What I learned about life from Vashon seniors

Purpose, Community, Service, and Change. These are some of the big life lessons learned by our seniors.

Over the past five years, I asked nearly 150 Vashon seniors: What lesson has life taught you? I interviewed them in their homes, in coffee shops, at the Senior Center, on front porches and park benches. During the height of the pandemic, we talked by phone, Zoom video, or masked and spaced six feet apart.

My primary purpose was to draw a lesson from their life stories. I was struck by those seniors who seemed to have led lives that were content and fulfilled. I found four themes that made these lives particularly meaningful. Those themes were:

Purpose. Repeatedly, Vashon seniors told me that when they found their calling, pursued their passion and did what they loved, they found contentment. Sometimes, it was easy.

As a youngster, Brian Brown discovered he had an aptitude for writing that he parlayed into an editing career at Time magazine. More often, the path was unclear. Tom Craighead was an angry, aimless, and lost young man when he asked God to please show him the way. God took his time. But at age 50, Tom found fulfillment as a hospice chaplain.

Some seniors found purpose by taking off in a whole new direction. Gary Peterson quit a high-pay job as a scientific systems analyst at Boeing to be a carpenter, making furniture and rehabbing houses. He has no regrets.

Community. The most joyful seniors I interviewed tended to be those whose lives revolved around family, friends, neighbors, and community. June Langland, who credited her happiness to her parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren and an “exceptional husband,” couldn’t imagine her life without family.

To be sure, there were those seniors whose families were problematic and dysfunctional. They found their salvation in causes, congregations, and community organizations. After enduring a miserable, isolated, 23-year marriage, June Dinsmore blossomed with a new husband and a new social life, becoming the first woman commodore of the Quartermaster Yacht Club.

Community proved particularly important during the pandemic. Seniors living alone found themselves cut off from human companionship. They longed for an embrace, an unexpected visit, a face-to-face conversation. COVID proved how much we need each other.

Service. Again and again, Vashon seniors said serving others was the most rewarding thing they did in life. For years, George Eustice was the Vashon Santa Claus, entertaining school kids, nursing home residents, and holiday gatherings. Lynne Ameling and Leslie Perry began an elder respite program through volunteers who gave a day a week caring for adults with dementia and brain injuries so their regular caregivers could have a break. Nancy Radford founded Backpack Pantry so kids from low-income families had food on weekends when free lunches were not available at school.

Seniors volunteered to sort secondhand donations at Granny’s Attic, build houses with Habitat for Humanity, and lead off-campus art, science, and outdoor education for school kids.

They conducted dance, photography, and meditation classes at the Senior Center. They were active with the Rotary, the Land Trust, the Garden Club, the Fruit Club, Drama Dock, the Voice of Vashon, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness.

“Service to others is fundamental,” said Bob Spangler, who, with his wife, Carol, assists immigrants released from the Tacoma Detention Center with travel and housing.

Welcome Change. Change is inevitable. Marriages fail. Businesses go under. Jobs disappoint. Rather than fuss or fight about it, many seniors said, welcome the change and move on.

After 32 years at Boeing, Geri Peterson quit with a plan to teach art in high school. She earned an education degree and got a teaching job. It was a nightmare. Disruptive students, delinquency, drugs, and poor administrative support. Her husband said, “Stay home and do art.” She did and loved it.

Seniors who accepted life’s disappointments were often comforted by their spiritual beliefs or their own personal soul-searching. The trauma in Joe Okimoto’s life was unlocked when he finally dealt with the searing memories of a childhood in a concentration camp for Japanese Americans.

Phil Volker, who walked thousands of miles with Stage IV cancer, told me, “I’m not anxious. I’m being led to a place of peace with death.”

“Welcome change,” said Pat Douglass, who survived an impoverished childhood and a rash teen marriage. “You can’t know joy if you’ve never known hurt.”

Purpose, Community, Service, and Change. Those are some of the big life lessons learned by our seniors.

John McCoy, a senior, journalist and 30-year Vashon resident, is the author of the book, “Life Lessons from the Seniors of Vashon Island.”