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”!

Retirement Reflections #2 – How Am I Doin’? (63 years, 7 months)

I started The Retirement Whisperer blog to explore what retirement means to people of my generation, to get myself ready for this step—only a few years away now—and to pass on to others what I learn along the way.  (That’s why it’s a blog instead of a diary!) I kicked off my website and Facebook page in January with a post titled “Retirement Reflections #1 – Transitions.”  Since then I have posted twice each week—a long post on Sundays and a shorter series of “Tuesday Tips” on, you guessed it, Tuesdays.  I work full-time, so writing and posting to my blog is sometimes a bit of a scramble.  To gain a little perspective I intend, at the beginning of each calendar quarter, to step back and reflect on how I’m progressing on my journey.  This may seem self-indulgent, but I hope I’ve been clear that the purpose of this website is both to furnish practical inspiration and to inspire.  If I can inspire you to reflect on your journey by talking about my own, that’s a good thing.

(Before I talk about my own progress, I’ll mention the blog post from the last three months I’m most proud of, and that’s a report on how the Men’s Sheds movement is growing in the United States.  This concept, born in Australia in the 1980s and growing like mad in Great Britain and Ireland, is a remarkable social and civic innovation that I predict will become huge in the United States over the next decade while positively impacting the lives of thousands of American men—and women, too).

In a February post titled “What is ‘successful retirement’?” I proposed keeping five dimensions in mind as we answer this question and design our own retirement plans.  Here’s an “audit” of how I’m doing on each of these dimensions:

Fitness, Diet and Health

 I’ve been a runner for 45 years and along the way have run two marathons, a bunch of half-marathons, and more 5-milers and 5Ks than I count.  I’m 20 pounds below the Clydesdale class, but I’m definitely a plodder, and the extra weight I carry may finally have caught up with me.  Early this year I began experiencing a lot of knee pain and, in February, gave up running and began a weekly schedule that includes two long walks, two sessions on the elliptical trainer at the gym, and one session on the rowing machine.  My knees feel a whole lot better and I have to admit I don’t miss running—walking satisfies my urge to get out and see what’s happening on the streets and in the woods near my home.  I also lift weights three times a week and, inspired by Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon’s regimen, I’ve been giving more focused (and badly needed) attention to my abs.  On the diet side, I’ve been inspired by a book I’m reading called “The Longevity Code.”  I’ll share what I’ve learned from that book in a book review and other posts later this month and quarter.

Socializing

I already know this is the area I’ll have to work hardest on in retirement.  So, dear reader, I’m committing here and now to organizing a guy’s book club within the next three months.  (I’ll report here how it goes!) On the plus side, I get together with a couple of different friends once a month or so for coffee, one of whom I’ve known since middle school.  Just a few weeks ago he and I had lunch with another friend of ours from out of state we hadn’t seen in nearly 50 years.  Facebook is under attack right now, but I can tell you this: if it wasn’t for Facebook I probably wouldn’t be in contact now with that old friend, and this reunion wouldn’t have been possible.  But something even better topped that experience.  I’m married to the warmest and loveliest person I’ve ever met, and the “social” highlight of the last three months was celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary with a romantic weekend away and gourmet dinner.

Learning

   I love the steep, early part of a learning curve, and starting a blog has been both stimulating and, at times, frustrating.  I use WordPress for this website. It’s intuitive enough that anyone can use it, but it’s also as complex and sophisticated as you want to make it.  I know I’ve still got a lot to learn, that I’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible. While going beyond the basics can be technically puzzling, it’s been a lot of fun and I’m committed to learning more about WordPress and making at least one significant technical enhancement to the site each quarter.  

Creativity

When I wrote my book “Master Class:  Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier” and the manuscript deadline loomed, I adopted a writing schedule that included several mornings each week and a full day each weekend.  Keeping to a regular schedule of blog posts for The Retirement Whisperer has taken me back to that time and has been a good reminder that the creative live isn’t about waiting for inspiration!  If you have a creative outlet in your life, or want one, it’s something to keep in mind. Whether your art is painting, quilting or writing, just do it! Self-discipline is actually what drives inspiration, and I’ve enjoyed getting back into the creative rhythm in the last three months.    

Spirit and Purpose

 When I launched The Retirement Whisperer I vowed not to avoid that subject-some-of-us-would rather-not-talk-about, the other end of retirement.  Looking back at the last several months it has, unfortunately, been a promise all to easy to keep. The mother of a work colleague died after a long illness and, this weekend, my wife is out of town for her aunt’s memorial service.  But this wasn’t the worst of it. Just a month ago my wife’s 44-year-old cousin died suddenly and unexpectedly. An emotionally wrenching yet inspiring funeral followed; hundreds of people attended and this young man was eulogized as “everyone’s best friend.”  For someone like me, who can all too easily withdraw into an interior life, it was an important and timely reminder of the importance of making connections and simple acts of human kindness.

What’s Next

So, where to next with The Retirement Whisperer?  Here’s what’s brewing:

  • More interviews and reporting (like the Men’s Sheds post) from the innovative frontiers of retirement.  Look for a report on the “aging in place” movement and other topics in the next few months.
  • More practical information about getting started on specific pastimes or hobbies you might be interested in taking up in retirement.  Look for the first “5 Keys to… “ post before the end of April.
  • I’ve been reading a lot about dietary science and I’m working on a blog post tentatively called “10 Miracle Foods for Retirement.”  I may even try to eat only those 10 foods for a full month and see what happens!
  • And, or course, more book reviews, more news from academic research, more Tuesday Tips and, three months from now, more Retirement Reflections!

Is there a specific topic you would like The Retirement Whisperer to research and write about?

 

5 Women Who Reinvented Themselves

The Retirement Whisperer believes retirement is a time for reinvention and new beginnings.  To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are the stories of five inspiring women who reached new heights later in life in the arts, exploration, athletics, business and education.

The Writer

Harriet Doerr

Harriet Doerr published her first novel when she was 73.  That novel, “Stones for Ibarra,” won the American Book Award for first fiction, and was described as a “perfect book” by the author Alice Adams.  Born in 1910, Ms. Doerr dropped out of college to marry and raise a family, returning to college in 1975 and gaining entrance to Stanford University’s creative writing program.  According to her obituary in the New York Times, “other students resented her presence, until she read her first piece aloud.”  Harriet Doerr went on to publish another novel (at age 83) and a collection of essays.  She died in 2002 at age 92.

The Swimmer

Katherine Pelton took up competitive swimming at age 70 and, ten years later, shattered Masters swimming records for the 80-84 age division.  Her favorite stroke was the technically demanding butterfly, where she held records for 50 yards, 100 yards, and 200 yards. Ms. Pelton swam more than 2,000 yards every day, and died in 1992 at age 87.

The Explorer

Barbara Hillary

After surviving lung cancer at 67 and retiring from nursing, Barbara Hillary became interested in traveling to the North and South Poles.  She raised $25,000 to fund her expeditions and, in 2007 at age 76, became the first African American women to stand on the North Pole, four years later achieving the same first at the South Pole.

The Entrepreneur

Stephanie King at age 62 founded a website to sell crafts and other products created by female artisans around the world.  After a corporate career, Ms. King grew interested in issues of social justice and saw that women in poorer countries around the world needed financial independence to escape trafficking, arranged marriages, and other “subhuman conditions.”  Her business sourced products from Afghanistan, Guatemala, Nepal, Ethiopia and other parts of the world.

The Scholar

Nola Ochs

Nola Ochs was born in rural Kansas in 1911 where, after graduating from high school,she taught in a one-room schoolhouse before marrying and raising a family.  After her husband died in 1979, Ms. Ochs began taking community college classes before enrolling at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas where, in 2007 she received a BA in General Studies with a specialization in history.  In an interview that year she said “as long as I have my mind and health, age is just a number.” Ms. Ochs died in 2016 at age 105, leaving 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

  

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.

“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.

Visit The Retirement Whisperer Bookshelf.

5 Presidents Who Did Retirement Right

When you’ve been President of the United States, what do you do for an encore?

Excluding the incumbent, forty-three men have served as U.S. President and, of those, eight died in office.  That leaves thirty-five who experienced retirement.  Most sought retirement lives of peace and quiet, but several went on to new achievements, and one stands out for defining his life by his retirement accomplishments and giving us all a yardstick with which to measure our own.  In honor of Presidents Day, The Retirement Whisperer offers its own highly subjective countdown of five U.S. Presidents who did retirement right.

#5 – Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover is remembered somewhat unjustly as the President who brought us The Great Depression.  By training a mining engineer, Hoover first gained prominence leading U.S. relief efforts in Europe after World War I, serving also as Secretary of Commerce before becoming President just months before the Wall Street crash in 1929.  When he left the presidency after one term he was only 58 years old, and he spent much of the next 12 years as a vocal critic of the policies of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt.  After World War II President Harry Truman asked him to return to Europe to assess relief needs, and his efforts led to a program that provided meals for three-and-a-half million German youth in the British and American occupation zones.  Later Hoover wrote a biography of President Woodrow Wilson, oversaw the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and raised money for Boys Clubs.  Hoover also loved to get away and enjoy the solitude of fishing in the wilderness and wrote a book called Fishing for Fun–And to Wash Your Soul.   Hoover lived to be 90 years old, dying in 1964.

#4 – John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, son of President John Adams, tasted the international life and learned several languages as he accompanied his father on his diplomatic missions on behalf of the newly independent United States.  After graduating from Harvard he served in numerous diplomatic posts himself before becoming James Monroe’s Secretary of State.  Elected President in 1824, he faced relentless opposition from populists led by Andrew Jackson who accused Adams of favoring manufacturing and elitist interests in the Northeast, and criticized his stance in favor of the the abolition of slavery.  After Jackson swept him from office in 1828 after a single term as President, Adams embarked on a new career as a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts, becoming the first U.S. President to manage his retirement by… not retiring.  Adams won reelection to Congress eight times and served until his death at age 81.  Adams’s congressional career was perhaps more distinguished than his presidency—he was a determined opponent of slavery and a leading supporter of scientific advancement in America, persuading Congress to earmark a financial donation from James Smithson to fund the institution that eventually became the Smithsonian.

#3 – Howard Taft

Howard Taft

There’s more to Howard Taft than the enormous bathtub he installed in the White House.  Taft, from Cincinnati, was trained as a lawyer and in his twenties was appointed a judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, foreshadowing his “retirement” role.  He served as Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and was elected President in 1908, but his subsequent split with Roosevelt cost him re-election in 1912.  From 1913 until 1921 Taft taught history and law at Yale before being appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding.  Later Supreme Court justices describe Taft’s legacy as “conservative” but not reactionary, and his greatest contribution were his successful efforts to modernize Supreme Court facilities and procedures.  Taft died in 1930 at age 72.    

#2 – Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses Grant Editing His Memoirs

Ulysses Grant is the only two-term President on our list.  Born in 1822 and educated at West Point, Grant served in the Mexican-American War and held other minor posts before retiring from the Army in 1854 and embarking on a series of failed business ventures.  He rejoined the Army when the Civil War began, achieved battlefield success after success, and rose to the position of General of the Army of the United States.  After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the war, Grant’s diligent enforcement of Reconstruction in the former Confederate States, and his support for African-American enfranchisement led to conflict with President Andrew Johnson.  Grant became President in 1869 and pursued an vigorous Reconstruction agenda, founding the Department of Justice and aggressively prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan for civil rights violations.  The Panic of 1873 dampened Republican zeal for Reconstruction, and Grant’s second term was marked by several scandals.  In retirement Grant embarked on a world tour and made a attempt to gain the Republican nomination for President in 1880, but his greatest retirement achievement was literary.  Diagnosed with throat cancer and in financial ruin because of bad investments, Grant wrote his memoirs to bolster both his bank account and his reputation, finishing them just days before his death at age 63 in 1885.  The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant achieved both financial and critical success, earning his widow $450,000 in royalties and judged by Mark Twain as a “literary masterpiece.”   

#1 – Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

Before 2012 Herbert Hoover held the record for the longest Presidential retirement, living 31 years after leaving office.  Thirty-seven years after he left office, Jimmy Carter now holds that record, and no other U.S. President’s retirement defines his legacy like Carter’s.  An Annapolis grad, engineer and peanut farmer from Georgia, Carter’s presidency is remembered for high gas prices and cardigan sweaters, stagflation, and the Iran hostage crisis.  In retirement Jimmy Carter has lent his name, his leadership, and even his muscle to humanitarian efforts,  He has lead peacekeeping missions to the Middle East, Cuba, Korea and Darfur, joined with Nelson Mandela and other global leaders in a group dedicated to human rights called The Elders, and built houses with Habitat for Humanity in hurricane-ravaged areas in the United States.  Carter is also an avid woodworker, fly fisherman, and painter.  He has been award the Hoover Medal—recognizing “great, unselfish, non-technical service by engineers to humanity”—, the United National Human Rights Prize, and the Nobel Peace Prize.   For his full, rich, and purposeful life in retirement, Jimmy Carter takes the number one spot on our list and is The Retirement Whisperer’s inaugural nomination to the Retirement Hall of Fame.  

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.