Give the next generation a reason for hope

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The best years of my life were my 70s. That’s when I co-founded three grassroots networks connecting positive aging advocates

Dr. Jan Hively, founder of the Pass it on Network, an international non-profit organization that promotes positive aging

There’s enough in Jan Hively’s life to make a movie and a good one. But before becoming Janet McNeill Hively, the deputy mayor of Minneapolis, a Ph.D. graduate at the age of 69 and the founder of the Pass it on Network, an international non-profit organization that promotes positive aging (and many other things in between), she was just the “girl on Newport Street in Arlington.” At the age of 87, Jan has recently completed a course of guided biography with the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology during which she connected the dots of her story. 

After I talked with her, I have the feeling that time has not formed her character; it has simply revealed it. Jan was already there, from day one. Her story brings to mind the famous quote of Picasso: “On met longtemps à devenir jeune.” (It takes a lot of time to become young) and it is fascinating to see what meanings surface when the majority of the time is behind. But as Jan puts it: “Don’t think that my priorities are more short-term, since that’s the length of my own future. Instead, I’m eager to work on issues that will make the biggest difference in shaping the future for the generations to come.”

I like to keep this thought in my pocket and here’s Jan’s story.

Tell us about your childhood: you said you were an outsider from an early age.

I can still go back in my memory and live the life of that lonely, scared, but also determined and empathetic learner on Newport Street in Arlington, Massachusetts. As early as I can remember, I feel I didn’t quite belong. 

The fact is that my dad was a widower with two kids when he married my mother. My sister was ten years older, shared her room with me for my first ten years and gave me unconditional love, but my brother was seven years older and mostly resented me. All the kids in the neighborhood were their age. There were none my age to play with or to walk with me up to the steep hill to the elementary school in the morning. Maybe that’s why I learned early to read.

What did you read?

My father had bought us “The Book of Knowledge,” six volumes for children. In the living room bookcase, there were also books of stories by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling, along with several books of fairy tales. Whatever was there, I read and took to heart. I memorized the stirring, patriotic poetry in Unfrequented Paths, a book of poems filled with love of nature and stirring support for work and love that would ultimately overcome injustice. It had been published in 1903 by my great grandfather, George E. McNeill, a leader in founding the American Federation of Labor. At that time, when I was nine years old, I was already an activist in spirit.

How did your activism manifest itself at first?

At the age of 13, I filled out an application, signed my parents’ names, and got a scholarship to a great private school. I was encouraged to read on my own and chose philosophy, from Plato to Mill. Then I sought and received a full scholarship to Radcliffe College, Harvard’s holding place for female students. But it was the Forties, none of us girls raised hands, we had to wear skirts and we were basically subjected to cultural expectations for our gender. 

My goal was to become a psychiatrist, but I couldn’t enroll in Psychology 1 without completing College Math. That was scary because my girls' school hadn’t taught higher math - we had biology classes but the course covered invertebrates only, avoiding anything relevant to sexuality - and I had to maintain a B or better grade average to keep my scholarship. So I gave up the idea about psychiatry and took courses in familiar fields like history and government, thinking about becoming a teacher.  

But you didn’t become a teacher, correct?

Life had other plans. At the age of 19, I was diagnosed with polio. It affected my body, my health, and my life. The doctor told my mother that I’d never been able to live without full braces. The miracle came when three women marched up to my bed, dressed in starched white uniforms and took over. They had been Marines stationed in Australia during World War II and had been trained by Sister Kenny to deal with polio victims. They contradicted the traditional understanding that the shrunken muscles left after the onslaught of polio could never be revived. 

The Marines told me that they would have a monkey gym constructed above my bed and would get me started on exercises that would get me back on my feet with crutches. And life shifted to focus on exercise. The next year, my recovery was so far along that I not only walked by myself but I was able to use my bicycle to get to classes. I had foot drop and a weak neck and walked with a limp, but what the heck! I decided that I was going to be consciously grateful every day of my life for being able to walk again.  

What happened after your conquest to get your life back?

There were some lasting negative impacts. I’d always been afraid of the dark but my nightmares got worse during the following years and I always carried a nagging, unsettling fear of losing control. I became co-dependent on my boyfriend,  - Wells who was also diagnosed with polio in his arm and shoulder. I guess we got the disease during our vacation in Mexico. Once he recovered, he visited me daily.

I was eager to get married, move out of my mother’s place, finish my undergraduate degree, and be independent. After working to support us while my then husband served in the Korean War army and went on to complete a Ph.D., I spent eight years as University of Minnesota faculty wife - homemaker, hostess, civic volunteer, and mother of two. My image then was that we would devote our time to the children and community until the kids grew up and he retired, and then he and I would have lots of time to enjoy each other and walk into the sunset. Postponing intimacy was a big mistake.

It was on the occasion of my 40th birthday that my husband told me that he had never really loved me, had never enjoyed making love with me and wanted to live with the female colleague he loved with whom he could share all aspects of his life. I saw myself as an old and unattractive gray-haired slouch, worthy of his disdain.

And this is when Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers turned your life around. What do you remember of this encounter?

As the convenor of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Minnesota, I had developed a multi-generational bunch of women friends. After my husband and I separated, my NOW group attended a conference in Washington. Maggie Kuhn was 72 and I was 40. She said: “We’re sexual creatures till the last breath.” All our jaws dropped, I was amazed. I had always been afraid about sex. Maggie told us she was living in a commune and had a younger partner. Maggie was a super role model

When I got home, although my ex-husband had taken most of the furniture, I invited people to come and live in. We were five adults with four kids, and had only one bathroom. I found a couple of great jobs connected with prior volunteer activities and completed a master’s degree program. Then I got married again! My husband was 22 years older, the chair of the University’s Psych Department. He was my teacher, best friend, and career counselor, waiting with a drink in hand to review my day at whatever time I got home. I worked my way up to the top in city planning and then became deputy mayor for Minneapolis throught the 1980s.

Your mantra is “Meaningful work, paid or unpaid, through the last breath.” Can you tell us how it came about?

I completed a Ph.D. at the age of 69, with a survey and dissertation titled, “Productive Aging in Rural Communities” that recognized the productivity of people over the age of 55. Over 75% of the people we interviewed up through the age of 84 described themselves as active and healthy: I realized I was ageist and the results were mind-blowing! We tend to think that our value is measured by what we earn, but work is much more than employment. Although I’m a supporter of the importance of self-reliance, productivity is what benefits everybody and it’s connected with our lives, not just with our work. My sister, who’s 97, is an example: because of her age and reduced mobility, she can’t do all the things she used to do. But she is a great listener, often on the phone with youngsters who need to talk things through.

Did this discovery about late life productivity mark the following years of your life?

The best years of my life were my 70s. That’s when I co-founded three grassroots networks connecting positive aging advocates – two in Minnesota and one based in Paris with global outreach: - Vital Aging Network was created in 2001; Shift Network in 2007; and Pass It On Network in 2013. I have since traveled around the world to meet and learn from colleagues; teaching Advocacy Leadership for Positive Aging courses; making conference presentations, and seeing that my work is making a positive difference. What I enjoy most of all is facilitating small discussion groups with people who share deeply and collaborate on joint efforts for the common good. 

I am still wowed by the fact that my Paris-based partner, Moira Allan, and I have been able to develop a rapidly growing global peer-learning network of positive aging advocates, with liaisons from over 50 countries, with no outside funding. We have paid for our travel and for website development/management from our own pockets. What's made this possible has been Moira's international phone plan and, most of all, Internet access that now allows us to bring everyone together. I think that this is important for everyone to know how Internet access expands their potential. I am an advocate for universal digital access that has the potential for closing a lot of the gaps that create inequality and for cultivating peace.

What’s also been wonderful about the last decade is the deep friendship that my daughter and son and I have developed during these latter years. We look forward to at least annual retreats where we share our recent experiences and do lifework planning while having fun.

What are the less-talked-about lessons you learned about aging that you feel like sharing?

All my life, I’ve known that money is hugely important, but also a shapeshifter with a lot of different dimensions. When I was growing up, I saw it first and foremost as cruelly divisive. When my family’s insurance company went under, my father lost all of his family income and savings and personal insurance along with it. 

When people died, all that people thought about was “Who gets what?” I think that it is very important to talk with everybody concerned about everything related to money or items with financial value long before you die. My will and health care directive plus a couple of letters of understanding were discussed with my partner and with my children and step-daughter a few years ago. I do believe that we learn to be elders in later life, and elderhood brings responsibility for making things better for all those who come after.

All of us in our late 80s have faced death many times. It’s important for me to recall memories about each of my deceased relatives and close friends on their birthdays or death days, or when I’m doing something that I used to do with them. I like having a tangible object to hold or wear or look at for each of them. I used to put on my late husband’s coat when I felt lonely. I look at the photo of my deceased stepson on my wall when he comes to mind. I love my partner, Tom’s, habit of checking his Remember calendar every day for the names of his favorite composers or writers or heroes who were born or died on that day. He’ll play some music or read a poem or in other ways bring his memories to life. Those activities enrich our lives.

You also happened to be the one who came after.  What have you learned from this experience?

In one single year, both my mother and my husband had died, and my son had graduated from college, gotten married, and gone off to Africa with the Peace Corps. I was living alone for the first time in my life. When my husband died, I fell into a black hole. Actually, part of me had been situated in that black hole since childhood. The fear was reinforced by my father’s death when I was 16 and my experiences with polio at age 19.

To some degree, I had used my nightmares to play the role of the victim along the way. Once I accepted the responsibility for generating my nightmares, I was able to move on and embrace Victor Frankl’s truth, described in “Man’s Search for Meaning”. All that we really have control over is how we perceive our experience – how we think about it.  For me in 1991, that understanding was transformative. Two years later, I was ready for the next step toward letting go of my self-consciousness and beginning the journey toward self-transcendence.

What does “self-transcendence” mean in your opinion?

Maslow says that someone else suggested to him that “self-actualization” should be at the top of the pyramid of needs. He wished at the end of his life that he had instead labeled it, “self-transcendence” - transcending the ego, giving it away, preparing to pass into the universe. Letting go plays a big role in this process. As the number of people who “knew me when” shrinks, you’d think that my priorities would be more short-term, since that’s the length of my own future, but instead, I’m eager to work on issues that will make the biggest difference in shaping the future for the generations to come. I’ve tried to focus on what I was called to do in a recent dream: “Seek the Everlasting.”  

One last question: what about Maggie Kuhn’s suggestion? Was she right?

I am intensely grateful for the expansion of sexual intimacy in my later life. Making time to be together with my partner (who is a dozen years younger, per Maggie Kuhn), with good music playing, is very special. Although I seldom bother with any makeup and know that I’m covered with spots and blemishes and wrinkles, he makes me feel like a beautiful woman.