Category Archives: Retirement

The Clarion Call for Positive Age Beliefs

Like their European forbearers, America’s founding fathers wore powdered wigs. It conferred a sense of stature as only the wealthy could afford them. It also suggested a measure of wisdom that society associated with its elder statesmen. White hair was a symbol of respect. My, how far we have come!

Today’s fashion, advertising, and entertainment industries focus on young people. A tiny percentage of characters on TV are elderly, and they’re generally relegated to minor and/or unflattering roles. In 2016, just 11% of all speaking characters across the top 100 films were older, and 44% of those films included ageist comments. Among top grossing films, women over 50 rarely appear in leading roles. In testimony to Congress, actress Doris Roberts noted:

“My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive, and demanding rather than deserving… In reality, the majority of seniors are self-sufficient middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people and the time and talent to offer society… The latter years can be some of the most productive and creative.”

Dr. Becca Levy tackles ageism in Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. She found that 82% of older Americans experience ageism regularly. Employers don’t take their candidacy seriously even though older adults have more experience, lower turnover rates, and higher reliability on the job. Physicians tend to dismiss older patient symptoms and/or dole out medications rather than invest in more rigorous evaluation. Of publicly available Facebook groups having to do with aging, 74% vilified older people, 27% infantilized them, and 37% advocated banning them from public activities.

Based on 400+ studies conducted across 5 continents, Levy tells us that negative age beliefs bring about detrimental health outcomes:

  • Physiologically: increased biomarkers for stress1 with the attendant risk of chronic disease; poorer recovery rates from illness and injury; elevated levels of plaques and tangles2 in the brain
  • Behaviorally: decreased practice of healthy behaviors based on a belief that they won’t prove useful; social isolation
  • Psychologically: increased incidence of low self-esteem, depression

Cultures with positive age beliefs (e.g., Japan, China) offer seniors an entirely different experience. Older people receive attentive care, the respect of younger generations, and full access to the social life of their communities. Rather than seeing themselves as feeble, dependent, daft, or outdated, their self-image finds expression as wise, spry, fit, curious, lively, joyful, and resilient.

Adults who hold positive age beliefs (or are primed with them) engage in a self-reinforcing cycle of healthy physical, cognitive, and emotional behaviors. As a result, they demonstrate increased ability to resist and cope with stress at a biological level. They’re 44% more likely to recover fully from illness or injury. They’re 47% less likely to develop dementia. And, according to the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging, they add 7.5 years to their lifespan. Levy says:

“Positive age beliefs have a double benefit for longevity. In addition to the likelihood of a longer life, the various rewards these beliefs provide make it more likely the longer life will be a fulfilling and creative one.”

Catching ourselves and others in negative age stereotypes represents an important first step toward eradicating such beliefs. A few scientific facts support that process:

  • The brain sprouts new neural connections throughout our lifetimes provided it receives the proper stimulus. Word to the wise: Be a lifelong learner. Socialize!
  • Semantic memory (i.e., general knowledge) improves with age; procedural memory stays the same. Episodic memory (i.e., the collection of past personal events) can be enhanced at any age with training. Moreover, seniors aren’t the only ones who experience “senior moments.”
  • Cognitive complexity increases with age. We can make connections among disparate pieces of data across our wide swaths of experience. Our perspective expands, and we rely more heavily on intuition and the unconscious.
  • We become better at reading others feelings as we age and more readily activate empathetic resonance. We’re more sensitive to the emotional context of artistic expression.
  • Aging bodies respond very well to exercise. Levy notes that folks who start running in their 50s can be just as fit and competitive as those who have been doing it for decades.
  • Finally, a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease does not consign the affected party to succumb to it. Gene expression hinges on a variety of lifestyle factors over which we have a fair amount of control.

We can also engage in behaviors that support a healthy experience of aging:

  • Follow Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s advice: eat healthy food, exercise, sleep well, stimulate the brain through purpose, learning, and discovery, and socialize.
  • Find a good reason to get out of bed every day with enthusiasm. Do meaningful work. Provide care for others. Adopt fur babies. Tend a garden. Volunteer.
  • Make music. It engages the brain, attention, and memory as well as our sensory and cognitive systems. In fact, studies have shown that musicians hear 40% better than nonmusicians later in life.
  • Engage in intergenerational activities. Join a chorus, theater group, dance troupe, or other interest group.
  • Make and/or experience art. Psychologist Dean Simonton notes that the quality of creative work remains constant across our lifespans. Moreover, positive age beliefs, creativity, and sensory experiences prove mutually reinforcing.
  • Consume less television and other popular media. Those who overindulge tend to have a more negative view of aging.

Levy describes the senior years as an age of self-determination and liberation. It’s a time when we can take a measure of pride in the road we’ve traversed. We’ve overcome challenges and can feel confident in our ability to face whatever comes next. And, hopefully, we can spend our days with the people and causes that matter most.

Viva la gray!


1 A 30-year study revealed that older adults with negative age beliefs had a 44% increase in cortisol; those who positive age beliefs showed a 10% decline.

2 Amyloid plaques are protein clusters that build up between brain cells. Neurofibrillary tangles are twisted strands of protein that build up inside brain cells. Both are associated with elevated risk of dementia.

What Do You Want To Do?

I’ve written several posts recently that speak to transitions in one’s professional life – including the transition to full- or partial-retirement. My latest guidepost in this line of inquiry is Dorothy Cantor’s book, What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up: Starting the Next Chapter of Your Life. Ms. Cantor comes to this subject as a counselor who has worked with lots of folks in their forties through mid-sixties, and her book provides ample case studies to illustrate her main points.

 what do i want to doThe book starts by identifying the six dimensions of adult well-being: (i) self-acceptance – i.e., being at peace within oneself and one’s life journey; (ii) positive relations with other people; (iii) autonomy – i.e., thinking and acting based on one’s own sensibilities and moral compass, not in response to peer pressure; (iv) environmental mastery – i.e., competence in managing one’s life; (v) purpose in life; and, (vi) personal growth – i.e., changing in ways that reflect greater self-knowledge and effectiveness. The author believes most older adults fare well in the first four dimensions but may falter in the latter two once they leave the workforce.

The book guides the reader through a series of exercises to provide clues to fruitful avenues of exploration in the future. Key questions include:

  • What captivated your attention and colored your daily life from childhood through your school years?
  • What became your strongest, most useful asset(s) in adulthood? What did you enjoy? What did you love? Hate? Where did you display mastery? Less than stellar competency?
  • What good things came out of your professional life? (List 15 or more.)
  • What gets your juices flowing these days?

As you reflect on your responses, possibilities for future action may start to emerge. These opportunities can be evaluated through the dual vantage points of Motivators (i.e., what I want and what I need) and Activators (i.e., how I’ll get there):

The Motivators (Wants/Needs)

The Activators

Identity: Complete the phrase “I am a _______” with as many descriptors as resonate for you.

Intellectual activity to stimulate the mind

Physical activity to sustain health

Spiritual attention to the extent that it provides personal sustenance


Family attachments

Applause and recognition to the extent that external rewards matter

Generative efforts to pass along one’s knowledge, experience, skills, and talents

Preferred level of activity

Risk tolerance

Making choices that are true to oneself

Initiating action (a.k.a., being a self-starter)

Setting reasonable goals (challenging yet attainable)

Proceeding independently

Overcoming obstacles

Changing courses as the need arises

Striking a balance between work and play, solitary and communal efforts, family and friends, etc.

Following through

Experiencing a sense of achievement

Finding pleasure in one’s endeavors

However much planning one might undertake in advance of retirement, the author identifies three distinct phases of activity:

  1. The Honeymoon during which the individual simply revels in the break from routine that has been followed for years on end. It might include taking all those trips for which one never previously had time. It might include taking care of all those household projects that have been languishing on a “To Do List.” And it might include a lot of lazing around and simply enjoying life!
  2. Testing New Waters during which the individual explores new terrain. Be curious. Gather information. Find people with whom to play or get assistance. Proceed by trial and error. Find a role model or mentor to encourage and inform you along the way. Follow your heart. And don’t berate yourself if an activity doesn’t turn out to be your cup of tea.
  3. The Second Wind during which you learn to set your expectations and efforts to sustainable levels as you move forward. Let the goals be “to try new things” without worrying much about success. You don’t have to be great at everything you enjoy. Be content with “good enough” if that’s where things wind up. Combat resistance to large endeavors by taking small steps toward the larger goal. Just do it!

The author’s final piece of advice: “As you write the best story for the rest of your life, designing days that keep you growing and infuse you with an excellent sense of well-being, never forget to look for the fun in it all.”

Are You Really Ready to Retire?

My husband joined the ranks of retirees two weeks ago. He has attempted retirement twice before. Each time, he reinvented himself a bit and then went back to work. But the early-rising, early-to-bed has gotten old. And they say the third time’s the charm… And so a new chapter in our lives begins.

Spike’s experience is not unusual. According to Jeri Sadler and Rich Miners in their book Don’t Retire, Rewire, there are several reasons why folks “flunk” retirement:

  1. Retired for the wrong reasons
  2. Didn’t take the emotional side of retiring into account
  3. Didn’t know themselves as well as they thought they did
  4. Didn’t have a plan
  5. Expected retirement to evolve on its own
  6. Thought rest, leisure, and recreation would be enough
  7. Didn’t stay connected with society
  8. Expected their partners to be their social lives
  9. Didn’t appreciate what they’d left behind
  10. Were overcome with boredom

While I don’t anticipate any of these impediments this time around, I certainly understand why they crop up. Much as we all like to think that mass quantities of free time would be lovely, most of my peers prefer the notion of a meaningful life to a merely recreational one.

To that end, I checked out Ernie Zelinski’s book How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free: Retirement Wisdom That You Won’t Get From Your Financial Adviser. Unlike the myriad of books that focus on dollars and cents, Ernie sounds the clarion call for creating a meaningful, active, joy-filled existence. He declares the four fundamentals for personal fulfillment during retirement to be:

  • Finding who you truly are
  • retirement right this wayRecreating your life through personal interests and creative pursuits, possibly through a new part-time career
    (Don’t underestimate the power of having an overriding purpose… or several of them. Find ways to build structure and community into your life.)
  • Making optimum use of your extra leisure time
    (Minimize time spent watching TV or surfing the Internet unless the latter ties to educational pursuits.)
  • Maintaining physical, mental, and spiritual well-being
    (Eat well. Stay active. Ensure you are constantly growing and learning. Live according to a higher purpose.)

Here are Ernie’s criteria for an ideal leisure pursuit:

  • It’s an area (or activity) in which you have genuine interest.
  • It’s challenging.
  • It has the capacity to provide a sense of accomplishment.
  • It is multi-faceted, and, hence, will never bore you.
  • It’s an activity for which you can become immersed and lose the sense of time.
  • It provides avenues for developing knowledge and skills (including self-knowledge).
  • It doesn’t cost much.

Ernie’s book (or one like it) should be required reading alongside the financial planning book. While you need enough money on which to retire, you also need to have some idea of how stay vibrant, connected, and fulfilled while enjoying your newfound freedom.

I’m still working part-time but have had no trouble whatsoever filling up the rest of my time with interesting pursuits. Some stimulate my mind. Some focus on my health. And some are things on my “bucket list” that I’ve always wanted to do. No doubt things will get more interesting as Spike and I consider new possibilities to do together.