Stories of people finding success/fulfillment late in life?
March 3, 2015 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Family member is now retired and seemingly convinced that life is basically over. I am looking for stories of people who continued (or started) to do meaningful work during the years of 60+, especially if that work or activity is of the non-professional, unpaid variety.

80 year olds running startups? 70 year olds volunteering to foster dogs? 90 year olds founding new charities? All are welcome. Biographies, articles, blogs, movies, any format is fine.

(Not looking for stories primarily about romance.)
posted by a fiendish thingy to Human Relations (32 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Anything by Anne Tyler
posted by myselfasme at 6:43 AM on March 3, 2015

Read about Grandma Moses.
posted by jgirl at 6:57 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Lillian Carter joined The Peace Corp at the age of 66 to treat leprosy patients in India.
posted by octothorpe at 7:08 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Start a garden and sell or donate the food. Start a community garden and teach others to garden. Take up beekeeping and sell or donate the honey.
posted by resurrexit at 7:10 AM on March 3, 2015

A project I am part of is almost entirely people under 30. (And me, and a few others.) We have one volunteer who is retirement age and not only is she one of the key people in the project but she...I dunno, she really fits in. She has a lot of professional skills that she applies to this project, which is great, but she also does a lot of stuff that I at least did not really expect from someone in their sixties - she does a lot of set up/check-in for the punk shows that we host, for instance. And this isn't one of those situations where the oldest person in the project is the odd one out - we're all the same kind of people but we happen to inhabit bodies of different ages.

Also, I teach a class with a member who is in her mid-seventies, and she is a complete firecracker - she's always racing off to do things right after class, she is seemingly impervious to cold, she gardens a huge amount, she's always reading.

My great aunt was editing and doing advertising work on a contract/part-time basis until her early eighties and she just experienced a lot of stuff - she was pretty frail after about 80 and could not go out much, but she still made it over to the Art Institute, kept up with pop culture, had her glass of white wine (she was a great one for the white wine) and kept up with all her friends. She was a cultured and sophisticated woman and while she lived in a more confined style after eighty, she didn't just ebb away or anything.
posted by Frowner at 7:11 AM on March 3, 2015 [8 favorites]

Helen Hooven Santmyer had a career as a teacher, but then in her 80's she published a best-selling novel.

Similarly, Frank McCourt didn't write his best-selling, Pulitzer-prize winning memoir Angela's Ashes until he also retired from teaching, at age 66.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:39 AM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well, this is starting in the person's late 50s, not her 60s, but Penelope Fitzgerald began her extremely successful literary career at age 58 and won the Booker Prize when she was 63.
posted by holborne at 7:41 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Barbara Sher is the author you want. She's huge in the self-help field and her books are all about possibility, hope, and living your dream as an older person.
posted by jasper411 at 7:55 AM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

My dad just turned 77, and since his retirement five years ago, he's written and published 2 Kindle books. They were both memoirs, one about his childhood during WW2, and one of life in Alaska during the pipeline boom. He's had tons of fun "researching," which means calling old friends and reminiscing, and his friends have gotten a kick out of being mentioned in his books. It's not as exciting as joining the peace corps or winning a Pulitzer, but it has been tremendously fulfilling for him, and the sentimental value for my sister and me is immeasurable.

Oh, and he's made enough on royalties to take me out to lunch. Twice. In five years.
posted by SamanthaK at 8:00 AM on March 3, 2015 [11 favorites]

The other thing I wanted to say about Barbara Sher is that her books are filled with stories about "ordinary" people achieving things that matter to them. The problem with providing your relative with names of exceptional people as examples is that it can be kind of discouraging. Like if you're feeling discouraged and some well-meaning person says something like, "What about that Steve Jobs fellow? He didn't let anything get him down!" Rather than find that encouraging and inspirational, the focus on exceptionalism leaves me cold.
posted by jasper411 at 8:08 AM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yes, I worked with lots of older volunteers in the Peace Corps and generally they were the most useful/valuable because of their experience.
posted by chaiminda at 8:24 AM on March 3, 2015

Response by poster: The problem with providing your relative with names of exceptional people as examples is that it can be kind of discouraging.

I didn't ask for exceptional people, though. Just people whose stories are told somewhere. (Stories on a blog read by one person is fine!)

Just to clarify my question: I am looking for stories/books/links, not suggestions for activities. I (and others) make LOTS of suggestions, and many of them are also being made here by likeminded and kindhearted people, but "hey you could try [X]" is not helping too much. That is why I am looking for narratives where people of older ages overcome or get rid of the idea that life has passed them by, because in my experience this person responds better to "here a link" than "hey, here's an idea".
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:31 AM on March 3, 2015

Julia Child didn't publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking until she was in her 50s and I found My Life in France incredibly inspiring.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is still rocking the Supreme Court in her 80s.
posted by brookeb at 8:42 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately the best such story I know of isn't written down - it was the librarian in my hometown, a sweet lady who was always known unto me as "Miss Moody". And she was almost stereotypical in her demeanor - seriously, picture "little old maiden lady childrens' librarian" in your head, and that was Miss Moody - in her 60's, petite, glasses perched on the end of her nose, soft-spoken, never married, lived in a tiny house with a couple cats.

She was really nice, so I liked her, and she probably also dug me because I was a completely and utterly voracious reader. Even though she probably lost a couple nights' sleep during the summers I was ten or eleven and had already read through everything in the kids' section - including all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew - and still was asking her what else I could read. She steered me to a couple of the classics, but then after only a week when I was done with them and went to her asking "what else?" and anything else she could recommend was a bit too adult in sensibility, she finally threw me at the mystery section and called it a day.

But what made her my hero is that one day, when I was about twelve, she mailed every member of my town's tiny library a letter announcing that she was retiring - to backpack around the world. And twelve-year-old me thought that was the most awesome, bad-ass thing ever.

Miss Moody is most likely no longer alive, but she has kind of been a sort of role model for me in that one moment.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:50 AM on March 3, 2015 [13 favorites]

The CNN Everyday Heroes series features stories of lots of older people. Check out Helen Ashe from the 2011 series -- she's 83!
posted by jabes at 8:55 AM on March 3, 2015

Interesting article from the NY Times, called Old Masters at the Top of Their Game. My husband happened to share it with me the other day.

Some are people who were accomplished already, but further down the page is this:

Carmen Herrera, painter, 99, in her Manhattan studio. Herrera sold her first painting at age 89. Today her work is in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:03 AM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

The nonprofit where I work is open and active seven days a week (therapeutic horseback riding) and couldn't operate without the labor of people who are free during traditional work hours. I work alongside the most amazing grandmas. This place puts the lie to the idea that all Americans have forgotten how to value the elderly, because those ladies KNOW stuff, and they're adored for their willingness to share information.

I know you said you prefer specific stories to activity suggestions, but this is such a good data point I couldn't pass it up. I suspect a lot of nonprofits and charities operate similarly, if they need volunteers on weekdays. Find the right organization for your relative, and she'll be welcomed just for being available during difficult-to-fill hours. If she's friendly and willing to pitch in, she'll be treated like a superstar.
posted by jessicapierce at 9:22 AM on March 3, 2015

When I was a book editor, I published an absolutely wonderful book called The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Molly Peacock. It's about a woman named Mary Delany, who at 72 began to create an amazing series of life-like cut-paper flowers that are so accurate (and so beautiful!) that they can be used by modern scientists to compare with modern examples of the same species.

It's a beautiful story, beautifully told.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:03 AM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

This isn't anyone famous, but my dad was pretty worried about retirement, and kept the idea of going back to consult open, "just in case". He's been retired more than 10 years and has been much too busy to consult, mostly with volunteering at his church and helping friends.

Every volunteer group I've worked with has Loved recent retirees - they can volunteer on weekdays, they are smart, and they tend to work hard. Most recently I've volunteered with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which always needs more volunteers.
posted by ldthomps at 10:17 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

First of all, he should read Cicero On Old Age, in which we are told (among other things) that Cato "in [his] old age learned Greek, which [he] seized upon as eagerly as if desirous of satisfying a long-continued thirst." He does not take the Life Ends At 65 line.

Start a fast food chain.

One task he should do is to write down reminiscences of youth. No one will care except the great nephew many years from now who is actually into that kind of stuff.
posted by BWA at 10:30 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing Granda Moses.

Colonel Sanders created the KFC franchise in 1952, the year he turned 62 (there is some backstory before that with restaurant stuff, but that is when it became a franchised business).

I have a couple of other people in mind whose names I can't think of right now. There was a woman, I think in Washington DC, who did foster care or something like that until she was quite old. I am describing her in hopes that someone will know who that is and name her, because googling is not working. I don't know enough to google it effectively.

The other name I may be able to come up with later this afternoon. If I find it, I will post it for you.
posted by Michele in California at 11:04 AM on March 3, 2015

The great exotic marigold hotel is a fictional movie, but it is about retired people finding new life and inspiration in retirement. It's sequel is coming into the movie theatre soon as well.
posted by GregorWill at 3:33 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just recommended this on the green, but Red (and it's sequel) is a comedy action flick about a bunch of retired CIA agents. Helen Mirren is pretty bad ass.

My grandmother took up pottery in her 50's and she and my grandfather spent 20 years making dishes and traveling around to craft fairs. Then she went on to sculpture and painting and exhibited in galleries where her paintings sold upwards of $500 ea. She also went back and finished her bachelor's degree (well, excepting one math class!). She was curious, always interested in what us young people thought, and sooo much fun to hang out with.

My mom's uncle eloped at 80ish and was married for 20 or 25 years.

Since my mom's divorce in her 50's she's worked as a seamstress, finished a masters and started a new career, fell in love again (though he passed away after several years together), took up old hobbies etc.

You might try looking into the "financially independent" stuff - Mr. Money Mustache is "retired" but plenty busy. It's a problem those who "retire" young tackle head-on, and I know he addresses it regularly in his blog posts (since he regularly gets "but I don't want to retire, why should I save money" backlash). Might give your relative some ideas and/or perspective of being *free*. (Retiring to "nothing" is a problem at any age.)
posted by jrobin276 at 5:00 PM on March 3, 2015

Okay, I have found the name I said I would get back to you on:

J. R. Simplot

I read his biography a jillion years ago. He lived to age 99. His Wikipedia page is short, but he obviously stayed active and had an interesting life well into his advanced years. I find him really inspiring.
posted by Michele in California at 5:07 PM on March 3, 2015

Former President Jimmy Carter is still building houses with Habitat for Humanity - at age 90!
posted by SisterHavana at 5:17 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know people who love Elderhostel, now Road Scholar. Here are some of their stories (not the folks I know, but from their web page):
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 6:30 PM on March 3, 2015

Older entrepreneurs are better entrepreneurs. Here is a man who started his medical device company on his 65th birthday.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 12:29 AM on March 4, 2015

Marion Cunningham. IIRC story was she was a depressed/agoraphobic alcoholic housewife and then one day nearing her 50s she decided to get on a plane and start over.
posted by ifjuly at 2:29 AM on March 4, 2015

Fauja Singh started running marathons when he was 89. He finally retired in 2013 at the age of almost 102.
posted by foxjacket at 5:21 PM on March 4, 2015

I love this story about a 90 year old lady who recently became an inventor for a mega consultancy
posted by Dwardles at 2:05 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

(An alternative view on Cicero.)
posted by BWA at 3:58 PM on March 12, 2015

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