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Defying the Stupidity of Ageism: How to Harvest your Wisdom over 80

People don’t often acknowledge it, but Western society continues to suffer from rampant and inane ageism. It is perhaps the most condoned form of discrimination there is (as well as discrimination against our “future selves”), it is so ingrained that most of us are not even aware of the stereotypes that prevail, both around and within us.

I have always been angered and taken aback by how our society shamefully “counts people out” because of their age. Most of all, I find it insulting and demeaning that we negate and ignore intelligent, wise, loving and creative people because they have reached an age that WE cruelly consider to be “not relevant”.

It is for this reason that I am so proud and absolutely in love with the Harvesting your Wisdom group that I initiated more than two years ago on Zoom that has been meeting very regularly throughout; people from all over the world, ages 50 and above, who come to gather to explore with introspection, to learn, share and bring forth insights on fascinating, profound, moving and stimulating topics and questions in our lives. Here we don’t stop developing ourselves personally and spiritually because our timeline says we have reached a certain age in the world. On the contrary! Harvesting your Wisdom is a place where experience meets reflection and insight, this is what it is all about. For further information and details about the diverse kinds of activities and programs in the group please see this link.

In this article, I would like to share the voices of two of our veteran members, two remarkable women living in Florida today, both of whom have passed the age of 80 and truly embody the spirit of this group, in so many ways. I will let their voices speak for themselves, in their own authentic, wise and inspiring way. I am both grateful and humbled to share them here.

Fran Baer: a Life Replete with Energy & Connection

Fran is a dear and amazing woman! With 88 years of life experience, she has a lifelong resume of achievement behind her, a bright mind, an open heart and a captivating smiling demeanor.

In looking back on her years, Fran writes:

“My schedule was always full. Teaching, I was either planning or grading the day’s lessons, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling: as President of the Teachers’ Union, I was on call day and night, negotiating their contract, attending to their grievances, soliciting community support for the teachers and their students, traveling to Romania as part of a contingent of Union leaders sponsored by the United States government to acquaint workers on how unions operate in a democratic society; as a parent I cooked, shopped, cleaned, attended my children’s and later grandchildren’s activities around the country and never missed family events, some joyful others sad, where ever they might be. Yes, I had the energy.”

Fran retired at age 69, but it was no indication that she was entering a “new phase”, the energy just shifted into other areas.

“I accepted positions as Co-Principal of our Temple Religious School, President of the League of Women Voters of the Space Coast, and Political Action Chair of the Retired Teachers’ Union Organization. Together with my Significant Other, a flamenco aficionado, we traveled to Spain with 13-year-old grandchildren and grand-nieces. With friends I traveled to Cuba as part of a delegation of Sisters to Sisters sponsored by the U.S. and the national League of Women Voters, later to France and London. With my daughter and her husband, I visited Israel twice, attended a friend’s wedding, stayed on a Kibbutz and gloriously followed my grandson and his Israeli basketball team around the country.”

While Fran’s life continued to be full of energy and full of admirable “doing”, other processes were going on at another level: “Mid-way into my retirement, I realized I needed to stop and take stock. I had to learn to give myself permission to do nothing. The mind was willing, but my body was giving me signals to slow down. My energy was waning. Had I resisted those signals, I could not have been there in every sense of the word for my Significant Other’s prostate cancer surgery and rehabilitation, an ongoing situation with the recurrence of the cancer.”

And then the Ground Shook Ferociously…

Fran: “My son was diagnosed with Glioblastoma. I went numb. I told myself, “There is no way to find the strength and energy to be there for him as he battles courageously the inevitable finality”. Where does a mother turn? I knew I had to find a path forward. I read everything available about the dreaded cancer. I talked night and day with his brother, sister, wife, sister-in-law, daughters, one of whom is a doctor and was in touch with my son’s doctors. I knew my children were equally suffering. So, I wept for them, for him, for me, some days all day. I still weep even as I write. Sometimes I feel numbness was the only relief, but I knew I needed to be near him as he needed to be near me.”

Fran’s great pain led her to reach out to her Rabbi for consolation and strength to meet the challenges before her: “I called my Rabbi who consoled me and suggested I contact Janet Helfand, a long ago friend who was involved in Sage-ing (note: a unique form of “Conscious Aging”). I did so and Janet referred me to the “Harvesting Your Wisdom” group and to Ronnie Dunetz. I cannot begin to describe how much energy and support I have garnered from this group all throughout the many difficult weeks of my son’s illness and into and following his last days. Throughout these most difficult times of my life I relied on my children and the genuine support of these new friends- the Harvesting your Wisdom (HYW) group- and its facilitator, founder and experienced life coach- Ronnie Dunetz.

I still do. These Wednesday sessions offer me the skills and energy to live. Together with my family of loved ones and the birth of two great grandchildren, I survive and rejoice in finding the support that allows the memories of the good times to balance the grief I will always carry.

The group’s sessions are never disappointing, there is always a new and stimulating topic presented with fascinating videos and presentation, the dyad discussions on Zoom make it all so personal, and the group “harvest” discussion is where Ronnie brings forth and evokes in us new insights and perspectives we never actually thought of.

Wisdom, derived through aging and the exigencies of living, tells me that energy is a best friend that requires loving care, honor and respect. One thing I can say now from the vantage point of 88 years of life experience is that time will take its toll and our energy will ebb and flow. Nurture and conserve it. We need to give it a rest from time to time and call on it when needed. The wisdom is knowing the difference. Just recently I flew from Florida to Connecticut for my 70th High School Reunion, encouraged and accompanied by my daughter and her valued energy.

My family is so very important to me, and I have expanded it by including the Harvesting your Wisdom group and its facilitator in most trusted and reliable circles. To be able to draw on them and to harvest the wisdom of my many years and experiences is a true and cherished gift that I value dearly.”

Janet Helfand: Growth and Love can Blossom at any Age

If I had one word to describe Janet it would no doubt be: Incredible! Janet is a profoundly impressive woman who has taught me and all of us so much. She embodies the fact that life is never just a “stop sign”, that all difficulties can be opportunities for new growth and development, despite the pain and sadness they may inflict. One might say that Janet’s story of life began with a loss and from that point on it’s been a journey of cultivating life and wisdom, in one way or another…

Janet: “I was born nearly 81 years ago and raised in a blended family after my father was killed in World War II and my stepfather married my mother. I was 5 years old and my sister was 12 ½ years old. My stepfather came with a 5-year-old daughter and a 12 ½ year old son. Due to nature and nurture, I became an observer and “good girl” trying to meet expectations of my parents. There was not much nurturing in the family system, with each parent trying to protect his/her biological children. I know my mother said it was hard to have us become a harmoniously functioning family.

I was a good student, did what was expected of me: went to school, graduated college and got married at 20 years of age. I had my first child at 21 years of age and discovered I knew nothing about babies and raising a family. I listened to my elders and tried to fulfill the role of being a dutiful wife and mother. When my youngest went into kindergarten, I started back to get my Master’s Degree and was surprised, when I said something, someone actually listened. I don’t think I ever asked myself what was important to me and what do I want. I served the family, up until that point.

When I started working on my Doctorate Degree, which took me 5 years to complete, it was suggested we go into therapy to distinguish our own issues from those of our clients. I was shocked when I told my counselor that I never knew who would show up for dinner, in the family, and she asked me what I thought was a good time to have dinner. I told her what I thought and she asked me why I don’t serve the meal at that time and whoever is there eats and put the rest away and they can take it out of the refrigerator and heat it up when they came home.

Thus started my transformation. I remember, at one time, my husband told me I was no longer the woman he married. I remember telling him I was grateful for starting to become my own person. At age 42, I graduated with my doctorate and became a psychologist, after passing my Boards, and went into private practice.

Life happens when you are busy planning the future

Janet: “At age 44, after 23 years of marriage, my husband got cancer and passed away 3 months later. My mother wanted me to go back into the classroom and play it safe, since I would have a steady income with retirement benefits. It was a good idea, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it on my own. I had serious financial problems, as my late-husband had just lost his position, as Vice President of Engineering, for a company working at the Space Center. He did not even do anything about obtaining medical insurance for the family. Luckily, I belonged to some professional organization and obtained regular medical and catastrophic insurance. I probably would have lost the house, if I did not have that insurance.

So, here I was having no idea how I was going to pay off the debts of a 23-year marriage with two mortgages, one for the house and one for a condo we owned and had many fears. I took part-time work and continued to work at my private practice. Eventually, I paid off both mortgages.”

Janet overcame the paralyzing fear of not being able to financially take care of herself and her family. Her children, much like their mother, dug in and found ways to pay their way through college, eventually graduating from top notch schools and assuming high level management positions. She is very proud of her sons, for who they are and what they have accomplished.

About one year after the death of her husband, Janet met a man whom she began dating which led to a relationship of some 30 years.

Janet: “He moved into my house and I was the primary “breadwinner.” He started a small part-time business and did chores around the house that kept me from having to hire people to do these jobs. During our time together, I continued to take classes to grow as a human being, and leadership classes, and beca