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Go-slow grannies? Not them

Living longer and putting life in those years.


Ah, the iconic image: a sweet, aproned lady with a cap of silver hair baking fresh oatmeal-raisin cookies.

But unless granny is the owner of a cookie company, that picture is out of date.

In 2009, longer-living grandmothers are not just living large but also trying new things undreamt of by former generations. Even as more return to child-rearing roles to help their full-time working children, others seem to be breaking the unspoken vows of grandmotherhood and getting a second wind in the workplace.

"For many of us, and even more so for women who often got a later start, work is a way of defining ourselves," says Howard Stone, who, with his wife, Marika, wrote Too Young to Retire: 101 Ways to Start the Rest of Your Life and an online newsletter, 2 Young 2 Retire.

"That can be a valuable legacy to grandchildren. Thirty years of leisure may not inspire grandchildren as much as a dynamic and engaged grandmother."

Elizabeth McKeon never imagined spending her senior years with babies on her lap - although she adores her four granddaughters.

The Blue Bell mother of four already had crammed in several lifetimes of work when she discovered Boston's Ride the Ducks amphibious phenomenon. After she experienced the land-to-water tour under the stewardship of Boston's only female captain, a light bulb went on.

"When I learned that Ride the Ducks was coming to Philadelphia, I swore to myself that I'd do just what that woman driver in Boston was doing," McKeon said.

McKeon had managed sewing classes, been a cutter/stitcher/milliner/upholsterer for area theaters, and served as an assistant to the late Milton Shapp during his successful campaign for governor of Pennsylvania.

Still, nothing had prepared her for helming the strange vessel that had carried troops and supplies during World War II. So McKeon undertook the long and arduous route to getting her license.

"I tried a stint as a limousine driver, I joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary and I logged the required total of 360 days on water to qualify for the final test," McKeon said. "The month before the test, I moved in with my sister, who's a nun in a convent, and did nothing but cram."

The result? Philadelphia's first and only female Ride the Ducks captain, with a Betsy Ross persona (she dresses in red, white and blue). The job requires the 69-year-old to pilot a four-ton vehicle with 37 passengers through Philadelphia's narrow historic streets - and then down into the Delaware River, all the while narrating with lively patter. On weekends, she may do as many as five runs a day.

She says her granddaughters, ages 9 to 13, are proud.

"Mine loudly and proudly tell everyone they meet that their Nana drives the Duck and is Captain Betsy Ross. And when I see their pride, I do feel some of my own."

Joan Dragolic's work is a far cry from her former life working at the U.S. Department of Commerce in its Lawrenceville, N.J., office.

She marches in the Rock Around the Block parade at tot paradise Sesame Place in Langhorne, and acts as host at the theme park's daily show, warming up the audience, kibitzing with the adults, and choosing several dads to participate in the show's hula segment.

"I always look for the ones who are wearing funky clothes and big smiles," said the 67-year-old.

Dragolic, of Yardley, learned of job opportunities at the theme park when she attended an AARP job fair there three years ago.

"I'd retired at 62, and I found I needed a bit more to do," Dragolic said. "But I sure never dreamed I'd be having this much fun."

Sure, it means that for the last few summers, there was less time with her grandchildren - now two girls and two boys from 10 years old down to 9 months - but she believes they understand.

One thing she never knew: "I really love entertaining people. When you work for the government, that's certainly not part of your job description!"

Stone, the author, helps people like Dragolic uncover new callings and passions later in life. After he concluded a long career in advertising sales and publishing, he became a life coach at 64.

"There are men and women who believe that later life is all about just resting and playing, and that may suit them," says Stone, now 73. But for many, that doesn't fit their personality.

Stone's wife, 67, devoted herself to teaching yoga after a career as a writer and public relations consultant. The couple also teach a course on reinventing retirement - an estimated 2,500 people have participated.

Social worker Kim Fendrick, herself a grandmother of seven, works "way more than full-time" as a therapist in private practice in Haddonfield. A child survivor of the Holocaust, Fendrick is painfully conscious of the value of time.

So one weekend every month, she travels to Boston to spend time with her daughter Susan's family. Her son, Alan, his wife, and their two children live closer, and see her more often.

Some of her clients, though, struggle with issues of guilt, thinking they may be cheating their adult children and grandchildren by continuing to work.

"I suggest that they consider how they might feel 10 years from now about what they're doing, and how much it matters," Fendrick said. "For some, work is what they need to be doing. For others, the commitment may be different."

Lorraine Rocco, 76, of Marlton, had a long career in both teaching and real estate, including a brief flirtation with journalism. But the twice-widowed grandmother of four had some unfinished business. This year, she managed to have her first novel, Secrets of the Heart, published.

"I really believe you can reinvent yourself, and that it makes life exciting," Rocco said. "I'm definitely not ready for the rocking chair."