Saying ‘Yes’ to living and teaching an active, diversified retirement and helping older adults

Alan Spector receives the Uniquely U City award from Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt for having initiated a life planning program at U. City High School.

ERIC BERGER, Associate Editor

When Alan Spector leads workshops to help people with the nonfinancial aspects of retirement, one of his main suggestions is: “Look and listen for opportunities, and be predisposed to say, ‘Yes.’ ”

If you’re wondering whether Spector practices what he preaches, look no further than his list of retirement activities:

• He has written eight books on topics he cares deeply about such as retirement, baseball, dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the University City School District.

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• He designed a website to help fellow U City High School class of 1964 members keep in touch.

• He has helped a number of local synagogues and Jewish institutions on mergers and developing strategic plans.

• He leads the Cardinals Reminiscence League, a program at the Adult Day Center at the Jewish Community Center to help people showing signs of dementia stimulate their minds and socialize around memories of their favorite baseball team.

A common thread among Spector’s efforts is helping older adults. Asked why that’s become a focus, Spector referred to his age — 74 — and to his philosophy of saying, “Yes.”

That work to help retirees serves an important purpose. The United States has a rapidly aging population, and by 2034, adults age 65 and older are projected to outnumber children under age 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Among older adults, about 5.6 million have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ashley Stockman, director of the Adult Day Center at the J, said Spector “really knows how to read a crowd, and that is so vital when you are interacting with folks with cognitive impairments, that you can gauge if they are picking up the topic, that they are understanding what you are saying. You would think about 45 minutes is the attention span you are going to get, but no. Alan is so engaging that we could do an entire day with him.”

Spector, an engineer who grew up in St. Louis, spent his career working for Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods corporation, and lived in Cincinnati, where the company is based. When he retired as director of worldwide quality assurance in 2002, he and his wife, Ann, decided to move back to St. Louis.

Before he retired, Spector spoke with former colleagues about how they were liking that phase “and did not like the answers I was getting,” he said.

So he and another colleague started conducting research about the necessary ingredients for a successful retirement and began writing books and leading workshops. A happy retirement often meant working part-time or finding a meaningful volunteer gig, Spector said.

“I would suggest that you should have a diverse portfolio of meaningful activities,” said Spector, who wrote the book “Cancer: Balancing Reality and Hope” after surviving a leukemia diagnosis.

About six years ago, a volunteer coordinator with Jewish Federation of St. Louis pitched Spector an opportunity: The Greater Missouri Alzheimer’s Association and the Adult Day Center were developing a reminiscence therapy program around baseball. Organizations stage similar programs in other parts of the world, such as in England with soccer, and health care providers say such programs promote good feelings and reduce anxiety among people with dementia.

The Federation coordinator, Mindy Goldfarb, knew Spector had a passion for the game, so she asked him if he would be interested in leading the new initiative.

Spector, of course, said, “Yes.”

The Cardinals Reminiscence League meets monthly during the baseball season. Spector leads discussions and asks participants questions about Cardinals history, baseball terminology and stadiums, among other things.

Spector also hosts Howard Bly, a local Cardinals memorabilia collector, who brings items from his collection. For example, participants might pass around a glove signed by Hall of Famer Stan Musial.

Stockman, the J day center director, said, “Having visual cues for maintaining or invoking engagement, whether it’s a baseball card or glove or signed bat … stimulates more than just one of your senses. When you can actually feel the glove and hold it in your hand and smell the leather, that alone invokes so many more memories.”

Spector also creates new presentations, Stockman said. When Hall of Famer Lou Brock died in September, Spector dedicated the next Reminiscence League session, which took place virtually due to the pandemic, to the former Cardinals outfielder.

Stockman said: “A lot of people might say, ‘People with memory impairments, they’re not going to remember that we talked about that, so we can talk about the same thing every month.’ No, it’s [always] a new topic. He keeps it interesting, whether or not you have memory impairment.”

In 2015, Sharon Schacher started coming to the Reminiscence League with her husband, Bernie, who had minor dementia issues. When asked a direct question, he “would sometimes have difficulty putting his thoughts into some semblance and be able to respond,” Sharon recalls.

During one session on baseball terminology, Spector asked, “What’s a can of corn?”

Silence.

Eventually, Bernie, a plastic tool maker who spent four decades at the former aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas, looked at Spector and said, “I know.”

He told Spector that it’s a routine fly ball that’s easy to catch.

Spector said, “Here’s something I bet you don’t know, Bernie. Why is it called a can of corn?”

Bernie again told Spector that he knew the answer. His family had owned a small grocery store. And the aisles at the old stores were so narrow, with such high shelves, that employees would use a long tool to pull a can of corn off the top shelf and then catch it as it fell.

“Every time we did baseball terminology, I would start with, ‘Bernie’s my hero. Tell us the can of corn story,’ ” Spector recalled.

Sharon Schacher said her husband, who died Oct. 7 at age 88, benefited from the sessions because he was “a lifelong Cardinals fan” who was “so engaged and participating so strongly.”

Spector “was so excellent at putting questions out there and so gentle with the people who are in attendance and maybe struggled for answers, and he was so gracious,” she said.

As to what Spector got out of it, he responded like an engineer:

“The research says, and it’s been done a bunch of different ways and the results are invariable, that people who volunteer to help somebody else get more out of the experience than the person they are helping. It’s a labor of love.”