The Caregivers is a unique series focused on the challenges and triumphs of caregiving. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and Word In Black.

During the financial crisis in 2008, Makeda Smith lost nearly everything — her career, her partner, her home, and her pet. She was 50 years old and started to question her purpose. A serendipitous encounter with a stranger on a sidewalk in Hollywood inspired her to take a big step in a new direction for the sake of her mental health.

You’re a pole artist and athlete. How did you get started?

I was walking down the street in Hollywood and I passed this woman. She was doing a split on the sidewalk and there was a photographer taking a picture of her. I kept walking. Then, next thing I know — it was so weird because she was walking next to me. I looked over and I said, “Oh, I just saw you back there getting your photo taken. She was like, ‘Darling, some young man asked to take a photo of me, so I thought I’d do a split!” We just chit-chatted and I was like, “I’m not trying to get in your business, but how old are you? She said, “75.” She motivated me to start back exercising.

So you signed up for a yoga class to get some flexibility going?

Yoga class kicked my behind. It was so boring. I was like, “Oh my God, I cannot do yoga for the next 10 years (which is crazy because now I’m a yoga fanatic). At that time, I was like, “Oh no, I just gotta find something else. It’s not going to be yoga.” 

What was your first pole dance class like? 

Everybody was super friendly. The teacher was amazing and I had the most amazing experience. We spent the first 15-20 minutes of class doing yoga and then we moved around the pole. My spirit felt elevated. 

You attended another class. Then another. 

I was going to pole studios two and three times a week. I was learning different moves and I was literally getting stronger…I was the slowest learner, so every time I learned something, I had a huge sense of accomplishment.

How did people react?

People were congratulating me and some people were checking in on me to see if I was OK. But I was like, I’ve been training like an athlete for eight, nine, 10 months now, so I didn’t care really what people thought. 

What do you wish more people embraced about aging? 

As we get older, as women, people tell us we’re supposed to shut down, and we’re not worthy, and what we can’t do — and basically we’re just supposed to sit home and be grandmamas and cook for everybody and not take care of ourselves. Never let nobody tell you that you’re too old to do anything because you’re really not.

Makeda Smith is the founder of Flying Over 50, a platform devoted to encouraging diverse images of women as they age. She is also a publicist, mother, and grandmother.

Mental well-being is a cornerstone of healthy living. AARP wants to help you get healthier and stay healthy. Visit AARP’s Mental Health Center at for tips, tools and resources that can help you develop healthy habits for mental well-being.