Age of Inspiration

By Sarah O'Brien Mackey '89

Life after 65 may once have been viewed as a final act of sorts. But today, as the first wave of baby boomers moves toward retirement, more and more seniors are regarding these years as a vital new chapter in their lives. (By 2050 one in five Americans will be 65 years of age or older.) To study the myriad issues of aging, colleges and universities from coast to coast have established a variety of research centers such as the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, the Institute on Aging at the University of North Carolina, the Center on Demography and Economics of Aging at the University of Chicago, and the Resource Center on Aging at the University of California-Berkeley. And at the 2005 White House Conference on Aging—an event held every 10 years—more than 1,200 delegates gathered to develop recommendations on topics including creating a national long-term health policy; the voice of business on the mature workforce; health literacy and health disparities; and the future of caregiving.

The VQ recently spoke with three Vassar alumnae who have found themselves both challenged and inspired by the experience of aging—whether to begin a new career, continue competing on the world stage, or create a testimony to life itself.

Redefining What You Can Do

“People tend to think I’m fearless,” says Nada Ellend Glick ’61 with a bemused laugh. “But I can assure you that isn’t true. I have struggled many times in my life. I’m 67 years old and I still see myself as someone struggling, especially when it comes to creating a community for myself. That’s something I’ve looked for all of my life.”

While she may not be fearless, Glick has faced several moments in her life that have tested her confidence and challenged her resolve. As a young woman, just a few years after graduating from Vassar, Glick found herself divorced and responsible for raising two young sons on her own. In a flash, many of the expectations she’d had for her life were gone. “I had always imagined being part of the working world—Vassar instills in you that desire to go out and make a difference—but I had expected that home and hearth would play at least an equal part,” she says. “All of a sudden, I had to stop thinking that way, stop seeing myself as the supplementary earner in my family and start thinking of myself as the main breadwinner. I have been thinking that way ever since.”

Over the ensuing decades, Glick went on to lead several college counseling and academic advising offices. She earned two master’s degrees—one in psychology from the New School of Social Research and the other in counseling psychology from Columbia University Teachers College, where she also received a doctorate of education in adult and higher education. Then, three years ago, at age 64, Glick once again found herself without a job and facing an uncertain future. “At first I wasn’t too concerned,” she recalls. “I blithely applied for jobs at other colleges and I had wonderful phone interviews, but once they met me in person, it became clear that they weren’t going to hire someone in her 60s. It very quickly became very scary. I had never worked in jobs where I was getting rich, so it wasn’t as if I had unlimited resources. This was really a crisis.”

After several months of searching, Glick eventually did find a new position, in her hometown of Mamaroneck, New York. As director of development for the Human Development Services of Westchester, she leads the fundraising and public relations operations for the nonprofit agency, which provides housing and support services for people with serious mental illness. While exciting, the transition into the new job was not without challenges—or fears. “I was in a high state of anxiety for the entire first year,” she says. “In the past, fundraising was only a small part of what I’d done: I’d always been more on the programmatic end of things. So the job itself was new, and at the same time I was learning about the organization, getting to know the staff, and trying to familiarize myself with new technology. I had to learn how to produce spreadsheets, and some days I still look at them with terror. But I discovered, as I have throughout my life, that it’s all about redefining what you can do.”

A Walk Into The Unknown

After living in Europe for 25 years, Alexandra (Sandy) Grabbe ’69 and her husband Sven moved back to her hometown of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1997 to care for her elderly parents. Grabbe’s father passed away two years later at the age of 97. When her mother, Beatrice Chinnock Grabbe ’32, became seriously ill in 2006, Grabbe decided to chronicle her experience of caregiving in a blog called “By Bea’s Bedside” (http://bybeasbedside.blogspot.com).

She wrote her first entry on Wednesday, April 19, 2006: “On a warm Autumn day in 1997, I moved back into my childhood home to care for my parents and don’t regret the decision, although, at times, the job is hard. Eldercare demands patience and compassion, a tender word, a pat on the back. When my frustration level crescendos, I retreat to the garden and contemplate clouds.

An accomplished writer and editor, Grabbe initially created the blog to communicate with family members who did not live close by, but she soon discovered that strangers were reading her words as well. Through a stat checker, Grabbe could see that they had found their way to “By Bea’s Bedside” through such poignant search terms as “elderly person who stops eating and sleeps all the time,” “what does it mean when an elderly person has hallucinations,” “handling a bedridden parent at home,” and “physical touch and the elderly.”

“It was fascinating to find out how many people were going through the same experience as I was,” Grabbe says. “I had visitors to my blog from as far away as Kenya. People are clearly struggling with the question of eldercare all over the world.

In February 2006 Bea was hospitalized with bursitis of the knee and spent three weeks in a rehabilitation center. When she was advised to move to a nursing home, mother and daughter both agreed that was not what they wanted. “I wanted to be the one taking care of her during the last months of her life,” says Grabbe. “But I felt like I was at the beginning of a long walk into the unknown. When my mother came home, for example, she decided that she didn’t want to walk anymore. She stayed in bed and soon developed a bedsore on her heel. I didn’t know you could get a bedsore on your heel. There was so much that I didn’t know, but I kept learning as we went along.”

Saturday, September 26, 2006: “‘It’s nice to be alive on a day like this.’ The statement is so Bea, the optimistic little girl, hungry for life, now that she is bedridden and close to the end. I peer out the window and wonder at her words, the only ones she will utter today besides, ‘I’m hungry.’ I turn her several times and provide dinner. The salmon salad is not a hit.”

Bea died November 29, 2006, at home. She was 97. After her mother’s funeral, Grabbe decided that she would stop adding new posts to “By Bea’s Bedside,” but she has not taken it off the Web because people are still reading, still finding both solace and valuable information, and still leaving her messages of thanks. She is now working on turning the blog into a book, eager to share her mother’s story in a new way.

“My mother had such a love of life,” Grabbe says. “And she loved Vassar. It was one of the biggest influences in her whole life. She may have been a year before Mary McCarthy ’33, but she, too, had her own group and they all stayed very close. She was very proud that my brother, Nicholas Grabbe ’71, and I went to Vassar.”

Something To Look Forward To

“There’s nothing like a Vassar girl, is there?” That’s how Cristina Biaggi ’59 sums up the feeling she gets every time she reconnects with her Vassar classmates and friends. “At this point in our lives, we’ve all gone through tremendous epiphanies and such interesting life journeys. I have a great appreciation for that. As I get older, I find it’s especially wonderful to go to reunion. You feel applauded and appreciated there. It’s very inspiring.”

Age of Inspiration
Age of Inspiration
Last summer, Biaggi served as a source of inspiration for hundreds of athletes and spectators at the 2006 Outgames in Montreal, where she won two gold medals and a bronze in cycling—a sport she had only taken up a few months earlier when she discovered that the Outgames would not feature her main sport, taekwondo. “Riding a bike was something I had done all my life, so I thought I’d give it a try,” says Biaggi, who has competed in taekwondo at the Gay Games since 1990. “I trained for four or five months, working up to 50 miles twice a week.”

Biaggi’s first event was the four-kilometer time trial for women 50 years old and up. When the judges learned that she was 69, more than 10 years older than her nearest competitor, they decided to establish a new category for women 60 and over. “I just went there to compete,” says Biaggi, “but I ended up feeling like a role model and an inspiration. Little girls came up to me and asked me for my autograph. They were impressed that someone my age could do this. I hope now they’ll see age as an inspiration—something to look forward to.”

Biaggi says competition and physical challenge have been a central part of her life. At age 50 she took up hiking, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with her partner. She recently earned her black sash in kung fu, taking the test with 15 other people, all much younger. “There were probably 150 people watching the test, and I was called up with a seven-year-old boy. Can you imagine that? But it was really very inspiring to stand next to him. Neither of us could do the things that a sixteen-year-old could do, but we both did our best.”

An artist, sculptor, and author, Biaggi embraces the same drive in her work, which has been exhibited around the world. She is currently devising plans to build a contemporary goddess temple inspired by the megalithic structures of 5,000 years ago. Called the Goddess Mound, the grass-covered structure would stand seven feet high and twenty feet in diameter, offering space for meditation and small seminars, and appropriate for a college campus or outdoor sculpture park. (To learn more about Biaggi’s work, visit www.goddessmound.com.)

Currently recovering from her second knee replacement, Biaggi is still adept at balancing work and competition with raising two teenage sons on her own. (Her partner died six years ago.) “My life is never boring, that’s for sure,” she says. “Today, I’m surrounded by youth. It feels good to share my life with them.”

In A Timeless Fashion

While their individual experiences may differ, Glick, Grabbe, and Biaggi agree it’s time to take a new look at aging. “I’m hopeful we’re going that way with the baby boomers edging up there,” says Grabbe, who also runs a bed and breakfast in Wellfleet. “One of my B&B guests said the elderly needed to be treated with more reverence, and I couldn’t agree more.”

“To be honest, I can’t wrap my brain around being 67,” says Glick, “and I know I’m not alone. Most people I know think of themselves in a timeless fashion. I think how I’ve always thought and feel how I’ve always felt. I have the same energy. Just the other day my 13-year-old grandson said that I was the only grandmother he knew who went sledding with the kids.”

“When I compete, I feel this affirming surge of life,” says Biaggi, who plans to take part in the 2009 Outgames in Copenhagen,
Denmark. “It makes me feel ageless, and if you feel ageless, you feel young. When I think about turning 70, I can’t quite believe it. What does it mean? I still ask myself what I want to do with my life.”

On Saturday, December 23, 2006, Grabbe ended her last post on “By Bea’s Bedside” with a poem found among her mother’s papers from her senior year at Vassar. It shows Bea as hungry for life then as she proved to be more than 70 years later:

I love to show that I
am well-informed

I always feel so spry
when I’ve performed.

I chatter sotto voce
of Benedetto Croce

and mention with esprit
Paul Valery.

I talk with intuition
about the art of Titian,

and revel in the Beaux-Arts
and minuets of Mozart’s.

I pounce like any vulture
on gents of lesser culture.

The sculpture gods of Myron,
the light-heart loves of Byron,

I speak about with ease and will
for all is grist unto my mill.

Sarah O'Brien Mackey '89 is a writer living in Massachusetts.

Facts and Figures

  • Approximately 36.8 million Americans are 65 years and older. They represent 12.4% of the U.S. population, or about one in every eight Americans.
  • Older women outnumber older men significantly in the U.S., with 21.4 million older women and 15.4 million older men.
  • Today, persons reaching age 65 have an average life expectancy of an additional 18.4 years (19.8 years for females and 16.8 years for males).
  • There were 70,104 persons aged 100 or more in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available), an 88% increase from the 1990 figure of 37,306.

Health and Healthcare

  • In 2005, 38.3% of non-institutionalized older persons assessed their health as excellent or very good (compared to 66.8% for persons aged 18-64).
  • More than 25% of persons aged 65 to 74, and 17% of persons 75+, reported that they engage in regular leisure-time physical activity.
  • Most older persons have at least one chronic condition and many have multiple conditions. Among the most frequently occurring conditions older persons had were hypertension (48%), diagnosed arthritis (47%), all types of heart disease (29%), any cancer (20%), diabetes (16%), and sinusitis (14%).

Marriage and Family

  • Older men are much more likely to be married than older women—72% of men versus 42% of women. In 2005, 43% of older women were widows.
  • About 445,000 grandparents aged 65 or more had the primary responsibility for their grandchildren who lived with them.


  • About 11% (3.7 million) of older Medicare enrollees received personal care from a paid or unpaid source in 1999.

Income and Employment

  • In 2005, 5.3 million Americans age 65 and over were in the labor force (working or actively seeking work), including 3 million men and 2.3 million women. Together, they constituted 3.5% of the U.S. labor force.
  • About 3.6 million older persons (10.1%) live below the poverty level.

* Compiled from A Profile of Older Americans: 2006, produced by the Administration on Aging