Work?  Retirement?  Something in between?  Know yourself to make the right decision for you!

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.

Do You Want “Health by Stealth”? Your Surroundings Hold the Key…

The environment you live in can harm you or it can heal you and, between these two extremes, there’s a wide range of ways your surroundings can affect you.  On the harmful end of the spectrum are obvious environmental hazards like air pollution and leaded water (think Flint, Michigan). On the healing end, simply living in a neighborhood where there is vegetation and an abundance of bird life has been shown to produce positive mental health effects.  But there are many other subtle ways our immediate environment either supports or undermines our health.  In retirement our aging bodies and changing circumstances can make staying active more of a challenge; our environment can compound that challenge or, if we’re lucky or deliberate about where we live, our environment can, without us even noticing, deliver “health by stealth.”  Understanding how to read our surroundings to know how they’re harmful or healthful is the first step toward overcoming their limitations or making a change.

Three Approaches to Staying Active:  Which Are You?

I learned the term “health by stealth”—and gained a new appreciation for how our environments affect us—when I read a recent study from Britain called “Towards co-designing active ageing strategies:  A qualitative study to develop a meaningful physical activity typology for later life.”  To understand how older people (aged 65-80) thought about staying active, the study’s authors interviewed  and “typed” 27 people of varied backgrounds from Norfolk, England, and engaged those people and community leaders in a brainstorming discussion about how higher levels of physical activity could be encouraged.

Three “types” were identified.  “‘Exercisers’ had engaged in sport and exercise throughout their life but experienced physical ill health and limitations as barriers.  ‘Out-and-about-ers’ pursued social engagement and a variety of interests but experienced biographical disruption through retirement and loss of companions that limited social activities in later life.  A final type characterized people who preferred ‘sedentary/solitary’ activities.”

Typical efforts to engage older people in the Norfolk community included familiar gambits like offering lower-impact exercise classes in gymnasiums, but the study found that only ‘exercisers’—already comfortable in gym settings—were drawn to such classes.  The other groups, particularly the ‘out-and-about-ers,’ were used to activity as a byproduct of other pursuits like gardening or social outings with friends, and weren’t interested in “exercise” for its own sake.  In the brainstorming session the study participants and community leaders developed innovative solutions, ranging from big investments like expanding walking trails and bike paths, to more easily enacted ideas like matching older people with younger neighbors to walk their dogs while they’re at work.

How Does Your Neighborhood Measure Up?

Think about the next ten or twenty years of your life.  Inevitably, you’re going to slow down. Now think about where you live.  Does your neighborhood—say, a quarter mile in every direction around you—have the infrastructure and amenities that will help keep you active simply as a byproduct of everyday life?  Imagine living in a place where you can walk or ride your bike to coffee shops, restaurants, the grocery store, perhaps even a theater. A place where you don’t have to drive your car to get to your Lifelong Learning Institute.  A place where there are parks and wildlife.  And, best of all, your friends live there, too.

How does your neighborhood live up to this ideal?  Maybe there isn’t a place exactly like this anywhere, but it makes sense to look at our surroundings through this lens and think about how it supports or undermines us as we age.  (One simple proxy for this is your neighborhood “Walk Score.” You can enter your address and find your Walk Score here.)  If your neighborhood undermines you, you may want to consider how you’ll compensate for its shortcomings and find ways to stay active as you age.  If you’re planning to move in retirement, look for a place where the neighborhood geography delivers “health by stealth”!

Help Others Feel in Control of Their Own Lives to Feel Better Yourself

Academic articles can make for dry reading; that’s why at The Retirement Whisperer we’re committed to finding and reading interesting new research—so you don’t have to—and explaining what it means in plain English.  But that’s just the start. Scholars draw cautious conclusions from data, but we give ourselves license to speculate about the research’s possible broader implications. We couple the research with intuition to turn narrow findings into specific advice on finding happiness and fulfillment in retirement.

When Your Spouse Feels More in Control of His or Her Life, You Feel Better, Too

When our spouse or partner experiences a momentary increase in perceived control over his or her life, we experience a decline in what psychologists call “negative affect,” that is, bad feelings or thoughts that together add up to stress and distress.  That’s the finding in a February, 2018, article in the Journals of Gerontology titled “The More We Are in Control, the Merrier?  Partner Perceived Control and Negative Affect in the Daily Lives of Older Couples.”  

Previous research has shown that individuals experience stress and negative emotions when they perceive low levels of control; this German study sought to go beyond that insight to see if the same dynamic operates in “social systems” likes longstanding couple relationships.

87 Older Berlin Couples Surveyed

To get answers German researchers asked 87 Berlin couples to complete a brief survey six times a day for seven consecutive days.  At least one person in each couple was 70 years old or older, and the couples had been together for an average of 46 years. Survey participants throughout the day rated their perception of being in control—that is, belief in their ability to “influence and change life circumstances”—on a 0 to 100 scale and, on the same scale, the degree to which they felt nervous, jittery, frustrated, sad, worried or other emotions used to measure “negative affect.”

Results showed that you won’t experience fewer negative emotions just because your partner feels relatively higher levels of perceived control—that your own perception of control is the driving factor.  If, however, your partner experiences higher than usual perceived control, your negative emotions will abate.  My plain English take on the results? Each of us is to some extent an emotional island, but coping with life’s challenges is easier if you make it a team sport and help your partner experience more control in their life.

Applying This Insight in Your Own Life

Here are five Retirement Whisperer thoughts, speculations, and takeaways from the research:

  1. Not everyone is in a long-term relationship, but that’s not the only kind of intense emotional relationship.  Do similar kinds of mood interdependence exist, say, in close friendships that aren’t romantic relationships? My gut tells me that it does, and this research starts to help us see some of the ways to be a better spouse or friend.
  2. If I’ll feel better (with lower “negative affect”) if my spouse or friend feels more perceived control, what specifically can I do that will help them feel more control?  A plan of action would clearly depend on the person and the circumstance, but it seems clear that helping someone help themselves will both make them and you feel better.
  3. We’ve all heard the advice to “surround ourselves with positive people” but maybe that doesn’t quite get it right.  Positivity and optimism in those around us may not be enough; we need ways to help each other achieve more perceived control.
  4. What about other relationships in our life?  Can we lower our negative emotions by helping relative strangers experience higher levels of perceived control?  This might be one of the reasons why volunteering to help others makes us feel good. Teaching literacy or English as a second language may not only be empowering for the student but mood enhancing for the teacher.
  5. The research is just the launching pad for speculations like these, and I hope you find them intriguing.  Socializing is one of the pillars of successful retirement, and the more we understand exactly how our actions in relationships and friendships influences our happiness, the more intentional and proactive we can be.  In the meantime, helping others help themselves won’t hurt you. And it may help you.

Start Drawing – Tuesday Tip – March 6, 2018

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.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma:  Take a four-week class in “Figure Drawing” for $85 at the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center.

Rochester, New York:  Take a six-week “Basic Drawing” class for $170 at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery.

There’s sure to be a drawing class somewhere near you, too!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

I Read It; You Wouldn’t Want To

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…

Not All Professors Are Created Equal

#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.  

Watch Birds! – Tuesday Tip – February 20, 2018

You don’t have to strap an expensive pair of binoculars around your neck and head into the woods to benefit from birdwatching.  According to a 2017 study published in the journal BioScience, simply living in an environment where birds are abundant can lift your mood.

Abundant Bird Population Tied to Mental Health

The study, “Doses of Neighborhood Nature:  The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature,” explored the relationship between natural residential environments and mental health.  Study participants completed self-assessments measuring depression, anxiety and stress, and researchers measured the amount of vegetation, and the variety and abundance of birds in participants’ neighborhoods at two different times during the day.

Using statistical analysis, researchers found that “people living in neighborhoods with higher levels of vegetation cover and afternoon bird abundances had reduced severity of depression, anxiety, and stress.”  They concluded that abundance was more significant than variety because most people can’t identify bird species, and afternoon abundance was more significant than morning abundance because that’s when people are more likely to be out of their homes.

Pay Attention to the Birds Around You

The study’s authors suggest that deliberate urban and community design policies that increase vegetation, and the birds attracted to it, might have a strong public health justification.  In the meantime, if you live in a place where birds are abundant, take time to notice them.  If you don’t, take a walk or a drive to where they are to lift your mood!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Volunteering Counters Loneliness After Spouse’s Death

Loneliness in older Americans has been shown to be a killer as lethal as smoking, twice as lethal as obesity, and four times as lethal as exposure to air pollution, but people who take up volunteering for a minimum average of two hours a week after the death of a spouse fight loneliness by building social connections and finding a sense of purpose, according to researchers from four universities.  Their article—”Does Becoming A Volunteer Attenuate Loneliness Among Recently Widowed Older Adults?”—was  published in the Journals of Gerontology in 2017.

I Read It; You Don’t Have To (click to read more)

More Than 5,000 Older Adults Surveyed

To reach their conclusions, researchers from Florida State University, Georgia State University, Boston College, and Stanford University analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration that has surveyed older Americans since 1990.  They identified 5,649 survey respondents who were married in one wave of the survey, 592 of whom were widowed when they completed the survey again four years later.  They divided the panel into several groups including those who took up volunteering in the interim, some for 99 hours or less per year, others for 100 or more hours per year.  Using a three-question measure of loneliness, the analysis showed levels of loneliness among those who volunteered at the higher time commitment equal to respondents whose spouses had not died.  The  researchers were careful to control for factors that might also have influenced loneliness levels.  If a survey respondent, for example, lost a spouse and afterward both widened their social circle and started volunteering, they were removed from the analysis so that only the impact of volunteering was accounted for.

Conclusions

The researchers concluded (in best academic-speak!):   “We discovered that volunteering moderates the negative effects of loneliness for those who become widowed, but only in relation to engagement in 2 or more hr per week, on average.”

Speculating on why this might be so, they wrote:

Although institutional engagement like volunteering plays an important role in loneliness not all forms of institutional engagement seem to be sufficient to address the unique challenges that loneliness presents in later life.  Working and religious attendance among younger adults are associated with lower levels of loneliness.  However, these activities are not related to reduced loneliness for older adults, perhaps because they do not consistently allow older adults to feel that they are contributing in ways that are valued in a mutually beneficial way rendering these activities less emotionally meaningful.  Beyond the social aspect of volunteering, it may be that engaging at a significant intensity in work that has a social purposeas volunteer work often does–bolsters the kind of personal resources (e.g., health behaviors, self-esteem, purpose in life, sense of control) that are needed to manage the grief and loss associated with widowhood.

Volunteering Resources

Looking for a volunteer opportunity but don’t know where to find one to suit your skills and interests? The Volunteer Match website is a good place to start.