Each May the United States celebrates Older Americans Month (OAM) and this year’s OAM commemorates, wisely, the strength and resilience of older adults and the Aging Network, emphasizing the theme “Communities of Strength.”
Struck by the particular brand of resilience we noticed in Maureen Allen as she spoke at the On Aging 2021 Aging and Policy Summit, we gave her a call to ask about her life at age 80, what causes her strength and how she connects to community.
Allen lives in the North Georgia mountains, about 70 miles from Atlanta, in what some tourism sites call “paradise for the outdoorsman.” This outdoorsy woman had an engineer friend design and build her a 484-square-foot house on 6 acres that includes a brook and pasture, to which she will soon add two rescue horses, Belle and Angel, and where she spends a fair amount of time mowing grass on her small John Deere riding mower.
Eclectic, Unexpected Past
But this is getting ahead of the story, as life wasn’t always so bucolic for Allen. Admittedly from a rather “peculiar, dysfunctional family” she grew up in Chicago, was married twice and has no kids. Starting her adult life as a classical ballet dancer, injuries from a trapeze adventure sidelined that career and she pivoted to advertising, where she secured a job as the proofreader for the now global advertising firm Foote, Cone & Belding.
After being asked to draft “something about the agency’s legendary founder [Fairfax Cone],” the next day Allen found herself in the copy department as a writer, where she remained, gradually expanding her skills into PR, media relations and management.
‘Allen realized she needn’t be tied to an office, and began indulging her enduring love of animals.’
Her final office job was a presidential appointment by President George Bush to the IRS, which, she admitted, was ironic as “I can’t balance my own checkbook,” never mind being a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. The Bush administration had made a point of adopting best practices from the private sector, so the IRS was reorganizing into four divisions, each serving a segment of taxpayers. The DC headhunter knew someone once removed from a close friend of Allen’s, and she ended up running the communications department for one of the IRS’s largest divisions, “supervising 75 bureaucrats.”
Retiring after a four-year term, Allen realized she needn’t be tied to an office, and began indulging her enduring love of animals at small and large animal vet assistant jobs, and started a habit of collecting horses. “If you ever have too much money and need to get rid of it, buy a horse,” she said.
Now an enthusiastic practitioner of the Natural Horsemanship method of horse training (no bit, bridle nor commands), Allen spent time learning the training method and perfected it with her horse Belle.
The remainder of her days are spent working out (once or twice per day, via Silver Sneakers online until she can return to the gym), the requisite mowing previously mentioned and some time walking the property, trimming, clipping and “trying not to let the forest engulf me.”
Inside the house Allen edits fiction for writers wanting to get their novels into shape for publication. Mentioning that she’d like one day to write about her own “damaging but exalting family,” she claims editing is “a great excuse for not writing the book that’s in you.”
Gaining, Maintaining That Growth Mindset
The outdoors, horsey lifestyle with editing for intellectual stimulus sounds like a lovely way to live a life, but what accounts for Allen’s incredibly positive outlook?
We kept prying into other typical indicators of happiness such as companionship, discovering new interests, etc., that are always noted as the most likely way to secure happiness later in life. Well, Allen has ideas.
Instead of accumulating friends, she has edited her social circle down to only “true” friends—those who can discuss anything, and whose worldview is as wide or wider than hers. If Allen can’t learn something from a friend, then that person likely won’t make the cut. She has no patience for those who are obsessed with acquiring things or occupied with unimportant minutia.
‘Curiosity is the beginning of growth.’
“I want the time I spend with people to mean a lot!” she explained. “Time is infinitely valuable and I don’t have it to waste on nonsense. I absolutely cherish my friends, who may have different perspectives, but they are thinkers and doers and people focused on all the wonders life can give us.” At this time, she has no lovers.
Allen credits a combination of nature and nurture for her positivity, as she was reared to be independent, and to ask for nothing. Another positive lesson she took from childhood was to cultivate curiosity, which she thinks is key in later life.
“Curiosity is the beginning of growth—wanting to know, wanting to find out, being fearless in taking on new things. The more new things you take on the more courageous you become,” Allen said.
Her rearing allowed her to focus on what she can do, she said, not on what she can’t. “That’s what aging represents, it’s not a limitation, but freedom! It’s the most valuable phase of human life as you are free to do everything you’ve ever wanted and to apply yourself to any adventure you want. It doesn’t matter if you’re bedridden or if you’re perfectly healthy, it’s all in the attitude,” Allen said.
“I believe in moving forward at warp speed because life is an adventure. And you need to squeeze every bit out of every moment and be grateful for it. If I had one religious thought it would be profound gratitude. I’m not churchy—I would say I worship life.”