Seniors redefine retirement

Involved: Today's retirees have the resources and freedom to gaze beyond their own needs to more public-oriented concerns.

Listening To The New America

July 23, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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."

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