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Bucket Brigade

Don’t look now, but Millennials are making their ‘bucket lists’ and they have their adventurous grandparents to thank.

Jimmy Magahern | Nov 8, 2011, 2:11 p.m.
Bob and Jean Pettit, five-year residents of Freedom Plaza Retirement Comm-unity, are walking on air following her thrilling tandem jump at SkyDive Arizona in Eloy. The happy couple embraces the surprises that still pop up after 20 years of marriage. Marla Levine

Pettit says her feat, now beautifully preserved on YouTube, inspired others around her retirement community to go for their own outrageous adventures.

“There were a couple of other people here who said they were going to try it,” she says, mentioning friends Jinny Faux, who co-piloted a glider plane over Lake Pleasant at age 85, and Audrey Starks, who’s ridden in both a glider and a hot air balloon. But so far, her own children, now scattered from Orlando, Fla., to Chattanooga, Tenn., have been reluctant to follow her lead.

“My son says he’s happiest with both feet on the ground,” she says, with a laugh. “And my daughter is a social worker, so she’s pretty grounded herself. I don’t think either of them have any desire to do what I did. But I loved it!”

Little Feats

Perhaps the downside of making bucket lists is that eventually, we all begin to glimpse the bucket.

This past July, 91-year-old Sylvia Clayton of Tucson accepted an invitation to pilot a Cessna airplane. The former WWII flying WASP, who also worked after the war as an aircraft engine mechanic, reveled in the opportunity to once again take to the skies, circling down on a low fly-by to wave at all her friends from the Fountains at La Cholla Assisted Living Center who’d come to watch.

But on this day, Clayton is not at all lucid, and attempts to draw her out in a conversation about the flight result, sadly, in confusion. “She has her good days and her bad days,” says a caretaker, quietly. “And she took a fall this morning.”

Even the still hearty Jean Pettit admits she’s had to postpone some of the remaining things on her list — parasailing, scuba diving and swimming with the porpoises — until she recovers from a back injury, which she stresses was not related to the skydiving.

“It runs in the family,” she says. “The doctor told me that it would be a year or two before I would have my back normal again. But I’ve still got things on my list. When this back straightens out, I’ll think about tackling those adventures, too.”

Fortunately, a grandparent doesn’t have to risk life and limb to bond with their loved ones. Klaus Bolle, owner and operator of the Bolle Adult Swim School in southeast Phoenix, says he meets seniors every day whose No. 1 bucket list goal is simply learning how to keep up with their grandchildren in the pool.

“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says that one in four adults in America do not know how to swim,” says the 67-year-old German-born instructor, who says his 30 years of teaching has been put to use in training more than 30,000 older adults, at an average age of 65, how to swim in just six days.

“The problem is, if you have a room filled with 100 adults and you ask who can’t swim, nobody will come forward,” he says. “Because they’re embarrassed and they won’t admit it.”

Nevertheless, mastering swimming is tops on most Arizona grandparents’ bucket lists.

“Often they come because their grandchildren want them to swim, and they can’t,” Bolle says. “They are afraid that if something happens to their grandkids, they can’t even go into the pool to help them. And the other reason they want to learn is for the health benefits. Swimming is the best thing you can do to stay healthy.”

That alone, Bolle says, can give older adults the stamina and energy to try some of the other things on their bucket lists. And maybe inspire the grandkids to start compiling their own lists of epic life experiences early.

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