Why did this image go viral? In case you haven’t seen it before, it depicts a couple who were admitted to separate rooms in a Georgia hospital. Thanks to the wisdom of the nursing staff—and some bending of the rules—they were reunited. I think the photo struck a chord because it captures the important reality that what matters most as we get older—and perhaps at any age—is relationships.
We devote an inordinate amount of effort when we are younger to being “successful,” which we tend to define in terms of fame and fortune. And then, when we retire, we focus on living longer, on diet and exercise, on health and on experiences. But what so clearly mattered most to the couple in this photo is each other. Yes, the oxygen flowing through the plastic tubing is important. Yes, the intravenous catheter (not visible in the photo but I’m reasonably sure it was there) was useful for delivering potentially life-prolonging medication. But what makes life meaningful above all is our connections to others.
Lisa Berkman, a prominent social epidemiologist, has found compelling evidence that social networks—our links to our community—even affect our physical health. They influence whether we get a heart attack or stroke in the first place and how we fare if we get one. They affect our propensity to develop cognitive impairment and how well we cope if dementia strikes. But perhaps George Vaillant said it best when summarizing his book, Triumphs of Experience: the Men of the Harvard GrantStudy. This ambitious, longitudinal project followed 268 men who graduated from Harvard in the 1940s with a series of in-depth interviews over the course of their lives. Of course, generalizing rom these privileged Americans, all male and all born in one era, to the rest of us is risky. But despite their talents and their opportunities, these men had their share of alcoholism, of poverty, of suffering, and of disease. The inescapable conclusion that Vaillant reached was, as he put it himself: “It was a history of warm, intimate relationships—and the ability to foster them in maturity—that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” And that's the message conveyed by the photo of the two nonagenarians in their hospital johnnies, holding hands.