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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Navigating Transitions: Aging gracefully with Susan Zanol

Mar 25, 2020 12:32PM ● By Joyce Corley

Since she retired, Zanol has been crossing things off her bucket list like schmoozing this goat at a farm in Paonia. But really—she hopes to compete in the Hotchkiss Sheepdog Trials.

Her jobs were her passion. But between Susan Zanol’s fun-loving personality and active retirement life, you might not have known retiring was a difficult transition for her.

Despite the difficulties that come with life’s later years, Zanol has learned to maintain a positive attitude while aging.


Zanol, 65, was born in Denver, although she considers Alamosa her hometown. Her first taste of international travel came when she was 14, when her family moved to Sydney, Australia, for two years before returning to Colorado for high school.

Zanol completed nearly 11 years on active duty in the Air Force and another 11 years as a reservist. During her military service, Zanol spent time on temporary duty around the world. But sometimes her stations were less exotic than she expected, such as Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York.

“When I got my orders, I thought I was going to Italy until I saw New York,” she said. “That was after I bought travel books and an Italian language book.”

She was stationed in Kansas City, Missouri; Wichita, Kansas, Suwon Air Base in Korea, and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). She was also an instructor at The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Susan Zanol

Susan Zanol holds a photo of her, taken when she was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.

While serving in the Air Force, she reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Some exciting things she experienced was being selected to escort Colin Powell and Senator Patrick Moynihan, and briefing high-level leaders on the then-new ALCM weapon system and B1B Bomber.

“What I found super exciting was lying in the back of a KC-135 refueler aircraft face down beside the boom operator. It felt like I could touch the pilot in the aircraft below. I always waved and got a wave back,” said Zanol.

Staying active

Zanol earned a bachelor’s degree in history and education, and masters' degrees in special education and business administration.

After her military service, Zanol taught at East Middle School in Grand Junction for 21 years until she retired about eight years ago.

“I felt I was at the top of my game when I retired from both professions,” said Zanol. “That’s how I wanted to go out. It was time for others to carry the torch.”

When Zanol retired from teaching, she moved to Montrose because of its cooler summers.

“The views are amazing! Most people are still small-town friendly in Montrose,” said Zanol.

Newly adjusting

But after such an active career, retirement was still a difficult transition.

“I had a hard time adjusting. I didn’t know what to do with the expertise I used in jobs still in my head. My jobs were my passion,” Zanol admitted.

She never really developed hobbies before retiring, but tried volunteering with a couple of organizations. It wasn’t a good fit.

“It felt like work with the absence of pay, and I was often asked to perform tasks that the paid staff didn’t want to do,” she said. “I didn’t feel that my talents were utilized. I felt lost in retirement. There is only so much travel and house cleaning you can do.”

That is, until four years ago when she received the dreaded diagnosis: cancer.

“It changed my priorities overnight. I appreciate each day now,” said Zanol.

Aging gracefully

Today, Zanol enjoys walks, kayaking, Tai Chi, racquet sports, learning Spanish, reading, watching good movies, helping others and being an active citizen in the political process.

“I’m an active member of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)and Free Thinkers of Montrose. I am very proud to be on the board of Bosom Buddies. I am in charge of advertising for Katmandu in Paonia, a cat fostering and rescue nonprofit. No cat left behind!” said Zanol.

She enjoys spending time with family and friends, including members of a “very cool book club,” added Zanol.

With her new perspective on retirement, Zanol has been able to complete her bucket list.

“I am content, and comfortable in my sagging skin (thank you, VA Mental Health) and want to be known for being a decent person with integrity who always takes the time to help out where needed,” she said. “I never want to be too old to be of assistance.”

When it comes to aging, Zanol is positive but honest.

“Physical changes seem to come more rapidly these days. We all remember puberty. This feels similar only with dry skin instead of oily, and shrinking instead of growing,” she said. “I have floaters the size of battleships. I seem to be adding parts like hearing aids and subtracting parts like breasts.”

She admits that growing old isn’t for sissies. But for Zanol, life still has many joys.

“I laugh easily at all sorts of things like animal antics, a good joke, good comedians, Saturday Night Live, with friends about funny things in our past and at meetings when it is totally inappropriate to pop off a quip,” she said. “I mostly laugh at myself, especially when I can’t find things like my glasses when they’re in my hand.”

Her advice for aging gracefully? Live with honor and integrity.

“I have loved, made plenty of mistakes and tried to always give back,” said Zanol. “I am honored to have been a part of the defense of this country and a part of educating young people. I hope that I, at a minimum, taught critical thinking skills and good citizenship with a bit of personal finance thrown in.”

Read more from our navigating transitions series.

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