The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

95-year-old might have found the key to longevity: A purposeful life

Olga Murray with two Nepalese children. Co-founder of the Nepal Youth Foundation, Murray has rescued about 13,000 girls from being trafficked as enslaved kitchen servants.
Olga Murray with two Nepalese children. Co-founder of the Nepal Youth Foundation, Murray has rescued about 13,000 girls from being trafficked as enslaved kitchen servants. (Cherilyn Parsons)
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All through the pandemic, while so many Americans have languished — feeling cooped-up and searching for reasons to get out of their pajamas — Olga Murray has flourished.

Approaching 96, at an age when many of her peers are isolated and in poor health, she has been eagerly planning a trip to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, while keeping in touch with hundreds of friends around the world who admire her boundless energy and perky habit of saying things like: “I feel so fortunate. You can’t imagine.”

Is it her good genes? (Her mother lived to 98.) Her daily salads and thrice-weekly workouts? Or might it have something to do with the retired lawyer’s second career as founder of a nonprofit organization that, among other achievements, has rescued nearly 13,000 young girls in Nepal from being trafficked as enslaved kitchen servants?

Scientists increasingly are finding that some variation of that third factor — call it living with purpose, finding meaning in life or just engaging with something larger than yourself — can be a particularly healthy pursuit. It’s also relevant for older U.S. women, who outnumber older men by about 6 million, and on average at age 65 can expect to live roughly another 21 years — about three years longer than men.

As a 2019 study of nearly 7,000 elders discovered, living with a sense of purpose, which Murray has in abundance — can improve the quality of those final years and even prolong them.

In his 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that belief in something “external” — potentially as mundane as unfinished work, or the hope to reunite with a loved one — helped prisoners survive.

Nearly 80 years later, experts acknowledge that some of the science is still squishy, confounded by biases in self-reporting (Murray was perky long before she found her second calling) and varying interpretations of the meaning of “meaning.”

Still, a critical mass of evidence suggests that a conviction that life is meaningful can bring benefits, such as better cardiovascular health, mental sharpness and general likability, according to a recent analysis of “The Science of Meaning of Life” in the Annual Review of Psychology.

Some good news, from this report and others, is that you don’t have to win comparisons to Mother Teresa or get a medal from the king of Nepal, as Murray has done, to reap benefits.

Joshua Hicks, Texas A&M psychology professor and co-author of the recent review, says researchers have found that most people tend to rate their lives as meaningful, based on such garden-variety inspirations as being in a good mood, having religious faith and having friends.

Murray, the co-founder, past president and current chief fundraiser for the Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF), offers a vivid example of how to create a sense of meaning from scratch, and the benefits it brings.

Her health isn’t perfect. She takes pills for high blood pressure and has difficulty walking more than a few blocks at a time. Yet she would rather talk about anything else — and there’s so much more to talk about.

“I’m not a doctor but I do know that when I get out of bed every morning and think that I might help a little kid in Nepal, I’m not focused on my body,” she says. “My main focus is on the kids.”

The story of Murray’s third act begins in 1984, after she had worked 37 years as a California Supreme Court staff attorney in San Francisco and was starting to think about retirement.

She knew she wanted to do something involving children, although she hadn’t imagined anything more ambitious than tutoring or maybe advocating for kids in juvenile court. Long-divorced, with two devoted stepsons, but never having had kids of her own, she says, “I have always loved children, and have endless patience with them — not as much with adults.”

At 59, while trekking in the Annapurna foothills of Nepal, Murray found herself enchanted by the children dogging her tracks. Staring and laughing at the blue-eyed foreigner with hair as white as the Himalayan peaks, “they were poor beyond anything I had ever experienced: dirty, dressed in ragged clothes, malnourished, without toys of any sort,” she recalled in a self-published memoir years later. “Yet they were the most joyful, funny, amiable little kids anywhere on earth.”

One evening, while visiting a villager’s dirt-floor hut, Murray and her guide watched three children do their homework by candlelight. Their father proudly explained that they were among the lucky few who were able to go to school, even though they had to walk two hours to get there.

Later on, alone in her tent, Murray had what she described as a “totally unexpected flash of insight.” She wanted to devote the rest of her life to helping educate Nepalese children.

The vision took some time to realize. Returning to Nepal the next year, she met Allan Aistrope, then a volunteer English teacher at the country’s only orphanage. The two combined forces, beginning with organizing college scholarships for four of the orphans.

After another five years — while keeping “files-in-tin-trunks-under-the-bed,” — as Murray recalls, they had launched NYF, which by then was supporting several hundred scholarship students and raising 60 homeless children.

In 1994, the two hired Som Paneru, a former scholarship student, as executive director. Six years later, Aistrope left to launch a separate nonprofit organization. (He died in 2018.)

It was Paneru who first learned that thousands of western Nepalese girls as young as 6 were being sold by their fathers to become domestic servants, despite national laws against child labor. The practice, known as kamlari, had persisted for many generations.

One trafficked girl, Bishnu Chaudhary, was sold to pay off a $50 debt when she was just 10 years old. Her “owners” worked her from 4 a.m. to as late as 11 p.m., as she recalls, making her care for their children and a buffalo, cut the grass, and clean the house.

“The son used to beat me very often,” she says. “He sometimes spit on my food and I had to eat that food.”

Paneru and Murray determined to try to help, but the girls’ mothers warned them not to give the fathers cash, fearing they would spend it on alcohol. Paneru came up with the idea of giving the families a piglet in return for keeping their girls at home. The families could feed the animals with kitchen scraps and sell them at year’s end to pay off their debts.

Over the next several years, the NYF handed out several thousands pigs, and later, goats. It also supported the girls who were liberated as they organized themselves, marching in the streets, handing out fliers and performing plays to raise awareness.

In 2013, Nepal’s government gave in to the pressure and outlawed kamlari, after which Murray’s group turned its focus to providing education and job-training support for more than 10,000 of the freed girls.

“If a girl is earning money and has a good job, she won’t be married off early and exploited,” Murray says.

She is delighted that former kamlari girls, including Chaudhary, are now running their own support programs under NYF auspices, providing psychological counseling, microlending and strategies for new business cooperatives. The NYF “changed my identity — from slave to human being,” Chaudhary says.

Before the pandemic stymied international travel, Murray spent half of each year in Nepal, where she has a home and large dinner parties for visiting program graduates.

“Every time she returns, she is met at the airport by big groups of kids with flowers and balloons,” says the Chilean-American author Isabel Allende, a longtime donor, friend and fan.

Murray has taken several steps to make sure the NYF will survive after the inevitable loss of her charismatic presence. She ceded the presidency to Paneru in 2012, and while still closely engaged, has never hesitated to delegate, Paneru says.

Under Paneru, the NYF has diversified its sources of funds, launching chapters in Hong Kong, Australia and Europe. He credits Murray for helping him forge his own connections with donors.

“I’m not going to be around forever, and the thing I want most in the world is for this program to go on,” Murray says.

Young women like Chaudhary, who is now 27, give her faith that it will.

As a student, Chaudhary was such a passionate champion of banning kamlari that she risked being expelled from school to help rescue servants working for her teachers and principal. Earlier this year, she became the first freed kamlari to pass the bar in Nepal, with plans to be a social activist attorney.

Hearing that news felt “like closing a circle,” Murray says. “I remember when I passed the California bar in 1954, eager to do good in the world, and here we are 66 years later with a former enslaved child becoming a human rights lawyer.”

Murray says she hopes to congratulate Chaudhary in person when she returns to Nepal in October, assuming the pandemic there has waned. Before that, she’ll keep busy — as usual — leading a new fundraising campaign, celebrating Paneru’s 25th work anniversary, and joining yet another international Zoom call in June for her 96th birthday.

Hundreds are expected to attend.

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