Successful Aging: The surprise on this Zoom call brought me to tears


Dear readers,


This week I would like to tell you about a recent personal experience.  


I have worked in the field of aging since the mid-1970s. At that time, some thought “gerontology” was a skin disease specialty, something like dermatology. I was fortunate to make my career at USC’s Davis School of Gerontology where I had extraordinary opportunities to learn, grow, teach and contribute to this nascent specialty.


During the past half-century, many exceptional people have been drawn to this multidisciplinary field that is at the intersection of biology, psychology, sociology, public policy, housing, health, eldercare and academe. In more recent years, as older adults have risen as a powerful consumer and social segment, gerontology now embraces business, marketing, product design, volunteerism, diversity, employment, encore careers and retirement.  


Last week, I wrote a column about older adults coping with the pandemic better than their younger counterparts. Part of that research was based on work by visionary Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age Wave. I called Ken, whom I’ve known for years, to get a little more information about his research.


As part of our conversation, I said, “Ken, I cannot believe I am going to be as old as I am going to be. He asked, “How old?” I answered, “80 years old.” He was surprised and even a bit shocked.  (Perhaps shocking others is what turning 80 now involves.)


And then we continued our research-based conversation. He called the next day and tricked me when he said he wanted to set up a Zoom call for us with a publishing colleague of his to talk about a book idea based on a few thoughts I shared with him. The proposed book meeting was set for 10 a.m. Aug. 27, the day of my birthday. I did my homework, checked out the colleague and did a little more research on the topic we were going to discuss so I would be well prepared.   


Then it happened. At 9:55, I entered the Zoom call and I immediately felt that I was the unwitting guest on that older television show, “This Is Your Life.” Zooming back at me were dozens of people I know from my work over many different decades. At first, I was so shocked, I thought I must be disrupting some meeting that I had not been invited to.

And then they all shouted, “Surprise! Happy birthday, Helen!”


There were colleagues from Southern California, across the nation and even Paris — all smiling at me and expressing joy in seeing each other. That was just the beginning. Ken then asked each person, alphabetically to minimize Zoom chaos, to share with me and the group words or feelings that came to their minds when they thought of yours truly – regarding my work and my life.


I was overwhelmed with their kindness and generosity and the things they said about me, and to me, brought me repeatedly to tears. These were longterm colleagues that I have known and worked on different projects from the 1970s to the present. There were so many points of overlap and wonderful memories and numerous shared histories. Aside from conferences we’ve spoken at, books we’ve collaborated on and programs we developed, we’ve also been fellow travelers who have had our fair share of ups, downs, births and deaths.


What occurred during that magical hour was more than a birthday celebration. It was a happening, a peak experience with the pandemic as a partial catalyst. It was almost spiritual. Of course, there was also the backdrop: Everyone on that call – most of whom were in or near my age cohort – were fully cognizant that we are now living in the most disruptive and uncertain times of our lives.  Special moments such as what we were sharing have taken on a new meaning.  


In that hour, each from their little Brady Bunch Zoom box, people chose to be honest and caring in a most pure way. They shared what was in their hearts; they listened intently to each other. Many had not seen each other for years because of distance, retirements, illness, or the current inability to traveling to meetings and conferences. Yet everyone on that call realized that, in addition to being my friends, we all shared a similar history attempting to make our marks in the growing field of aging. 


On reflection, these colleagues who were able to join this Zoom call had three qualities in common: They were or are passionate about their work, they care deeply about older adults, and finally, even with some grayed hairlines, they have been and remain intent on improving the lives of older people. It felt like a moment of honesty, connection and valuing one another – not only me. It was a pause to feel and express both appreciation and respect for me, for each other and for the important work still to be done. 


Ken provided a model of bringing people together with this shared background, values and professional experiences, honoring one another just by showing up. Although I appreciate that the supposed purpose was to celebrate my 80th birthday, it also occurs to me that it was a model on how to celebrate aging and gratitude, especially important in a time of so much fear, uncertainty and separation. 


How often is there someone in our lives from whom we learned, who influenced us, and as the years pass, we never have taken the time to express our appreciation? Without sounding morose, a funeral is a moment too late. 

Thank you, Ken, and all my dear colleagues, for a precious moment in time I will never forget and for the reminder to express one’s gratitude for the gift of collegial and personal relationships. So, dear readers, make that special time happen for you and for others.    


Stay safe, stay well and continue to be kind. 


Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience.  Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com.  Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity  

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