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Retirees with a cause

With more time to spare for their favorite projects, older Americans are retraining themselves as advocates.

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Having worked almost 30 years as a strategic adviser to private companies, David Gleicher was used to getting an attentive hearing from his audience. That changed in retirement, however, as soon as he got involved in the movement to oppose a war with Iraq.

Soon, Mr. Gleicher found himself facing off with an incorrigible Providence radio talk-show host and hearing from young working couples that life is too busy to take up a cause. To reach these types, he realized, he would need to learn a few new tricks at the age of 79.

"It demands skills that many of us don't have in listening to people rather than preaching to them," Gleicher says. "It's really hard to listen. I much more easily spout off than take the time to understand the other person's concerns.... But you don't know that you're even talking to the right issue unless you listen first to how the other person sees it."

Grass-roots advocates have felt the limelight this year as headlines sprouted from public demonstrations, first against the war and then in support of deployed troops on the frontlines. Many in these and other movements, it turns out, come from the ranks of retirees who at last have the time and money to get behind a cause that they believe warrants a public effort.

Stepping into the rough-and-tumble world of issue advocacy can be a daunting challenge for seniors whose work experience has centered on other areas.

But those who help seniors make the jump say that success comes first from learning confidence, and then from learning to apply both new and old skills to a fresh setting.

"The key to their leadership is usually something they're carrying around already," such as a knack for identifying others' gifts and passions, says William Lamb, director of the Senior Leadership Enhancement Initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But it needs to be pointed out to them."

Inspiring seniors to get involved in advocacy marks a growing priority for groups that aim to shape public opinion. The American Association of Retired Persons, for instance, offers seminars to help its volunteers write persuasive letters and articles to advance the group's legislative agenda.


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