Baby boomers, the new old people

The Baltimore Sun

Clutching a freshly purchased Pilates video, Liz Overstreet, who's 56, pauses for a second to think about what she, a vibrant working woman with toned arms and thick hair, is doing at, of all places, an AARP convention.

"I'm not old," Overstreet, who is from Lanham, almost scoffs. "If you're 50 or 55 or 60, you're not old. This show is about - what are they calling it? - 'life after 50.'

"We're all here looking for stuff to do, places to go, things to buy and information. Our parents were old people. This stuff is for the new old people."

As the first of the baby boomers, a generation that wants nothing to do with traditional senior citizenry, approach Social Security eligibility, AARP has bent to reach them. The organization has, institutionally, pulled itself up off of the sofa, bought a gym membership and taken a long, bracing swig of energy drink.

AARP's national expo, which closes today in Washington, reflects the new reality of aging.

Attendees are not morbidly browsing for the latest in walkers and assisted living. They're hitting seminars on online dating, making their dreams come true, retiring abroad. They're rocking out to Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole and getting inspiration from celebrities as diverse as Cal Ripken Jr., Gene Simmons of the '70s rock band KISS and Magic Johnson.

But perhaps the most revealing aspect of the show is the immense exhibit hall, where hundreds of companies are clamoring to capture business from what's perhaps the most fertile senior market of all time.

They're selling vitality, engagement, beauty and, above all, youth.

Fantasy runs through the convention like a sweet, irresistible elixir. People gulp it up, having their pictures taken from behind the wheel of a candy-apple red sports car, caressing Fender guitars, collecting brochures for exotic vacations in Egypt, Morocco and Costa Rica.

One booth is handing out pith helmets.

A lot of the vendors - there are more than 450 - have tailored their slogans to fit the audience.

Verizon Wireless: "Retired but busy."

Quaker Oats: "Find out how to become living proof."

Ancestry.com, a Web site that allows you to build an online family tree, boasts, "Your grandkids were never impressed with your record collection until now."

For many of the companies, it's their first time at an AARP event. Potential has lured them here.

Electric Motions Systems wants to sell electric bikes. To be precise, expensive electric bikes - models start at $3,500.

"This is our target market," says Tim Folk, the Virginia company's marketing director. "These aren't cheap, and it's retired people that have the disposable income. And look around - these are vital, active people here."

The people he's talking about are bustling through the aisles, tanned and athletic, toned calves above sports sandals, fanny packs belted onto sturdy bodies.

To be sure, there are still plenty of pull-on pants and loud blouses, more than a few expansive guts and unfortunate pairings of shorts and dark socks but, frumpiness aside, these folks are moving.

It's no accident that the carpet running the length of the show floor is painted to look like a road. Beep, beep! Do not get between these people and a table of freebies. (Some things about old age are timeless.)

As her husband quizzes Folk about the electric bikes, Patricia Armstrong, who's 71 and recently bought her own $300 regular bike, supposes that since she has a 50-year-old child, she probably has to admit to being "older." But she doesn't feel it.

"I don't," says the retired secretary from Nashville. She and her husband, who is 65, volunteer at their local senior center, where, apparently, one can find the real old folks.

It's not as if the show entirely ignores the concept of infirmity. But the mobility devices, hearing aids and pharmaceuticals are well camouflaged, positioned not as crutches for the feeble but as tools to help people scale hurdles and keep moving. One company calls its mobility scooter "the Rascal."

At some of the booths, the ones peddling something slightly less-than-hip, the sales people reassure the 60-somethings, "It's not for you, it's for your parents."

"I got one for my mother, who's 82," says Betty Jo Soldano, who's 61 and working the booth selling the Jitterbug, a purposely simple cell phone with extra-large buttons and a comforting dial tone. "They want to come into the 21st century, too."

Empowerment is the goal behind many of the products and services, things designed to keep the mind agile and disease at bay.

There's [m]Power, which makes electronic "brain fitness" games to ward off the mind drift of Alzheimer's.

And there's Joan Peckolick's Selfchek.org, a Web site where people register to get e-mailed reminders when it's time for check-ups and screenings. Visitors to the site can also send free e-cards to family and friends, gently urging them to quit smoking, lose weight, practice safe sex.

"I'm 64," says Peckolick, from New York. "That was old when my parents were that age. They were so old and had such old ideas. But I think old has always been a state of mind."

AARP, a politically potent group with about 39 million members, turned 50 this year, too. The organization that until 1999 dragged around the clunky moniker American Association of Retired Persons decided, right about when the first wave of boomers hit 60 two years ago, to shed its dowdy image altogether and reflect its new sense of self in its annual expo.The Life@50 show debuted in 2001 to a crowd of only 5,700. The next year, with crooner Tony Bennett headlining, the show fared slightly better. But last year - when, according to AARP's senior event manager Jason Weinstein, they decided "to push the envelope" and book rapper LL Cool J - attendance exploded.

"It's the spirit of the boomer," Weinstein says. "These are the people who attended the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, who know about Woodstock and the Summer of Love. Now they've got AARP and a chance to compete in the air guitar contest."

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