Meet 5 Arizona Seniors Who Are Redefining The Retirement Years

By Kathy Ritchie
Published: Monday, March 4, 2019 - 8:42am
Updated: Thursday, April 30, 2020 - 1:45pm

AARP calls them “age disruptors.” People over the age 50 who are finding ways to reinvent themselves. For some, that reason is financial. For others, it’s purpose. Meet some of Arizona’s very own age disruptors — and find out what keeps them going.

I met Mr. Helms — I mean, Tom — in 1993. I was a junior at Cortez High School in Phoenix. He was my English teacher.

Tom was the kind of teacher you never forget: wise, forgiving and always encouraging. He eventually retired after 36 years.

“… And I knew that I was 56 years old, and I needed to have another occupation,” he said.

Tom Helms
Kathy Ritchie/KJZZ
Appraiser Tom Helms.

Because, at that age, he didn’t yet qualify for Social Security or Medicare. And the pension is a different story.

“Huh! I’ve had a pension now for 20 years and not had a cost-of- living increase since 2000!” he said.

Tom says his pension brings in about $3,100 a month, which sounds pretty good — and probably wasn’t half bad 20 years ago.

“You go ahead and live on $3,100 a month in today’s society,” he said.

So, Tom found a second act.

“I think every human being should have a vocation and avocation. My avocation was collecting,” he said.

He attended auctions, where he would buy everything from furniture and lamps to dishes, even pots and pans.

“I turned my avocation into a new profession. It took five years to become a certified appraiser.”

Today, Tom is the owner of A-Z Appraisal and Estate Consultants, LLC — and business is booming, he says. But starting a new profession in your 60s?

“There’s a minority of us who have shifted gears. For example, Mrs. Bykowski, who you had as a teacher has shifted gears,” he said.

Diane Bykowski was my speech and debate teacher. She’s 70 and today, she and her therapy dogs, Zoe and Mia, volunteer at several valley nonprofits.

“And it keeps us both alive. If you see Mrs. Bykowski today and you see me today, I don’t think we look how old we are. Because we have kept our minds and bodies active,” said Tom.

Strong Bodies, Strong Minds

So has 74-year-old Sharon Salomon.

Nate Souza is Salomon’s 31-year-old personal trainer at FAST a gym in north central Phoenix. And on this day, he’s spotting her as she deadlifts 154 pounds — but she can deadlift 225 pounds.

Sharon is a competitive powerlifter who has been training for the past eight years

Sharon Salomon
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
Powerlifter Sharon Salomon and her trainer, Nate Souza.

“Well, I used to lift heavier weights but ... I’m beginning to get old.”

Late last month she competed in the Arizona Senior Olympics.

Professionally, Sharon has been around the block. She’s been a teacher, caseworker, college instructor, freelance writer and registered dietitian.

“Basically, I can’t keep a job for more than two years,” she said.

She says she gets bored, but powerlifting keeps her coming back. She hasn’t peaked yet, she said.

She also likes the camaraderie here.

“I really look forward to coming here … but I think one of the things I’ve enjoyed in general, whether I work out at the Y or here, is that I motivate people,” she said.

And that’s the thing: just because you’re a certain age doesn’t mean you get an AARP card and instantly become irrelevant.

Meet 96-year-old Sam Baker — an award winning children’s book author.

“The Silly Adventures of Petunia and Herman the Worm” was a story he used to tell to his own children. In 1990 he typed it out. With the help of his daughter, Sally Baker Simon, he found an illustrator and eventually, a publisher.

Before “Herman the Worm,” Baker did just about everything else. He was a paperboy during the Great Depression, a bill collector, a Marine stationed in the Pacific, an officer with the coast survey, a consultant and the first GPS salesman.

Sam Baker
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
Author Sam Baker.

“When you retire you have a choice. You can just do nothing and let your time while a way — or you can be active and time passes quickly,” said Sam.

But Baker is also matter-of-fact about how he’s able to be so active.

“It was easier for me because I had an income. I think retired people who have an income, Social Security as well,” said Baker. “You can try something, and if it isn’t productive, you can try something else.”

Unfortunately, not every senior enjoys the luxury of choice. According to the AARP Foundation, more than 10 million people over age 50 live below the poverty line  and more than 13 million working older adults don’t make enough to make ends meet.

They'll Never Call It Quits

Retirement is something we’re hearing a lot about in the news — mostly that Americans can’t afford to retire. While that’s true, there are many older adults who are choosing to work longer and longer.

Paul Markow is a 73-year-old Phoenix-based commercial photographer.

On his wall are thousands of Polaroids — test shots from back in the day when film was how you captured an image.  

Paul has photographed many famous people — from Dave Mustaine from the heavy metal band Megadeath, to actors John Ritter and Loretta Swit. As well as Arizona legends, including Phoenix Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and Maynard James Keenan the Jerome-based wine maker (and frontman for the band Tool and A Perfect Circle).

Paul and I crossed paths nearly a decade ago. I was working at Arizona Highways magazine, and we would sometimes hit the road together for a story. It was on a trip to Yuma when he told me how grateful he was for jobs like the one we were on.

“I do a little mantra when I go out. I go, ‘Be thankful for this job today.’” he said. “Even if it's a boring job, I'm going out, because someday I'll be in a hospital bed going, ‘Gee, I wish I could do one more damn headshot,’" he said. "I've learned to really appreciate this time, and this is all just gravy.”

Paul Markow
Kathy Ritchie/KJZZ
Photographer Paul Markow shows some of the thousands of Polaroids on his wall.

And that attitude has always stuck with me. You should appreciate what you’ve got, because it could be over before you know it.

Paul, who has been taking pictures for more than half a century, has created an impressive legacy of his own, and he’s still going – literally. He has upcoming jobs in Florida and another in Singapore.

I asked him if he’d ever thought about stopping, retiring and just traveling.

“Only in nightmares,” he said. “No, this — I will do this until I, you know, I always say when the phone hasn't rung for six or eight months, I'll figure it out. Probably. Maybe.”

For the record, the phone still rings. But Paul doesn’t have to work. He punches the proverbial time clock because, he said, “becoming irrelevant probably is my biggest fear.”

Working Because It Brings Joy

Dana Kennedy, the state director of AARP Arizona, says a lot of seniors are pushing back their retirement.

“I think that many people don't want to retire, and I think that we need to make that acceptable, that its OK if you don’t want to retire, that you want to keep working,” she said.

Growing old costs money, so older workers are less apt to call it quits at 65.  

Feeling relevant is another reason why some people keep going, especially if you’re like Paul — or 87-year-old Frances “Fran” Cohen.

“My father said to my mother, ‘“f I ever have a girl she’s going to be a dancer.’ So, voila! I was the second child.”

Fran has been dancing since she was 4 years old. I asked Fran why she is still dancing more than 80 years later.

“You’re 87,” I said.

“You keep saying, she keeps saying that!” she laughed.

Frances “Fran” Cohen
Kathy Ritchie/KJZZ
Dancer Frances “Fran” Cohen.

“I bring it up because, you're still going. mean you could stop and you could do something else. Why do you keep going?” I asked her.

“If you have a passion, you don't have a choice,” she said.

Today, Fran is the artistic director of Center Dance Ensemble in Phoenix. And like Paul, she has no plans to retire, because she’s really busy.

Last week, her company opened “Rite of Spring” at the Herberger Theatre. Yet despite her many professional accomplishments, she says sometimes people question the value and relevance of what she’s doing.

“But you are relevant,” I said.

“Of course, I mean, I know it,” Fran said.   

Finding Purpose

Every person in this story talked about purpose, And that word — relevant — it was used by almost everyone I talked to — whether they’re working or volunteering or powerlifting or writing a book.

AARP’s Dana Kennedy says work can be very meaningful to some. Our work can also become our identity, so to give that up without something to fall back on can take a toll. Think about how work keeps your brain nimble and you socially engaged.

According to AARP, social isolation is linked to poor health outcomes, including heart disease, premature cognitive decline and depression.

Paul and Fran say they don’t know what they would do if they had to stop working. But the reality is, nothing lasts forever — which is what Paul has been facing.

“A lot of my client base is either retiring or dying,” he said. “It's outliving your client base that you grew up with when you were 25 and you created these relationships with, and all of a sudden you're 70-something, and your clients are 66 and 67, and they're going, ‘Paul, I'm done.’”

For many, 65 is no longer that magic number and retirement is no longer synonymous with kicking back.

And consider this from AARP:

In a survey of more than 1,500 moderate-income working people, age 40 to 59, one in three people say they’re more likely to learn that “Bigfoot” is real than to have saved enough to retire comfortably. Which means we can expect to see more older adults staying in the workforce longer — whether they want to or not.

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