Tue, 14 Nov, 2017Danielle McCarthy

Wellbeing lessons from an 89-year-old

Wellbeing lessons from an 89-year-old

As our ice-strengthened ship grinds though ice-clogged passages embedded with polar bear prints, it is time for reflection. We are in the Russian Arctic with Heritage Expeditions doing the Northern Sea route from Murmansk to Anadyr. As much as the landscape and wildlife is remarkable on this trip, so are the passengers – an eclectic bunch of explorers who have achieved much in their lives.

One Norwegian has walked to both North and South Poles; three passengers have been to all of the 196 countries on Earth; and others have driven vintage cars from Peking to Paris and London to Cape Town. All have chosen to do this 5000-nautical mile voyage through the Russian Arctic to improve their wellbeing. I spent the month voyaging with them and interviewing them about their extraordinary lives and what keeps them well.

The oldest on the trip was a man called Clancy Herbst Jr, who is old for a junior – he's 89 years old. He was born in Chicago in 1928 at the time of prohibition and Al Capone. His mind is as sharp as a tack and I was fortunate to dine with him every night and hear his stories of triumph and tragedy. A very successful businessman and philanthropist, he lost a daughter to suicide who at the time had a 9-year-old son.

As part of learning to cope by looking forward and not back, Clancy took his young grandson on nine major journeys including cycle trips through Pakistan and Ethiopia. The pair have done the Trans-Siberian Railway and visited islands in the White Sea as Clancy wanted to show his grandson Stalin's Gulag and what others also have had to endure in life.

Clancy enhances his wellbeing at age 89 by keeping his mind and body active, having a good wife, and thinking about others. He always had a book in his hand and had a wealth of stories to tell, such as dining with Bush, Gorbachev and Thatcher.

A reluctant user of technology, he managed to snap the photo of the journey on his iPhone when brandishing a stick at a polar bear advancing 10 metres away. When I showed him my iPad full of books, he commented that he was going to get one of those when he got home to Colorado.

He walks the talk by being very philanthropic and supporting impoverished kids and those with disabilities through college. One of his other grandsons recently became a paraplegic in a skiing accident so, in true Clancy style, the nearly 90-year-old set off to Brazil to meet an expert on spinal injuries.

One of the major five ways of wellbeing is giving, and Clancy does that on a regular basis. As a former chairman of the University of Colorado foundation, he is still very active in that space. He also exceeds on the other wellbeing indicators such as learning, being active, and being connected with others.

The elder statesman of the voyage, with his wisdom and experience, connected with all of us. He values self-esteem, friends and family above all else in life at his age. This reinforces my belief that it's not what happens to you in life, but how you deal with it that counts. As Clancy said, you can't learn with your mouth open so listening is a vital skill to improve wellbeing. It was a pleasure and a privilege to listen and learn from such a remarkable man.

Written by Dr Tom Mulholland. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.