THE STEREOTYPICAL “senior citizen” entertains herself by easing her Buick over to bingo night, taking a hit off her oxygen tank, then catching the casino bus to slot machine stupefaction. Unless Matlock is on. But when the first wave of baby boomers retires in the next five years, that caricature may change—they will be the healthiest, wealthiest, best-educated bevy of older Americans in history. Shuffleboard ain’t gonna cut it. And don’t call them “senior.”
“When we think of seniors, we think of our parents,” says Mark Skeie, 59. Call them “older adults,” “mature adults,” “elders” (but not the elderly)—just don’t call them for craft time. Jan Hively, for one, hopes the boomers will call on her. Since 2001, the Vital Aging Network (VAN) she founded has been guiding retired Minnesotans away from the bingo table and toward more industrious activities—volunteerism, community leadership, learning opportunities—powering a productive lifestyle she figures they could pursue for decades. “To the last breath!” she vows.
At age 73, Hively is a model of “vital aging.” A one-time deputy mayor of Minneapolis, she does water aerobics, is a senior fellow in the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education, and is a self-described “connector,” peppering her conversation with “You should talk to so-and-so,” then rattling off e-mail addresses from memory. Hively also earned a PhD in education—at age 69—for her research on the productivity of older Minnesotans. At the time, Minnesota had more nursing home beds than any other state, but Hively’s survey found that three-fourths of older people described themselves as healthy and active. Something didn’t add up. If our elders still had much to contribute, why were they being put out to pasture? “Ageism,” Hively declares, a society that hasn’t caught up with the fact that today’s older people are more likely to run a nursing home than need one.
Focusing on strengths, not presumed frailties, Hively started VAN through the University of Minnesota. VAN sponsors a leadership course, holds monthly forums, and maintains an e-mail listserv and website. “Ageism is a pervasive form of bigotry that must be challenged,” states the site, which mostly helps new retirees answer the question “What’s next?”—and assumes it’s not an RV purchase.
Hively worries, however, that the boomers, who have spent so much money on anti-aging, won’t want to make the leap from middle age to vital aging. They’ll expend their resources on Botox instead of building community. In short, they won’t want to be seen as old and get on with it. Hively has no such hang-ups. “I’m 73,” she says, pushing her white hair from her face. “I’m proud of it. This is what it looks like.”
At a recent VAN meeting at the Fridley Community Center, attendees proudly state their ages in turn. Then, Mark Skeie and Mary Kowalski, former coworkers who recently retired from 3M, discuss an environmental initiative for elders, a group they were inspired to form after a global warming expert spoke at a VAN meeting. “What’s the legacy we’re going to leave for our grandchildren?” Skeie asks, then passes around a flyer entitled “Saving the Trout Lily.” “Go out and pull some buckthorn!” Skeie beseeches.
For Skeie, vital aging is a choice, the difference between giving up and giving back. He and his wife, Janet, developed a series of pre-retirement workbooks and classes as his field assignment for VAN’s leadership course. They address what most retirement resources don’t: the fact that your entire life has been mapped out for you, from childhood to office hours; post-retirement, you need to structure your own life. And if you derived your identity from your career, you also need some new goals.
“You can play the slots or work on your handicap at the golf course,” Skeie says, “but what are you going to leave behind?”