Commencing at 75, A CCRC Resident

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55 over retired ccrc resident graduatesAmid the sea of black robes at Howard Community College’s commencement ceremony on May 19th, 2006, Shirley Jacquelyn Jackson was one of the proud few wearing an honor sash. She received her Associate’s degree in General Studies with an emphasis in Business and Technology.

From the bleachers, Jackson appears to be an average graduate: she is pleased with her accomplishment but has an expectant eye to the future; she is looking forward to celebrating this milestone with her family but realizes there is more to be done. Up close, in Mrs. Jackson’s well-appointed apartment, the 75-year old begins to stand out from the crowd.

This mother of two and grandmother of four inspires with her complete disregard for age limits. She explains, “My mother went to nursing school when she was in her 40s. My daughter went back to college to obtain her master’s from John Hopkins when she was in her 40s. We as a family tend not to think that you have to stop at a certain age.” For Jackson, now the family’s matriarch and role model, opportunity never stops knocking.

A large granite insignia bearing the inscription “OPPORTUNITY” spanned the length of the auditorium in Jackson’s Pittsburgh high school. “You couldn’t miss it. I can still see that now,” she recalls. After literally staring “OPPORTUNITY” in the face throughout her adolescence, Jackson found inspiration in Walter Malone’s poem entitled, not surprisingly, “Opportunity.”

She quotes the piece: “They do me wrong who say I come no more/ When once I knock and fail to find you in/ For every day I stand outside your door/ And bid you rise and fight to win.”

Jackson learned early that in order to seize valuable opportunities she would have to “rise and fight.” While attending St. Francis Nursing School in the 40s, she was treated differently because of her heritage. Jackson is the descendant of both African American and Irish ancestors. Determined to obtain her nurse’s license despite this discrimination, Mrs. Jackson traveled to Harrisburg, where she took her examination alone.

She admits that facing this type of prejudice was difficult, but she insists, “I prefer to leave the past in the past.” She explains, “There was discrimination in those times, and I suppose that facing those challenges made me stronger, but a lot of other things have made me strong as well.”

After passing her examination, Jackson became a licensed nurse and worked for Aetna Life Insurance Company for 29 1/2 years. During her long tenure, she held various positions, including her final post as a Nurse Consultant and Claim Representative.

While her work was rewarding, Jackson found her passion making miniatures and dolls. Her apartment is a veritable curio cabinet brimming with dolls and miniature furniture-all of which she made alone or with her husband and mother, both now deceased. The extensive collection includes cloth dolls, sculptures, poured porcelain dolls, poured wax dolls, and miniature furniture for every room-from the patio to the music room.

As Mrs. Jackson shows the various pieces that make up her eclectic collection, it is easy to forget that she recently moved. Just a few months ago, Jackson moved to Vantage House, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Columbia, MD. For several years, she carefully reviewed her options and even helped several friends move to retirement communities.

Vantage House appealed to Mrs. Jackson because of its central location and user-friendly design. She explains, “I only lived a mile away before, and my children are very close. I also love not having to go outside for anything in the winter because I have a condition that prevents me from doing that. Everything here is enclosed and connected.” Mrs. Jackson also appreciates the comfort that living in a Type A CCRC provides. Type A CCRCs offer residents extensive contracts, which cover all present and future care needs under a single fee.

After visiting several communities, Jackson and her daughter decided that Vantage House was “exactly the place.” She says, “Everyone here has been so welcoming and friendly since the moment I moved in; it has just been wonderful.” Of her fellow residents, she adds, “We are all in the same age group, and we all chose Vantage House, which tells you that we have similar interests.”

For Jackson and her similarly motivated peers, Vantage House’s close proximity to Howard Community College (HCC) has always been important. Vantage House residents have long taken both credit and non-credit courses at the nearby college. Recently, the two institutions have expanded their partnership to formulate a new program called Arts AdVantage.

The Arts AdVantage program includes a series of free lectures with a focus on the arts. The lectures are conducted by HCC instructors and held at Vantage House. They are open to all interested seniors in Howard County free of charge. The program began in February with a discussion of the book and film, Dead Man Walking, and interest has been strong. For Vantage House residents, these unique sessions within the walls of their community will provide more opportunities for continuing education.

Jackson has enjoyed the “fifteen minutes of fame, which has turned into two weeks” that surrounded her graduation, but she is looking forward to getting back to business. She is currently enrolled in Indiana University and is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. She is taking all of her courses online, a feat made possible by her focus on technology at HCC.

Initially shocked by how “today’s classes are geared to individuals who think like TI-83s,” Mrs. Jackson now says that she is “proficient enough with computers” and admits that “the ability to take classes online has really opened a lot of opportunities for me.”

Rather than assuming that technology had outpaced her ability, Mrs. Jackson took a turn from her classic playbook and sought a new opportunity. Using her daughter’s old computer equipment and starting with a basic computing class, she made a foray into education in the 21st century. She says her teachers made it all possible, and advises her peers to trust in the educational system and in their own abilities. She says, “You can’t be afraid to try new things. There are so many people there willing to help you. You may stumble, but they won’t let you fall.”

Jackson chose her current major of Political Science because of its “timeliness” and her lifelong interest in “politics and elections.” She laughs as she points out, “I’d rather watch C-SPAN than soap operas. It really is one of my favorite channels.”

A firm believer in the importance of exercising the brain, one of her primary motivations for continuing her education is to keep her mind active in order to avoid memory problems. Her other focus, Jackson says, “Is to show the grandchildren that it is never too late to accomplish what ever it is that you want to achieve.” She concludes, “As a matter of fact, I am not finished yet.” Mrs. Jackson succinctly points out what every graduate would do well to know: a commencement is nothing more than a commencing point.

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