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Partying With Regis, KISS And Wii At The AARP Dance

Strolling down Disease Alley at the AARP Expo at the Washington Convention Center, I feel ever more justified in my decision to keep ignoring the dozens of membership cards the nation's most persistent advocacy group started sending me more than a year ago.

Eager salespeople approach me with offers to measure my bone density, check my blood pressure, find out if my hearing, vision, balance or memory have begun to tank. You name the malady and a government agency, a charitable foundation and a slew of profiteers have set up booths here to hawk information, fear, advice and giveaways.

Whoever mapped out the exhibit hall at this past week's AARP meeting had a fine time collecting many of the disease booths in one cluster, including a row that leads from heart and lung to muscle deterioration, to the across-the-aisle rivals promoting alternative medicines and warning against dietary supplements, and on to epilepsy, deafness and, finally, John Reed and Celi Clark, who at least have the smarts to offer free Snickers bars.

People don't so much stop and chat with Reed and Clark as sort of wander by, pause and scurry on. The cheerful duo represent the National Funeral Directors Association, and they have no illusions about ever being quite as popular a stop as, say, the Wii demonstration or the free massage area.

"Typically, they do their first pass and do a double-take," says Clark, who has the unenviable job of handling PR for the funeral directors. "Second pass, they steal a piece of candy. Third pass, they determine that we're not measuring them, and then they ask their question."

Which often has something to do with cremation vs. burial. But what I learned from Clark and Reed, a funeral director in West Virginia, and from many others who traveled from across the country to attend the AARP bash, is that, as Clark puts it, "Being 50 means something different now."

Diseases and pharmaceutical companies and the aches and pains industry -- I never dreamed there could be so many products aimed at making your feet feel better -- are all an integral part of an AARP show, but some very clever marketing folks have spent a long time figuring out how to make a buck off the country's big bulge of aging boomers. They have managed to convince many people in their 50s that it's okay to think about being old, okay to take those first steps into the world of wheelchair lifts, grab bars, advance directives and, oh my, colonoscopy prep that comes in a pill instead of a massive gallon jug of vile liquid.

So yes, this is a hall where you really find accordion salesmen and "foot elevators" (they sure look like pillows to me), but it's also where Magic Johnson (like me, he's within a year of hitting 50) and Gene "If it's too loud, you're too old" Simmons and Richard Petty now come to meet their people. To lure the 50-plus crowd, AARP's convention featured performances by Chicago, Paul Simon, Chaka Khan and Regis Philbin. There's Petty over there, signing his photos! And here's KISS's Simmons, 59, who knows where his audience lives now.

"It's surreal to see Regis Philbin on the same bill with Gene Simmons," says Tessa Pollack, 61, who came from San Antonio because going to her first AARP event last year, "as a gag to myself," turned out to be a blast. "It made 60 a little more painless. You look around and you see that America's getting older, but it's a younger older."

She says this after trying her feet on Dance Dance Revolution, the ubiquitous boardwalk arcade game on which most teenagers I know can dance like lab rats in an amphetamines experiment. Pollack's pace is more like my speed on Guitar Hero; I know glaciers that have scored better.

But here she is at AARP, along with a slew of other folks in their 60s, doing as their grandkids do. Same thing over at Nintendo's Wii machines. Across the room, Microsoft is teaching folks how to create slideshows, and Verizon is conducting classes on texting and "cellphone basics."

"Twenty years ago, people this age weren't like this, they weren't trying to stay where they were," says Christel Ross, 54, from Sykesville, Md., who realized that the long slide had begun back many years ago, when her eye doctor warned her that at 40, she would need reading glasses. "Almost to the day, I did. Now, people in their 50s like where we are. We're not trying to be 20; I wouldn't ever want to be what I was in my 20s again. But we're not afraid of being this age.

"The older people here are a lot more spry and agile than people that age were in the 1950s or 60s. Spry -- is that the word? My migraine has settled in."

All around me, people scurry off to hear Shirley MacLaine talk about aging. Yes, "spry" is the word. But so is "self." The vast convention hall is a state fair of self-care and self-absorption, the very quintessence of boomerism.

I appreciate the free massage and the air guitar booth and the face creams, but I still don't want that card.

By Marc Fisher |  September 7, 2008; 8:31 AM ET
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Comments

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Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawn.

Posted by: BDTLR, VA | September 7, 2008 6:43 PM

You mean someone makes a profit off aging?

Posted by: Fairfax | September 7, 2008 7:20 PM

I wouldn't want to be a 20's year old but I'd want to be in some 20's year olds.

Posted by: Stick | September 8, 2008 8:44 AM

Merit pay for teachers (or any public sector employees for that matter) always sounds like a good idea yet historically, it seldom works. Just ask FCPS. If arguably the best school system in the area could not make merit pay work then can anybody really expect that the DCPS will?

Speaking of salaries, everyone should check out the list of positions and salaries for the DC Office of Finance. I have never every seen so many so called “staff positions” with starting salaries in the 70 to 80 K range. Could the DCOF really need all of those positions?

Posted by: ntrlsol | September 8, 2008 11:34 AM

Merit pay for teachers (or any public sector employees for that matter) always sounds like a good idea yet historically, it seldom works. Just ask FCPS. If arguably the best school system in the area could not make merit pay work then can anybody really expect that the DCPS will?

Speaking of salaries, everyone should check out the list of positions and salaries for the DC Office of Finance. I have never every seen so many so called “staff positions” with starting salaries in the 70 to 80 K range. Could the DCOF really need all of those positions?

Posted by: ntrlsol | September 8, 2008 11:35 AM

Marc,
The exhibit hall at the AARP convention was thoughfully mapped out into sections that allowed technology, nutrition, insurance and other catagories of vendors to highlight their products and services.

It's an efficient layout for the attendee's in that it's much easier to find their areas of interest quickly.

"Disease Alley" had information and support on many illnesses that American's face at any age (Cancer & Diabetes are the ones that come to mind). The knowledge gained by many at this Expo will help many people address lifestyle and nutritional needs that could significantly reduce their risk.

I've been an AARP member since I was 50 (two years) and have found it to be an invaluable resource for information regarding programs that help me live a very full life, while being physically disabled. I've been able to find low cost insurance and have been able to take advantage of many group discounts.

I must have missed the OLD PEOPLE, because I was too busy talking to people about what a great time we were all having. It restores my faith in mankind when I see thousands of people that are happy and motivated to learn.

To your HEALTH!!

Jan Kirk
Chester, PA

Posted by: Janny | September 8, 2008 9:58 PM

Forgive me, but I was a volunteer roving reporter and blogger at the AARP Live @ 51+ Event and Expo. I visited several booths that you mentioned in your article. On the one hand (cynical), the expo was a marketer's delight, but, on the other hand, I felt it communicated just what people my age (72) were interested it. From a communication point of view (read: marketing), it was first rate. As an old communications major, it was perfect. Perhaps you are too young to appreciate the finer points. Keep up the good work! I enjoy your articles (and now your blogs).

Posted by: bbriston1 | September 10, 2008 5:23 PM

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