A new start after 60: I retired – and began to follow my dreams

After juggling two jobs while raising five children, Kathi Muhammad had every right to take things easy. Instead, she became an actor and launched a charity

Kathi Muhammad turned 60 some years ago. She doesn’t want to say exactly how many because “I don’t think of myself as that age. I think of myself as 40.” When she reached 60 and retired, she knew it was time to prioritise her dreams. “Just because you have to delay your dream, or put it on the back burner, doesn’t mean you have to leave it there,” she says.

In fact, Muhammad had cherished two dreams: to start a charitable organisation and to be an actor.

For decades, these longings must have seemed improbable, if not impossible. Muhammad has spent her life serving others’ needs: at home as a mother to five children, whom she raised with her husband; and at work in the US Department of Defense, where she was “responsible for parking and construction projects, renovations, heating, air conditioning”. In other words, she says, when something went wrong, she corrected it.

This sounds like an exhausting combination, even without the second job as a consultant for Mary Kay cosmetics. But Muhammad has always had a lot of energy. “I look forward to each day. I always think: something new, something new. You never know what’s going to happen. I’m always raring to go.”

First, she launched her nonprofit organisation, Serving Women Across Generations (Swag), which holds annual panels and events for women in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where she lives.

As a federal police officer and later in the Department of Defense, Muhammad says her offices were female-dominated, yet her colleagues didn’t open up. “A lot of them were private and closed off. In some people’s families, you just don’t talk about what goes on inside the family.”

She was reticent, too. “I didn’t share, either. I founded my organisation on the fact that women need to share,” she says. “We all have challenges and we all have solutions to the challenges. Someone else is always going through the same thing and they can share solutions.”

When she was growing up, Muhammad’s parents liked to say: “Be good citizens. Give back.” Her mum was a teacher; her father worked for the transport system in Washington DC. She took them at their word, volunteering at a children’s library and as “a patrol girl” to help others cross roads safely, as well as being a student counsellor. “If there was a need, I tried to do what I could to help. I think one person can make a difference,” she says.

Kathi Muhammad wearing the T-shirt of her charity, Swag
Kathi Muhammad wearing the T-shirt of her charity, Swag. Photograph: Shuran Huang/The Guardian

It was harder to get her other passion past her parents. As a child, her favourite toy was her Remco showboat, a miniature theatre. She was a drama club stalwart in college. But when she wanted to study fine arts, her parents vetoed it, saying: “It’s not a reliable income.”

Did she resent that? “No, because I’m still going for it,” she says immediately. “A dream delayed is not a dream denied.” She uses that quote so often, she says, it might as well be hers.

She is now organising Swag’s annual gathering, in October, on the theme of women and money, and hopes to expand its reach. She takes acting lessons, has credits on the movie-industry database IMDb and performs about twice a week.

“Never say: ‘I’m too old – I can’t do this.’ Always say: ‘This is what I want to do.’ Once you do that, you take steps to go forward with your dream,” she says. All those years when she wasn’t acting, Muhammad would “go to the movies and pay attention: this is how they said that word, this is how they are moving”. She read plays, too.

When Muhammad turned 60, instead of fearing that she had waited too long, she believed she had arrived at the perfect moment to focus on her wishes. “Sixty gave me a sense of: do you want this? Yeah? Then do it.”

She is so busy – she also teaches aqua cycling. Does she really think of herself as retired? “I’m retired from what I had to do and I’m not retired from what I want to do,” she says. “I feel that now it is time to take care of Kathi. What does Kathi want? Because this is my life and I’m living it the best way I can.”

Tell us: has your life taken a new direction after the age of 60?


Paula Cocozza

The GuardianTramp

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