- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

Hollywood's portrayal of senior citizens really bothers Manny Hershkowitz. He despises the image of the elderly as slow, grumpy or feeble, tottering into old age in a rocking chair.

After all, who has time to rock? Not Mr. Hershkowitz. The 85-year-old Reston resident already has retired twice once from the fur business in New York City and again from selling furniture at Tysons Corner. Now his schedule includes competing in the Senior Olympics, playing tennis twice a week, working in a country club pro shop, and designing and sewing needlepoint works that he enters in art shows.

Mr. Hershkowitz is so busy that he had to quit his softball team a few years ago. That was around the time he also served as a ball boy at the 1999 U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, a distinction that earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. That is, until he breaks his own record someday.

"I want to be a ball boy again on my 90th birthday," Mr. Hershkowitz says. "I think being so active keeps me young. I think age is a state of mind."

A generation ago, retirement generally meant you had a few good years to slow down. Today's seniors, however, are living longer and better. The 2000 Census showed that there are 35 million Americans age 65 or older, a 12 percent increase since 1990. That means that retirement could be a few decades to explore dreams, ideas, hobbies and passions that were put off earlier.

"Retirement is definitely different from a generation ago," says Dr. Gene Cohen, a psychiatrist and director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. "One of the big changes is that people only partially retire and are transitioning into small businesses or part-time work. Many people are as busy today as when they are working. Sixty-five is not what it used to be. Most people feel they are going to go strong until they are at least 75."

Going strong will keep a person, well, going strong, says Dr. Cohen, author of "The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life." It doesn't necessarily matter what a senior citizen is involved in it can be travel, sports, volunteer work or educational courses, for instance as long as he is involved, Dr. Cohen says.

When the mind is challenged, it causes the brain to sprout new branches, or dendrites. These new branches actually improve brain function and help compensate for the small loss of brain cells that comes with age, Dr. Cohen says.

"Challenging the mind has a positive effect on the brain," he says.

"Neuroscience validates it," Dr. Cohen says. "You need to use it or lose it, and it is never too late to use it."

Seniors should approach planning their hobbies the same way they approach planning a financial portfolio, he says. That means figuring out what sort of personality and interests you have and then planning activities that go along with both.

"You should start early, strive for balance and have a safety net," he says. "Think of finding your 'social portfolio' as a window with four panes. It can be divided up into group, individual, high mobility and low mobility. If you are a group person with high mobility, you might like to travel. If you are an individual with low mobility, then you might like volunteer work close to home. You can pick several activities from each pane; that way, if your health or mobility changes, you will still remain active."

Never too late

Bob Morgan planned ahead, just as Dr. Cohen advises. Mr. Morgan was a professor of engineering at Washington University in St. Louis for 31 years. The Arlington resident says he always enjoyed music and played the piano as a teen.

"Once I was in college, there just wasn't time," says Mr. Morgan, 68, "but when I was about 44, I thought, 'Gee, it would be nice to have something to do some day other than work.'"

One of Mr. Morgan's two sons is a concert viola player, so he became interested in playing strings. Mr. Morgan began cello lessons as he thought an orchestra instrument would give him more of a group setting.

"Piano is nice, but you wind up playing it by yourself," he says. "I couldn't take up the viola and compete with my son. So the cello seemed like a good choice, but as I get older and have to carry it around, I sometimes think I would be better off with a piccolo."

Today, Mr. Morgan plays with the Georgetown Symphony Orchestra.

"The thing about taking up an instrument at an advanced age is it really gives you an appreciation for how all the instruments fit together," he says. "I was familiar with all these pieces, but until you try and play them you don't realize how complicated they are. It really is quite fascinating."

Jim Clark of Winchester, Va., has used his retirement as a time to share his passion for wildlife with others. Mr. Clark, 68, is a former D.C. transportation official who was instrumental in planning the Metro subway system. He retired from that job in 1980 and then produced slide shows unrelated to wildlife for various clients for about 12 years.

In 1992, Mr. Clark and his late wife, Mildred, founded the Refuge Reporter, a quarterly publication that reports on what is happening at the nation's 500 wildlife refuges.

The Clarks loved wildlife refuges and visited them often, but there was no newsletter for enthusiasts to read so they started one. She took the photos and copy edited. He wrote stories about legislation, history and special events. Mr. Clark also did the layout and managed the circulation for the quarterly publication, which now has about 1,200 paid subscribers.

Mrs. Clark died five years ago, but Mr. Clark's passion for the Refuge Reporter remains. He works on that in between editing the newsletter for the Blue Ridge Hospice in Winchester, rewiring the electricity for a new house and planning his future with his fiancee.

"I always knew I had to be active when I got older," he says. "I couldn't just leave a very intense job like I had and just sit around. Some people don't know how to be busy or don't have any side interests, but I can't imagine myself being inactive."

Neither can Doris Weisman, who retired from the Fairfax County Public Library system four years ago. The Vienna woman says that she always liked learning but that working full time and raising a family had to take precedence.

Today, Mrs. Weisman's passion is the Institute for Learning in Retirement, an organization that offers classes in conjunction with area schools such as American University, George Mason University and the University of Maryland.

Mrs. Weisman has taken everything from ancient history to English literature to music appreciation at George Mason's Institute for Learning in Retirement. The courses are relatively inexpensive and meet for either four weeks or eight weeks, she says.

"Now I have time to do things I have always wanted to do," says Mrs. Weisman, who would not give her age. "I can take courses simply because I am interested. There are no exams, no papers, and we're not working toward a degree."

The future of 'retirement'

The concept of leaving the full-time career track in one's later years may not even be called retirement in future generations, says Scott Bass, dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who has done extensive research on productive aging.

"The concept of what I call 'the third age' has yet to be fully played out," Mr. Bass says. "We may in 30 years really radically look at the whole life course. We may be on a pattern of education/work/family/work. Or we may have sabbaticals in the mid-30s, and then return to work again."

Mr. Bass predicts that work will increasingly be a part of senior's lives. Some of that may be out of necessity, what with warnings of the demise of Social Security and the economic downturn's effect on many financial portfolios.

Many people, however, will be working because they enjoy it, he says.

"Hobbies, travel and golf are only so much for busy people," Mr. Bass says. "The nature of work after retirement will not be the same kind of work they did in their career life. They will be looking for more flexibility and a high level of satisfaction. That can mean paid or unpaid work."

Seniors who are involved in work or hobbies may get social and mental benefits, but the organization they are involved with benefits, too, he says.

"Older people are assets because they have experience and energy," Mr. Bass says. "It is a win-win for everyone to have them involved in the organization. Older people tend to have good work habits, so it is unlikely they wouldn't meet the basic job requirements."

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