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Seniors Need Chutzpah

By Sunie Levin
Resident Blogger

I was born with chutzpah. So were you. So was every other kid.  When I wanted something, I screamed and wailed and kicked until I got it.  If I didn’t get it fast enough, I kept it up until I did.  What else is a kid going to do? 

Chutzpah is indefinable, but you know it when you see it. It’s a wonderful Yiddish word, an amalgam of supreme self-confidence, nerve, gall, unwavering determination and never taking “no” for an answer. 

Never taking “no” for an answer pretty much describes me. I was an only child, not that necessarily matters, but then again, maybe it helps. If I don’t like the first answer I get, I will keep asking until I like the answer.  This especially goes when I see a doctor.  I figure if two out of three have the same answer, maybe they’re right. I rarely stop with just one. 

Now that I’m of a ‘certain age’ I recall vividly when my mother reached 80. At that point she said, “I’m 80 years old; now I can say whatever’s on my mind.”  And she did! That’s chutzpah! 

Looking back, my first real, meaningful act of chutzpah was when I was 25.  I had finished college, married, had three daughters, then went back to college for my master’s degree in learning disabilities.  In the late 1970s few women owned their own businesses.  If they were out in the business world, they were content to be either nurses or teachers.  Nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t what I wanted.  I borrowed $500 from my husband and opened a learning disability clinic for children and adults.  Almost immediately I was able to pay my husband back, shortly after hired a secretary and 12 learning disability specialists.  It was the most rewarding time of my life.  I still get a glow when parents come up to me and proudly tell me that as a result of the help they received at my clinic their child has graduated college and gone on to have an outstanding career.  Yes, chutzpah. It never occurred to me that I might not be successful. 

One charming group of seniors from a retirement center in Riverdale, New York had a Chutzpah Mission to Israel. “So what?” you might say. Lots of people travel these days. Well, this was a really senior group with average age pushing 90.  And remember, it required a 12-hour flight to get there. Many had walkers and canes – didn’t matter. Their spirit and their desire overcame any aches and pains they had – and at their age, believe me, they had plenty of them. Some even climbed Masada. Now there’s a feat for you! Masada is a towering rock precipice, and if you don’t take the cable car, the path is difficult.  They made it. 

They had chutzpah, the whole group of them.  When there still is motive and attitude, anything can be accomplished. The worst thing in the world is to keep saying “No, I can’t. No, I’m too old.” If that’s what you say, then you’re right. But if you say, “Yes, I can. Why not? What’s to lose by trying?” then you have chutzpah. 

Seniors in their 90s are still teaching classes, running corporations, dancing, writing books. All it takes is guts..nerve..chutzpah. Take Adele Choquet for example, at 96 she’s teaching yoga classes.  Mathilda Klein at age 94 is dancing up a storm – see her on YouTube. It’s incredible how many seniors have learned how to navigate the computer and are on Facebook and Twitter. 

To survive as a senior you must have chutzpah, otherwise you’ll find yourself constantly being pushed around.  Chutzpah can be a tricky thing. It doesn’t mean being obnoxious. It does mean being self-assertive. It means you don’t have to let a doctor’s office push you around, especially if they aren’t polite. Speak up! Ditto for any merchants, TV repairmen, people who try to crowd in front of you at the grocery — stand up for yourself! Ask lots of questions if you don’t understand what you’re being told. Never take “no” for an answer if you think someone is simply telling you “no” to get rid of you and your questions. Never take any physical or verbal abuse from anyone.  Don’t be afraid to speak up for what you feel is right, or even write a letter to the editor of your newspaper if you find something outrageous enough. 

A well-known saying is “nice guys finish last.” There’s a certain amount of truth in that.  There are few, if any, examples of people who became famous by being passive.  Don’t be afraid to try new adventures or to seek out new friends. No one is going to do it for you. It takes determination – it takes chutzpah – to keep moving forward in life. 

Remember when you read “The Little Engine That Could” to your children? I think I can, I think I can, I think I can! When there is desire and willingness to try your hardest and not be afraid of what people will say, with a little bit of chutzpah you can still conquer the world!

Sunie Levin is the author of “Make New Friends … Live Longer”. She founded the Midwest Reading and Dyslexia Clinic in Kansas City, Missouri for children and adults with learning problems. A popular lecturer, Levin, taught University classes and has conducted workshops and seminars throughout the country. She has appeared on local and national TV and was a syndicated columnist for many newspapers. Her web site is at