For many of us, old age appears like a blip on the horizon, an inevitable part of the human condition that always seems further than it actually is. Yet when we are reminded of its eventual toll, a constellation of anxieties cluster together. Fears about how age will take a toll on our well-being, autonomy and relationships emerge — until we hear stories that challenge stereotypes about the elderly. Nora Sabbagh provides a heart-warming example of a life well-lived and preserved. With infectious optimism, she describes life as “Wonderful! Just wonderful!” from the senior community in New Jersey that provides the backdrop for her golden years.
As an octogenarian, how have you maintained your health and joie de vivre? Any advice for our readers?
It’s simple. By enjoying life and what you do. Of course, exercise and a good diet are also major contributors too. I have always stuck to a Mediterranean diet. The balance of vegetables, fruits and carbs — there’s nothing like it! Exercise has always been an essential part of my life. At my age, I do chair yoga — basically, yoga for the elderly. If only you could see how I bend at the age of 85! I am still flexible which is great. We should not neglect the role of genetics. My mother, for example, always looked younger than her age. Good genes have something, but not everything, to do with aging well.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a curious person who wants to know everything. Regardless of age, learning is something that I never get tired of. Looking back, making others feel good has been a pretty central part of my professional and personal life and has given me purpose over the years.
“If you’re a Lebanese, you’re a Lebanese for life.”
What is your relationship with Lebanon?
Lebanon is my beloved country. I love Lebanon, the Lebanese and their joie de vivre. I was born and raised in the north of Lebanon and my sisters still live there. They are one of the main reasons that I go back — to visit them. One thing that I always say: If you’re a Lebanese, you’re a Lebanese for life. Some of the memories that have stuck with me are the fun we had with my family and friends and the memorable drives to the mountains and the gentle fresh air that touches your skin. I remember the sunny and warm beach of the Saint Simon and the sand and deep blue waters of the Mediterranean.
For someone with such love for Lebanon, my next question is: Why did you leave?
For a bit of history: My husband, who is Palestinian, moved to Lebanon — more specifically, to the north which is where we met. We raised our three boys in my exciting Beirut. My husband got a job with AIJ consulting firm. When he moved to the United States, we all followed him. To be honest, I love every moment I live here, in the United States. I am Lebanese and love Lebanon but I love America, too. Once we moved, working became the next logical step for me. We lived in Delaware at that point so that was where my career naturally unfolded. I sat for my board exam and went through all the standardized steps to become certified as a nurse. I have to admit that was quite a challenge.
Working in the field of sexual and reproductive health, I gave a listening ear to everyone from teenagers to women going through menopause. The age range that I catered to stretched from nine until 65 years old. I mainly worked with teenagers as a family planning nurse practitioner. This involved annual physical examination, counseling and prescribing the birth control method that best suits each patient’s individual needs, teaching, referring them to the right specialist.
All of these were very satisfying aspects of my career. Most of all, patients needed someone to listen to them. That is what I gave them unconditionally through my work as a nurse — someone to listen to their family planning needs, someone to care for them and someone to support them.
“Regardless of age, learning is something that I never tire of doing.”
What is your living situation now? Do you have family nearby?
Right now, I live in a compound with elderly people, ages 58 and higher. I relocated from Delaware to New Jersey to be closer to the kids in New York.
The HOME is only a 30-minute drive away from them, so I have the fortune of visiting almost every weekend. I have three boys and no girls. One is a computer scientist, the other works on Wall Street, the third is a colorectal surgeon. I wish I had a girl. I see my friends with daughters, they stay around. From experience, boys are more independent while girls cling to their mothers. My boys are fun though, they keep me interesting and awake. Talking with them is like turning on a hundred new bulbs in my head.
Do you have a specific philosophy or spiritual path that you follow?
I’m not religious. I do not go to church or read the Bible every day. But I believe in God and believe in life after death. Faith is very important to me. I don’t talk about it but I have it and that helps me a lot.
What type of books keep your mind activated?
Biographies, biographies, biographies! I read nothing else. Like I said, I’m a curious person, and that also applies to people. Right now, I’m reading Accidental Presidents by Jared Cohen. It’s about vice presidents who become presidents due to unexpected circumstances. If I had to pick a favorite, Bill Clinton’s autobiography, My Life, tops the list.