Chatting with Dr. Thelma Reese over the phone, you can hear her zest for life in her voice. At 80 years old, the retired professor laughs jovially at the trials and tribulations associated with aging. Her extraordinary outlook and vibrant personality are conveyed effortlessly with her knowledgeable commentary on life.
“What’s a Blog?”
I can say with absolute certainty that when I’m 80 years old, I want to be just like Dr. Thelma Reese.
One of the perks of being a writer or blogger is the opportunity to interview people who make your day or literally change your entire view on a subject. That’s a fact Dr. Reese knows well herself, having co-authored a book, The New Senior Woman: Reinventing the Years Beyond Mid-Life, with her friend Dr. Barbara Fleisher, also a retired professor and better known as Bobby.
I mentioned that we found her through their blog, ElderChicks, and Thelma responded, “When we were writing our book, our daughters, who are aging Baby Boomers themselves, said, ‘You need to have a blog!’ And we said, ‘What’s a blog?” Her laughter set the tone for what would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable 30 minutes I’ve ever spent talking with someone.
Seniors Aren’t Just Busy, They’re Vibrant and Active
Dr. Reese says her own mother was part of her inspiration in writing The New Senior Woman. “She lived to be just one month shy of 97 years old,” Thelma says. “And she still absolutely had all her marbles. I realized that she lived in a totally different world.”
Thelma notes how rapid the change has been in the world of aging. “We’ve gotten wider – and I don’t mean in the hips,” she quips.
“If you look at a population graph that shows age distribution, there used to be a point in the middle,” she explains. “But now, it’s flat. The change has been very rapid. Aging is so much more visible now, partly because there are more of us, but also because we’re in better shape.”
“And seniors aren’t just busy, but they’re vibrant. They’re active. They’re engaged with the world.”
Aging Women Have Incredible Stories to Tell
Thelma and Bobby grew interested in how some are handling aging so well, and others not so well. So they started getting together with women and seeking out ladies who seem to have found the secret to vibrant aging – some way that they handle it that makes it a very positive thing.
They found that most people they asked immediately had someone in mind: one of those vibrant, joyful, bright personalities who are embracing aging wholeheartedly.
And they started listening to women’s stories. “We’re all different,” Thelma says. “And we wanted to talk to all kinds of people, not just those who have some sort of tremendous cushion that just makes things easier.”
Women from All Walks of Life
The women profiled in The New Senior Woman come from all walks of life. They range in age from just under 62 (at the time of publication) to 100 years old. They have different ethnic backgrounds, different education levels, and different socio-economic status.
“The 99-year-old and 100-year-old women featured in the book are extraordinary,” Thelma says. “What was really interesting is that there were certain topics that came up again and again. So each chapter’s title is one of those topics.”
“Everyone has something to say about these topics, or some interest in them like what happens in retirement, downsizing, or ‘How do I spend my days, what do I do to fill the time so I don’t get bored?’. Many are sensitive about getting rid of their possessions or facing that kind of change. It’s a really emotional thing,” describes Thelma.
Sibling Rivalry – In Your 50’s?
“What happens to families, the surprises of sibling rivalry that hits when the kids are about 50. It’s a big issue,” she says. This surprised me a bit, so here we had a brief interlude during which Thelma asked me to think about families I know, and perhaps some sisters that aren’t getting along all that sisterly.
“Ohhh, yes,” I say.
“Aha! Exactly,” Thelma replies confidently.
Impressed by the tidbit of knowledge I’ve just gained and now excited to write a blog post about middle-age sibling rivalry, I think to myself, “You can tell she was a professor in her former life. And I love it!”
Back to the book, Thelma says “Seniors today are really learning new things and adapting to a world that is so different. Health, separation, and loss – you don’t get to be older unless you’ve dealt with these things. One chapter is called, ‘Sometimes I Feel Safest in My Senior Bubble.’”
Dr. Reese and Dr. Fleisher did not want it to be an academic book. They wanted it to be something interesting and fun to read, even though they are academics themselves.
“We didn’t want it to be pure research,” Thelma says. “Most of what’s been written about this time of life has been written by people who are younger. We are viewing aging as contemporaries and as women who can offer guideposts to people approaching senior years.”
But they’ve been surprised to find that a much of their audience is actually younger women. Thelma notes that one younger woman explained that these topics become interesting to her age group when they start to realize that they’re mortal.
“The book came out at the end of October, and it’s really been a great adventure,” says Thelma.
Dr. Reese and Dr. Fleisher are already talking about writing The New Senior Man.
“I don’t know that men will actually buy such a book, though,” she laughs. “It will be their wives buying it for them, handing it to them and saying, ‘Here! Read this!”
A New Way to Think About Aging
I mentioned that something she said at the beginning of our conversation really made me think about “aging” in a way that I hadn’t thought of before. The women in their book range in age from 62 to 100 – that’s a span of nearly 30 years!
Do we, as a society, really lump people separated by 30 years into the same group of “seniors”? That’s the impact a drastically increased lifespan has had. At one time, a person at age 62 was undoubtedly entering the last stage of life. Now, not so much.
“Exactly!” Thelma said with enthusiasm. She went on to describe a friend of Bobby’s who is 62 years old and has run a very successful business. She’s an old friend who lives in the Midwest, and recently called Bobby and announced that she’s getting a divorce.
“Her husband has retired and wants to play golf, and he’s not terribly interested in doing other things,” Thelma explains. “She figures that with her family history and a little luck, she has another third of her life left to live. And she’s not going to sit here and wait for him to stop playing golf,” she chuckles.
Dr. Reese Exemplifies Joyful Aging
Thelma is certainly not slowing down. She once made a roundtrip flight from Philadelphia to Houston and back to Philadelphia – in a single day. “I was invited to a luncheon with Barbara Bush, and I really wanted to go,” she says.
She arrived at the airport early, thinking that it would take some time to get through airport security. To her surprise, they whisked her right through. She asked a gentleman working in security, “Is this because I’m old?”
“No, no it’s random,” the man explained. Yet when she got to the second checkpoint, she was again whisked straight through.
And again, she asked a woman working for airport security, “You’re letting me rush through here because I’m old, aren’t you?”
This worker said, “Oh, sure!” Thelma laughs appreciatively as she gets to the punch line of the story, and I’m laughing right along with her.
There’s not really any way to wrap up this article in a way that’s worthy of Dr. Reese, so I’ll end it with one of her anecdotes that sums up her attitude about aging.
On Monday, Thelma appeared on Conversations Live with Vicki St. Clair, a Seattle-based radio show. During the interview, Vicki asked her if she believes that 80 is the new 60. “Absolutely not, and I don’t want it to be,” she says. “80 is the new 80, and I’m fine with that.”
As I said, this was truly one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had.
Learn more about Dr. Thelma Reese and Dr. Barbara Fleisher’s book at TheNewSeniorWoman.com, visit their blog at ElderChicks.com, or follow them on Facebook. And definitely purchase the book, The New Senior Woman at Amazon.com. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
Post by Angela Stringfellow
Images via ElderChicks.com