A diagnosis of hypertension at age 50 was the motivation Carolyn needed to change her life. She moved and got moving, bringing thousands along with her infectious enthusiasm.
Tell me a little about you, your family, your life, education, and work experience before your next act?
I am a proud and happy 66 year-old baby boomer. I am the changing face of senior citizens! I have a 41 year-old son, who is not married, and I do not have any grandchildren. I have been divorced since he was 18 months old and never remarried… at least, not yet.
I graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit with an undergraduate degree in business, then worked in marketing for 17 years before I bought a health food store and successfully expanded it to four locations. When the recession hit in the 90’s, I was able to sell one store and eventually closed the others. I then did some contract work for the City of Detroit while taking classes at Wayne State University.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife? Did you have an “aha” moment?
My first “aha” moment came when, as I was turning 50, my doctor told me that I needed medication for hypertension. I insisted he take my blood pressure two more times because I could not believe it. I led a fairly healthy life, or so I thought. I decided that I would make every effort to improve my health and rid myself of the hypertension without the drugs. I improved my diet, took vitamin supplements and started walking, a lot. I joined a basketball team, with no experience beyond junior high school gym class. At my 65th birthday physical, my new doctor at Emory said to me: “you are so healthy, we do not have a code for you in our system.” I wanted to hug her. I told her that was the best doctor’s visit ever!
My second “aha” moment came when I was talking with a friend and business colleague who had relocated to Atlanta; she said “Carolyn, you should be in Atlanta; there is a lot going on here.” Without hesitating, and I don’t know where it came from, I responded, “Okay.” Apparently, I was ready for a change! Detroit, my hometown had been good to me, but I knew I needed something more, something greater. I needed to discover who I really was, on my own. I wondered if my success was because of the people I knew or because of my true skills and talents. I was not sure and needed to find out.
Four months later, at 52, I moved to Atlanta. I just knew this was an opportunity that I needed to take advantage of, or it might pass me by. I had quit my job in Detroit, had no job prospects in Atlanta, but went with an entrepreneurial spirit. I was offered a job within two months of moving to Atlanta but it took me 12 to 18 months not to feel like I was on vacation (with the warm weather climate) and to feel settled in my new city. I worked in marketing for several organizations, experienced some challenging times, but never looked back and was grateful for the relocation. Life was good!
My third “aha” moment was going on my first hike, in the North Georgia mountains, to celebrate my 56th birthday. I loved the experience; it opened up a whole new world for me. Being in nature, breathing in the fresh air, gazing at the views on the climb up…I felt more exhilarated and free than I’d ever felt before. I didn’t find out until we were done that this was one of the hardest hikes the group I was with had ever trekked. I was hooked.
What is your next act?
At age 61, I founded OPALs (Older People with Active Lifestyles). We are a group of active men and women, ages 50 and older, who are young at heart, enjoy an active and healthy lifestyle, are fit (or want to be fit), friendly, and looking for ways to have fun while participating in recreational, athletic and social events with peers. We actively promote activities that defy the myths about getting older. We are the “forever young” generation! We have four focus areas:
- Recreation and Travel: We participate primarily in outdoor recreational activities including, but not limited to, hiking, bicycle riding, jogging, walking, white water rafting, canoeing, zip lining, sailing, snorkeling, skiing and golf. We are always open to new suggestions! We also plan trips, from overnights to longer active vacations. We recently got back from Puerto Rico, where one of our activities was hiking the rainforest.
- Sports & Athletics: We participate in a number of sports and athletic activities including basketball, tennis, 5K runs/walks, volleyball and many more.
- Social and Networking: Our social circles include people who all know who you are talking about when you mention the Temptations, Marvelettes, Jefferson Airplane, the Miracles, the Four Seasons, the Monkeys or the Beach Boys. We also remember when gas was 25 cents a gallon and when we used a typewriter in school. We network to keep abreast of what is going on in and around our neighborhoods and in our professions and other circles of interest. Finally, we share tips on improving our health.
- Civic and Community Service: We give back. We use our talents and expertise to help build and preserve our beloved communities and to reach out to those who are less fortunate. We volunteer at churches, senior centers, businesses, as well as community and neighborhood organizations. We also participate in special projects with the elderly and also work with inter-generational groups to lend a helping hand.
Our membership has reached about 500. Dues pay for costs of programming so, although we are not a nonprofit, we currently just break even. To support myself, I do work on a contract basis in the areas of health coaching, public speaking, and newsletter production, for a variety of clients.
Watch hikers in action on CNN.
How did OPALS come about?
I was always a girly-girl. Growing up in Detroit, I never considered any type of activity that would make me perspire, so sports were out.
All that changed after I was diagnosed with hypertension at 50. I became more aware of my health and more open to physical challenges. I started playing organized basketball in a Senior Women’s league and, two years later, even earned gold and silver medals at the National and World Senior Games. Our coach, Captain D (Cal Dilworth) continues to play to this day, at age 83.
Then, after my inaugural hike at age 56, I joined a hiking group. I enjoyed it so much that two years later, when our hike leader could no longer continue, he asked me if I would be interested in taking over. I was surprised and honored, but a little apprehensive too. Still, I jumped into action, re-branded our group Hartfield’s Hikers, and promoted it with an online newsletter. The word got out and we eventually grew to 600 members.
Taking over the hikes prompted me to become a certified Outings Leader through the Sierra Club, certified in Wilderness First Aid through the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and a Certified National interpretive Guide. I am a Community Partner with REI, and have been recognized by L.L. Bean. In addition, I will shortly become a board member of the American Hiking Society.
My passion for hiking has led to other outdoor activities that include camping, bicycle riding, zip lining, kayaking, caving, horseback riding, golf, sailing, and more. All these activities are not only fun, but also good for me, addressing the mind, heart, and soul.
When I hit my 60’s, I developed a desire to share my experiences with others my age, people who were active and looking for fun things to do. So I started a Meetup group to find other like-minded people and boy, did I! We reached 500 members a year later, which only 10% of Meetup groups achieve. We’re now at 2,700+.
This was the impetus to start OPALs.
What/who keeps you going?
My OPALs members tell me how engaging in our activities has brought about such positive changes in their lives; this always warms my heart and confirms that I am doing the right thing.
I also receive a great deal of support from my Mastermind group. One of my friends here in Atlanta asked me if I would be interested in starting this group with her and one other person, and we’ve been together for three years now. It has truly been a great support base for each of us, I must say, much more so than I expected.
We meet once a month and share what we are doing and what we want to do, both in our personal and professional lives. We share ideas yet there is never any obligation to use the suggestions and definitely no judgments. We don’t criticize, but rather we suggest what might be done differently, from our point of view. We have very diverse backgrounds and have developed great trust; we do not share one another’s personal information outside our group. This allows us to feel totally free and open with each other.
What did you learn about yourself through so many changes in midlife?
I learned that I am a resilient person, that I am a very positive person, and that I am really willing to step out of my comfort zone, explore new challenges, and that I can really do it! And that I can do it! For my 65th Birthday, I led a group hiking in the Grand Canyon and sailing in Belize.
Now, I move forward with very little questioning. Even if it’s not be something I have contemplated, have a passion for, or have researched.
I believe that there is a lesson to be learned in life’s experiences. I always try to figure out the positive side of the lesson.
Dream it – Believe it – Achieve it. It really happened to me!
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
As women, we need to search within, let go of judgment (of ourselves and others), and become very mindful of our environment, including the people with whom we associate, including family members. We need to make the decision not to share certain things with certain people if we pretty much know they will give negative feedback and be unsupportive.
Start a Mastermind group. They are a great source of support and you can craft its membership to suit your needs.
Be willing to try new and different things. If none of your friends are interested in what you want to try, go out and find people who are of like mind. They are out there; they just may be waiting for you to lead the way. I have pretty much been willing to try just about anything. I developed the mantra–Why Not?
My first hiking experience awakened something in me that I did not know was there. That is why I encourage anyone and everyone to be willing to try new and different activities, especially if they have not yet discovered their passion.
Your passion leads to your purpose. It is a natural flow. It is not forced at all. The universe opens up and provides you with whatever you need to succeed. It may be hard for some to grasp that, but it is really true. But don’t take my word for it, try it and find out for yourself. Keep in mind that, just because you may have what you need to succeed, it does not mean you don’t have to work for success to happen. It may be hard work, but it should feel like a labor of love.
What resources do you recommend?
I have included links to organizations and places I have used personally, articles I have saved, and books I have read.
Outdoors (activities and training):
National Association for Interpretation
Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau
Gear and Supplies:
Books and Articles:
Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
“15 Things That Emotionally Strong People Don’t Do” by Paul Hudson
“Let’s Disrupt Aging and Rethink Getting Older” by Jo Ann Jenkins
I am a big reader of autobiographies; I like to hear about other people’s stories, usually those I may admire or am curious about. I like to learn how they overcame their own challenges to get to where they are. Here are some of my favorites:
Secrets of a Sparrow – Diana Ross
Aretha: From These Roots – Aretha Franklin
Between Each Line of Pain and Glory: My Life Story – Gladys Knight
To Be Loved – Berry Gordy
Don’t Block the Blessings – Patti LaBelle
Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young – Coleman Young
Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter – Sidney Poitier
Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine (Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication) – Dr. Louis W. Sullivan
The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players – Pat Riley
True Compass: A Memoir – Edward M. Kennedy
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
I continually attend classes, conferences, and seminars on topics of interest. Currently, I am enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta, in their Health Coach Certificate program, which I will complete this month. I have also become a lay leader for The Chronic Disease Self-Management Workshop, a Stanford University program.
I have launched a new initiative aimed at sharing the outdoor experience with at-risk teenage girls and boys who have never gone on a hike before—I don’t want them to wait until they are as old as I was to make this discovery! Studies have shown that being out in nature actually opens the mind to greater possibilities. The goal is to mentor these youths so they can look beyond their circumstances and see more potential for their lives. I am gathering some of my boomer colleagues from OPALS to help me with this program. We’re starting with our first hike this spring and hope to include other outdoor activities, such as camping, further down the line.
Recently, I have been featured on various media, including local TV and radio shows, and was selected as one of the 50 Over 50 Who have reinvented themselves by The TODAY Show and the Huffington Post. I was also featured, along with my OPALs hiking group, on CNN’s AccentHealth Network. I am a member of the Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau. And, to my great pleasure, I will be the spokesperson for the upcoming Boomer’s Expo in Atlanta on October 10, 2015 at the Georgia International Convention Center. Who knows where all this will take me? I am ready for the journey and plan to go with the flow!
Contact Carolyn Hartfield, Healthy Lifestyle Coach, at CH@CarolynHartfield.com