At 80ish I wrote a chapter for a book, 80 Things to Do When you Turn 80. The chapter was titled “Life is an Adventure. In it I talked about meeting my wife Margaret and our long life together, and on writing a book and rebuilding my life after she passed. The theme for that article was to keep moving forward. “Don’t die until you’re dead,” I counseled.
Moving on, I just celebrated my 90th birthday on March 29. 90 years old. During my lifetime we have gone from needing a live operator to make a phone call and gathering around the radio for entertainment on a Sunday night, to free International video calls and full-length movies on demand in the palm of your hand.
How does it feel to be 90?
I wrote about five different speeches for my birthday party last month. But before I get to my speech, I have to say, it was so wonderful to be surrounded by family: my two children and their families, my six grandchildren and a great grandchild. Friends and family came to the beautiful Chicago Botanic Garden, my favorite place, to celebrate. I felt truly blessed to have touched so many lives in my 90 years, and to be surrounded by so much love.
I wrote five drafts of speeches for my birthday party. I was trying to find the words to reflect my feelings. Can I still make a difference at 90? Do I have the energy to continue to create programs and help others? After a few weeks of waffling on the subject, I finally concluded I will work to make a positive difference in the world as long as I am able.
With that in mind, I threw away the prepared speeches and spoke from the heart.
“Everyone in this room has contributed to who I am. You taught me and I teach you. You are all a part of who I am today.
“Three words that really give me guidance in my life are passion, creativity and commitment: commitment to myself, commitment to my family, commitment to Felice and her family. These are the words that I wake up to in the morning. When I think about that I am energized. And I keep moving. I walk here [in the Chicago Botanic Garden) almost every day, even in the winter. It gives me vitality to keep moving.”
My bumper sticker at 90 is “always leave your campsite better than you found it.” This has been my mantra for 73 years, since I was a young camp counselor it this was a literal dictum. Now it means I will do everything in my power to keep making the world a better place. I do it with the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection School Program. I help grandparents enter the world of their grandchildren. I help families connect more deeply across the generations. I help schools build their community of support.
Action over Inaction
It’s so easy to make excuses for inaction. I imagine at 90 no one would fault me if I said I was tired and wanted to stay home. But I am blessed to have my health and most importantly my strong and open mind. Perhaps it is that open mind, that excitement about learning new things and exploring new ideas that keeps me young.
I attend classes at Northwestern University. They offer a program with weekly presentations from faculty on their current research. I meet regularly with my partner to create articles for Grand Magazine, blog posts about ideas and events and to engage new schools for the school program. In fact, I’ve added a new school to the Grandparent-Grandchild-Connection Program just in the last month.
We connect with other “grandparent activists” to explore possibilities. I recently connected with a young Rabbi based in Israel who is running a Global Intergenerational Initiative. Together we are looking at convening all of the people working in the grandparent space to see what ideas can flow by bringing people together.
At 90, I am comforted by knowing I have made a difference.
I was privileged to work with 1’000’s of families during 47 years at the JCC’s of Chicago, the last 18 of them as General Director. More often than not someone will approach me at a speaking event to let me know I was their camp counselor, or I gave them their first job as a camp counselor. Long-time friends, some for 64+ years, shared memories in letters to me for my birthday.
“Jerry, when you retired, I saw you uncertain about your direction, until you found another way to continue doing incredibly meaningful work. You created pathways for grandparents and their grandchildren to get to know each other in different ways, and find paths on which they are able to travel together. Through your book, the grandparent groups you lead, and the many presentations you give all across the country, you have enriched the lives of so many families and given new meaning and rich relationships to a whole new population…You were always a leader in your field, and it is heartwarming to watch and listen to you as you continue making a difference.”
At 90, I say “why stop now?”
Going back to my three words, passion and creativity are intertwined for me. It is a passion to help others that drives me. It’s the creativity to develop solutions that fuels me.