Today’s 65-and-up crowd is made up of the healthiest, most active seniors in history. Never before have so many people older than 65 been alive; and 75-year-olds are the fastest-growing segment of our country’s population. National studies and books such as Successful Aging and Aging Well (the longest and most complete look at adult development based on a Harvard study), are debunking the myth that older Americans are frail, passive and unable to learn. What researchers are discovering instead is that how we age has less to do with genetics and more to do with lifestyle and attitude. As long as people remain active and engaged in life they have a good chance of living long and living well.
Sarasota is filled with proof of that proposition. Our seniors are packing the gyms to stay fit, taking classes, attending cultural events, filling the ranks of volunteer organizations and even starting businesses. We decided to profile some people who have discovered new passions and callings after retirement, and we found more examples-and achievements-than we could include. Here’s a look at just a few of our city’s remarkable seniors. Different as their backgrounds and interests are, they all share a lively curiosity about the world around them-they do not dwell on themselves-and a feeling that every day is a grand new adventure. "Life is thrilling," proclaims Jacqueline Hickman, who just started an over-65 career as a nursing assistant. "You always have to stretch yourself."
Tacked on a bookcase in Edna Gordon’s condominium is this aphorism: "Opportunities are like sunrises. If you wait too long, you miss them." Gordon, who at 76 has a glowing complexion and quick step, sees this message as soon as she wakes up and starts to do her yoga. Then, poof, she’s out the door to swim a mile or sometimes more.
At various times a sales representative, realtor and executive secretary in Connecticut, Gordon retired to Sarasota at age 50. But retirement for Gordon is when life began. At age 53, she followed a dream and became a pediatric nurse, doing medical missionary work in the Third World.
Her life changed again when she was 60 and a friend mentioned Master’s swimming, a national competitive program for adult swimmers from age 19 through 100. Edna quickly became one of the elite. She made the top five in Florida in every event she swam, then the top 10 in the Dixie Zone and the top 10 in the Nationals. In 2001, she was ranked 10th in the world in the 400-meter freestyle. She works out six days a week in the pool and at the gym. She also takes care of newborns and new mothers for two or three days a week and is active on the local Coalition to Stop Children’s Exposure to Pesticides. And, oh, yes, she’s teaching herself to use the computer and plans to write the story of her world travels.
Edna believes swimming gives her that indefatigable energy. "I think if you’re in good health, you can do more for other people," she says. "There’s always something to live for. There’s somebody out there who needs you."
With her warm conversational style and efficient manner, Jacqueline Hickman is the perfect model for a nurse. However, it wasn’t until "somewhere over 65" that she actually donned the cap.
Hickman enjoyed an exciting career in the United States and Great Britain as a marketing research executive for newspapers. Twelve years ago she and her husband Peter, an aeronautical engineer, retired to Sarasota to relax and golf. But Hickman soon found herself involved in the Florida West Coast Symphony Association, chairing two design showhouses and eventually serving as executive vice president and president. Then life called again.
"Last spring I knew I wanted to embark on a new direction," she says. From her symphony experience, she knew that helping people brought joy. "I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives even if just the tiniest bit," she says.
So Hickman enrolled in a nursing assistant course at Sarasota County Technical Institute. She was the oldest student in her class by far, she says-her classroom partner was only 20. She graduated with flying colors and has been working as a private-duty nursing assistant with only a few clients so that she can give each the one-on-one care they need. For Hickman as well as her clients, the experience has been gratifying. "I feel a sense that I’ve achieved something at the end of the day."
For many people, retirement is a golden age of rest and reflection; for others, it raises a clarion call to action. Take, for example, Republican fund-raiser and activist Bill Templeton.
For decades a successful owner of car dealerships, the feisty 74-year-old North Carolina native semi-retired in 1991, keeping just one Toyota dealership in Fort Myers. But he soon became frustrated by what he saw as a growing lack of accountability in government and in daily life.
"I never blamed anything that went wrong with me on someone else," says Tilles. His frustration drove him to his first political rally six years ago, when Jeb Bush ran for governor of Florida. At that rally, he says, "It dawned on me that we have to get involved."
During that campaign, Templeton did anything he could, from stuffing envelopes to stumping for votes. Today he spreads the gospel of traditional values-God, family and country-to anyone who’ll listen, urging those who can to donate money to the cause and encouraging everyone to vote.
"It breaks my heart when we have an election for city or county commissioners and then we have a total of 2,000 votes," he says. "If everybody voted, Republican or Democrat, we’d have a good, representative government."
But don’t look for his name on any ballot. "Activism simply gives you the sense that you’ve done your duty," he says.
You’d think that after nearly four decades of practicing urology and teaching medicine (and founding the Cleveland Opera in his spare time), Dr. David Klein would have looked forward to a quiet retirement. But for Klein, 71, retirement simply means more time to help people; only this time around, he does it with a computer and conversation.
Back in 1970, a collaboration with a nearby NASA facility helped Klein’s Ohio practice become one of the first in the country to put patients’ medical records online, and Klein has been fascinated with technology and its applications ever since.
Soon after he moved here permanently three years ago, Klein began volunteering with a local firm that taught seniors basic computer skills, spending several afternoons a week at the homes of clients, teaching them about computers. That computer firm was bought out; but Klein’s reputation had spread, and he continued receiving phone calls for help. Now he spends up to four afternoons a week at people’s houses, helping them buy new computers and master digital photography-and make lots of new friends in the process. He keeps in touch with the latest developments through journals and a number of online clubs to which he belongs, and like all model volunteers, insists that he gets out of the experience as much as, if not more, than he puts in.
"When you’re a teacher, the other side of it is that you are a learner," says Klein. "I always learn."
Several years ago, while visiting friends in New York, Bud Tilles sat down at their Steinway and played Body and Soul by Oscar-winning composer Johnny Green (who scored An American in Paris). His ashen-faced hostess gasped, "Johnny Green wrote that song on this very piano!" For Tilles, that moment was the realization of a lifelong dream.
A talented young pianist, at 15 Tilles played with jazz great Fats Waller and was envisioning a career as a musician and composer. But life intervened, and the next 35 years were consumed by marriage, children and building a manufacturing company.
Still, the music lingered. Retired to Sarasota in 1990, he dusted off a new baby grand and at the age of 68, began taking his first lessons in jazz harmonies and music theory. "That opened up a whole new world," he says. Now he plays with sextets at the Senior Friendship Center and at piano bars around town. Today, when musicians like Dr. Billy Taylor and Billy Charlap come to town, the Sarasota Jazz Club sends them over to Tilles’ home on Lido Key to practice.
"Music is a source of pleasure and health," says Tilles, who at 78 radiates both those qualities.