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For One Senior, Working Past Retirement Age Is A Workout

Increasingly, people are continuing to work past 65. Almost a third of Americans between the ages of 65 and 70 are working, and among those older than 75, about 7 percent are still on the job. In Working Late, a series for Morning Edition, NPR profiles older adults who are still in the workforce.

Retirement isn't what it used to be, or even when it used to be.

Since the late 1970s, the percentage of Americans over 65 who are still working has doubled. Sometimes these people are working because they need the money. But increasingly, people are staying in the workforce into their later years because they're living longer and staying healthy longer.

For fitness instructor John David, 73, work means working out. His job is to help older people stay healthy and fit.

At one recent hourlong class at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, he leads more than 30 people in stretching and flexing every single part of their bodies. David demonstrates every movement for his class. If he teaches two classes in a day, then he goes through the workout twice.

And he looks up to it. He's tall and lean, just the way you'd picture someone who spent decades as a runner and a gym rat.

John David, 73, teaches an exercise class to seniors in New York City. His routine goes through every muscle, including those on the face.
/ Shiho Fukada for NPR
Shiho Fukada for NPR
John David, 73, teaches an exercise class to seniors in New York City. His routine goes through every muscle, including those on the face.

In his class, students bounce in time to music, sometimes standing on one leg while extending the other to the front, back and sides. Some hold on to the backs of their chairs. Some don't need to. It looks like a kind of free-form hokey pokey, without the circle. Everyone is smiling.

"This turned out to be the real calling. This turned out to be the thing I am good at, and you can see that people respond, so it's rewarding," David says.

It wasn't always his calling. He used to live in Los Angeles and work in TV production. He was also spending a lot of time in the gym, and he noticed something about the people there.

"If you were pretty, if you were handsome and you were fit, you got a lot of help from the trainers — a lot of help. And if you were funny looking or overweight or awkward or had gray hair, not so much," David says. "And I thought the people who need the stuff are not getting it."

So in his mid-50s, David decided to become a certified trainer — he was looking to get out of television anyway. He tried to get a job at his gym.

"They said, 'We're not hiring right now.' Well, two or three days later, they hired somebody, but they were young," he says.

So David started out volunteering in retirement communities until it turned into paying work. By the time he moved to New York 15 years ago, he had a resume. He now teaches at several community centers around Manhattan, and has a few private clients. It's not full-time work, and he doesn't make a lot of money, but he loves being able to give older adults what they need from a fitness routine.

"I take it from my own experience. The things that you need at my age ... are entirely different than what you need when you're 35, and you're thinking about your beach body and sexual prowess or whatever," he says.

For people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, exercise is about something much more fundamental, he says. "Can I live my life? Can I get out of a chair? Can I walk to the store? Can I be the person I want to be?"

This turned out to be the real calling. This turned out to be the thing I am good at, and you can see that people respond, so it's rewarding.

His routine goes through every muscle group, including facial and eye muscles.

"Everything's gotta work ... every body part, particularly your eyes," he says. "And moving your neck. And when you go out in the street, you have to turn your head. You wanna see that pizza delivery guy on the bike; you wanna see the cab coming."

David's students know that they're being taught by one of their own.

Mimi Rockmore, 93, has been in David's class about a year. "I like it that he's older, that he understands what hurts and what doesn't," she says.

And they know that exercise can help them hang on to what they've got and keep the bad stuff from getting worse — whether it's improving endurance or fighting osteoporosis or staying mentally sharp.

David intends to keep teaching his classes as long as he's strong enough.

"I don't know how long it will work, but I'll do it as long as I can — as long as I think I'm having an effect, having a good effect," he says.

Do you have a story to share about someone who is staying in the workforce beyond the traditional retirement years? Tell us more in the comments section below.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."