Elisabeth Vito is not your average graduating senior

I first met Elisabeth Vito while she was energetically line dancing at Serving Seniors Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center downtown. I marveled as she showed off moves I couldn’t have done as a high school senior.

The comparison is apt, because Elisabeth is a “senior” in three ways; she recently celebrated her 91st birthday, obtained her first driver’s license last year and just graduated from San Diego State University with a bachelor’s degree in German studies.

Her bright, energetic personality allowed her to blend in with her fellow seniors at the College of Arts and Letters graduation ceremony, despite that most were almost 70 years younger.

“It was not what I expected. People no longer walk across the stage and they did not throw their caps in the air,” she said. “However, I got to move my tassel from right to left, which was very exciting.”

It was the culmination of more than a decade of studies that began after learning of an SDSU program called “Over 60” that allows older adults to take courses at a discounted rate.

Vito took an eclectic mix of courses that included nutrition for athletes, Chaucer, Latin, French, Italian, art of Greece and Rome, art of Japan, world literature, the oceans, Shakespeare, Buddhism, Chinese philosophy, cultures of South America and classical mythology.

Despite all that hard work and studying, Elisabeth never aspired to actually get a degree.

“All I wanted was to listen to some smart information. SDSU changed their policy so that if you didn’t declare a major, you couldn’t attend,” she said. “I had taken so many classes that my counselor said I qualified for a German degree, and that sounded like a fine degree to me.”

Before going back to school, Elisabeth worked as a nanny, cook, tailor and seamstress. She moved to the United States in 1969 from Europe.

“I took a train to San Diego from L.A. and when I looked out at the beaches and water, it was mind-boggling. I saw kids walking barefoot on the beach and decided this is where I want to live,” she said.

Now that she has graduated, Elisabeth keeps a busy schedule volunteering for Serving Seniors. In addition to teaching line dancing, she is an active folk dancer and practitioner of Tai Chi. She helps serve lunch to “seniors” almost 30 years younger and is teaching a friend’s grandson how to play the piano.

Elisabeth is a remarkable woman, role model and teacher. Her lesson for us is pretty simple: Age is not a barrier to accomplishing your goals. Older adults can absolutely learn new tricks and do them quite well.

The demographic reality is that we are an aging society. By 2030, 20 percent of Americans will be older than 65, what used to be traditional retirement age.

The good news is that an average 65-year-old today can expect to live almost 20 more years. The question for them – and for us as a society – is how best to keep these seniors engaged and productive members of the community?

They have lots of education, skill, talent and real-world experience that is far too important to be wasted. But for this to happen in a meaningful way, we must get past being surprised that 91-year-olds can graduate from college and get driver’s licenses.

I am speaking directly about ageism that remains all too prevalent. Sometimes that ageism comes from seniors themselves.

They are constantly being told — by family, friends and in the media — what they can’t do, rather than being encouraged to do what they can.

The days of quietly retiring at 65 are long gone and being replaced by the “what next” question.

Elisabeth has some advice for you when you answer that question: “Persistence. If you want something, you have to have willpower to go and get it.”

Downey is president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty. Learn more at

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