Every May we celebrate Older Americans Month to recognize and honor the wonderful contributions older adults give to our society. This month, like every month, we should eschew the stigma around older adults being a burden on our communities. In reality, they enrich our society. This year’s theme is Aging Unbound, a chance to look at diverse aging experiences and combat stereotypes about older adults.
With our work providing community health education at older adult centers, the students and I have the honor of meeting people who have shown that age does not stop them from being active members of their communities. One woman I met volunteers weekly at a city-wide meal provider. Another is an active board member of her older adult center and regularly informs on the programming they offer. One gentleman is a sculptor and teaches the art form in the community.
During one of my trips, I had the pleasure of meeting Vija Vetra who has lived in the Westbeth Artists Housing community since its inception in 1970. She’s an amazing woman who I feel embodies what Aging Unbound means. During WWII Vija was in Vienna studying dance. While there, she had a near death experience when a building collapsed on her during an American bombing of the city. After the war, she spent several years in a German refugee camp to escape the Soviet Union’s expansion. She then emigrated to Australia where she continued her dancing career and opened a dance studio. While there, she expanded her repertoire to include traditional Indian dance, which she is largely known for today. Her career then took off and she toured the world with an Indian troupe. She then emigrated to the US in the late 1960s where she opened a dance studio. Since then, Vija has established herself as an internationally recognized dancer, choreographer and instructor. She’s met Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Her birthday present when she turned 100 years-old this year? A ceremony at the United Nations held by the Latvian delegation where she was presented a letter from President of Latvia Eglis Levits. After all of these achievements, including three documentaries and two books, Vija doesn’t even consider stopping. She continues to dance, teach and choreograph at Westbeth and returns to Riga annually to do the same at universities there. Throughout this amazing retelling of her story, Vija repeatedly said that nothing is by chance and that these experiences enrich what she does in the community.
At the end of our 2-hour discussion, I asked Vija if she had any advice to give those who are younger and carving out their place in the world. In her wisdom, she said, “Never really grow up, be childlike in two ways: 1. Be curious about learning new things all the time. The brain gets old when you don’t give it the food of knowledge. 2. Never lose the joy of small things. Be it a flower, a walk, a painting. Find joy in the small and big.” Vija’s story epitomizes the important role older adults have in our communities, both as participants and as guides on living life to the fullest.