Six Flathead Valley seniors share their wisdom on how getting old is not all it’s cracked up to be… it's so much more.

By Jessie Mazur
Mikel Parrish, 65. Kalispell. Photo by Jessie Mazur

Editor’s Note: These profiles were part of “A Celebration Project” funded by My Glacier Village in Kalispell.

Imagine having the time to take the other road you passed up in your youth and had always wondered about. Imagine mastering self-discipline and priorities and finally getting into the best shape of your life. Imagine forming a circle of people around you who only contributed good things and letting go of everything that once caused stress. Imagine that the first 50 years of your life was just training to become who you were always meant to be.

American culture has a pretty bleak outlook on aging. From a young age, we’re indoctrinated with the notion that quality-of-life peaks sometime in your mid-20s and then steadily declines until you eventually become a burden on society. Health, fitness, happiness, productivity and adventure belong to the youth, they say. But with seniors now living decades past retirement, and many of them spending their time traveling, running marathons and volunteering, old-age has the potential to be a second life. A multitude of studies have found that the age-happiness graph does not depict a linear downward slide into depression, death and decay as late-night infomercials and stereotypes would have us believe. Instead, the graph is shaped like a crude smile. In other words, life-satisfaction bottoms out in midlife and then continues to steadily rise up until the eighth decade of life. 

Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy, theorizes that midlife is more of a chrysalis than a crisis. Similar to adolescence, midlife is a time of significant hormonal and life changes. Commonly, it’s a time when children leave the nest and retirement is just around the corner opening a vast expanse of previously un-had time. Conley suggests the bottom of the bell curve is the turning point at which knowledge digests into wisdom. Seniorhood offers the conglomeration of time, resources, and wisdom to act and invest upon 60-plus years of collected life-experience.

Mikel Parrish, 65 

Even casually dressed in an athletic shirt and shorts, Mikel Parrish looks sharp. His clean cut appearance, confident voice and his affinity for fitness allude to a 20-year military career followed by a rise into leadership as Flathead Electric Cooperative director of Information Technology. But for all his professionalism, retirement has Parrish acting like a kid with a new bicycle. 

“I have freedom,” he says, “I’m able to do what I want to do everyday when I get up. I don’t have a schedule. I have control of my own life I’ve never had before.

“It’s the same experience as having an unexpected day off from school. It’s like a snow day,” he continues. “In the beginning, it was very weird because I would get up everyday and think, ‘I gotta get up and go to work’ — this went on for probably two months. I would tell myself in my head, ‘naw you don’t have to go to work today; you don’t have to go to work ever.’ It took a while for that to gel.”

Parrish made fitness his first retirement project with a goal of reaching his former cycling peak of logging 2,700 miles a year. 

“I want to do that ride across the United States from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. It takes about six weeks. It’s a supported ride. You ride about 50 to 70 miles a day. My wife told me I should hurry up and do it before I get too old, but I was thinking I’d make that a 70th birthday thing. That’ll give me some motivation for staying in shape.“

When winter put a pause on Parrish’s cycling ambitions, he began to reconsider. 

“I started having regrets after retiring and was thinking about going back to work. Then I started thinking about what was it that I was really unhappy about? And it came down to two things — I had lost the satisfaction you get from achieving. The other thing was that I was missing the collaboration with my co-workers. When you think of those two things, it’s really about teamwork. Being part of a team and getting stuff done. So that’s what I was missing.

“You need more than just a couple of hobbies for retirement I think. You want some variety, (because you can) even get tired of your hobbies after a while if you only have one or two.

“I enrolled in this bike mechanic maintenance course. It’s a month-long course in Oregon; you get to be a certified bike mechanic. Maybe I’ll work on my own bike, maybe I’ll work on friend’s’ bikes. Maybe I’ll work part time at a bike shop. I don’t know, I just want to learn something new.

“I think the key to retirement is being open and willing to accept change. If you get locked into tunnel vision, your golden years aren’t going to be golden.”

Bill Morton, 71, and Pam Morton, 69, Kalispell. Photo by Jessie Mazur

Pam and Bill Morton, 69 and 71

For 16 years, Pam Morton has been hiding a plastic buffalo in her friends’ campers. The game, Find Billy Buffalo, kicks off the Labor Day weekend games at Camp Run-a-Muck, the big birthday party bash Pam and Bill Morton host for their friend group at Mad Wolf Ranch in Browning every year. 

“This is what happens when you get older,” Pam says. 

“It’s something us seniors do,” Bill adds, emphasizing the word senior with a touch of irony.

Bill recently retired from a career owning a septic maintenance company. He now sits on the board of the Ferndale Fire Department and the Lone Pine Cemetery. Pam also recently retired from an active, ball-juggling career as a real estate developer. She says she doesn’t miss it and Bill rolls his eyes ever so slightly. After 31 years of marriage, the Morton’s often agree to disagree, but they share some common traits — lines spread from the corner of their eyes as though they rarely get a rest from smiling. Both have served on the board of ministry in Browning for the past 17 years and both volunteer with My Glacier Village, assisting older seniors. 

Their volunteer hours extend beyond the basics like rides to doctor appointments and home maintenance. “[We’re] actually taking them somewhere, showing them something instead of coming over and fixing their sink,” Bill says, “Like have you ever been to the top of Mount Aeneas? Have you ever been to the Bison Range?” 

“I think the real gem and treasure of My Glacier Village is that they foster relationships and open people’s windows,” Pam says. “They get them out around other people; then their world starts to expand more. How precious is that?

“It sometimes takes more than family. It takes people willing to step up and say, ‘I can do this part of it; I can’t shoulder the entire burden but I can take a piece of it.’ Everybody needs somebody. It can be physically; it can be emotionally. Those connections are critical to how we age. It’s as enriching for us as volunteers as it is for the people who are getting the service. You hear amazing stories. It has the ability to continue community and that’s critical for all of us.”

“Isolation is why people age,” Pam continues. “I think sometimes we have to make a concentrated effort to reach out to people. We have to be intentional. I think sometimes people stop doing that. They stop experiencing. Sometimes their friends move away or die and they don’t replace that interaction with other people in any way, shape or form. Sometimes your windows become more narrow to the point where they almost close off.”

Bill is even more blunt on the issue. “Seniors are in a much different place than they were two years ago,” he says, referencing many of the restrictions placed on seniors in assisted living facilities since the COVID-19 pandemic began. “To have your family have to look through the window… What a crock! Especially in the later years of their life. What a horrid thing. You can’t have your family there holding your hand or telling them that you love them. It’s just sad.”

“Isolation is a horrid thing,” Pam adds. “We have to do what we can to fight that.”

Carol Wigness, 72. Kalispell. Photo by Jessie Mazur

Carol Wigness, 72

Carol Wigness has a type-A personality. Raised as a North Dakota farm kid, she never quite mastered sitting still or taking breaks. At 72, she’s only recently retired from her fourth career. She’s the type of woman who always sits up straight. She looks clean and composed even when she’s barely had time to brush her hair after a long night awake with her youngest grandson. She commands a room without seeking attention. But she wasn’t always so confident. Finding inner peace has been a life-long journey. 

“Forty was the most pivotal year of my life because I realized I didn’t have to be like anyone else,” Wigness says. “I got comfortable with myself and accepted myself. I read a lot of self-improvement books and listened to people I respected. I had great mentors. I was hungry for wisdom from older people. When you’re young, you think you can do it all and know it all. There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence. That’s what I found at the age of 40. You can get things done without stepping on other people.”

Around that time Wigness began a 17-year career as a wellness coach, after seven years as a high school teacher and another eight years as a stay at home mother. Wigness experienced her own health revolution and wanted to share her experience and opened up a practice helping clients “age better” with nutritional counseling and total body health education. She only retired from wellness coaching professionally when she moved to Whitefish to help her son open up his chiropractic business. 

“Keep trying new things,” she says. “Take a risk on a new career that will motivate you. You have to pick a career that makes you excited to go work. If you’re not excited, take a risk. I changed my career four times and I loved every one of them.

“At this age, I’m not as busy and I remember to intentionally look for the good in the day, because I have the time to do it. I realize that you miss so many moments when you’re so busy. I appreciate every day I have.” 

Now formally “retired,” Wigness dedicates her time to volunteering and helping with her grandchildren.

“I’m guarded in who I listen to. If they’re not in a place I want to be in five years from now, there’s no use filling my mind with jibber. Be selective of who your inner circle is and the books you read because they will determine your life 10 years from now. There’s good in this crazy world. Try to find something good to do during the day. Be a blessing rather than complaining.”

“I heard a quote, I’m not sure where, ‘I want a life I can live, not just a life I can live with.’ That’s my goal. And I want to be a blessing to my friends and family – someone that they can always count on. It isn’t even a goal. I have that. I have a very blessed life. I want to keep doing it.”

Bev Larson, 83. Kalispell. Photo by Jessie Mazur

Bev Larson, 83

Bev Larson flashes a smile and claims she’s surprised she’s lived this long.

In her eight decades, she’s retired three times and was an accidental college graduate. After 16 years of work in the state appraisal office, she was offered a job working for the Northridge Lutheran Church in her late 50s. During the application process, she learned she had earned a degree from FVCC. 

“When my kids were still in school, I started taking random classes in creative writing, science in society and public speaking. When the college first started (in the late 1960s) we were meeting downtown at the Elks Building, at Central School and the abandoned car dealership. By the time I needed a bachelor’s degree or equivalency, the college helped me add up my classes and I had the right number of credits.” 

Her job as Director of Ministry and Daily Life lasted 20 years. “I liked that title,” she says. “We all have a ministry. We all have something we’re good at.” The job sent her traveling by train up and down the east coast performing a hodgepodge of services in various church communities. For her final career, Larson worked as a Deacon at Buffalo Hills Terrace.

She beams a steady positive energy that feels like a warm hand on your back and a calm voice saying, “Breathe…” right when you don’t know you need to hear it. Looking at her, you wouldn’t know that she lost her husband to pancreatic cancer in 2019. 

Last year she attended a grief counseling camp at Flathead Bible Camp. “I’m going back,” she says. “You think you’re through with it and then you’re not. I’m just going to soak up stuff.”

Larson sold the house where she and her husband shared the majority of their 64-year marriage. “I didn’t hate to leave because I’m taking all the memories with me. Part of grief is letting go,” she says. When she drove by the house months later, she saw young children playing in the yard, building their own memories. 

“I try to live for today,” Larson echoes her late-husband’s advice. “I used to have a lot to say. Now I listen more than I talk. I have time to think and read. I have time to ponder.”

She advises, “Relax and live as much as you can. It’s hard when you have children or you’re starting a career. Look for the good in people. I’ve given up watching the news; I watch Hallmark Channel and PBS. There really are good people in this world.

“Look for love.”

George Ostrom, 93, Kalispell. Photo by Jessie Mazur

George Ostrom, 93

The wall across from George Ostrom’s recliner is a tapestry of his life’s greatest hits. Paintings of western scenes, some of them by Ostrom’s own hand, display a collage of a cowboy’s Montana. On the small TV stand, casts of Charlie Russel sculptures compete for space with trophies from the Montana Logging Society and an honorable degree from the University of Montana. Plaques and articles recognizing Ostrom’s career as a humor columnist for the Hungry Horse News spill out onto the floor. Under a photograph of Ostrom with President Eisenhower, a stack of Glacier National Park climbing guides and children’s books that bear Ostrom’s byline. 

“I’m not a modest guy,” says Ostrom, now 93. His wife Iris sits quietly by his side, hearing the stories she’s heard a thousand times, but happy to let her husband do the talking. “I’m a natural born speaker,” George continues, launching into a story about the time he met Eisenhower at the Smokejumpers Visitor Center dedication in Missoula in 1954. 

“I was named the most talented weekly newspaper columnist for the Hungry Horse News. I wrote over 20,0000 columns. I’ve written four books on climbing in Glacier. I was an advisor to five University of Montana presidents. And I’m a world expert at jumping out of planes.”

Of all his accomplishments, Ostrom doesn’t hesitate to point out his greatest source of pride. “My kids admire me and my wife admires me… that’s what’s important.”

“Live your life to the maximum. Every moment is important. Love your wife, that’s the biggest thing. Don’t lose patience. After I met her, I never had a date with another woman. I was 27 and she was 19. I told her, ‘If you marry me, I will take you to Paris and London,” Ostrom says.

“And he did and it was wonderful,” Iris says, “I didn’t marry him for his money. He was good looking and fun to talk to.”

Iris wasn’t surprised when George came home one day and stated that he had bought a small local newspaper on the verge of bank ruptcy, the Kalispell Weekly News. Within four years it had become the largest weekly newspaper in the state. It was a bold move to buy a failing newspaper, but Ostrom has never been afraid to take chances. 

Even at 93 years old, he remains an optimist. 

“I’ll let you know when I start getting old,” he says.

Raised in Whitefish, Jessie Mazur is a writer, photographer and owner of Kalispell-based photography studio, Picture Montana. Her work can be found at www.picturemt.com