Ethlyn Christensen retired 15 years ago - and hasn't stopped working since. The phone in her Denver apartment rings all the time. Every day is full of something to do that seems vitally important to her.
She is in demand as a speaker, a panelist, and a delegate. An octogenarian, she loves best traveling around the country by train, because it gives her time to catch up on her mystery novels. With a variety of interests, she is demonstrating that life after retirement can be full, rich, and helpful to others.
Her numerous activities as a political activist for the rights of senior citizens were recognized and rewarded recently in New York, when she received the 1982 ''Woman of Conscience'' award by the National Council of Women. This award has been given annually since 1963 to pay tribute to a woman who has demonstrated her concern for humanity and her dedication to the welfare of people. It carries with it a $1,500 grant from Clairol Inc. as part of company public service programs that support the efforts of women.
When Miss Christensen heard the words of the song ''Suddenly You're Older'' before receiving the award, she said: ''It's a nice song, but not accurate. You don't get older suddenly. It creeps up on you. But when I realized I was older myself, I knew I wanted to work with other older people and help them live more fully. Some people call me a role model. I just think of myself as doing what comes most naturally for me to do.''
Others who have received the award have ranged from such world-renowned women as Rachel Carson and Margaret Mead to those who have made their contribution at local or regional levels, such as Annie Mae Bankhead, who was cited in 1969 for her leadership in developing basic community services and spirit in College Point, Ark.
To mark the 1982 United Nations World Assembly on Aging, the council agreed that this year's award should go to a woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the social needs of senior citizens. In the United States 25 million citizens are over 65 years of age, the Council points out, calling this ''a group that represents an affluent market, a powerful voting bloc, a vast reservoir of skills and talents, and the fastest-growing population segment in the country.''
Judges agreed that Miss Christensen's genuine, caring sense for the aging was outstanding. As Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm said: ''Few persons in Colorado contribute as much to the public good as does Ethlyn Christensen. She has spent the last 15 years fund raising, collecting petition signatures, lobbying, conducting surveys, testifying at hearings, giving interviews, and speaking out on behalf of the elderly. Her leadership and tenacity, her ability to set goals and mobilize others to achieve them, have made her a powerful force for good. And she has no intention of slowing down.''
Miss Christensen was a delegate to the 1981 White House Conference on Aging. She has served on the Denver Commission on Aging, the Governor's Advisory Committee on Employment, the Advisory Committee to the Office of Aging of the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the Executive Committee of the Colorado Special Legislation Committee, and the Advisory Committee of the Denver University Institute on Gerontology.
During an interview in New York, this involved woman cited a few of the specific accomplishments of which she is most proud. ''I worked very hard to get the tax on groceries eliminated in Colorado,'' she said, ''because it was especially hard on senior citizens.''
As volunteer president of the Health Support Council for Capitol Hill Seniors , she works with a board and an advisory committee to help people live independently in their own homes for as long as possible. ''Also after we discovered what a difficult time many senior citizens were having with transporation to do their shopping, we arranged for shopping buses to go regularly every week to all the senior residence buildings. We got a 5 cents senior-citizen fare on the city buses, and reserved front seats for seniors. Now we are on our soapbox for a ruling to prohibit buses from moving until all elder citizens have found their seats.''
As chairman of a task force on social security for the Colorado delegation to the Washington conference on aging, she was able to visit legislators there and to lobby for conference recommendations that the Social Security Trust Fund be kept intact.
Her next project, she says, will be to find a way to establish a central service number (such as the 911 number) that seniors can phone for information, guidance, and help. ''When elders start phoning a list of agencies, they often get such a tiring runaround,'' she says. ''They need a knowledgeable voice at the other end who can help ascertain their needs and follow through by getting them connected with the right sources or resources.''
What can senior citizens do for themselves? Remain politically active, Miss Christensen says, vote regularly, and learn the techniques of lobbying. She tells them to speak up in their own behalf, because ''legislators will be far more interested in what you have to say if you say it yourself.'' She also urges seniors to maintain relations with other people, to volunteer, to stay involved, to use their skills, and ''to get out and do things and not sit at home and turn the dial on the television set.''
Miss Christensen earned a master's degree in political economy from the University of Wyoming, did graduate work at Columbia University, and spent almost her entire professional career with the YWCA in Kansas, Pennslyvania, Oklahoma, and New York. At the time of her retirement in 1967, she was Director of the Bureau of Research and Program Resources for the National Board of the YWCA in New York. Since that time she has made her home in Denver, devoting her energies and abilities to the welfare of the elderly.