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Forgive your way to a better holiday

By Katherine Dorsett, CNN
Sisters Vicki Clift, left, and Liz Clift Ramirez share a smile together during this holiday season.
Sisters Vicki Clift, left, and Liz Clift Ramirez share a smile together during this holiday season.
  • Study: Friendships and family relationships get better with age
  • Study: Seniors list 15 close relationships, compared with young adults with 10
  • The authors say people will act more pleasant if they perceive little time left in a relationship

(CNN) -- As some people struggle through painful or stressful family reunions during the holidays, many seniors may be enjoying their relationships.

What's their secret?

Sisters Liz Clift Ramirez, 65, and Vicki Clift, 62, have learned a thing or two that has let them enjoy each other more.

Liz says they often fought while growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, but are close now during their "golden years," and she attributes some of this to the power of forgiveness.

"I think it is easier for older people to forgive because you've realized that life doesn't go on forever," she said. "Life is too short to cut yourself off because of bitterness or pride."

This forgiving attitude is what helps make, in part, the golden years so golden, according to research from Purdue University, and it may explain why older adults report better marriages, more supportive friendships and less conflict with their children and siblings than younger people.

Forgiveness can be good for your physical and mental health, too.

Katherine Piderman, Ph.D. and staff chaplain of the Mayo Clinic, writes on the clinic website that "letting go" can lead to less stress and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain and a lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse.

And who doesn't want that during the holidays?

Piderman says you can forgive a person without excusing the act, as it will bring a kind of peace that helps you go on with your life.

Practicing forgiveness

Recently, Liz and Vicki drove through Ireland on vacation and experienced a forgiveness moment. They got lost and spent an entire day trying to find their way back to their hotel.

"At the time, my sister had a headache and was angry with me for getting us lost and said I destroyed her vacation," said Liz, now a Georgia resident and retired graphic artist.

The next morning, Vicki apologized for her rant. Liz quickly forgave her sister, an art history professor in North Carolina, and they went on to enjoy a great vacation.

During their escapade in Ireland, Liz said she was hurt by her sister's blow up but felt it was best to forgive Vicki and let it go because angry feelings would not enhance their relationship or their vacation away from the U.S.

Why do seniors have more "golden" relationships?

Karen Fingerman, Ph.D. at Purdue University, said her research summarizes a lot of studies but pointed to one that found "older adults listed 15 close relationships on average, compared to young adults listing 10; and for problem-ridden ties, older adults listed only 1.9, but younger adults listed 3.3."

The study found that while physical and cognitive abilities decline over time, the perception of limited time left to live and willingness to forgive play a part in improved relationships.

This research rings true for Liz Clift Ramirez. She said forgiveness is easier now than it was when she was younger.

"I carried grudges deeply for many years, and I was so sensitive and took every hurt to heart," she said.

She considers herself a very sensitive person and said it would upset her, for instance, when her father would "say terrible things to her."

"My father, now deceased, was a very good and talented man, but he had serious problems with alcohol," she said.

As time has passed, she learned more about his background and what triggered his issues and is "blessed to have never walked in his shoes and has forgiven him so many times."

Liz said when she was younger, forgiveness would have meant letting down her guard, but she sees life differently in her senior years.

"You've lost parents, relatives, friends, and these are not things I knew as a young person," she said. "It's best to forgive and let it go."

The Purdue study found it's not just seniors' attitudes that contribute to enhanced relationships, either.

When time factors in

Fingerman and Susan T. Charles, an associate professor at The University of California in Irvine, found people of all ages are more likely to forgive and respect one's elders, which in turn creates more harmonious relationships for seniors.

"We've seen this in studies when adult daughters don't want to confront their elderly mothers or discuss negative things with them because they feel there is little time left with them," Fingerman said.

The authors also found that no matter what the age, people will act more pleasant if they perceive there is little time left in a relationship.

"This research makes sense to me, because I think it is only natural to want to smooth over and fix a relationship if you know the end is near," said 67-year old Barbara Caffery of Eden, New York.

"And no matter what the holiday, why have anger or resentment inside of you when you can be at peace instead," she noted. "Life is meant celebrating whether it is Christmas or not."