In 1982, I did a sabbatical year in Washington, D.C., working inside two Congressional offices as a staff member. Every night of the work week, we young staffers could eat free by dropping in on receptions put on by lobbyists.
The spreads were impressive: open bars, substantial hors d’oeuvres, fancy pastries. We listened politely to the lobbyists, stuffed our faces and saved money on groceries.
The freebies stopped when the fellowship ended, and I returned to life in journalism where freebies are frowned upon, and rightfully so.
Now as an aging boomer, with an older husband, nearly every day the mail arrives with offers of freebies. If we are willing to listen to a law office talk about wills and living trusts, we could score a steak dinner. If we take a tour of a North Side retirement community, we could win an iPad.
Other freebies aimed at our age groups appear in newspaper and magazine ads. Free hearing tests, free seminars on topics discussing all facets of aging. We also get mail from companies offering cremation services, but they don’t offer freebies – yet.
My husband and I bury those cremation offers in the recycling bin, and we don’t take anyone up on the other offers either, but boomers and seniors, with a few caveats, might consider saying yes to a few of the freebies. Here’s why:
• They can help you plan your future.
Retirement communities throughout the Inland Northwest offer free lunches and dinners if you’re willing to take a tour of the communities and listen to a talk.
The industry is trying to update its image and show off the ways retirement living has changed. Many now offer the same amenities of a resort community: spas, happy hours and gourmet meals.
“It’s been a long-standing incentive to get prospects shopping for retirement options to tour their community by offering the ‘lunch and tour,’ ” said Cecil Rinker, who spent 18 years in the senior housing business before becoming director of operations for the Spokane-based Affinity Living Communities.
“This form of marketing serves both the advertising community and the prospective renter well, since food is an extremely important part of one’s daily activity in a retirement community. After all, you will be choosing the restaurant that you will be dining in every day sometimes three times a day.”
Retirement communities understand that many boomers are planners. They might not need a retirement community now, but they might five years from now, and the lunches and tours allow them to start their research now.
• They can be educational.
The Spokane-based Better Business Bureau hosted a “Green Eggs and Scam” seminar in August in collaboration with the Good Samaritan Society, which provides housing and services to seniors.
They fed participants breakfast, and talked about scams aimed at older people. Vendors at the workshop gave away freebies and other information.
Spokane Teachers Credit Union, in collaboration with area libraries, is sponsoring 10 workshops this fall on preventing fraud and identity theft. A light meal will be served at the workshops.
“We have found that workshops scheduled for midday or early evening attract the most people. But, if you’re going to ask people to sit through an hourlong workshop at those times, you have to offer something for their stomachs as well as their minds,” said Dan Hansen, STCU’s communications manager. “And people will often ask about the menu when they call to reserve space in a workshop.”
• They get you out of the house.
Socialization is one key element to healthy aging. Freebies are one way to coax people out of their homes and routines and learn something new but …
• Let the freebie-recipient beware.
Chelsea Maquire, director of communications for the Better Business Bureau, said, “There are so many legitimate places that will offer you treats and snacks and gift cards, but unethical groups are going to do the same thing.
“There are some very unethical investment, pyramid and Ponzi schemes where you’re invited to a meeting with a free dinner, but you’re not really sure what you’re going for. So make sure you know exactly what the point of the event is, and it’s something you’re actually interested in.”
Always research the company before you go.
“There are traveling groups that go from city to city,” Maquire said, offerings things such as discount travel packages, solar panels and insulation.
“The companies may have a bad reputation, and if they do, it’s easy to find out,” she said.
And remember you are never obligated to buy or sign up for anything – or reveal personal information – just because you’re given free meals or gifts, Maquire pointed out.
And finally, she said: “Don’t go alone. Take a buddy, a relative, someone with a different perspective.”