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Today's seniors redefining retirement by aging actively

Fergus Falls, Minn. - It's going to take more than lunch and bingo to keep the latest generation of retirees happy.

Today's retirees, particularly the baby boom generation, are determined to stay healthy and active and live with a purpose.

In fact, some growl when the word "senior" is used to describe their stage of life.

" 'Senior' just says 'old,' " and they don't like it," said Kathy Sporre, director of the Fergus Falls Senior Citizens Program.

People used to retire at 65 and lived perhaps two more years. Now life expectancies are much longer, and people want more out of the stage of life some call "elderhood," Sporre said.

"People are looking at 'What can I do to leave a legacy? What can I do to help the community I live in?' " Sporre said.

They also want to be as physically vital as their mindset. Two years ago, the Fergus Falls Senior Center created a workout area with cardiovascular and strength-training equipment. Membership shot up 13 percent the first year, she said.

Among those joining were Fergus Falls residents Bette and Richard Scott.

Bette, 59, suffered spinal injuries in a 2007 auto accident. Richard, 70, was paralyzed for a time on his left side due to a 2008 stroke. Both were recently breaking a sweat on weight equipment.

"When I came here, I could hardly walk," Bette said. Now, she can hit 1.8 mph on the treadmill.

"Just since January, I'm a different person," she said.

"It's lowered my blood pressure tremendously," Richard added.

Working out nearby, Jean Lemmon of Fergus Falls churns her arms and feet on a recumbent step machine.

The former director of girls' residence halls at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., quips that she "went from skateboards to walkers" when she joined the center. But she likes the results. She's 60 pounds lighter.

"This is a marvelous place. It's given me my life back," the 68-year-old said.

'Old' is getting older

The age that's "old" for the trio is now farther off.

"It's about 20 years older," Richard Scott said. "When they're old enough to call me 'kid,' they're old."

That tracks with Pew Research Center survey results. A 2009 poll found nearly half of respondents age 50 and over felt at least 10 years younger than their chronological age. And 62 percent said old age arrived when a person hits 75.

Sporre said that's pretty typical.

"There are people who are in their 80s who say, 'I'm not old enough to go to the senior center.' Because old is 10 years older than what they are, regardless, of whether they're 70 or 80. It's always, old is 10 years older," she said.

In fact, in some places, the "I'm not old yet!" movement may mean the closure of senior centers.

In Stark County, Ohio, the Lake Senior Center, also known as the Lake Adult Community Center, is set to close Sept. 30 because of funding problems - and lack of participation.

"It's just like a church that dies because there are no new members coming in," said Christine Thompson, a center volunteer.

Sporre, a former co-chairwoman of the National Institute of Senior Centers' New Models Task Force and a delegate to the National Institute of Senior Centers, said boomers will redefine retirement.

The oldest baby boomers started turning 65 on Jan. 1.

Pew Research Center estimates 10,000 baby boomers a day are turning 65. By 2030, when all of the 79 million boomers have turned 65, 18 percent of the nation's population will be at least that age. Today, 13 percent of the population is that age or older.

Turning 'Me' into 'We'

Baby boomers are sometimes called the Me Generation. The 47- to 65-year-olds grew up in a time of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Older boomers burned their bras, protested and grew their hair long. Thousands died in the Vietnam War.

They've been blamed for some social ills, including a higher divorce rate. But they also pushed the nation forward by demanding equal rights for women and minorities and lobbying for cleaner air and water.

"The baby boom generation has not moved through a life cycle without slamming into it and really affecting it," Sporre said.

"Now they're slamming into elderhood. ... They are the ones themselves that are changing the offerings that are out there because they're a big constituency to contend with," she said.

Mary Tzedt, life enrichment director for Fargo's Waterford retirement community, said seniors she meets want to improve themselves and the world.

"What they don't want to do ... is sit around and be content with bingo and visiting. Participation is the name of the game. And they want a lot of choices," she said.

"They don't want to be passive. They want to be active participants. And they want to have a voice in things. ... They like being decision-makers," she said.

A 2005 survey by Merrill Lynch on retirement, in fact, found that the "Me Generation" is transforming into the "We Generation." Those polled were concerned for the well-being of their children, their parents and communities. Boomers are 10 times more likely to "put others first" (43 percent) than to "put themselves first" (4 percent), the survey indicated.

"Society often looks at our aging population as a burden, when actually it's an absolute wonderful re­source that we need to start tapping," Sporre said.

'Age is matter of mind'

Waterford residents Jim and Joyce Holter are among those who aren't letting grass grow under their feet.

Jim Holter, who will be 81 next week, said that in addition to volunteering at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, he and his wife have traveled heavily for family events. This week, they also handled registration duties for a Norwegian heritage group called the Hallinglag of America.

"We've been on the go for the last two months. We're in good physical health, so we can still do it," said Holter, a former veterinarian and university instructor.

"It invigorates" he said of their activities and meeting new people.

"I think when you hit 90, you're old," Holter added. "Age is a matter of mind."

Fargo-Moorhead senior services providers are mulling activities to attract boomers while still providing core services such as nutrition, transportation and social opportunities for older seniors who rely on them.

Julie Marxen, program coordinator for Moorhead Senior Connections, has concentrated on providing answers the new seniors seek through "Baby Boomer Boot Camps" - a series of seminars with information people at or nearing retirement age can use.

During one presentation, a doctor explained the changes that come with aging. In others, a psychiatrist and Alzheimer's ex­perts discussed mental changes and challenges, and financial experts gave money management tips. Other topics included exercise, education, outdoors activities, alternative medicine, hobbies and crafts.

"A majority of people here aren't retired yet, but they're interested in retiring," Marxen said. At the same time, "they kind of like to break the rules. They don't want to be like the seniors before them."

Marxen, 50, is also a baby boomer, which spurred her to delve deeper.

"What are we going to do when we're in our 70s and 80s? Are we going to sing the Beatles? Karaoke? We need to know what is in store for us," she said. "I need to cater to the baby boomers. We're more active. And I think the expectations are greater than 20 or 30 years ago."

An eye on the future

Valley Senior Services, which provides meals, transportation and other programs for seniors in Fargo-Moorhead and several other North Dakota and Minnesota counties, is considering how its services may adapt in coming years.

"We have to do that, or we won't get the younger senior," said Paul Grindeland, the agency's director of transportation services.

The agency has already revamped dining facility menus to be healthier, with less salt, fat and sugar, he said. "Bone Builders" exercise classes to stem osteoporosis are offered by volunteers. Centers have Internet access for retirees who now feel comfortable with computers for staying in touch with family and friends.

In Springfield Township, Ohio, Bobby Dinkins, director of the community's Boyd Esler Senior/Community Center, said the word "community" was added to attract more people.

"Senior centers are traditionally looked at as a social gathering place, a place to meet with friends on a weekly basis. Activities tend to be passive in nature. Playing cards, bingo, ceramics, board games. ... That's what senior centers have traditionally offered. Today's seniors want to be more active. Also, people are working longer and have less time, so they don't have as much time to spend at the center."

As a result, Dinkins said, the center is offering programming like ballroom dance lessons and Zumba classes. They've also re­ceived a grant for something that's certain to make boomers feel like kids again: a senior playground.

Some senior centers are also dropping the word "senior" from their titles.

Sporre said the Fergus Falls center's marketing committee may consider that change this summer.

" 'Senior center' was a term that was coined back in the '30s and '40s as well. The older adults of this era aren't identifying with that," Sporre said.

The Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583