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Happy 50th, baby boomers // ... welcome to "Seniority'

@@, We know we're a little early, because the first of you don't start celebrating a half-century of life for a few days. But you baby boomers _ the 76-million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 _ always have been a little fast.

You've always drawn more attention than other generations, simply because of your size. But now, you're one of us _ officially, a Seniority reader.

You can join AARP _ the American Association of Retired Persons, the largest member of the so-called senior lobby. In some restaurants, you even can get the senior discount.

But we hear you're not all that happy about turning 50. Many of you are feeling, well, a little old.

When you celebrate your birthdays next year, your younger friends will make jokes about your age. If you thought they were cruel when you turned 40, just wait. Someone _ maybe several someones _ will get you an AARP membership.

But guess what: You're not old. Your life isn't over. Once you turn 50, you have a good chance of living another 29 years, statistics show. Make it to 79 and you have a good chance of making 85.

Make it to 85, and 90 is looking pretty good, even 95. And then 100. The year will be 2046.

So you better get ready to live another 30, 40 and even 50 years.

Sound a little scary?

Don't worry. We have advice from people who know that 50 is just another birthday.

FRED STAFFORD, 82, OF LARGO

When Fred Stafford was almost your age, he was getting ready to sell his business and move to Florida.

He ran a store in downtown Ithaca, N.Y. Today you might call it a convenience store, where you could get everything from a newspaper to ice cream.

But by 1953, when Stafford was 40, he realized it was time to get out of the business. Downtowns were getting ready to die in towns across America. They would be swept away when the parents of baby boomers started moving their growing families to the suburbs.

"My friend was the mayor, and he came in one day and advised me to start looking around for a new location," Stafford said. "He said a shopping center outside of town was going to drive me out of business."

Stafford didn't believe the mayor, until he took a road trip out West with his family. There he saw it _ huge suburban stores with giant parking lots and every kind of household product a family could want.

"I sold the store in 1955. Three years later, the new owner was out of business," Stafford said. "I saw the handwriting on the wall."

He made good money on the sale, and really didn't need to work much after the sale.

But 42 is too young for a person to stop working, he said.

"If you walk out the door to retire and have nothing to do, it can be a catastrophe," Stafford says. "That's what I would tell someone who was young, like 50. You have to stay active."

Stafford chose Florida because he had visited in 1934. He and a friend drove a car for another person down to Miami.

"When we left upstate New York, it was 10 degrees below zero. When we get to Miami, it was 90 and we were picking oranges from the trees," Stafford said. "I always vowed that when I could afford to go back, I'll go back."

He did, and enjoyed some leisure time for a while. But Stafford liked to work, so he eventually drifted into real estate, and finally officially retired in 1975 at age 62.

If you are counting, that is 20 years ago, and it would have been too much time to just sit around, Stafford says.

He filled his days for a while with fixing classic automobiles and driving them to shows with his wife, Bert. Even that wasn't enough, so Stafford starting volunteering 15 years ago.

He now delivers meals one day a week as a volunteer for Neighborly Senior Services' Meals on Wheels. He also speaks at local churches to encourage them to start meal programs.

"A good retirement has got to have something for you to do," Stafford said. "Otherwise life gets dull."

And he advises younger people to pay attention to their bodies and especially to exercise. He still likes to swim.

Stafford isn't glossing over the other side of growing old. He has had prostate cancer, and his wife now is ill. People get sick and die.

"I've lost two of my best friends," he says.

Does it make him sad?

"No, I know they lived a good life. That is what's important."

MATTIE GARDNER, 93{, OF ST. PETERSBURG.

Mattie Gardner makes a point of adding the one-half to her age. Just like a child, every six months is a big deal for her.

She was born on June 5, 1902, in Columbus, Ga. Her father was Wise Child Solomon Cooksey, and his photo hangs prominently in her home. His name came from a dream his mother had.

Ask her what she was doing when she was 50, and with a smile, Mrs. Gardner says, "Oh, I was just getting right to live."

Ask her how she is doing at age 93 _ pardon, at age 93{ _ and she will smile and say, "I still feel like knocking down doors and kicking out windows."

That's the same phrase Mrs. Gardner uses to describe herself at age 19, and another time when she describes herself at age 50. She even uses it to describe herself at age 67 when she was forced to retire from a second career as an elevator operator at what is now Bayfront Medical Center.

After a while, you realize she is not being literal. It is an attitude toward life.

And don't mistake her repetition as a sign of advanced age or failing memory. Mrs. Gardner can repeat poems with startling accuracy, filled with dramatic pauses and gentle gestures.

She has seen much of life. She remembers a time when St. Petersburg was a boomtown, with streets filled with people.

And Mrs. Gardner remembers a time when African-Americans couldn't sit at the same counters as white men and women, but were good enough to care for their children, as Mrs. Gardner did for many years.

But that is not what she is talking about today. The subject is age, and how to live a good, long life.

"I don't expect to be perfect at my age," Mrs. Gardner said. "What I can't do, I can't worry about."

She still loves to do some things, like visit with family, go to church each Sunday and visit the senior center each day. She lives now with a daughter, and other family members live near.

"I live one day at a time as best I can, one day at a time," she said. "I never worried about how long I was going to live."

Mrs. Gardner attributes her long life to hard work and faith in God. She says she never was particular about what she ate, and confesses to keeping all sorts of goodies in her bedroom.

"Anytime I feel like a snack, I open something."

She recites a poem _ Mad Anthony's Charge," she calls it. One lingers on one line:

"To the man who fights for freedom/God will build the victory."

Her hands are in fists when she finishes.

And smiles.

"I've lived a good life," Mrs. Gardner said. "I hardly ever think about my age."

"I can't complain. It could be so much worse."

LOTTIE WOSZCZYNA, 100, OF HUDSON

When Lottie Woszczyna was 50, the first of the baby boomers were really babies.

She is part of the fastest-growing age group in the nation _ people over age 85. There are now 3-million such people and in another 50 years, when today's first boomers reach 100, there are expected to be 19-million people over age 85.

One-hundredth birthdays have become so common, it's hard to get the public as excited as past years. According to the Census Bureau, there are 52,000 100-year-olds in America _ perhaps more than 200 in Pinellas County alone.

Mrs. Woszczyna was born in Poland, and says boldly that "I know what I do and I remember everything."

She is living in a Pasco County nursing home, not far from her son Peter, who is 77.

"I no feel like an old woman," she says, the accent of her homeland still evident.

Her eyes are bright when she talks, and her voice is clear, even if her memories are a little blurred on the edges.

Mrs. Woszczyna talks proudly of her three sons, one who is now dead. She recalls years of hard work caring for her family and working as a cleaning woman. She remembers coming to America with her mother and seeing the Statue of Liberty. Her son Peter says she used to tell stories of being chased by sailors during the trip across the Atlantic, when she was only 13.

These days, she likes to go into the nursing home's courtyard and enjoy the sun and visit with family.

It might not seem like much of a life to someone as young as 50, but she is not complaining.

"I got a life," Mrs. Woszczyna said.

She knows what the alternative is.

"I feel I will die soon."

Is it because she does not feel well physically, or does she mean she thinks in her heart, her time is near?

Mrs. Woszczyna points to her heart.

"I remember everything. I remember my whole life what I do."

A pause, and then, "I never think I live to be 100."

EPILOGUE

Some facts for a soon-to-be 50-year-old to consider:

+ When you were born, people expected to live until age 68 or so. Now, life expectancy from birth is 79 for women and 72 for men. If you reach 65, you can expect to live at least another 17 years.

+ Many of you might spend as many years in retirement as you did working.

+ You likely will benefit from your years of better health care and from expected advances in medicine.

+ It won't be especially hard for many of you to live well into your 80s and 90s, like Fred Stafford and Mattie Gardner. And a bunch of you even might crack the magic 100 mark.

Are you ready?

TO YOU WHO CONTRIBUTED

When we asked last month for information on people turning 50, more than 100 of you called. Several were called for an upcoming story, and others might be used for future baby boomers stories. If we didn't call you back, we thank you for contacting Seniority and hope you all have Happy Birthdays in 1996.

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