Using their grey matter

Ken Hale is 80, so how come he's showing others the way? In his case, the way to some of the finest attractions in Yorkshire. There was a time he wouldn't have believed it possible that someone of his age would have anything to offer the community.

"When I was young, a man was regarded as being past it the day he retired. It was considered to be just about the end of life. After 65 you weren't expected to last much longer, and there were lots who didn't because they felt, and society seemed to agree, that they'd lost their purpose.

"As a country we're still too hung-up on retirement as a benchmark. But it's only a number. Just look at what the elderly are achieving now."

Earlier this year, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes conquered Everest – at 65 the oldest Briton to reach the summit – to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care. An extreme example, but there are numerous other ways in which older people are breaking down barriers, both personal and social.

Pensioner power is growing throughout the developed world. In Germany it was a key element in this month's federal election – for one thing older people there are the ones most likely to turn up and vote, as they are everywhere else. Every third German voter is now over 60 and there's a senior citizens' wing of the Christian Democratic Union of the victorious Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Her winning election campaign was tailored to the interests of the older voter and politicians went canvassing in places where they hoped to find them – allotments, caravan sites, retirement homes. In this country for the first time, the number of over 65s exceeds those under 16. Increasingly, the elderly are shedding their "invisibility" and using their time, energy, experience and, in some cases, the political clout of their votes, to influence what happens around them.

Economics, as well as demographics, are a factor.

In Easingwold, one of Yorkshire's more prosperous market towns, a group of pensioners may not be climbing in the Himalayas on behalf of a good cause, but they are in the foothills of innovation.

When Hambleton Council decided to withdraw funding for the town's tourist information office and planned to close it as part of wider financial cuts, there was an outcry.

Locals saw it as a threat to their economy but also recognised the wider impact if they could no long support countless places throughout the county which rely on tourism – from stately homes and museums, to York Minster, national parks, the coast, and bed and breakfasts.

The result? A takeover. A self-funding operation was established to run the office, and crucially it is staffed by 48 volunteers, all of them pensioners. Their motivation comes from being able to give something back to the area, the chance to meet new people, help the public, and to still feel wanted and valued now that their paid working lives are over.

The volunteers come from a range of backgrounds and professions, among them Mollie Haigh, now 82 and once the dynamic deputy head of Easingwold comprehensive school. The project manager is Deanna Pearce, a 67-year-old former statistician who moved to North Yorkshire from Buckinghamshire with her husband nine years ago. She draws up the rota covering the bureau's Monday to Saturday opening times, with each pair of volunteers working a half-day shift every fortnight. New recruits are welcome. The value of the service they provide far outweighs its modest operating costs which have been roughly halved to about 1,500-a year, met through fund-raising events and donations.

The council leases them the premises at a peppercorn rent, but other savings have been made by switching from the local authority's energy supplier to a cheaper contract.

So far this season the bureau has had more than 4,000 visitors, many from abroad, and all contributing in some way to the tourism industry in Yorkshire and the Humber which is said to be worth 6.3bn to the region annually.

It reaches many more.

The Visit Easingwold website, designed by Frank Johnston-Banks, secretary, treasurer and a trustee of the project, is averaging 1,000 hits a week.

But there's no substitute for the personal touch and local knowledge. That is their unique selling point. They can offer their own experience to back up the office's accommodation list, the 250 brochures and leaflets detailing venues and attractions great and small, historic and new, local walking and cycling guides produced by the volunteers, plus public transport timetables and similar information.

Ken Hale is responsible for updating all the material. He was an architect and later lectured at Newcastle University on landscape design. What he didn't anticipate was that at 80 he'd still be helping to build something.

Self-help community projects are sprouting all over the country and are likely to be a growth industry as the recession impacts on central and local government finances.

The key, though, is in having a pool of volunteers to create and sustain a project, and pensioners are a crucial asset. With publicly-funded and other amenities under greater threat than ever, it's in everyone's interests to empower the elderly to contribute to alternatives.

The need is all the greater in rural communities. There used to be some cash available through the Government's Town Centre Initiative Fund but this will exclude most market towns, even

though many have been as badly hit, relatively, by the recession as their urban counterparts.

If Georgian Easingwold looks relatively unscathed by cuts, that's partly because community spirit has filled the gaps.

The new Galtres Centre, an entertainment and sports complex, is a case in point. For all its facilities, it couldn't function effectively without those who give their time freely. One of the centre's volunteers is 86-year-old Cath Horne, although she has to draw the line at badminton.

There's another striking example of self-reliance four miles down the road. Stillington Community Association is non-profit making and came into being for the specific purpose of rescuing the village's post office and store when the then owners left.

The majority of the 50 volunteers who enable it to open from 6.15am to 5.30pm every weekday, and until lunchtime on Saturdays, are retired.

In some some cases it's led to unlikely post-career moves. After 25 years with the Yorkshire Tourist Board, Brian Handley never expected to find himself sorting newspapers and magazines at six in the morning.

And there's the pensioner who's amused at having a job description that doesn't quite fit his physique: paper boy.