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Two Potomac Residents Reflect on Decades

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Ellen Breen

— Ellen Breen turned 95 on May 5, 2013. Her granddaughter plans to be married in September.

“If I am alive, I am going,” Breen said.

Her grandchildren call her Rah Rah.

“I love it. It’s one of my favorite sounds. When they say it it really means something.”

Dennis Lewis is 75. He had a stroke 15 days before his 70th birthday.

“If I had it to do over again, I’d drink twice as much water and half as much soda, I think it would have made a difference in triggering the stroke,” Lewis said.

“Life changing,” he said of his stroke.

Lewis, of Potomac, says he’s grateful he had made plans to see a friend that Saturday afternoon five years ago.

“I had the stroke at 4 in the morning. I tried for 45 minutes to move nine inches,” Lewis said.

His friend came over to meet at the agreed-to time hours later, and found Lewis incapacitated. His friend saved his life, Lewis said.

BOTH ELLEN BREEN and Dennis Lewis live in a Potomac retirement community.

More than one in five Americans will be 65 or older by 2050, according to Spencer A. Rathus.

“Those who are in late adulthood are the most rapidly growing segment of the American population,” according to Rathus’ textbook on Human Growth and Development.

Lewis, a journalist, worked 16 years for the Washington Star as a radio columnist, then the Washington Times as a television critic, and finished his career with the Bureau of National Affairs.

Lewis loves politics and musicals, acting and journalism.

Lewis still writes local theater reviews and sends news pegs via email to friends and family about current events more than 20 times a day.

“My life was changed when I was a teenager, I learned to debate in high school,” Lewis said. “I learned how to debate, how to make arguments for or against any point of view.”

Successful agers form emotional goals that bring them satisfaction, according to Rathus. “Successful agers may no longer compete in certain athletic or business activities. … Instead, they focus on matters that allow them to maintain a sense of control over their own lives.”

Ellen Breen, of Potomac, used to read a book every week, but can’t read now because of vision problems.

“Oh, I miss reading the headlines,” she said. So she turns to the television to keep up with current news.

“We lived in historic times,” Breen said. There were so many things that happened.”

A big memory from her childhood, she said, was Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic, and seeing Lindbergh in person at Dupont Circle.

“I was 9 years old. I had a cousin who was 19,” she said. “She took me by the hand and we ran from her mother’s house on N Street, and got there just in time to see Lindbergh greet the crowd.”

When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, “that was a horrible thing. That made a big impression on me.”

Breen worked as a secretary to one of the United States Supreme Court Justices, Harold Hitz Burton.

Her work with the Child Welfare League was her greatest passion. She helped investigate the treatment of adopted children and potential adoptive mothers and fathers.

“You could not believe the things we found, horrible, terrible things,” she said. “It opened my eyes, I was a little girl out of convent school. There were also good stories, very good stories, but it opened my eyes to life. I had no idea such things existed.”

“It gave me perspective on my own life, with my children,” she said.

Religion is critical in Breen’s life.

“That I think is the most important thing,” Breen said. “We don’t know what’s in store for us. It’s very frightening, I think so, and it is also exciting.”

According to Rathus, “successful agers tend to be optimistic. Retaining social contacts and building new ones also contributes to a positive outlook, as does continuing with one’s athletic activities, when possible, and one’s artistic and cultural activities.”

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Dennis Lewis

DENNIS LEWIS HAS ADVICE for younger generations.

“Find what you’re good at, find what is important to you, find what matters, what are your talents,” he said.

“Develop your level of confidence to where you will be an impact player,” he said. “You have to believe in yourself.”

Lewis said he learned from two experiences in his life when he bucked the trend, doing the opposite of what people advised him to do.

When Howard Stern came to town, Lewis said people told him Stern would not be a worthwhile story.

“They were all saying, ‘He’s terrible, he’s terrible, he’s misconceived, he’s a total failure,” said Lewis, who covered radio for the Washington Star at the time.

But “that’s all people were talking about — him.”

That was after the disco era.

“It was the second time I ignored what people demanded what I write,” he said. “The other time, they wanted me to write that disco was dead. And the next year, Saturday Night Fever came out. I was glad I resisted.”

Lewis takes Metro Access most every other week to see a new movie either on Bethesda Row, the Landmark, or downtown and to shop at book stores.

He subscribes to film magazines, and watches the Oscars every year, knowing most every movie nominated.

Lewis said he cried when Dwight Eisenhower lost the Presidential election in 1956. “It taught me that the best man doesn’t always win,” he said. “In movies, you are always fooled by happy endings and you think that’s the way it works.”

He remembers fondly his own experience acting as the villain in the Madwoman of Chaillot.

“He was very greedy, he wanted all the money in the world, he was very villainous. I really liked that I was playing somebody the exact opposite of myself, to make people believe I was villainous,” he said.

“I was terribly nervous … to go in front of an auditorium of people, I was too nervous to think about doing it, so I said a prayer before the first performance,” he said.

“At rehearsals you get no reaction at all, but that show I was so excessive I was making people laugh, and that’s when I realized I was there to entertain not to be judged … so I could relax and enjoy it.”

Ellen Breen bypasses opportunity to give advice.

“Oh, I don’t think I’m qualified to answer such questions,” she said with a smile.

But she knows how her birthday wishes have changed over the last nine decades.

“Before, I was looking forward to happiness and peace in my own life, my personal life. Now that seems absolutely non-existent when you compare it to what is happening in the world today,” said Breen. “What I would long to see is peace in the world, if it would only start in Washington, D.C.”