Seniors are fast becoming the largest segment of our population. The image of old is changing, but maybe not enough. Too often, senior citizens are seen - and see themselves - as useless and past the time of having much pleasure. What an awful feeling that must be.
An 85-year-old man recently said to me, "I'm just sitting around here doing nothing. I'm bored and not worth much to anyone. I'm living too long." Is this really his only option, or the only option for many seniors who aren't active and feel useless?
One of my models for growing older gracefully is Dick Gunther, a 75-year-old, well-known community leader and businessman. Out of his commitment to inspire and acknowledge seniors for making contri-butions, Gunther spearheaded the American Association of Retired Persons' Legacy Awards, which are given to senior volunteers every two years. Gunther, recently named to the California Commission on Aging, feels strongly about changing the image of seniors. "Studies have shown that seniors would like to make a continu-ous contribution to society and have their lives have meaning," he says. "People are living longer and living healthier, which means a huge reservoir of energy."
Ida Engel is a perfect example. She has always loved singing and performing and sings currently with the Chansonettes, a group that performs around town at retirement homes, synagogues and organizational meetings. Engel says that singing is her secret to staying young. She's 97. She's raised two daughters, has five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and has no plans to start behaving like the traditional image of an "old woman." In addition to her local singing engagements, Engel can be seen on two Holiday Inn commercials and a Church's Chicken commercial. She loves it. She's proof that one's passion for something can keep the motor going and also give others pleasure.
My father is also a great model for me. He spent his birthday at the library when he turned 82 this year. He's researching some new theories about stress because he has started teaching dental patients, trial lawyers and students how to handle their stress. Dad believes that the trick to not feeling old is to stay involved, keep learning and contributing. It's not always obvious how one can contribute. It might not be the way they earned a living; it might be a hobby, or just an interest in people, animals, museums or history.
Sidonia Lax of Sherman Oaks is 73. She really started on a new path in her senior years. Lax spent her time helping her husband in his work and taking care of their children. When her husband died a few years ago, Lax had to look at her life. "I decided I wouldn't be a vege-table," she recalls. "I didn't want to wait for my children to invite me out; I had to do some-thing to make my own life. I had never tested my strength before, and I discovered that I have enormous strengths and a lot to give." To say the least. Lax volunteers for The Shoah Foundation, Brandeis-Bardin and UCLA Law School and is the captain of her Neighbor-hood Watch. That's not even a complete list.
It's clear to me that being an active elder involves staying interested in life and the world around us. As Helen Keller, who lived to 88, said, "One should never count the years - one should instead count one's interests. I have kept young trying never to lose my childhood sense of wonderment. I am glad I still have a vivid curiosity about the world I live in."
Sometimes people want to be involved but don't know where to start. From time to time, I'll start posting opportunities for seniors to volunteer in the community. I welcome e-mails with information about such oppor-tunities for seniors who want to be involved. I'll also be highlighting some active older people who are an inspiration.
Many seniors are influenced by how others see them. Those who view people over 60 as having to head into a decline need to look around at all the older people who are alive and well, and still full of ideas and energy.
Seniors also need to review their own beliefs about limitations and possibilities. I recently found a quote from a writer named Joe Klock: "As in all other events in our lives, the major impact of aging isn't so much what actually happens to us, especially since it is one of those things that are beyond our control. Rather the significant factor is what we think is happening to us and what we think about what we think is happening to us."