Take this job and love it

Shirley Edelson is 79, and she loves her job.

She works full time in sales at Patrick & Co. in downtown San Francisco, and is not about to retire anytime soon.

“I know one day it’s going to happen,” she says, “but I haven’t made any definite plans, because I enjoy what I do. It’s very therapeutic. I like people, things, I talk a lot.” And in her 27 years with the stationers, she’s “acquired a lot of wonderful customers.”

Edelson is not alone in her desire to work well past typical retirement age. Reports from the U.S. Federal Forum on Aging-Related Statistics placed 14 percent of men 70 or older in the labor force in 2005, up from 10 percent in 1993. Among women 70 and over, 7 percent were still working in 2005, up from 4 percent in 1987.

That trend is expected to continue.

At Jewish Vocational Service in San Francisco, “we’re seeing 60- to 70-year-olds, a few close to 80,” coming in for career counseling, says Executive Director Abby Snay. Their most common reasons for seeking a job: more money, less boredom.

And though “good health” is seldom stated as grounds to work (although the need for health care benefits is certainly on many people’s list), health does come into play.

“Older people who work are healthier,” says Snay. “The question is, is it something about working that keeps people healthier? Or is it that the people who are healthier work more? The researchers don’t know.”

Some might look at Sol Kutner, a 79-year-old workaholic, and see a heart attack waiting to happen. Kutner still goes at it full time — “actually, I’m here seven days a week,” he says from his office in San Carlos.

A civil engineer who went into private consulting after leaving Bechtel Corp. in 1981, Kutner provides forensic analysis for construction disputes. He frequently functions as an expert witness whose testimony may be the deciding factor between battling litigants.

His wife of 55 years, Rosalind, is retired. “She plays mah jongg, bridge, does crossword puzzles,” he says, and both find time to volunteer for such causes as the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

But Kutner says retirement is not in the cards for him — at least not now. “I happen to love my work, this is something that fascinates me,” he declares.

While acknowledging that “as you get older, you feel the age, clearly,” he doesn’t let that stand in his way. “I can’t wait to get to work each morning,” he says.

Whether soothing worried clients, sitting for depositions or testifying in court, work suits Kutner’s Type-A personality. “What people don’t understand is that stress is good for you, distress is bad,” he explains.

“It’s exciting, like being at a ball game. Your senses are heightened. I thrive on it.”

Working hard seems to run in his family: Kutner’s 80-year-old brother, Phil, of San Mateo, publishes a monthly Anglo-Yiddish newsletter, lectures and advises on all things Yiddish. (His daughter, Susan Rozakis, he adds, is a project manager at Stanford and consultant for the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto.)

The family understands his passion, and no one’s begging him to retire. “My wife says if I were a woman, I’d be pregnant all the time,” he jokes.

“My kids don’t ask either. They know who their dad is.”

No one’s demanding that Edelson retire, either, though her daughter made it very clear she doesn’t plan to follow her mother’s footsteps. “She called me on the phone one day and said, “I’m not going to be working when I’m 80,” said a bemused Edelson, who turns 80 in June.

A member of Congregation Ner Tamid, Edelson, whose husband died 12 years ago, has lived in the same South San Francisco home for 26 years. She’s definitely “not ready” for any retirement community.

“When I think of my age, I can’t comprehend ‘what does 80 feel like? What does 79 feel like?’ I know I’ve slowed down, but …

“I have many customers my age who still work. We talk about how lucky we are, really. So I take one day at a time, just like everybody else.”

Jack Melnick must at times restrain himself from working. A lighting manufacturers’ rep with his home base in Marinwood, he’s got a garage full of boxes and room full of paperwork at his disposal — 24/7.

Melnick, 77, can’t list any hobbies “so I consider my work sort of my hobby, and I enjoy it.” Which means he doesn’t mind driving about 20,000 miles a year (though he does try to travel non-commute hours) to make sales calls and visit accounts. He tries to stick to a schedule that takes him out Monday through Thursday, saving Fridays for paperwork.

But then, there’s always that temptation to sneak into the office. “That’s one of the disadvantages of working out of home,” he says lightheartedly. “I’m trying to cut back.”

His workaday routine doesn’t bother his wife, Marjorie, whom he met decades ago at the old Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. She volunteers for literacy programs and in the office at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, where they have belonged since moving to Marin nearly 50 years ago. “She doesn’t want me around the house,” he jokes.

Anne Marie Yellin has what she calls a “mutual understanding” with her husband, Elliott, who is retired. When they want to do things together, they can do them on her days off.

Yellin, 77, treasures her job as a receptionist at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center San Francisco. She works 24 to 32 hours a week. “I deal with patients all day, from 8 to 5,” she says, squeezing in a few moments for a phone interview with j.

It’s a job she didn’t expect to get at the age of 59. A friend had told her about the opening, but warned, “You’ll never be hired.”

Dealing with medical professionals and patients in a “very intense” department fills Yellin’s need to keep busy and useful. She makes it clear she’s not the card-playing type or a “homebody.”

“I’m very structural. I need to know that I’m going to do something every day … and keep my mind alert.”

When Yellin’s not at her desk, she can often be found at local schools and Jewish community organizations, talking about her experience as a hidden child during World War II. She was sheltered in a Brussels convent away from the Nazis. A speaker for the Northern California Holocaust Center, she is happy to oblige “whenever they need it.”

Helga Justman, 75, arrived in the United States as a 10-year-old after her family fled Vienna. Besides serving on the board of the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Family and Children’s Services committees, she maintains a psychotherapy practice and makes jewelry.

She calls herself “semi-retired.”

Justman took early retirement from UCSF School of Medicine in 1993, but still counsels couples and individuals in her Financial District office three days a week. She goes on hospital grand rounds most Tuesdays.

“I keep up my education,” she says. “I find it an infinitely interesting field.”

She intends to continue her practice “as long as it works and it’s gratifying to me.”

Her jewelry making is a fairly recent endeavor. While on a cruise in 2003, she saw some beautiful Keshi pearl necklaces, but refused to let her future husband buy one for her. Soon after, she began making them at home. She has since developed a line of necklaces and earrings, put up a Web site (www.helgajustmanjewelry.com) and is building her marketing skills.

Busy as she is, she finds time to travel with her husband, whom she married this year, and keep up with her children and grandchildren on both coasts.

“I don’t look my age and I don’t feel my age and I have a lot of energy,” she says.

Psychotherapist Miriam Brandstatter, 85, sees about 12 clients a week in her Mountain View home office. It is both gratifying and stimulating “to find the help each client needs to live a more fulfilling life,” she says.

In assisting others, she draws from a lifetime of experience, including her 54-year “loving, stimulating, fun-loving, best-friend marriage” — which ended with the death of her husband two and a half years ago.

Why still work? “What would I do if I didn’t work, that’s the answer,” she says. “It takes me out of me, it challenges my brain. All my clients — I feel like they give me love.”

It is clear that working helps fill the deep void left by her husband’s death. Brandstatter even helped begin a group for widows and widowers at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where she belongs; it has since become a chavurah, “mainly to socialize,” though she seldom goes herself.

When Penny Levin’s husband became ill and his health declined, she devoted herself to his care. And after he died in 1997, she didn’t begin think about re-entering the work force until it sunk in “that I was on my own and I was going to have to make it [financially]” to stay in the Bay Area, near her daughter and grandchildren.

“It took me a while to get my act together,” she admits.

After signing up with a local senior-employment service, the Mountain View resident once again began dipping her toes into the employment waters, one thing led to another, and she unexpectedly found a gig at Trader Joe’s in Sunnyvale.

It suits her to a T — providing extra income, a sense of purpose, social stimulation and physical exertion.

Levin, 80, is animated when discussing her new “niche.” But the former director of early childhood programs is the first to admit she’s overqualified for her present job, where “I cook in public and I give out free samples.”

She’s a natural, though — greeting shoppers with a welcoming smile, chatty conversation and a sample of her latest culinary creation.

“I work a full eight-hour shift three times a week, and I stand on my feet and I cook and I show them how easy it is,” she says, noting that July marked her fourth year on the job.

Now, to some on the other side of the life’s spectrum, the sight of bubbe standing on her feet all day, cooking for dollars, may be disconcerting.

“A young man said, ‘How come you’re still working?'” she recalls of one customer. “And I said, ‘I’m still here. What else have I got to do!'”

Floyd Gardner of Mountain View goes hiking once a week, reads “a lot,” and attends monthly Super-Active Seniors activities at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center with his wife, who is retired.

He readily admits that she has asked, more than once, “When are you going to retire?”

But Gardner, 77, thinks he has the best of both worlds. A self-employed consulting electronics engineer, he gets to pick and choose projects, sometimes juggling three at once.

“The work I’ve taken on has been very interesting and it keeps me awake mentally,” he says. “It’s fun, and I’m getting a chance to learn [new things].”

Though he has considered full-time retirement “from time to time,” bottom line: “I’m happy with what I’m doing. As long as I can keep it up and not embarrass myself, if I can keep going I will.”

Likewise, Ruthe Gomez appears to have struck a nice balance between work and play. She runs her business, Advisory Financial Consultants, from her Fremont home of 45 years.

Although she works “practically all the time,” she also has flexibility to “take off time when I want to.”

She is, after all, the boss: “I work when I need things to be done, and if I want to do something else, I do it.”

While she seems incredibly ambitious for someone “81 and three quarters”-years-old, Gomez — who says she was one of the first women in the country to become a certified financial planner — insists she’s actually cut back. Still, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi in New York is on a mission to help people get their finances in order.

“Everyone should be setting aside a little bit each month,” she states.

For her part, it’s not all about the money. “I feel like I’m helping people, though the financial [payoff] doesn’t hurt.”

Levin, too, does her part toward tikkun olam. A member of Palo Alto Congregation Kol Emeth and a life member of Hadassah, she is interested in recruiting a chavurah of seniors — “male or female, married or single.”

And she feels like she’s doing something worthwhile in the community at large. “A lot of the seniors, they’re happy to see me working,” she says. “I’m there to chat with them.

“What I have discovered is, the sense of neighborliness that I knew in the Midwest is not here for seniors. One person told me, ‘I come in [to Trader Joe’s] every day, just to see people.

“Then I have all the young people who love all my casserole recipes — I always tell them they have to report back to me.

“I guess I have groupies. When I take the day off, they bawl me out and say, “Where were you?'”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.