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HARVARD — The Council on Aging hosted a panel discussion of several organizations that offer people over 55 opportunities for careers, volunteerism and lifelong learning.

People peak in cognitive and physical functioning in their 20s and typically begin to age around 50 and decline from then on. “But there’s another way to do it,” Council on Aging said board member Katie Petrossi, PhD.

What successful aging research has shown, she said, is that the difference between people slowly declining after 50 and the people who continue to stay at their peak is lifestyle, Petrossi said. “Not genetics, but lifestyle and the choices that we make each and every day.”

Successful agers, Petrossi said, are those that have three things in common: They minimize their risk of disease and disability by staying healthy, they maintain their physical and cognitive function and they continue their engagement with life by maintaining a network of friends and family through meaningful and productive activities.

“What exactly does it mean to be productive in older age?” Petrossi asked. “Society tells us that it has to do with paid labor. This is a situation that is really a no-win for older adults because if you are productively working for pay, there is this stigma that perhaps you are occupying the most desirable and highly paid jobs that should be made available to younger workers. But once you leave that job, you become on the other side, that list of people that is a the burden to the active part of society.”

The number one most predictable factor for longevity in life is the involvement in social networks, Petrossi said.

Representatives from Re-Serve Boston, Operation ABLE Boston, UMass Lowell Learning in Retirement Association and the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden discussed paths to social networks for the retired population.

Nancy Morehouse of Re-Serve Boston discussed how the nonprofit staffing company assists in job searches for those looking to reinvest in a career later in life.

According to their website, “Re-servists can do great things for their communities while they put their professional expertise to work on part-time service projects, in exchange for a modest hourly stipend.”

Bob Remeika from Operation Ability Based on Lifelong Experience, said, “We offer job and computer training to folks who need to update their skills to get a job. A lot of times we have very embarrassed people come in saying they don’t know how to use Microsoft Word, but then they come in and see 70 other people that don’t know either.”

Operation ABLE provides services in occupational and computer skills training, job search training and support, access to job listings, coaching and counseling, job search workshops and advocacy for mature workers. Through volunteer programs and “mid-ternships,” people are able to get the job training they need for employment.

“What it really is, is an investment of time,” Remeika said of the unpaid opportunity. “When you’re looking for a job, you want to be on top of your game. You want to know what you’re doing, and that’s what the mid-ternship does. When I collaborate with employers, I target employers that have consistent job openings … This opportunity helps you to network because you’ve already got your foot in the door.”

Richard Grove from the UMass Lowell Leaning in Retirement Association (LIRA) said learning shouldn’t end when retirement comes along. LIRA is an educational program for the retired and semi-retired with no age or educational requirements. LIRA’s mission is to provide college-level learning at a low cost.

“The curriculum runs a lot like typical college semesters do,” Grove said. There are fall and spring semesters that are eight-week programs consisting of two programs a day. There are also two inter-sessions, winter and summer between semesters that are one day a week

“At LIRA, you have the opportunity to meet other people that are interesting, share your particular skills and help design new programs,” Grove said. “It’s a very rich engaging opportunity to learn.”

Margaret Koch, executive director of the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden, offered volunteer opportunities as well. The Healing Garden is a therapeutic healing center for those affected by cancer. The center hosts events and acres of gardens that need the help of volunteers to keep it running.

“There are so many ways to volunteer,” Koch said.

The garden has its own volunteer board, but there are also opportunities for people to do project-based volunteering like gardening and donating flowers.

For information on any or all of these opportunities, visit their websites: reserve.org/greaterboston, operationable.net, uml.edu/community/lira, healinggarden.net.