A life well lived
In honour of Queen Elizabeth II
BY PETER BOWES | SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 11, 2022
As the world mourns the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the Live Long and Master Aging podcast extends its deepest sympathies to members of the Royal family and everyone who loved and respected the UK’s longest-serving monarch.
We want to pay our respects to the Queen in this, the 200th episode of LLAMA. She devoted her life to public service and, as King Charles noted, it was “a life well lived” – a phrase that resonates with the values and goals of our podcast. It accurately reflects the selfless life of Queen Elizabeth, but could also be applied to many members of our own families and close friends.
In 2018 I interviewed Sky Bergman, a professor of photography and video, about her film, Lives Well Lived. It features the stories of forty people who share their experiences, wit and wisdom, with remarkable candor.
In honour of Queen Elizabeth and every soul who has enjoyed a life well lived, we are republishing my conversation with Sky. It is both inspiring and sobering, with honest reflections on the aging process.
Originally published: June 5, 2018
Celebrating the wit and wisdom of adults over 75
This interview with Sky Bergman was recorded on April 19 2018 and transcribed here using Sonix AI. Please check against audio recording for absolute accuracy.
Peter Bowes: Hello, this is Peter Bowes. This is our 200th episode of the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. It will be a different kind of episode because it coincides, sadly, with the death of the queen, a remarkable woman who lived to the age of 96 and had the admiration of people around the world. We extend our deepest sympathies to members of the royal family and everyone who looked up to the Queen as someone who devoted her life to public service. It was, as King Charles put it, a life well lived. And that phrase resonates with me, not only because it accurately reflects the selfless life of Queen Elizabeth, but it also describes so many of the older people that we all know and love. It is a familiar theme on this podcast and one that I want to reflect in this episode by revisiting an interview that we published just over four years ago in June 2018, Sky Bergman discussed with me the film she made with the title Lives Well Lived. It features the stories of 40 people who share their experiences, wit and wisdom with remarkable candor. The film, as I noted at the time, is both inspiring and sobering with honest accounts of the aging process. So in honor of the memory of Queen Elizabeth and all of those souls who enjoyed a life well lived. Here again is my conversation with Sky Bergman.
Sky Bergman: My grandmother was my inspiration for the project, and when she was 99, she was still working out at the gym. And I went with her to the gym to film her because I thought, I can’t believe at 99 she’s still working out and lifting weights and everything. And so I had her mic’d, thankfully, and I just asked her for a few words of wisdom, and she said, ‘Be kind to everyone, live life to the limits.’ And I came back from that trip and I put together a little one minute clip of her, and she was funny. And she had these words of wisdom. And I thought, you know, this is a project. I’m going to find other people out there that are as much an inspiration as my grandmother is to me. And so I set about reaching out to all my friends, family and alum. I teach at Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo, so I sent an email out to about 1000 people and I said, Here’s a link to a video I did of my grandmother. And if you have somebody that’s as much an inspiration as she is to me, then please nominate them. And I was just inundated by nominations. It was just so heartwarming. So that was how it started.
Peter Bowes: And it’s interesting that that’s how the conversation started because we had someone on the podcast just a few weeks ago who asked elderly people exactly the same question. And the common answer, he said, was always ‘bear no grudges, be friends with everyone.’ It really is something that it comes up so often. You can’t deny it.
Sky Bergman: That’s true. And you know, I’ve lived my life now with that motto of just be kind to everyone. And it really the world would be such a better place if we were all like that.
Peter Bowes: So how did you go about making the film? You mentioned you reached out to to friends and to try to get a number of sort of similar people with similar stories and of course, a great age. How easy was that?
Sky Bergman: Well, it was pretty easy. Like I said, I was just inundated with nominations. The hard thing was when I first started this, I didn’t realize that it was going to be a film. I thought maybe it’d be a web project or something. I really wasn’t sure. I just knew I had to do something. And as I started collecting the stories of these people, I realized that it really there was a turning point where I realized it really had to be a feature length film. And I think that point was when I interviewed this woman, Marion Wolf, who was lived in Berlin, and then they moved around to they were trying to escape Hitler and they ended up in Vienna, Austria. And she was on the very first Kindertransport out of Vienna, Austria, where the Quakers in the UK were trying to rescue the kids in Germany and Austria. They rescued 10,000 kids and she was telling me the story and she still had the cardboard number that they put around her neck when she was eight years old to bring her to the UK. And I realized that although I thought that the project was going to be one thing which was collecting all these words of wisdom, it also was about collecting all these incredible stories of these elders and what they had been through. And so at that point I realized it was going to be a feature length film, and I really sought out a number of different stories so that it would be tell a diverse history. And for example, one of the women that I interviewed is Susy Eto Bauman, who lived in Los Osos California and was interned during World War Two. And I felt like it was very important to also tell that story because it’s very easy to say, Oh, that happened over in Europe, but then look at what happened in our own country. And so I really tried to seek out a diverse group of people at that point.
Peter Bowes: And it’s interesting that people of that generation want to tell the story, and there is a sense that they have a legacy to leave. And the legacy remains within the stories that something that’s in their mind, it’s in their brain, but they want to pass it on.
Sky Bergman: Absolutely. And one of the people that I’ve now done some panels with, the people that are in the film, and one of the people in the film, Paul Wolff, said, you know, I just having been one of the people on the film, he said, it’s so wonderful that we feel validated because our stories are heard. And he said, as much as it’s wonderful that you all have those stories and can hear them, it’s also on the flip side for the people telling the story, it makes us feel good that we can share what our life was like. And I think that’s really important that that group of people want to tell their story. And and my motto is, everyone has a story to tell if you just take the time to listen.
Peter Bowes: So let’s just take a little step back from this project and talk about you and how you got to this point. This is something that a project that took you by surprise. So what had you been doing?
Sky Bergman: Yeah, absolutely. It definitely took me by surprise. I’m a trained as a photographer. I went to UCSB for my master’s degree in photography. And then I’ve been teaching at Cal Poly since 1995 photography. I really started doing video because my grandmother was an amazing cook and she came out to visit me for the first time when she was 96, and I thought I’d better film her because she never wrote a recipe down. And that was really how I started doing the video I had never done. First time filmmaker had never done any video or sound or anything like that before. And I think, you know, I always tell my students, the more personal, the more universal the message is. And it’s something that I was really passionate about. And I think that comes through in the film. And I just followed my passion and followed this idea, and it led me to a feature length film. I’m glad it didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I started. It’s taken six years to get to this point, but I’m also really grateful that I have this incredible film and it’s touching so many lives.
Peter Bowes: And I was just going to ask you about that in terms of the practicalities of doing something like this, and especially a project that continues to mushroom as you learn more and as you meet more people.
Sky Bergman: It’s an amazing journey. It really is. I thought it was going to be this sleepy little film and it has turned out to be something quite other. I think it hit a nerve. I think it just came out at the right moment in time when we’re having these conversations about baby boomers are turning a certain age. And, you know, we’re just more aware of our elders and and that population, that aging population. So I think I just happened to hit it at the right time. I wasn’t doing it for that reason. I really was doing it for the love of my grandmother. But it just kind of worked out that way. And all of a sudden I’ve kind of become not an expert in the aging field, but I’ve interviewed 40 people. So people are curious as to what are the common threads and what are those kind of things. And so it’s very interesting how how that’s mutated and changed.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, I was going to ask you so apart from perhaps the spiritual side, the the need to be with people and to be doing things that leaps out at me, what were the other common threads?
Sky Bergman: Right. Well, I think the the three common threads amongst the people that I interviewed were, as you say, the need to have that social network, whether it’s friends or family. And then I think everyone in the film had something that they were passionate about doing every day, and they still wanted to learn something new every day. I mean, I think of Rose Albano Ballestero, who’s 80 and she’s six units shy of her PhD at USC and she still wants to get her PhD. And that’s because, she says learning never stops. And I think that that’s something that they all had in common. And lastly, you know, this is such a cliche, but there’s a reason for it. They all see life is the glass is half full rather than half empty. So it has a lot to do with their positive attitude. I think that that’s a really important component.
Peter Bowes: And was there something was there anything that really surprised you that actually made you step back and say, I would have never thought of that?
Sky Bergman: Well, I think I just didn’t realize so much the hardships that that generation went through. And I and it was something that did take me by surprise. I mean, for example, I interviewed this woman, Emmy Cleaves, who is a Yogini. She does the same yoga that I do. She’s in her eighties, late eighties, and which is why I wanted to interview her. And I did not know her whole history of fleeing Riga, Latvia. And she was separated from her mom on the train platform and these things at 15. And I just put myself in that situation and I think, wow, I can’t even imagine having lived through that yet, still being so positive. So I think the thing that surprised me were all these I knew people in one way, but I didn’t know all the stories that they had. And I’m so grateful for taking the time to really get to know them more in depth and to know their stories. Because I look at my life and I think how blessed and how easy my life is. And when I am having a bad day, I think of some of the things that these people went through and how they still remain positive. And it definitely changes my attitude.
Peter Bowes: And when you ask that question, that inevitable question, why do you think you’ve got to this great age? I imagine you get a full, enormous range of of answers. And when I ask that question, I step back and listen back to the interview and think, well, does that actually mean anything? Is that really why they got to a great age or is that why they think they got to a great age?
Sky Bergman: Yeah, that’s I mean, that’s a good question. And it’s funny because I thought that question would be the most telling and it was the least telling of all the questions, because I think that most people will say just dumb luck, good genes. You know, very few people said it was diet and exercise. I think it was really more their attitude than anything. And that was really enlightening to to hear that and to see that. I think that my grandmother always used to say se never eat processed food. And that might be part of it.
Peter Bowes: It could be good science.
Sky Bergman: It could be good. But I think a lot of it just really had to do more with their attitude. And, you know, I was not just seeking out people that were 75 and older. I was seeking out a group of people that were not only 75 and older, but were really still living, fulfilling lives. That was important to me, that they really still felt engaged and they were an inspiration to somebody because they’re still doing things and they’re still active. And I think that that was important. So I had a very select group of people that I was looking at.
Peter Bowes: And how have you, having done this project, having now got to the point where people are watching this in cinemas and that has taken you by surprise that it’s mushroomed in this way. Is there something that you’ve taken away and you’re now applying to yourself in terms of of lifestyle because you’ve seen the evidence of how good doing a certain thing can be.
Sky Bergman: I think that the biggest piece of advice – well there are a couple of them. One is the attitude that you have about life is the only thing that you can control. Sometimes you can’t control the situation, the things that are happening around you, so you can control your attitude. But I think the biggest takeaway for me is to really live in the moment and enjoy each and every moment. And even though we’re I’m 52, even though I’m on the younger side, I still really try and just enjoy every moment as it’s happening. And I think when you’re young, you’re so into the next thing that you’re doing and you’re worried about so many things. And sometimes we forget to just take that breath and look around and go, Wow, this is amazing, and just enjoy every moment.
Peter Bowes: And do you think there’s something about the complexity of lives these days that’s actually not doing as much good? We have the technology, we have the social media. We have bright lights flashing at us all the time. We have all these distractions that the people of that generation who lived much simpler lives, simply didn’t have, didn’t yearn for, and probably don’t miss if they’ve never got into that kind of thing. Do you think that’s significant?
Sky Bergman: I think it’s very significant. And one of the people in the film, Jesse Alexander, he when I said, what do you wish younger people understood about life? And he said, and he’s a techno person as well because he’s a photographer. So he uses all that kind of gear and everything and but and he has a smartphone. But he said, I wish younger people these days are always walking around, texting, looking at their phones. They should understand about the beauty around them and look up. And I think that really resonated with me because I found that I was doing the same thing and I now hear him in my head saying, Look at the beauty around you. And I put my phone away. I turn my ringer off most of the time and I will I don’t have my phone out. I don’t want that distraction. But it is such an easy distraction. And I think that it does keep us from really enjoying the moment because we’re trying to multitask and none of us really multitask as well as we think we do. And we lose that personal connection, that one on one connection, when we’re always in the back of our mind thinking, I wonder if I’m getting a text message on my phone instead of really just taking the time to listen to the person that you’re sitting in front of and looking at them in the eye and really having that connection.
Peter Bowes: Again, this is something we’ve touched on recently, but it’s the idea of just living a simpler life that I think is so valuable and that we every single day we’re being dragged further and further away from that. But just living a simple life gives you that. I call it the white space. You’ve got your calendar, and I love the fact that there’s some white space sometimes that you can just breathe and do things and or maybe do nothing or read a book.
Sky Bergman: Do nothing. Imagine that.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, which is so valuable. And it’s sad in a way that we’re moving away from that and we’re being dragged away from that so quickly. And I think people often talk about the zones around the world where there are these people that live exceptionally long lives. And if you look at those communities, they’re all quite simple communities, but they are, I think, dwindling communities.
Sky Bergman: I think they are. And I think that’s a shame. I think there’s also there’s a reason why things like yoga have become really popular, because it is that way that you can take yourself out of that distraction and you’re just in a room. At least for me, I do yoga every day and my phone is not there. I’m just thinking about my breathing. We don’t take that time normally to just be away from all the distractions. And I think it’s really important, like you said, to sometimes just do nothing. And I would agree that those places where those distractions are not around are far and few between these days.
Peter Bowes: Now, you mentioned that when that light bulb went off and you realized that you had a story here, that you had something to pursue and that perhaps it was the right time because there is, as I found, a considerable amount of interest in this area. Why do you think that is? And if you look at Silicon Valley, for example, the whole sort of longevity movement and Google’s Calico looking quite a secretive organization, but they’re looking at all sorts of science in terms of trying to extend healthspan, maybe lifespan as well. What’s happening right now, do you think that is making people so interested in this?
Sky Bergman: I think it just is that we have that baby boomer generation that is everybody’s living longer and they want to not just live longer, but also live better. You know, it’s not the same as when I was a kid and you thought of somebody in their seventies or eighties. They were old. And that’s not the. Case anymore. And so I think it’s just the timing of our population and where it’s heading. And we’re an aging population all over the world. There’s you know, many populations are aging, not having as many kids. And so I think you’re going to see a shift in where people are looking at research and what they’re looking to do. And I think it’s not just about keeping people alive longer, but keeping having people live well. And there’s a big difference between just living and living well.
Peter Bowes: A huge difference. Yeah, absolutely. Wouldn’t we all just want to live well, right?
Sky Bergman: Like live well, right up to the end and then, you know, that’s the end.
Peter Bowes: Well, and longevity scientists talk about this all of the time. That is the goal is to keep on living and keep on living well and then die after a long day in the golf course or maybe a three mile run or a climb up a mountainside or whatever. It just makes you happy. Right, and then quietly pass away. I mean, that is the ultimate goal.
Sky Bergman: Absolutely.
Peter Bowes: So in terms of that leads me to my next question. I often ask people, do you have aspirations in terms of your own longevity? Is it something that you think about? Do you have a goal?
Sky Bergman: Well, I think I have longevity in my family, but I definitely still don’t take that for granted. I had three of my four grandparents lived into their nineties and my grandmother lived to be 103 and a half. So that being said, anything could happen. And I still live every moment as if it could be my last. But I also take care of my body because I hope it’s going to be around for a while. So I eat well and I do my yoga practice every day. And so I think those are things that I consciously make a decision that if I’m going to be around for a while, I want to be around and be living well and I want to be balanced is important and I want to be walking and I want to be moving. And so my grandmother used to have a saying, move it or lose it. And I think of her on the days where I may be a little bit too tired to go for my walk or do my yoga practice. I just hear my grandmother saying, move it or lose it. And that keeps me going because she really was pretty active right up until the end. And that’s the that’s the way to be, you know, to be really be able to enjoy life fully and not just sit around and not do things. She really was with with it. So yeah, I do think I think about that on a conscious level.
Peter Bowes: Sky Bergman talking to me in 2018 about her film Lives Well Lived, and I will note that the Queen was active and continued to work as she always pledged she would do right up until the end. A remarkable life, indeed. Thank you for listening.