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STYLE : Slinging Slogans to Give Seniors a Leg Up

Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Three years ago, Marla Gitterman asked herself what she was going to do with the rest of her life. She was 73.

Gitterman’s mission is now clear. She wants to kick the senior population in the pants and inspire older people to make the most of their later years.

In a talk followed by a fashion show at the Laguna Hills Senior Center last week, Gitterman tossed the audience a challenge: “Look your best” and, by volunteering to help others, give back to society some of the skills gained from decades of living.

Gitterman, former vice president of the Laguna Niguel Seniors and Ms. Senior America for California in 1987, told the audience made up mostly of Leisure World residents that to start their new careers as volunteers, they needed first to spruce up the packaging.

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“I say walk tall, and I’m not talking altitude, but attitude,” said Gitterman, who was dressed in a bright-green blouse and royal-blue Anne Klein jacket. “In our later years, beauty isn’t so much what we look like but how we feel. But we won’t feel good if we don’t look good.”

Gitterman stressed the need for those over 60 to watch their weight, put together flattering wardrobes and consider cosmetic surgery if it will improve appearance and heighten confidence. Appearance and attitude go hand in hand, she said: “Do your packaging job and the rest will grow. They say that beauty is only skin deep, but I say who goes around with an X-ray machine?”

“What do I want to do next?” has become a common refrain for the tall, gray-haired Gitterman, who at age 60 volunteered at the Braille Institute of America, at age 65 enrolled at Saddleback College as a full-time student and at age 73 began writing for newspapers.

She has decided that her present job is to inspire others to be the best they can be--"and nobody can fire me because it’s all volunteer.”

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She has also been legislative chairwoman of the Laguna Niguel Republican Women’s Federation and has volunteered with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., and is a member of the South Coast Medical Center Auxiliary. In 1987 she represented California in the Ms. Senior America pageant in Atlantic City, a contest sponsored by a nonprofit organization called Senior America Inc. to demonstrate what women 55 and older have to contribute. She came in second for the national title.

The Laguna Niguel resident said most of her inspiration to stay active came from her mother.

“She celebrated her 78th birthday by taking her first solo flight for her pilot’s license, and enrolled in a computer course when she was 100,” Gitterman said.

“She was a great beauty, but she realized (that her beauty) was only the vehicle she moved around in. She also realized it was the only vehicle she was ever going to have, and (she) should make the most of it.”

Gitterman said appearance is just the first step in beginning a new career as a vibrant, contributing senior citizen. She stressed the importance of volunteering as a way to recycle wisdom acquired through experience.

Read to the blind, work in a hospital, drive people who can’t drive, she urged.

“Look at the imprinting we can do on young people by providing inspiration,” she told the men and women, who were completing a 6-week session on self-esteem and personal appearance. “We are the new generation of the old generation. . . . Each of your birthdays should be rebirthdays. And remember that what we contribute begins with self-esteem and the kind of face we present to the world.”

At the end of her talk, several listeners called her an inspiration, and one yelled: “You’re a fighter, aren’t you?”

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“Yes,” Gitterman said. “I used to have red hair, and I’ve never forgotten it.”


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