The standard images are familiar: a grandma in a rocking chair, wistfully turning the pages of a photo album; retirees with time on their hands, spinning yarns at the donut shop about past glories.
But what are real people over 70 up to these days? We wanted to find out.
We photographed and interviewed twelve men and women, ranging in age from 70 to 96, all of whom are members of Ashby Village. Turns out, those standard images are seriously in need of an update.
The people we met continually surprised us. “I’m a party girl!” exclaimed Margie, the 96-year-old. Liz, a once-and-future protester, aged 87, told us that although she couldn’t tolerate getting arrested any more (handcuffs hurt too much), she still attends protests using her walker. At 76, Peter sometimes needs a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop him from shooting photos, flexing his well-honed journalistic muscles, and traveling to Paris. Ninety-three-year old Jeanne regularly drives herself to UC Berkeley to teach a class in music cognition. You get the idea. . .
Meeting and talking with the people featured in this exhibition has been surprising, revealing, funny, thought provoking, and absolutely delightful. Each of them is a vibrant, highly individual spirit. Each is active in his or her particular way, be it creative, organizational, spiritual, physical, or social. None of them spend much time looking back—they’re looking ahead with enthusiasm, curiosity, and optimism.
Not only do these people inspire us to reframe our image of what it means to be old, but they’re also models of how to live well at any age. As painter Lisa says, “I think we have to do things with gusto!”
It has been a privilege to photograph and interview the twelve Ashby Village members featured in this exhibition, and we thank them for generously sharing their thoughts and experiences with us.
Thanks also to graphic designer and Ashby Village volunteer Maria Reeves, who donated her time and expertise to design the layouts for this exhibition.
And thank you to Manuela Pegoraro and other Ashby Village staff members for helping to make the idea of this exhibition a reality.
Nancy Rubin and Cynthia Bix
Nancy Rubin’s photography exhibition, Faces of Fatherhood, is currently on display at Kaiser Richmond and has been in libraries in Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda Counties. Her work has also been shown in several local galleries. She is a contributing photographer for Berkeleyside and CAA (California Alumni Association). She created Humans of Berkeley and the Bay Area, which appears on social media.
Cynthia Overbeck Bix has written numerous books and articles for adults and children, on subjects including social history, natural sciences, and the arts, for such diverse publishers as Sunset Books (Oxmoor House), Sierra Club Books, National Geographic Explorer Magazine, Harry N. Abrams, and Twenty-First Century Books. Her personal essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and in various magazines.
A special THANK YOU to Ashby Village volunteer Maria Reeves who took care of the exhibition design.
Ashby Village is a vibrant nonprofit that connects members with each other and with the resources they need to stay active, independent and fulfilled—just like the people featured in this exhibition. Ashby Village members rely on one another—and on an extensive volunteer pool, screened service providers and partnerships with local agencies, groups and businesses. Ashby Village launched in 2010 and serves Berkeley, Albany, Kensington, El Cerrito, Emeryville, and Parts of Oakland.
Nancy and Cynthia are two of the over 300 volunteers who are part of Ashby Village.
“I need to be busy and engaged. I used to say, when I wake up in the morning, I have to decide who I am. These days, it’s more like I have to decide if I am!” Age 93
CURRENT INTERESTS: Author; pianist; UC Berkeley instructor and lecturer
CAREER: Adjunct Professor, Department of Music, UC Berkeley; Professor of Music and Urban Education, AI Lab and Urban Studies, MIT
Along with a ready laugh, Jeanne displays the energy and intellectual engagement of someone half her age. She is as excited as ever about her lifelong subjects of study—music cognition and cognitive science. Jeanne’s life, work, and music are all of a piece.
My work has been interdisciplinary, in music and cognitive behavioral science. People ask, what’s music cognition? My stock answer: It’s the nature of the knowledge that you’re making use of when you know how to make sense of the music all around you.
In the 1940s, I came to the University of California to study with the composer Roger Sessions. I saw that a piece of music was like a living organism, or a complex machine. I began thinking seriously about the nature of musical knowledge. I’ve developed that study since then, as an instructor and in my books, including The Mind Behind the Musical Ear.
These days I teach a course in music cognition at the University of California. I drive myself to campus twice a week. I’m still writing. And I’m still playing chamber music. I arrange to play in order to have some reason to practice. Living immediately across the street from me is a very good violinist. We get together from time to time to play.
Lisa looks and moves like someone two decades younger than her chronological age, and she has a youthful spirit to match. From her early studies with the Bay Area figurative painters to today, her commitment to making art has continued unabated.
Painting is my life, so I’m always engaged in that. I also love to do very quick sketches—charcoal, pencil, ink. Anyplace, wherever I am, I like to draw. Animation is a new adventure I’m engaged in. It takes a lot of drawing, shooting, erasing, and redrawing to get one minute of film—perfect for my drawing addiction!
I continue to push myself to keep active. Actually, painting is surprisingly active and athletic. You are lifting and moving canvases. And I squat a lot to pick up things. I also love to travel. This year, I’m doing a hike in Ireland and walking part of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail in France.
I taught art for 30 years through City College and at a variety of other places. Also, I taught classes for kids. I used to tell my students, “Don’t color inside the lines—make your own lines! And make a mess!”
It’s all your own hand, and your own energy. And there’s something to be respected about that.
What I would say, too, is “Make more mistakes.” I’m still learning from my own mistakes. When you make a mistake and you say, “Oh, that’s not right,” you obviously have some idea of what would be right. So remake it, but don’t be afraid to just do it, and do it strongly, with real strength, not tickling around the edges.
Career: Marriage and family therapist; probation officer
“Sometimes older people get kind of set in their ways—that’s not me!”
Liz passed away in November 2017 at the age of 87. In the spirit so typical of her, she continued to be involved in singing with her beloved Berkeley Community Chorus and in her work with Ashby Village right up until the end. A staunch liberal Democrat and political activist all her life, she was unfailingly open hearted and full of humor. Following are some of the thoughts about aging that she expressed during an interview in February 2017.
Music is really the most important thing for me these days. I sing in the Berkeley Community Chorus—I’ve been with them for twenty-seven years.
I’m not afraid to try new things, because that helps make my life richer. For example, I like the challenge of learning new music. I have a singing teacher who works with me every week. Also, I try to become familiar with innovations. I have compromised vision because of macular degeneration. So I’ve learned how to use low vision goggles, which incorporate a smartphone. The inventor—a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley—sort of made me his field developer.
I’ve been an activist in small ways over the years, in anti-war and anti-nuclear-weapons marches. The last time I was arrested, though, those tight plastic handcuffs hurt too much, so that’s not for me anymore. I did go to the recent women’s anti-Trump march in Oakland. I took a walker so I could sit down.
I’m an extrovert. I get a lot out of being with people, and I can’t imagine not spending a lot of my time with people. It energizes me.
CURRENT INTERESTS: Gracious hostess; self-proclaimed party girl
CAREER: Homemaker; mother; volunteer
From her snowy, perfectly coiffed hair to her manicured red nails and classic pearl jewelry, Margie is every inch what used to be called a “real lady.” She’s gracious and friendly and always ready to smile. But this is also a lady with plenty of pizzazz.
I love life. And I love being with people! Every week I meet my friends to play bridge. And the movies—I love to go to the movies.
Ashby Village has been my new life. I go to all the activities that are offered to me—potlucks, picnics, Happy Hours. It’s wonderful.
What I find satisfying is helping other people feel good. This brings me great joy. I guess that’s why I’m living so long. I hope it makes me worthwhile. I’m grateful for that.
I have a few aches, but I never complain. And my wrinkles don’t bother me. I’m proud to be old!
I always think positively. Why, I don’t know. There’s so much I love to do, and life is too short. I’m 96! I love to party. I plan to party ’til I die!
“I don’t think about ‘aging’ gracefully. I try to‘live’ as gracefully as possible.” Age 70
CURRENT INTERESTS: Painting; vocal study and performance; travel; hiking, cycling, and weight training; non-profit fundraising
CAREER: Secondary school educator; Director of Continuing Education, St. Mary’s College; Training Director and Vice President, Learning and Development, various Bay Area corporations
The first thing people notice about Pat is her bright, warm energy. She has endless interest in people and loves to forge connections between them. Meanwhile, she keeps her eyes trained on new horizons.
Since leaving the workplace, I’m using my skills in important community organizations. As I cultivate donors for Berkeley Repertory Theatre and do fundraising for Ashby Village, I get great pleasure from engaging people.
While I was working I didn’t have the time, energy, or psychological space for the things I love doing now. For example, I performed choral music at UC Berkeley but later got too busy with work and family to sing. About ten years ago, I began performing with the San Francisco Choral Society. Now I’m studying voice, so I can improve and enjoy performing even more.
Another thing that’s really important to me now is painting. I’m intrigued by the creative process, and I surprise myself when I enjoy the end result. It’s so liberating to explore a level of artistic expression I haven’t experienced since my teens.
Finally, I want to keep fit and healthy as long as I can. I bicycle, hike, and train with weights—I live in my gym clothes most of the time! It’s all so I can continue doing the things I love to do.
“I’m a big believer in framing. How you grip something with words is how you perceive it.” Age 76
CURRENT INTERESTS: Writing (especially poetry); photography; social justice; current affairs
CAREER: Author; journalist, SF Chronicle (29 years)
Deeply thoughtful and articulate, Peter has spent a lifetime reporting on the news and the people who make it. He continues to be an outspoken advocate for social justice, while taking a philosophical view of his own mobility challenges.
As a journalist, I want to notice, to understand what it means, and to communicate so that others can share that. Those are core values for me. I don’t know if I’m a real activist. I have had projects that straddled the border between activism and journalism, where I was using journalism to uncover injustices. I found that very satisfying.
Writing poetry is new for me. I’m captivated by the way it sets expression free. I’ve written poems about aging and disability—about pain, and about expressing the inexpressible.
The frame you put around aging is the way you’re going to live—how you experience it. I’m fascinated by the way people’s perceptions of you vary according to what device you use, or whether your hair is grey. For example, I have a wheelchair because I can’t stand a lot. If I go out in my chair, people say, “Oh, have you had a setback?” If I go out with walking poles, people say,“You look great!” because walking poles are more normal.
We have no guide in this journey, aside from history, experience, perception, and how we describe it, what we choose to notice.
CURRENT INTERESTS: Sculptor; painter; social activist
CAREER: Professor of Architecture and Vice-Chancellor, UC Berkeley; Professor of Sociology, Pitzer College
Russ is articulate and full of ideas that come spilling out as he speaks. His laughter is frequent and infectious. He looks back at his many-faceted life, yet fully inhabits his present life of creativity and social activism.
I’ve gone slowly towards disengagement from academia. I was always “in school,” until I retired. I don’t want to call retirement a gift—it’s an offering.
In my painting and sculpture, my goal is to contribute to this extra-verbal world that is the world of art. People who got their art degrees and are well educated are obliged to make words. But they also know about that aspect of the human consciousness and interchange that’s about images, not words. So images are what I’m working with right now.
Also, I’ve turned to images as my response to Trump’s election. I send money to the Southern Poverty Law Center and make other kinds of contributions. I don’t march any more, but that’s just about age and endurance. Instead, every day through Facebook I send out an image of my own creation. It’s my contribution to an interchange that’s right-brain rather than text.
I’m always learning. As a person, I think I’ve always been that way. You follow your nose—especially since nothing rides on it. If it’s interesting and nothing rides on it, you’re in great shape!
“You have to find your corner of the vineyard—what you do well, what you enjoy doing.”
CURRENT INTERESTS: Native Here Nursery and community volunteer; LGBTQ advocate; choral singer; stamp collector
CAREER: Peace Corps volunteer; teacher; computer specialist; therapist
A gentle soul, Steve speaks with wry humor as well as quiet conviction on topics that matter deeply to him. These days, his focus is on ecology and stewardship of the environment. As a transgender person, he is committed to building community among LGBTQ elders.
My life in these later years has opened up in the sense that now I’m retired, I can go after the things I really enjoy doing, like singing in the Contra Costa Chorale and doing volunteer work.
About ten years ago, I started volunteering at Native Here Nursery in Tilden Park, Berkeley. The second time I went up there to volunteer, I said, “These are my people.” I just sensed that these were the kinds of people I enjoy being with. At first I went once a week and potted plants. Eventually I was asked to be the Plant Fair Coordinator and to join the board.
I also volunteer at Ashby Village. As a transgender elder, I’ve worked with other Ashby Village members to form the LGBTQQA group. Our goals are to facilitate visibility for trans elders in our community and to address the issue of appropriate care for aging people. All the same, I don’t consider myself an activist. To me, doing volunteer work is its own reward.
I’m 76, but I don’t feel old. I live very much in the present. I’ve never been a person to dwell too much on the past or on the future.
Sue’s gentle nature shines out brightly from dark, intense eyes. Her hands, slim and graceful, have written three memorable books and formed countless objects of clay, each with its own quirky charm.
Writing my book Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish came about because I walked into a shop and saw some patchwork quilts. My heart started pounding. I asked the owner, “Who made those?” and he said, “The Amish.” And then a voice said, “Go and live with the Amish.” That’s how my journey began. It wasn’t easy for me to trust that voice that didn’t seem to make sense. It still doesn’t, but that is my ongoing challenge: Doubt if you must, but persist. It’s the persisting that matters.
When I write, I scribble on hundreds of little scraps of paper. Then I sit on the floor or at a table, and I just move the patches around. Sometimes I can see a pattern or a theme. I love the idea of a life of patches. Patches are very human. And we need to be respectful of our patches and to accept not having an answer. It’s important to get out of the way and allow some things to come in.
When I made ceramics, I just shaped the pieces with my hands. I tried using a wheel, but it was so uninteresting. I didn’t want the pieces to be perfect. I’d rather that things are lumpy and bumpy. I’m a poster child for the imperfect!
Doing creative work is always a dance between faith and doubt. If I could give people a message, it’s this: Be kind to yourself. It takes courage to know who you are and what you want.
“I don’t think people experience aging as a long, slow process. They experience it like a snap of the fingers. It’s a sudden jump. You say, ‘What happened?'” Age 80
CURRENT INTERESTS: Writing, speaking, making ceramics
CAREER: Author; Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology and Founder, Institute for the Study of Social Change, UC Berkeley; Silver Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge, NYU
An intellectual force to be reckoned with, Troy is nevertheless relaxed, friendly, and easy to talk to. His far-ranging views on everything from ethics to aging are delivered with conviction and a healthy dose of humor.
My retirement hasn’t been the kind where it’s just—click—you’re either floundering or off into a whole new world. I am retired, but I continue to do a lot of what I did during my teaching years. My early work, including my first book, The Legislation of Morality: Law, Drugs, and Moral Judgment, was all around the social, biological, and political aspects of opiate addiction. Then my focus shifted into examining the influence of social and political values on genetic research, and I served on the National Advisory Council for the Human Genome Project. Now, I spend a few days a week at the university and engage with colleagues and students. I am still writing articles and op-eds and giving lectures. But I’ve read my last blue book, and I’m not unhappy about that!
These days, I’d rather sit at the pottery wheel. I make ceramics—bowls, cups, and so forth. I’ve been doing this for over 50 years. My early pieces were stoneware, but now I’m working with porcelain.
There are so many ways that people experience aging. Some people feel that aging is no fun, that aging takes it all out of you, instead of the flip side of it—gaining wisdom, and those positive things. For myself, I’m feeling no sense of disconnection from the world.
“One of the most important things for me is to have a dream, and follow my dream.” Age 90
CURRENT INTERESTS: Community builder and volunteer for multiple organizations
CAREER: Chevron refinery engineer
Bill is soft-spoken, modest, and affable, but behind the gentle personality is a dynamic community builder and organizer with definite ideas about how to improve every situation he encounters.
The dream that animates most of what I do is that things can always be better. I’ve always tried to carry that out, whether it was coaching a Little League team or singing in my church choir—even working at Chevron.
I used to try to make our office, or our softball team, one where there was good spirit going on.
I have my own “stage” theory of life. My life stages seem to go roughly by decades. For example, in my twenties, I pitched for the University of Washington. Afterwards I played a lot of team sports. Then, in my thirties, I eased off playing and started coaching Little League and organizing church teams. In later decades, I concentrated on my job and on volunteer work.
I get excited about each stage. Each is built on the one that came before. You find the thing that you’re meant to do in each stage, and do it.
I rarely know when I’m starting on a new stage or new work. You have to stay open and look around you. You don’t know when you’ve hit upon the new one until it happens. When you get there, it just feels good to you.
“As I got older, the writing got—in a way—a little bit easier.
I began to have access to areas that I might have closed up before.”
CAREER: Award-winning poet and translator; Professor and Department Chair, English Department, and Director of Creative Writing Program, Mills College
Chana passed away in May of 2017, at the age of 77. Even as she waged her final battle with cancer, her luminous spirit glowed undimmed. With typical clear-eyed courage, she continued to write poetry, chronicling her experience in a book of new poems, which will appear in September 2017. Following are some of the thoughts about aging that she expressed in March 2017.
I was scared to retire from teaching. I’d been wearing that harness, and that gave me structure. But it turned out to be the best thing! I did more translations. (I translate poetry from Hebrew.) And I wrote two books of poetry! I didn’t expect that. I’m still very close to a lot of my former students.
Getting older affects my writing, just like it affects everything. I feel like I am and am not the same person that I was. Once I got sick with cancer, I realized there were still things I wanted to say to the world. So there was a much stronger impetus to write.
It’s so mysterious, how things from the past or the present get buried inside you. You didn’t exactly put them there, they just happened, like seeds that fell on a certain kind of soil. Then one day you come to them, and there they are—they have been shaping themselves inside you, and you write.