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.
“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”
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
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.
Volunteering as a “baby cuddler” in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a unique form of community service with benefits for the volunteer as well as for infants and their families, and a great way to bring a sense of purpose to retirement.
Cuddling Helps Babies Develop
Volunteers provide a critical service; a staff member at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Florida, explained to a local TV station that “when infants get extra attention and cuddle time between parent visits and medical rounds they gain weight more quickly, develop stronger cognitive skills, and reach [developmental] milestones at faster rates.” And, as the opioid crisis deepens in the United States more children, many with their own health challenges, are born to addicted mothers just as they begin their own rehab battles, leaving children especially vulnerable.
Cuddlers May Experience Euphoria!
If you don’t have grandchildren of your own or grandchildren nearby, it’s a great way to get the baby fix we all need, and as you hold the child you’re likely to release endorphins and experience euphoria.
Look online for baby cuddler opportunities near you, and expect a thorough background check and training program before you get started.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Walking won’t burn calories like running, bicycling or many other types of exercise, but slowing down can open the door to an experience that’s as good for the soul as it is for the heart. I’m a runner, and my usual practice when I run is to put in my ear buds and listen to a podcast. I tell myself it’s efficient–I’m learning and staying informed while I’m exercising… what could be better? Routine and focus have their place, but with my ears plugged and my eyes on the road I know I’m missing something. That’s when I need Henry David Thoreau to kick me out of my rut.
Walking with Attitude
Thoreau believed that every step out your front door was an opportunity for discovery, a chance for peak experience. “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.” I don’t think Thoreau was seriously suggesting that you start walking and never come home, but he was saying that if you act as if your destination is Mount Everest or the Kalahari Desert, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to see things you otherwise might miss.
Give it a try. The world is a beautiful place. Walk and imagine your eyes are seeing what no human eyes have seen before (and leave those ear buds at home). Walk heroically, like Henry David. Walk to refresh your spirit.
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.
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.
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.
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 purpose—as 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.
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.