People work, think and play differently, and so, it follows, they cope with retirement in ways all their own. Some spend months planning for it, slowly easing out of jobs and into hobbies that will carry them on. Others avoid the thought altogether, secretly wishing the inevitable not come and, when it does, regrettably confronting it.

Some can't wait to retire. They look forward to a life of leisure and even choose to retire sooner than the rest of us, before the choice becomes no longer theirs to make. Others are forced out of work by employers or by failing health. It is always a very personal matter, and counts among the last major decisions a person has to make.

Below, six people who have dealt with retirement discuss their experiences. They were selected quite unscientifically with the help of the Over-60 Service, a volunteer employment and counseling center in Bethesda for the elderly. They speak for themselves.

Hubert "Old Jack" Burrows used to own a Maryland development company. He sold out in 1968, figuring the didn't have much longer to live. Nothing really was wrong with his health. He just had the feeling his life was near an end. Today, at 75, he's rather surprised to be alive. And he's looking for work again.

"I stopped working because I figured I'd had enough. I had beat my head against the wall for so long, I figured I'd coast for a while. I sold out in the entirety for 10 cents on the dollar just to get rid of the business, to get it off my hands.

"Then I led a life of luxury, ease and comfort - playboy, flying machines, race horses, what have you. Dinner every night at the Rive Ganche, the Jockey Club, Chez Francois, living it up. I didn't want to work. I was walking around with money in my pocket, not knowing what to do with it.

"But, unfortunately, I finally ran out; the well went dry; I lived longer than I thought I would. I had to go back to work again. Last winter I took a very desirable job as a night watchman at an old county school. They paid me well, and I didn't do a thing.

"My instructions were, quote, 'All you do, Jack, is sit there . . . If there's a fire, call the fire department; if there are burglars, call the police. Outside of that, read, listen to the radio, do anything you want. You can't sleep, you can't drink.'

"I got paid $700 a month for doing nothing. But that job ended last May. I've been looking for something else since then, but half-heartedly.

"What have I been up to? Shall I hide my face?The racetrack. I'm a nickel and dime gambler, like so many. I have a friend, I meet him there every day. All we hope to do is, maybe, through the kindness of fate, make a week's pay. A little today, a little tomorrow.

"It's a tough deal, very tough and very discouraging. It's a poor way to try to pick up a dollar, but when you're old and you don't have any specialized ability - you're not a computer expert or something like that - there's so little one can do. This is a young man's world and a specialized world.

"I do answer a few job notices now and them. I walk in, a little stooped, and say how-do-you-do. They take a look at me and ask my age. I say 75. They'll be just as nice as pie, but I'll get the politest, the most courteous brush-offs you ever saw in your life. So there you are. The world has no use for the elderly.

"I've been in the big money. But I blew it. I lived it, I enjoyed it, and I have no regrets. What's next, well, I'll face with a smile - really and truly."

Henry Hopp holds a Ph.D. in economics. For 33 years, he worked for the federal government as an agricultural specialist, serving in Africa and Latin America as well as in the United States. Then, eight years ago at 58, he resigned and started hiring himself out as a consultant. He wanted to set his own, gradually slowing pace and steer gracefully into retirement.

"When I was in Mexico as an agricultural attache, a friend said to me one day, 'Henry, I'm 54. If I don't quit now, I don't think anyone will want me. I've decided to retire.' That remark stuck in my noggin. Several people began approaching me about consulting. Then they liberalized the retirement rules, changing them so that if you retired before October 1, you could get an extra 4 percent or something like that. And, also, when you get to be older, you don't have many ambitions. I just wanted to do something good, something that helped people. So I decided to retire. It was the best thing I ever did.

"Since then, I've had a number of interesting consulting assignments. I've spent time in Venesuels, Ecuador, Europe and Nicaragua. There have also been some slow periods. In 1972, for example, I didn't work the whole year.

"I am getting the feeling now I'm going to have to stop running around the world. Through my economics work, I got to know something about accounting and bookkeeping and so forth. So now I've started to do that kind of work, part-time, for some small companies in the area.

"Retirement, if you do nothing, slows you down. If you do something, you get involved with that, and then you have the mental and emotional focus on whatever new thing it is you're doing. So far, I haven't found that I like to sit around and read philosophical tonnes, which would probably put me to sleep.

"There's another aspect to getting older. One becomes more aware, more sensitive to people aging around you. You see old people walking around all the time. The younger person doesn't really focus on them. But as you grow older, you notice these people more. You see a person over there and you think that's going to happen to me or something like that is going to happen.

"I don't think a person can really lay out a plan for old age because you can't know what's going to happen in old age."

Robert Spotz, 61, worked for General Electric as an engineer specializing in heat transfer. He helped develop missile systems and assisted in the Apollo space program. But when America's space effort lessened, GE retired Spotz. That was nine years ago.

"I wrote a lot of letters and had some interviews looking for work. Most of the interviews, though, were with agencies which are used to screen. And I must say, there is age discrimination. Nothing direct, but the most poignant illustration was an interview I had with one young agency person who just sat there and scratched his head for an hour saying he couldn't understand why, with my qualifications, I couldn't find a job. He said the agency itself did't practice age discrimination, but he couldn't vounch for what happened once an application was forwarded to a company.

"I'm not bitter about this. I'm just saying how it appears to me.

"Meantime, there was a friend of mine at GE who was in the process of moving. I told him if he needed anything. I'd be glad to help. So he called me one Saturday with eight or 10 things to do at his house - repairs, clean up, that sort of thing. He showed me an estimate he had gotten for cleaning up the house. I didn't know anything about pricing this kind of work, but I told him I could do the whole thing cheaper. They were asking some really exorbitant prices, like $15 for cleaning the bathroom, just an ordinary cleaning.

"One job led to another and that's how I got into the home repair and decorating business. It's something I'm pretty good at. And I felt the market was pretty good for it here. My father, when he retired, had gone into this, though with him it was on a smaller scale.

"I get a certain satisfaction out of doing this. And, of course, I'm happy when I get paid, I really don't see any other possibilities for now. I miss my engineering work. But this has certain advantages. You are your own boss. One thing about it, though: You really have to hump. As someone said to me recently, you have to boss Johnson, which is yourself.

"I realize there'll come a day when I won't be able to do some of the things Ive been doing, like getting up on roofs and high ladders and fixing chimneys. About the only thing that's come up is maybe to go into the framing business. The other day I looked at a mitre saw to buy for that purpose."

Rebecca Fields and Pauline Thurman, both now is their seventies, work as baby sitters for other elderly people. They are hired to care for, read to, take walks with and generally entertain all sorts. Their assignments come through the Over-60 Service's popular "Good Neighbor Family Aide" program.

Fields: "I taught school for many years in Montgomery County, and then my heart acted up. I went to see my physician and he told me I had to stop. I was sort of floored. But he said I didn't have to sit and fiddle my thumbs, just that I should do something that when I closed the door at night, that was it - no correcting papers, no making up tests, none of that sort of thing.

"How a person copes with retirement, I think, depends on the individual, what experience they've had earlier in life and what experience they've had earlier in life and what experience they've had with older people.I grew up with older people - my grandfather lived to be over 100, and an aunt that I lived with lived to be 96. That's one reason I know how to cope.

"I couldn't take teaching now. I tutor every now and then, when kids have trouble with English or Latin. I'm perfectly willing to help, but I don't it, but when we told kids, 'Sit down, be quiet,' they sat down and were quiet. Today, they tell you to go to! You know that as well as I."

Thurman: "For 42 years, I worked as an assistant in personnel for an international treaty organization. Then suddenly I was ordered out because the wife of the head of the thing was involved in some kind of scheming I got squeezed in the middle of. I was mad. I was just plain furious. I crawled in a hole for six months.

"I hadn't planned for retirement. It just hadn't entered my head. I was having such fun. I was busy with my job and such.It probably would have been important to me if I had had sense enough to think about it, but I just didn't think my fun was ever going to end.

"Then I remembered my husband used to preach to me, 'You know, it's a lot better to wear out than to rust out.' So I decided to wear out, and I got busy again in this sort of nursing job.

For 13 years, Gladys Sprinkle has been the director of the Over-60 Service. She interviews hundreds of elderly people every year and finds jobs for many of them. She also lobbies for funds and legislative support at the local, state and federal level. At 61, she is beginning to think about her own retirement.

"In the last dozen years, we've been seeing people retiring in their fifties. We used to talk about retirement lasting five to seven years. Now we're talking about 25 years of retirement, with people retiring younger and living longer.

"But inflation is beginning to change things. Older people are having to return to work. People who have had their homes paid for are now making tax payments more than their mortgages ever were.

"We can find some kind of work for most of them, but the problem is sometimes getting them to accept it. In the Washington area, we are saturated with retired chiefs and they are all used to being in charge. It's hard to put them in another management position.

"What we try to get through to them is not to set their sights too high, and also, not to sit at home and sulk. You can grow old quickly that way. The idea is to have something going before you step down. Use the middle years to plan.

"In my own case, I'll probably have to step aside in a few years. I'm beginning to plan for that. I've been working with dried flower arrangements, learning how to make them. It's become real therapy. I'm not going to make a million bucks at this thing, but I'll get into it and maybe have a little cottage industry."