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.
Are you interested in learning more about U.S. Civil War history before a summer trip to visit battlefields, or about the emperors of Rome before a trip to Italy? Are you determined to arm yourself for the culture wars with a better understanding of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection? Want to brush up on your Spanish or French, or learn Arabic? No? How about relaxing and watching one of 1,150 free movies? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I have the website for you!
The Open Culture website describes itself as “The best free educational & cultural media on the web.” It boasts a library of 1,300 free lectures, more than a thousand “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses), 1,150 free movies, 700 free audio books, 800 free eBooks, and more. The website’s lead editor is Dan Colman, Director and Associate Dean of Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program. “The common thread running through his career,” says Colman’s profile on the website, “is his interest in bringing relevant, perspective-changing information to large audiences, often with the help of the internet.” Open Culture is not associated with Stanford University.
Genealogy—researching and recording your family’s history—is a pastime ideally suited for retirement, rich in learning, creativity, and purpose. If you like history, want to challenge your computer and skills, and are interested in creating something of value for your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, genealogy may be just what you’re looking for.
The internet has put rich reservoirs of genealogical information at our fingertips. Fee-based platforms like ancestry.com make it easy, perhaps too easy, to build a family tree. The site will give you “ancestry hints” when its algorithm’s determine it may have information about an individual you’ve added to your tree, but these aren’t always reliable since it may have come from another subscriber with inaccurate information. That’s why, if you get serious about genealogical research, you’ll want to learn about and adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard.
Going Beyond the “Who” and “What” to “How” and “Why” of Family History
Building a family tree, with dates and locations of birth, dates of marriage, and dates of death, is only the start. That work might answer the “who” and “what” questions, but the real fun is trying to puzzle out the “how” and “why” of your family’s history. Why did your great-grandmother leave Italy for America, while her sisters and brothers stayed behind? I’m a genealogical beginner, but I already have one or two questions it might take me years to figure out. My great-grandfather came to the United States from Colombia in the 1890s to work in New York City as a coffee importer and, somehow, met and married the daughter of a silk factory owner in Paterson, New Jersey. How on earth did they even meet?
Genealogy Can Teach You About The Full Range of Human Experience
If your research helps you answer questions like mine, you’ll be able to write powerful stories your descendants will thank you for. Every family has heroes and villains, secret and surprises, and if you can uncover and describe them, you’ll convey important lessons to your family about resiliency, the possibility of fresh starts, lies and love—in short, the full range of the human experience.
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.
What is “successful retirement”? A hundred years ago only a few privileged people were in the position to ask themselves that question. Think about life back then at age 65, commonly thought of now as the “traditional” age of retirement. It’s safe to say that in 1918 most people in the world born 65 years before, in 1853, had long been dead. If you were fortunate still to be alive in 1918, you… perhaps weren’t actually that fortunate. If you were a man you probably had worked, beginning as a teenager, on a farm, down a mine, or in a factory. If you were a woman you had worked at home, or in someone else’s home, without labor-saving devices, cooking, cleaning and caring for children, some of whom had likely not survived infancy. By 65 you were worn out, impoverished, and dependent on your children to care for you in your remaining years.
The Invention of Retirement
Fast forward to 2018. It’s been an amazing hundred years, and one of the most significant cultural innovations of the period was the “invention” of retirement. The discovery of antibiotics and other medical advances, increased awareness of the importance of diet and exercise, and the transformation of work from physical to largely mental toil means that millions of people reach 65 with huge reserves of health and energy and the expectation of fifteen, twenty or more years to fill between full-time employment and the onset of physical and cognitive decline. Retirement, once a privilege, has become an expectation.
In America, retirement as a “lifestyle” experienced by millions of people emerged only sixty or so years ago, with pioneering innovations like Del Webb retirement communities in Florida and Arizona in the 1950s, and the first lifelong learning institutes in the 1960s—this was “mass” retirement’s first wave. Retirement’s second generation has made its own mark with innovations like the “aging in place” movement, pioneered in locations like Beacon Hill Village in Boston and Community Without Walls in Princeton, N.J. Now a third generation, 78 million Baby Boomers like me, are in the early years of or nearing retirement, and how our we’ll redefine retirement is still to be seen. The Retirement Whisperer will report and perhaps play a part in shaping this unfolding story, and communicate to you in ways that might help you enrich your own life.
Early Days for Baby Boomer Retirement
The Baby Boomer retirement is only in its opening chapters, but themes are beginning to emerge that point to a definition of “successful retirement.” We should start by acknowledging that retirement isn’t a static phase, the same at its beginning as it is at its end. No phase is. And let’s also acknowledge that retirement is, if not the last, then certainly the next-to-last phase of life. The Retirement Whisperer will focus primarily on positive stories, but will never ignore the darker side of aging—death is real, folks, and inevitable.
So is “successful retirement” the same as “healthy aging”? I think it is, especially if you listen to how older people themselves define it. Psychologists, gerontologists, and policy makers have put a lot of energy into drafting definitions—the World Health Organization, for example, defines healthy aging as the “process of development and maintenance of functional capacity that allows well-being at an advanced age.” That, to my mind, is a little too mechanistic and medical, so I was excited to read an article from a Brazilian academic journal—Revista Brasileira de Geriatria e Gerontologia—titled “Healthy aging from the perspective of the elderly: an integrative review” (Nov./Dec. 2017). It turns out that older people define healthy aging far more broadly than the World Health Organization does and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, they’re living it.
Health Aging from the Perspective of the Elderly
The authors conducted their review by screening academic literature for studies asking older people how they defined healthy aging, and rigorously vetting the results to weed out articles with low research standards. At the end of the process every continent was represented and a consistent definition—with a few interesting outliers—emerged. They distilled “healthy aging” into four dimensions:
The Biological Dimension. Health aging means practicing “protective” behavior like exercising, eating healthy food, refraining from smoking and limiting alcohol, and getting regular physical examinations.
The Psychological Dimension. Older people told researchers that “being positive and optimistic is an essential part of healthy aging, with optimism understood as the expectation that something positive will happen.” Optimism also comes from a social support network and daily social activities. The study also found that “there is no well-defined concept for happiness as it varies according to the cultural and social context of each country.” A South Korean study “revealed an association between family and the perception of happiness.” In short, optimism, happiness, and social contact all seem closely linked.
The Spiritual Dimension. Many of the reviewed articles explored elderly perspectives on faith and spirituality, finding that faith provides support in the face of illness or personal difficulties. Other perspectives associate spirituality with healthy behavior: an article about the elderly in Thailand found a more holistic definition of spirituality; the food you eat and how you take care of your body are, for example, spiritual practices. Adherence to religious rules and practices—prohibitions against drugs and alcohol or extra-marital sex, for example—are cited by some as part of healthy aging. Finally, “faith can promote virtues such as humility, altruism, compassion, wisdom and gratitude.”
The Social Dimension. Elderly people around the world said that being surrounded by friend and family, having a partner, and staying involved in “collective leisure activities” were hallmarks of healthy aging. And it’s not a one-way street: “In addition to being supported, the elderly can also provide support. For many, supporting others is more important than receiving support, contributing to a strengthening of their self-esteem and social involvement. This can be seen by their social contributions and desire to do good through voluntary work.” Elderly people understand the value of socializing, but also think autonomy and independence are important. This belief wasn’t universally held, however; Thai elders value interdependence more than independence.
The Retirement Whisperer’s Take on “Successful Retirement”
As you might have noticed, there’s a lot of overlap across these “dimensions.” Is “doing good through voluntary work,” for example, in the “social,” the “spiritual,” or the “psychological” dimension? All three, I think.
There’s a great deal of wisdom in what the elderly around the world have told researchers, and it’s a great place to start in defining “successful retirement.” I’ve had long conversations with many Baby Boomers making the retirement transition and I’ve studied the pattern of innovation in retirement over the last sixty years; I would add a couple of things, slightly rearrange others, and posit these five areas as today’s keys to successful retirement, where innovation is likely to occur, and where The Retirement Whisperer will look for stories and offer advice:
Fitness, Diet and Health. A healthy body is the key to a healthy brain and absolutely the foundation for successful retirement. Aches, pains, and illness are almost inevitable, but behavior makes an enormous difference, and the generation that made running mainstream and organic a household word has still more to offer the world.
Socializing. Loneliness kills. Socializing is the cure. Baby Boomers are already finding new ways to socialize in retirement and they’re just beginning.
Learning. Baby Boomers are the most educated generation in American history. In retirement they’ll look for ways to learn—both in formal classroom-like settings and through experiences—what they never got a chance to learn in college (and make deposits to “cognitive reserve” as they do so).
Creativity. The psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that our later life stage is a conflict between generativity—leaving a legacy for future generations—and despair. Baby Boomers will find new creative ways to leave their legacy.
Spirit and Purpose. For a generation that’s been on a quest for meaning and purpose for seven decades, a calendar full of “activities” won’t be enough. Through volunteerism, more direct forms of spiritual practice, and new innovations yet unimagined, Baby Boomers in retirement will innovate in this area, too.
These are what I think are the five pillars of “successful retirement.” Now it’s your turn. Have I missed something? What innovations are you seeing in these five areas? Leave a comment below. I’ll look into it and report back to The Retirement Whisperer community.
Lifelong Learning Institutes (LLIs) are community-based learning organizations, typically affiliated with a college or university, offering classes, lectures and other activities primarily for retired people. While some LLIs also have paid staff, nearly all are strongly volunteer-driven, providing fantastic opportunities for socializing as well as for learning. Following the lead of the very first LLI founded at the New School in New York in the early 1960s, most adhere to a peer teaching/facilitation model where LLI members lead classes based on academic or professional expertise, or personal passion. Not convinced yet? LLIs are an incredible bargain, charging only nominal fees for semester-long memberships or individual classes.
How do I find an LLI near me?
Road Scholar, the educational travel not-for-profit organization, has a searchable database of more than 400 LLIs across the United States.