Older Americans Month 2016 Stories

Meet Trailblazers

To celebrate Older Americans Month, we asked you to share stories about how you or an older adult you know is blazing a trail—giving back, starting anew, and redefining aging. Here are just a few of the many wonderful stories we received from around the nation. Thanks to all the trailblazers who took the time to share their stories!

Faith, Service, Longevity

BuddyMany in Richmond’s fan district know Buddy by name. At age 100, he volunteers every week in the homeless ministry of the downtown church he’s been part of for 82 years. “This is a sanctuary for them,” Buddy says. “There is no anxiety or fear here.”

In addition to his work in the homeless ministry, Buddy delivers “Meals on Wheels” monthly to Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. “Some people claim that’s a bad part of town, but I don’t think so,” he says. “I have some great friends there.”

Born in 1916, Buddy remembers that he often found finding a balance between his spiritual life and professional life challenging. “For most of my life, I put a lot of effort into my business,” he says. Buddy and his brother ran the family’s paper converting business for nearly 40 years before he retired at age 82. “I had one foot in the secular world and one foot in the spiritual world.” When Buddy was about 55, he was inspired “to focus on the things of God.” He recalls, “It seems like a small step, but it was life-changing for me.” Buddy says it helped him prioritize and look beyond himself.

Buddy’s character and insight are highly respected. “[He] offers the perspective of years of experience, but he is remarkably open-minded,” a senior pastor says. “When Buddy speaks, heads swivel to hear what he has to say. People trust him. There is universal recognition that he helped make us who we are.”

—Lakewood Retirement Community, Virginia

Every “Thank You” is a First

I have spent 21 years as a volunteer with the Pennsylvania’s State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP). In this role, I have shared the story of Medicare with thousands of people. They come with questions, and fear, and maybe blank stares, but they leave relieved—holding the gift of knowledge. They leave armed with understanding and the ability to makes great choices. Why would I do this for so long? Because every “thank you” is a first. The fear and trepidation are gone when the people I work with leave. I don’t use power points or fancy gimmicks hellip; it’s just one person sharing knowledge with another to make his or her life better. Learn more about the SHIP program.

—John, Pennsylvania

I Inspire by Example

I inspire by example. I am an octogenarian and fashionista with a can-do attitude. I’m a devotee of challenges, drama and intrigue; a dynamic diva without boundaries. My mission and passion? Redefine the perception of aging! We're living longer but not necessarily better. The quality of life eludes many. Why? Because most don't know how to invest in themselves! On March 9, 2014, I surpassed myself. I've been a seasoned, sassy stair climber for over 35 years. During the “Fight for Air” Climb in Chicago, I climbed 50 flights in 9 minutes and 9 seconds. I may have been the oldest, but not the slowest. What an honor and gift and opportunity it is for me to share the new aging paradigm. It is one that inspires men and women to love the incredible power in their lives. They can accomplish anything in life they choose–regardless of age and gender. There's a place you're to fill in this life, today. If not you, who will?

—Cathi, Illinois

A Mission Born of Love

JanTwenty years ago, my mother was tied to a bed in a nursing home to keep her from wandering the halls at night. Concerned neighbors contacted the police. My brother and I were her advocates. We insisted on no restraints, and asked that her bed be lowered to floor-level so she would not be hurt if she fell. We also ensured that she had regular safety checks. There were many residents with no one to advocate for them, and I vowed that someday, somehow, I would be able to help.

After retirement, I began thinking of ways to volunteer my time. I learned of the Ombudsman Program at the Area Agency on Aging. After my 40 hours of training, I became a volunteer ombudsman—an advocate for residents of long-term care. Initially, I worked though VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) to recruit and train new volunteers. Later, the Agency hired me to work part-time. I've been recruiting, training, recording volunteer paperwork, and visiting facilities to advocate for the residents for 10 years now. It's been so to rewarding to fulfill the intention I had when I saw the need for nursing home advocacy way back in 1995.

Learn more about the LTC Ombudsman Program.

—Jan, Idaho

A Lifetime Passion

Robert with his tennis Hall of Fame awardRobert’s first tennis racket was a T.A. Davis model made of laminated walnut without a leather grip. While in high school in Oklahoma, he once spent his lunch money—30 cents—to buy two tennis balls for practice. Now, at age 95, Robert has earned entry into the U.S. Professional Tennis Association’s Mid-Atlantic Division Hall of Fame. His entry celebrates a lifetime of playing, teaching, and growing the game. “I’ve been affiliated hellip; since 1972, and this is a great honor. It was extra special that my son hellip; served as my presenter,” he stated.

Although professionally he went in a different direction, Robert has always been an accomplished tennis player. He held amateur ranking in singles and doubles competitions in the Greater Washington Area Tennis Association.

At the retirement community in which he has lived with his wife for 10 years, Robert remains involved in tennis. The campus features two plastic tile courts, and he has given lessons and re-strung rackets for his fellow residents. He writes articles and tips for national publications and is in the process of publishing his first book. With his enthusiasm and tennis savvy, one imagines that Robert could still give many players a run for their money.

—Riderwood Retirement Community, Maryland


Campus of Care Trading Post

A resident in a wheelchair at the Trading PostIn 2007, the company providing vending machines at Winslow Campus of Care, a long-term care facility in Arizona, imposed a five-cent increase on all items. This was steep for the fixed-income seniors who relied on the machines for special treats. In response, the Resident Council elected to boycott the machine. In 2008, the Council received an anonymous $400 check and a letter directing residents to start their own store. The Winslow Campus of Care Trading Post was born.

Wholly owned and operated by the Resident Council, workers established a standard of gifting items such as haircuts, shoes, and pre-paid gift cards to residents in need. Restocking trips occur weekly to keep up with demand. Donations from the staff and community are processed by the Resident Council. Seniors who run the store earn store credit for hours worked.

The Trading Post is committed to giving back. From 2012 to 2014, the store sponsored children in Operation Smile, a program that provides corrective surgery for children with cleft palates in third world countries. In 2014 and 2015, they sponsored a certified nursing assistant’s attendance at a national conference. Other beneficiaries include families of victims of the Yarnell Hill fire, and a nine-year-old finalist in the U.S. Track and Field Junior Olympics. When the Resident Council learned of a family’s inability to travel from a remote reservation village due to financial hardship, the Trading Post provided food and gas.

The Trading Post, now in the black and proudly posting over $1,000 in profits, was intended to provide fair pricing to seniors. Through their vision, hard work, and commitment, residents have created a sustainable program that will continue to benefit others long after the current team is gone.

—Area Agency on Aging NACOG, Arizona

Caring for Others is Rewarding Work

I am 68 years old and keep myself in good health, even though I am insulin dependent. I work 40 hours a week as an occupational therapist in a local hospital, caring for others, including cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation patients. I also work in the evenings providing home care for housebound seniors. I am professionally licensed in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I find my work extremely rewarding and am certainly not ready to retire!

—John, New Hampshire

Advocacy and Education

PenelopeI'm a trailblazer. At 73, I have lived in a nursing home for 14 years. I have paralysis due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and I use a power chair. Five years ago, I became a nursing home advocate. I'm also on the board of the Massachusetts Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. I am a disability advocate on the executive committee of the Disability Policy Consortium in Boston, and a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee Executive Office of Elder Affairs in Massachusetts. I answer a nursing home helpline to assist residents, family members, and others with getting better care for themselves or residents of nursing homes. I speak publically regularly, and have published in long-term care journals to help educate providers on improving care for nursing home residents. I also advocate for access and implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to improve the lives of individuals of all ages with disabilities.

—Penelope, Massachusetts


Writing, Healing, Inspiring

At the age of 70, I was widowed and had to decide who I was after 44 years of marriage. I decided to open a writing studio to teach senior adults to write about their lives for their families, to leave a legacy for generations to come. I began inviting experienced writers and poets to teach at my studio in rural western North Carolina. Now writers from Atlanta, Asheville, and Raleigh contact me to teach at my studio. People drive for two hours or more to study with these excellent instructors. Helping others helped me heal. It has given me a purpose and drive. It makes my life exciting and fills it with interesting people—from an 11-year-old girl whom I mentor to a 92-year-old WWII veteran who took one of my classes and found new purpose in his life. I feel the work I am doing now is the most fulfilling of my life. I wake up each day looking forward to what is to come.

—Glenda, North Carolina

I Want to Continue to be of Service

'Love Kitchen' volunteersI am blessed to be the coordinator of the Community Feeding Service (CFS) at my African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. We operate under the umbrella of our nonprofit entity, the Mt. Tabor Community Education and Economic Development Corporation. The CFS is named the "Love Kitchen.” I wrote a grant, and we were approved for funding from the Philadelphia “Meals and More” program. The grant has allowed us to expand services from one to two days a week. I attended classes and received my Servsafe Certification to ensure we follow the guidelines and have a safe kitchen. Other seniors, youth, and members of our church and community (including my future daughter-in-law) have joined our volunteer group. Now we can serve more people, give away clothes, and bring in social services. Our goal is to provide delicious and healthy meals to seniors who cannot cook a balanced meal, or who may be isolated. While at the “Love Kitchen,” they can pick up new or slightly used clothing, and learn about other available services. They can sit, be relaxed, and have a good conversation with others. Our volunteers have also served at the Ronald McDonald House in our community. I am retired, but I love people and want to continue to be of service to others.

—Jeanne, Pennsylvania

Still Serving the Community

Georgia always gave back to the community. She was elected in 1985 and served for three terms as Republican councilwoman. Though no longer an elected official, she is still giving back. Georgia performs puppet shows for children at an ecosystem oasis she helped to establish while in office. She is also a longstanding member of the board of that same arboretum, and she constantly promotes and supports its mission.

Georgia’s love of puppetry dates from her work with the Kids on the Block program for the Easter Seals Society. Each of the Kids puppets was defined by a health issue, and her shows were used to help schoolchildren become more aware and sensitive to the issue. “I wrote a rap for Renaldo, a puppet who was blind,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience.”

Georgia, who has 5 children and 17 grandchildren, still responds to every phone call she receives–just as she did as a councilwoman with a reputation for advocating on behalf of her constituents.

—Tallgrass Retirement Community, Kansas

Just Keep Moving and Growing

I believe in hard-core physical exercise on a daily basis for health across the board–mind, body, and spirit. I am 86 years old. I lift weights every day and ride my bike when the weather permits. I keep finding new ways to address the physical issues that come up with age. For instance, I have changed to a backpack instead of a gym bag to keep my hands free so I can climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator. This helps my legs and knees become stronger. When I could no longer drive due to macular degeneration, I bought a three-wheeled, electric-assist bike. I fish all spring and summer by biking to ponds in surrounding neighborhoods. I listen to the Bible and to my favorite music every day. I love politics and stay as involved as I can. I have worked hard all my life as a bricklayer and businessman, and didn’t officially retire until I was 83. Overall, I'm dedicated to learning. I ask a lot of questions about everything, and in this way, I intend to keep growing as a person as long as I live. Just keep moving and growing—that’s the wisdom I can share.

—Bo, Indiana

New Ways to Enjoy Old Passions

Dr. Kelley had polio as an infant. Although he enjoyed many years of active living and downhill skiing after that illness, he developed muscle weakness and atrophy in both legs as an adult. He gave up his beloved winter sport in 1992, but post-polio syndrome won’t stop him. In February, he strapped on his sit-ski and joined an international group of fellow paraskiers through the National Sports Center for Disabled’s Access Ski program at Winter Park Resort.

Twenty-four years after his last time skiing, he heard the whoosh of snow under him once more. Dr. Kelley’s sit-ski allows him to sit with his back supported and his legs extended. Two short hand-held poles with outrigger skis help him steer. “It’s an awesome experience, and I think it‘s just a matter of doing it more and more to get better at it,” he says. “It’s an entirely different way of skiing. But once you learn how to ski rather well, there’s this sense of freedom—maybe it’s controlled freedom—about shooting down a mountain and doing it in a beautiful setting.” Dr. Kelley says.

—Wind Crest Retirement Community, Colorado

A New Chapter

I had a long and very fulfilling teaching career. During those years, I had the pleasure of teaching little kids as well as graduate students, teaching in rural Montana and in European cities. Despite the joy I found in teaching, I always thought it would be great to open a bookstore. Isn't that every voracious reader’s dream? When I eventually settled in a small town in northwest Montana, I didn't think the customer base would support a bookstore. Then, while talking with friends, the solution was created. I opened a traveling bookstore that I take to farmers markets, music festivals, and private parties. My bookstore is a lovely 2003 Sprinter van that holds approximately 600 volumes. It is large enough for people to walk in and browse. So often I’ve heard, "Wow! It's a real bookstore!" The first summer, I took it all over Montana. This summer (when I turn 65), I am taking it to the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York, and to a gig in Portland, OR. The adventure is really just beginning.

—Rita, Montana

Olympic Seniors

Evelyn and Gabe with their Olympic medalsGabe and Evelyn, retirement community residents in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, have qualified for the 2017 Senior Olympics. Both won medals at the New Jersey Senior Olympics in September of 2015. The 2017 National Senior Olympics, which will take place in Birmingham, Alabama, is the world’s largest sporting event for people over 50 years old.

The couple, married for more than 60 years, won a combined six medals at the 2015 New Jersey Senior Games in Woodbridge. More than 1,000 senior athletes participated. Evelyn earned three gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 1,500-meter race/walk in the 80-85 age group. Gabe, 93, claimed the gold in the 1,500-meter race/walk and silver in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in the 90-95 age group.

A WWII veteran and Professor Emeritus at William Paterson University, Gabe is a former physical education teacher. Evelyn started running competitively at 75 years old. Before moving to Cedar Crest, they resided in Wayne, New Jersey, where they raised their three children.

—Cedar Crest Retirement Community, New Jersey


A Creative Life

The moment I discovered Creative Aging in 1978, I was entranced. Now, more than 30 years later, I have been called “The Guru of Senior Theatre”! I have been a leader in the Senior Theatre field in many ways. I wrote one of the first theses in the field; I edited the first anthology of new plays and created the first talent agency for seniors; I compiled and maintained the first database of Senior Theatre companies, professionals, and organizations. Beyond that, I distributed the first Senior Theatre e-newsletter, which is now sent to 3,400 readers worldwide, and I published a catalog of 400+ plays, books, and materials. I also maintained the first Senior Theatre website, which now attracts more than 5,000 visitors each month.

All day, every day, I work with directors, actors, and playwrights to continue building Senior Theatre. I am thrilled that my work has been featured in publications, and that I’ve been able to create and lead national Senior Theatre organizations. What I like most about Creative Aging is that even though I have implemented hundreds, perhaps thousands, of projects over the years, new ones always excite me. Senior Theatre has fulfilled my creativity and made it possible for me to help generations of older actors.

—Bonnie, Oregon

A Musical Life

John picked up the French horn for the first time at age 15. Nearly every day, the sound of the horn fills his apartment. “I love to perform, and the French horn is a rare enough instrument that you can’t really perform alone,” he says. Not long after moving to Charlestown, John joined a group called the Charlestown Brass Plus One. He also teamed up with pianist Julia and violinist Helen, both Charlestown residents, to form a trio. The three recently performed Beethoven’s “Archduke Trio” for Charlestown’s staff appreciation week.

As a youth, John worked hard at learning the French horn and, by his second year of high school, had become adept. “I went to see Frank Sinatra in concert,” he says. “During the show they announced they were looking for a French horn player to travel with the band. I thought about auditioning but [didn’t].” Luckily, it just so happened that Cleveland bandleader Ray Anthony was looking for a French horn player. It paid $100 a week. “I jumped at the chance,” he says.

Later, John joined what is now the Massachusetts Symphony Orchestra where he backed up Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti. He has also accompanied Broadway stars such as Engelbert Humperdinck.

In nearly eight decades, John’s love for the French horn hasn’t waned. “I love performing anything that involves playing for the public. I’m the biggest show-off in the world,” says John. When asked if he has any regrets about not auditioning for Sinatra’s band, John says, “I never think of what might have been. I never look back.”

—Charlestown Retirement Community, Maryland

Last modified on 04/24/2019

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