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Cover Story: The Power of Play

By Kristen Loschert

Embracing hobbies, indulging curiosities, and pursuing passions may be more important than you think for health and happiness in retirement.

You’ve probably heard the adage that play is the work of children. It’s how they explore the world. And as any experienced educator knows, children thrive on fun. Games, crafts, and dramatic activities are great techniques for teaching children new skills and for keeping their interest.

But what about us grown-ups? Unfortunately, once we reach adulthood most of us focus more on work than on play, often to the detriment of our health and personal relationships.

“We know the number of hours people spend at work has increased,” says David Schlenoff, psychologist with Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland. “In our society, people who are not retired tend to become overwhelmed with their careers. The chair of life has become out of balance, and the leg that has grown too long is the amount of time we devote to our jobs.”

But retirees have a unique opportunity to reclaim their leisure lives and experience a carefree sense of play similar to what they enjoyed as children, explains Schlenoff. Without the demands of a daily work schedule, retirees have more time to explore their lifelong interests. In fact, recent research from several U.S. universities shows more retirees are using their newly acquired free time to pursue activities they had postponed during their working years or to engage in new hobbies entirely. Plus, incorporating fun activities into retired life contributes to an individual’s mental and physical health, says Schlenoff.

In our society, your “identity is defined by what you do in your career,” explains Schlenoff. “Now think about spending your entire life not only preparing for your career, but engaging for decades in your career. That defines who you are, and suddenly the day comes when you retire and that identity is totally gone.

“If a person loses their reason for being, loses their sense of identity, it can generate depression,” he continues. “A hobby could flow into this vacuum and have far-reaching benefits.”

People who pursue their passions are likely to have meaningful social interactions, another essential component for a satisfying retirement, says Schlenoff.

“In looking for ways to fill your time, to fill your life, if you will, establishing an interest in something is key. Having social interaction is key,” says Schlenoff. “We know it’s healthy to have leisure activities, and there are all sorts of ways [retirees] can incorporate more leisure into their lives.”

Ready to have more fun and recapture your inner kiddo? Read on to find out how your fellow retirees are doing it.

Making the Old New Again

She always loved Antiques Roadshow--now Jackie Ward shows antiques at her own market booth.

Photo by Randy Digh

Before she retired in 1994, Jackie Ward never thought much about antiques. But in 2006, when a friend asked her if she would like to purchase a booth with her at a local antiques market, Ward surprised herself by saying yes.

“I knew nothing about antiques at the time,” says Ward, a retired fifth- and sixth-grade teacher in North Carolina. “But as you grow older, those older things seem more valuable and more precious than a lot of the new things you see today.”

Ward and her friend began scouring estate sales, yard sales, and flea markets for items for their business. The two friends had so much fun that they purchased two additional booths at the antiques market.

“I’m not making a whole lot of money, but I’m making my rent every month, plus a little extra money, and it’s just fun,” Ward says.

Learning about the different antiques has been the most rewarding part, says Ward. She has acquired most of her knowledge from talking with other antiques dealers and people who visit her business. She also reads magazines about antiques and researches items on the Internet. “And I love Antiques Roadshow,” she adds.

Her most interesting finds include a 100-year-old tricycle and a 100-year-old nursery rocker and baby cradle. Many customers visit Ward’s booths looking for furniture, she says. Hoosier cabinets, which feature a coffee grinder or flour bin behind one of the doors, have been especially popular, she explains. Ward and her partner have sold three such cabinets for double or even triple what they paid for the items.

Ward has a personal fondness for items from the early 1900s, partly because her mother was born during that time. Finding items that her mother might have enjoyed as a child helps Ward connect to memories of her mom, who died in 2002.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t like old things. You want new things, everything is supposed to be modern,” she says. “As you get older, modern doesn’t mean anything anymore. What means a lot is those things that touch your heart.”

Helpful Hobby Hints

If you need some inspiration for a new favorite pastime, try some of these tips:

  • Visit the newsstand at your local bookstore. You will find a variety of magazines about specific hobbies and special interests.
  • Attend a meeting for a social group or club involved in a hobby that interests you.
  • Talk with your friends about their hobbies and what they enjoy about them.
  • Revisit a hobby you enjoyed as a child or young adult, or explore an interest you once postponed while you were working.

Dancing into Retirement

From the time she learned to walk, Roselle Macdonald enjoyed moving to music, she says. But it wasn’t until she reached adulthood that Macdonald turned her love of dance into an integral part of her life.

Macdonald, a retired elementary special education teacher in Connecticut, started taking lessons in international folkdance while she was still teaching. At one of her sessions she met a fellow dancer who performed English Country Dancing, a style that dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. In English Country Dancing, the men and women form two lines and move through a series of “figures” announced by a “caller” as the dances progress. (Think of the dancing you’ve seen in movies like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.) Macdonald attended a few rehearsals for a local dance group and instantly fell in love with the graceful movements and haunting music. So in 1984 she joined the Country Dance and Song Society, an international group that fosters the preservation of English and American dance and song. She has been dancing the style ever since.

“At an open dance there is always live music and that for me is the biggest draw,” says Macdonald. “When you reach the point of experience where you know the dance, you can just tune into the music and realize how beautiful it is.”

The 11 members of Macdonald’s dance group rehearse weekly and perform their dances several times a year in costumes based on traditional late 18th-century American attire. The group has performed at the Tish Center in New York City and Faneuil Hall in Boston, as well as local venues in Connecticut.

“I really like the socializing, especially when you go to an open dance. Every dance you get a new partner, so you are meeting and talking with lots of different people,” says Macdonald, who retired in 2001 after 31 years in the classroom. “I think it’s important to maintain all kinds of social contact [when you retire]. You’ve lost what you had when you were teaching, but you can gain all these other interests.”

Since retiring, Macdonald has served as a caller during the group’s dance rehearsals and also helps plan the dance program for the group’s annual ball.

“I enjoy it because it is good exercise, it improves my posture, it improves my listening skills, and it’s intellectually stimulating,” she says of her dancing. “The most important thing is it gives me a sense of joy.”

Strumming Along

As an elementary school teacher in Massachusetts, Jan Demers incorporated plenty of music into her lessons. But throughout her 34-year career, she often felt that something was missing.

“I always thought I would have loved to pick up a guitar or be able to strum along with my kindergartners and first graders,” she says. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

So three years ago her husband surprised her with a ukulele as an end-of-the-school-year gift. Demers tried to teach herself how to play, but she never spent much time with the instrument. That all changed after she retired last year.

“It happened to be the first week of September when school started up again,” Demers recalls. “I was feeling down, wondering whether I had made a mistake retiring. I walked by a store with a sign that said ‘guitar’ and I stopped in. I told him I had a ukulele and asked if someone could help me learn to play and he said sure. So I started taking weekly lessons and really enjoy it.”

Learning a new skill has been more challenging than she expected, Demers says.

“It’s funny being a student after all of these years of being on the other side of the teaching-learning equation,” she says. “I just look forward to all of my instructor’s encouragement. As teachers, we’ve been the ones imparting knowledge and praise and we don’t often get that remarkable feeling of mastering something.” Demers practices a little bit everyday and even brings her ukulele along to family gatherings for sing-alongs, she says. So far, her family has been a receptive audience, she laughs. But even if her performances never extend beyond her living room, Demers says developing a new talent is reward enough.

“After living for 60 years, you don’t come across many opportunities to learn a new skill and get that feeling of accomplishment,” says Demers. “Life is short and you want to take advantage of the time you have in your retirement. Take the advice that you used to give your students and try new things. Open up your world and open up the possibilities.”

Big Band & Big Laughs

During his 25 years as an elementary and middle school teacher, Howard Wolf encouraged his students to create and perform their own plays and shows. It helped his students work as a cohesive group, he says.

After retiring in 1990, though, Wolf began writing his own skits as a member of The Stars, a performing troupe in New Jersey.

The group started a decade ago, Wolf says, when a fellow member of the local men’s club began entertaining residents in area nursing homes. The two got together, recruited six other club members, and now sing songs from the Big Band era and perform comedic skits at nursing homes and veterans’ hospitals five or six times a year. The men’s club still sponsors the group and even supplies its sound equipment.

The group’s one-hour show is modeled after Your Hit Parade, a popular radio and T.V. program broadcast from 1935 to 1959. For each show, Wolf selects the “Top 10” songs the men will perform and writes the scripts. In addition, he performs humorous skits inspired by comedic legends like Jimmy Durante and Henny Youngman.

“Our reward is seeing the faces of the people who can’t go to Atlantic City or New York or anywhere else,” says Wolf. “We bring them the shows, and we make them happy.”

Wolf and his fellow performers encourage the audience members to participate, too. During one performance, the group noticed a man at the back of the audience singing along. Wolf later learned it was the first time the man had spoken since suffering a stroke three years earlier. At the end of the show, Wolf handed him a microphone, and he sang for the other residents.

“[The residents] enjoy hearing the old songs and reliving the old-time radio shows. They say thank you so many times,” says Wolf, who also plays clarinet in The Happy Days String Band, which performs at county events. “I could never see myself sitting in a rocking chair after I retired. I’m giving back a little bit.”

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