The fountain of youth may be this collection of really old people.
Struggling with a life-threatening health crisis in my 30s, I came upon an article about Sarah Conley. She was pictured in her wheelchair, wearing a cap and gown. The great-great-grandmother was receiving her college degree—at 104! Because she gave me hope, I cut out the article and decided to seek out stories about elders like her.
I found Ruby Hemenway, who began writing a newspaper column at 90, never having been a writer. She went on to become the world’s oldest columnist at age 100. George Burns announced at 90 that he had booked a performance for his 100th birthday celebration. Claude Pepper, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care, at 85, held a daylong hearing where people over 100 years of age discussed their longevity. The oldest was 112!
These people and dozens of others became my beacons, showing me how the human spirit, and body, can triumph. Whenever I felt disheartened, I’d turn to my collection of file folders. Then, when my own parents began to deal with the many challenges of aging, my “elders” collection took on a life of its own.
As we sat around the table after lunch one day, I began introducing my parents to my heroes. Just as I had sat as a child enraptured by the stories they told me about people who had shaped their lives, they now listened to my tales. Dad’s gentle, round face gazed intensely at mine. Mom put down her knitting and reached for the clippings I had put on the table.
“Dad, I’m thrilled that at eighty-five, you love your daily constitutional. Mr. Izumi of Japan, the oldest person in my collection, still takes his at one hundred and seventeen!”
“Mom, I wish you could have been with me when I met Bertha Gruenberg. At ninety-seven, she’s the oldest person I have actually been with in person. She was a social worker, newspaperwoman, and political activist who lectured from the time she was sixty-three until she was ninety-one about issues concerning the elderly. Like you, she loves reading and reads several books a week.”
After that, when I visited my parents, they would eagerly greet me with “Who are you going to tell us about today?”
One Saturday, remembering my mother’s poems she had packed away in a box in a storage closet, I said, “Mom, you have something in common with Clara Cassidy. When she was your age, she began writing a column for a local newspaper called ‘Up in Years.’ Remember all those newsletters you wrote when you were active in your religious organizations? Do you miss that?”
“Maybe a little.”
“Why don’t you start writing again? You’re always talking about your philosophy of life. How about writing it down
She began working on it the very next day.
My dad had to move into a nursing home when he was 89. Still vital mentally, he was bored to tears. I thought of his violin stored in the closet. “Dad, why don’t you play the violin again?” I suggested on one of my visits.
“I haven’t played it in years, and I’m sure it’s unplayable.”
“What if I can get someone to refurbish it?”
“I’m too old to learn everything again.”
“Nonsense! Harry Lieberman took up painting at eighty. At one hundred, he signed a seven-year contract to produce and illustrate his own folk art calendar. If he can do it, so can you!”
When I placed the beautifully refurbished violin in my father’s hands, he took the instrument as if he were rediscovering an old friend. His pale cheeks brightened and his tired eyes softened. Then he placed his chin into the black chin rest and began to play a Russian folk tune.
“I will give a concert for all my buddies here,” he said.
When I turned 50, I realized I wasn’t merely collecting elders. I was, at least according to AARP, an elder myself. I decided to be just as bold and daring as the people in my folders, so I switched careers to become Program Director at a bustling senior center.
The stories I collected proved invaluable when it came to motivating “my” seniors. While I was able to prompt many of them to get out of their comfort zones and experience life more fully, Sarah, an 80-year-old widow, was my biggest challenge. Sophisticated, intelligent, and very healthy, she told me, “We’re not all like those remarkable seniors you keep telling us about who do such exceptional things. Folks like them are the minority. Let’s face it. They are the hype of aging.”
“They are the hope,” I countered. “There are losses at every age, fears at every age, death at every age. The people you are dismissing so easily have taught me how to affirm life. The challenge for all of us is to find that inspiration. Isn’t there anything that you always wanted to do but just never got around to?”
Two weeks later, she entered my office. “I always wanted to travel,” she said practically in a whisper. I pulled the article about Walter Casey Jones from my folder. “He’s one hundred and ten today,” I read aloud, “and he’s on the road somewhere in the west. Walter Casey Jones has spent the last seven years touring the country in his motor home.”
I handed the article to her. “Shall I help you research your first trip?”