Among the benefits of working with older adults at Serving Seniors is the opportunity to learn priceless life lessons. What I’ve observed after 26 years: no matter how different their backgrounds are, there are universal qualities to living a long, happy and healthy life.
Doctors and nutritionists offer plenty of good advice. But nothing matches the first-hand wisdom of someone who has lived a full century.
Cunya Wu will celebrate his 102nd birthday on Thursday, June 23. He will walk to the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center for breakfast and lunch, as he does every day.
Even when our dining room was closed during the pandemic, Cunya made his daily walks to come pick up his meals to go. We are glad to see him back with his friends again.
We recently asked Cunya to reflect on his life and share his best advice. From his cheerful disposition, it’s hard to picture the hardships he faced as young high school graduate in 1937 in Nanjing, China, as World War II overtook him.
He was forced to flee with his uncle just ahead of invading Japanese troops as they overran his city. Cunya secured a job as a fourth-grade teacher, quickly learning Mandarin. He followed a long road to college, moving away from home and learning a third language, English, when he was admitted to Hunan University to study electrical engineering.
Cunya says “life and death were just a stone’s throw away” under the threat of Japanese military bombing. By 1943, American and Chinese forces were fighting side by side in the Pacific.
He joined the Chinese military and put his English skills to work as a translator for the U.S. Army. Cunya saw devastating combat in the Battle of Longling in northern Myanmar and western Yunan in late 1943.
“The battle was extremely hard and cruel, and there is one thing I will never forget. A line of soldiers with whom I used to play cards all the time, after a single battle, none of them survived. Later I learned that our army had nearly 30,000 casualties and the Japanese had more than 13,000 casualties,” recalls Cunya.
Cunya survived and returned to his college studies, earning a master’s degree in journalism. He worked for the English language China Radio International, broadcasting the 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. news.
“When the Japanese surrendered, the senior announcer was in Nanjing, and it was me who broadcast this exciting and good news in English. ‘The Japanese have surrendered!’ That night we chatted and laughed, celebrated the victory, and looked forward to the future,” said Cunya.
Eventually, Cunya became a professor, working at several universities and helping to establish the new Xiamen University College of Technology in 1985. He retired as its dean, then emigrated to the United States at age 65 to San Diego, where his adult children were now living, including his daughter Shelley.
When people ask him for advice on living a long life, Cunya says he tells them, “Be curious, be eager to stimulate your mind, be willing to try new things, treasure time and every moment you have and make the most of it! Stay active both mentally and physically!” Cunya’s keys include four pieces of advice especially relevant for today’s older adults.
Staying Active, Staying Engaged
Cunya comes to our wellness center every day. “I like seeing people, curious what others are engaging in. I walk here and have breakfast and lunch every day. I get expertise along the way.”
“I am always eager and willing to learn new things, try new things. Being curious makes a person’s mind young. I try new things, food, even now. I taught myself piano in my 90s. If it weren’t for my bad eyesight (I am almost blind) and my bad hearing, I would try so much more. This world is such an interesting place.”
“I am grateful, content and appreciate all that I have rather than what I do not have. That is what gives me happiness. I am grateful to be in San Diego and attribute my long life to retiring here. The wonderful, pleasant weather with the sunshine means that I can always be outside and get exercise, walking every day. I call San Diego ‘heaven on earth.’”
“I feel blessed that my children are all healthy and happy and enjoying success in their lives. I wish I could live long enough to see the success of my grandchildren and great grandchildren as well and where their lives take them.”
Serving Seniors will throw a birthday party for Cunya on Friday, June 24, at 2 p.m. as part of our “Senior Idol” event. Knowing Cunya, he’ll enjoy his cake with friends and sing along with the competitors.
Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.