Elders in our community are redefining perceptions of aging by continuously cultivating and imparting wisdom. Here at Friendship Center, 90-year-old member Bob Unruhe is an inspiration — demonstrating that not only regardless of age, but, in part because of it, elders enrich our lives in such invaluable and irreplaceable ways.
I first met Bob at Friendship Center’s Brain Fitness for Successful Aging series, one of their innovative Healthy Aging programs.
Amid myriad ages and the vibrant vitality in the room, I didn’t particularly notice youthful-looking Bob until he announced that he was in his ninth decade of life. And that he travels “on a jaunt” from his home in Ojai to Santa Barbara and back twice a week — driving himself — just to come to the Brain Fitness course, as well as another Healthy Aging program, Connections, here at Friendship Center.
Bob is many things — a World War II veteran, retired teacher, father of five, grand- and great-grandfather, conservationist and active community member — but that is just the surface. During the class and in getting to know Bob, I saw how keeping the brain fit also involves keeping the heart open, and that both heart and mind can be continually nourished and kept supple and expansive as we grow into our years of maturity. Another explosive bout of hearty laughter echoing in the room during the program crystalized this message.
Bob’s foray into Brain Fitness was initially inspired by his wife, Virginia, to whom he was married for 61 years, and who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about 10 years ago. An article in an Ojai newspaper about the Brain Fitness program, first offered at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara before shifting to Friendship Center, is what initially brought Bob here.
It was for Virginia that he first sought out the program, then offered by the renowned Dr. Kenneth Kosik, along with Kristen "Kai" Hoye, MSW. Bob thought the class might help Virginia, in her sixth year of Alzheimer’s at the time. Unfortunately, the disease had advanced too far for the course to be of help to her. But while in his mid-80s, Bob joined himself and found he was eager to stay.
"I’ve found the Healthy Aging programs at the Friendship Center very helpful” he said. “It’s a combination of scientific and activities-based approaches. At almost 91 years of age, I had sensed I was slowing down a bit both mentally and physically. But I believe the Brain Fitness class has slowed down and stabilized the aging process. I have activities that I do with the class and also at home on my own to promote my health and well-being."
"Two years ago, Virginia passed away,” Bob told me. “I’m grateful for all the good years we had together.”
His appreciation for his continued life energy is evident, and he showed me an article he’d written for the hospice that had helped Virginia and the family, titled “From Mourning to Morning.”
After Virginia’s passing, Bob followed Kai to Friendship Center where she is in the position of Family Service Director and continues to facilitate the Brain Fitness course.
"She really knows her stuff and I value her work,” he said. “Kai has worked closely with Dr. Kosik and is uniquely knowledgeable and qualified.”
Bob recently celebrated his 90th birthday by climbing Shelf Mountain in Ojai with his friends, where they enjoyed a birthday breakfast together at the top.
“I really feel as if I have benefitted from this program over the years," he said. "Brain Fitness is a unique program and even after two years, I’m learning more and more all the time. In the group, we’ve also come to know one another and to stay in touch.”
A shining example of successful aging, Bob considers himself a positive person. I asked him if he had any advice for the rest of us: "Every day I like to do something challenging — mentally, physically and spiritually. So that keeps all of me active.”
Recommendations? “Stay active! Like today, I was mentally and physically challenged in the Brain Fitness program, and when I go home I’ll read something spiritually challenging.” Bob also feels very close to nature, getting outside to walk or hike every day “a little bit.” Further, Bob has contributed to the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy and volunteers in several senior-centered groups.
"I feel like I’m still making some type of contribution. I like to think I add something to these Healthy Aging groups as well as getting something from them,” Bob said. "Contributing to others makes life worth living.”
I have no doubt that Bob contributes something everywhere he goes.
Brain Fitness for Successful Aging is not only about “How can I live longer?” It addresses, “How do I live well longer?” Bob is an inspiration on how far all of us can go if we give ourselves the opportunity to grow into our most expansive selves at any age, each in our own unique ways.
Thank you, Bob, for letting us grow with you and for contributing to the wellness in our community.
For information on upcoming Brain Fitness for Successful Aging courses for adults of all ages and other programs at Friendship Center, click here or call 805.969.0859.
— Toni Frohoff, Ph.D., is a community outreach specialist for Friendship Center.