What We Learn From the Long Lives of Nuns (Think: People, Not Productivity)

American Catholic Nuns, like the Sisters of Mercy, have a tendency to live to be very old, and stay healthier and happier while doing it. (Back row from the left: Sister Marguerite Buchanan, Sister Brian Kelber, Sister Carolyn Snegoski, Sister Madonna Marie Bolton; Front row from Left: Sister Suzanne Toolan, Sister Mary Edith Hurley) (Tina Antolini)

By nearly every measure, Mary Edith Hurley is a shining example of elderhood. At age 100, she’s in good health. She scoots around her Burlingame assisted living facility with her walker, cracking jokes and greeting friends. She collects memorabilia that celebrates her Irish heritage, and likes to show it off to visitors, brandishing a “Tis a Blessing to be Irish” throw pillow with a giggle and a twinkle in her eye.

In fact, Hurley is part of a group of people held up by gerontologists as kind of heroes of “successful aging”: American Catholic nuns.

“They not only live much longer than their lay peers, they also are physiologically healthier and psychologically healthier — happier — at the end of life,” says Anna Corwin, an anthropologist at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. For the past decade, Corwin has been studying aging nuns, and she discovered a paradox: They’re held up as models of successful aging, but, in fact, Anna says, “They don’t see aging as successful or unsuccessful — they just see it as just natural.”

So, what are the nuns doing differently? I spent some time last fall — before coronavirus made such reporting dangerous — in the convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Burlingame. The convent is home to so many aging nuns that it has an on-site assisted living facility, called Marion Oaks, which is where Hurley lives. What I found was that the nuns turn many common assumptions we have about getting older upside down.

Interdependence Is Celebrated

On a Sunday early evening, about a dozen nuns get together in an upstairs room full of couches in the Mercy Center convent. After an informal prayer service — some hymn-singing and bible readings — they have a social gathering that strongly resembles a cocktail hour. A table in the corner is stocked with a cheese platter and other snacks, along with wine, beer ... and whiskey. Several sisters are pleased to see single malt scotch among the offerings. “This is a Sunday ritual,” one of them tells me. “Prayer. Social. Dinner.”

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There is a cheerful conviviality to the room, enhanced by the fact that many of these women have been living together since they became nuns, decades ago. They are practiced at communal living. Corwin says they learn to rely on each other long before getting old demands it.

“When there were older nuns who needed their care, they were there for them,” Corwin says. “And so then a little later in their lives, when they are the ones who need care and have to depend on each other — that seems like a natural sort of circular path.”

“I pay close attention to those sisters that are older than myself,” says Sister Joan Marie O’Donnell, “some of them who've been mentors to me.”

O’Donnell is 78 years old and has been a sister of Mercy since she was 18. She recently retired, after having worked for decades as a high school teacher and then in health care for elders. O’Donnell says the women around her supply a vision for how to navigate post-retirement life.

“Very often when I visit a sister, I’ll come home and I'll say, ‘Joan, take note, you know, take note, I mean, really take this in. This is awesome,' " she said.

Interdependence is a long-standing and celebrated aspect of convent life.

The Person Is More Important Than Productivity

Sister Suzanne Toolan is 92, and has been a musician — an organist and a composer — for going on eight decades. When I meet her, she sits down at the keyboard in her suite of rooms at the convent’s assisted living facility, and plays me a hymn she wrote, “I Am the Bread of Life.” It’s in hymnals all across the country; I grew up singing it in the Episcopal Church. But, partway through the hymn, Toolan stops playing, mid-phrase. “I have a hard time with my hand,” she mutters to herself, massaging the arthritic joints.

Sister Suzanne Toolan has been a musician for nearly 80 years. (Tina Antolini)

Because of arthritis, Toolan can’t play the way she used to, and she has a tendency to get down on herself for not being able to contribute as she always has. “Looking back, I wrote things for events — and that doesn’t come my way much anymore,” she says. “I can make it, but I just may be a little lazy.”

As soon as Toolan admitted this, another one of her fellow sisters, listening in on the conversation, swoops in. Sister Brian Kelber tells Toolan that she’s “the heart” of the Mercy Center’s liturgy and music. Kelber supplies an anecdote about Toolan having given her the job of carrying the music, so that she could feel included, even though she couldn’t sing. “Your talents are wonderful, Suzie,” she says, “but you are the gift.”

Toolan, just by being who she was, was contributing in her sister’s eyes. Corwin says this is the ethic so different from American society at large. Even though the nuns do an enormous amount, devoting themselves to charitable work, “there is so much socialization in the convent towards the idea that being a good person is much more important than doing good in the world,” Corwin says.

And in the convent, there are ways of contributing that aren’t physically demanding. Just praying for someone is valuable, Corwin says. This attitude around the person being the most important thing — beyond what they can productively offer — extends to even more extreme situations. At Mercy Center’s assisted living facility, I saw sisters with even bigger physical or cognitive challenges being integrated into daily life.

Toolan and her best friend, 87-year-old Marguerite Buchanan, tell me that they have another friend, Pat, who has dementia. Pat had been the president of their community of nuns before she started struggling with memory loss. “She can’t remember 10 minutes ago,” Buchanan tells me. “It’s getting so much worse.”

Despite this, Pat is not walled off on her own, with other people who have memory issues. She’s folded into the social life of the convent. She loves "Wheel of Fortune," so Toolan and Buchanan watch it with her every night. “And she’s good actually!” Toolan says.

“Really good,” Buchanan chimes in. She’s invited to play Rummikub with another nun and still wins occasionally. She plays bingo. Her friends have learned to accept that they need to enjoy her as she is, not as she used to be.

It's OK to Give Up Control

For many people in the U.S., being in control — of where you live, what you eat, who your friends are, what your future holds — is paramount. But the nuns took a vow of obedience decades ago that meant they gave up a lot of that autonomy. Corwin says, “They had this practice having let go of control.”

And Buchanan says getting older has accentuated that emphasis on giving up control.

“There’s a lot of letting go around here. You know, physical limitations — we all laugh at each other. It’s like we think we're going to have to be this certain way all our lives,” Buchanan chuckles to herself. “Well, sorry. It's not the way it is.”

Toolan jumps in. “I feel like I got so much,” she says, when so many people have so little. “Every night, I pray for people who are homeless. And I have hard time not feeling guilty.”

“I mean, what the heck did we do to deserve this?” Buchanan chimes in, on the gratitude she and so many sisters feel for the comfort and happiness of their older years. “You know, you just kind of fell into it.”

A Friendlier Attitude Toward Death

In the U.S., there’s a general avoidance of death — as if, maybe if we don't talk about it, it won't happen? But in the convent, there’s comfort around it. When someone is dying, the sisters take turns sitting with them, so they won’t be alone.

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They also talk a lot about their own deaths. Hurley says she’s already thought about what kind of funeral she’d like to have.

“We have a sister who looks ahead,” she says, “and gives us a certain kind of slip to put on the outfit we want to wear in the coffin.”

Corwin says nuns’ attitudes around death are probably helped by a theology that doesn’t consider it an end point. Nuns at Mercy Center spoke to me about a sense of being reunited with lost family members and friends when they die. Few of them spoke of it fearfully.

“There’s not a resistance to the end of life,” Corwin says. “And there's a sense that it's to be embraced as natural and normal and not to be looked away from and not to be avoided. It can be managed as gracefully as any other thing that they encounter in life.”

I, obviously, am not a nun. Chances are, neither are you. So, what does looking at their different ways of viewing aging mean for us? I see it pointing the way our society could go. Corwin says that it revealed the fact that the difficulty and fear so many of us have around getting older in this country is a cultural one. Other cultures — including many vibrant immigrant cultures here in the U.S. — have a different way of thinking about elders.

"There could be a cultural shift for all of us," Corwin says. And the starting point for that may just be acceptance: Yes, we’re going to get older. And that is natural. And fine.

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This story is part of a series on ageism, and the lived reality of growing older called The Third Act. It was produced with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation, with additional support from California Humanities.