Seniors redefine retirement


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - In less time than it took them to get from their home on Long Island to Manhattan for a night on the town, Susan and Irwin Levy can get from their new, much larger, contemporary house in the countryside outside Chapel Hill to Raleigh for the symphony or ballet.

At 69, Irwin Levy has rediscovered tennis, takes classes for retirees at Duke University and reads a handful of newspapers online every day. Susan Levy, 62, audits classes at the University of North Carolina and has worked as a docent at the Ackland Art Museum.

Cocktail hour on Wednesdays finds the couple gathering with neighbors at the patio cafM-i in the Village of Fearrington, the residential community they moved to four years ago, where Belted Galloway cows from Scotland graze by a silo at the entrance to provide a sort of faux-farm tableau.

"We feel like we're at summer camp but with a bigger allowance," says Irwin Levy, a retired advertising executive.

They are active, engaged and possessing the resources to enjoy this more relaxed phase of life. Theirs is a rich, contented retirement, one that reflects today's boom times and the increasingly youthful population trading in a suit and briefcase for a T-shirt, tennis racquet and textbook.

"My line was, 'I was not retiring, I was refiring,'" says Susan Levy, a former New York teacher and school administrator.

Not that the Levys, with two grandchildren and a third on the way, see the Carolina blue sky without a cloud in it. They know that not everyone made the successful investments they did that supplement their Social Security for a comfortable retirement.

Susan Levy worries about education and the fact that many youngsters don't know how to tie their shoes by the time they get to kindergarten because their parents are too busy to teach them. Irwin Levy believes race relations in America are brittle and in grave need of improvement.

As many of today's newly minted senior citizens redefine retirement, gravitating in greater numbers to university regions like this one where they can keep both mind and body on the go, their concerns appear to be more diverse - and, among those interviewed here, less monolithic and self-centered - than those of the generation of older Americans they are replacing.

With retirement incomes putting them well over the U.S. Census Bureau's median household income of $21,729 for people 65 and older, they have the freedom and luxury to gaze beyond their own needs to more public-spirited and outward-looking concerns.

In fact, rather than a steady drumbeat of complaints over the traditional senior worries of Social Security and the cost of health care, one hears a broader range of concerns among older Americans interviewed in North Carolina's Research Triangle area, one of the nation's new retirement centers. The area's lively cultural and academic life, world-class health facilities and gentle weather have inspired many seniors to move there.

Many deplore what they see as an alarming decline in morality that is producing a generation of unruly, irresponsible children. Although thrilled to read newspapers online or fascinated by their ability to research their latest ailment on the Internet, some older Americans suspect the nation is racing through a technological revolution it is unprepared to handle.

There are a few nearly universal refrains heard among the New York and Chicago accents that seem more prevalent here than Southern drawls: a disdain for government and politics - especially the influence of money on politics - and a concern that the prosperity that has allowed many to enjoy their post-working years without worries about health care costs hasn't reached everyone.

"The biggest problem in this country is the disparity between rich and poor," says Florry Glasser, 69, a Baltimore transplant to Chapel Hill. "Great dangers come from that disparity. Society cannot be a peaceful society if there are tremendous differences between rich and poor."

Glasser takes a strength training class twice a week at the local seniors center, does line dancing at nursing homes and consulting work on family and workplace issues. She toils in her garden and has taken an interest in Spanish art.

She has health insurance from a previous job as a backup to Medicare that provides such benefits as prescription drug coverage. But she knows that just down the street in the old mill town of Carrboro, people like Allie Brewer struggle to stretch their Social Security checks to cover escalating drug costs.

"When I go to the grocery store now, I have to make do with a few less vegetables," says Brewer, 85, whose prescription drugs cost just over $150 a month.

Like Glasser, many older Americans, long considered part of the Democrats' base, believe it's up to the federal government to help level the playing field. "I was a Depression kid," she says. "I know what FDR did to pull us out of the Depression, making life better and providing the safety net."

But as the senior population grows more affluent, educated and independent - "I no longer feel anything the government will do is going to affect the rest of my life," says Irwin Levy - they are not as unified in their view of the government as the answer and, say political scientists, not as solidly Democratic.

"The government has a function, but what should be taking the place of government is charitable organizations," says Elliot Herskowitz, 71, a retired Wall Street trader and swing voter.

"They can be much more efficient and effective. Let the American people go and run with the ball and they do a pretty good job."

When the last of the baby boomers hit retirement age in 2030, fully one in five Americans will be older than 65, compared with about one in eight today. Today's young adults in the 18-21 range are expected to swell the ranks of retirees a few decades later.

Seniors like Herskowitz believe today's young people already view private retirement accounts - such as IRAs and 401(k) plans - as more significant to their retirement than Social Security.

"If anything, Social Security will be the supplement to their own funds when they retire rather than the other way around," he says.

Still, he and others express little enthusiasm for the changes in Social Security proposed by presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore. They believe, as 64-year-old Lydia Sigmund, a New Jersey computer operator who retired to Chapel Hill 10 years ago, says, "They're using it as a political football."

But with more retirees enjoying the good life because of their private investments, some are willing to consider changes to allow individuals to invest a small portion of their Social Security taxes in private stock accounts, as Bush has suggested, or provide for an additional private account for low- and middle-income workers matched by the government, as Gore has proposed.

"It makes sense to me," says Maidi Hall, 69, who six months ago moved to the Forest at Duke in Durham, one of a number of retirement communities springing up near college campuses.

"My husband always weighted our retirement fund heavily toward equities and it's a darn good thing. It's done much better than a fixed income."

Older retirees, however, seem opposed to any tampering with the 65-year-old system.

"I wouldn't trust my retirement funds to the stock market," says Sam Marks, 85, a former Cleveland jewelry store owner who cuts a dapper figure with his waxed handlebar mustache and seersucker slacks.

Similarly, many seniors complain bitterly about the costs of prescription drugs, but they are skeptical of the coverage plans espoused by the politicians - especially the Republican proposal for coverage provided by insurance companies, partially subsidized by the government.

"I really don't want to throw it into the hands of the insurance companies," says Bernie Bender, 70 and a Republican. "That's not my idea of a good drug plan. I'd rather go with the Democratic plan. Make it a part of Medicare."

But a number of seniors here say they are troubled by larger, somewhat metaphysical concerns about the nation and the world at the start of a new millennium.

For Edwin Caldwell, 65, a former North Carolina state worker who took early retirement to care for his mother, it's a disquieting sense that technology is changing all aspects of life - and not for the better.

"The world is moving too fast for me," Caldwell says as he wins a game of dominos at Northside Senior Center in Chapel Hill. "I'm used to going to a record store and buying a record. Now they're talking about downloading it."

Caldwell got a computer for the senior center, courtesy of a local nonprofit group, but few people have touched it. "Seniors have a fear of computers," he says. "How are they going to survive?"

He worries, too, that computers will widen the divide between rich and poor, leaving the underclass even further behind.

In his apartment at the Forest at Duke, 82-year-old composer Robert Ward, a retired Duke professor who won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for music for his opera, "The Crucible," has similar concerns about the technological age.

Technology, for instance, is making it more difficult for artists of all kinds to protect, or make money from, their work, he says.

"How do you have the right kind of control over all the technological advances made over the last century?" Ward wonders, sitting by the synthesizer where he writes music.

"The concern is whether it's used to benefit people or put more power into the hands of people who hold it now," he says.

Many older people - Democrats and Republicans - say that what is getting left behind as the world enters a new century is morality, what they call "old-fashioned values."

"Our moral values are crazy," says Marilyn Jones, 72, a Fearrington village resident from McLean, Va., whose husband served in a senior Pentagon post during the Reagan administration.

Jones hates what she sees at the movies, on TV, in magazines. She's angry that prayers aren't allowed in schools. She is angry that young people are making millions from Internet companies while teachers make $32,000 a year. She would like to see stricter dress codes in schools and parents who spend more time with their children.

"I hate when people say I'm just old and crotchety," she says. "I'm not old and crotchety. I just want a better, more civilized world where people really care about each other."

A world - and eight miles - away from the Jones' idyllic hamlet, Mildred Council, 71, better known as "Mama Dip," hustles to put up her pies and pickled beets for the lunch rush at "Dip's Country Kitchen," the Chapel Hill restaurant she has run for 24 years.

Council, who this month was presented the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. as a tribute to her successful, Southern-style restaurant and rendered the governor nearly speechless with her pecan pie, expresses similar worries about young people.

She feels good about her eight grown children, some of whom work in her restaurant. "We pumped them up," she says, describing her child-rearing during a time of racial turbulence.

But she worries that her 23 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren might be rudderless, lacking the self-awareness and pride - and parental supervision and involvement - that her children had.

While today's senior generations - from World War II veterans to younger "unretireds" - are highly patriotic, quick to hang out a flag around the Fourth of July, they are deeply cynical about and disappointed with government.

Florry Glasser complains that politicians have turned the presidential election into "The Survivor" TV show.

"I feel despondent about my Congress," laments Gene Lehman, 81, a Democrat.

"I don't feel represented in any way," gripes Kay Gundlach, 68, a Republican.

"When you go into a restaurant and all they have on the menu is tripe a la mode or Brussels sprouts, you don't necessarily want to sit down at the table," quips Elliot Herskowitz, explaining why he is not registered with either party.

But Herskowitz, like so many who have lived through times of war and times of peace, through hard times and boom times, says his "tremendous faith in the American people" keeps him optimistic.

"Democracy seems at times to flounder," echoes Robert Ward, who recently wrote a piece of music he titled "Cherish Your Land" for a museum opening in Raleigh.

"But it has a way of doing the right things when it has to."

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