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Seniors, go to the head of the class!

OK, the cat’s out of the bag and I’ve gone public. I am old. I just returned from my 50th college class reunion.
People had always told me that this half-century event was ‘inspirational,’ and I did want to know what they meant by that. I wondered if they meant speakers got up and waxed eloquently or if there was something about reminiscing that I hadn’t experienced yet. And so I went with eagerness to the 50th reunion of the Indiana University Class of 1957.
Over the years, I must confess, if asked to describe such a group, I would have assumed the women at this stage in their lives would be wearing drab dresses with crochet collars. The men I envisioned as shuffling around in Dr. Scholl’s shoes.
That is not the sight that greeted me at this alumnae affair.
Now there were a few dresses on women, but mostly the females strolled confidently through the halls in sporty leisure clothes. The men were a bit heavier in weight than 50 years ago, but they didn’t look like they had put their minds to bed for life either. And the conversation was definitely not about sitting around waiting to die.
I began to pick up on this idea of ‘inspiration.’ Folks were discussing meaningful trips to all kinds of places, athletic feats in which they participated, and roles they were assuming as volunteers and professionals. It was evident that there was a lot of brain power and skill in our group. As most were retired, it became evident that there was a lot more available free time within that group than I had been around for a long time.
A great deal of those retired days are being spent in Florida and Arizona. All are good places to go on a grey, cold day in February. However, it did enter my mind that we here in Indiana are loosing a gigantic pool of human resource to sun and surf. We worry a lot about the ‘Brain Drain’ of young college graduates moving out of state, but what about the skills, experiences and hours our senior college graduates have to offer? I remember my mom who had a marvelous creative mind when it came to civic activities would in her later years say to me that she couldn’t commit to carrying them out because she would be ‘down south so much of the year.’ Well, what is that all about?
Maybe we need to explore what there is besides warm weather that attracts our retirees to other locations. They often speak to me of the benefits of institutions and services that are geared to their age group and the fun of being around a whole lot of people like themselves who are free to come and go. But I also have a lot of folks tell me they envy the meaningful projects I get to do here in Indiana and around the world as part of a caring community.
As my mother’s health began to wane in her late 80s, one of the few things she bemoaned was ‘not being able to contribute anymore.’ Years ago, I read an article that said ‘most people aren’t afraid of dying. They are just afraid of living a life with no meaning.’ I certainly believe that.
There is so much untapped resource just sitting in older people who we haven’t somehow made to feel vital and energized by continuing to contribute to their communities.
Now I know alone they may not have all it takes to create world peace or stop a big health epidemic or even the ability to put an end to global warming. What one group can? It will take all of us to tackle these massive and complex issues. And that is the point: It takes all of us.
I was a speaker at the class reunion and tried to be humorous as I suggested that our class should address the problem of ineffective hearing-aid devices. I related my attempt to put off doing something until the ‘baby boomer’ generation had age-induced hearing loss. They would do something about the need for research and production of more successful solutions. However, I could wait no longer. I remembered Robert O’Bannon saying the most frequently made comment in his later years as he joined longtime friends was, ‘What did you say?’ That day came to me at the 50-year reunion.
The morning after my little speech, a classmate who is a geophysicist eagerly met me at breakfast and said he had been thinking about the hearing loss issue since I had joked about it. He had already identified disciplines to include, business routes to take and funding pools to tap for a joint venture to solve this problem. We talked for almost two hours, and the possibilities just kept piling up.
At last, I had realized what all those who preceded me in the 50-year graduation class reunion experience meant when they said ‘it was inspirational.’ The potential to do new dynamic and meaningful things after the age of 70 is huge. The fear of being put out to pasture and eating too much does not have to be even a remote threat.
I’m ready to go on new innovative projects. Who wants to go along?