Age can't sway some from chasing their dreams
When Diana Nyad emerged from the Florida Straits after nearly 53 hours in the water, she had an important message for the throngs of well-wishers and media waiting on the beach.
“You are never too old to chase your dreams,” said Nyad, 64, exhausted from the endurance-testing, 110-mile journey from Cuba to Key West.
Some Western Pennsylvanians are living examples of those words, and according to aging experts, that's an ideal mentality to have.
“Having goals is one of the best aspects of healthy aging,” says Dr. Charles Reynolds, director of the Aging Institute of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh. “Whether it's related to work or relationships, it's important to be promoting a life that's fulfilling.”
Marilú Lundeen, an “over 60” grandmother of two, set out to achieve her longtime dream 10 years ago. This May, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in Hispanic Studies and European Studies from Carnegie Mellon University.
“It didn't feel real,” says Lundeen, an administrative coordinator at CMU. “I look at that beautiful diploma and can't believe it.”
Lundeen, a native of Brazil, started her quest in 2003 while working as the coordinator of Latin American activities. Her boss, the late Paul Goodman, encouraged her to take classes in Spanish so she could help with international education projects. Five years and a new position in the university's Information Networking Institute later, she was still going.
For five more years, Lundeen took an average of two classes a semester, mostly at night, while her husband, Lester, handled most of the household chores so she could study. With her goal now complete, Lundeen says she has no intentions of using her degree to find a new job.
She did it simply for herself.
“You just have to trust that you can do it,” she says. “Don't give up, and do it, if that's what you really want. You have to want to do it.”
Getting started can be half the battle, aging experts say. It's common for people to put off goals because of time or financial restraints then later realize they failed to focus on what's really important, Reynolds says.
“As folks get older, they look back on their lives and ask, ‘Am I comfortable with my life's work so far?' ” says Dr. Van Nickell, psychiatrist at Allegheny Health Network. “If they aren't, they're inclined to fix it.”
Some older people might hesitate to chase their dreams for fear of being judged, Nickell says.
“Some will take stereotypes to heart,” he says. “Others will challenge them.”
Ruthe Karlin, 79, of Oakland spent her career as a photographer in Chicago, before moving to New Jersey then Pittsburgh to be with family. After coming here in 2005, she found the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Pittsburgh and took a class on a topic that had always interested her — Japanese art.
She has since traveled to the country three times and writes about her experiences in her blog, ruthekarlin.wordpress.com. She hopes to return for future trips and continue her education about its art and gardens.
“I just keep going to school,” she says with a laugh.
Karlin attributes her never-ending dreamchasing to one thing: curiosity.
“I just can't settle down to what's the normal thought of old age,” she says.
Doctors advise folks to first consider their health before pursuing anything too physically taxing — and remember that an athlete like Nyad, who's been setting records as a long-distance swimmer since the 1970s, is much better equipped to pull off that swim than the average person.
“Run it past other people whose judgment you trust,” Nickell says. “Make sure it's not a physical problem and that it won't ruin you financially.”
Anne Marschik, 68, of Murrysville became more serious about her lifetime hobby of bicycling shortly before her retirement from her career as a physician in 2001. While she used to just ride around her neighborhood, she now cycles on tours that can last a week or more.
Marschik has biked portions of France, Switzerland, Eastern Europe and more, as well as the Great Allegheny Passage. She camps or stays in hotels to rest up overnight.
“Biking is wonderful exercise and a great way to experience the area,” Marschik says. “You don't cover as much territory as you would if you were driving, but you get to see it more intimately.”
She suggests anyone interested in pursuing the hobby start out slow by renting a bike and riding for an hour or so, then gradually working up to longer distances. For retirement-age folks, she recommends it as a way to keep active physically and mentally.
“People who are more physically active maintain their brains better,” she says.
Celeste Gainey, 62, of Point Breeze jokes that she waited until later in life to start making the “big money.” Gainey, a longtime gaffer for films and television who spent years in California and New York, began penning poetry just five years ago. Her first book, “The Gaffer,” will be published in 2015.
“I ended up late in life doing what most people do in the beginning of life,” says Gainey, who works part-time at Whole Foods to help support herself while writing.
Gainey worked on a number of films, documentaries and television shows from 1973 to 2006. Then, when contemplating her next step in life, she found herself casually composing poems. It was satisfying, but she knew she needed to learn more. She eventually found Carlow University's creative writing program and began exploring a dream she'd shelved long ago.
“As a child, I'd wanted to be a poet,” she says.
Still, the whirlwind pace at which she moved — discovering the program in the fall of 2007 and beginning classes that winter — was like “jumping off a cliff,” she says.
“I took a leap into the unknown, and I continue to follow that,” says Gainey, who loved Pittsburgh so much she moved here permanently from East Hampton, N.Y., upon graduation. “When I'm in, I'm all in.”
Gainey remembers Nyad's early fame and considers the swimmer an inspiration for her relentless dedication to her goals.
“I'm amazed by her success,” Gainey says. “She came back with an enormous achievement and captured everybody's imagination. Sixty-four is the new 34.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or email@example.com.