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Madisonians are starting second chapters later in life in a city that makes such transformations possible. These locals, age 59 to 102, say they are just getting started.
This is not a story about cataracts or Medicare. It’s not about arthritis, retirement planning or the cost of assisted living. Those are important topics, but they’re being covered already. So well that sometimes it seems we are inundated with images of just how bad it’s probably going to get. American culture portrays aging as a time fraught with peril, if it portrays it at all.
But Americans are living longer. They’re retiring later, as much by choice as necessity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 20% of adults age 65 and older are still working, the highest percentage in U.S. history. Additionally, 39% of Americans now plan to work as long as they are able. For those who can afford it — and handle the winters with good cheer — Madison seems the ideal community in which to age, retired or not.
“The average person who retires [in their] mid 60s [could have] close to a third of their life left in front of them — a third,” says 65-year-old Betsy Abramson, executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, or WIHA. She’s still happily working but is jealous of her retired husband who seems busier and happier than ever. He volunteers nearly every day of the week for diverse causes he values. He attends lectures and classes through the Plato Society, plays tennis, exercises at the YMCA and serves on both a governor’s council and state board for issues related to hearing loss. “Madison is a treasure trove of stuff you could do in retirement. I think there’s plenty of cultural opportunities,” says Abramson. “I think there’s a million ways to give back. And I think there’s lots of things to learn.”
As a professional, Abramson knows her husband’s version of retirement has critical health benefits. Scientists now say loneliness is lethal to the elderly, the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. WIHA’s community-based participatory research has reached more than 35,000 Wisconsinites, collecting data and translating results into real-life positive health outcomes. Abramson herself has taken a particular interest in ageism and age stereotypes. What we see and hear about aging is an important health factor in itself, she says.
“People who have positive images of aging and look forward to aging as if it’s going to be a good time live seven and a half years longer than people who have negative associations with aging,” says Abramson. “They are 44% more likely to recover from a disability or injury. They have better brain performance, better memory and retention. And they’re much more inclined to engage in preventative behaviors like getting a flu shot, blood pressure checks, wearing a seat belt, good exercise and nutrition habits.”
Madison is also a philanthropic city with thousands of thriving nonprofits, and volunteering plays a critical role in health. For older volunteers in particular, volunteering is associated with lower mortality rates, lower rates of depression and better physical and mental health. The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, of Dane County matches older adults with volunteer opportunities. According to RSVP Assistant Director Diana Jost, the program has “about 991 volunteers over the age of 70, or about 63% of our [total] volunteers.” It’s not just socialization that volunteering offers, but the opportunity to continue meaningful work in one’s life.
“We don’t do a great job in this country helping people figure out how to have a happy retirement,” says 67-year-old Dr. Ken Robbins, medical director for Rock County and director of the 10-bed Geriatric Psychiatry Inpatient Program at Stoughton Hospital. “Most people’s fantasy is either doing what they like doing on vacation or doing what they liked doing in their 20s, which is often a time in life that gets romanticized.” Many older adults fly under the radar while struggling with things like substance abuse or depression that compound existing medical conditions. Others wrestle with finding their identity when it can no longer be defined by a profession or family responsibilities. “If you don’t pay close attention to what makes you happy or unhappy, it becomes very hard to fashion what would make you happy in retirement.”
Robbins believes the primary quality that helps people age is resilience. The ability to adapt to life as it inevitably changes instead of hanging on to what was. And if things aren’t so great right now, it’s never too late to turn things around.
“There’s no reason you can’t make profound changes in how you interact with the universe and how you see yourself and how you deal with conflict and stress at any age. You can decide at age 85 that you want to learn Spanish or play the piano — people do it all the time,” says Robbins. “I’m learning myself that aging is complicated. While there are things you can’t do as well, there are other thing — your perspective, your experience, your emotions — that only expand as you get older. I may not be able to bench press as much weight, but all these other aspects of yourself become much more interesting and deeper as you get older.”
Robbins appreciates Madison’s proximity to “unusually good” health care, as well as the unique neighborhoods that he says are age-diversified.
“One of the great things about aging in a place like Madison is the communities. I think for me, personally, the strongest point are the neighborhoods. People are kind and supportive and enjoy each other, and you don’t have to live this sort of isolated life.”
The sense of community that allows for independent living is fostered by organizations such as SAIL: Sharing Active Independent Lives. While anyone older than 55 can join, executive director Ann Albert says SAIL’s oldest member is 100. “In a membership out of more than 500, we have quite a few in that 85 to 89 group, and 60 people over the age of 90. There are lots of very active, vibrant people.”
SAIL is part of AgeBetter Inc., a member-led nonprofit founded by Oakwood Village and Attic Angel 14 years ago, based on the national Village Movement. There are more than 200 “villages” nationwide, and Madison’s is the second oldest in the country. One of SAIL’s goals is to make it easier for older adults to live independently as long as they want to. In addition to regular seminars on popular topics such as downsizing, internet technology and avoiding scammers, members receive a wealth of services most don’t think about until they need them —as in help with flipping a mattress or addressing greeting cards. They offer discounts, wellness and educational programs, vetted service providers, transportation arrangements, medication reviews and daily check-in phone calls. Most of all, SAIL offers opportunities to socialize, from monthly luncheons to the half-dozen smaller member groups for more specialized interests, such as book club or coffee meetings for members age 90 and older.
“All the benefits we offer were either created by members or inspired by them,” says Albert. This year’s featured speaker at the spring luncheon was Abramson, who explored the topic of ageism. SAIL’s newest and most popular series is called SAILing Into the Future, because “as one of our speakers said,” Albert recalls, “‘If you’re not dead, you’re not done.’”
Albert says she’s met many older adults through SAIL who are active and engaged in the Madison community, many at ages she finds astounding. They’re competing in sports and dining at Madison’s restaurants. They’re taking in world-class theater at the Overture Center for the Arts, attending lectures and auditing classes at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (which anyone 60 and older can access free of charge). They’re volunteering significant levels of time and financial investments, and defying stereotypes at every turn. The younger generations, Albert says, would be wise to pay attention.
“I want us to understand and recognize that [older adults] contribute at all ages,” says Albert. “They have purpose. They have really great wisdom. And the younger generation doesn’t recognize sometimes the value and contributions they can make.”
To make the case, we found six individuals who are aging on their own terms in the Madison area. While their accomplishments and histories are remarkable in their own right, their continued work and active lives are just as inspiring.
Dick Wagner helped design the city in which he wanted to retire. He didn’t know that’s what he was doing at the time, but he sure knows it now.
“If you’re in one of the top-rated places in the nation, why would you want to leave and go someplace that’s not ranked as high? Madison is a good place to retire because it’s absolutely a good place,” says 75-year-old Wagner, a writer, historian and the first openly gay man elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors, on which he served for 14 years and ultimately chaired. Wagner retired 13 years ago from a career that seemed to touch just about every aspect of planning, development and preservation in Madison. “All of these things weave into part of a pattern of life that I can look around and say, ‘Hey, that worked.’ I’m very proud that it worked.”
Wagner first came to Madison to attend graduate school at UW–Madison’s lauded history department. He stayed after finishing his doctorate because, as a gay man in the 1970s, he felt Madison was more promising than other places. He went to work for the state of Wisconsin for 33 years in several agencies, including the division of facilities management, overseeing dozens of public projects and sitting on numerous committees. He directed the Wisconsin American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and ran the residence for then-Gov. Martin Schreiber. He was on the Landmarks Commission when it created the Mansion Hill District and helped found Historic Madison and the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. He served on and chaired the Regional Planning Commission, which developed the three major conferences that made up the “Nolen in the ’90s” program, which allowed institutions like Madison’s three hospitals to grow downtown, rather than move to the suburbs.
He served on the Downtown Madison Inc. board as it revitalized the central district, encouraging its members to think beyond State Street to Isthmus neighborhoods like his, Williamson-Marquette, which the American Planning Association named a top 10 U.S. neighborhood in 2013. Wagner was president of the Marquette Neighborhood Association in the 1970s. At one point he owned and restored three other historic homes in the Third Lake Ridge Historic District. A fourth house, an 1857 brick early Italianate, is the one in which he’ll live out the rest of his so-called retirement — which seems like anything but retirement.
“Part of my life has been very involved with the LGBT community, and so the vibrancy of that community here is something that I feel both proud of and supported by,” he says. (Wagner helped make it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians at the county level in 1980 and the state level in 1983, and he served on then-Gov. Tony Earl’s Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues.)
His advocacy for the LGBTQ community continues in what he calls his “retirement project.” Wagner just published the first of two planned volumes on gay history in Wisconsin — the first volume, titled “We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History,” was published June 3 by Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The books draw heavily on the more than 40 boxes of LGBTQ memorabilia he’s amassed in his personal collection since the early 1970s.
He has other book ideas, too. Today he spends long days writing and editing his books and working on the occasional article for Our Lives Magazine. He takes breaks to read The New York Times in his plant-lush, window-lined sitting room overlooking Lake Monona, or to nap, or to weed his extensive gardens. He serves on Fair Wisconsin’s political action committee, and he recently returned to the Olbrich Botanical Society board he served on back in the ’90s. His term just ended in June as chair of the city’s Urban Design Commission. There’s always a civic dinner to attend for one of his many favored organizations, such as Outreach LGBT Community Center or Access to Independence. He can walk to some of the best restaurants in the state. He’s got a book group and a circle of friends for whom he can throw dinner parties. His home is rich with exquisite antiques and collectibles that he puts to good use. Every inch of wall space is filled with art. It’s a home that’s meant to be lived in, in a neighborhood meant to be enjoyed, in a city he helped mold.
“There’s this stereotype of the isolated lone older person, rather than the person who is part of civic life or social life of the community,” Wagner says. “And that’s important for the youngsters coming up who are going to shape this community going forward … that’s not only valuable to them, it’s valuable to the generation that sort of toiled in the fields before them, and is maybe still doing some toiling,” he says. “Myself and a whole cohort of folks, we were trying to do things to envision a better society. We were investing in the place we wanted to live, and the kind of society we wanted to live in. That value of involvement of engagement is what makes a place great. And that’s why Madison stands out in all these rankings. And that’s why it’s a great place to retire.”
Fred Leidel didn’t jump out of an airplane until he was 93. That’s the first time it came up. It was his niece’s suggestion after he’d so enjoyed the hot air balloon ride he’d just taken with his daughter. Leidel has made an art of saying yes to every opportunity; that’s how he ended up with his volunteer job. While reading the newspaper, about 10 years ago, he learned about volunteer needs at Herbert Schenk Elementary School. He answered the call, and ever since has read to kindergarteners as part of the volunteer program facilitated by RSVP of Dane County. Twice a week, he bicycles to the school from his Atwood Avenue apartment. His bike is technically a tricycle, with a basket fashioned to the back for his walker. He brings his own books and a clipboard with the class list. When he enters the building, he’s treated like a celebrity. “There’s Grandpa Fred!” his little fans whisper. “Hi, Grandpa Fred!”
He’ll be 103 in December.
Leidel, who was born in Milwaukee and moved with his family to Madison when he was in high school, says he has stayed healthy so long because of a running program he started at age 50. Then an engineering professor at UW–Madison, he participated in a research experiment by Dr. Bruno Balke studying the health impact on older runners. “Between when I was 50 and I was 85, I ran 33,000 miles. That’s about equal to around the world at the equator, and I credit that with how long I’ve lived,” says Leidel. “Periodically they’d put us on a treadmill and read all our vitals, and everything improved. The first year of running I lost 35 pounds and I never gained it back. And my health has been pretty outstanding since then.”
Leidel says running became too difficult around age 85, so he switched to daily weightlifting at the UW Natatorium. He kept that up through most of his 90s, but now the bicycle is his only exercise. That, and walking the three floors of his apartment building with the aide who visits from Senior Helpers every afternoon. He’s active in his community at Lake Edge Lutheran — yes, he bikes there, too — and they have a program in which meals are brought to his home. He likes to go to Culver’s with his family, and he never misses his annual stop for a birthday Reuben at the Nitty Gritty.
“When we lived in Connecticut during the war, we had shortages of everything. Good food was hard to come by,” he says. “[Wisconsin] is the breadbasket of the world right here.”
His volunteer work through RSVP and the Experimental Aircraft Association are important to him, as are the talks he gives to history students at Memorial High School. Leidel designed propellers for Connecticut-based Hamilton Standard during World War II, and the students like to see his original sketches. He was one of the first to be drafted, but then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed engineers like Leidel working on the P-51 Mustang, the B17 Bomber and the B29 Bomber instead.
After the war he returned to Madison where he became a professor, won the Benjamin Smith Reynolds award for Excellence in Teaching and retired as an associate dean. He had two children with his first wife, who died of breast cancer after 20 years of marriage. Several years later, Leidel’s son set him up with the mother of one of his best friends. She had three children of her own. They built a house that could fit five kids and enjoyed 43 years of marriage before she died 12 years ago. Around 90, after watching his friends’ family members stress about their elderly loved ones still driving, Leidel decided to be proactive and give up his license. He gave his car to his granddaughter and bought the tricycle he rides everywhere today.
Leidel has seen a lot of things change in his century on this planet, but he says his values haven’t budged.
“Live a good, clean life,” he says, smiling. “And love one another.”
Milele Chikasa Anana retired in November 2018 at the age of 84 after nearly 29 years as the visionary publisher of UMOJA Magazine. She would have kept going, she says as she sits in her east side kitchen in a sunny spot near the window, “but I was getting up in age. I don’t see as well and I don’t hear.” Then she spies the archived copy of UMOJA I’ve brought to ask her about the cover model, 101-year-old Dr. Fannie Hicklin. “What is that, July 2018?” she asks from 6 feet away. I check. She’s right.
Her side eye is still sharp, too. When asked what makes Madison a good place to age, she says, “Well, I think Madison has a lot of growing up to do.” It’s a great place for some, but not all. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, she says, and when a resource-rich city has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation, she can only conclude that the will is missing. “I have a saying,” she says, smiling. She is warm and soft-spoken, but firm: “If it’s not inclusive, it’s not authentic.”
For three decades Anana — better known as Ms. Milele — has chronicled and celebrated Madison’s African American community, which has been historically neglected or misrepresented by the white-dominated media outlets in town, according to Anana. She’s done nearly all of the reporting, photographing and writing herself, producing six glossy magazines each year from her basement home office. She’s tracked down world-class black artists from all over the globe to secure her donated cover designs, ensuring each issue is a work of art in itself. That’s the flip side of ageism, she jokes: “They’d say, ‘There’s that little old lady, let her have anything she wants.’ I’d bug ’em and bug ’em.” If there’s been a graduation, job promotion, event or grand opening in the black community, UMOJA has covered it. In turn, UMOJA has influenced the rest of Madison’s media to try harder, to do better.
“I worked all the time. I worked in my sleep. Sometimes I would cover three and four events a day,” she says, but it had an energizing effect. “You see the young people follow their dreams, and you see how they’ve gotten opportunities that you never would have had. I’ve seen people do the unimaginable things. I’ve been inspired by all of these stories.”
There are other advantages to aging. The 85-year-old’s generation lived through the aftermath of The Great Depression and wartime rationing, and learned sacrifice. She marched on Washington in 1963 at a time when she wasn’t allowed to eat at any of the white-only restaurants the bus passed along the way, and learned perseverance. By the time you get to be 85, she says, you understand the value of the long game. “We can see past any presidency,” she says. “I think it’s persistence. That quality that some of the [younger generations] don’t have time for. Just sticking with it. Having your dream and seeing how it can be fulfilled 20, 30 years from now.”
Before UMOJA, Anana served as an educator. She was one of the first black people elected to the Madison School Board, became Madison’s first affirmative action officer, and raised five kids. Now she has 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She helped found the Black Chamber of Commerce, which now has more than 300 member businesses. “Every chance I get, I use a black business,” she says. “I think this is the age for women and people of color entrepreneurship.”
She credits exercise for a life well lived — all those years of daily calisthenics and running up and down stairs to her basement office. Her bright and cheery kitchen looks a lot like the magazine she founded, filled wall-to-wall with paintings by black artists and framed photos of family and friends — even Michelle and Barack Obama. She once “accidentally crashed” a private fundraiser while Barack Obama was campaigning (even the Secret Service couldn’t tell Ms. Milele no) and attended both inaugurations. In November 2009, when Obama visited Wright Middle School in Madison to launch his education initiative, he asked to see her. She found him holding a copy of UMOJA with Michelle on the cover. “I had put Obama on the cover as many times as possible that year,” she says, laughing. “He said, ‘Thank you very much.’”
In late 2018, the Rotary Club of Madison honored Anana with its Manfred E. Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award. She used the $2,500 prize as seed money to start the Milele Chikasa Anana Scholarship Endowment for youth of color in partnership with the Goodman Community Center and Madison Community Foundation. For her 85th birthday in January, she kicked off a fundraising campaign. As usual, people aren’t telling her no. The fund is at $15,000 and climbing.
But she’d prefer to talk about the achievements of the people she’s covered rather than her own. She wants to talk about the neighborhood kids who grew up to be astrophysicists and entrepreneurs, and the elders she herself looks up to, like Dr. Fannie Hicklin, who at 101 is “as active as anybody I’ve ever seen.” Anana says their achievements are all the more remarkable against the persistent, insidious, sometimes invisible backdrop of racism. But so are her own achievements.
“Mhm,” she agrees, giving her dog, Maggie, a scratch behind the ears. Then she sits back and smiles. “We did that.”
It’s a Wednesday morning at The Original Pancake House on University Avenue, and the café is bustling. Regulars Reggie Hennessey, Ginny Yamada and Mike Procknow are just settling in for breakfast and greeting their favorite waitress, Mildred. They swap out the house coffee for Ancora, like always. Mildred brings Reggie an extra plate to keep his eggs hot and puts in an order for him to bring home to his wife. All three are board members of the Wisconsin Senior Games, and this isn’t the first time they’ve had breakfast together at this diner.
“I think the new 75 is 65, even 60,” says Procknow, and the others quickly agree. At 59, he’s the baby of the group, but like them, he is retired. Yamada is 75 and, in addition to the Games, will be playing in the state tennis championships in August against competitors 30 years her junior. Hennessey, who has served as board president since 2005, was a basketball champion whose team went to the National Senior Olympic Games three times until a 2015 car accident put him in the hospital for a month. He had to relearn to walk. Now at 76, he works out every day at the Princeton Club.
“I refer to it as eight days a week,” he says, laughing. “Some of the younger guys at the club, they’re quite amazed when they find out how old I am. I have a mini three-pack. That does make me feel good.”
Yamada says she doesn’t really believe they’re as old as they are. “I think in our own minds we’re a lot younger,” Yamada says. “That competitive spirit, I really don’t think that fades as we grow older.”
The Wisconsin Senior Games unfold across two weeks in June each year. Six hundred individuals compete for medals in 46 events, including badminton, basketball, golf, horseshoes, swimming, track and field, euchre and volleyball. Registration is open to any adult older than 50. Hennessey says more than a quarter of the 400-plus competitors each year are older than 70. “Gottfried Schmid, he finally passed away; he was 106 years old,” says Hennessey. “Toward the end, he’d just do one night of bowling. But he could roll that ball.”
Yamada also served on the board of the Community Living Alliance for more than 10 years. She says being surrounded by so many people who value volunteer work is one of Madison’s best draws. “I’m really happy to be retired. No. 1, it gives me the opportunity to take classes and do things that start another chapter,” she says.
A mother of two and grandmother of five, Yamada retired from a 22-year career at CUNA and CUNA Mutual Group in 2008 and has audited a university class every semester since. She’s taken art history, anthropology and even a history of music class taught by the legendary Mike Leckrone, another recent retiree at the age of 82. “I don’t take tests, I don’t have to write papers. I can be a sponge, just absorbing all that information. Isn’t that neat? And we’ve got health services close by, and they’re top-notch, again through the university and the research and the private enterprise that comes as a result of that.”
“The Capitol being here has a lot to do with it, too,” Hennessey adds. He worked for the Capitol Police until he retired at age 60, assigned to security detail for governors ranging from Pat Lucey in 1971 through Scott McCallum in 2002. He also raised two children. And he played basketball through all of it, from Madison Central High School through decades of recreational leagues.
“Aging is not for the weak,” says Yamada, who was recently diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her ankle and admits she struggles with the thought of how she’d feel if she could no longer play tennis. Then she looks at what Hennessey came back from after his car accident and feels hopeful.
“I think you have to learn to be resilient and just live with whatever it is you have. You’re given the cards to play with,” she says. “No one escapes this. It’s a gift that’s going to be coming to you so you might as well live life to the fullest if you can do it. Whatever your circumstances, just enjoy it.”
Peggy Brooks was 58 when she tried her first Ironman triathlon. That’s a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. It’s a feat few will ever attempt, let alone achieve. Sixty-eight-year-old Brooks has now achieved it 10 times. And then there are the half Ironmans, of which she’s done 50 or 60 — including the world championships at age 66. Marathons? More than 100.
“I’m from an era when girls didn’t have sports activities, before Title IX. We didn’t have anything, so you didn’t know if you had any talent or gift. It was unheard of that we’d have those opportunities. So I got into activities as stress relief from work,” says Brooks, a “retired” human resources professional who now works three days a week at Connections Counseling, leaving plenty of time for volunteer work with organizations such as DreamBikes, Free Bikes 4 Kidz, the Madison Metropolitan School District and her church.
“Part time is perfect,” she says. “I’m doing something; I have a purpose. And then the rest of the time I can play.”
“Play” is the word Brooks prefers to describe her daily workouts, whether she’s catching a yoga class or cycling the rolling hills of Wisconsin. She admits it sounds over the top, but it doesn’t feel that way. “I have fun and I meet the healthiest, happiest people. At this point in my life, I can just align myself with people that are happy, that have like interests — that might bring something new to try. I never say no.”
Brooks didn’t start running until she was in her 40s. She ran dozens of marathons (including the Boston Marathon five times) before setting a goal to run one in every state. She has only three left: Wyoming in September, California in October and Alaska in 2020. After that, who knows? She won’t quit, she says, but she has slowed down.
“As we age, I think being smarter is so important. Don’t run on the ice. Bike with people. Always swim with a group. I want to keep doing this, so I’m not going to take too many risks,” she says. “My times, they’re a lot slower. But I get to the finish line. It takes longer to recover. That’s OK. It’s wonderful to be able to be doing this at 67.”
Brooks, who turned 68 on June 18, appreciates the example she has set for her 39-year-old daughter, whom she has managed to turn into a triathlete as well. “Now she’ll try anything. She knows we can do anything. And we didn’t know that years ago.”
She says Madison is the ideal community for someone like her. She’ll never run out of paths to run, races to try or like-minded people to ride with. But she is still sometimes underestimated or condescended to because people just don’t think “older” folks should be able to do what she is doing.
“I’m busier than I’ve ever been, but I’m doing everything I want to do. I think people have that idea in their head after 65, you know — Social Security, Medicare, retirement. But that doesn’t define us. Life just gets better and better and better, the older you get,” she says. “This isn’t old. I don’t know where old is gonna be, I don’t know when I’m gonna hit that. Maybe I never will.”
Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.