Annette Mitchell leans over one of the students and admires the drawing: a rectangular mass of pink with multi-colored boxes and streamers. Underneath, the youngster has copied down, "This chair is nice and soft for my mother."
Mitchell, 69, smiles. She has just read a story to the kindergarten class at the D.C.'s Montgomery Elementary School -- "A Chair for My Mother" by Vera B. Williams. And she has given an assignment: Draw a chair. As Mitchell moves from one table to the next, she tells the children, "You want it to be a very nice chair." They pick up more crayons. "This is an important chair."
Mitchell is a member of Experience Corps, a volunteer organization that sends older men and women to work in elementary schools. She works 16 hours a week -- helping out in the classroom and tutoring students one-on-one -- for a small stipend.
Dressed in a stylish maroon outfit with a matching cape, Annette Mitchell is many things: fourth-generation Washingtonian, wife, mother, grandmother, seamstress, poet, former government worker -- and now "classroom academic aide," according to her job title.
She is a godsend to Aurora Milas, 31, the kindergarten teacher.
She is also the wave of the future. Although officially retired, she is still working. That will become increasingly the norm as a generation of healthier Americans reach their sixties and can expect to live another 20 or 30 years. For financial and psychological reasons, more and more people past the age of 65 are going to keep working.
Mitchell and others like her are changing the culture of aging. To all those Washington poobahs stuck in the pit of aging prejudice, she sends this message: Don't ask what the country can do for seniors -- ask what seniors can do for the country.
Until now, policy discussions on the longevity boom have focused on the needs and frailties of older Americans -- prescription drug coverage, nursing homes, managed care and the like. But most people over 55 are far from dwelling on their problems. They are healthier, better educated and biologically younger than their grandparents were at the same age. Millions of boomers and pre-boomers who have finished their careers -- or been eased out of the conventional workforce -- are entering a period of vitality that didn't exist in previous generations. What will they do with these "extra" decades?
"This is an invention of a new stage of life," said Marc Freedman, president of Civic Ventures, the nonprofit agency that oversees Experience Corps programs nationwide. "We've got to sell a new dream for this stage of life."
Social scientist Phyllis Moen of Cornell University calls this stage "midcourse" -- the period midway between "early career development and old age."
"I do believe the baby boomers will never get beyond" this phase, she says. "It's a state of mind, not an age." In fact, one-third of people over 75 consider themselves middle-aged, according to surveys by the National Council on the Aging.
This period of extended vitality is so recent in human development that it has no agenda -- and no road map for people to follow. It's up to the current generation to establish patterns of behavior and define the goals for these years.
One vision centers on community service and volunteerism. More than 55 percent of Americans aged 50 to 75 say volunteering is or would be an important part of retirement, according to a recent poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates -- up from 50 percent four years ago.
The health benefits associated with volunteering are well-known. Research shows that people who volunteer live longer than those who don't. In a Hart survey of 600 men and women, volunteers tended to be more optimistic, productive and empowered, and less disabled by poor health than those who did no volunteer work.
Still, volunteer work -- or any kind of work -- is not for everybody. For many people, retirement is mainly an opportunity to enjoy themselves after the high-stress years of having a job and raising children. Even among volunteers in the Hart poll, about a quarter view retirement primarily as a time to take it easy or to pursue a combination of leisure and some work.
Yet the majority of people who do volunteer work sees retirement as the beginning of a new chapter in life. Seven in 10 volunteers say that retirement paves the way to start new activities, set new goals and have a purpose. Forty years ago, the purpose-to-leisure ratio would have been reversed, pollster Hart told a recent conference on aging. That's the dramatic change. "It's not the idea of shuffleboard," said Hart. "These people want to be engaged. They believe they can make a difference."
What's more, even more people would perform community service if there were some compensation. Nearly half of non-volunteers in the survey would work at least 15 hours a week in exchange for such benefits as education scholarships, prescription drug coverage or a small stipend.
The challenge to leaders in business and government is to take this pool of talent and use it to solve pressing problems in the community -- in a way that benefits both the seniors and the ones they are helping.
Experience Corps is one model. This program marshals the talents and time of older adults to work in schools in 15 cities, including San Francisco, Cleveland, Baltimore and Philadelphia. In Washington, Experience Corps sends 110 volunteers to tutor children in reading and math in five elementary schools. About 40 also teach in the classroom and are paid $270 a month.
These academic helpers have varied backgrounds, from blue-collar to management jobs. Many are former police officers and firefighters. Some are homemakers. A few are retired teachers. They all go through a selection process and are carefully trained to work in schools. The program has been so successful that Experience Corps is planning to expand to 15 schools by 2005.
Experience Corps began three years ago at Montgomery, in partnership with For Love of Children (FLOC), a local youth services organization. By now, Annette Mitchell and her colleagues have become an integral part of the school community. "We love having them here," said Montgomery's principal, Ann N. Thomas. "I don't see how we operated without them."
There were some questions in the beginning. Were all these old people competent to work with children? "I eat my words every day," said assistant principal Mary C. Robinson. "They are wonderful. They are so dependable. There's something about older people -- character and responsibility are ingrained in them."
In recent years, many programs have sprung up across the country to put older Americans to work on community problems. President Bush has endorsed the idea of expanding funding for senior service programs. But legislation is stalled in Congress.
At the aging conference sponsored by Civic Ventures, leaders in public service programs debated strategies for expanding opportunities for older Americans to get involved in their communities. A consensus emerged that it will take more than legislation for this trend in community service to take hold. Even the language of aging and work must change to reflect the new realities of this unprecedented stage of life. For example:
* Retire the word "retirement." Most people today go in and out of the job market for as long as they can. Even now, one-third of people who retire are working full time, according to National Council on the Aging. Many more are working part time. "Retirement is irrelevant," said the James Firman, president of the council.
* Drop the label "volunteer." Instead, talk about work -- paid work, unpaid work, incentive work (earning health coverage or education aid), flexible work (working 10-hour units instead of the 40-hour week). Volunteerism is too narrow, because it excludes people who need some kind of compensation. It also has a negative image suggesting that unpaid work is not as serious as a "real" job. But community service is serious work. Think of volunteers as "not-for-personal-profit" workers. They're still workers -- no matter what the compensation, no matter what the age.
"I don't think we're talking about seniors. I don't think we're talking about volunteerism. We're talking about work," said Freedman, author of "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America."
* Modify associations with the word "old." Stereotypes about aging are so prevalent that "growing old" is laden with all the bad d-words: declining, decrepit, disabled. In reality, it's the youth-obsessed American culture that suffers from the main d-word: denial. "We have to change the notion of aging. We don't value aging," said Pamela B. Smith, director of a San Diego program that hires senior volunteers to help families get off welfare. "We need a national marketing campaign to change the image of seniors."
* Recast the message. Instead of pitching community service as something nice for Granny and Gramps to do so they won't get bored playing golf or rocking out on the porch, turn the message around: Look at all the problems in the community. Look at this pool of talent that could be helpful. Tap seniors to solve problems. As Freedman said, "This is a solution that is waiting to happen."
There are land mines in this novel solution, which is outside the conventional job market and calls for flexible work for flexible compensation. One is competence: How do you make sure seniors are qualified to do the job? Another is exploitation: How do you make sure seniors won't be taken advantage of as a source of cheap labor or to take the jobs of paid workers?
The philosophy at Experience Corps is that the school programs benefit both seniors and children. The goal is balance in serving the interests of both constituencies -- givers and receivers, older and younger. If this trend is to grow, balance has to be the guiding principle. That will take careful monitoring and active support of both private and government institutions. Just like the nursery rhyme, when a community program using seniors is good, it is very, very good. When it's not, the fallout could be horrid.
Annette Mitchell gathers up the drawings. It's lunchtime at Montgomery. The children march out to the cafeteria, single file, no talking, hands clasped behind their backs; first the girls in gray-green plaid jumpers, then the boys in green pants and neckties.
Mitchell has been working at Montgomery for three years. "I intend to stay here the rest of my life," she said. "I love it. The thing is, you're helping others. I couldn't get over the fact that kids come out of high school and they are not able to read. If you can get a kid to read in kindergarten and get that start -- it's fulfilling."
Fulfilling for the kids. Fulfilling for Mitchell. And fulfilling for the country.
To find information on Experience Corps programs in Washington, contact Tom Taylor, project director of Experience Corps/Washington, D.C., Thurgood Marshall Center, 1816 12th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009. Telephone: 202-797-1150. E-mail: email@example.com.