Legacy Lessons Part 2: More Wisdom from Leaders in the Aging Field

Last week we published the first half of excerpts from Ken Dychtwald’s 12 Legacy interviews. What follows here the second half.

In partnership with ASA and 37 co-sponsoring organizations, during the late summer of 2021, I hosted and filmed (via Zoom) a series of 12 Legacy Interviews with a diverse set of leading pathfinders. At this stage in their lives and careers, they all seemed to feel something along the lines of, “I want to be honest and transparent about what I’ve learned and leave my legacy for those who will touch the lives of older adults for generations to come. I’m not worried about losing my job or having my dean complain.” They were each grateful for the opportunity to share, and the respect they were being shown for their body of work.

Six more of the legendary pioneers I interviewed included:

Jennie Chin Hansen, RN, MS, FAAN, former President of AARP, past CEO of the American Geriatrics Society, and Board Member of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. “I think we have new and emerging roles that actually are more expanded than were possible before. We’ve been given this gift of time—a longevity bonus. For those of us who have enough health and feel comfortably safe in our economic security, there’s an obligation to do something with that time. When we were young, we were told, ‘Do that which really pulls at your heartstrings or gives you fire in your belly.’ I think older people need to rekindle that feeling and figure that out for contribution, for meaning, and for a sense of purpose.”

Paul Nathanson, JD, Founder of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging, Founder of Justice and Aging, past President of the American Society of Aging, and former National Secretary of the Gray Panthers. “I don’t think the aging field has evolved enough in an intergenerational context. And I think lip service is paid to women and people of color and the LGBTQ community.” He also provided wise counsel to young people trying to figure out their career path, “I think it’s really important to try to find your passion. I find high school students are being asked, ‘What do you want to be and where do you want to go to college?’ My answer is don’t know what you want to be. Go out and learn and live and get an education, not only in a formal sense, but by meeting people and talking and listening. You’ll make much wiser decisions if you do.”

‘We need to develop curricula for high schools and even elementary school kids around aging …’

John Rowe, MD, founding Director of the Division of Aging at Harvard Medical School, former Chief of Gerontology at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, and former President of Mount Sinai Hospital and School of Medicine. “When you start talking about longevity, as opposed to aging, you automatically put things into a life-course perspective. And I think that’s the direction to go.” He also shared, “I had eight years of Jesuit training, including high school and college. And I think the greatest lesson for me wasn’t spirituality, but it was an absolute commitment to excellence. Rigorous thought. Rigorous discussion. Rigorous evaluation. And no room for anything but that.”

E. Percil Stanford, PhD, Professor and Director Emeritus at San Diego State University, Founder of the University Center of Aging, the Gerontology Department, and the National Institute on Minority Aging at SDSU, former Senior Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion for AARP, and former President of American Society on Aging. “We need to develop curricula for high schools and even elementary school kids around aging … so they begin to understand a little bit more about what it means to care for older people and grow older themselves.” In his 80s, Stanford is the oldest of these Legacy pathfinders and shared personal reflections aging: “When I was a young boy, I started running a lot because we lived in a rural area and to get anywhere you had to walk or run. As I grew older, I became a more trained and competitive runner in both high school and college. I think that aging is like a marathon, and it doesn’t get easier. In each phase of our life, we have to garner the strength to continue to not give up. There are times you want to quit, but you have to say, “I have to go on, I have to succeed.” But wow, when you get to your 70s, and you get to your 80s, you can smile and say, “I’m still here. I’m still running, and I feel really good.”

Jeanette Takamura, PhD, Professor and Dean Emerita at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, where she served as the first female dean, and former Assistant Secretary for Aging (1997–2001), where she led the development and enactment of a modernized Older Americans Act and established the National Family Caregiver Support Program. “I really would prefer that we use longevity as the term because it’s more aspirational. We want to live. And aging sort of makes you feel pulled down. But longevity gives you a sense that there’s a horizon there and that it’s not just your longevity, but the longevity of others.” As a 73-year-old woman, Takamura also had a lot to say about the role of women in an aging society: “I think we really need to take a look at the status of women in society because they are the ones who are living longer; they are also the ones who are supporting every component of our society.”

We need to take a look at the status of women in society because they are the ones who are living longer—supporting every component of our society.

Fernando Torres-Gil, PhD, MSW, a polio survivor and the first-ever U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging, serving under President Bill Clinton, Director of the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging, Professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy at UCLA, and former Chair of the American Society on Aging. “We must look at aging as not about older persons only. Aging is a lifelong process. I can now truthfully say at 73 years of age that I was fortunate to catch the polio virus as a child and to have had that experience as a polio survivor. Why? I think one of my great advantages is I have spent a lifetime learning how to adapt and be resilient and be gracious and accepting of whatever life gives us. I find myself counseling my Baby Boomer friends who are facing the vicissitudes of aging—a stroke or heart attack, arthritis, knee and hip replacements. And what I find for most persons that have been able bodied throughout most of their life, when things happen as they get older, I find that their greatest challenge is psychological and emotional. It’s almost like, why me? And a sense of anger or self-pity.”

Thinking about his extraordinary life, and paraphrasing T.S. Eliot, Torres-Gil shared, “We should use our lives to explore and have all these adventures and always eventually come back to what really matters: family, friends, and good health.”

The Legacy Interviews: Ways Their Impact Will Continue to Ripple Outward

After the 12 interviews aired and were posted online, they received more than 10,000 additional views and the Davis School of Gerontology at USC offered certificates for folks who watched all of them. We then had them transcribed and they are now being transformed into an academic text for students in gerontology, psychology, social work, nursing, medicine, education and public policy. The book, “Sages of Aging: A Guide for Changemakers,” edited by myself and Age Wave’s President Elyse Pellman will be published by NOVA Press in July of this year. All proceeds – in perpetuity - will be donated to the American Society on Aging. In addition, Public Television will be airing nationally a one-hour documentary special called “Sages of Aging,” a powerful distillation of the 12 interviews (check your local listings for airing dates and times). And last, a two-hour documentary to be titled “Legacy Lessons: A Guide for Changemakers” is being produced for distribution—with no charge—to colleges and universities worldwide, for viewership by the widest possible audience of young – and developing - professionals.

Having the experience of conducting these thought-provoking interviews, I now believe that every company, organization, and association ought to have a process whereby their outstanding elders can express their learnings, their insights, their frustrations, their wisdom—and leave their legacy for generations to come.

Ken Dychtwald, PhD, is founder and CEO of Age Wave, a think tank and consultancy focused on the social and business implications and opportunities of global aging and rising longevity. He is a psychologist, gerontologist and best-selling author of 18 books on aging-related issues, including “Age Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging Society;” “What Retirees Want: A Holistic Guide to Life’s Third Age” (Ken is donating all of his author’s fees to ASA) and his latest, “Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life.” Dychtwald was the executive producer and host of the highly rated/acclaimed PBS documentary “The Boomer Century: 1946–2046,” which aired more than 2,000 times on PBS stations nationwide, and his new Public Television special is called “Life’s Third Age.”