What is “successful 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.

Del Webb, Retirement Pioneer

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.

Tuesday Tip – Start a Play-Reading Group – February 6, 2018

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.

 (More Tuesday Tips here.)

Tuesday Tip – Meet a Friend for Coffee – January 30, 2018

Socializing = Happiness + Brain Health

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.)

Act Now

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.  

(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.

Tuesday Tip – Join a Lifelong Learning Institute – January 23, 2018

What is a Lifelong Learning Institute?

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.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)