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Increasingly, older Americans 'looking for the next chapter'
Society needs to gear up for a huge, older segment of society that wants to -- and can -- contribute immensely, an expert says.

By Kathleen Longcore, 05/26/2004, The Grand Rapids Press

Maggie Fegel took time out from her busy volunteer schedule Tuesday to attend a local seminar touting "A New Vision of Aging:" healthy, vital and independent older adults doing work in the community for which they have a passion.

But for the 89-year-old Belmont woman, it wasn't a new vision. A former business owner, she worked at a paying job well into her 70s. Then she began a new career as a community volunteer, working for organizations including United Way, Senior Neighbors, Senior Meals and God's Kitchen. Fegel and her dog, Tippy Toes, also visit residents of area nursing homes and Alzheimer's units. "I gotta keep busy," she said with a shrug.

She is living a life "ala Jimmy Carter," according to Marc Freedman, a national expert on aging. Freedman spoke to 200 people at the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Area Agency on Aging of West Michigan at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

The forum was the first step in planning for a growing population of older adults, said Tom Czerwinski, director of the Area Agency on Aging in Grand Rapids. Today, one of every 10 Kent County residents is older than 65, and in another 25 years, one of five will be older than 65. Participants were asked what older adults want and need.

Those who work with older adults realized this growing group is not prepared for a retirement lasting 30 years, said Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Nor is Kent County prepared to meet their changing needs.

Freedman said Jimmy Carter's legacy came after his presidency.

"His term as president was a tune-up for the really important work he was going to do," his work with Habitat for Humanity and as a peace activist.

Following Carter's model, the new vision of aging will encourage retirees to continue using their skills in a new arena.

"I think we're at the threshold of a change that's profound," said Freedman, the author of "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America."
The nation must change the way it thinks about "the Golden Years," or it will squander "a windfall" of wisdom and experience, Freedman said. Communities and the organizations must figure out how to tap this huge social resource.

"These are the philanthropists," he said. They vote at a higher level than other age groups. They have wisdom and expertise to offer. In spite of this, figures show they aren't becoming active in their communities.

Freedman blamed a "structural lag" in our culture that has us thinking today's older adults are the same as this age group was in the 1950s and 1960s -- an image that doesn't fit anymore.
"We used to think of things to keep the old folks busy," Freedman said, then told the story of a retired woman executive who got bored after several months of retirement. With years of administrative experience in health care, she went to a nearby hospital and volunteered her expertise. "She said, 'Put me to work. I don't need money.' And the next day they offered her a job filling water pitchers."

Freedman said older adults don't want to spend their last three decades just playing golf: They want to make a meaningful contribution, to leave a legacy. They are realizing that Freud was right when he said the keys to life are love and work.

"They are looking for the next chapter," he said. And they're not necessarily needing to be free of work. They just want to work at something that is "closer to their passion."
"But if we sell older adults on the idea of getting engaged in the community and then we give them water pitchers to fill," it will kill their desire. "The opportunity is enormous. But we have to deliver the goods," Freedman said.

Czerwinski said two groups already formed will continue discussions based on the results of a survey taken at the forum.

Grand Rapids Press May 26, 2004