Miami-Dade County

AARP conference attendees do a little learning, a little shopping

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Shirley Mitchell Whinton wanted a few pointers on how to live her life better in retirement, so the retiree from the Chicago area headed to the annual AARP conference in Miami.

“I like that they give you tools to live your life after 50,” she said at the convention on Friday. “You get information you can really use on a variety of subjects.”

But more than learning attracted Whinton, 64, to the AARP Life@50+ National Event & Expo at the Miami Beach Convention Center. She was here on a girls trip out, hanging out with two longtime friends she had persuaded to accompany her. The three women were among thousands of conference-goers who heard a series of speakers give them advice on everything from travel to technology.

Some came with spouses, but most appeared to be there with friends, strolling the exhibit hall and picking up freebies from 150 exhibitors.

“There are a lot of people here who are full of life,” the former court clerk said. “They’re not sitting home feeling sorry for themselves.”

Friend Claudia Stewart agreed. “You walk around here and you know you’re just getting your life started. You know not to let people tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing because of your age.”

That kind of defiant enthusiasm is music to the ears of the conference organizers. In sessions that were part tent revival and part informational workshops, speaker after speaker urged attendees to re-imagine the last half of their lives as a beginning. Economist and author Ben Stein talked about where America has been and where it is going, Brent Bauer, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, offered holistic tips to maintain health. And Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist, spoke about the breakthroughs in neuroscience.

The day’s rallying cry, displayed on two jumbo screens during the first session Friday morning, described the mood of the conference: Disrupt aging! Own your age!

Not everyone was as enthusiastic, however. Martin Seidenfeld of Idaho led a handful of protesters representing The Final Exit Network, a national a nonprofit volunteer organization that advocates for death with dignity, or assisted suicide. The group’s truck had its own slogan: “AARP won’t talk about dying … but we will.”

Seidenfeld said AARP had refused to rent the group exhibitor space in the conference. “They’re doing a disservice to their members by not talking about end-of-life issues,” Seidenfeld said.

But death seemed to be the last thing conference attendees were thinking about. Vivian Saunders, 67, of Suffolk, Virginia, and her friend Faith Newman, of Washington D.C., waited in line for a free massage at United HealthCare’s Relaxation Oasis.

“This is like one-stop shopping,” Saunders said. “You get a lot of information about a lot of different services in one place.” This was her first time at the conference, but Newman’s sixth.

Earlier in the day, Joanne Jenkins, AARP’s CEO, challenged thousands to behave differently and to enjoy life more. “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” she asked.

And when she added “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter,” the hall erupted in applause.

Wearing a green button that said Fearless at 57 (her age,) she asked the crowd to no longer define themselves by the outdated expectations of aging. “We are not only living in an aging society,” she added, “but we’re also living in an ageist society.”

But it was Good Morning, America host Robin Roberts, using her own story of resiliency in overcoming breast cancer and, later, a form of leukemia, who drove the point home. She exhorted the crowd to be fearless, to be determined and to put themselves in a position for good things to happen, regardless of age.

“You need to change the way you think,” she said, “in order to change the way you feel.”

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