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80-Somethings Still Going Strong : Some Octogenarians Refuse Retirement, Keep Working at Professions They Enjoy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is generally accepted as a universal truth that no one dies wishing he or she had spent more time at the office. Cy Breen, 83, and the happy holder of two jobs, doesn’t buy it.

His thrice-weekly commute, 2 1/2 hours in each direction, brings Breen from Cathedral City in Riverside County to the Encino office of Executive Car Leasing, where he has worked as a salesman for 32 years. A little self-pity would not seem out of order in someone half his age regularly enduring a drive half that long. But Breen, who spends three more days each week staffing a photo finishing shop he owns near his desert home, confesses he has never been much of a clock watcher when it comes to his work.

“I always thought ‘retire’ was something you did to your car,” joked the Arkansas native, who cuts a sprightly figure in a cardigan and tie and resists being cast as his office’s sage old man. “I’ve been called a workaholic, but to me that means you are pressuring yourself to do the job. I do it because I enjoy doing it.”

Two decades beyond the nation’s median retirement age of 63, Breen is part of a small and overlooked segment of the population: octogenarians who remain actively engaged in their careers. In the days before Social Security and pension plans made a leisurely retirement possible, workers like him were much more common. Now, after three decades of steady decline, the percentage of Americans 75 and older still working has stabilized, due to increased longevity and improved enforcement of rules barring age discrimination. In 1985, 405,000 men and women, or 3.9% of the 75-and-over age group were economically active, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By last year, the number had grown to 694,000, representing 5.4% of the age group.

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Such senior citizens provide a compelling crosscurrent to the tide of middle-age workers who are withdrawing from the work world, whether by choice or because of corporate restructurings. Researchers know, for instance, that older workers who have already survived multiple career-related crises tend to be more satisfied with their jobs than their younger colleagues. Studies have also shown that staying intellectually challenged, either through paid work or some other pursuit, improves a person’s quality of life in his or her later years.

“The message is that old age can be synonymous with competency, vitality and high performance,” said Helen Dennis, a lecturer at USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center.

Indeed, to spend time with these uncommonly active 80-somethings is to know the particular pleasure of individuals who have made peace with their career choices. In addition to Cy Breen, they include such people as Lillian Seitsive, a Northridge general practice doctor who recently celebrated her 89th birthday; Larry Edmisten,84, a Studio City probate attorney, and Marv Wolfe, 85, who came out of retirement to open a North Hollywood harmonica store two years ago.

Besides the blessing of comparatively good health, they all share a passion for their professions and work for pleasure rather than money. They attribute their ability to keep burnout at bay to a lifelong commitment to balancing work with travel, family, community involvement and hobbies.

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Breen’s daughter, Karen Jones, said that when her father and mother moved to the desert from the San Fernando Valley five years ago, she fully expected her father to retire. Instead, he became a long-distance commuter and opened his Half-hour Photo store.

“We all rolled our eyes and said you’re kidding; you’re supposed to be playing golf,” Jones said.

In retrospect, she should not have been surprised, Jones said. Her father is the kind of person who still jumps in the air and clicks his heels together, just to get a rise out of his grandchildren. And he has always kept frenetically busy, through work, his hobby of speedboat racing, and volunteer pursuits such as the Rotary Club.

“He has always been a doer,” Jones marveled. “I can’t think of a single thing he wanted to do that he hasn’t done. He seemed to be able to balance everything. I’ve always wondered what his secret is.”

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AGE BECAME AN ISSUE

Lillian Seitsive still remembers realizing her age had become an issue in her medical practice. A woman Seitsive had been treating for years informed her that she was switching to another doctor, someone younger, because she was afraid of being without care should Seitsive die or retire.

“That was 25 or 30 years ago,” the Northridge practitioner remarked with a slight smile. The patient tried to come back a few years after the defection, but Seitsive, feeling betrayed, refused to treat her. “I’m getting more used to abandonment now,” she said.

When you have been a doctor for 64 years, as Seitsive has, hardly a day goes by without some reminder of your longevity. Two years ago, when she attended the Class of 1931 reunion for the Medical College of Pennsylvania, only she and one other classmate were still practicing medicine. Of the 38 founders of Northridge Hospital, she is the only doctor who remains an active staff member.

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People keep offering to buy her antique examining tables, both the solid oak one that dates from the 1920s and the pink-and-black stainless steel model she bought after setting up shop at the corner of Reseda Boulevard and Rayen Street 43 years ago.

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When Seitsive first went into medicine, patients often died from severe infections because penicillin had not yet been discovered. Surgery required to diagnose tumors and heart conditions was in itself life-threatening before the invention of CAT scans and MRI machines. “We had to use our hands, our eyes, our hearts,” she said.

In her younger days, Seitsive said, she occasionally fantasized about enjoying a leisurely retirement in Florida, a notion that “doesn’t hold a bit of light for me now.” After fracturing her arm and a bone in her face during a fall outside her office in April, she spent 10 days in the hospital but was back at work within four weeks, saying she could endure the pain better at the office than at home. She thinks that perhaps she is driven partly by all the long-ago pundits who said it was a waste to admit women to medical schools because they would never use their degrees.

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“Maybe there is some orneriness in me,” she mused. “Maybe I’m still trying to prove them wrong.”

If anything, Seitsive wishes she were busier. She sees only about 30 patients a week; she used to care for more than that in a day. The enemy is not so much her age--although she has cut back her office schedule to 3 1/2 days per week. Instead, she blames the rise of health maintenance organizations. Seitsive refuses to participate in such insurance plans because she believes they would force her to spend less time with each patient and compromise their care. The sad result has been that as more people have joined HMOs, her business has dropped off considerably. “I like to do my job,” she said. “I feel robbed.”

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She consoles herself with leisurely visits with the loyal patients who have remained and clearly need her. One is Gloria Villalpando, 56, who has been coming to Seitsive for 30 years with all manner of family emergencies, from her children’s cuts to her husband’s stroke. During a recent trip to Seitsive’s office to have her blood checked for anemia, Villalpando fussed over her physician like a concerned daughter and wrapped her in a big embrace.

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“A friend of mine who knows I see Dr. Seitsive asked me, do you feel she is still up to this?” Villalpando said. “But she is. She keeps learning and she knows what she is talking about.”

CREATIVE ATTITUDE

Larry Edmisten graduated from Harvard Law School at a time when being an attorney was mostly regarded as an honorable profession. Fifty-nine years later, he is doing his part to ensure that it remains one.

Sometimes, new clients will come to him with their wills, and Edmisten, a former president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association, has to shake his head. The documents look to him as if another attorney merely printed the documents off a computer program without giving any thought to the individual needs of the client. Edmisten, meanwhile, delights in going beyond their boilerplate language.

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“I like to get into creating something special for a client,” he said. “You can be creative if you want to take the time.”

A willingness to approach even the routine tasks of his profession with the fresh eyes of a young paralegal has kept Edmisten as busy as he wants to be. He puts in 40 or 50 hours a week at his Ventura Boulevard office because he loves the practice of law and hates the idea of retirement.

“I guess people think you are stupid when you work and you don’t have to. But it’s been a lot of fun,” Edmisten said. “Most of my friends retired and they were bored to death. They said they weren’t, but you could tell they were.”

Like many lawyers, Edmisten has his share of war stories involving famous clients. He once was involved in a lawsuit that pitted one of the Three Stooges against another Stooge (he won’t say which ones). And he helped lay the legal groundwork for establishing labor unions at the major movie studios.

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But as he reflects on his career, he mostly draws satisfaction from the less sensational fruits of his labors, such as the Sunday school he helped found. And unlike attorneys who wear their billable hours like merit badges, Edmisten attributes his lack of cynicism toward the law to the fact that he always found time to take his son fishing and to play golf even in the days when he had one of the largest practices in the Valley.

He still rises at 4:30 each morning and spends an hour working out with a trampoline and a chin-up bar, then another hour or two reading novels and newspapers. When he was 80, he started taking computer software classes after he could not find anyone to program his office machines the way he wanted them. Last year, he spent three weeks touring Vietnam. It was the longest time he had ever spent away from work.

At the beginning of this year, Edmisten made a big concession to his age and the concerns of clients who worried he would not be around to handle their affairs. He arranged to have a young attorney, Karen Nielsen, work out of his office so his clients would feel confident there would be someone to provide continuity.

“I know I’m living on borrowed time,” he said without a trace of bitterness or regret. “Who am I kidding?”

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TRIED RETIREMENT

Marv Wolfe tried retirement for 20 years. He even enjoyed it. But when a man feels that he has found his true calling at the age of 83, cruising around in a powerboat or a motor home just can’t compare.

That is why, after two decades spent hawking office supplies and calculators and another two living leisurely outside of the labor force, he is now working as hard as he ever has as the owner of a shop that sells only harmonicas.

The way Wolfe tells it, the muse called a few years ago while he was visiting a music store. “Suddenly, this music I had heard back in the ‘30s came back to my mind,” he said. It was the sound of an obscure harmonica group. Wolfe asked the store clerk about the humble instrument’s origins and its most popular practitioners, but was unable to get any information.

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Visits to other stores brought similar results. “It occurred to me the reason was they had other products like guitars, keyboards and drum sets that were much more expensive. The little harmonica was a nuisance to them,” Wolfe said. “I thought that it was unjust.”

Although he did not play the harmonica himself, Wolfe decided he was the person to right that particular wrong. In 1993, he opened The Harmonica Store, began taking lessons from Stephen Close, the professional player he hired to help staff the business, and set out to design a series of how-to guides that would help novices learn the basics.

The Harmonica Store is open five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Wolfe is always there to open and close. When the store is shuttered on Sundays and Mondays, he and his wife, Mickey Milgrim-Wolfe, are usually busy doing the books, preparing orders, or promoting the harmonica. “I can say I almost put all my waking hours into this,” he said.

Because he did not borrow any money to start his business and does not rely on its sales to support himself, Wolfe is able to take the normal stresses associated with running a retail store in stride. But he was never the sort of person who would let a job give him ulcers. “Anything I did was never a rat race. Everything that came up, I took care of. That’s business. I never let it get to me,” he said.

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Wolfe said his only misgiving about coming out of retirement to champion the world’s loneliest musical instrument is that he did not do it sooner.

“If I had started this business 40 years ago or even 20 years ago, I think the entire face of the harmonica industry would have been changed,” he said. “Right now, it is still possible that might occur, but it would take years, probably more than I have left.”


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