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Keep out of the rocking chair, two 83-year-olds urge

Older Americans should stay physically fit and keep working well past the age of 65, two successful, prominent and wealthy 83-year-old men testified Monday before the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

If they can overcome their culture's reluctance to hire or retain older workers, more older people would feel better, and the economy and society would benefit, said Jack Valenti and John Glenn at a hearing on "breaking the silver ceiling."

"I find retirement a synonym for decay," Valenti testified. Though recently replaced as president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, he still chairs the board of its rating system and heads a global drive against AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Avoid a rocking-chair lifestyle of "waiting for the mail to come at 5 p.m.," advised Glenn, the former senator and astronaut who was 77 during his most recent space flight. He heads the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State University.

Volunteering can help, Glenn said. "Reading to school kids" is an option, he said, or "helping out down at the church or the nearby military base."

Other witnesses said that changes in federal rules could help those who want to stay active.

For example, IRS rules encourage private pension funds to force their beneficiaries to plunge overnight into full retirement, said Ed Potter, president of the Employment Policy Foundation. Pension rules could be revised to encourage full-time workers to phase gradually into retirement, he said.

Glenn said another improvement would be to substitute physical and psychological evaluations for the mandatory retirement ages that now decide when most firefighters, police and airline pilots must quit.

Valenti said he exercises every day for 40 minutes to an hour.

He contrasted his own longevity with that of his former boss and fellow Texan, President Lyndon Johnson, who returned to his ranch for a traditional retirement in January 1969.

"He died only four years later," Valenti said. "People don't realize he was only 64 years old when he died."