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Maddy Dychtwald

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Exceptional Exceptions: The Trailblazers Of Our Future

Posted: 04/05/2013 7:16 am

I've got three new heroes. The first one is smart, spunky and stylish. That she's also slightly deaf and a little wobbly on her feet didn't stop her from suing the government of the United States. As you may have noticed, Edie Windsor has recently been on the front page of many newspapers, magazines and blogs as the plaintiff in the provocative Supreme Court case that could possibly strike down the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996.

Gender politics aside, I was struck by the fact that an 83-year-old woman stands boldly at the center of the ongoing battle to legalize same sex marriage. Her feistiness and courage go against every single stereotype I hold on what it's like to be in your ninth decade of life. And I like that.

I recently attended an experimental modern dance performance that featured an exploration of the human form in its unclothed, honest beauty. It was directed by 93-year-old Anna Halprin, who still works every day to spread her artistic vision. I have the great privilege of knowing Anna personally and have seen firsthand that she has battled and overcome cancer as well as the grief and sadness of the passing of her beloved husband. Anna also suffers from advanced arthritis that can be very debilitating. Yet she still wakes up every day to teach dance, choreograph new work and even perform all over the world to sold-out crowds. And, as the performance I attended demonstrates, she still gets a kick out of shocking her audience. Whether I enjoyed her artistic statement doesn't really matter. The real point is that Anna Halprin continues to pursue her passion, all the while tearing down the stereotypes of what is possible to achieve when you're in your tenth decade of life. This inspires me, and that's why Anna Halprin is also my elder hero.

My third new hero is popular actress and comedian, Betty White. She is a terrific example of a bawdy comedic actress performing in her 90s with no retirement in sight. She also has an incredibly positive spirit that resonates with young and old alike. Her willingness to laugh at life and even herself hits a nerve with audiences throughout the world. Recently chosen by Reuters as the most trusted and admired celebrity, Ms. White leverages her celebrity to draw a spotlight to another of her passions: animal rights.

Sure, there have always been some over-achievers -- women and men alike -- who have lived long lives. Mother Teresa helmed the Missionaries of Charity well into her 80s. Maggie Kuhn founded the radical Gray Panthers at age 65 and kept fighting ageism until she passed away at age 89. Pablo Picasso continued to create art in his tenth decade of life. Jimmy Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize at 80 and, whether you agree or disagree with his positions, one must be impressed with his tireless work for peace throughout the globe at age 88. Warren Buffett, at 82, continues to be one of the most influential business leaders in the U.S.

But these individuals are still exceptional exceptions. I've been spending a lot of time recently thinking about what life looks like when you're in your 80s and 90s. In my early 60s, I'm not anywhere near there yet, but I'm keeping my eyes open for some great role models of what potentially awaits me. Unfortunately, what I mostly notice is far too many long lived people with no clear vision of who they might be in this stage of their lives: how they might spend their time, share their talents and influence their family, friends and community.

In the past few decades, we've done a pretty good job of redefining the 60s and 70s as a time to stay engaged and productive; it's assumed that many of us will not only live that long but be actively involved in life, from creating encore careers to learning new skills, from visiting foreign lands to contributing back to the world.

But what happens when you hit 80, 90 or 100? More and more of us are, in fact, doing so yet the 80s, 90s and beyond remain mostly uncharted waters. It wasn't that long ago that most of us expected to be dead by the time we hit 80. If we lived longer than this, just being alive was considered enough of an achievement. That's no longer the case.

This last year I have been feeling the need for role models that can show me -- show us -- what 80, 90 and beyond might look like. If I am lucky enough to live that long and be healthy, I want to feel like I can find both meaning and purpose in my life. Then I watched the YouTube clip of Edie Windsor standing on the steps of the Supreme Court building, with her bright coral scarf waving in the March breeze, proudly wearing the diamond circle pin that her partner gave her because an engagement ring would have raised too many questions, and proving that you're never too old to change not just your own life but the lives of those around you and maybe even how an entire country views an issue. And I realized, "Now there's someone to learn from!"

Similarly, when I attended that dance performance directed by Anna Halprin. She's beautiful and vibrant because she continues in her own way to send a positive message to the world. She has said, "I don't necessarily feel old but I do feel an urgency to live every day to its fullest - to accomplish the things I want to get done." That's how I hope to feel when I'm 93.

And Betty White. When she appeared on Saturday Night Live, I thought, "Who wouldn't want to have the energy, spunk and ambition she has! Plus she seems to be having a wonderful time."

So maybe the biggest contribution these three women can make is that they give me hope. They give us hope. They're trailblazing the path forward to what it can mean to be 83, 93 or maybe even 103. And as a boomer woman -- who like the 40 million other women who are part of my generation-- will likely live well into my 80s, 90s and beyond -- I need a vision of what the future might hold for me. I need some role models -- elder heroes -- and a new image of what these later years in life might potentially hold.

Who are your elder heroes? Who inspires you on the next stage of our life journey?

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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  • George Clooney

    George Clooney, 50, who is living evidence that some people just get better with age. Good looks and great acting aside (watch him sweep the Oscars), we love Clooney's humanitarian side even more, which includes finding a resolution to the Darfur conflict and raising money for the victims of the Haiti earthquake and 9/11. Thanks to him, we now can find the Sudan on a map. How popular is this guy? Try typing "George" into Google search and his name comes up second on auto-complete, beat out only by our country's first president. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Angela Merkel

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 56, who is and will be instrumental to the recovery of the European economy. And frankly, somebody needs to be already. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Steve Jobs

    Steve Jobs: Is there anything left to say about Steve Jobs, the man we lost at age 56, who changed the world? Our universe would not exist if Jobs hadn't. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

    The Liberian president and the only female head of state in Africa, Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize along with the peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, and Tawakul Karman of Yemen, a pro-democracy campaigner. The women were recognized "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." In 2010, the Economist called her "arguably the best president the country has ever had." Liberian voters agree: After an initial runoff vote, Johnson Sirleaf was re-elected by an overwhelming margin in November.

  • Ai Weiwei

    Artist/activist Ai Weiwei, 54, made international headlines last spring and summer when he was detained in Beijing and interrogated some 50 times. Charging "economic crimes," Beijing hit Ai with a tax bill of $2.4 million. Chinese citizens rallied to his defense, raising $1.3 million to help pay it off. No Arab Spring for China, but a victory for the people nonetheless. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Meryl Streep

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Meryl Streep</a>, 63, has accumulated two Academy Awards from her 16 nominations and won seven Golden Globes from 26 nominations -- more nominations than any other actor in history. She's lent her support to the National Women's History Museum, which is well overdue. Go, Iron Lady, go! <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Aaron Alvin, Sr.

    Of the thousands of graduates who received diplomas from Florida International University in December, only one got a standing ovation: <a href="" target="_hplink">50-year-old Aaron Alvin, Sr.</a>, who overcame homelessness, drug addiction, and a rap sheet to earn his master's degree in social work -- with a 3.73 GPA, to boot. A comeback kid who reminds us how life-changing education can be.

  • Elizabeth Warren

    Elizabeth Warren, 62, is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. Warren's feature role in <a href="" target="_hplink">this year's viral video "Why Occupy Wall Street"</a> captured the collective rage and gave much-needed clarity to the movement. Well before the 2008 meltdown, the Harvard Law professor and grandmother of three outline the economic peril of the middle-class in her book "The Two-Income Trap." Her reminder that "nobody in this country got rich on his own" resonated with Americans who still believe in opportunity for all. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Christopher Hitchens

    Christopher Hitchens, 62, the recently departed pundit whose boozy rants drew the world's raves and wrath. The New York Times called him "a slashing polemicist in the tradition of Thomas Paine and George Orwell who trained his sights on targets as various as Henry Kissinger, the British monarchy and Mother Teresa." R.I.P. Chris, and thanks for proving that there is always room for public intellectualism at the table. We are hoisting a scotch in your honor. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Hilary Clinton

    Hillary Clinton, 64, for her surprising <a href="" target="_hplink">speech to the U.N. in defense of gay rights </a>globally and calling on nations to eliminate laws that criminalize or marginalize LGBT individuals. A bold and unexpected move to which we say brava! <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Daniel Kahneman

    Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, 77, has been called the world's greatest living psychologist, and the foremost thinker on <a href="" target="_hplink">human decision making and happiness</a>. Kahneman's research challenged the rational model of judgment and has influenced the worlds of economics, medicine and politics. His 2011 book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow," sums up decades of research showing why human beings react, judge and choose so badly -- and gives us the knowledge and the hope to do better. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Ellen Degeneres

    Ellen Degeneres, 53, the comedian, talk-show host and kindest judge American Idol has ever seen, published a new book in 2011, "Seriously...I'm Kidding." In it she writes: "I don't know at what age people stop wanting to be older. It must be around 40, when you're 'over the hill.' I don't even know what that means and why it's a bad thing. When I go hiking and I get over the hill, that means I'm past the hard part and there's a snack in my future." Named one of the ten most admired women in the U.S. in 2011 by a USA Today/Gallup poll, she was also appointed a special envoy for Global AIDS awareness by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Seriously, we love her.

  • Jafar Panahi

    Jafar Panahi, 51, the Iranian filmmaker who was banned from making films for 20 years, but who made one anyway while he was under house arrest using an iPhone and digital camera. His co-director smuggled the documentary, called "This Is Not A Film," to the Cannes Film Festival on a USB hidden inside a cake. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Cher

    Cher, for not only being a hot mama at age 65, but also for being a good one. We loved her mama-bear defense of son, Chaz. And for what it's worth, we thought he should have won "Dancing With The Stars" too. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Richard Branson

    Richard Branson, who at age 62 is the only boomer we know who's going to outer space. The English businessman, responsible for bringing us all things Virgin, is a chronic adventurer. In 2004, he set a record for the fastest-crossing of the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle, and later tried to break a sailing record crossing the Atlantic. In 2010, he tried for the world record of putting a round of golf in the dark at the Black Light Mini Golf in The Docklands, Melbourne, Australia. He succeeded in getting 41 on the par 45 course. Why not shoot for the moon? <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Virginia Rometty

    Ginni Rometty, 54, becomes IBM chairman and CEO on the first of the new year, after Samuel Palmisano chose her in October to replace him in the top job. She joins an elite group of female CEOs, but Palmisano told the New York Times that her gender had nothing to do with her promotion. "Ginni got it because she deserved it," Palmisano told the Times. "It's got zero to do with progressive social policies."

  • Sir David Attenborough

    British environmentalist and filmmaker Sir David Attenborough, 85, for his BBC documentary series "Frozen Planet," which will debut in the U.S. on the Discovery Channel in March. A tireless champion of the planet, Attenborough was knighted in 1985 for his science and nature documentaries. He also has a new 3D documentary about King Penguins 'The Bachelor King 3D' that opens on New Year's Eve. We adored his <a href="" target="_hplink">gorgeous two-minute Frozen Planet trailer</a>, which he narrated to the tune "What A Wonderful World." <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Virginia A. Moyer

    Virginia A. Moyer, 59, who leads the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and named a "person who matters" by Time Magazine. This year, she revolutionized the way we see cancer screening by arguing that blanket screening is more dangerous than helpful and removing the recommendation of PSA-tests for prostate cancer for healthy men.

  • Astronaut Mark Kelly

    Astronaut Mark Kelly, 47, (okay, he's not 50, but still a Baby Boomer) gets our award for Husband of the Year for his unflinching love and support of his wife, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.). We like how he hasn't left her side since her Jan. 8 shooting in Arizona except to command the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour (which she attended). We like him so much, we'll even shamelessly plug his new book, "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope." If there's anyone more inspirational than Giffords and her husband, we'd like to meet them. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Edith Pearlman

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Edith Pearlman</a>, 74, for having won the acclaimed PEN/Malamud Award. Pearlman has been quietly and consistently producing some of our country's most outstanding fiction. With this recent accolade, she joins the ranks of luminaries like John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates.

  • Tony Bennett

    Tony Bennett, who is still touring at age 85, staged a remarkable comeback in the late 1980s and 1990s, scoring a few more gold records and expanding his audience to the MTV generation. Sorry kids, he belongs to us. Bennett does around 200 shows a year, a testament to his stamina and the world's unfaltering appetite for good music. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Condoleezza Rice

    Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, outlined her eight years in Washington at the highest levels of power in her 2011 memoir "No Higher Honor" with "unexpected candor," according to the Washington Post. We knew Condi was brilliant, but we were bowled over by her comedic skills: She guest-starred as an ex-lover of the fictional Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin)<a href="" target="_hplink"> on an episode of 30 Rock</a>, which included a hilariously epic battle of the bands (Rice on piano and Baldwin on flute).

  • Admiral William McRaven

    Admiral William McRaven, 56, is credited for organizing and executing Operation Neptune's Spear, the special ops raid that took out Osama bin Laden on May 2. Could someone tell George W. Bush that it is finally OK to say "Mission accomplished?" <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Diana Nyad

    Diana Nyad, 62, embodies the spirit of "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." The journalist and long-distance swimmer has twice attempted to swim from Cuba through the shark-infested waters to Florida. She's promised a third try in 2012 and we're sure that one's the charm. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Warren Buffet

    Forbes' third-richest-man-in-the-world Warren Buffet, 81, for his proposal to raise taxes on million-plus earners and noting that the ultra-rich pay lower rates than everyday workers. Buffett joined Bill Gates and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in pledging to give away at least half of their wealth over time, inviting other billionaires to do the same. Can we clone him and send him to Washington? <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Madonna

    Madonna, 53, the mistress of reinvention is the director of the new film W.E., just signed a three-album deal with Interscope, and graces the December cover of Harper's Bazaar. And don't plan on seeing any wardrobe malfunctions when she headlines the Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show on Feb. 5. She's a showman alright, but a perfectionist first. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Silvio Berlusconi

    Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlosconi, 75, who resigned in semi-disgrace in November. He was Italy's most powerful politician and an unrepentant adulterer whose ego met its match in the European debt crisis. We add him to this list as a reminder that even the mighty fall and as a thank you for stepping aside and averting the collapse of Europe and the world as we know it. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Christine Lagarde

    Christine Lagarde, 55, took over as managing director of the International Monetary Fund after bad boy Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned. Forbes ranked her the 9th most-powerful woman in the world this year. Lagarde told 60 Minutes that when she applied for her first job with a Paris law firm, she was told her credentials were impeccable, but there was one thing she should know: she would never make partner because she was a woman. She walked out of the interview and joined the international law firm Baker & McKenzie, making history when she became its first female chair at the age of 43. As the first woman in charge of the global economy, Lagard's savvy stewardship could help make economic history. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Steven Pinker

    Steven Pinker, 57, for restoring our faith in humanity with his 800-page book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." The Harvard psychologist, known for his theories of language, the mind and morality (and his flowing locks), argues that human beings today are less likely to suffer a violent death, or be subject to violence or cruelty by others, than their counterparts in any previous century. Though critics assailed the book as <a href="" target="_hplink">"a comfort blanket for the smug,"</a> we think Pinker's optimistic perspective is much needed in our times.

  • Dilma Rousseff

    Dilma Rousseff, 64, who is the first female president of Brazil -- and also its first leader to have been imprisoned as a political dissident. She may even be the first Brazilian president to have been previously declared an enemy of the state, which is pretty cool when you think about our changing times. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Jon Corzine

    Jon Corzine, 64, who "inspires" us with his ability to become a caretaker of other people's money and yet have no idea where it's gone. (Kind of like Congress.) Former N.J. governor and head of Goldman Sachs, Corzine took over MF Global in 2010, promising to make it into the next Goldman. Now we can't wait to hear what happened to the missing $1.2 billion in client money. And don't expect Giants and Jets fans to be erecting a monument in his honor any time soon: A more than 50% toll hike put in place while he was governor will have motorists paying $3.60 to drive from the Goethals Bridge to the MetLife Stadium. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Gretchen Morgensen

    New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgensen, 55, for her persistently excellent coverage of the greed and recklessness by Wall Street firms, government officials and regulatory agencies that conspired to bring the world economy to its knees. Her 2011 book "Reckless Endangerment" with co-author Joshua Rosner, focuses on the role Fannie Mae played in encouraging the financial practices underlying the crisis. She consistently tells the stories the powers that be don't want us to hear.

  • Rep. Luis Guitérrez

    Rep. Luis Guitérrez of Illinois, 58, who has taken the fight for the DREAM Act and against anti-immigrant actions/laws to all corners of the the U.S. The first Latino to be elected to Congress from the Midwest back in 1993,<a href="" target="_hplink"> Guitérrez was arrested</a> in front of the White House in July, where he was protesting President Obama's deportation policies.

  • Kris Jenner

    Mama Kris Kardashian, 56, for her icky ability to monetize every move one of her daughters makes and inspiring a dreadful obsession among the young to be famous for being famous. As manager for the family, we blame her for Kimbo's hoopla wedding and the 72-day marriage that followed. They sneeze, she calls a publicist. So why is she here? It's good to learn by example, including learning how not to parent your kids. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Clint Eastwood

    Clint Eastwood, who at age 80, is going to make cameo appearances in his family's own reality TV show. Move over Kardashians, "The Eastwoods" are going to make our day -- and hopefully with more dignity and class. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Helen Mirren

    Voted one of the <a href="" target="_hplink">sexiest women alive by Esquire</a>, actress Helen Mirren, 66, probably needs to build another display cabinet for all her awards. Sophisticated, dignified and proof that with age comes grace and more grace. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Richard Gere

    Richard Gere, 62, is one of those people who uses his star power for good. He'll be getting a George Eastman Award for his contributions to movies and humanitarian causes. Gere has been active in the AIDS fight and works to protect the rights and lands of tribal peoples. Free Tibet, anyone? <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Diane Keaton

    Diane Keaton, 65, for <a href="" target="_hplink">her book "Then Again,"</a> an honest and insightful ode to motherhood. We love Keaton for her intelligence, quirkiness and delicious authenticity. Where would cinema be without the inimitable Annie Hall? <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Bob and Pam Tebow

    Bob and Pam Tebow, (Bob is 63 and Pam is 62) the Christian missionary parents of Denver Bronco quarterback Tim Tebow, for teaching the world how to raise a Heisman Trophy winner who walks on water. You gotta love that the home-schooled Tebow sent millions of fans each week to their bibles to look up the verses he face-painted on.

  • Aung San Suu Kyi

    The 65-year-old Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner was released in 2010 from nearly 15 years of house arrest, and in November formerly registered her party, the National League for Democracy, for any upcoming elections. The event marks a breakthrough in democracy following decades of brutal military rule.

  • Bill McKibben

    Vermont native Bill McKibben, 51, is credited with galvanizing the environmental community against Keystone XL, the pipeline system the would extend from northeastern Alberta, Canada to multiple destinations in the United States. He began his anti-climate change crusade in 1989 with the publication of his stance on global warming, "End of Nature," in the New Yorker. McKibben founded the movement which organized an August protest on Capitol Hill against Keystone XL. Police arrested 1,253 people for civil disobedience in the two weeks of protests. Bill, you rock.

  • Gloria Steinem

    Gloria Steinem, 77, won the Lifetime Achievement Award in Glamour Magazine's 2011 Women Of The Year. In her December interview with Huff/Post 50, she reminded us that midlife "is a whole free, amazing, different, wonderful part of life that is not about looking backward, it's about looking forward." And before you say she doesn't look 77, let us remind you that this is what 77 looks like. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Tom Waits

    Tom Waits, 62, with <a href="" target="_hplink">his trademark growl of a voice </a>made what critics are calling one of the best albums of the year,<a href="" target="_hplink"> "Bad as Me."</a> Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year too, an event at which he noted, "They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with . . . like it's a bad thing." <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Patti Smith

    Patti Smith, singer/songwriter, poet and visual artist <a href="" target="_hplink">who turns 65 on December 30</a>, for offering a model of continual creative evolution. In 2011, she made her television acting debut on the TV series Law & Order: Criminal Intent. She was also a winner of the Polar Music Prize which noted: "Patti Smith is a Rimbaud with Marshall amps. She has transformed the way an entire generation looks, thinks and dreams. With her inimitable soul of an artist, Patti Smith proves over and over again that people have the power." <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • James Arruda Henry

    James Arruda Henry, who <a href="" target="_hplink">learned to read at 96</a> and wrote a book two years later. He reminds us that literacy is the key to civilization, and we are all capable of brilliant late-blooming.

  • Betty White

    Actress Betty White, with a twinkle in her eye at age 89, is a hot mama no matter how you cut it. She's taken on a cult-like following and reinvented her image as senior sex kitten. Count us among those tuning in to the NBC special<a href="" target="_hplink"> Betty White's 90th Birthday Party </a>that airs on her birthday in January 2012. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • John Ashbery

    John Ashbery, who wrote an acclaimed new translation of Rimbaud at age 84. Proof that the pen never wearies. Or as Rimbaud himself once wrote, "I am intact, and I don't give a damn."

  • Diane von Fürstenberg

    Diane von Fürstenberg, who turns 65 on New Year's Eve, brought us the iconic wrap dress that still hangs in our closet. We include her on this list for her sheer power of endurance -- with a nod to adaption. Now president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, <a href="" target="_hplink">she teamed up with</a> to style three first-date outfits for women who are dating and is part of Project Pop-up, a competition in which young fashion retailers in New York City battle for the chance to sell their wares designs from pop-ups at prime locations across the city. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Snoopy

    Snoopy, who made his first appearance in the "Charlie Brown" comic strip on Oct. 4, 1950, two days after the strip premiered -- which makes him 61 in human years. We are honoring his enduring appeal across generations and the fact that he's never been caught in a sexting scandal, published photos of his privates on Facebook or been mentioned by to the best of our knowledge. Victories, all. <em>Photo: Getty</em>

  • Jack Layton

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Canada's NDP Leader Jack Layton</a>, 61, who left this message to the nation when he died this past summer: "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world." <em>Photo: Getty</em>


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