May 1, 2018
4 Things I Learned From Interviewing 29 Incredible Seniors

4 Things I Learned From Interviewing 29 Incredible Seniors

Over the course of the last 12 weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a total of 29 individuals over the age of 60.

Now, my first thought is that it just feels a bit weird now to refer to these people as “seniors.” When do you officially become labeled as a senior?

Is it when you walk into a restaurant and see that you’re eligible for the 10% senior discount? Is it when you start getting Medicare packets in the mail? Is it when you retire?

But this is a problem that we all face – myself included. I’m 23 years old, and officially, I’m labeled as a “millenial,” which feels like the worst possible label to be assigned these days. In fact, when it comes up in conversation and someone says, “So, you’re one of those millennials!” I’m not exactly thrilled.

OK, I hate it. A lot.

I don’t think any of us like being labeled. We’re all different – how is it that we can be labelled based on our age, and somehow, that label seems to carry a load of extra meaning that’s not necessarily fair?

And that brings us to the first thing I learned.

1. Age Is Almost Entirely Irrelevant

Age has almost nothing to do with a person’s potential besides the obvious limitations that we can’t always control, like our health.

Would you think that a 77-year-old would launch a fitness program (Jim Owen)? Would you think a 72-year-old would be flying all over the country to give training presentations (Nancy Friedman)? Would you think a 79-year-old would be hiking all 58 national parks (Joan Virginia Allen)?

If someone were in their 20s, 30s, or 40s, would we be so inspired? So amazed?

If I’ve learned anything from this Inspiring Seniors series, it’s that you can do anything you want to do, and at any age.

Now, that being said, we can’t ignore the obvious – with age comes wrinkles, a slower metabolism, and higher risk of diseases like cancer.

I’m quickly reminded of Eddie Basham (featured in Part 14), who says:

“I asked my mother on her 70th birthday, ‘how does it feel to be 70?’ And she said ‘Oh honey, I still feel 18 until I look into the mirror.’ Now that I’m getting close to that age, I can really relate! You just don’t feel your age – until your body reminds you.”

Eddie isn’t alone – Mickie Zada, the woman who reunited with her long lost love at age 68, says almost the exact same thing: “The strange thing about life is that our bodies age but our self-identity does not. I look in the mirror and see my mom. In my head, I’m still in my 30s.”

And with a laugh, Allen Klein, 80-year-old author and self-proclaimed “Jollytologist,” says, “Sure, I may be slower and get more tired than I used to (that is what naps are for), but I want to keep moving. In fact, it’s what makes life worth living.”

Finally, with age comes encounters with death. Both Randall Medd, the 70-year-old who does fox hunting, and Dr. William Klemm, the 83-year-old who is still teaching college courses, lost their wives.

Randall Medd
William Klemm

William explains, “The realization that I had so much time on my hands after she passed occurred shortly after her death – I knew that this would be a problem, but it’s a problem for all widows and widowers. Everyone has to try to stay active. For elderly people, it can be really lonely.”

And while we can’t always control what happens as we age, there’s always a flipside. In fact, many of the people I interviewed say they’re in the best shape of their life – and happier than ever.

Jim Owen, the 77-year-old who developed a fitness program, says, “I’m in the best shape of my life. And I intend to do everything I possibly can to make sure I’m still fit at 80 and beyond.” [Jim's photo credit: Tara Welch Photography]

Allison Constantino, the 69-year-old who does 10-mile bike rides every day, says, “I’m happier now, I’m in better shape, and I have over 500 followers on LinkedIn! [...] Life is good in the fast lane.”

Sandra LaMorgese lost 50 pounds after the age of 60, and she’s now booking modeling jobs in New York City: “I thought it was crazy. Everyone thought it was crazy. I mean everyone… they all said the same thing, that there was no way I could lose 50 pounds over 60 years old. And I didn’t even tell them about the modeling idea yet, because I knew they would just jump off the bridge!” [Sandra's photo credit: Josefina Hunter]

Joan Virginia Allen, the 79-year-old who is hiking the 58 national parks with her husband, experienced major health problems – pelvic prolapse, chronic constipation, and foot problems – but she’s been able to slowly resolve the issues.

“No, everything has not reversed,” Joan says, “but I rarely experience back pain, and when I do, I now know what to do about it.” Even though it’s been 8 years since the health issues started, she’s getting better.

And how can we forget Robert Herbst, the 60-year-old powerlifter? “At 60, I’m more fit than most men half my age,” he says.

So, yes. I’d say that age is almost entirely irrelevant. Rebecca Klemm, the 68-year-old who wrote a math musical, sums it up nicely: “You are never too old to follow your passion. Age is just a number.”

2. Retirement Isn’t a Given

When do you plan on retiring?

It’s a harmless question, right?

Well, I learned my second lesson – and I learned it pretty quickly. Retirement isn’t always a given.

Sandra LaMorgese explained this better than I can on our phone interview. This was unpublished in her feature, but she explains:

“People work in a job that they hate, they go there every single day, and they’re being compliant… just so they can get their social security and medical benefits at the end. People don’t really understand that you’re more in control of your life than that. Ninety percent of people are sheep – they just think ‘this is the way the system is.’ We aren’t raised to be entrepreneurs or to be independent and confident.”

This pushback against the traditional life plan of “work hard now to retire later” is a common theme among many of the contributors in this series.

In fact, Douglas E. Noll, the 68-year-old who teaches peacemaking in maximum security prisons, articulates this thought in much the same way as Sandra:

“I suppose that if you did the same thing for 40 years, you clocked in and clocked out every day, and the work is maybe not that meaningful and maybe even boring – getting out of that job is probably a nice thing. But if you’re somebody like myself who’s self-employed, who does interesting things… well, that’s just what my life is. Saying I’m going to retire is like saying I’m going to die. It’s just a different perspective.”

Just for fun, I tallied up some stats for all 29 of our contributors.

Points scored

That’s 22 individuals who are not retired, and 7 who are. And of those 7, most of them have picked up hobbies that generate some kind of income, or they’re volunteering.

I’d argue that the big debate was never about whether retirement was worthwhile or not – it was about looking at retirement as giving up all sense of purpose.

And for many, work is the source of purpose that keeps them going.

For example, Susan Shumsky, the 70-year old who is publishing her 14th book, works at least 12 hours per day – and she doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. Writing isn’t just a job to her – it’s her passion.

Roy Cohen, the 62-year-old private career and corporate executive coach, also says that his work is his passion, and the concept of retirement just doesn’t make sense for him. “It feels tragic to me to hear about people who are miserable and are willing to tolerate that feeling for so long – just to wait for retirement.”

Roy also brings up the important subject of finances – “Do I have enough to retire? If not, how do I continue to work in a job I really hate?”

Karen Wylie, a 60-year-old business owner, also says, “Like so many of us in our 60s and beyond, I worry about having enough money as I age. Working as long as possible seems to make sense to me at all levels.”

So for many of the contributors, the concept of retirement is silly in many ways – why quit doing the thing that gives your life purpose, and why worry about having enough money to retire in the process?

Another aspect to consider is that continuing to work keeps your brain moving.

Dr. William Klemm says, “If you want to age well, I think you should delay retirement for as long as you can. At least do what I did and retire, then go back to work part-time. It keeps you stimulated and gives you things to do. In many ways, it counteracts the problems that occur as you get older.”

Pat Boone seconds this thought: “Retirement will probably sneak up on me. I may ‘get retired’ more than consciously retire. I’m too inquisitive. I have energies, and I’m able to initiate things that I think of. It’s hard to quit when you can still be active and productive.”

But there is a little pushback from some, who say that retirement is downright awesome.

Charlie Basham, a 67-year-old volunteer blacksmith, says, “There’s a life beyond work.” By being retired, Charlie is able to travel, do the things he wants to do with his free time, and find ways to express his creativity – which is exactly what he loved about his career.

Leonard Sipes, age 66, expresses the same feeling: “I get to do the things that I want to do. [...] My wife and I are in a position to simply ask each other: what do we want to do today? That’s an enviable place to be.”

And finally, Galen Pearl, the 60-year-old who got her black belt, explains, “We have such an emphasis in our culture on ‘doing.’ On being productive and identifying with the work we do. That is not a global value, and I think we can learn from other cultures to value this stage in our lives.”

There’s also the logistical advantages of being retired in a world where retirement is usually the norm – for Charlie, most of his friends are retired, which makes scheduling camping trips and get-togethers much easier.

So – what have I learned?

Retirement isn’t always a given, but it goes deeper than that.

Is your career something you really want to do forever? For Leonard Sipes, for example, his life was one of being on 24-hour-a-day call, 365 days per year. He loved his job, but there comes a time where putting aside the hectic nature of a career and making more time for other passions in life makes sense.

So, is work your life?

I suppose it depends on the nature of your work – how much time does it require? Is it really something you love to do?

For everyone, I think the answer will be different. For people like Charlie Basham, there’s an advantage to retiring and then taking the same creative drive you used in your career and finding new ways to use it in retirement.

For others, like Dr. William Klemm, there’s a huge advantage to continuing to teach part-time. He’s able to take everything he’s learned and create new college courses – he’s able to create a legacy. And with his wife being gone, this gives him a way to stay engaged with the world. Not to mention that he has a serious passion for this work.

I think we all need to shift our focus from retirement to purpose. What gives your life purpose, and how can you achieve it?

3. Aging Isn’t a Negative Thing

I mentioned in the Introduction to the Inspiring Seniors series that our culture is hyper-focused on youthfulness.

We see it everywhere – anti-aging skincare, companies that force older employees to retire, and even villains that are consistently old, cranky, and decrepit.

When was the last time we saw age as a major advantage?

Pat Boone brought up the fact that 2 of the presidential candidates in the last election were 70. He explains, “Obviously, we’re learning that people have great capability and wisdom.”

And it’s true, isn’t it?

With age comes experience, and with experience comes a heavy dose of perspective.

This is a theme that came up time and time again as I interviewed the 29 individuals in this series.

Advantage #1: You don’t care about what other people think of you.

Mickie Zada explains that her age has given her the perspective and power to stop caring about what people think. “At this point in my life, I’ve become more mellow and less outspoken,” she explains.

Karen Wylie agrees, saying, “Being a senior means you have breadth and depth of experience and expertise – more to share and contribute. With age comes the time to explore your creativity and be less influenced by others opinions.”

Joining Mickie and Karen is Eddie Basham, who says, “When you’re younger, you worry about people judging you and looking at you expectantly. When you get older, you just don’t care as much,” Eddie laughs. “We all just want to be healthy and stay as youthful as possible."

Advantage #2: Age gives you patience.

Shel Horowitz, a 61-year-old consultancy business owner, says, “Age has given me patience. In my 20s, I was not at all patient. But I’ve learned that the wheels turn very, very slowly. But they do turn.”

Suzy Honigman seconds that thought – over the past year, she feels like she is appreciated more than ever before because of her ability to be patient. “Added patience comes with age,” she says.

Advantage #3: Age gives you the big picture.

Perhaps one of the most enviable advantages of aging (at least to me) is that you can see the world from a distance. You can pick out what’s important and what’s predictable much faster than anyone else.

Susan Shumsky says, “When I was young, I didn’t have perspective. I thought all these little, meaningless things were exceedingly important. Let’s just put it that way.”

For Charlie Basham, having the big picture perspective also means that you have wisdom: “It’s not like trivia wisdom – it’s about human nature and how things work. It’s about what you need to consider. Just narrow it to the important things you’ve seen and learned over the years.”

Finally, Doug Noll explains that over the years, you start to recognize the cycles of life. “Stock market cycles, inflationary cycles, political cycles – you see the good and the bad over a long period of time, and you realize that right now is just part of a cycle.”

Things will get better, worse, or they’ll change directions. Doug says that he’s able to let things happen without letting them bother him.

Advantage #4: You can finally be yourself.

In our teens and twenties, we’re often told to “take some time to learn more about yourself.”

But apparently, the secret is to just hang on until you’re 60+.

Allison Constantino explains, “The biggest surprise to me is the way I feel about myself. I’m more myself than I ever have been. It’s not so much that I worry about what other people think, but I’m just so ‘me.’ If I could look back at the younger me and say ‘just be you for God’s sakes’...”

Advantage #4: Age gives you credibility.

Particularly if you’re in business, your age gives you instant credibility. For Karen Wylie, her many years of business experience help her run her second business, The Midlife Entrepreneur. “This is all based on my own experiences of starting a small business and adapting it as I age,” she says.

Could she do that in her 20s or 30s? Probably not.

The same goes for Roy Cohen, who does executive coaching. His many years of working on Wall Street have given him the ability to better coach those in that position. “I’m far more knowledgeable now and familiar with options and ideas than I was 10, 15, or even 20 years ago.”

And we can’t forget Nancy Friedman, who has taken decades of experience and poured it into her customer service training sessions: “I’m always flattered when people who are older than I am come up to thank me for speaking to them. In many ways, being a seasoned presenter gives me an advantage.”

Advantage #5: You realize that money isn’t everything.

Sure, money makes the world go ‘round, but for Doug Noll, one of the most important lessons he’s learned is that chasing money is a waste of time:

“When I was a trial lawyer, I made a lot of money. But now, I realize that financial security is important, but having a ton of money is sort of stupid. It just doesn't mean much. I mean, I have a comfortable life, and I live modestly. But the real satisfaction in life comes from serving people, not your bank account.”

So, is aging really a bad thing? I think not.

In fact, the idea of growing old suddenly seems that much more exciting.

4. Life Seems to Come Full Circle

To wrap this up, the final thing I learned is that in many ways, life seems to come full circle.

And it’s a surprisingly poetic, beautiful thing.

Both Karen Wylie and Rebecca Klemm used that exact phrase – my life has come full circle – and when I started looking at everyone’s stories, I started to see glimpses of this everywhere.

Karen worked in retail for many years before she decided to teach other entrepreneurs how to do the same thing.

As a child, Rebecca was fascinated with 3D objects – she’d create patterns and make stuffed animals and vegetables for fun. It wasn’t until she turned 60 that she found herself creating puppets for her math musical.

Rebecca Klemm with Numbers

And perhaps the most simple example of all comes from Leonard Sipes, who is currently taking private drumming lessons. “Yes, the kind of lesson any 13-year-old would take. I used to play when I was a lot younger, but I decided that I want to get better. So I hired an instructor.”

I realized that when we’re young, we spend our time doing things that interest us. Then, life gets in the way, and we fall into the pattern of work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep.

But when we get older, sometimes, we reconnect with our younger selves.

And we slowly start to see that life as a “senior” might not be so bad after all.

About the Author: Rebekah Parr is a copywriter that specializes in senior market insurance and Medicare-related topics. Rebekah previously worked as an Editor for a publishing company and has published seven nonfiction books. Rebekah graduated as an Honors Scholar from Illinois State University in 2015 with a BS in English and Creative Writing.

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