by Connie Goldman
Thirty-five years ago at the age of fifty, Connie Goldman was called to be a pioneer and explore the positive aspects of aging. She became aware that the United States culture seemed to be obsessed with staying young and denying the aging process. Her explorations led her into conversations with many public figures on a variety of issues related to aging, as well as collecting interviews with hundreds of what she has labeled, "extra-ordinary ordinary older persons." Her lifelong gift has been the intuitive ability to authentically ask the deeper questions and her compassionate listening brings gems of wisdoms to her listening and reading audience. In this article Connie reflects on the many stories she has collected, shared and published. Her tapestry of tales braids the strands of her legacy wisdom story.
Since my childhood, I’ve been informed as well as fascinated by stories—true stories, fairy stories, factual and fictional. I’ve learned so much about others through the personal life stories they’ve generously shared with me. And, as I’ve listened deeply throughout my lifetime, I’ve also learned much about myself. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to interview thousands of people in my work as a news journalist and public radio host, and have met many others through various speaking engagements and writing books.
I now see that a turning point, which occurred many years ago, helped my childhood fascination with stories develop into a meaningful adult career. At one of my journalism jobs, my supervisor said with anger and disgust in his voice, “You’re always telling stories. We’re in the news business – our work is based on facts!” This disturbing confrontation helped me clarify what I knew to be true. It is best summarized in a quote that I came upon years ago that shaped the direction of my work and what I’m able to now view as my legacy:
Facts illustrate but stories illuminate.
I don’t recall the source of those five words but they’ve become the framework of what I believe. Of course, facts are of concrete importance in illustrating what people do, yet personal stories illuminate how and why people live, think, respond, plan, and take action in the way they do. Their stories speak to us; their words touch our emotions as well as influence our own actions and decisions.
My major concern over these past 35 years started with my awareness in the late 1970s that America’s population was coming into a time when there would be an abundance of elders. I began engaging in conversations with many people and quickly discovered a rapidly growing attitude of ageism. I realized that often there was an avoidance of comfortably accepting the coming of one’s later years. Many elders were actually lying about their age; staying away from any activity labeled ‘for seniors’ became a determined goal. Retirement communities were built outside of major cities, where it wouldn’t be necessary for younger adults to encounter the “retired” population of older persons.
Dealing with ageism was my first challenge. My new radio programs told stories of persons living positive, active lives ranging from their late sixties and even into their nineties. I was still an on-air reporter at National Public Radio, so I created a series of programs where both celebrities as well as people who were living normal lives in their communities talked about their activities and interests. The essence of their conversations and later-year’s activities reflected an attitude of experiencing aging as a quest, not a crisis. These individual stories were broadcast throughout the country on the NPR network, but I had no way of knowing how many listeners’ attitudes and opinions about mid-life and the years beyond were actually altered. However, I didn’t stop there. I lectured all over the country, offering presentations entitled, Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer and The Ageless Spirit – Living Life to the Fullest in Midlife and the Years Beyond. In my talks, I shared several of the conversations I had collected. Again, I relied on the power of story to illuminate these talks.
Visibility for my focus on aging was supported by interviews I was able to collect with well-known names, such as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Art Linkletter, and Phyllis Diller. These got far more attention than the words of someone named Mary Jones or Bill Smith. At the same time, however, stories in local newspapers about elders slowly began to reveal a population previously invisible. To help others find the confidence to find a new way to age, I often quoted the late Florida Scott-Maxwell, who said:
“I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing age
that it’s a time of discovery. If they say, “of what?” I can only answer,
“We must each find out for ourselves, otherwise it won’t be a discovery.”
If at the end of your life you have only yourself, it is much.
Look and you will find.”
A series of conversations with older persons who found a new romantic relationship after the death of a beloved husband or wife was my next adventure in story collecting. I commonly overheard people commenting on older couples showing signs of affection in public. Comments such as, “Isn’t that sweet old couple cute; they’re holding hands.” As I was of a similar age as the people in “that sweet old couple,” and I, too, was in a romantic late-life relationship, I knew that their private lives were a lot more sensually and sexually active than just holding hands.
So, I began interviewing older couples who had recently formed new relationships. They were very open and honest about their habit of touching each other in public, discussing the possibility of marriage with their children, or maybe even letting their families know that they were going to live together without a legal tie. To the surprise of book reviewers and others who read my book entitled Late Life Love, these older people accepted their personal physical limitations yet had vital and active sexual lives. So much for a comment I remember from some years ago: “Sex? Of course those old people don’t do ‘that’ anymore.”
Other areas I’ve explored include conversations on what thoughts, reflections, and insights grow inside of a person doing their favorite activity of gardening. (I’ve read that the hobby of gardening is actually more popular than baseball in America.) I simply asked gardeners of all ages, “What grows inside of you when your hands are in the dirt. As you nurture your garden, what are your feelings? How do you grow in your way as your garden grows?” Their stories were my inspiration for the book that I wrote with a friend and radio colleague entitled, Tending the Earth, Mending the Spirit. These stories help us all stay in touch with and nurture both ourselves and our planet.
My most recent interest has been in the stories of family caregivers. I talked with wives, husbands, life partners, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, neighbors— anyone in a family that takes on the responsibility of providing care and comfort for another’s needs. Several surveys indicate that more than 65 million people are family caregivers in the United States. In the past ten years, the availability of advice, support services, and respite care for overburdened caregivers has surged. My conversations with a great many who have taken on the commitment of family caregiver led me to produce a public radio program of such stories. Another book, The Gifts of Caregiving, grew out of my desire to share the honest and poignant stories I had collected.
One day I realized the obvious -- the number of family caregivers is matched by a similar number of people receiving their care. This is now my next challenge for collecting stories. It is time for me to talk with those who need assistance due to such limitations relating to their aging as a physical disability, disease, or mental disorder. My forthcoming book, The Caregiving Partnership will give voice to this important and under-represented segment of our population.
People often ask me where I find such interesting people to interview. I tell them exactly what I’m telling you now. Everyone has a story. Just listen with both your mind and your heart, and they will share their travails and their triumphs. You, too, have a story that can inspire and inform others. Recording or telling your story then becomes part of the legacy that you will leave.
Many years ago I came across a quote in a children’s book called Crow and Weasel. The author Barry Lopez ended the book with a quote that I’ve shared many times. I’ll leave you with Lopez’s insight and wisdom:
“If stories come to you, care for them,
And learn to give them away where they are needed.
Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
Connie Goldman is an award-winning radio producer and reporter. Beginning her broadcast career with Minnesota Public Radio, she later worked for several years on the staff of National Public Radio in Washington D.C. For the past 30+ years her public radio programs, books, and speaking have been exclusively concerned with the changes and challenges of aging. Grounded in the art of personal stories collected from hundreds of interviews, Connie's presentations are designed to inform, empower, and inspire. Her message on public radio, in print and in person is clear—make any time of life an opportunity for new learning, exploring creative pursuits, self-discovery, spiritual deepening, and continued growth. Public appearances and book information can be found here.