs and creates decorations not only for her own apartment, but also for the whole building. She feels this is her duty. And people around her really appreciate her work. Friends, neighbours, even the shop assistants from the nearby stores that she visits regularly, all love her – because she always treats them well. They come to Vlasta when they’re stressed because she’s always positive, always up for a chat, she’s interested in lots of different topics, and people transform from being stressed to relaxed under her influence.

Resilience is built on hardship

Resilience is a popular word these days so I wonder what Vlasta’s thoughts are about it. When I ask her what advice she has about overcoming difficulties, she’s somewhat bemused. “Difficulties?” she says with a laugh. “Overcoming difficulties, and problems, and pain, and fear has been a part of my life since I was a child. And as I can see today, I have a big advantage compared to today’s younger generation. We didn’t have anything and we worked hard for all our possessions and really fought every day for survival, especially during the war, so I’m used to it. I overcame life’s adversities and adapted to life’s needs and challenges. I worked whenever I could, supporting my son and grandchildren. I don’t overthink – if anything needed to be done, then I did everything to get it done, even if I didn’t feel ready or strong enough. And that always made me stronger!”

I don’t overthink – if anything needed to be done, then I did everything to get it done, even if I didn’t feel ready or strong enough. And that always made me stronger!

Growing up in a large family of seven children during World War II, Vlasta certainly experienced hardship. “We were in danger every minute of our lives. It was so tough, and we had to learn to be helpful and kind to people who could kill us any minute. This was our everyday life” recalls Vlasta. “It was really hard work, very tough times. We didn’t have enough food, enough clothes, we had animals, but not good shoes. And we went to school every day, whatever the weather, we had to walk 5km to school, in bad shoes. And walk 5km back after school. And after we were home, we had to help our parents, no matter if we were tired. And we were so tired. And we couldn’t lay in bed like you, or relax; we had to immediately help mum, help my younger siblings, also the animals, we had to do so many things. But we were happy, the possibility that we had horses, we had cows, we knew that we were in a better position than many other people who had absolutely nothing.”

Vlasta understands that people these days have different challenges, mostly related to work. But what surprised me was her overview of how our modern culture creates new difficulties: “You don’t have time at all today for anything or for each other, you only make demands, you are more selfish. We helped each other and our parents, it was part of our duty. Pardon me, but you are too spoiled and nothing is enough for you and that divides you, the enormous amount of possibilities every day.” 

This last one took me by surprise, but Vlasta is right. We tend to think of possibilities as a good thing; but actually, having too many options can create more bad things than good: confusion, greed, envy… and yes, division. We hate to admit this, but it’s true: when life is too comfortable, too easy, that’s not good for us.

What really strikes me the most though, is how matter-of-factly Vlasta talks about hardship: growing up in tough times, being in danger every single day, not having enough food or clothes – this was just everyday life. No complaining. She even goes as far as feeling grateful and happy that they had animals, livestock, so they were in a better position than many others. The incredible strength that shines through her story leaves me with no doubt: it was living through hardship that built her remarkable resilience.

There is power in strong relationships

Another thing Vlasta learned growing up during the war was the power of strong relationships. “We were six children, but my mum, when her sister died, she automatically took her sister’s child in and we had to take care of her like our own sibling. It was automatic that we helped. We had strong relationships, much more than you have now, because we didn’t have many possibilities, we were very tired, sometimes very sad, sometimes very scared; and it made our relationship strong.”

Supportive relationships were important not just within the family, but in the community, too. “Society was very different” says Vlasta. “We were supporting and helping each other. For example, we were five families with children who were mutually babysitting so that we could go out and have some fun. Nobody’s parents could help, so we supported each other more; and this help and support was again given to my children and grandchildren. And now my granddaughter and great-grandson love to spend time with me despite my old age, because it makes them happy in the same way it made me happy back then. It was so nice to take care of them, it made me so satisfied. It was all so natural for me.”

Family is clearly very important for Vlasta. She believes parents have a lot of responsibility and have to be careful about what example they set for their children. “Children follow their parents and the example that they set. So it’s very important to behave in front of your children the way you want them to behave with their family in the future.” 

Spending time together as a family was an absolute priority, and Vlasta encourages us to schedule family time as often as we can. “We were together with my husband and my son for every dinner. I know these are very different times and people have different schedules but this is very important. If you can’t do it during the week, at least do it on Saturday and Sunday.” 

When I ask Vlasta what the secret is to a happy marriage she doesn’t hesitate. “My tip is definitely to be grateful for meeting a handsome, humane, appreciative and disciplined man and to show happiness for that gift to him. If you know that your husband is correct, he’s hard-working, he’s taking care of you and does the maximum for you, then you don’t have to see the other things. This is not hypocrisy, this is being diplomatic. The rest is not my business. My business is when we are together we’re happy.”  

Being positive matters

Appreciating the simple things in life and feeling grateful for what you have are really key to a happy life. Negativity is something Vlasta avoids on purpose. Even in her answers to my questions she carefully chose words that are not negative: “I deliberately don’t use negative expressions like uninspiring or boring or difficult things. I unlearned to think negatively and I don’t even talk to myself like that.” Vlasta chooses to enjoy her life and she’s thankful for every hour, her granddaughter tells me. That’s why she never complains; she’s genuinely happy.

Vlasta also shares her own recipe with us about how we can brighten up our day. “I take small moments of relaxation: a moment of sleep, a coffee with a cigarette once a day, beautiful music, a beautiful book or magazine – just to flip through the pages, for a moment, to get inspired; and that’s enough. And then you’re full of energy again, and you’re able to put that into the most important and necessary tasks and demanding things. You can finish your duties.”

Her advice for a happy life is really quite simple: “Take care of everyday duties and life, and concentrate on being positive to your children, because they need your support. And this is the important thing in your life. And sometimes you will feel tired, mentally exhausted; but believe me you still have a wonderful life.”

Never judge a book by its cover, as the saying goes; and indeed there’s no question that this seemingly frail woman has a core of steel. I quickly realise that she’s much stronger than I could ever imagine, and her resilience and attitude are admirable. 

Elderly people are not associated with wisdom and expertise enough in our modern culture – but they should be. So next time you meet someone like Vlasta, take a moment and ask them about their views about life and what advice they would give to the younger generations. I promise it will be worth your while.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us Vlasta! 

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash