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New Career: Productivity and the Health Factor

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Good health is obviously a wild card that determines how active and productive you can be in your latter years. But, for many people, the expectation of physical deterioration is more myth than reality. Not everyone ages in exactly the same way or according to identical timetables. Attitude (and, in some cases, inactivity) may play a larger role than most people yet realize.

In 1965, at 59 years old, Satchel Paige was obviously too old to play professional baseball. So how did the former Kansas City A's pitcher managed to turn in three scoreless innings in a single game for his team that year? Either he didn't know he was too old or he was too old to care what other people thought. "How old would you be if you never knew how old you was?" quipped Paige.

Physical age doesn't have to be synonymous with feeling old. Why accept limitations you don't really have to? My friend Mel Marks, a retired marketing consultant who is nearing 70, still runs every day and competes in marathons. Norman Vaughn, an 86 year old Alaskan adventurer, competes annually in an 1,100 mile dogsled race that has defeated much younger men and women.

What about Dietrich Lamprecht, a 67 year old former steelworker, who's enjoyed more competitive success in retirement than he ever did in traditional work roles? Lamprecht took up bicycle racing after his employer, Kaiser Steel Co. in Fontana, California, went bankrupt 10 years ago.

Spurred on by the joy of competing, Lamprecht won the Masters World Cup in Austria against a field of 2,300 riders from 37 countries. He's also the current U.S. national cyclist champion in his age class. Defying the "one foot in the grave" stereotype of older adults, he is the picture of health and vitality.

In part, it is the dream of winning and the love of competition that keeps him motivated. Like many people, Lamprecht found his calling after retirement, when some of the monetary constraints attached to making a living were removed. Canadian scholar John A.B. McLeish refers to people like him as "Ulyssean adults" because, like Ulysses, they set out on new voyages in their later years.

While some older adults push for new physical adventures, a yearning and quest for creativity may also govern the journey. Marks, for example, has taken up writing and published his first historical work, called Jews Among the Indians (1994, Chicago; Bennis), while corporate attorney Frank Mackey traded in his share of his Little Rock, Arkansas, law practice to begin a new career as an actor.

Defying the conventional notions about older adults, these active folks aren't getting ready to die. They're just learning how to live. Judy Rosemarin believes that older adults need to recapture some of the curiosity and wonder that children typically bring to their projects. She cites a wonderful inspirational story about her friend Harry Lieberman, who retired from his job as a candy maker after 50 years in the business. One day, the 80 year old Lieberman was hanging out at the senior center, waiting for his chess partner, who didn't show. To keep busy, Lieberman allowed himself to be persuaded to start painting.

The furthest thing from this man's mind was starting a new career at the age of 80. But he proved to have such a talent for primitive painting that, like Grandma Moses, his work caught the attention of others and started selling. As a result, his next 24 years of life proved enormously productive. When he was 100 years old, a New York publishing house signed him to a seven year contract to illustrate one of their calendars.

Lieberman died with three years left to go on the contract.

Lieberman didn't set out to emulate the life of Grandma Moses, the American primitive artist from upstate New York. She began painting at the age of 75 because she was "too old to work on the farm and too young to sit on the porch." Nevertheless, the similarity of his late life career path took him down that road anyway.

Productive Years

The key is to involve yourself in activities you find stimulating, regardless of the financial payoff. When she was 54 years old, after a long career as a traditional wife and mother, Shirley Brussell went back to school to complete a master's degree in community organization. While studying at the university, she became involved in creating employment programs for older people. At age 56, she served on a volunteer task force to create an employment counseling service for seniors. Today, at 72, Brussell heads up Operation Able, a nonprofit organization in Chicago with a $4 million annual bud get and 350 employees on its payroll.

For her, retirement is a concept that holds no allure. In stead, she concentrates on planning her future involvements- always thinking in terms of what she wants to learn or where she wants to help. As long as you feel yourself growing, says Brussell, you don't feel old.

The desire to keep growing and to give something back to the community fuels many late life career decisions. For people with that urge, writing and teaching have proved particularly popular options. For inspiration, look at 77 year old, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who says, "Writing history is more fun than doing anything else, so I just keep on doing it." For him, intellectual curiosity is a great preservative.
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