Go Back to School – Tuesday Tip – September 4, 2018

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.

Happy September!  Happy lifelong learning!     

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

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”!

Take Regular Sauna Baths – Tuesday Tip – April 17, 2018

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.

Rustic Sauna

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.

More Tuesday Tips here.)

Innovative Men’s Sheds Concept Gains Foothold in U.S.

“Men’s Sheds,” a movement founded in Australia to promote social interaction and community service among retired men, is coming to the United States.  Eleven Men’s Sheds have been established so far, several others are in the planning stage, and an organization—the US Men’s Sheds Association—has been formed to promote the movement and help new Men’s Sheds get started.

“Shoulder to Shoulder”

Helping a Cub Scout with his Pinewood derby racer

A Men’s Shed is a gathering place for older men typically organized around a theme and a purpose.  A Men’s Shed might feature a woodshop where men work together on community service projects like building handicap-access ramps for people who otherwise couldn’t afford one, or a kitchen where men learn cooking skills and share the food they’ve prepared.  There are nearly 1,000 Men’s Sheds in Australia, several hundred in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and 25 or more in Canada. The motto of the Men’s Shed movement is “Shoulder to Shoulder,” shortened from a longer phrase explaining how men prefer to communicate:  “Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder.” Some sheds have opened membership to both men and women and to people of all ages.

Mark Winston, a 60-year-old businessman and a founding board member of the US Men’s Sheds Association, first became aware of the Men’s Shed movement seven years ago, and four years ago helped start Canada’s second Men’s Shed in Vanderhoof, British Columbia.  When he learned that a Men’s Shed had been founded in Hawaii and another in Minnesota, he began networking with the founders of those sheds and with leadership from the International Men’s Sheds Organisation, and founded the US Men’s Sheds Association as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization early in 2017.

Giving Purpose and Combating Depression

Winston has seen firsthand how Men’s Shed participation improves the lives of men in retirement.  “At the Vanderhoof shed we were able to persuade a couple of guys to participate who were so depressed they didn’t want to leave their apartments,” says Winston.  “One day I was at the shed and one of them took me by surprise by walking up and giving me a hug. He told me: ‘Thanks for giving me my life back.’ Now these two guys have keys to the shed and are opening and closing it five days a week.”  Winston says that Glenn Sears, the founder of the first US Men’s Shed in Hawaii, had moved there from Colorado with no friends and now has 50.

Sears and Phil Johnson, the founder of Minnesota’s first Men’s Shed, joined Winston on the association’s board of directors.  Johnson, 68, a retired software engineer who had earlier played a pivotal role in establishing women’s pole vaulting as an NCAA-sanctioned event, saw the Men’s Sheds movement as another opportunity to do “exactly what I like to do”—lead a national movement.  He has also seen how participation has made a difference in his own life. A friend of his, Johnson said, recently told him that he seemed much happier since becoming involved in the movement.

Spreading the Movement With a Top-Down Approach   

By permission Hawaii Men’s Shed Association

In other countries where the movement has taken root, individual Men’s Sheds typically grow when a small group of men in a locality hear about the movement, meet to express mutual interest and willingness to get involved, and only then seek advice on how to proceed from the national association.  In a larger and less homogeneous society like the United States, Winston and Johnson are taking a different approach, proactively reaching out to civic, community, and senior centers to generate interest in starting Men’s Sheds under the wing of existing organizations. Johnson describes this approach as akin to a “franchise” model.  They’re approaching national organizations like the Educational Development Center, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and veterans organizations to build a coalition and spread the word.  The association has also applied for foundation grants to fund growth of the movement.

Winston says complaints about gender bias have been few.  In fact, wives have been supportive because Men’s Sheds “give them a break and their husbands something to do.”  And the movement isn’t entirely man-focused. Internationally, Winston says, one in five Men’s Sheds includes women members and, in the United States, a new Men’s Shed in Florida is forming under the leadership of a female airman who sees the movement as an important resource for veterans who might be facing mental health challenges.

Into the Future

While still in its infancy, the US Men’s Sheds Association is laying a strong foundation for future growth of the movement in the United States.  They’ve drafted statements articulating the organization’s mission, purpose, and values, and have written a 2018 strategic plan detailing annual objectives in areas including marketing and communications, partnerships, funding, and organizational development.  Most importantly, they’ve established growth goals, hoping to expand to 50 sheds by the end of 2018 and to 200 sheds by the end of 2019.

To learn more about Men’s Sheds in the United States, find out if there is a shed near you, or learn how you can get involved in the movement, visit the US Men’s Sheds Association website.

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.  

Become a Docent – Tuesday Tip – February 27, 2018

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.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

“The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old” – Book Review

Can we learn about healthy aging and retirement from a novel?  What do the very oldest among us have to teach those of us who are newly retired or on the cusp of retirement?  “The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old,” published in The Netherlands in 2014 and in the United States in 2017, is a tender, darkly funny account of a year in the life of a Dutch retirement home resident, full of lessons about friendship, aging, death, and life.

“The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old, Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 377 pages

Hendrik Groen, the diary keeper (and the book’s pseudonymous author) begins his diary on January 1, 2013, and completes an entry almost daily for the entire year.  Plot lines—one romantic and another political—fizzle before they can fully develop, suggesting perhaps the limited possibilities for sustained drama at this stage of life rather than being a structural weakness.  The book instead finds its structure in the natural tragic arc of a year that begins in the winter, proceeds through spring, summer, and fall, and ends in a second winter.  Over the course of the year Hendrik feels the stirring of new love, comments wryly on the foibles of old age and acerbically on institutional indignities, and joins forces with a group of fellow “inmates” determined both to undermine management and to offer one another mutual support and comfort.  This group, calling themselves the Old But Not Dead Club, host dinner parties in each others’ apartments to escape the bland and repetitive dining room food, and organize outings to escape the boredom of bingo and common room gossip and whining.

Hendrik has an eye for ironic detail.  Capturing the eccentricities of the “older old” he describes the food, seventeen years past its expiration date, found in the refrigerator of a deceased resident.   Dark humor is omnipresent, as in this “crematorium crisis”:  “the coffin got stuck halfway in, so the oven door couldn’t close properly.  The coffin caught fire and the smoke seeped into the chapel.  The crematorium had to be evacuated.  Anyone who hadn’t already been weeping emerged teary eyed.  That’s what I call a spectacular way to say goodbye.”  Some critics have compared “Hendrik Groen” to Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and Hendrik is especially deft in describing institutional pettiness and doublespeak.  When management installs hall cameras “‘for our own safety’” residents, old enough to have lived as small children through the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, are soon comparing retirement home leadership to the Gestapo.

Patronizing, Packaging, and Utopia

Hendrik punctuates his yearlong chronicle with other wry observations and lessons:

On patronizing the older old:  “I heard that, on the heels of hospital clowns for sick children, special clowns are being deployed to cheer up lonely old folks.  I don’t know what they’re called or where they come from, but I should like to warn them in advance:  if any clown arrives to brighten my day, so help me God, I’ll use my last ounce of strength to bash his jovial skull in with a frying pan.”

On modern packaging (a complaint people of all ages can relate to):  “It’s the little things that get you.  Or rather, that you don’t get.  A daily annoyance:  packaging.  Cans with tabs you can’t wedge your finger under, vacuum-sealed LIFT UP HERE corners too small to pull, childproof cleaning products, applesauce lids, impossible to twist prosecco corks, blister packs:  they’re all specially designed to make it as difficult as possible for feeble, trembling, old hands to manage.”  

On utopia from an octogenarian’s perspective:  “Friday the thirteenth, a good day to buy a lottery ticket.  One always has to have something to hope for.  If I win the jackpot, I’m buying a small, private, old-age home for myself and my friends.  It won’t have a director, an orderly, or a board of directors.  No human-resource manager, accountant, or head of housekeeping.  No rules, no regulations, or interdictions.  That will save buckets of money and a lot of red tape.  What there will be room for is common sense, friendly staff, and a good cook who’s always on call, in case we don’t feel like preparing our own meals in our well-equipped kitchen.  A home with spacious, light-filled rooms where you can keep your cat, dog, or Christmas tree if you are so inclined.  How simple is that.  Keep dreaming, Hendrik.”

Friendship… and Plans

Ultimately, the most important lessons of “The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old” are about the importance of socializing with friends and of making plans—having something to look forward to.  At an end-of-year Christmas dinner with the Old But Not Dead Club, Hendrik raises a toast to “friendship as the essential ingredient of a good life.”  A few days later, in his final diary entry of the year, he contemplates an upcoming outing and writes:   “And after that trip, I’ll have to come up with another plan.  As long as there are plans, there’s life.”

“Hendrik Groen” should be a basic text for retirement home staff and others who deal professionally with the older old, but it is really for anyone who wants an entertaining and in the end profound lesson on what it means to age with dignity and a sense of humor.

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