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Retirees with a cause

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

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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.

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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."