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Retirees with a cause

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

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2003

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.

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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."

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."