On the morning of Wednesday, November 20th, 2013, I was beginning to peruse the article by Dan Gorenstein in the New York Times, “How Doctors Die: In Coming to Grips With Their Own Mortality, They Are Showing the Way for Others”. CNN was on the TV in the background. On came the presentation of the 2013 Presidential Medals of Freedom to 16 people, a few of them posthumously. This is the highest civilian honor one can receive. This was the 50th anniversary of the award, established by President Kennedy not long before the 50th anniversary of his assassination. It has become one of his clear-cut legacies.
Quickly my attention was refocused on this presentation, which I soon found to be absorbing and inspiring. President Obama said the “The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours”. Given that broad definition, it was not surprising that the awards recognized those in fields ranging from sports to sexuality, from jazz to journalism, and from religion to human rights. The ethnic backgrounds and countries of origin of the recipients were similarly diverse.
The ones that were the most impressive to me were the ones who not only did such important things earlier in their lives, but who are continuing to do so as they age. It would have been easy and understandable if they just had retired and rested on their laurels. But, no, they did not and, as such, they are models for what all of the elderly potentially can do, in our own ways and with our own skills.
Here are those elderly recipients who, as far as I can tell, are still living and in good health, and clearly not resting on their laurels:
Ernie Banks. Now 82 years old, he was known as “Mr. Cub”. He was one of the pioneer Black-American baseball players, a star shortstop who played for the Chicago Cubs, a team that always seemed to fall short. But he always seemed positive and eternally optimistic, purveyor of positive psychology well before that became a field of study and interest. However, that attitude drew criticism from those who wanted him to be more outspoken about racism. His response to that was: “I kept my mouth shut but tried to make a difference. My whole life, I just wanted to make people better.”
In his life over 65, he exemplified that goal, becoming an ordained minister and establishing the charity Live Above and Beyond Foundation, which tries to increase the self-esteem, healthcare, and other opportunities of the young and old. At the ceremony, he concretely and symbolically answered those old critics by giving President Obama an official Jackie Robinson bat. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and was more outspoken, just as Obama broke the Presidential color barrier in the USA.
Bill Clinton. Now only two years over 65, one could conclude that he is doing as much or more to improve the world as when he served as President Clinton. The way President Obama put it, maybe Bill Clinton is just getting started as President. Especially with the establishment of the Clinton Foundation, he has made major contributions not only to strengthen global economies, just as he improved the economy in the USA when President, but to the health of people and the health of the environment. It’s as if he took his failed healthcare reform initiative in a global direction that politics couldn’t sabotage.
Daniel Kahneman. Now 79, Daniel Kahneman continues his pioneering work in combining economics and psychology at Princeton University, where he is now a professor emeritus. His research on making decisions in uncertain circumstances won him the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. In 2011, his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, summarized his work and became a best seller. He must have learned the basics of making such decisions when he and his family were on the run for years from the Nazis.
Richard Lugar. Senator Lugar, now 81 years old, continued to serve in the Senate until just this year. In contrast to the current state of the parties, he was known for his bipartisan leadership in the past. He continues to be a strong voice on foreign policy, especially nuclear disarmament.
Mario Molina. Now 70, Mario Molina was raised in Mexico City. After coming to the USA for education, he studied how chlorofluorocarbons depleted the ozone layer, for which he later shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He continues to study the climate and environmental changes that affect us all.
Gloria Steinem. Now 79, Ms. Steinem continues her well-known pioneering activism for women’s equality and rights. Her essential message to women was to not solely rely on listening to her advice, but to one’s own voice, as Ms. Steinem modeled in such an exemplary way. She continues to listen to her own voice in co-founding the Women’s Media Center, as well as marrying later in life.
Cordy Tindell “CT” Vivian Now almost 90 years old, in 2012 he served as interim President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, continuing his leadership in the civil rights movement. In a variation of President Obama’s slogan, “Yes, We Can”, Reverend Vivian has been exclaiming, “Yes, We Care”.
Patricia Wald. Now 85, for the last 20 years, Judge Wald became a leader in the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, hearing human rights cases related to the former Yugoslavia. Other human rights projects include a Task Force on Guantanamo.
Oprah Winfrey. Probably most can’t help but know of Oprah’s continuing national presence as she passes the age of 65. Her essential message was “you can”, and through various media, encouraged people to find the best in themselves, as she found the best in herself. Akin to Ernie Banks, another African-American, she seemed to be an informal positive psychologist well before the field of positive psychology emerged.
Loretta Lynn and Arturo Sandoval. Not to diminish their individual contributions, but their common denominator was to continue making moving music past the age of 65. More than that, they were stars in the two fields where it can be said that the USA contributed unique art forms to the world: Loretta Lynn, now 81, for country music and Arturo Sandoval, now 68, for jazz.
After the presentations, I returned to finish the article on “How Doctors Die”. Both the article and the award presentations reinforce how important it is for the elderly to contribute to the welfare of the country and future generations. The challenges they continue to work on are major challenges for the world: human rights, cultural conflict, climate change, nuclear war, and gender disparities, among them. Not only that, but they contribute to fields that are so important to our individual well-being: music, non-violent sports, entertainment, decision making, and positive psychology.
President Kennedy tragically could not get close to the age of 65, and we can only imagine what more he could have accomplished if he lived a long life. However, to honor his early death, we elders, to paraphrase the beginning of his most famous quote, need to be reminded to “ask not what your country can do for you” in terms of Medicare and Social Security, at least not to solely ask that. Rather, we need to continue to “ask what you can do for your country”. These awardees provide plenty of answers, even for when we are known to have a terminal illness.
H. Steve Moffic, M.D., 67, retired from clinical practice at 66. He was fondly deemed a “psychiatric gadfly” by the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry where he first trained. His book The Ethical Way: Challenges and Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare, published in 1997, was the first extended discussion of the ethics of managed mental health care.