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Archive for May, 2013

Why the Golden Years Idea Doesn’t Work

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

The prevailing assumption is that as we age, we like living where people are all like us and activities are ready-made. Active retirement communities are built on those two assumed needs. The whole thing is a tragic loss of vitality for those who buy in.  Diversity is essential to good mental health.  And when you fill your days with “something to do” that has no impact beyond your own entertainment, life gets confusingly empty after a while.

Playing all day every day is not all that satisfying for competent adults.  And that is why this leisure-centered mentality we have about retirement is all wrong.

Writer Calvin Trillin easily noticed the “frantic busyness” of Sun City, Arizona residents when he visited in the early 1960’s.  He observed that there was little to delineate the value of their assorted activities when the Golden Years model was still new. Yes, there were a lot of things to do, but few were meaningful.  Over fifty years later, we’re still trying to wring blood out of the same turnip.

Even volunteer programs that could add essential meaning are too often focused on “keeping the old folks busy” rather than maximizing the use of their experience and skills for that cause.  “Doing something” for the sake of being active is a far cry from doing something that makes a real contribution.  But as a culture, we’re still stuck on the idea that “old people can’t do much and need to be entertained.”

Recent research clearly establishes the importance of meaning and purpose for both mental and physical health. Human beings do not thrive doing nothing.  In particular, we don’t thrive doing “whatever I want” all day every day when we are old enough to retire.  We are capable of much, much more and need to be finding that.

Ken Dychtwald, one of the foremost experts on aging and retirement, established the following pattern in how “the Golden Years” mindset plays out:

  • 15 to 6 years before retirement – Imagination: you start to see retirement as part of your future and visualize it. You see the pluses—the adventure and empowerment that’s possible because you don’t have to show up for work every day.
  • 5 years before retirement – Anticipation: you begin to realize it is actually going to happen on a specific date and start the countdown to that. Your emotions become a combination of euphoria over your impending freedom and worries about whether you really do have enough money to stop working.
  • Retirement day to plus 1 year – Liberation: the freedom you’ve just been blessed with makes you euphoric. “Doing nothing” or at least doing whatever you want is fun.
  • 2 to 15 years after retirement – Reorientation: Feelings of emptiness and boredom surface as you tire of the lack of meaning in your life. Self-worth begins to suffer, sometimes resulting in emotional meltdown. You search for ways to give your life value.
  • 15+ years after retirement – Reconciliation: You find enough of what you need to settle into an acceptable groove as a retirement lifestyle. Your life is less exhilaring than the Golden Years model intimated, but it’s good enough.

This is Dychtwald’s summary of how it works based on research with thousands of people. Your personal route through that desert may not be that drawn-out. When my aunt, who raised seven kids and held a challenging job as a civil service employee the whole time, retired, she spent the first month in her pajamas because she was too depressed to do anything else. She was to disenchantment without any sense of liberation at all.  Lee Iacocca said he lasted about three weeks before he gave up and went back to work.

The Golden Years approach was better than what preceded it. Before this model, those who retired had neither ways to contribute or ways to play that were intended specifically for them.  But it’s simply not enough given how much has changed since The Golden Years idea made the scene 70 years ago. We are healthier and living longer. The economy has moved from manufacturing to information in terms of the heavy lifting. And there are way more of us.

It’s no longer a case of moving workers who can easily be replaced out of the picture and giving them the chance to putter for a few years. As a culture, we need to be using every ounce of talent we have the best way we can for benefit of both society and every individual—no matter how old they are.  There are too many problems that need solving to squander this talent pool.  And there are too many retirees who need more than fun to stay healthy.

Having a sense of purpose is critical. More and more research is coming out to support that. But to get a bead on your sense of purpose, you have to know yourself on a very intimate level. Your sense of purpose has to mesh with what you think is important if you want it to sustain you. Most of us haven’t had the chance to take a serious, straight-on look at what we value since we joined the work force.  You really want to do that.  Now.


Do Something Scary

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

“Do something every day that scares you.” That advice from Eleanor Roosevelt is particularly useful as we get older.  When we’re young, we don’t even think about what might go wrong with what we decide to do.  We just rush headlong into what looks like fun or seems like the right direction.  If you end up with a broken arm, you heal.  If you lose money, you get on with making more.

But in maturity, we become more tentative.  Maybe the break won’t heal properly and there’s no way to make more money if we lose what we have and are past the age of being paid to work.  Or so we think.  In truth, being too timid can cost a lot more than a wise risk.  We can second guess ourselves right out of a satisfying life.

It’s easy–and almost expected–to become afraid of pretty much everything as we age.  You might waffle about going on vacation to a new place and shy away from a meeting where you won’t know anyone.  You may keep wearing the same hairstyle or sports shirt because you know it works.  You rely on the same friends and do the same things for fun again and again so that you don’t have to step into that scary unknown beyond the familiar.  You read the same kinds of books and watch the same kind of TV shows.

With every act of same-and-familiar you build a smaller and smaller world for yourself.  Eventually, you will bore yourself to death.  Literally.

The truth is, we need to do scary stuff–no matter how old we eventually become.  We need to step beyond what’s easy and do something that’s got a challenge.  Quite often the challenge–especially after we’ve mastered a significant number of life skills–is in getting past the fear that the new thing engenders.

It’s good for us to do that. It’s the only way to build up the emotional muscle needed to get through the tough spots that come into every life.  It’s the door to the new experiences that make life interesting and keep your soul growing and your brain working.  It’s also the best way out there for affirming your self worth.  When you do what scares you, you’re a conqueror.  You’ve faced something that could have stopped you and overcome it.

Notice I’m not saying watch something scary.  Going to horror movies isn’t the same as facing a personal fear and getting on with what you’d planned to do anyway.  This is a do mandate, an action that you must take on your own behalf.  Getting the experience through someone else’s scary situation–be it in a movie, on TV, or in a book, is a really cheap counterfeit to the real thing.  It’s not going to give you anything to work with when life gets tough.

Some of us fear speaking in public.  Some of us fear going to a different city or part of town.  Some of us fear heights or water.  (I personally fear heights and water.  I get a dose of do-something-that-scares-you every time I have to cross a skinny bridge over a roaring mountain creek on a hike.)  We all fear something.  Find what you’re afraid of and use it.

A few days ago, there was a TV show about an unusual group of lions who had learned to swim.  Those lions are, supposedly (I doubt anyone came by and had them get on a scale), 15% bigger than their more timid land-sworn African counterparts because of the pectoral muscles they’ve developed swimming and hunting in the water.  They can access food that most lions can only watch from the shore.  They have evolved because they started going in the water–an act that initially had to be scary for them.

The more you do to help yourself keep going in spite of fear, the stronger you’re going to be for whatever comes into your life.

Another of good old Eleanor’s great quotes applies:  “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  Usually the thing that makes us think we can’t do something is fear.  Get past that natural inclination to shy away from what makes you afraid and use it as a springboard instead.


Rekindling Old Loves

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Nope. I’m not talking about re-sparking old romances. It is rather heady to reconnect with your high school sweetheart or your first crush.  But there are other loves that pack as hefty a punch at this stage that have nothing to do with “boy reconnects with girl.”  The magic I’m looking at here is the delight of coming back to things you used to love to do but lost track of.

Yes, we evolve. Some of what we spent the bulk of our time on no produces a glimmer of excitement.  Listening to Beatles songs and swooning over that George Harrison poster don’t ring your chime like they did when you were thirteen.  Likewise, pitching green apples at passing cars is probably not up for a reboot.  I’ve gotten three great lessons in things that you do want to resurrect in the last few days though.

I met two new friends today, in two different contexts.  Each had a story to tell about something they’d recently reconnected with that was making a big difference in their lives.

The first was a woman with a strong pedigree in finance who owns her own business and is venturing beyond the safe and familiar in what she’d doing with her career.  Simultaneously, things have been very challenging personally, particularly with her mother’s increasing dementia and her dad’s denial of that reality. The poor woman probably doesn’t have time to turn around given all her current responsibilities.  But six months ago, she decided to go back to something that had always brought her joy—ice skating—in a new way. She joined a synchronized ice skating team.

She’s not the youngest member of the team, but she’s not the oldest either.  She was like everyone else in one very important way.  She loves to figure skate.  Being part of the team is an ideal version of this joy for this time in her life.  A team effort means she has to focus on the team’s workout instead of whatever is crashing down around her ears beyond the rink.  She has teammates—wonderful people who support her.  Even better, they’re good—a great way to confirm your own worth when the personal pieces seem to be in tatters.

My second new friend is returning to an earlier version of work that he loved.  He’s not shifting his career back that way though.  He’s chosen instead to “dabble” as a strategy to move in that direction as he prepares for his version of retirement.  His passion?  Publishing.  Only now as he starts to play in that arena again, he has years of experience with business plans and management as well a deep love of books and writing to help him make things work.

You can hear the excitement in his voice when he speaks of the project where he’s currently testing his combined old and new skills.  His vision of retirement is uniquely his, and it’s already adding energy to his life.

The third example is me.  For the last seven years, I’ve focused on creating resources to help our culture create a wiser blueprint for what we do after 50.  I’m still passionate that we need a smarter approach for everyone’s sake.  But that message is now coming from more and more voices so my role can start to diminish.  My treat is to myself is to write fiction.

After a self-imposed hiatus, I’m back to the delight of “playing God” in the stories I come up with.  I, too, have had some difficult challenges of late.  Knowing I’m going spend time with my stories every day makes those challenges less difficult.

It’s hard to describe the joy of coming back to the favorite pursuits of younger years.  It’s a bit like meeting a dear but long-lost friend, learning all over again how much you enjoyed having him/her in your life, and then discovering that very special person is moving in next door to you.

We are so lucky when the things we love circle back and catch our attention and devotion again.  Usually, it’s not exact same effort as when we were so enthralled the first time.  Most often, it’s even more magical—both because of all the things learned in the meantime that make you more effective and because you cherish it more because it was lost.

You’re not living in the past if you pick up old pastimes.  You’ve had the chance to reconnect with an old friend.  Enjoy!