Can seniors who are 80-plus years young still hold mind-taxing and energy-sapping leadership roles in business and community? Can they find new challenges or keep going and make a difference?
In the new film, “The Intern,” 70-year-old Ben Whitaker, played by Robert De Niro, goes back to work. One defining question of the film asks the “senior” intern where he sees himself in 10 years. “You mean when I’m 80?” That line gets a big laugh.
Funny thing is, the notion of working or volunteering to age 80 and beyond is no joke. Meet 88-year-old Clark Paradise. He’s the real deal when it comes to making it happen. And he’s still seeing his future, even as he approaches age 90.
I met Clark, then 85, just before Christmas 2012 when Home Instead Senior Care sent me to Toms River, New Jersey, to interview him and his wife, Jean. They’d just been selected as winners of Home Instead’s Salute to Senior Service program contest, which honored seniors’ commitments to their volunteer causes and communities.
His story was an attention-getter from the get-go. Clark had had a successful and fulfilling business career in his earlier years. He says God tapped him on the shoulder at age 75 and put on his heart the needs of a group of homeless people living in a motel.
So Clark and Jean started Your Grandmother’s Cupboard, a nonprofit serving the poverty-stricken and homeless. The group distributes clothing, coats, blankets and personal care items from three locations and a variety of soup kitchens and shelters throughout New Jersey and Northeast Pennsylvania.
The mission serves about 4,000 adults and children a month, up by 1,000 from last year. A “supply chain network” of senior villages, service clubs, churches, thrift stores and dedicated volunteers provide and donate the items. They were an important part of Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
Three years after my first encounter, Clark is still going strong in spite of a breathing problem and Jean’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease. He works every weekday from 9 a.m. until afternoon, and a few hours on Saturday and Sunday after church. I asked Clark that noteworthy question from the movie. “Where do you see yourself going?”
He began with, “When I turn 90, if I can find a successor for Your Grandmother’s Cupboard, . . . ” And I thought, here comes the retirement announcement.
“When I’m 90, I want to spend time on my other charity, The Shepherd’s Helpers,” he noted. The program helps widowed spouses navigate the single life and prepare for the end of life.
Impossible goal? I wouldn’t bet against Clark.
If you’re a family caregiver, like me, you know that society’s biases are only part of the problem. Sometimes convincing seniors they can still make valuable contributions is even more difficult. So I asked Clark for his advice. Here are those lessons from Paradise:
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of seniors like Clark Paradise. We found many during the Salute to Senior Service program. You can still read their incredible stories by going to SalutetoSeniorService.com (SalutetoSeniorService.ca in Canada).
Until I met Clark and Jean Paradise, and read about dozens of other older adults making a difference, I’m embarrassed to say I really wasn’t a total believer myself.
It took a trip to Paradise to open my eyes.
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