Arlene Hewitt Sets the Pace for Seniors in Alexandria

Arlene Hewitt Sets the Pace for Seniors in Alexandria

A recipe for activism at any age.

She is four feet 10 inches tall and 84 years old. She tutors children who cannot read; she champions health insurance for the uninsured in Alexandria; she meets with mayors and senators; she takes 90-year-old gentlemen out to dinner; she wants to reduce the teen pregnancy rate in Alexandria; and she never lets more than a few days go by without chatting with her children or grandsons, usually via email or skype.

Arlene Hewitt is a power to be reckoned with in her ninth decade. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer. She pursues challenges, and this includes aging. Mah Jongg and Bridge? Not for this senior.

Despite having officially retired in 2002 at 72, Hewitt continues to stay involved in the community she came to as a social worker in 1967. She is proof that more and more seniors are looking at the last third of their lives as an opportunity, not a vacation.

Hewitt is the daughter of immigrants. Her father was against sending her to college, but her homemaker mother — a strong-willed lady in her own right — insisted. After she graduated, she looked around her: what could a young woman do with herself in those days? Become a secretary, a school teacher, or a nurse? None of those appealed to Arlene, so she took up a friend’s suggestion of social work.

“So you see? I just sort of fell into it,” she said. “I didn’t wake up one morning and feel I needed to help the unfortunate, I just got a tip from someone that I might be good at it.” She landed in Alexandria after her husband’s business in Massachusetts failed. Anxious to have his wife work, he phoned Alexandria Hospital to see if they had a position: no, they said, and they’d never heard of a social worker in a hospital. Hewitt took her case to the top, something she learned to do early on, and swears by, and ended up talking herself into the first social worker position at the hospital. A few years later, she had a department. She was the first to create a booklet called “Know Your Community,” full of resources for seniors in Alexandria.

Fast forward, Hewitt retired, but was not one to go quietly into the night. Hewitt said because she was already involved in the city, she felt the need to continue. As she put it, why should she let her background and experience go to waste? People knew her. She knew people. It was easy to make the transition. Hewitt notes not every senior can do this so seamlessly, but every senior can get involved. Her recipe?

Alexandria has more than 200 boards always looking for members. For her, the first board was the Alexandria Public Health Commission. It was just starting out so she joined. It took a while to get results. That has been one of the best aspects of her long-term service, seeing the commission flourish.

“Take a look at that list of boards”, she said. “Meetings are only once a month for boards, and you can build relationships and make new friends. Being on a board challenges you. You learn the subject matter gradually. They are always happy to have someone.”

But this wasn’t enough: She and her late husband tutored kids in the area, many of them of foreign parents, to read. She got others to come with her. “One 90-year-old whose husband had just died was miserable,” she said. “She moped around, she had no one to eat dinner with, she was depressed.” Hewitt took her to the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium, a local group which fits seniors’ schedules. “The best part about tutoring is the relationships you build with children. You become attached. You meet them in the library, you meet their parents, you watch them thrive, and at the end of the year, you’d be surprised how strongly you feel about each other and how grateful the parents are.”

Hewitt volunteers with the annual “First Night” program in Alexandria. She takes the 5-9 p.m. shift, so she isn’t out too late. She said she still gets a kick out of showing people the map of events and being there at one of the most exciting events of the year. For her, it is all about helping people decipher the map and head in the right direction.

She is also a driver for Meals on Wheels. While many people her age are getting meals, she partners with a friend and does the driving. “It’s great,” she said. “They send you the routes, you pick the area where you feel comfortable driving. They are never upset if you can’t make it, and it takes so little time, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. And people are so happy to see you. It is a wonderful feeling that someone out there needs you.”

She is also in the Medical Reserve Corps. They are volunteer first responders.

For the past three years, Hewitt has enrolled in courses at Northern Virginia Community College, which is free for seniors, including parking. She loves being with the young students. She took South American history and bio-medical ethics, and she said, “You just audit the courses so you don’t have to take the tests if you don’t want.”

After the death of her husband in 2009, her social circle changed. The couples she and he used to go out to eat with also changed. She decided that watching a Nationals game by herself was lonely, so she called up one of the widowers and asked him if he was watching the game. He was, and when she asked if he’d like company, he brightened: “It’s so much more fun watching the Nats with someone.”

She takes another 90-year-old out to dinner. He has macular degeneration and couldn’t read anymore. She took him to the library, got him a library card, took out books in large print, set him up with the magnifier that magnifies the print, and he was reading again. “Of course”, she said, “not everyone is an extrovert like me. But calling up someone who is doing nothing isn’t hard: just be aware of people in your own age category, think about what they might need, and if all else fails, call them up and ask if they’d like to go to lunch.”

Hewitt has a personal trainer who comes in two or three times a year and sets up a program or reviews her exercises to make sure she is doing them correctly. She has a treadmill in her bedroom and a big ball she sits on in front of the TV. Although she doesn’t like smart phones, she is a great fan of email and skype. “If I didn’t email and skype,” she said, “I would lose touch with my grandsons.”

“Take advantage of senior centers,” she advised. “Tai Chi, chair Yoga, whatever it is they offer. If you don’t do it, you’ll find soon you can’t do things anymore. Don’t be afraid: you’ll work up to it, even if you start with small weights.“ She also suggests checking the “Guide to the Lively Arts” in the Style section of the Washington Post, or the calendar in the Gazette. She attend the military band and orchestra performances which are free.

Face what’s coming: Hewitt is thinking ahead to a time when she won’t be able to drive or walk as well, and she has gotten on the waiting list for Green Springs, where she says with a smile, there are more than 200 organizations functioning right there. She has delegated her taxes and budget to her daughter, Jo, so things are in good shape when she dies, and she insisted on paying for her daughter’s service by putting money into the children’s college funds. She doesn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced when she dies, so she has a plan for the end-game.

She raves about her children, and her grandchildren. “Every parent should live near a daughter,” she advised.

She has also thought ahead to what might happen if she were to fall, or go into a coma. “I’ve told my grandson,” she said, “if anything ever happens to me and I’m in a coma, I want you to put earphones on me and turn up the Nutcracker Suite as loud as it will go.” Meanwhile, Hewitt looks at the clock: time to go to the next event.