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Mo Rocca Celebrates Late-in-Life Success Stories

Journalist’s new book highlights ‘roctogenarians’ living their lives to the fullest


spinner image Mo Rocca against light blue ombre background
AARP (John Paul Filo/CBS)

Mo Rocca, 55, hopes to popularize a new term: In his new book, Roctogenarians: Late in Life Debuts, Comebacks, and Triumphs, the CBS Sunday Morning correspondent chronicles entertaining and unexpected stories of people who are rockin’ life in their 70s, 80s and beyond — selling out concert halls, attempting land-speed records and debuting as authors, for example. Rocca tells AARP how hearing these stories inspired him to step out of his own comfort zone, how he’s trying to make healthier dietary choices in his 50s, plus the food he introduced to Barbra Streisand.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What lessons did you learn from the roctogenarians you interviewed?

They ignored the conventional wisdom that the third act in your life as a drama should be a period of winding down, a period of decline. I keep thinking if life is a three-act play, you don’t want the audience leaving at the second intermission, or the third act. You want to end with a bang. You want the critics to say, “Wow, what a great ending.” We’ve added all these years to life expectancy, so we’re figuring out what to do with those years. There’s a whole lot that you can do.

spinner image Book cover that says Mo Rocca and Jonathan Greenberg, Roctogenarians Late in Life Debuts, Comebacks, and Triumphs; picture of Mo Rocca in top right corner
In his new book, Rocca highlights entertaining and unexpected late-in-life success stories.
AARP (Courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Who was one of your favorite people to talk to?

One of the patterns I noticed in a lot of these stories is people returning to first loves, but in a much clearer, simpler way — and in a freer way. It’s so inspiring. I love the story of Ruth Slenczynska, who I first profiled for CBS Sunday Morning, who was one of the great child prodigies at the piano. But she was terrorized by her father — the stage parent on steroids, a nightmare story. She had to quit eventually because it was too much torture. And this is a woman who played with Rachmaninoff, who subbed for him when she was a child at one concert. But finally, she learned to love playing for the sake of playing.

Did researching the book change your opinion on aging?

I think so. I prefer profiling older people because they’re more interesting to me, and I’m an old soul myself. Yet, in writing this book, I realized I too had fallen into this trap of feeling like opportunities had passed me by, and that life was a series of an increasing number of exit ramps that were closed off. And of course limits set in, primarily physical ones, but opportunities also open up. I think of my mother when she prunes the grapefruit tree that we planted together many years ago. You prune branches and then they come back even stronger — there are more shoots, sprouts. So, yes, it has made me rethink aging and become much more optimistic. The conventional wisdom had crept up on me, and I didn’t realize it.

Is there a later-in-life endeavor the book inspired you to try?

Well, one thing is stand-up comedy. I always thought that is the ultimate brave thing to do in performance. Now through my affiliation with Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! [Rocca is a regular panelist on the NPR quiz show], we’ve been doing live comedy tours, and I have been doing stand-up and performing solo on stage in front of crowds, which I hadn’t done before.

Is another attempt at winning Celebrity Jeopardy! on your list? [Rocca came in second place in the last tournament; actress Lisa Ann Walter was the winner.]

I would love to go back. No one is harder on me than I am, but I have to say, after that episode aired the number of people who said, “Oh I'm so sorry you lost.” [I thought] Wait a minute. What’s going on here? I raised a quarter of a million dollars for charity! Here’s the thing, though: As soon as the taping ended, I felt a sense of liberation, because I had no inkling what the answer was to that final clue. I remember that as it happened, I felt a sense of release and relief, because had I had any inkling and got it wrong, I would right now still be torturing myself. It feels so good to know I had no idea.

Are you doing anything differently since you hit your 50s?

I’m trying to sleep more, because I know all the years of fewer than six hours of sleep are gonna catch up on me, and I fear that they will. I’m trying hard to eat less red meat. Dr. Jon LaPook, [CBS News’] chief medical correspondent and a good friend of mine, told me a few months ago that he has only four hamburgers a year, and my jaw dropped when he told me that. So I’m trying to stay off of red meat. It is so hard to make half of what you eat fruits and vegetables. It’s really hard when you love meat as much as I do. I’m trying also to stretch more, because I’m very flexible and I’ve taken it for granted. I have to get back to exercising, which I haven’t done since the pandemic set in because I’ve been working so much. I see these articles about people who really only started working out in their 60s, so that gives me hope.

How are you making more sleep happen?

I read somewhere that what you do [to fall asleep] rather than counting sheep is you create a category, and then you run through the alphabet. So for instance, if you’re doing vegetables, you just go “asparagus, beets, cauliflower.” I always have a hard time when I get to D, and I go “daikon radish.” I’m not sure that counts.

What keeps you up at night?

I think about my long-term health. But I also think about the health of my relationships and what I can be doing better. Sometimes that gives me anxiety. It’s something that I wouldn’t have thought about earlier in life. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing right by the people in my life? Yeah, those are things that keep me up at night.

Who is still on your to-interview wish list?

I have very complicated feelings about Barbra Streisand. Because I’m such a fan, I wouldn’t want to be disappointed in myself. I did interview her for a Barnes & Noble event online about her memoir, and we really talked a lot about food, and I introduced Barbra to the idea of poutine — and she’s really, really intrigued. I feel like if I have any legacy at all, it will be that I introduced Barbra Streisand to poutine. I can’t tell if it was the cheese curds or the gravy that really whetted her appetite. I’ve had poutine with Celine Dion — when I interviewed her in Vegas.

Are you a good cook?

No, no. My partner does the cooking. I help. I’m a really good cleaner. That’s one of those things in the third act of my life that I’d like to learn how to do.

Any other third-act life lessons that have stuck with you?

I remember Albert Brooks was talking about the comedy routines — now seen as kind of pioneering — that he would do on television as early as the ’60s and certainly into the ’70s. He would oftentimes go on very mainstream variety shows, but do his act, which was not mainstream. And sometimes people wouldn’t laugh, at least in the studio audience. And I kind of marveled at that and I said, “What was that like? You were up there alone doing these bits on big network variety shows, and sometimes people weren’t even laughing in the studio?” And he said, “What would I think? Well, who cares? If this doesn’t work out, I’ll just go sell shoes.” And he meant it. It really landed with me — this kind of [attitude], So what? You’re not going to go to prison [if you fail]. Life for me is getting to that place of being unafraid. And that’s when you’ll do your best work.

 

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