The nation's original baby boomer turned 65 on New Year's Day, representing another milestone for a generation.
Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, who celebrated her birthday with family at her second home on Maryland's Eastern Shore, is the very first of more than 78 million baby boomers who will turn grayer during the next two decades. That means they can collect Social Security — and now Medicare benefits.
According to the Pew Research Center, about 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day. All baby boomers, those who were born between 1946 and 1965, will reach that threshold by 2030.
Despite a recent Pew survey that found baby boomers feel more downbeat than other generations about their future, Casey-Kirschling is taking a different approach.
"I'm OK with knowing that I don't know what tomorrow will bring," the retired teacher said from her home in Earleville in Cecil County. "I'm going to live for today. And I'm thankful that I could live for today, and I am healthy."
Casey-Kirschling retired at 60 and two years later began taking her Social Security benefits early. Since then, she has volunteered, spent time with her six grandchildren and traveled with her husband, Patrick.
Because of the "first baby boomer" distinction, Casey-Kirschling has garnered a lot of media attention over the years. Since her late 30s, she has been featured in Money and People magazines, as well as in other national and regional publications and on television stations.
And this year was no different. She had just given an interview to NPR when she spoke with The Baltimore Sun about dealing with her celebrity, her generation and what it means to hit the 65-year threshold.
Question: How do you deal with all the media attention?
Answer: In the beginning, it was overwhelming. But I said I'm just going to be who I am and do what I can, especially for Social Security. They asked me to do public service [ads] for the generation and help baby boomers apply [for benefits] online and get direct deposit.
Whatever I could do, I would try to have a positive impact. So many things are negative in the nation today. Like all human beings, we are not a perfect generation. We certainly created so much, built so much and have an incredible work ethic to this day.
Q: Do you feel pressure to represent your generation?
A: With the media asking me questions, I always remind them that no one person could speak for 78 million people. You're going to have a lot of different viewpoints. My viewpoint is right down the middle.
We get a bad reputation for being materialistic, but I think by our sheer numbers and our education — we're the most educated generation that's ever been — we really built a lot of what the country is today. A lot of it is very good. And, of course, some of it was on the negative side.
Q: How do you feel about your generation?
A: We were part of a great generation, that our greatest gift was the acceptance of diversity. We did that. We saw the struggles.
We still have the spirit of volunteerism and giving back. We have so many ways to be proud of our accomplishments, but we along the way made mistakes. Social Security, for instance. We worked so hard and paid into that every paycheck. People are now saying, how dare we take from Social Security, like that wasn't our money. It was our money.
And because other people raided the Social Security trust and kicked the can down the road and now it's coming to pass, they're upset. How dare they? That's a total travesty.
As far as Medicare goes, they allowed so much corruption and fraud in it, and they allowed that to continue, instead of cleaning it up.
One thing about our government is they are reactive and not proactive. They certainly have been in the last 15 years.
Q: How do you feel now at 65?
A: To be honest with you, it's kind of like "Oh my gosh, I am five years from 70." At 60, I didn't say that.
First of all, I am still out there playing ball with my grandchildren. But definitely, I feel the aging process upon us.
Having said that, as healthy as I could stay, I keep moving my mind, my body and my spirituality. Spirituality is a big part of my life right now. Mortality is right in front of your face.
I would say that there's an awareness that "Oh my gosh, I'm 65." From my standpoint, I'm aware of it and I keep doing what I'm doing.
Q: How has the recession affected you and your retirement?
A: Our pensions were hit. Some [people] lost 50 percent of their retirement. I'd say we lost 15 percent of our retirement because of how we invested.
We had planned to possibly sell property, and we're waiting for the market to come back.
We have this plan to downsize. Right now, in this economy, you can't sell a whole heck of a lot of anything, unless things pick up.
I'm a Southwest geek for cheap [airline] tickets. I have a Prius, and I'm thrilled to have this Prius because we could drive great distances and not spend nearly as what other people are spending on fuel.
Definitely, we're aware of it, and we definitely cut down at Christmas. Instead of presents for six grandchildren, we do a Pollyanna [gift exchange, like Secret Santa]. We thought that was the neatest thing for the kids to save and for us to save. Really, how much do you need?
We're not going out to dinner as much. I'm back to using my crockpot a lot.
It's kind of nice, in a way. It refocused people. You're becoming more into family and community and helping others right now.
Q: How do you feel about the future?
A: I am the type of person where my glass is always half-full. I have a great issue with the naysayers and cynics. There's always been naysayers and cynics, but when you get ugly cynical and become doom-and-gloom, in my mind, it doesn't get you anywhere.
I really feel like some of the things that have happened are going to have to change the country's direction for the good of the generations to come. That's not just the deficit. There's the environment, the manufacturing sector.
That doesn't happen overnight. Nothing happens overnight. But that has to be a positive direction. I'm very hopeful that that will start to evolve, slowly.
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