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The May 15 article about the graying of Sonoma County ("Sonoma County gets grayer") addressed some of the challenges communities will face in terms of services. This isn't just a local issue, of course. There are 79 million baby boomers, making up a quarter of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. Beginning this past January, more than 10,000 baby boomers reach age 65 every day.

Every eight seconds for the next 18 years, someone from the baby boomer generation will turn 65.

This was the generation that redefined age, however. As Hugh Hefner quipped recently; "Eighty is the new 40." With scientific breakthroughs extending life spans, cosmetic surgery disguising signs of aging and the emphasis on healthier diets and lifestyles, people are living longer and, in many cases, better.

Yet, the truth is, most are unprepared for their "bonus" years — psychologically or financially.

Some unnerving facts:

; According to a recent survey, 36 percent of Americans say that they don't contribute anything at all to retirement savings.

; 35 percent of Americans already over 65 rely almost entirely on Social Security payments alone.

; According to a recent AARP survey of baby boomers, 40 percent of us plan to work "until we drop."

If people are financially unprepared, they are also psychologically unprepared. Perhaps it's a denial of our mortality, or perhaps our generation of flower children, Woodstock nation and the freedom we ushered in during the 1960s and '70s make it hard to face gray hair, slow down and adapt to other symbols of the inevitability of aging.

Retirement planning is often confined to thinking about where we will live, or what vacations we want to take. Many people spend more time planning a week's vacation than the second half of their lives.

The bonus years, the encore years, the golden years. Whatever you call them, the second half of life brings many changes, challenges and opportunities. Yet retirement planning is not a subject just reserved for people 65 years and over. People in their 40s are often forced to reinvent themselves in this difficult economy.

At the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, our RSVP program is geared to help people explore how they can reinvent themselves in the second half of life. Numerous studies have shown that people who volunteer experience a greater sense of fulfillment by making a contribution to their community. Depression and stress that can accompany getting older are diminished by new connections and involvements.

For people willing to step outside of their comfort zone and try on a new role as a community volunteer, the benefits are numerous. Our senior volunteers tell us that getting involved in community nonprofit work has opened them up to new ideas and new networks of people and given them a positive outlook on life. It's given them hope, a priceless gift, to be able to contribute a lifetime of talents, skills and knowledge.

To help our aging community explore living well in their bonus years, we host free workshops each year and meet individually with hundreds of people to help them transition into a positive new chapter of life.

At the Volunteer Center, we believe that the second half of your life can truly be the best half for many people. Retirement is clearly a time to re-think roles, explore postponed dreams, set new goals and connect to others in a different way.

<i>Laurie Parish the manager of the RSVP program at the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County. For more information, go to www.volunteernow.org.</i>

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