‘I’m 80 — What Do I Do Now?’

Ed Eisen presenting his talk "A Reporter's Front Row Seat to History."
Ed Eisen presenting his talk “A Reporter’s Front Row Seat to History.”

This summer, the financial data company SmartAsset released its second annual study on American retirement. Using census microdata on labor force participation between 2010 and 2014 for people aged 40 to 80, the company determined the average retirement age on both state and national levels.

Not much had changed since last year: The lowest average retirement age across 50 states was still 62; the highest was still 65. Nor had the national average age of retirement changed from 63.

Another fact that’s also stayed remarkably stable: the number of people who are part of the labor force after 80. In both years of SmartAsset’s study, that number was only 6 percent.

Ed Eisen, it appears, didn’t get that memo.

At 80, the Jenkintown resident is still going strong, busier than ever with work that reflects the words on his license plate: “GIVE-BAK.”

“I’ve had 17 careers,” said the unceasingly energetic Eisen, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Camden and West Philadelphia. “I’ve been a journalist at three major metros, author, public relations consultant, script writer, DJ, talk-show host, TV producer, video producer, entrepreneur, advertising executive, marketing professional, adjunct professor, voice-over talent, ESL teacher, memoir-writing coach, career consultant and motivational speaker.” Later, he added another one: “memory-loss consultant.” That last one is a job he started in his 70s.

As a child, little Eddie didn’t dream of changing hats so often. Instead, he was utterly sure of his path: He wanted to be a broadcaster — just like the radio announcers he heard when he listened to Superman and The Lone Ranger. He even created his own cardboard radio station out of milk boxes.

“It wasn’t until much later, when I went into broadcasting, that I found out it wasn’t the business for me,” Eisen said. “I was canned more frequently than I worked.”

Despite a voice that even today has a broadcaster’s rich timbre, Eisen — an undeniably voluble fellow — thinks maybe he talked too much for broadcasting.

“Diarrhea of the mouth, I guess it was. You could say it almost ended my career.”

But Eisen has a kind of superhuman resilience, turning each unexpected fork in the road into a personal red-carpet runway. In this case, the demise of one career led to his finding his bliss as a journalist.

”That’s the one career that has always defined me and that I miss to this day,” he said. “Journalism — that was for me.”

He began as a copy boy at The Philadelphia Daily News and worked for six years at the old Ft. Lauderdale News. Locally, he worked as a writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Bulletin. In summing up his journalistic career, he said, “I made a hell of a lot of people angry.”

When the Bulletin went out of business in the early ’80s, Eisen found himself again at a career crossroads. It was at this point that he got what he says was the worst advice of his life — from his own father.

“It was the same thing he told me when I was 18,” Eisen recalls of his father, who worked for a cleaning company. “He said, ‘Eddie, why don’t you go into the cleaning business? You’ll make a lot of money. You’ll have a life.’ I said the same thing to him at 18 and in 1982: ‘Pop, you don’t understand. I’m a writer. I’m a journalist. I don’t want to mop floors.’”

So the then-48-year-old took at job at The Atlantic City Press as a copy editor. He hated being behind the scenes, but wasn’t planning to leave — until one Saturday night, three months after he started, when his boss called him in for a talk.

“I’m sorry, Ed,” the boss told him. “You didn’t make it.’”

The reason for Eisen’s dismissal? His failure to master the new computer system.

The boss did have kind parting words, though: “I’m sure you’ll find something else in life that you’ll do well with.”

“Boy, was I down,” Eisen recalled. “The thing that defined me, the thing I had been most passionate about — being a journalist — it just ended. I was depressed.”

The depression lasted three days. Then he got up, pulled the dusty Smith-Corona typewriter from under the bed, and got to work.

“I had a wife and four kids and the roof was leaking.”

The PR firm Eisen then launched, Eisen & Associates, lasted 28 years, until he “retired” in 2010. Of course, he didn’t really retire. Instead, he reinvented himself again — this time as something like a spirit guide for people moving through post-retirement.

He started at nursing homes and retirement facilities, and then broadened his reach to libraries, universities, synagogues and churches. He has a whole slate of programs, many of which he refers to as “this thing I do.”

“There’s this thing I do called ‘A Reporter’s Front-Row Seat to History,’ where I talk about the people I’ve met, like Mother Teresa and two popes, Joe Frazier, Jackie Gleason,” he said. “Then I’ve got another talk called ‘New Year Equals New Job.’ I do a quiz show called ‘Can You Top This?’ I do a thing called ‘I’m 80 — What Do I Do Now?’ I do a thing called ‘Confessions of a Philadelphia Spin Doctor,’ which is based on my book. I do ‘The Pope’s Jewish PR Guy and Other Tales: How Ed Eisen Said No to the Mafia and Lived.’ I do a thing called ‘From Caterpillar to Butterfly: How You, Too, Can Change.’”

His most popular program these days is probably the one about current events.

“Some of these people in these retirement homes are told, ‘You don’t talk about politics. You don’t talk about religion. You don’t talk about these controversial things.’”

That’s not Eisen’s style.

“I do a thing called ‘Sound Off,’ where we debate the big issues in the news. For one hour we talk about Donald Trump and the presidency and what it means for America. We talk about what it means to be a Muslim. We talk about issues that are frowned upon to talk about at the dinner table. It’s sort of like Anderson Cooper and Bill O’Reilly combined. They just love it.”

Another much-loved program is the one he does for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, in which he plays music from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and passes around an old Quaker oatmeal box that’s filled with written prompts: “Can you remember the last time you sat around a radio listening to it?” “Tell the story of how you met your spouse.” “What was the happiest day of your life?” “What would it take to make you very happy today?”

If workshop attendees can’t find an answer, Eisen — not surprisingly — answers the questions himself.

All of Eisen’s activity these days is motivated by the same desire: to enrich the lives of others.

“You’ve got to make yourself happy by making other people happy,” he said. It’s an impulse he probably got from his mother.

“My mother was from Latvia. We were poor. But she would have a stranger come into the house on the Sabbath every Friday night. That was my mom’s way of giving back.”

He and his wife have passed the giving torch on to their kids: Daughters Stacy and Gwen both work in the health care industry, while son Seth recently wrote a play inspired by work he did as a caretaker for an elderly man. (Eisen’s other son, Steve, died of cancer at 33.)

“I’m having a ball, I really am,” Eisen says of his 18th — or is it 19th? — act. “People look at me, and they don’t believe that I’m 80.”

So is that the takeaway? Is that the point?

“The point,” said Eisen, “is that there’s always hope, and the sun will come out tomorrow.”

Contact: lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747


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