Documentary on aging well features busy senior Sharon Russakoff

In her early 20s, UTC resident Sharon Russakoff suffered an accident that left her with a chronic disability and made daily routines increasingly harder as time passed. Now, at age 71, she will be portrayed as an example of how to age successfully in the KPBS-TV documentary “Re’flect.”

Russakoff’s episode “Showing Up at Every Stage,” the first of six in the “Re’flect” series, will initially air at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12 on KPBS-TV. A related community dialogue will be held 1-3 p.m. Monday, Jan. 16 at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center (JCC), 4126 Executive Drive, where the episode will be screened following a panel discussion with health-care and aging experts, including Russakoff.

A patron of the arts and a philanthropist, the list of activities Russakoff is involved with is impressive. “I see myself as someone who refuses to be a victim. My family doesn’t do self-pity. There’s so much that I can still do and it’s wonderful. You can spend your life hiding or you can be out there and have a life,” she told La Jolla Light.

As an usher for the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Opera, a singer in the Pacific Coast Chorale and a volunteer seamstress at Cygnet Theater, Russakoff fills her days supporting artistic and charitable causes. And she does all of it without driving.

“I stopped driving 15 years ago because my depth perception is not reliable,” she explained, adding that was one of the consequences of her accident.

Her decision not to drive was what prompted the family’s move from their previous residence in San Carlos to University City, one of the county’s public transportation hotspots that allows Russakoff to be independent. “When you have no choice, you get very organized,” she laughed. When she can’t take a bus, she gets a ride from her husband or one of her sons, Mark, 42 and Jonathan, 34.

She’s also a member of the La Jolla JCC, where she works out at the gym, attends music lessons and swims. “Six months ago or so, the producers of ‘Re’flect’ contacted the head of the JCC and asked for a list of active seniors to be interviewed. My husband and I were in that group, and they chose me!”

‘Re’flect,’ episodes will air in January and April. The documentary provides insight on the lives of seniors who conduct fulfilling lives. And of that, Russakoff is an example. The show’s co-producer and writer, Theresa Hoiles, said in a statement: “As we learned more about her, we realized she is unstoppable. The woman never seems to slow down. She is always doing something. And she really becomes the go-to person for everyone she works with. She really runs the show.

“We also feel her story will resonate with people who say they want to, but find reasons why they don’t get involved with things.”

When asked how she finds the variety of activities she’s involved in, Russakoff replied, “I get the ideas through networking. We started in ushering because a friend became an usher captain and needed someone to be on the team. And from there, basically, it was networking.”

Music has been a part of her life since her early years. At age 4, Russakoff was already singing with a choir back in Philadelphia, from where she hails. “My eldest sister was in a choir, which to audition for, you had to be 7, and my mother decided she had one kid out of the house, and she wanted the other one out, too… so she got me an audition, and I sang with them many years all through high school.”

Her accident happened during an ice storm, when the public transportation vehicle she was riding in collided with an ice block, and it threw her around. “It took a year for anybody to take me seriously and take spinal X-rays. These revealed I had dislocated six vertebrae, and by then, it was too late to do anything. It changed the way I do things. There are things I can’t do, but others I can, and I choose to focus on those,” she explained.

Russakoff said she moved to San Diego County in 1980, when doctors told her the harsh cold East Coast climate was contributing to the deterioration of her health so much that if she didn’t relocate, she would be in a wheelchair by age 40.

When to Watch: Russakoff’s episode on ‘Re’flect,’ airs 8:30-9 p.m. Jan. 12, Feb. 23 and Feb. 27 on KPBS-TV.