On August 31, 2022

Aim to age gratefully

By Liz DiMarco Weinmann

My recent Mountain Times feature, “For Your Own Good, Have a Plan,” prompted a bemused request from friends over 70 who are socially active, engaged in community causes, and grateful to be traveling again: “So, what’s your advice for us?

As a boomer who just celebrated a milestone birthday, I too am reflecting more on being grateful for the life I’ve already lived, in addition to planning for when I’m much older.

Fortunately, there is a plethora of research about aging gratefully, by medical experts and cultural pundits alike, and especially why gratitude is the key to happiness as we grow older. Because this is a well-read local paper, run by a local family, I also consulted a few accomplished older Vermonters about their perspectives on aging gratefully.

One of these remarkable individuals, Dr. Robert Goddard, was my colleague at College of St. Joseph years ago. Bob’s academic specialization is organizational development, but he had already succeeded as a disc jockey, foodservice executive, and prison administrator, respectively, before earning his doctorate and becoming a business professor.

When we met for coffee a few weeks ago, the cheery septuagenarian looked more like a lean and energetic soccer coach than the deskbound academic I remembered. Bob described to me without a shred of self-pity or graphic detail what he endured after being diagnosed a year ago with a brutal cancer, just a short while after his beloved wife succumbed to cancer.

When I asked him how he is the picture of perfect health and positivity after such suffering, his reply was the same as when we faced obstacles together at CSJ.

“My faith,” he said, “and gratitude for every day, one day at a time.”

In fact, some of the most encouraging studies emphasize that the capacity to age gratefully starts decades before we’re very old and can add many years to our lives. A study done by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, for example, found that people with significantly higher than average life satisfaction, positive feelings, purpose in life, and optimism at age 50 and beyond, live an average of five to eight additional years.

Popular culture in the United States is also celebrating the elderly and having respectful fun with it. The popularity of dramedies such as “Grace & Frankie” and “The Kominsky Method” — both featuring A-list stars in their 80s— is not limited to those carrying Medicare cards.

And “The Golden Girls,” a sitcom that was a hit from the 1980s through early ’90s, now reruns on Hallmark all night long. The four widowed “Girls” conquer, with humor and grit, their experiences with discrimination, extramarital affairs, chronic fatigue syndrome, sex over 60, ungrateful adult children, and dying with dignity — all real-life issues today. The show’s theme song, “Thank you for being a friend” is nothing less than the perfect paean to aging gratefully.

Then there’s Diane Keaton, who at 76, is starring in a movie where she morphs from a 30-year-old to a retiree after a tanning-bed mishap, yet she’s deliriously happy about it. Her new friends (played by actors also in their 70s) are dumbfounded at her, ahem, la-dee-dah attitude: “But you’ve missed the best 40 years of your life!”

The Killington/Rutland region is home to plenty of accomplished seniors aging gratefully.

The prolific writer Louis Scotellaro is familiar to locals through his well-researched newspaper commentaries (and PEG-TV segments) about transforming Rutland’s downtown and urging Vermonters to champion millennials. Scotellaro’s authoritative perspectives are informed by his long marketing career. After his PEG-TV segments run, he forwards them to state legislators, Rutland Board of Aldermen and other VIPs.

“I have much to be thankful for and I need to share and contribute,” he explained. “After I read research indicating Vermont had a demographic problem, I made finding solutions a later-life purpose. Imagine, the study was done 20 years ago and still today more people die here than are born here.

“If you believe for any reason that as we find the time in aging to give back, [then] start helping transform Vermont in ways that attract millennials,” he said. “Giving back feels good. Relating to causes keeps one mentally alert.”

Rutland resident Mary Crowley, who grew up outside Philadelphia, fell in love with Vermont at Middlebury College. She and her late husband lived in several other states before they settled here and raised their two children.

A retired high school English teacher, Crowley has also taught art to students from elementary school to high school, and she wrote and illustrated a drawing book for children, “I Love to Visit My Grammy.”

Today, Crowley is active in Grace Congregational Church, as a deacon, a singer, and an organizer of Grace’s Art Show. While she is intensely purpose-driven and proud of her life’s work as a teacher and an artist, she is just as committed to having fun.

“I decided it would be fun to invite ‘older girls’ to a party,” she said, about a gathering she had last spring, “to come drink wine or punch, munch a little, and wear something everybody would notice.

“One woman wore a wig with rollers in it. Someone else had very large red earrings on, and many wore hats — with flowers or a veil. Others dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a few dressed as hippies, and we had at least one dancer and a Disney character.”

True to her continued commitment to art and gratitude, Crowley proclaimed, “I dearly love the Chaffee and am grateful to Sherri (Birkheimer Rooker, Chaffee Art Center’s director) for keeping the gallery open and Art in the Park going, even when other galleries and craft shows were shut down.”

Crowley advises: “It’s easier to stay engaged if one has work to show up for.”

Mary Crowley continues to “show up,” sharing her talents with all who revel in her creativity and boundless capacity for aging gratefully.

Former innkeeper and current community advocate Bob Harnish volunteers his time as a tenacious fundraiser for Rutland’s Habitat for Humanity, among other causes.

Harnish is one of the catalysts behind a statewide Declaration of Inclusion, which was proclaimed by Governor Phil Scott in May 2021, and adopted by 64 Vermont municipalities. Moved to positive action after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Harnish then enlisted J. Alvin Wakefield, a Black former corporate executive who had been active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Harnish and Wakefield were soon joined by Norman Cohen, a retired attorney. Harnish, Wakefield and Cohen are all in their 80s.

Harnish is particularly grateful for the IDEAL program, recently announced by Xusana Davis, executive director of Racial Equity for the state of Vermont. IDEAL stands for “Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Action, and Leadership.” The “Action” element is crucial, as IDEAL will bring to fruition the mission and vision that Harnish, Wakefield and Cohen worked so hard to achieve through their grassroots efforts.

Bob Harnish sums up aging gratefully this way: “I feel so fortunate that I wake up each day with a sense of satisfaction that I can continue on my community projects. I have met so many interesting people and made many friends.”

When I was beginning work on this piece, I emailed all of these remarkable elders — Dr. Robert Goddard, Louis Scotellaro, Mary Crowley, and Bob Harnish — asking for a reply within three days. They all replied within a few hours. For that, and their countless contributions to Vermont, we can all be very grateful.

Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann Consulting, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions, lizdimarcoweinmann.com.

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