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Redefining Retirement in America - 2002-05-19

It's hard to characterize America's retired citizens. That's partly because they cover such a huge age range. Some retire in their fifties; others continue to work into their seventies, eighties, even their nineties and beyond.

Sara Rix, a senior policy advisor for the American Association of Retired Persons, says you can't even say for sure what the average retirement age is in the United States. "There are some pretty good estimates, suggesting that the average age at which people leave the labor force and retire is about 62 or 63, but the reason why you have to be careful with a number like that is that increasing numbers of people today leave the labor force and return after a period of time," she explains. "So we really don't have a nice, neat retirement age."

And there is no typical life style for America's retired population. VOA's Nancy Beardsley talked with retirees in the Washington, D.C. area.

ECHO is a community service center in Springfield, Virginia that provides food, clothing, housewares and other aid to needy people. On this particular day, a volunteer group that includes many retired people sorts through donations.

"[Size] 14 to 16 jeans, we desperately need them… And we also need a set of dishes. She has a family of five, so I need maybe six," says one volunteer.

Lynn Nelson Paretta became an ECHO volunteer after retiring five years ago from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. She says it's rewarding to help so many different groups in her community.

"Today, we had a family that had been burned out of their home over the weekend, and they needed some sets of clothing, it's gratifying to see that they can walk out of here and have some decent clothing to wear at least for a few days," she points out. "And of course we have the newly arrived immigrants who are struggling to make ends meet and need things to get them through. We also sometimes see abused women and they leave their homes with nothing and they need to come somewhere and get the basics so they can start their new lives."

Retirees like Lynn Nelson Paretta account for a large percentage of America's volunteer work force. They can be found everywhere from charity organizations and churches to schools, hospitals and museums.

Sara Rix of the AARP points out Americans stay busy in many other ways after they leave their paying jobs. "Many older people spend a lot of time surfing the net. They're traveling. They're engaged in sports, they're mountain climbing, they're playing tennis, they've got recreational vehicles and they're traveling around the country, and they continue to interact a great deal with their grandchildren." The retirement years aren't an easy time for all Americans. According to Sara Rix, they may face age discrimination if they decide to go back to work again. And a significant number struggle financially. "There are many older persons, particularly women, and particularly minority women, who don't have adequate income, or who are in poor health or whose families have died, or who never had close families to begin with, who aren't living the great retirement life."

But Sara Rix says a growing number of older Americans, those fortunate enough to be in good health and have adequate pensions, are redefining what it means to be retired.

The Northern Virginia Senior Softball League includes well over 400 members, ranging in age from their early fifties into their mid-eighties. Some members drive more than an hour each Tuesday and Thursday for a morning of softball. Why do they do it?

"Competition. Playing with the other older guys. Exchanging war stories about our youth," answers one player.

Another says, "It gets you outside, gets you active and you meet people from the entire region, all the way from guys who play just as well as when they were teenagers to guys who can barely walk with a lot of hip and knee replacement." A third player explains, "I've been playing softball since I was in high school, and I like meeting people and I like team sports and I like a little competition, but not too much. I like to have fun."

Retired Americans are also finding new opportunities in special housing complexes for older residents. Franklin Newhall and his wife joined the Collington Life Care Community in Mitchellville, Maryland nearly fourteen years ago.

"The way I phrased it when we moved here, I gave up 41 friends in a condo we had and exchanged that for 300 wonderful people who live here with me," says Mr. Newhall.

The number of activities in Franklin Newhall's life also increased dramatically. Now 88, The former government climatologist draws on his scientific background to help with upkeep of the Collington lake and walking trails. He also helps organize movie nights, and he assists with the sound system for other special events. That means keeping up with new media technology and the latest film reviews. Mr. Newhall explains, "Over the years I just didn't go to movies, so now I'm playing catch up."

But being so busy also has its challenges. "The way it's turned out with me is I don't have enough time for all the volunteer work I have to do," says Mr. Newhall. "Sometimes I simply have to say, 'Look, this is volunteer work, and this doesn't have to be done all the time.'"

Retirees say being able to make such choices is one of the benefits of leaving their paying jobs. ECHO volunteer Lynn Nelson Paretta points to another advantage. "You're free to rediscover who you really are," she says. "You're free to go back and build on those aspects you perhaps did not have a chance to express when you were in the working world."

In the years ahead, the so-called baby boomers, born in large numbers after World War II, will be swelling the ranks of retired Americans. And that means more retired people working as volunteers, playing on sports fields, and even looking for new jobs.