Retirees with a cause

With more time to spare for their favorite projects, older Americans are retraining themselves as advocates.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Having worked almost 30 years as a strategic adviser to private companies, David Gleicher was used to getting an attentive hearing from his audience. That changed in retirement, however, as soon as he got involved in the movement to oppose a war with Iraq.

Soon, Mr. Gleicher found himself facing off with an incorrigible Providence radio talk-show host and hearing from young working couples that life is too busy to take up a cause. To reach these types, he realized, he would need to learn a few new tricks at the age of 79.

"It demands skills that many of us don't have in listening to people rather than preaching to them," Gleicher says. "It's really hard to listen. I much more easily spout off than take the time to understand the other person's concerns.... But you don't know that you're even talking to the right issue unless you listen first to how the other person sees it."

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Grass-roots advocates have felt the limelight this year as headlines sprouted from public demonstrations, first against the war and then in support of deployed troops on the frontlines. Many in these and other movements, it turns out, come from the ranks of retirees who at last have the time and money to get behind a cause that they believe warrants a public effort.

Stepping into the rough-and-tumble world of issue advocacy can be a daunting challenge for seniors whose work experience has centered on other areas.

But those who help seniors make the jump say that success comes first from learning confidence, and then from learning to apply both new and old skills to a fresh setting.

"The key to their leadership is usually something they're carrying around already," such as a knack for identifying others' gifts and passions, says William Lamb, director of the Senior Leadership Enhancement Initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But it needs to be pointed out to them."

Inspiring seniors to get involved in advocacy marks a growing priority for groups that aim to shape public opinion. The American Association of Retired Persons, for instance, offers seminars to help its volunteers write persuasive letters and articles to advance the group's legislative agenda.

And the Interfaith Alliance, a left- leaning coalition of 150,000 individuals from 65 different religious backgrounds, relies on seniors to execute the majority of its local advocacy projects.

As baby boomers reach retirement, the nation's retired population is expanding to include more and more people who came of age by doing advocacy for one cause or another in the turbulent 1960s. But regardless of past experience, the enterprise of undertaking advocacy in retirement usually requires some new learning, whether that means boning up on complex issues or simply finding courage to take a public stand.

Rachel Paskowski, a retired nurse in Amesbury, Mass., lives a largely private life of keeping a kosher diet and honoring the Saturday Sabbath as a Nazarene Jew. But when she saw antiwar protests continuing after the war with Iraq began last month, she traveled to a busy highway crossing by herself to offer an alternative message with a sign: "Pray for President Bush and Our Troops."

"It took a lot of prayer and fasting to get me out there," Ms. Paskowski says. "I wanted to make sure [my motivation] was coming from my heavenly Father."

For Paskowski, being an advocate now means spending every Sunday afternoon rallying for the troops until the war is finished. In her second week, about 20 other civilians joined her in a cold downpour, rousing a chorus of supportive horns every time the traffic light changed.

For Rita Spina of Pittsboro, N.C., who's in her 70s, the journey into advocacy involved an education in crossing cultural boundaries.

In retirement from her private psychology practice, Ms. Spina learned of the struggles in a largely black township where residents lacked home healthcare services.

Finding money to send a visiting nurse would help enormously, she thought, but the project wouldn't fly until she learned to work with the local church.

"The church is the focal point of the African-American community [in Jordan Grove] ... but you can't go in there and say, 'I am the power that's going to help you'," Spina says. "You have to humble yourself before people who are trying to meet their own needs."

A workshop on "Dismantling Racism" at the Catham County Health Department gave her the tools, Spina says, to recognize other people's perceptions of her as a powerful white person, to diffuse related fears, and to secure church support for the grant that now funds nurse visits in Jordan Grove.

Although many retirees prefer golf or socializing to unglamorous labor in the grass-roots trenches, others find themselves drawn to advocacy as they get older, according to Victor Marshall, director of the Institute on Aging at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Those so inclined tend to be the well- educated who hold passionate beliefs, often motivated by religious faith, Mr. Marshall says. They generally have a lifetime of social concerns behind them, but the responsibilities of work or family had kept them from investing much time into shaping public opinion or pushing legislation.

"When you pass the half-way mark in life, the question is, 'Have I made my mark?' " Marshall says.

"It's like a sense of obligation almost. They say, 'I've had a good life. It's time for me to give back.' Plus they feel a release from social norms. They feel less constrained by social codes and are willing to stick their neck out for a cause. They have nothing to lose."

How to put that experience to best use in the information age, however, is a matter of some debate.

At the Interfaith Alliance, for instance, younger staff members handle the news media and electronic technologies in order to let elders do what feels more comfortable to some of them - writing letters to a congressman in longhand, for example, or organizing gatherings with longtime friends at a church or social club. Seniors are invited to the group's occasional workshops to learn how to write a press release or design a website, although training for seniors concentrates more on using networks of people to advance an agenda.

"They've got great ideas and great contacts, but it isn't always easy for them to get online," says Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Interfaith Alliance.

"It's not something our senior citizens have access to or get around to, because the Internet can be kind of a confusing thing [to them]."

But others say that seniors have great, untapped potential to participate in the fast-paced world of advocacy, where a breaking news story can create a fleeting window of opportunity for timely public comment. Seniors just need an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of electronic machines and cyberspace.

"The myth about older workers is they're not willing to learn new technologies," Marshall says. "Sometimes it takes a little longer, but they have more time than other people do to put into it."

Even the most tech-savvy seniors, however, find themselves challenged to learn the secrets of long-term inspiration.

Michael Wood, a retired airline pilot in his 60s who lives a "hermit" existence in Wenham, Mass., has written letters to the editor for decades and feels enough ease with computers to trade stocks online. For him, the challenge of advocacy in retirement seems to be learning not to get discouraged in his campaigns to curb illegal immigration, control global overpopulation, or protect animals from abuse.

"Most of the people I talk to about these issues have no comment or they go on to something mundane," Mr. Wood says. "I've never heard anyone say, 'What's the name of a group I could join to do something about that?' They want to know instead when you want to play tennis tomorrow."

Yet even those working on the most enduring of problems seem to harbor a passion for helping others become advocates in their own rights.

Silvia Disenhof, who's in her 80s, continues to teach English as a second language to recent immigrants, a volunteer project she has been involved with for the past 25 years. Her former students now take up their own cases and causes in a manner she finds "extremely satisfying."

"My cause is to educate and to help," Ms. Disenhof says. "I've become a mother and a grandmother to a lot of them. It gives me great pleasure to see them learn to advocate for themselves."

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