What does it mean to live your best life after 50?
That's the question we asked of readers a few months ago — and a resounding 6,000 of you responded, with amazing stories of courage in the face of adversity, of finding new purpose and of rediscovering love in the second half of life.
We chose seven of you — including a People's Choice winner, selected by readers — to fly to New York for a whirlwind two-day photo shoot. Take a peek by watching the video below, and reading about the winners and playing their videos on the following pages.
Next page: A lovely late bloomer. »
Kim Dillard, 51
Lifeline: My family
Words to Live by: There's only one path to now.
Let's just say I was a late bloomer.
I lived in Dallas, Houston and New York in my 20s and 30s, and while all my friends were getting married and having kids, I still wanted to be a kid. I waited until 39 to get married, and 40 to have a daughter. Then I was a single mom, which is where adulthood really started.
See also: AARP's Black Community page
And then I waited until I was almost 50 to pursue my dream. Or more specifically (and literally), my sister's dream: She called me in the middle of the night and said, "I dreamt that we should start a faith-based television network for the urban community." And so we did!
We took our savings — she was a teacher, and I was a loan officer — and started a network. We knew nothing about television. We had to teach ourselves how to operate a television camera. But I believe it's good not to know too much, because if you know a lot about something, you may be afraid to try it. And, really, this idea is one of the main components of faith. I walk in a faith adventure every day.
TheRejoiceNetwork.com streams 24 hours of programming for an urban audience daily — you might see a holy hip-hop rap artist, or you might see classic black movies from the '40s and '50s starring Lena Horne. Through my network I am trying to pass on that example of faith and fearlessness to my daughter and to other young people, especially young people of color. One day, in the near future, a fit, healthy, active female entrepreneur in her 50s and beyond will be the rule in urban communities, not the exception.
Whatever I do at this stage of my life, I ask myself (and my friends) this question: Am I having fun? Am I making a difference? As I move forward, I hope to be able to answer both questions with a very loud "Yes."
Next page: A fabulous firefighter. »
Richard Bucci, 54
Home: Graham, N.C.
Lifeline: My wife, Stacy
Words to Live by: It's not the number of things we acquire, but how many lives we touch along the way.
For 28 years I've had just about the best job any man could have — firefighting. I've worked in Florida, North Carolina and, earlier, with our extraordinary military in Iraq.
I wrote about my experience in 2004 with the Mosul bombing in Iraq (80 percent of the proceeds from the book go to support our soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder). I've faced extreme conditions. I've witnessed heroism at close range.
I've seen birth — I helped deliver a baby — and I've seen death. And as I approached 50, I had to think about my own: I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My doctor told me that if it hadn't been caught early, I would have been looking at a terminal case 10 years later.
I think everyone expected me to retire from firefighting at that point, particularly since, right after the prostate surgery, I faced surgery for a separated shoulder (from fighting a structure fire) and a total hip replacement. Instead, I decided to get back into firefighting condition, which involved seven months of physical therapy and training, at least two hours a day, four days a week.
Today, at 54, I'm still doing the job I love most — the other guys call me Grandpa. And at the end of the day, I return to the love of my life, Stacy. We met after the prostate surgery, and after my 50th birthday. We'd both been married twice before; the theme for our wedding was "Three time's the charm."
When you've seen as much death and suffering as I have, just the fact of being here, when so many others you've known and loved are not, gives every day new meaning.
There's not one day that goes by that I don't hug my wife and give her a kiss and tell her I love her. Not one day. My son Kyle, who's 21, too. I've been blessed to be of service, and I know I'm still here because God has a plan for me. He has one for all of us.
Next page: A poised painter. »
Cosette Bonjour, 61
Home: Kapoho, Hawaii
Words To Live By: Living life to the fullest means not living for yourself but looking outward — serving others and bringing out their beauty.
My first husband died of a heart attack at 38. My second husband died of a heart attack at 54 — and he was incredibly fit, ate well and practiced yoga. He died in his sleep on his birthday. And did I mention I had Hodgkin's lymphoma in my 20s?
From these challenges you could learn one of two lessons: You could become fearful, or you could shift your perception and become grateful. I chose the second course.
My second husband and I had moved to Hawaii and constructed an extraordinary hexagonal glass house on the ocean, and I cherished our memories in it, but I needed new challenges.
I had been a graphic designer in New York, and when I turned 50, I began painting seriously, exploring new techniques and media and always returning to the lush beauty of Hawaii. My work is represented by a local gallery. I also teach yoga and exercise with friends every morning.
Healthy living: Yoga in your 50s, 60s and 70s — and beyond
Grieving takes time, and sometimes you need to give yourself over to it. Because when you come out the other side, it can be beautiful. If you look for joy, you find it. I am grateful every day for what I have, and grateful that I have the power to create a new life for myself.
Soon I'll begin training to be a life coach, and I'd like to specialize in helping others deal with grief and also in overcoming cancer. People have this idea that life coaching is about telling people what to do. It's the opposite. It's about listening — because, really, everyone does know what's best for them. It's the process of figuring it out, and doing it, that's valuable.
And of course I want to find my next relationship — just someone who loves to travel, is warm, kind, someone intellectually interesting whom I can have great conversations with — and maybe someone a bit younger than me. I admit, I will be asking about his heart history. Our second date may be at the cardiologist's!
Next page: A soldier turned rodeo reverend. »
J. Pat Branch, 65
Home: Kimberly, Idaho
Lifeline: My great God; my wife, Margo; and family
Words to Live by: I can't do everything for everybody all the time, but I can do something for somebody some of the time.
Frequently I wondered: Why did I come home alive when so many guys I knew didn't?
Over the next four decades I earned a college degree and gave myself over to veterans' advocacy, assisting veterans and their families in receiving health and financial benefits. I've been fortunate to be able to give my time to the food bank, homeless shelters, church activities, and riding programs for the disabled.
When I was younger I rodeoed — rode bulls and broncos and steer-wrestled. I never won a million dollars in rodeo. But I had a million dollars' worth of fun and made $10 million worth of friends. Growing up in cowboy culture, you kinda know who's real and who isn't.
Helping hands: How you can help end senior hunger in America
For years I've been doing the ranch and rodeo ministry — I go to rodeos and preach a chapel service. I've seen myself as a servant for much of my life — a servant to God, to the community — but much of my work came after I turned 50, too. When I was 58, I was fortunate enough to receive a Jefferson Award for Public Service in Washington, D.C.
I try to always keep in mind a scene from my favorite movie, Saving Private Ryan. Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, has been severely wounded and is dying. He tells Matt Damon, who plays Private Ryan, to do something good with his life. "Earn this," he says.
Men who've been in combat and lived — they've been given a second chance. Me, I've been given more than a dozen chances. Getting older is learning not to waste what you've been given. You do something. You always do something.
Next page: A successful reinventor. »
LINDA WILSON, 72
Home: Wilmington, N.C.
Lifeline: My yellow Lab. She's a rescue, and she rescued me, basically.
Words to Live by: Never, ever stop learning.
I got downsized at work, because my skill — teaching people how to operate a particular phone system — was no longer necessary. I had serious back problems. I had a heart attack, which necessitated a stent. Then I needed another stent. Then I needed two new knees.
These were times of great stress. I decided that it's never too late for a new start — and I also wanted to prove to my family that I was far more capable than they thought. I grew up in the kind of family that thought a college degree denoted intelligence. But I knew what I was capable of.
I moved to a beach community in North Carolina, where I knew no one. I started a business providing caregivers to people after serious surgery — I knew from personal experience how comforting it could be to stay in your home rather than go to a rehab center — and the business was very successful. It was a stressful business, though, so I sold it five years later, at a profit, and started a pet-sitting service, which allows me to make good use of my love for animals.
I feel in many ways that I'm really, really living for the first time. I've got family nearby and I love to dance and kayak. I'm constantly looking to learn new things. And now I do want someone in my life.
What a person needs becomes so much clearer a little later in life. I want to find someone who loves nature, who has a good heart. I don't want to date just to be dating. If I don't find anyone, that's perfectly OK. If I do, I want it to be my last love.
Next page: An actor and artist. »
Alfredo Martinez, 72
Home: Los Angeles
Words to Live by: It doesn't get any better than this.
When I was young, everything was about getting and maintaining a family. I grew up in South Central L.A., was drafted out of high school. Then I came back, became a hairdresser—in the days of Shampoo that was cool — got married to a wonderful woman, had two daughters.
While growing up, I did not have the chance to go to college, so I made sure my daughters did. I needed a foundation, so I worked for a corporation for years.
Then came 9/11, which changed my life. It gave me a sense that life was short. I decided to get in shape, lifting weights, swimming, biking. I began studying at the Palos Verdes Art Center, painting and drawing. At first the kids were like, "What's this old man doing here?" And then they saw my work.
I'd always had a talent but hadn't taken that talent seriously. I decided I wanted to be an actor, so I took acting classes — which resulted in an agent. Now I do large multimedia paintings, and I have gotten several roles in commercials aimed at seniors. My wife is beautiful, my daughters are beautiful — and graduates of the University of Notre Dame — and I'm an artist.
In a way, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. But that's the beauty of this time. When I was young, I wanted to be old. Now I'm old, and I feel so young.
Next page: Nifty at 90+. »
Reader's Choice Winner
Marguerite LaMarque, 91
Home: Framingham, Mass.
Lifeline: My faith
Words to Live by: Give thanks to God every day, and listen to others — even the dull and ignorant. They, too, have their story.
Have faith: The key to spiritual growth
I do not damage my body with alcohol, nicotine or drugs. My religion — I am Catholic — has always been of utmost importance to me: When I was 15 or 16, I thought I might become a nun but finally decided I wanted children, and I wanted a public life. But still I give thanks to God every morning for waking me up in my right mind, and for the new day.
I try to live by simple truths.
- Listen carefully to others, because listening is a kind of solace.
- Take pleasure in little things — I don't gamble, oh no, but I do love to play whist. Keep busy — though when you have five children, you have no choice! Honesty really is the best policy.
- Do your best: For example, when you have a problem, don't ignore it or cast it aside. Quietly decide to solve it.
- And most of all, set high standards for yourself, and always strive to live up to them. Your children, your family, your community … they will notice.
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Visit the AARP home page every day for more book reviews, celebrity interviews, and more
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