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?
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”!
Regular hot baths or trips to the sauna can fight lower back pain, and have been linked to lower blood pressure, healthier hearts, and lower rates of dementia. According to Dr. Ray Schilling, writing on his “Ask Dr. Ray” website, a research project links regular saunas to lower blood pressure and lower dementia rates, news particularly relevant to people in retirement.
Scientists in Finland tracked the lives of more than 1,600 men for more than 25 years and found, according to their article published in the American Journal of Hypertension, that men who went most frequently to the sauna had the lowest blood pressure. The same study showed that men who went to the sauna once a week had no “reduction” in dementia, while those who went 2 to 3 times a week had a 22% reduction in dementia and those who went 4 to 7 times a week had a 66% reduction in dementia.
Is it the Sauna Itself or the Social Experience?
Before you rush off to the sauna, consider the cultural dimension of the experience in Finland. There, going to the sauna is just as much a social a experience as it is a physical experience and, as we’ve learned from many other studies, regular socializing has been linked to lower blood pressure and dementia rates. (It’s a lot like going out for coffee with a friend, as I wrote about in an earlier Tuesday Tip.) So remember to sauna with a friend!
Always consult a qualified medical professional before using a hot tub or sauna.
“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.
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.
When I was a child I liked to make pencil drawings of birds. Fifty-plus years later, I no longer have any of those sketches, but I vividly recall that they weren’t all that bad. They probably weren’t drawings I made while observing birds at the bird feeder—birds don’t stay still for long—but, more likely, they were copied from my parents’ bird guide. But they were faithful and careful drawings that anyone would have recognized not only as birds but as cardinals or chickadees or whatever bird species I drew that day.
Drawing Is Great For The Brain
Maybe you liked to draw as a child but, like me, buried your visual creativity as school, jobs, and families became priorities. Even if you have never picked up a pad and pencil, you should consider drawing as a retirement pastime for both its inherent pleasures and its proven cognitive benefits. A study published in 2014 titled “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity” compared changes in neural connectivity in two groups of post-retirement adults, one that took a ten-week art class, and another that took a ten-week art appreciation class evaluating artwork in a museum. Functional MRI testing after the “interventions” showed improved brain functioning in the art class group, and psychological testing showed gains in resilience in that group, too.
Drawing Classes are Everywhere
So buy that sketchpad and pencil set today, and you’ll soon want to take a class to improve your skills. (In a class you’ll meet other aspiring artists; this will add a valuable dose of socializing to your day.) This will add Fortunately, inexpensive art classes are widely available across the United States. I chose three medium-sized communities at random, and this is what I found:
Boise, Idaho: Take an eight-week “Beginning Drawing 1” class for $120 with Boise artist Kevin McCain.
When you write a blog about the “lifestyle” side of retirement, part of the regular discipline is to trawl academic research in the areas of psychology, gerontology, and cognitive neuroscience for news that might interest readers. I call this category of blog post “I Read It; You Don’t Have To” and this label is partly tongue-in-cheek—there’s a lot of valuable information in scholarly articles but, to put it mildly, much academic writing can have a narcotic effect on the reader. (Believe me, I’m doing you a favor by giving it to you in plain English.) It’s better just to ignore articles that are poorly argued and crafted, but sometimes you come across a specimen that’s compelling because of its awfulness, like watching someone slip on a banana peel in slow motion. One such example is a recent article called “Social Media and Older Adults: Understanding Cognitive Training and Social Network.” After you’ve read it you find yourself scratching your head and asking big questions like: What does this article mean? Why does it exist? I’m not sure I can answer those questions, but I’ll put some quotes from the article under the microscope to see what we can see…
#1 – “…there are unique challenges when the older population—age 65 and older-—accesses technology. These technology challenges are beyond those of new learning experienced by the digital natives. The millennial generation, who are digital natives, use computers daily in the ubiquitous age of digital technology and often interact socially and professionally using technology. Older adults are people who were born before the digital age and adopted technology later in life, which fits the category of digital immigrants. These immigrants may not have the resources to access social media, such as a handheld device, internet connectivity, or a resource for technology training to name a few.”
Seriously? Jargon (“digital natives”) and bad grammar (“older adults are people… which fits…”) are rampant, but this passage’s biggest offense is stereotyping. “Older adults” come off sounding like a Stone Age people; the authors haven’t actually met any of them in person but they sure are peculiar and fascinating!
Hang On To Your Wallet
#2 – “Researchers on aging have found that brain exercise and social integration lower the risk of depressive symptoms and dementia in older adults. Furthermore, brain exercise and social integration reduce the risk of cognitive decline and health-related quality of life issues. The habitual activities found in the use of social media might be a source of developing cognitive speed of processing and social interaction in older adults. Hence, an investigation through the theoretical lens of social inclusion may produce findings that social media has a positive effect on the lifestyle and quality of life decisions made by older adults.”
First sentence, check. Second sentence, check, but wait… what does “quality of life issues” mean? Third sentence, now we’re getting to one of my pet peeves–computer-based “brain training.” This paper isn’t research but, rather, an essay proposing what the authors believe will be a fruitful direction for future research by others. Beneath this, however, it feels like the authors’ goal is to gin up support for the notion that using social media will stave off Alzheimer’s Disease. Maybe this will be shown to be true, but it feels like a pretty tortured path, and I can picture the research already. It will compare older people who use social media with those who don’t on several common measures of cognitive ability, and social media use will be shown to correlate with better scores on these tests. But it won’t compare social media use with other “behaviors” like chatting with a friend while taking a vigorous walk together, another potent recipe for “brain exercise and social integration.” Hang on to your wallet: there’s an entire industry out there trying to get us to pay for cognitive and social stimulation that’s available all around us for free.
Look For The Bare Necessities
#3 – “Furthermore, extant results show that education and age are not related benefits of training…” and “While necessities are the basics of life, sometimes a simple contribution to an older adult’s day is grasping the concept of a computer application.”
I really don’t know what to say. Were the authors under deadline pressure? Or is this sort of gobbledygook their natural writing style? And who knew that “necessities are the basics of life”? (Other than Baloo in The Jungle Book, that is.)
#4 – I lied. Number four isn’t a quote from the article.
I found it interesting that both authors are IT (Information Technology) professors rather than psychologists or experts on aging. The paper’s topic encompasses two fields, technology and psychology, but the authors’ expertise only supports one end of their argument. Maybe that’s why “older” people sound like an alien race in this article.
#5 – “Proceedings of the 51st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.”
I saved the best for last. This paper was delivered at a conference that took place in Hawaii January 3-8, 2018, by professors from New Jersey and Texas. Who wouldn’t want a reason to go to Hawaii in the beginning of January?
Trust—But Verify—The Benefits of Technology
It’s easy to make fun of slapdash arguments and writing, but there are some serious points to be made here. I wrote this blog post on a Chromebook, I posted it on a WordPress website, and I spent $10 this week boosting the website’s connected Facebook page. I’ve got nothing against technology, and I think technology will be a big part of the way Baby Boomers redefine retirement and aging. But, as in so many things, balance is important. The Retirement Whisperer will lean toward retirement “lifestyles” that bring people together in the warmth and richness of face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder interactions, will be a little suspicious of those who tell us that technology will solve our problems, and will never hesitate to call out the “experts” when they simply don’t make sense.
If you love learning—and teaching—becoming a docent may be the perfect retirement activity for you. What is a docent? Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a docent as “a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery.” It’s typically a volunteer role, and docent service opportunities exist at museums and galleries, but also at historical landmarks and other places visited by the public across the United States.
The Best Way to Learn is to Teach
If you’re passionate about a subject, going back to “school” for rigorous docent training is a great way to add to your knowledge and get you ready to share what you’ve learned with others. To give you a taste of the range of opportunities out there, here are brief descriptions of three docent programs at different places and at different types of institutions:
Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Incline Village, Nev. – Docent here “help visitors to have an entertaining, educational experience through which they will learn about Lake Tahoe and environmental problems affecting it. Our program offers docents unlimited opportunities for enrichment, public outreach, and personal satisfaction.” TERC’s Docent Program Description gives a good overview of what being a docent entails.
Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Ga. – Volunteering as a docent at the Center for Civil and Human Rights “not only exemplifies your support and commitment to human rights but also provides you with the opportunity to contribute to the enriching experience of visitors and members.” Many docents here are veterans of the civil rights movement.
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minn. – If you want docent training that sounds like the equivalent of getting a postgraduate degree, this may be the place for you. At MIA, “docents are enthusiastic, creative, self-motivated volunteers who have excellent communication skills and a desire to interact with people of all ages. The required two-year study course trains volunteers to conduct inquiry-based, participatory tours of the museum’s permanent collection and special exhibitions. Weekly sessions focus on the history of art with emphasis on the museum’s collection, and on teaching techniques that actively engage tour participants. Assignments include readings, oral presentations, and several hours of preparation outside of class. Those who complete the program are asked to give 40 tours per year for a minimum of three years. A college degree or college-level coursework and/or art history classes are recommended but not required.”
Docent service is a great way to interact with people, and to keep your brain sharp and active in retirement.
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.
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.
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.
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.