Helen Marchese is a 70-year-old widow with energy to spare and a 1995 Chrysler in the garage, the better to keep on top of her packed schedule of exercise classes and lunch dates. John and Flo Jonas are 67-year-olds who sing in their church choir, do volunteer work throughout Loudoun County and are planning a 45th wedding anniversary celebration in January.
The three are part of Loudoun's rapidly growing population of "imported" senior citizens who share houses or Zip codes with their adult children. Although much is made of Loudoun's burgeoning school-age population, the fastest-growing segment in the county--and nationally--is the elderly.
In Loudoun, the population of people 55 and older grew at more than twice the rate of the overall population in the last eight years, as Loudoun itself has become the third fastest-growing county in the nation, according to the county Agency on Aging.
A large number of grandparents are making post-retirement moves across county and state lines to be near their children, the agency said. In the process, they are often severing ties with their old communities and risking disorientation--even isolation.
Marchese and the Jonases have pushed aside shyness and self-consciousness to step out into their new communities. Each time they do, they feel younger--and sometimes sillier.
So it was that they stood in an auditorium at Xerox Document University on Oct. 23 with about 100 other seniors and--chins up, elbows bent--danced the chicken lope. They were attending the "Vintage Voices" conference sponsored by the Loudoun Area Agency on Aging and the Office on Youth.
In the front of the room was their guide: A banjo-playing physician in a red clown's nose and a white choir robe who favors Appalachian folk tunes and likes to make people laugh.
Between leading sing-alongs, the doctor, John Glick, who recently joined Patch Adams at his Gesundheit! Institute in Hillsboro, W.Va., talked about such difficult subjects as death and the distant relationships many doctors have with their older patients nowadays.
Glick said his own disenchantment with managed care led him to join Adams, whose life was the basis for a 1998 feature film starring Robin Williams, in using laughter as medicine. Adams is building a community of doctors and other health care professionals who ultimately will provide free medical care at a clinic in Hillsboro, in the poorest county in West Virginia.
The community will be "an island of care and concern in a world of consumerism," Glick said, and he encouraged the seniors to take on the same role in their communities.
"What is making people scared today?" Glick asked. "I would say it's isolation."
Dozens of heads nodded in agreement. Loudoun County and other local jurisdictions have been consumed by the need to provide schools and other services for the surging numbers of school-age children. But they also are struggling to respond to the needs of the growing population of elders.
The budget for Loudoun's transportation services for the elderly and the disabled runs short nearly every month, the county's social services agency reported recently. Some seniors rarely go anywhere but to the doctor's office.
Flo Jonas still has her own car, but she said that when she was new to the county, she had to fight the impulse to stay inside and not bother to see people other than her daughter, who lives in Front Royal, Va.
"I went through a bout of feeling isolated and alone and depressed when we first moved down to Virginia," said Jonas, who came with her husband from New York state to Ashburn Farm in 1996. "I would pick up a newspaper and see what was going on and take myself to it. . . . It's hard when you move into a new neighborhood. I was scared, sure, but it was either be scared and sit home and rub my hands together or get up off my rear end and go do it."
Marchese moved into her daughter and son-in-law's home in Ashburn Farm six years ago from Long Island. She has their company and the company of their three children, but she has two rooms and a kitchen to herself, so "I have my privacy and she has hers. It's nice. This way I'm on my own, and they're on their own."
Last weekend's conference was one of several such county-sponsored events intended to fill the gap in services for the county's elders.
Charlene Johnson, manager of the Office on Youth, said the topic--good health is ageless--allowed the county to introduce seniors to two massage therapists and an aroma therapist who demonstrated that "there are beneficial things one can do for themselves in their own lives."
The event included about a dozen teenagers from county high schools who were invited as a way to get to know another segment of the community. Glick observed that the two generations have more in common than they might think because both are in times of great transition in their lives and bodies.
"I don't think we get to know enough about our kids," said Peggy Stewart, 83, of Leesburg. "All we get to read in the paper is bad stuff they do."
The teenagers tended to congregate at the back of the room and talk to each other--apparently victims of the same shyness and self-consciousness that their elders had to overcome to be there. But they began to mingle during breaks at the soda fountain.
"At first I thought, 'Six hours, oh boy.' But you know, I'm enjoying it," said Mike Porter, 16, a senior at Park View.
Glick got the senior citizens out of their chairs and directed them through five verses of "You Are My Sunshine."
He asked the seniors about the hard subjects, and they responded by carrying on a dialogue with him.
"How many of you had doctors who made house calls?" Glick asked.
Almost every hand went up.
"And what did you like about it?" he asked.
"The personal touch," one woman said.
"You had a relationship," a man said.
"You weren't scared," someone else said.
He recommended that they ask their new doctors a few questions about themselves and prompt them to engage in a more personal relationship.
Afterward, members of the audience clustered around Glick, seeking his advice or a copy of a poem he had read on taking risks.
Flo Jonas was glowing.
"The philosophy he's espousing is wonderful--the compassion, the compassion for people who are older and ill," Jonas said.
Marchese was smiling, too.
"It is wonderful how they open the doors for you and just make you feel like a person no matter what your age is," she said.