SAN DIEGO — Elbert Cotton retired as a sandblaster in his mid-50s and quit his job as a tough-talking high school football coach after nine straight championship seasons.
Life off the field and in front of the television set, however, didn't sit well with the youthful man in sneakers who looks two decades younger than his 63 years. Just about the time football season rolled around last fall, he took a part-time job for minimum wage "just for something to do."
Instead of yelling at 17-year-olds to knock heads, he coaxes 70-year-old victims of Alzheimer's disease to join the paper-cutting activity at the game table.
"I'm just a different fella; my kids wouldn't recognize me in here," Cotton says. But only his approach has changed, he said. He is utilizing familiar skills.
"You have to deal with 36 different attitudes. You have to do things to psych them out to get them to do things."
Once "mean and rough, with a different set of armor," he said he had to "look mad and walk mad to get those kids to do what I wanted."
Now, with casual pride, he said he has gained the trust of reluctant seniors who attend the adult day health center in the South Bay where he works 20 hours a week.
"It is difficult to get them to trust you, but I get the feeling that they really want friendship."
He walks frail ladies around the park, makes them giggle when he blatantly cheats at cards, and "cons men into doing needlework."
He has gradually drawn out visitors who once sat staring silently from chairs that lined the wall, and now jokes with them as they trace designs on paper.
And he works with the orthopedic therapist to get the seniors to exercise.
"My kids snatched 300 pounds. Here they use little weights without anything on 'em. But it's all mental. It's basically the same--you have to know how to deal with them. We just get them to work with their hands."
Cotton is a senior, too, but it's easy to forget that. In sweat pants and T-shirt, the former Lincoln High School coach said if he weren't walking his elderly charges to the bus stop at the end of the day, he would "probably be at some field somewhere screaming through the gates." He took the afternoon shift because it matches the hours he used to coach.
Cotton is one of thousands of men and women past the age of 55 who have opted to go back to work--and have landed a job through the help of the Senior Aides Project. According to Frank King, director of the local chapter of the national program, about 66,000 men and women are working around the country in minimum-wage jobs landed through the project.
And for many, like Cotton, the jobs have extended their lives in unexpected ways, bringing rewards that far outdistance the monthly salary of $270.
Cotton is one of about 210 San Diego County residents who work at nonprofit organizations and government agencies through the program supported by both federal and local funds.
King said the waiting list for the aides positions ranges between 100 and 200 names. The jobs are intended to be temporary--until the senior can find unsubsidized employment--but few want to leave.
"Most are out of the job market and experiencing difficulty getting back in," King said.
To qualify, the aides must be permanent residents with incomes that do not exceed $6,700 a year. And contrary to the mainstream job market, longevity is an asset. Applicants older than 65 are given priority.
Harriet Conlin, 74, retired six years ago when doctors told her that her job as a secretary at an auto body shop was too stressful and her "blood pressure was running high."
She bought a mobile home for her retirement, but a bout with cancer robbed most of her savings and she could no longer meet the rent at the expensive Chula Vista mobile home park.
When she started working at the Southbay Adult Day Health Center in Chula Vista more than three years ago, she needed the money.
"But I personally don't like old people. At first I didn't think I would make it," said the impeccably coiffed and manicured woman wearing a sweat shirt dotted with rows of pastel-colored hearts. "But then an old man came up to me and said, 'You're so pretty.'
"Nobody had told me that for so long."
Unlike her former job where "it was very stressful with no cooperation," the center provides a family atmosphere where younger, permanent employees treat her like a mother. "The girls are so nice to me. They would drop everything if I were home and needed medication."
And as for the "old people," she says, "Some days they drive you up the wall. But we have an awfully good time together. You get very fond of some of them and when they die it is hard."
Even if she were to win a big lottery jackpot tomorrow, Conlin said, she would continue work at the center as a volunteer.
Since retiring from General Dynamics 12 years ago, engineer Eleodoro Madeo has taught manufacturing technology at community colleges and earned a degree in metaphysical arts.