And… Action!”

Boomers create a whole new way to retire
Photo by Heather Mull Terrell Jefferson paints a scene at Phipps Conservatory under the tutelage of Osher instructor Elaine Bergstrom, whose classes often fill up on the first day of registration. Terrell Jefferson paints a scene at Phipps Conservatory under the tutelage of Osher instructor Elaine Bergstrom, whose classes often fill up on the first day of registration.
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Editor’s note: Studies show that hundreds of thousands of people across southwestern Pennsylvania are nearing retirement or already have left the workforce. What the studies don’t tell us is how these new retirees will be spending their time and resources… and what impact those choices will have on the region. In this second installment of our “Silver Tsunami” series, we explore these issues and find that retiring baby boomers are focusing on some of the same priorities that long have directed their lives.

His students are rapt as Cleon Cornes lectures on the life and work of Beethoven, part of his series on the eccentricities of genius. Not such an unusual topic, but the setting and makeup of the class are far from conventional. This lecture is not in a classroom but at Providence Point, the Mt. Lebanon retirement community. As for Cornes, the retired psychologist and University of Pittsburgh professor is 83; his students, all Providence Point residents, are similarly aged.

It really is different teaching older people,” Cornes says. “They’re fascinated, they’re interested. They ask good questions that are based on a lifetime of responsibility and experience. I’ve really enjoyed it even more [than teaching younger people].”

That class is typical of how today’s retirees are spending their time. Yes, you may find them puttering around the garden or putting on the green in stereotypical retirement activities. But for the most part, recent retirees — particularly those of the baby boom generation — have more active pursuits in mind. They’re retiring younger, healthier and, in some cases, with more means than any previous generation. As a result, the goals for many transcend snow avoidance.

I can definitely validate that,” says Ellen B. Galardy, vice president of senior markets for Highmark. “Our senior population at Highmark is more active than ever. They’re healthy and engaged— online and in their communities — and they’re traveling. This is not the same [retirement] population that people might have thought about years ago. They’re taking control.”

The spending choices new retirees are making reflect the new emphases in their lives and have the potential to affect the local economy in perhaps unexpected ways. Retired boomers may curtail their purchases of big-​ticket durable goods, for example, but according to Elaine Luther, professor at Point Park University’s Rowland School of Business, they’re re-​allocating that cash to different sectors.

Their money is flowing into the economy, but it’s for events,” Luther says. “They don’t need to buy furniture, but they’re buying things for their grandchildren. They’re spending on restaurants— they eat out all the time — and entertainment.”

And as retirees age and need more services delivered to them, Luther predicts, the home care sector will grow apace.

We’ll see more care jobs,” she says. “You don’t need a degree to do them. It takes only a little bit of support to allow someone to age in place. We’ll see a whole big industry grow around that.”

What are the priorities of new retirees? Education, fitness and volunteerism are three of the top choices. Here’s a look at how the Silver Tsunami is affecting these sectors… and how such activities are contributing to the health and longevity of the region’s new wave of retirees.

Learning without homework, testing, grades

Southwestern Pennsylvania offers rich opportunities — in traditional and community settings — for seniors still hungry for learning. Particularly significant are the Osher institutes at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, part of the national network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes founded by visionary businessman and philanthropist Bernard Osher. Every state in the union has at least one Osher; only Pittsburgh has a pair within two blocks of each other.

At the Oshers, members can enjoy a wide range of courses. Pitt’s Osher offers about 50 five-​week courses per trimester and allows members to audit courses in the regular undergraduate curriculum. CMU’s Osher members select from about 450 Osher-​specific courses each term.

Osher is for people 50 and older who want to keep learning, who want to stay engaged but don’t want to deal with homework, testing and grades,” says Jennifer L. Engel, director of Pitt’s Osher. “You get the university experience, and you can take courses you want to take, not courses you have to take.”

There are slight differences between the two Oshers. Pitt pays its instructors while CMU’s Osher teachers are volunteers. At Pitt, a $125-​per-​term fee entitles members to as many courses as they like; attending year round costs $225. CMU’s annual membership fee is $60, but there’s an additional $50-​per-​term charge for an unlimited number of courses. The fee for year-​round attendance is $210. Pitt’s Osher also goes beyond the classroom to organize field trips to such locales as the Westmoreland Museum and Chautauqua.

One common denominator: thanks to the Silver Tsunami, both local Oshers are bursting at the seams. Pitt’s institute boasts nearly 1,400 members, up about 32 percent over the past three years; retirees in their 50s now comprise 9 percent of membership. Things are even tighter at CMU’s Osher, which has 2,300 members and places prospective new members on a waiting list.

Frequently when we invite people to join, a lot of them say they’re not ready to retire yet and ask to be put back on the waiting list,” reports Lyn Decker, executive director of CMU’s Osher. “However, while waiting for membership, the prospects may still take courses.”

Beyond the Oshers, Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) provides extensive learning opportunities for seniors, including courses targeting personal development, fitness and just plain fun.

We’re beginning to see a lot of people taking language classes,” says Mary Jo Guercio, director of community training and development for CCAC. “They may be planning a trip to Italy next year, so they want to learn Italian this year.”

Guercio herself has taught one of the fun classes, a session exploring the many possibilities of pasta.

CCAC also offers a program that helps seniors through the enrollment process, and it’s among the region’s leaders in taking senior education into the community. At the Kane Regional Centers and senior centers throughout Allegheny County, CCAC’s educational programs reach about 6,000 participants annually with free classes and services.

Based on what the senior centers want, you might see classes in tai chi, yoga, chair exercises, arts and crafts for motor skills,” Guercio says. “People attend for a variety of reasons, including social interaction, a communal meal and resources. They can get help with their taxes or get a voucher for a farmers market.”

Pitt’s Osher, as well, is expanding access to its classes by offering courses at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library, and it’s developing a virtual senior academy in partnership with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. As yet, CMU’s Osher hasn’t jumped on the digital bandwagon. Says Decker:

We’ve grappled with the idea of offering online learning courses but feel that since there are a lot of opportunities for people to take such courses elsewhere, we don’t feel the need to offer them. We’ve also resisted because socialization is a big part of what the organization is about. Our Osher gives people a sense of purpose and belonging.”

Turning a corner in how you use your faculties

While many seniors continue their education on campuses, others enjoy classes and presentations at their retirement communities, typically forming committees to plan the schedules. Cleon Cornes spans both approaches, delivering his lectures at Providence Point and CMU’s Osher. As a psychologist, he often marveled at the quirkiness of genius. Now, he lectures on it.

I’ve always been interested in people’s behavior,” he says. “It seems clear that some of the most successful and creative people had a bit of eccentricity to them, so this seemed to be a good category for me.”

At Longwood at Oakmont, Presbyterian Senior Care’s retirement community, the residents’ New Horizons Committee plans two programs per month. Speakers have included representatives of the Pittsburgh Zoo, Riverlife, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and the Pittsburgh Symphony; the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School staged a pair of performances. The committee’s “Conversations With” series has featured former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh and Patricia Wilde, former artistic director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

In a sense, it’s education, things you’ve been curious about all your life,” says committee chair Ann Hazlett who, during her career, founded and ran the legal advocacy unit for the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. “That’s pretty much the way the committee operates. We say, ‘What have you wondered about?’

People have the wrong impression of retired people, perhaps. You never lose your curiosity. The brain doesn’t stop. Your interests don’t stop. You sort of turn a corner in how you use your faculties.”

Whether on campus or in less formal settings, retirees seem particularly drawn to writing, to expressing and sharing everything they’ve learned in their lives and careers. That’s the case at Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic program, which offers semester-​long workshops for women in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. While most participants are retirees or close to it, the program is intergenerational: undergraduates take workshops for college credit.

What I hear most often from participants,” says Sarah Williams-​Devereux, administrative assistant for Madwomen who also leads a poetry workshop, “is that they’ve always written and didn’t know what to do with their writing. Many women have so many stories they’ve wanted to tell. Madwomen is a place where they can express that through creative writing.”

As with most programs geared to retirees, Madwomen’s ranks are swelling.

When I started here in 2009, we didn’t have that many workshops,” Williams-​Devereux reports. “Now, we’re up to nine sections of Madwomen classes.”

Writing also is the focus of a group of Longwood at Oakmont residents who dine together every Tuesday night. On a whim, they decided to write and publish a mystery as a group. Anne Ducanis, a retired Pitt professor who chairs Longwood’s Continuing Education Committee, took a crack at the first chapter. Others wrote the next chapters, and they edited collectively. Ducanis co-​authored several textbooks during her career, but creative writing was a different matter.

Fiction’s a lot more fun,” she says. “There are no footnotes, no references. You can make things up.

Part of our purpose is to show that modern retirement communities are not nursing homes, though they may have nursing care attached to them when needed. Most are quite active with a lot of active people.”

The book that emerged, “Where’s Laura? — A Tuesday Table Ladies Mystery by Octavia Long,”‘ is available at such venues as Amazon and Mystery Lovers Book Shop, which is right down the street in Oakmont. The burning question: was Laura murdered?

I’m not telling,” Ducanis says.

Writers. Ya gotta love ’em.

Stay fit, save $1,200.

Just as they hunger for knowledge, the region’s new retirees— the folks who fueled the fitness craze — are driven by a passion to stay healthy. Two of the region’s health insurance giants have stepped up to help.

Through partnerships with national organizations that promote fitness, Highmark (SilverSneakers) and UPMC Health Plan (Silver&Fit) offer free gym memberships to subscribers of certain Medicare Advantage plans. These are not limited, 10-​to-​noon-​but-​you– can’t-use-the-rowing-machine coupons; they entitle members to the full range of gym services. With club memberships averaging about $50 per month, a participating couple can stay fit while saving about $1,200 annually.

You can’t really put a price on the physical well-​being and the emotional benefits of being part of something bigger than yourself,” Galardy says. “This benefit is about keeping our members healthy and living the lifestyle they want to achieve. They want to stay healthy, be in their homes and get the most out of retirement they can.”

Echoes Helene Weinraub, vice president of Medicare for UPMC Health Plan:

Our goal is to help our members live to their optimal level of wellness and be independent for the rest of their lives.”

Both the Highmark and UPMC programs offer benefits beyond free gym memberships. Highmark provides SilverSneakers classes, and it maintains a number of storefronts where members can walk in for consultations and fitness materials. And if they’re traveling, members can visit any of 20,000 affiliated fitness centers for a workout.

UPMC/Silver&Fit also offers classes as well as at-​home exercise kits for members who can’t get out to a gym. For those with mobility limitations, the partnership provides chair workout kits — chair dancing, chair Pilates, chair tai chi, chair aerobics.

The programs have seen significant growth. Highmark estimates that nearly 20,000 of its Medicare members participate in SilverSneakers, while the UPMC Health Plan/Silver&Fit count is up to about 30,000. Highmark’s research indicates that its SilverSneakers members typically visit gyms twice a week; 10 percent are gym rats, working out more than 16 times each month, which may be overkill.

One of the misconceptions is that you have to do a lot of exercise, and you have to start young,” says Dr. Namita Ahuja, senior medical director for Medicare and geriatric programs for UPMC Health Plan. “The evidence in the literature is contrary to that. We promote fitness so our members realize you’re never too old to exercise, and you don’t need too much. Every little bit helps.”

Club One Fitness, which operates gyms in Shadyside and Fox Chapel, signed on with UPMC/Silver&Fit about a decade ago.

I’m not sure it’s grown our membership base, but it’s definitely grown the market,” says Chris Labishak, Club One operating owner. “Some members who have been here for years flipped over to the Silver&Fit benefit. But we also have members who never would have stepped in a club without this program. A lot of them never exercised before or stopped years ago. When it’s time for members to renew their insurance, my phone rings off the hook with people asking me if the free membership benefit will stay.”

Although Club One tweaked some of its classes to meet Silver&Fit requirements, Labishak discovered that his new clientele had no special equipment or training needs.

It doesn’t matter how old they are,” he says. “They want what everybody wants. They want to feel challenged, they want to have fun, they want convenience, they want to make friends.”

Nor has he seen any “gymtimidation,” older people embarrassed by the more aggressive workouts of youthful, fit specimens effortlessly hoisting weights.

Seniors like to be around young folks,” Labishak says. “They feed off the energy of young folks. It isn’t crazy to see a 30-​yearold, super-​in-​shape athlete working out next to a 75-​year-​old, just talking, getting to know each other. It goes so far beyond the physical. The humanity of it is what I’ve come to appreciate most.”

Younger seniors assisting older, frail seniors

New retirees are committed to extending the successes they’ve enjoyed, and they’re just as determined to pay that good fortune forward. Boomers, after all, are the Woodstock Generation, the disrupters who were going to change the world. They may have deferred that goal while they nurtured careers and families, but with those priorities largely achieved, it’s time to give back.

Because so many organizations are involved in community service, both individually and through collective efforts, volunteerism is difficult to track. Yet indications are that recent retires are powering a growth in community service.

VolunteerMatch, a San Francisco-​based company that uses the Web to match volunteers with about 110,000 nonprofits nationally, indicates that it had 1.8 million visits over the last two years from people in the 5564 age group, a robust increase of 126 percent over the previous two years.

That’s a pretty significant jump,” says Basil Sadiq, marketing associate for VolunteerMatch. “Part of it can be attributed to site growth in general, but it’s way higher than that. It’s probably giving us some insight into how many more seniors are looking for volunteer opportunities.”

Within that demographic, the organization’s breakout for southwestern Pennsylvania shows a 5 percent increase in site visits, to 59,000, over the past two years, although actual matches declined by about 17 percent.

Locally, the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania coordinates or funds programs that send between 8,000 and 10,000 volunteers per year into the community. While that number has been fairly constant, there are some indications that recent retirees are picking up a greater share of the load.

According to Lois Mufuka Martin, chief volunteer engagement officer for United Way, roughly half the volunteers in the agency’s Be A Middle School Mentor program are over 50 and about 25 percent are 61 and older. United Way’s free tax preparation program had 48 retiree participants this year compared to 29 last year. Similar growth occurred in the Open Your Heart to a Senior initiative, through which volunteers transport clients to medical appointments and help with grocery shopping.

What we find is that younger seniors are assisting much older or frail seniors,” Martin says. “Over 40 percent of the volunteers are retirees.”

Seniors also make up the bulk of the 160 volunteers at a similarly purposed program called People Able to Lend a Hand (PALS), an initiative of Highmark.

We offer all in-​home services except personal care,” says Randy Detweiler, PALS program coordinator. “Our top three requests are transportation, friendly visiting and grocery shopping.”

In its 37-​county service area in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, PALS organizes and staffs book and quilting clubs for seniors as well as walking excursions in senior high rises. The benefits are many — on both sides of the equation. Says Detweiler:

I always ask seniors, ‘What do you want? What do you need?’ What I hear more than anything is, ‘We want a purpose.’ Volunteering for the program gives them a purpose.”

Living the on-​campus dream

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could retire to a community located on the campus of a major university where you could take advantage of the school’s educational, cultural and social opportunities and become, in effect, a student for life?

Welcome to the Village at Penn State, a retirement community where about 200 residents are living the dream. Operated by Liberty Lutheran, the village is situated on land leased from Penn State about a mile from iconic Beaver Stadium. Although the community is open to all, more than 70 percent of residents have Penn State ties, whether as graduates or retired faculty. The village is a continuing care retirement community and thus offers personal care as well as skilled nursing and rehabilitation services.

Village residents can attend any Penn State classes for free on a space-​available basis, although as a practical matter, only a few do. Rather, Penn State faculty come to the village with a robust series of lectures. Residents also receive IDs that provide discounts on campus and around town. Tight on-​campus parking can be a deterrent, but Kim McGinnis, director of resident services, reports that residents are finding ways to beat the parking squeeze.

Some younger, more adventurous residents are taking public transportation or driving themselves,” she says.

The concept seems a natural, yet it failed initially at Penn State. The original operator founded it in 2003 but experienced financial difficulties that forced the community’s sale nine years later. Says Ellen Corbin, the village’s executive director:

Initially, they had a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. The project was too large to start out and didn’t fill up as fast as anticipated. Liberty saw great potential here. With their strong history of leadership and financial backing, they thought they could make it work.”

That vision proved accurate. Although life at the village isn’t cheap — entrance fees range as high as $417,000, monthly expenses up to $5,200 — the community has a waiting list for certain types of residences. The village is the only on-​campus location among Liberty’s four retirement communities, but Corbin views it as a prototype for similar developments.

I think you’ll see more eventually,” she says. “Each one forms a different model. There’s no one right way to get these started.”

Indeed, there could be several new models in Pittsburgh’s future. The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has awarded Chatham University a $50,000 grant to explore the possibility of a senior community, whether on the main campus in Shadyside or at Eden Hall, Chatham’s 388-​acre satellite in Richland.

Given the exemplary higher education community here, Pittsburgh has been a little slow to develop senior living/​learning communities,” says Karen Wolk Feinstein, JHF president and CEO. “The idea that everyone is a snowbird looking for hot weather is not true. You’re finding more and more people in that demographic who want a vibrant, alive, vital experience. People are desperate to keep expanding their engagement and their learning. What they don’t want is to sit on a golf cart.”

Nancy D. Zionts, COO and chief program officer for JHF, notes that Chatham will explore a range of ways to deliver its educational assets to seniors.

It’s about bringing the community onto the campus and the campus into the community,” she says.

La Roche College, operated by the Sisters of Divine Providence, already is on the doorstep of several McCandless retirement communities, including former skilled nursing space that Vincentian Collaborative System is transforming to Terrace Place at Vincentian. Sister Candace Introcaso, La Roche president, notes that retirees regularly frequent campus for classes, sporting and cultural events, and the dining hall, and they often participate in Sunday services.

We want to build on some of the things we’re already doing, maybe formalize them in some way,” she says. “We’ll be exploring that as part of our new strategic plan. The Sisters of Divine Providence tie it all together. Spirituality might be an aspect seniors are seeking.”

Among the intergenerational possibilities, she says, are a student-​run café at Terrace Place, accounting and health services that students could provide to Terrace Place residents and senior companions for La Roche students studying abroad.

Nick Vizzoca, Vincentian president and CEO, believes on-​campus retirement communities will work here, provided they’re broadly affordable.

It’s all about the price point,” he says. “You have to make it affordable for everybody. You have to hit ‘Everyman.’ That’s the sweet spot.”


Evan Pattak

Evan Pattak is a Pittsburgh freelance writer and publicist. His work appears regularly in TEQ, Pennsylvania Manufacturer, Pop City and Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine.

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