COMMENTARY: What will you do with your experiences and wisdom?

It happens to everyone, if we’re lucky. We get older. Each day that passes, each month, each year brings with it a little more experience and a little more … time. Whether we’re 15 going on 16 or 69 going on 70, we know more than we did yesterday and, very likely, we’ve seen at least one thing we had not seen before.

Yet, we forget to celebrate that accomplishment. Once a year, we recognize birthdays, sometimes with joy, too often with trepidation. But, really, isn’t it good to still be here? To live, to keep living?

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy recognized the value that long life can offer, creating the first national Older Americans Month. Closer to home, Mayor Nan Whaley has proclaimed May 2019 as Older Americans Month in Dayton. That gives us an opportunity to talk about the things that make living longer good.

Living longer means we have more time to do what interests us, to learn, to spend time with those we love. As our children grow and create their own lives, family responsibilities may diminish (rarely disappear!), definitely change.

We have more opportunities to share what we have learned along the way. It means we can help ease the way for those coming behind us. It means we can reach out to new generations, developing partnerships that take advantage of the best we have to offer.

As we get older, we gain perspective. We learn to take the long view, to recognize that no matter what is happening now, it rarely lasts and is likely to be replaced, soon, by something else. Very little is forever, new ideas will continue to emerge; some will flower and some will not.

Perspective also means that we no longer think we need everyone’s approval. We know there is value in who we are and what we can contribute and people will take us or leave us. Either is fine. The best part is that that judgment matters to us less. It’s also a bit of a relief to realize that most of the time, people probably aren’t judging us, anyway. They, too, are caught up in their own lives and concerns, worried mostly about making it through the day.

Experience is one of the great gifts of aging. We’ve seen things, we’ve tried things, we’ve made decisions. Some of those things worked well; others did not. But experience means we have been here before. We now know something we didn’t. Whether it’s good or bad, knowledge is useful. It helps when that next decision or opportunity or risk comes along. We have information and insight – experience – to guide us.

When we’re older, we recognize that some changes we sought in our youth have actually been addressed, if not fixed. When I started working on women’s issues in the late 1970s, working women in the U.S. made 53 cents for every dollar earned by men. Today, that gap is closer to 85 cents to the dollar, according to Pew Research. Not as fast as we’d hoped (that’s youth) and not exactly what we wanted. But it’s a mainstream conversation today, not the purview of activists. That’s progress and that counts.

There will always be work to do. And things do change over time. Especially when we continue to work to make that happen. That’s perspective.

For some people in our region, that work beyond their original careers has meant serving the community, as The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows. This initiative takes highly skilled older adults and places them in nonprofits to work on a range of significant community issues.

Because that’s the real gift of getting older. We still have much to do. If we’re lucky.

Noreen Willhelm is a Del Mar Encore Fellow with the Dayton Foundation. To learn more, visit

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