Talking to Wise Women: Stories of Purpose, Meaning and Passion

Article excerpt

Stereotypes about older women abound in modem American culture. Ridiculed in television commercials that advertise dentures and incontinence products, mature women frequently are portrayed as incompetent, dull and stupid. But while researching my book, Coming Home to Yourself: Eighteen Wise Women Reflect on Their Journeys, I discovered that this is untrue: I found mature women who are bright, engaged, passionate and wise.

Take Edie Elkan, who gave up the love of her life - playing the harp - at age 22 for financial reasons and yearned for it for 28 years. Today at age 66, she runs Bedside Harp, which brings harp therapy to patients in hospitals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Her words of wisdom: "It's never too late to follow your dreams. Allow yourself to go after the things you long for or you'll die never having done them."

Valerie Ramsey loved raising her six children and when they left home, she forged a career in the corporate world. Today she is an author, public speaker and runway model. She said, "At seventy years of age, I'm comfortable with who I've become. I'm doing the things that most fulfill my passion: inspiring other women to continue to grow, to expand their horizons and to reinvent themselves as they move through transitions, especially aging."

Then there's Victoria Zackheim, age 65, who wanted to be "somebody" her whole life - somebody famous or somebody who would make her parents proud. In 2008, after a traumatic fall down the stairs in her San Francisco loft, she realized, "After six decades, I finally understand that being a somebody is not the opposite of being a nobody. It has nothing to do with being famous.... Being a somebody simply means being who I am and living that way. Being a somebody is being myself."

These are just a few of the thousands of older women from across America who want to share their wisdom and experience, if only our society would give them the respect and appreciation they deserve.

THE LONGEVITY PARADOX

Since January 1, 201 1, more than 10,000 baby boomers daily have reached the age of 65. That occurrence will continue for the next 19 years, and result in more women living longer, healthier lives than the previous generation. At age 65, we women are no longer in mid-life and yet we don't consider ourselves elderly either. This age group is in a phase of adult development without a name or an identity.

That's the rub and the opportunity - that there is no template for this stage in our lives. Our parents died at younger ages and viewed their lives as "over" once they retired. Not so today. Many of us are still working. If we're not working, we're engaged in meaningful volunteer work or in pursuing a passion. We still have a lot of energy and years of life experience to share.

Wise women are ideal role models for the younger generation. They bring a sense of historical continuity, seasoned judgment, encouragement and a broad vision. We all have such women in our lives, but most of them go unnoticed and unheralded. My 67-yearold yoga teacher, Sonia Nelson, is a wise woman in my life. Although she's only one year older than I am, she brings a different perspective as well as wisdom gained from 25 years of studying yoga philosophy and tradition, which she shares as she guides my practice, my teaching and certain aspects of my life.

WISDOM- A FORCE FOR POSITIVE CHANGE

We need nothing less than a societal shift to honor older women instead of scorning or ignoring them. Mentoring programs are an important step but, as with any kind of prejudice, permanent change begins on an individual basis, person to person.

Writing Coming Home to Yourselfhas been an eye-opening experience for me. In interviewing the 18 women in the book, I saw firsthand how women from ages 55 to 77 years live with purpose, meaning and passion. I hope that Coming Home will help dismantle stereotypes about mature women; with each person who reads it and recommends it to another, perceptions of older women may begin to change. …