Innovation Isn’t Just a Game for the Young
There’s a common belief among Americans that your zeal to change the world goes out the window once you hit a certain age. Once you reach your senior years, you’re often portrayed as being set in your ways, longing more for nostalgia than progress.
What a grand misconception this often turns out to be!
As we proved earlier this year with our article on women who achieved great success later in life, there are numerous individuals over the age of 55 who have worked to make our world a better place. In fact, many of them are still working to do so today!
May is Older Americans Month, and we’re celebrating by choosing to honor five influential Americans who have made, and continue to make, lasting contributions to society in their golden years. Below, you’ll find our list of influential older Americans and the positive changes they’ve made for us all.
5: Stan Lee
Marvel is currently one of the biggest entertainment brands in the world. They made the “comic book film” a viable blockbuster medium, with millions flocking to theaters to witness the latest trials and battles of their favorite heroes. You’ll rarely find a kid – or kid at heart – who doesn’t want to be Spider-Man, the Hulk, Wolverine, or Black Widow.
Without the vision of one man, however, these heroes wouldn’t exist. In fact, had Stan Lee followed through on leaving the comic book business after nearly two decades of languishing as a writer of uninspired genre-based stories, they wouldn’t exist at all.
Little did Stan Lee know, he’d essentially start a comic renaissance in his mid-50s.
Like any artist, Stan Lee wanted his work to make a difference. He strove to make superheroes a little more human, showing his readers that they were people just like us, only maybe a little different. This gave Lee some room to tackle complex social issues in the stories he wrote, making it easier for readers of all ages to understand poverty, illness, and racism.
Stan Lee was living proof that older Americans still have a desire to change the world in their own way. He’s sometimes overlooked when others speak of influential Americans, but this month, as we’re celebrating seniors, hopefully we can change that.
4: Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader is primarily known for his failed presidential campaigns. This Older Americans Month, we want to show you that there’s more to the 88-year old consumer advocate than meets the eye. In fact, without Nader’s advocacy, automobile manufacturers would likely not be held to the strict safety standards that they are today.
Functioning primarily as a watchdog to hold accountable the auto and food industries, Nader’s testimonies before Congress and literary works, starting with 1965’s Unsafe at Any Speed, have been positive influences on the following:
- Seatbelt laws
- Slaughterhouse regulations
- Auto safety standards
- Traffic laws
- Trade regulations
For his efforts, Ralph Nader has received various awards and honors, including the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen.
Even as he reaches his nineties, Ralph Nader’s work has not ceased. He hosts a radio show, and continues to work toward reforms in various areas, including higher education. He is living proof that older Americans still wish to see positive changes made in today’s world.
3: Mel Brooks
When discussing modern American comedy, it’s impossible not to discuss the influence that Mel Brooks has had on the medium. Brooks started his career in the 1950s, working as a writer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, and went on to become the king of parodies.
Brooks’ career didn’t really kick off until he was close to his 40s, with the spy spoof Get Smart introducing the witty auteur to the world. After completing his first film, The Producers, in 1968, Mel Brooks would cement his status as one of the key names in American comedy. Other Brooks films, such as Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, would spark a wave of parody films that continues rolling to this day.
At the age of 95, Mel Brooks is no longer active as a director, but he continues to write and produce new material. In recent years, he has opted to continue spreading joy as a voice actor for numerous blockbuster animated family films, such as Robots and Hotel Transylvania 2.
Proving that you can’t discuss influential Americans or senior appreciation without including Brooks, his mark continues to be seen all over modern comedy films. Dozens of parodies, including Airplane! and Scary Movie, continue the tradition of edgy spoofs of popular culture that Brooks popularized so many years ago.
2: Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson’s star has risen in recent years as a result of the popularity of 2016’s Hidden Figures, which shined a spotlight on the work of Johnson and her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson at NASA. However, her name is one that should be mentioned more when discussing influential older Americans, or during moments of senior appreciation.
As an aerospace technologist, Katherine Johnson played a key role in the early years of space exploration. She calculated the trajectories and launch windows for many of NASA’s historic launches, including the launch of the first American into space and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon.
Johnson’s quick thinking would make her a hero just a year after the 1969 launch of Apollo 11. Equipment failure during the 1970 Apollo 13 mission would bring it to an early end, which meant NASA would need to find a way to bring the crew home safely. Katherine Johnson’s backup procedures and charts would help NASA create an observation system that would help those aboard the Apollo module return to Earth safe and sound.
Before she retired from the space program in 1986, Katherine Johnson would further cement her legacy in furthering space exploration by working on:
- The Space Shuttle program
- The Earth Resources Satellite
- Plans for a mission to Mars
After retirement, to help ensure that the future of space exploration would be in good hands, Johnson would encourage students to enter STEM fields – fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
1: Jimmy Carter
Last on our list, but certainly not least, is the longest-living former President of the United States of America. Jimmy Carter may not be remembered as fondly for his accomplishments in the White House, but the work he has done outside of it has cemented his legacy as one of the most influential American seniors living today.
In his years outside of the White House, Jimmy Carter has focused much of his work on improving the quality of life for the American impoverished and for suffering populations in third-world countries. With his organization, the Carter Center, President Carter has worked alongside the World Health Organization to virtually eliminate instances of dracunculiasis, or Guinea worm disease.
He has also worked to preserve and protect universal human rights. Over the last several decades, Jimmy Carter has worked to protect:
- The right of all to vote
- Women’s rights
- Civil rights
- Affordable healthcare for all
In his 97 years, some of Jimmy Carter’s finest work has perhaps been with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, helping build homes for the less fortunate. The former President has helped build, repair, and renovate over 4,300 homes in 14 countries, working with Habitat through the Carter Work Project. His work efforts have also been crucial to helping Americans recover from natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.
Celebrate Seniors Every Day
Older Americans Month is certainly a great time for us to reflect on the accomplishments of the generations before us. It must be said, though, that senior appreciation shouldn’t just be limited to a single month! We should take more time to celebrate seniors and the ways that they have impacted our lives.