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Second Acts: If Not Now, When?

Stories of three people's thrilling second acts.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE when you grow up? The years at midlife and beyond present new opportunities to ask that question—and an exhilarating chance to reinvent ourselves. "The widespread recognition that we're living longer, healthier lives marks the emergence of a new, distinct stage of life," says Marc Freedman, author of Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life. People are seeking deeper meaning as well as financial reward and, Freedman says, "a chance to benefit society." Here are three of their stories.

Opening a Door. For Edward Katz, PhD, teaching public school in New York City was both a passion and a vocation. As a ninth-grade English teacher and decade-long leader of a probing, college-level Shakespeare seminar, Katz's enthusiasm continued, unquenched. A few years ago, he envisioned a new kind of Shakespeare seminar—a workshop for "enlightened elders," Katz says. He began offering groups in 2003, which now meet regularly across the tri-state area. A staunch New York City native, Katz doesn't drive. He also eschews cellular telephones and such modernities as ball-point pens.

Once a month, Katz brings scenes from Shakespeare's plays to each of his groups; they read the scene aloud, talk through the issues, and watch a video clip. At first, Katz says, "I didn't know I'd get one client." Now, fully booked and fully engaged, Katz is deeper into Shakespeare and into the passions of human existence than he'd ever imagined possible. "It's the chance to do what I could never do before—go into real detail, real depth. We look at life issues through the lens of the plays."

Just don't call him "teacher." "What I do is facilitate the groups," Katz explains, readily volunteering the derivation of the word from the Latin facillus, to make easy. "My aim is to ease the effort, to open the door to Shakespeare," he says. The groups include people 80 to 95 years old, and he's only 66. "I'm not going to teach them anything. They're going to teach me, and they have. They've taught me how to accept aging, illness, and death gracefully."

"Once people open themselves up and are able to enter the plays, they see Shakespeare's greatness," Katz says. "When we read Hamlet's soliloquies that push right up against the edge of mortality, of death—you oughta see the impact! People you may think are entering senility—they get it, and they get it well."

Rethinking deep-seated stereotypes about aging poses a big challenge, asserts author and broadcast journalist Connie Goldman. Slowly but surely, attitudes are changing: "People are beginning, in some way, to embrace their own aging," says Goldman, who began covering the aging beat 25 years ago. "There's a point in life where we think, I want to do what's important to me, and I want to do it now."

"The desire is to go back to something we love," she says, whether that means raising political consciousness or planting a vegetable garden. But reaping rewards requires a willingness to take risks, as Goldman describes in The Ageless Spirit and Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer. "People have to be able to say, 'this isn't for me,' not 'I'm a failure,' if a choice doesn't work out," she says. "There are millions of opportunities, out there in the world and inside you, both."

Service through Knowledge. Myra Jacobs has made a lifestyle out of learning new skills and sharing them with others. Trained as a secondary-school teacher and later as a guidance counselor, Jacobs wove both strands—instruction and support—into a long career in the nonprofit sector. Working with the National Children's Leukemia Foundation, she learned that many patients and their families faced challenging bone marrow transplants with little psychosocial or personal support. Before long, Jacobs found survivors of these procedures eager to share their experiences, and she and a few colleagues wrote a booklet outlining bone marrow transplant basics. It has since traveled across her home state of Michigan, the United States, and around the world, along with other educational materials for bone marrow transplant families.

"I always had a sense that this was needed, but I was afraid to leave my full-time job," Jacobs says now. "One night, I put it all together. I realized, I've done all this in the past, and I've been successful"—as a teacher, a fund-raiser, a health educator, an administrator, and an advocate. "I felt confident there was a future. I told my husband, 'I want to take the chance. I want change. What have I got to lose?'" Fifteen years later, Jacobs's National Bone Marrow Transplant Link is an international leader in patient education and support. And Jacobs, 66, has taken on a new, personal challenge as a tri-athlete, most recently completing her third run/swim/bike circuit, with her daughter Amy Taxman.

What's To Lose? That turn-the-corner moment that Jacobs describes—when she asked, If not now, when? What have I got to lose?— is a hallmark of midlife liberation, according to Gene Cohen, MD, PhD, founding chief of the National Institute of Mental Health's first program on mental health and aging, and a geriatrician and gerontologist. In his clinical work and in books such as The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain and The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, Cohen explores psychological development in the second half of life, including midlife brain changes that permit new integration and a burst of creativity. "It's like a car shifting to all-wheel drive," he explains. "The brain begins to work in a more symmetrical, integrated way. Pragmatic creativity and practical intelligence increase," as knowledge and experience grant new insights and perspective. "Positive brain changes take place at the same time as psycho-intellectual changes," he says. "You look at the world differently."

The first step in this new worldview, midlife reevaluation, is characterized by deep introspection and a renewed search for meaning beyond paychecks and mortgage payments. The second phase, liberation, is what Jacobs experienced: "It's asking, 'If not now, when?' and 'Why not?'" Cohen says. "These questions give people the inner confidence and the courage to try something new and are a further impetus, a psychological nudge, to change."

Gregarious Good Intentions. Nudge is a word that's rarely applied to Bernard Krisher, a longtime journalist and current social activist in Japan and Cambodia. In fact, he's eager to volunteer his nickname, Bernie Pusher, as long as it advances his cause: improving the lot of Cambodian schoolchildren. But Tokyo-based Krisher, who served as bureau chief for Newsweek and Fortune, began as a newspaperman, not the passionate advocate he is today.

Posted to Japan in 1962, Krisher basically "inherited the rest of Asia" when his colleagues focused intensively on the war in Vietnam. Building on a friendship with Cambodia's King Sihanouk, Krisher "fell in love with the country" and eventually turned his estimable energy toward its post-Pol Pot rebuilding.

Krisher identified with Cambodian kids. "We're giving them back their childhood," he says, acknowledging the rupture in his own when, at age 6, his family fled Germany. Four years later, in 1941, they landed in New York. "I came from Germany during the Holocaust," says Krisher. "I had lost many relatives. I went through New York public schools, became a journalist and a foreign correspondent, my dream job. I felt I was very lucky."

"As a journalist, you don't get involved, become an activist. Now, though, I want to pay something back," he says, before adding, "Cambodians had their own holocaust."

In 1993, Krisher established the American Assistance for Cambodia/Japan Relief for Cambodia (AAfC), which has created more than 370 primary schools for village youth, thanks to funding from the World Bank and others. Many of the schools are solar-powered with self-sustaining farm gardens.

Recently, AAfC sponsored orphanages and special schools for bright youngsters. "They're 20 generations in farming," says Krisher of the students' families. "On a small scale, we can pluck some diamonds out of the haystacks." Krisher hopes to secure scholarships to American universities for the highest achievers, with one early commitment from Maryland's Goucher College. "The most satisfying part is to see these kids bloom."

"It's a total, total change" from life as a journalist, says Krisher, 76. "I knew I didn't want to retire and do nothing. Helping people was always a part of my nature, but I never thought the impact would be so great." Krisher, who regularly puts in 18-hour days, will eventually shift control of his foundations to a U.S.-based board. His daughter Deborah Krisher-Steele will take the reins, with his guidance, of course. "She's a little like me, but prettier," brags Krisher. "I'm a one-man operation, a dictator who's fighting for democracy. You don't conduct an orchestra by consensus." But the organization's growth—with programs that reach tens of thousands of schoolchildren—is beyond the scope of a single person, even someone as energetic and street-savvy as Bernie "Pusher" Krisher.

A Second Wave of Activism. The kind of social activism embodied by Krisher, Jacobs, and Katz is replicated in myriad expressions across the country, and is growing, according to Marc Freedman. "This idea of change in the world—rethinking work and redefining purpose—comes from real grass-roots activity." High-profile work makes the headlines, but volunteering at your local school or cultivating a community garden makes its own quiet and substantial difference.

The seeds of changes great and small are in the figurative pockets of the millions of boomers now cresting at midlife and conventional retirement age. "My great dream," says Freedman, 49, "is a powerful social movement led and carried by aging boomers, a second wave of idealism, focused on alleviating the problems of the country and the world, by working in schools, health care, and as social entrepreneurs." The experts call it practical idealism and pragmatic creativity, formal words for the blend of work and personal satisfaction that sustains the individual and gives back to the community. Lots of other folks just call it work and thrive on what they do, day in and day out, with and for others.

Helen Zelon writes on urban life, education, and culture for national magazines. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Summer 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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