NORTH YARMOUTH — Elizabeth Isele would like to retire the word “retirement.”
As an advocate for the potential people 50 and older have to offer those on the younger end of the age spectrum, the newly arrived North Yarmouth resident has been named one of the country’s “50 Top Influencers in Aging” by Next Avenue, a Public Broadcasting Service website geared toward America’s older population.
Isele considers herself in great company. She has worked with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to improve the culture of retirement and aging by helping to forge working relationships between the older and younger generations, with an eye toward successful economic, environmental and social impacts.
It was Isele’s grandmother who inspired her work. The older woman “was always dynamic and creative, and … I thought, ‘that’s what’s it’s like to be old,'” Isele said in an interview Oct. 6. “I would hear people talk about older people, and think, ‘that bears no relevance to my grandmother whatsoever.”
As the internet blossomed in the 1990s, Isele saw seniors as the group most likely to benefit from the technology, which defied the common perception. In 1998, when she was 57, she founded cyberseniors.org, a computer-learning workshop series that started with 12 seniors in Portland.
“When I first started, people thought I was absolutely crazy,” Isele recalled with a laugh, noting that seniors wanted far more than to just email their grandchildren.
Collins, then-Sen. Olympia Snowe, and Microsoft were among those who saw the program’s potential, helping it to expand to train 28,000 seniors around the world over the next five years.
Isele, now 74, demonstrated that age doesn’t dictate a person’s energy level and offerings after founding the Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship three years ago.
“I’m all about how corporations and governments, as well as individuals, can benefit from tapping into this wealth of experience that seniors have,” she said, noting that, thanks to today’s technology, it’s never been easier to start a business.
Older people can learn about new technologies from younger generations, and in turn pass along their life and work skills, she noted.
For instance, a young entrepreneur who wants to start a business and is a technical whiz, but lacks business experience, could draw from the lessons learned by someone who has spent three or four decades in the field, Isele said.
“We approach it from the economic perspective, because that’s about the only way I can get people’s attention, but the subliminal effect is the impact of bringing those generations together,” she said, “both of whom may have poo-pooed the other generation for one reason or another.”
As a result, both “suddenly realize that there’s a valuable asset here,” Isele noted. … “In human history, if there was a more appropriate time to learn to work together, it’s now.”
She decried a system found in many countries, where there are not enough younger people entering the workforce to replace seniors who are “being pushed out the door because of some artificial retirement age,” Isele explained. “So we’re really trying to redefine ‘retirement.’ In fact, I’d like to retire the word ‘retirement.'”
Rather than calling aging a “silver tsunami,” Isele prefers “silver lining.”
“If we work with this demographic,” she said, “it’s going to yield golden dividends.”
She passed that sentiment along to an enthused Collins while in Washington, D.C., for a Senate hearing on senior entrepreneurship in 2014. Isele spoke there about the new businesses older people are generating, taxes they are continuing to pay, and the activity helping them to stay healthier longer.
“There was such a large turnout in the room, they brought in C-SPAN,” she recalled. “And it turned out to have the most views of any Senate hearing ever. It was just really amazing. I knew then that we had turned a corner.”
Isele then turned her attention to governments all over the world. She works with leaders in the public and private sectors from the United Kingdom, mainland Europe, Australia, South America and Turkey. Japan has picked up her “Experienced Economy” initiative through its new “Agenomics” program, and a summit is being planned in Argentina.
“Organizations worldwide are really looking to collaborate,” she said.
While there is a prevailing notion that seniors need charity and kindness, Isele noted, “we want you to appreciate us, and what we bring to the table.”
“I think writing for a child is one of the most difficult aspects of writing, particularly if you’re writing a picture book, because you have so few words to be able to convey your story,” she said.
In the vein of conveying a lot with few words, Isele has come up with the “three Cs” one needs to be successful: curiosity, creativity and courage.
“Seniors have a tremendous amount of curiosity, and they’re also highly creative,” she said. “Very few people know that one of the last genes to die is the creative gene.”
The biggest obstacle for seniors in pursuing something new? A lack of confidence.
Older people “really need to understand the value of their experience,” she said.
Her love of Maine’s creative, independent-thinking people was what brought her back this year, after spending recent years anchored outside Washington, D.C. and traveling the world to promote her cause. She worked many years in the publishing field in New York, and camped along the Maine coast with her four children during that time.
Isele moved to Portland in 1996, and later lived in South Portland until her departure from Maine in 2010.
Realizing she could do her work anywhere in the world, given a laptop computer and WiFi connection, Isele arrived in North Yarmouth a few weeks ago.
“Maine is my heart,” she said. “That’s where I want to be.”
Isele hopes to bring to the state some examples of the successful cross-generational entrepreneurship she’s seen around the world, coming full circle from the dozen seniors she enriched 19 years ago.
She encourages people with ideas for local programs to reach her at 318-2446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Entrepreneurialship isn’t about being the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, she said, but rather a way of thinking.
“One of the most important things is for people to understand that we’ve never been in a situation where people aged 60 have another 20, 25 years,” Isele said. “So as individuals, they need to think entrepreneurially about what they could do next. It should be thought of as a joyful opportunity.”