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The change makers

Leading the way in retirement
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When Sandra Barbeau opens her laptop in the morning, she’s greeted by her vision statement: “Show up for myself so I can show up for others.”

Barbeau has spent time reflecting on what makes for a meaningful retirement, and that simple sentence captures where she’s landed. “I need to work on my personal growth and activities,” she says, “as a starting point to share with and impact on others.”

People often discover that there are two pillars of a rewarding retirement life. One focuses on one’s own transformation, welcoming challenges like learning new skills or seizing new opportunities, because keeping your brain and body active boosts both physical and mental health. The other centres around personal and communal change: transforming ourselves and, at the same time, making positive changes for those around us. In a study of people aged 50-plus from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, 15 per cent of respondents defined a successful retirement as being wealthy. The other 85 per cent said being generous was a better measure of achievement, whether that meant volunteering, supporting causes or giving others their time and wisdom.

Renaissance talked to four RTOERO members who embrace the belief that looking both inside and outside ourselves contributes to a happy, fulfilling and meaningful retirement. Barbeau became a fitness instructor for seniors. Joy Forbes and Elena Petrcich bring music into people’s lives and are part of an effort to improve the status of women. Norma Collis opened a bed and breakfast that gives back to her community.

Meet these change makers, and see what inspires them — and maybe you.

Illustrations by Darren Booth

Norma Collis

Holly days
During a two-week trip to southern England in 1982, Norma Collis (District 37 Oxford ) and her husband, David, stayed in B&Bs across tiny towns and villages, and fell in love with the concept. “Some of our fondest memories involved knowledgeable hosts, cosy chats over tea and wonderful glimpses into true British homes,” says Collis.

From then on, the couple stayed at B&Bs whenever they travelled. The experience offered a taste of authentic local life and, often, the proprietors recommended sights, family restaurants and quirky activities that you wouldn’t find in a guidebook.

The couple’s experiences had given them a good sense of what owning a B&B involved and, as retirement neared, they had a wild idea: to open their own B&B. They drafted a business plan, searched for the perfect place and, in 2000, opened Holly Cottage in the hamlet of Woodford, halfway between Owen Sound and Meaford, Ont. The Bruce Trail was at the end of their lane, and the surrounding area included beautiful pastures, wetlands and waterfalls.

Collis learned by doing. “It was a new puzzle to solve,” she says. Stimulation came from both the work and the guests who crossed their threshold. Every single one had a story. There was the woman who rang the bells in the Peace Tower in Ottawa, the production team from the TV show Canadian Idol, and the Irish couple who were following the Underground Railroad’s trail from slavery to freedom.

Guests arrived at Holly Cottage in surprising ways.

Then there were the treasured repeat guests. Collis saw their lives evolve via their arrivals. Some couples came for a first visit in a sports car, top down, travelling with a small suitcase. A year or two later, they’d return as first-time parents, now in a practical sedan and carrying a few more bags. For the next visit, they’d pull up in a minivan packed with several young ones and lots of paraphernalia.

A few times, a returning guest told Collis and her husband that they were honorary grand parents. Why? If you counted backward from the age of one the children, “it was obvious that there had been a romantic stay at Holly Cottage,” says Collis.

The couple made a commitment to contribute to the community through their business. They donated a certain number of rooms every year for silent auctions to benefit institutions and causes, such as the local hospital and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. Collis has also been involved in community life as a volunteer for her church, the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Grey Bruce annual Christmas house tour, and the Santa Claus parade. “It’s satisfying to play even a small part,” says Collis.

The work of running Holly Cottage was physically demanding. So, after 16 years, the couple sold the property.

Collis found commonalities between being a teacher and a B&B proprietor. “In both, you have to learn to function in chaos,” she says. But throwing herself into the business of owning and running a successful B&B reinforced a valuable life lesson she still practises: “Embrace the new.”

For Collis, starting a B&B “was a new puzzle to solve.”

Sandra Barbeau

Lifelong learning
When Sandra Barbeau (District 5 Cochrane, Temiskaming) retired in 2014, her Kapuskasing, Ont., high school offered her a parting gift of her choosing. She decided to get her first tattoo: a Bible verse in an infinity loop, running from her wrist up her forearm. It reads, in part, “You can do all things.”

Barbeau lives by the motto. Teachers , she says, always preach lifelong learning to their students. But “we have to do it and not just say it,” she declares.

Her go-for-it attitude was on display this past year. Ordinarily, she and her husband spend a chunk of the year in Pharr, Texas, a town in the Rio Grande Valley just north of the Mexican border. Given the pandemic, they stayed home and Barbeau went on the hunt for activities to fill the void.

She visited her local community centre to sign up for a fitness class but learned that the longtime instructor had retired. So she spontaneously offered to teach the Grey Power Hour herself.

Did Barbeau have previous experience? “I was totally unqualified,” she laughs. “I dropped phys-ed in Grade 9!” Undaunted, she embarked on a fitness-training crash course, researching seniors and fitness online, reading books on stretching and anatomy, and picking the brains of a personal trainer and massage therapist.

Now, as a volunteer, Barbeau runs a weekly hour-long workout — cardio, flexibility and strength training — for people in their 60s through 80s. Some sessions have been in person, as permitted, and others happen over Zoom.

Barbeau walks the talk, working out in a home gym in her basement. She hadn’t touched the weights in 15 years; now she can bench-press about 80 pounds.

Next step: formal fitness instructor certification. With it, Barbeau thinks she’ll offer fitness classes at long-term care and retirement residences, also as a volunteer. It’s a way to give back. “There’s a fear of failure, but that shouldn’t stop you,” says Barbeau. “You gain confidence when you try something new. And that encourages you to venture out and try other things.”
The fitness class has also inspired her to consider becoming a senior bodybuilder. Seriously. All the ideas go up on her vision board. “If you don’t have a target, you’ll never get there,” she says.

Whatever change comes next, Barbeau will welcome it readily. You have to, she says, “so your mind doesn’t rust and your body doesn’t rust.”

“You gain confidence when you try something new. And that encourages you to venture out and try other things.” – Sandra Barbeau

Joy Forbes & Elena Petrcich

Finding a new groove
Joy Forbes (District 27 Ottawa-Carleton) believes in the power of music. She’s seen the effect it has on people when they learn to play an instrument or enjoy a performance. “Their faces light up,” she says.

Forbes plays guitar and piano. During her career, she taught English, French and music, and directed many musicals. Now she leads a group called Guitar Groovers and owns an online business called Groove with the Guitar, which sells concert videos and virtual guitar lessons.

Forbes started teaching guitar informally a decade ago to 10 friends she made through her involvement with the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW). The organization supports funding for education, libraries and creative arts, and advocates for human rights for women and girls.

“Six weeks later, I said, ‘We have our first concert,’” she recalls. “They panicked, but I said if we don’t have a concert, you won’t practise. We’ve been going strong ever since.”

The Guitar Groovers now includes 24 women. Half play guitar, and all sing. Over the years, they’ve performed at seniors’ residences, long-term care facilities and community events.

Forbes launched Groove with the Guitar ( in the summer of 2020 as a way to reach people through music during the pandemic. She’s the creative director and has partnered with Elena Petrcich, also a District 27 Ottawa-Carleton member. Forbes’ husband, who’s in the software business, helps with technical requirements; her son, a website designer, offers advice on online enterprises; and a high school student edits and uploads their videos.

Petrcich, also a CFUW member, was looking for something constructive to do during the pandemic. She played guitar as a teenager but hadn’t touched one in decades. With time on her hands due to COVID lockdowns, she thought, why not pick up the instrument again? Her old guitar had gone with a son to university and never come back, so she bought a new one, dug out some chord books and signed up for Zoom lessons with Forbes.

Although Petrcich hadn’t played in a long time, “I never left music,” she says. “I just stopped playing guitar. It was still in my system, my soul, waiting for when the opportunity arose.” Petrcich and Forbes became fast friends. Petrcich says that, despite having developed “brutal” calluses on her left hand, renewing an old passion has been great. The duo have even staged concerts together.

When she’s not busy with music, Forbes also teaches ESL online to students in China through an online organization called VIPKid. While the students are learning a language, she’s learning a new way of delivering instruction.

Whether it’s teaching kids or teaching guitar, starting a band or starting a business, Forbes says life is full of changes — and the joy they can bring is immense. “You just have to find your passion,” she advises. “When you’re passionate about something, it radiates from you.”

“I just stopped playing guitar. It was still in my system, my soul, waiting for when the opportunity arose.” – Elena Petrcich

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