Aging just isn’t what it used to be, and that’s because most of us over 30 have made a conscious decision to do something about it.
Retirement, just like “the new 30, 40, 50, etc.,” has a whole different meaning for a generation of seniors who refuse to let their hearts and minds grow old. Some of them have discovered that with the right post-retirement job, the boundaries between work and play blend together in all kinds of unexpected ways.
Recent research on aging offers concrete evidence that working beyond retirement provides not only a financial boost, but also improvement in physical and mental health. A 2009 study conducted by the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, for example, detailed that working senior citizens suffered 17 percent fewer major diseases than those who stopped working entirely, and were less likely to experience physical decline.
According to the report, retirees who took on part-time or temporary employment were found to be less prone to high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, psychiatric problems and arthritis. They were also less likely to undergo “functional decline.”
It suffices to say that the jobs held by senior citizens at Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa., offer those benefits and then some, based on the experiences and observations of several Philadelphia-area residents working at the 32 years-young theme park based on the landmark PBS educational show Sesame Street.
While Sesame Place, like other theme parks across the country, hire teenagers for a variety of food service, retail and operations jobs, they also actively court seniors.
According to some of those very contented Sesame Place workers interviewed, the all-ages mix of workers has made for an experience that is at once familial and educational, not just for the pre-schoolers wanting to meet the characters teaching them their ABC’s and 123s, but also the older people they meet in this magical neighborhood.
Also, it is not surprising that different individuals find their own way to get to Sesame Place. Some, regretting early retirement, came to the park actively looking for a job. Others were either persuaded to apply by friends, heard about openings through word-of-mouth or came across the openings by accident and thought, “Why not?”
“A few months after I moved to the area, somebody hit my car and I needed to have it repaired,” recalls 86-years-young Viola Kerly, who once worked as a corporate receptionist and notes her friends and family describe her as an “extreme senior.”
“In the waiting room of Enterprise Rent-a-Car, I sat down next to a nice elderly couple who told me all about working at Sesame Place,” she said. “Although I told them I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work or volunteer, as my husband and I volunteered for many years, they encouraged me to get myself down there.
“Later that spring, I drove past Sesame Place and saw the big ‘Now Hiring’ sign. After passing it several times, I found myself going in to pick up an application. I let it sit for a couple of days, and then decided to fill it out.”
As it turned out, when the gentleman who persuaded Kerly to apply — he had also encouraged SP new hire Imelda “Mel” Lindquist to move from culinary to wardrobe — died, Lindquist took over his job running wardrobe.
Not long after they both started working at Sesame Place, Kerly and Lindquist became inseparable.
“I retired at 68, and after the first year, I became so bored because I was so used to working,” says Lindquist matter-of-factly. “One day, when I was at the mall, I saw” an SP help wanted sign, “and soon after I went in, they interviewed me and hired me right away.
“In my wardrobe job, I not only get to know all of the Sesame Place workers, but also meet kids as well. The great thing about kids visiting Sesame Place is that they are nice to older people. I don’t feel old around them even though I am 75.”
Andy Lipton, a cashier at Hooper’s at the Emporium, has been minding the store for over 11 years. He believes his route to Sesame Place came from his wife spotting a recruiting poster at the park when she brought their grandchildren for a visit.
However, his determination to get a more enriching job came from a mix of regret about retiring at 62 (he once owned a photography studio) and seeking something beyond the crossing guard job he was holding at the time.
“I live 10 minutes from Sesame Place, and I had never been there because my boys were too old by the time the park was built and opened,” notes Joe Bauder, now in his fourth year in culinary operations, based at the Dine With Me restaurant.
“When I retired, I told myself I was going to take the easiest, no-brainer job I could find. Instead, I ended up with the opposite.”
Culinary operations at the park serves “thousands of people, and on Sundays, we have as many as 17,000 people in that park. It is not easy to feed all of those people, but we do it and have fun doing it.
“My past life, owning a sign- painting business and dealing with different kinds of customers, trained me well for this.”
Once these seniors find their place at Sesame Place, they end up sharing common reasons for wanting to stay: the familial environment, the experience of seeing young children come alive in their discoveries and the opportunity to broaden their social circle with both like-minded older adults and teens.
“This job is perfect for me as I have a chance to interact with the guests — and the kids in particular,” beams Lipton. “I am the first one in the morning, and often the only one on the floor in the morning for the first hour, so I have a great opportunity to interact with the families and kids.
“In terms of teens working in the park, they fall into two groups: one group with no exposure to older people, who avoid eye contact; and others who have had constant exposure and interaction with grandparents and older relatives.
“I have developed a great line of communication with these teens, and we often carry on as if they are unaware that there are years and generations that separate us. It has been satisfying developing relationships.”
Though Bauder originally wanted to work in the kitchen because of his interest in cooking, he realized after his first day he wanted to be out in the front of the house interacting with the families and the other workers.
He also volunteered to participate in the park’s QUEST program, where employees experience the park the way the customers do so they can apply what they learn to their job. Bauder also had an opportunity to learn from the park’s “Setting the Table” program that senior citizens in many respects are the glue that binds an all-ages staff together.
“While there are a lot of wonderful teenagers working here, (seniors) are so focused and committed,” Bauder observes. “The older people working at Sesame Place are there because they want to be there.
“We’ve done the dance, been through the mill, and go there because we want to work, and get the job done. There is not a weak link among the older people who work there. It has prompted me to tell friends seeking work that if you want employment in a friendly environment, come to Sesame Place and you will be happy.”
Another aspect of Sesame Place the workers appreciate is the fact that the environment is less commercial and more education-focused than other theme parks. Though Lipton (based on his observations at Hooper’s) feels that the youngest visitors are primarily there to be entertained and connect with familiar friends like Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Bert and Ernie, the others have found witnessing moments of early childhood learning to be unforgettable and fulfilling.
“When the kids come into the store, and they go after the books and the character toys, you can see they want to learn,” observes Lindquist. “In addition to the children’s books, there is a lot of merchandise as well as shows and exhibits geared for kids that prompt creativity.
“Watching the kids’ faces change as they meet the characters is also a joy to see. When you go into Dine With Me, kids light up and know who is who,” concurs Bauder.
“The whole premise of Sesame Place is just wonderful. The educational aspect of the park is amazing.”
Kerly has noticed through her customer service work in marketing and group sales that Big Bird and his flock have engaged children and families beyond the Philadelphia area. She notes that young parents coming to the park with their kids tell her that they first came to the park as children 30 years ago.
Lindquist notes that the multigenerational appeal of the park for both guests and workers extends to her own family, as both her grandsons have worked at the park and the older one is in management. She also emphasizes that their involvement with the park opens them up to community and volunteer activities.
Some of these include working with homeless shelters (Sesame Cares) and blood drives.
Concludes Lindquist, “All of it makes our individual jobs more gratifying because we are doing additional things for the community beyond maintaining the Sesame Place experience for the visitors.
“I have noticed teens getting hired, and then their mothers come in to get hired. They realize there are so many benefits to working here other than a paycheck.”
Sesame Place is located at 100 Sesame Rd., Langhorne, PA 19047. For more information about job openings, call 215-752-7070 or go to: www.sesameplace.com .
Elyse Glickman is a writer with an expertise in travel and health issues. This article originally appeared in "The Good Life," a special section.