For some of us, the first week of September inevitably turns our thoughts to going back to school. If you’re like me, shorter days and the promise of turning leaves and crisper air to come conjures up thoughts of blank notebooks, new pens and pencils, and pristine books full of new things to learn.
Learning in retirement is one of the keys to cognitive health and successful aging and, fortunately, resources to support learning in retirement are abundant in 2018 America. Here are three ways to get started:
Join a Lifelong Learning Institute
Join a Lifelong Learning Institute: There are more than 400 Lifelong Learning Institutes (LLIs) in the United States and Canada so chances are there’s one near you. At an LLI experts—often retired professors—and members with a passionate avocation lead classes and outings on subjects ranging from Middle Eastern politics and Shakespeare’s plays to yoga and birthwatching. LLIs are a great bargain and a great way to blend socializing with learning. I wrote about LLIs in an earlier Tuesday Tip and you can read that blog post here.
Watch an Online Lecture Series
Watch an online lecture series: In our digital world there are abundant fee and free resources for learning in retirement. The Great Courses company has hundreds of multi-lecture courses available in both audio and video formats, ranging in cost from less than $50 to well over $200. If you’re looking for free lectures, however, a great place to start is at on a website called Open Culture. Open Culture has a fascinating blog with new content daily as well as links to 1,300 free online courses, 1,000+ MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), 1,150 free movies, 1,500 free audio and ebooks, and much more.
“Borrow” College Syllabuses.
“Borrow” college syllabuses: If you want to dive deeply into a specific subject of your interest, sharpen up your Googling skills and dig into the world of college syllabuses posted online. A good college syllabus will give you lists of books and articles you might never find on Amazon or with a more general internet search. Let’s pick a subject at random and see what pops up… Since I’m writing this on Labor Day, how about: Women in the Workforce and Labor Movement. A straightforward internet search brought me to two syllabuses (click on the links to reach the syllabuses): A course at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro called “Gender and History: U.S. Women’s Labor History,” and a course at New York University called “Women and Men in the Workplace.” With some creative searching you can find syllabuses on almost any subject imaginable.
Working is the new retirement. True, many people work past “normal retirement age” because they have to to make ends meet, but others continue to work because they want to or, new research shows, because their cognitive skills and personality type impel them to.
Once upon a time, to radically over-simplify, you worked through the Friday after your 65th birthday, had a party and got a gold watch and, the following Monday, began retirement on your front porch rocker. Now people start to think about retirement around age 55, when most people are still working, and then pursue a of variety of “pathways” until around age 70, when most people are retired. Work and retirement have bled so much into each other that sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.
Eight Retirement Pathways
Researchers from the RAND Corporation and Netspar (the Network for Studies of Pension, Aging and Retirement, a Dutch think tank) used the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal database of biannual surveys of older Americans, to group Americans in that 55-70 age range into eight retirement pathways. Looking at individuals who were working full time at “baseline” (55-58), they found that 36.8% transitioned directly to retirement, while another 13.6% experienced a period of reduced employment before fully retiring (“gradual retirement”). Another 15.9% were working part-time at the end of period, and 16.9% came out of retirement to work full- or part-time at the end of the period. About one in ten–9.8%–worked full time through the entire period. Smaller percentages moved from unemployment or disability to retirement, or followed what the study authors call “complex” pathways.
Cognitive Ability and the “Big 5” Personality Factors
Next, the researchers looked at fluid cognitive ability using a test measuring skills like immediate word recall and “serial 7s” (counting backward from 100 in increments of seven), and scores on the “Big 5” personality factors. (These are conscientiousness, “the degree to which a person is willing to comply with conventional rules, norms, and standards;” neuroticism, “the degree to which a person experiences the world as threatening and beyond his/her control;” openness to experience, “the degree to which a person needs intellectual stimulation, change, and variety;” extroversion, “the degree to which a person needs attention and social interaction;” and agreeableness, “the degree to which a person needs pleasant and harmonious relations with others.”
Finally, they looked at people’s’ expectations about whether they would be retired at age 62 and 65.
The analyzed retirement expectations, the pathways people actually took, and psychological data to understand how cognitive ability and personality affected peoples’ course through the transition-to-retirement years, and found some interesting results (published in 2018 in the journal Work, Aging and Retirement):
You might expect that extroverts and people with higher cognitive abilities had successful careers and were able to, and did in the end, retire relatively earlier than others. The contrary was in fact true. All else being equal, they found, “those with higher cognitive abilities are more likely to work longer, more likely never to retire, less likely to retire from a full-time job, and less likely to retire after disability.
“Extraversion seems to be strongly related to having part-time jobs, but less related to having full-time jobs. For example, in the groups with high versus low values of extraversion, 60% versus 51.8% of worker had any job after 65, and 33.4% versus 30.9% had full-time jobs.”
Overall, “respondents with greater fluid cognitive ability, those who are more extraverted and those who score lower on agreeableness are significantly more likely to work after age 65… A one standard deviation increase in fluid cognitive ability increases the probability of working after age 65 by 4.3 percentage points from the mean of 55.9% (an increase of about 8%) and the corresponding number for extraversion and agreeableness are 4.3 and -3.1 percentage points.”
“Extraverted individuals are somewhat less likely to expect to work longer, but they are somewhat more likely to do so in the end.”
“Openness to experience has a positive effect on expectations, even though it did not predict actual retirement outcomes. People who scored high on this measure described themselves as creative, adventurous, and broad-minded. While it seems reasonable that these people would expect to work full-time longer, it is interesting to find that they failed to do so.”
“Those who were more cognitively able, measured using a cognitive ability assessment emphasizing working memory, were more likely to experience a nonstandard retirement pattern, and specifically, were more likely to remain in the workforce after age 70 in either part- or full-time work.”
Chart Your Own Course!
We can’t always control our own employment, but we can create our retirement lifestyle. You may want to think about how your cognitive skill level and personality type might naturally lead you in certain directions and then go with rather than fight against the flow. If you’re an extrovert, for example, you might be anticipating spending more time with friends when you retire, but you might in fact be happiest working at least part time. If your cognitive abilities are high (isn’t that true for all of us?) you might also favor continuing to work or, if you retire, find an activity that recreates a work-like environment in retirement. (Getting involved with Men’s Sheds or volunteering to serve on a community board might be right for you.) If you’re high on the openness to experience personality factor, don’t be surprised if you get bored despite an intention to continue working, and get ready to try new things in retirement like drawing or joining a play-reading group.
So what’s the bottom line here? Don’t be afraid to create your own pathway to retirement, and keep working if you can and want to. But don’t forget there are dozens of ways in retirement to get the social and cognitive stimulation you used to get at work.
Regular hot baths or trips to the sauna can fight lower back pain, and have been linked to lower blood pressure, healthier hearts, and lower rates of dementia. According to Dr. Ray Schilling, writing on his “Ask Dr. Ray” website, a research project links regular saunas to lower blood pressure and lower dementia rates, news particularly relevant to people in retirement.
Scientists in Finland tracked the lives of more than 1,600 men for more than 25 years and found, according to their article published in the American Journal of Hypertension, that men who went most frequently to the sauna had the lowest blood pressure. The same study showed that men who went to the sauna once a week had no “reduction” in dementia, while those who went 2 to 3 times a week had a 22% reduction in dementia and those who went 4 to 7 times a week had a 66% reduction in dementia.
Is it the Sauna Itself or the Social Experience?
Before you rush off to the sauna, consider the cultural dimension of the experience in Finland. There, going to the sauna is just as much a social a experience as it is a physical experience and, as we’ve learned from many other studies, regular socializing has been linked to lower blood pressure and dementia rates. (It’s a lot like going out for coffee with a friend, as I wrote about in an earlier Tuesday Tip.) So remember to sauna with a friend!
Always consult a qualified medical professional before using a hot tub or sauna.
Now that spring is here (although there’s plenty of snow still on the ground in the Northern zone where I live) it’s time to consider one of the most health giving and enriching activities you can pursue in retirement. I’m talking about gardening, especially vegetable gardening, especially organic vegetable gardening.
Gardening is Good for Body and Soul
In a 2015 article in the journal Ageing and Society—”Exploring the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening for older adults”—the authors reported a mind-boggling array of benefits observed in their test gardeners, including:
increased exercise and physical activity,
better sleep from exposure to fresh air,
lower blood pressure and strengthened immune systems from being in and observing nature (like in a previous Tuesday Tip about birdwatching),
increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and more.
If you’re intimidated about getting started with vegetable gardening, start small, with a planter on your deck or porch. Grow some basil and heirloom tomatoes, and by mid-summer you’ll be making pesto or interlacing slices of mozzarella cheese, tasty tomatoes, and basil leaves, drizzling them with olive oil and balsamic reduction, and sitting down for a lunch with the best tastes of summer. Delicious!
While not reported in the study, I’ll give you two reasons why you should consider organic instead of conventional vegetable gardening. First, you’ll be saving your body from harmful herbicides and pesticides. Second, you’ll be adding a mental challenge to your gardening endeavors as you enrich your soil and plot to outwit the pests committed to eating your bounty before you do. Learning about and working with the ecosystem of an organic garden is like solving a challenging and beautifully-constructed crossword puzzle!
When I was a child I liked to make pencil drawings of birds. Fifty-plus years later, I no longer have any of those sketches, but I vividly recall that they weren’t all that bad. They probably weren’t drawings I made while observing birds at the bird feeder—birds don’t stay still for long—but, more likely, they were copied from my parents’ bird guide. But they were faithful and careful drawings that anyone would have recognized not only as birds but as cardinals or chickadees or whatever bird species I drew that day.
Drawing Is Great For The Brain
Maybe you liked to draw as a child but, like me, buried your visual creativity as school, jobs, and families became priorities. Even if you have never picked up a pad and pencil, you should consider drawing as a retirement pastime for both its inherent pleasures and its proven cognitive benefits. A study published in 2014 titled “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity” compared changes in neural connectivity in two groups of post-retirement adults, one that took a ten-week art class, and another that took a ten-week art appreciation class evaluating artwork in a museum. Functional MRI testing after the “interventions” showed improved brain functioning in the art class group, and psychological testing showed gains in resilience in that group, too.
Drawing Classes are Everywhere
So buy that sketchpad and pencil set today, and you’ll soon want to take a class to improve your skills. (In a class you’ll meet other aspiring artists; this will add a valuable dose of socializing to your day.) This will add Fortunately, inexpensive art classes are widely available across the United States. I chose three medium-sized communities at random, and this is what I found:
Boise, Idaho: Take an eight-week “Beginning Drawing 1” class for $120 with Boise artist Kevin McCain.
When you write a blog about the “lifestyle” side of retirement, part of the regular discipline is to trawl academic research in the areas of psychology, gerontology, and cognitive neuroscience for news that might interest readers. I call this category of blog post “I Read It; You Don’t Have To” and this label is partly tongue-in-cheek—there’s a lot of valuable information in scholarly articles but, to put it mildly, much academic writing can have a narcotic effect on the reader. (Believe me, I’m doing you a favor by giving it to you in plain English.) It’s better just to ignore articles that are poorly argued and crafted, but sometimes you come across a specimen that’s compelling because of its awfulness, like watching someone slip on a banana peel in slow motion. One such example is a recent article called “Social Media and Older Adults: Understanding Cognitive Training and Social Network.” After you’ve read it you find yourself scratching your head and asking big questions like: What does this article mean? Why does it exist? I’m not sure I can answer those questions, but I’ll put some quotes from the article under the microscope to see what we can see…
#1 – “…there are unique challenges when the older population—age 65 and older-—accesses technology. These technology challenges are beyond those of new learning experienced by the digital natives. The millennial generation, who are digital natives, use computers daily in the ubiquitous age of digital technology and often interact socially and professionally using technology. Older adults are people who were born before the digital age and adopted technology later in life, which fits the category of digital immigrants. These immigrants may not have the resources to access social media, such as a handheld device, internet connectivity, or a resource for technology training to name a few.”
Seriously? Jargon (“digital natives”) and bad grammar (“older adults are people… which fits…”) are rampant, but this passage’s biggest offense is stereotyping. “Older adults” come off sounding like a Stone Age people; the authors haven’t actually met any of them in person but they sure are peculiar and fascinating!
Hang On To Your Wallet
#2 – “Researchers on aging have found that brain exercise and social integration lower the risk of depressive symptoms and dementia in older adults. Furthermore, brain exercise and social integration reduce the risk of cognitive decline and health-related quality of life issues. The habitual activities found in the use of social media might be a source of developing cognitive speed of processing and social interaction in older adults. Hence, an investigation through the theoretical lens of social inclusion may produce findings that social media has a positive effect on the lifestyle and quality of life decisions made by older adults.”
First sentence, check. Second sentence, check, but wait… what does “quality of life issues” mean? Third sentence, now we’re getting to one of my pet peeves–computer-based “brain training.” This paper isn’t research but, rather, an essay proposing what the authors believe will be a fruitful direction for future research by others. Beneath this, however, it feels like the authors’ goal is to gin up support for the notion that using social media will stave off Alzheimer’s Disease. Maybe this will be shown to be true, but it feels like a pretty tortured path, and I can picture the research already. It will compare older people who use social media with those who don’t on several common measures of cognitive ability, and social media use will be shown to correlate with better scores on these tests. But it won’t compare social media use with other “behaviors” like chatting with a friend while taking a vigorous walk together, another potent recipe for “brain exercise and social integration.” Hang on to your wallet: there’s an entire industry out there trying to get us to pay for cognitive and social stimulation that’s available all around us for free.
Look For The Bare Necessities
#3 – “Furthermore, extant results show that education and age are not related benefits of training…” and “While necessities are the basics of life, sometimes a simple contribution to an older adult’s day is grasping the concept of a computer application.”
I really don’t know what to say. Were the authors under deadline pressure? Or is this sort of gobbledygook their natural writing style? And who knew that “necessities are the basics of life”? (Other than Baloo in The Jungle Book, that is.)
#4 – I lied. Number four isn’t a quote from the article.
I found it interesting that both authors are IT (Information Technology) professors rather than psychologists or experts on aging. The paper’s topic encompasses two fields, technology and psychology, but the authors’ expertise only supports one end of their argument. Maybe that’s why “older” people sound like an alien race in this article.
#5 – “Proceedings of the 51st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.”
I saved the best for last. This paper was delivered at a conference that took place in Hawaii January 3-8, 2018, by professors from New Jersey and Texas. Who wouldn’t want a reason to go to Hawaii in the beginning of January?
Trust—But Verify—The Benefits of Technology
It’s easy to make fun of slapdash arguments and writing, but there are some serious points to be made here. I wrote this blog post on a Chromebook, I posted it on a WordPress website, and I spent $10 this week boosting the website’s connected Facebook page. I’ve got nothing against technology, and I think technology will be a big part of the way Baby Boomers redefine retirement and aging. But, as in so many things, balance is important. The Retirement Whisperer will lean toward retirement “lifestyles” that bring people together in the warmth and richness of face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder interactions, will be a little suspicious of those who tell us that technology will solve our problems, and will never hesitate to call out the “experts” when they simply don’t make sense.
If you love learning—and teaching—becoming a docent may be the perfect retirement activity for you. What is a docent? Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a docent as “a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery.” It’s typically a volunteer role, and docent service opportunities exist at museums and galleries, but also at historical landmarks and other places visited by the public across the United States.
The Best Way to Learn is to Teach
If you’re passionate about a subject, going back to “school” for rigorous docent training is a great way to add to your knowledge and get you ready to share what you’ve learned with others. To give you a taste of the range of opportunities out there, here are brief descriptions of three docent programs at different places and at different types of institutions:
Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Incline Village, Nev. – Docent here “help visitors to have an entertaining, educational experience through which they will learn about Lake Tahoe and environmental problems affecting it. Our program offers docents unlimited opportunities for enrichment, public outreach, and personal satisfaction.” TERC’s Docent Program Description gives a good overview of what being a docent entails.
Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Ga. – Volunteering as a docent at the Center for Civil and Human Rights “not only exemplifies your support and commitment to human rights but also provides you with the opportunity to contribute to the enriching experience of visitors and members.” Many docents here are veterans of the civil rights movement.
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minn. – If you want docent training that sounds like the equivalent of getting a postgraduate degree, this may be the place for you. At MIA, “docents are enthusiastic, creative, self-motivated volunteers who have excellent communication skills and a desire to interact with people of all ages. The required two-year study course trains volunteers to conduct inquiry-based, participatory tours of the museum’s permanent collection and special exhibitions. Weekly sessions focus on the history of art with emphasis on the museum’s collection, and on teaching techniques that actively engage tour participants. Assignments include readings, oral presentations, and several hours of preparation outside of class. Those who complete the program are asked to give 40 tours per year for a minimum of three years. A college degree or college-level coursework and/or art history classes are recommended but not required.”
Docent service is a great way to interact with people, and to keep your brain sharp and active in retirement.
Creating—making something new—can strengthen the immune system, fight depression, and forge new connections in the brain that build “cognitive reserve” and ward off dementia. If you’re tired of your book club and want to add some creativity to your life, why not…
Start a play-reading group!
A play-reading group is a book club on steroids, involving less advance preparation and more real-time participation and engagement. You’ll need to recruit a group of friends willing to go a little (but not too far!) beyond wine-fueled book club palaver that all too often veers toward gossip. As the instigator it’s your job to select a play; for your first gathering, try a one-act play or one act from a longer play. Assign parts (you can assign more than one part to each participant), distribute copies at least a week before your meeting, and ask your armchair thespians to read the play and think about their characters.
Creativity and Socializing
When you get together begin with snacks and drinks to put everyone in a relaxed mood, and then… start reading! You’ll quickly get into the scene and as you proceed you’ll find yourself gaining an appreciation for the material entirely different from reading it silently to itself. You’ll exercise creativity as you bring life to your character, both your eyes and your ears will be engaged as you read along and listen to others, and you’ll be socializing, too! (Before you start reading you may want to set a few ground rules, such as encouraging readers to stop and ask for advice about how a line should be read, or to call a timeout and make a comment about what’s going on in a particular scene.) If everyone has a good time end the evening by scheduling your next reading… at someone else’s house.
Regular socializing is one of the keys to healthy aging and retirement—socializing averts loneliness, a killer worse than obesity, and interaction with others stimulates your brain cells, averting cognitive decline.
Pick up your phone and call or text a friend and set a date for coffee! (Men, this is especially important for you. For whatever reason, women are better at socializing than us, and I’ve seen married couples in retirement fall into an unhealthy pattern. Men lose the social network they had at work and become dependent on their wives both for company and to organize their social lives. The fact is, however much she loves you, your wife didn’t ask for and doesn’t want this job. It will drive her crazy and it will jeopardize your relationship.)
I have a couple of friends I see regularly for coffee. We debate politics (I believe in ignoring the common advice to avoid controversial topics), talk about movies we’ve seen, catch up on other friends and talk about our kids. When it’s over I wonder where the time went, and I always leave in a positive frame of mind. Don’t wait to get started! As the philosopher and psychologist William James wrote: “Sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny.”
The small step of meeting a friend for coffee can lead to a destiny of happiness and longevity.