Baby boomers redefine retirement age with physical and intellectual pursuits


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Terri Ciletti said the only exercise she got before she retired was walking her dog. That changed last week when she began working out at the South Hills branch of the Jewish Community Center in Scott.

"I see a lot of people my age who can't move around," Ms. Ciletti, 66, said as she progressed from machine to machine at the suburban fitness center. "If I want to stay healthy, I have to stay fit," she said.

Ms. Ciletti, of Mt. Lebanon, is among the 78 million people born in the United States between 1946 and 1964 who now are -- often reluctantly -- joining the ranks of senior citizens. The Pew Research Center has estimated that 10,000 members of the generation known as baby boomers will turn 65 today, and that trend will continue for the next 17 years.

While their parents and grandparents usually viewed that milestone birthday as a time to withdraw from full-time work and relax, many boomers are remaking themselves for the second and third acts of their lives. Some have returned to school to prepare for new careers. Some, especially after their children learn to drive or move out for work or college, are taking up new sports and enrolling in gym programs.

Alice Lawson, 51, will graduate April 28 with two bachelor's degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. The first will be in legal studies and the second in administration of justice with a focus in forensics.

"I think those degrees will open other doors for me," she said. "I'll be better able to compete for other positions at Pitt." Mrs. Lawson, who lives in Castle Shannon, works at the university as a grants-and-contracts officer.

She is not alone among baby boomers who continue to pursue higher education. While colleges and universities have long offered older students the opportunity to audit or to enroll in noncredit enrichment classes, many are signing up as regular students working toward degrees.

Community College of Allegheny County last fall had almost 900 students ages 50 to 64 taking courses for credit. That number represents about 4.6 percent of CCAC's enrollment, according to spokesman David Hoovler.

Empty nesters have time

Baby boomers who are empty nesters or recent retirees are helping to fuel growth at the JCC's South Hills branch, director Dan Garfinkel, 62, said. Especially popular is the Silver Sneakers program for those age 65 and older who have Highmark supplemental health insurance. "Their doctors are telling them they need to stay active and exercise," he said.

The branch sees about 300 visitors between 7 a.m. and noon on most weekdays. Many who were using stationary bicycles, treadmills and weight-training machines on a recent morning clearly fit into the baby boomer category. Few are as committed to getting regular exercise as Jim Senchak, 62, of Scott. He tries to swim three times per week and to lift weights an equal number of times.

A former high school athlete, Mr. Senchak still plays basketball and has run several marathons. He took up swimming as part of his rehabilitation after back surgery. "Exercise has always been an important part of my life," he said.

Unlike many people who sit for hours at their desks, he stays active at his job as a custodian at Chartiers Valley High School. He previously worked at U.S. Steel before it closed its Homestead operations.

Jobs that require physical exertion like Mr. Senchak's are becoming rarer, and that phenomenon has the potential to translate into health concerns for many baby boomers, according to Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon at UPMC.

Factory, mining and farming jobs have been on the decline for decades. Combine that with the desires of parents of baby boomers for their children to pursue white-collar positions, and the result is people who spend the bulk of their work lives sitting behind a desk, she said.

Like JCC director Mr. Garfinkel, Dr. Wright sees movement -- no pun intended -- among many of her mature patients to change their lifestyles.

"It is the people age 55 and older who are joining gyms in droves," she said. They have been convinced that 20 or 30 minutes of exercise each day can improve their mobility and decrease risk of early death.

"The take-home message here is no matter how many years you have been sitting on the couch, you can change your future by getting up," said Dr. Wright, director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine.

Brisk walking is one way to start and requires no special equipment. People with access to gyms or fitness equipment can get a good workout on a rowing machine. Those machines can strengthen arms and legs and offer cardiovascular benefits, she said. "If you have aches and pains, I'd recommend just walking in a warm pool," she said. The water reduces body weight and strain on sore joints.

Some boomers less healthy

With the emphasis that many baby boomers are placing on personal fitness, the conclusion of a report in the February edition of the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine was surprising. It found that boomers are less healthy than their parents were at the same age. The study, based on data from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, found more cases of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol than 20 years ago.

Some of those results probably reflect the effects of many baby boomers doing sedentary jobs, Stephanie Studenski said. A professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Studenski, 61, of Sewickley, specializes in care for seniors.

But another likely factor behind the increased cases of hypertension and cholesterol problems is the greater prevalence of testing and treatment for those two conditions, she said.

Evidence of poorer health among baby boomers also could have resulted from people in their 50s having lost medical insurance along with their jobs in the Great Recession. Such insurance is harder to replace for people in late middle life, Dr. Studenski said. "They are more likely to have pre-existing conditions and more likely to be uninsured," she explained.

"I question whether the study's overall findings of worse health reflects underserved populations -- those with lower incomes who are uninsured -- rather than being true for all baby boomers," she said.

"By many measures, we boomers are doing OK -- fewer heart attacks and less smoking," she said. "But there are groups within boomers who are doing worse."

Seeing lifetime benefits

Cathy Schuster, 57, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist from Mt. Lebanon, is an advocate for the benefits of exercise for baby boomers like herself and her husband James.

Over the decades she has looked to dance, ice skating, swimming, running and tennis to keep active. A regular at the JCC in Scott, she said she remains impressed by how exercise can improve mood and reduce negative thoughts as it improves the physical body.

Many clients tell her that they lack energy. Making time to work out may appear to be adding assignments to an already overwhelming schedule. "I tell them that exercise gives you energy back," Ms. Schuster said.

Other baby boomers say it is equally important to keep their minds active.

Mrs. Lawson, who will complete her two bachelor's degrees next month after 10 years of taking classes part time, isn't through with school. She plans to take one semester off and then in January 2014 start on a master of public policy management degree.

Her inspiration was her late mother, who was widowed in her mid-20s and went on to earn a degree at Manhattan's Hunter College. "I saw her go to school every Tuesday and Thursday night for 13 years," Mrs. Lawson said, recalling her early life in the Bronx.

Some academic dreams take a long time to achieve.

Cindy Mae Fenger, of Ross, remembers being impressed by the 1962 movie "The Miracle Worker." It was based on a play about the efforts of teacher Anne Sullivan to educate Helen Keller, who became deaf and blind following a childhood illness.

Eight years later, when Ms. Fenger graduated from North Hills High School, she said in her 1970 yearbook that she planned to become a teacher of deaf people.

Marriage, children and 30 years of employment in the finance division at Duquesne Light intervened. In 2004, after she accepted a buyout offer from the utility company, she earned an associate degree in accounting from Community College of Allegheny County.

Then three years ago, a granddaughter, Anya, was born into the "blended" family she had created with her husband, Michael. Anya was born deaf.

About the same time, CCAC offered an associate degree in interpreting American Sign Language at its campus in McCandless. She enrolled.

Forty years after Ms. Fenger, now 61, first expressed her interest in working with those who have hearing loss, she was able to pursue her high school dream.

"Everything seemed to be falling into place," she said. "I think it was God's plan."

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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