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How to Avoid Accelerated Aging


By Mitch Anthony

The modern retiree has no patience with aged stereotypes about aging and is establishing new cornerstones for a redefined retirement living. In the process of doing so, according to the Hart study, “Americans aged 50 to 75 speak with a loud and harmonious voice in describing their approach to retirement and later life and, in doing so, they are laying to rest many traditional clichés.” The new definition of retirement overwhelmingly advocated by today’s retiree is one that emphasizes activity and engagement over leisure and rest. About 70 percent of those aged 50 to 75 (both retired and not yet retired) who were surveyed said they view retirement as “a time to begin a new chapter in life by being active and involved, starting new activities, and setting new goals.” It is a time to break out of the cocoon, not go into one. Only 28 percent of those in this age group preferred the definition offered by traditional retirement as, “a time to take it easy, take care of yourself, enjoy leisure activities, and take a much deserved rest from work and responsibilities.”

It is important to note the diversity of the group that embraces this new definition. It appeals equally to men and women, liberals and conservatives, all regions of the country, people in their 50s as well as people in their 70s, people who are limited by physical or medical conditions and those who are not. It is an especially appealing definition to the better-educated and higher-income seniors. Fifty-six percent of those with a high school education chose the new definition of retirement, whereas 73 percent of those with a college education chose the same. The Hart study put it this way, “The better-educated and more affluent older Americans seem to express with even greater intensity a desire to continue to find new challenges in retirement to supplement their hard-sought professional identities.”
One way many seniors are incarnating this new definition is by refusing to leave the workplace altogether. They see it as the glue that guarantees an active and challenging life. Forty-two percent of nonretired people aged 50 to 75 report that they plan to work either part-time or full-time, or part-time at another job after retiring from their main job. Currently, almost one in five older Americans who are retired from their principal career continue to work at another job. This number will rise steadily in the next 10 to 30 years. According to a 2003 study by the AARP, nearly 70 percent of workers who have not yet retired (ages 50–70) report that they plan to work into their retirement years or never retire, and almost half indicate that they envision working into their 70s or beyond. The prevailing motive for remaining at work for these people is “to stay active and involved” rather than financial need, although for many, financial need will play a critical role.

Ageism lawsuits are on the rise and will continue to escalate. Americans are beginning to refuse to be defined and categorized as unproductive because of their age. There is a widespread disdain among older people about being shut off from mainstream workplaces and society, and being tagged with disliked titles such as senior citizen or golden ager. These terms, many feel, are thin veneers for “used up” or “useless.”

Today’s employer will have to reassess hiring and retirement practices tainted with ageism. Gray hair and wrinkles are no reason to refuse admittance to or invite departure from a workforce. We will be hearing more about age prejudice and ageism settlements in the next few years. Societal and corporate laws and practices will have to change to accommodate updated definitions of old in our society. And have no doubt about it, the 60-plus boomer crowd will have the clout to get the job done. This is a generation that will be defined by their abilities—not by their date of birth.

Other priorities esteemed by this age group underscore the acceptance of the new retirement definition. Their priorities include:

  • Volunteering and being involved in community service
  • Being involved in sports and fitness activities
  • Taking courses for continuing education

These priorities prove that we are preparing for a new era of retirement living. It will be a vigorous and involved stage of life as opposed to a withdrawing and “retiring” stage. The Hart study, “Older Americans, Civic Engagement, and the Longevity Revolution,” concludes: “The distinct priorities and values of this generation, coupled with the unique circumstances of their era, will create a new model for retirement—one that places a premium on meaningful and fulfilling activity and engagement in the community and one that creates an enormous reservoir of talent, energy, and experience that the country can ill afford to ignore.”
Lydia Bronte, in her book The Longevity Factor, made this observation about participants in the “Long Careers Study”: “What emerges from their life stories is a view of the long lifetime different from what we might expect: an affirmation of the increasing richness of experience over time, of a deeper sense of identity, of a greater self-confidence and creative potential that can grow rather than diminish with maturity. It is obvious that seen through the eyes of the study participants, chronological age markers (like 65), which have held so much power in the past, are really culturally created—a norm that was accurate only for a particular place and time.”
These studies demonstrate the redefining of the age and life stage of 65 plus. Why is it that when we talk of the maturity of money, we think of it as a positive form of growth; but when we talk about the maturity of people, we think of it as a time of depreciation? Within a decade or so we will see many examples of people’s greatest harvest of accomplishment and contribution coming after the age of 65. There are thousands of examples out there right now—we just need to take notice. Do you now see the need for renaming this stage of life something other than retirement?

Keys to Living Long

The MacArthur Foundation sponsored an elaborate study on aging that concluded that the three indicators of successful aging are:

1          Avoiding disease and disability
2          Maintaining mental and physical function 3          Continuing engagement with life

Many factors come into play in order to age successfully. The physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual aspects of our being must be attended to equally if we hope to hold back the hands of time. We can readily observe the effect of not attending to one or more of these areas in the lives of people we know who practiced such negligence. It does not take long for the aging process to kick into high gear if we let down our guards of discipline and purposefulness. Jimmy Carter, in his book The Virtues of Aging, wrote:

What should our major goals be as we prepare for our later years? You may be surprised to learn that one of the most important should be our own happiness. I don’t think this to be a selfish approach, because it will inevitably open up better relationships with others. It should be clear that happiness does not come automatically, but is something for which we must strive forthrightly, enthusiastically, and with imagination. This engagement in living—successful adjustment to the changing conditions we have to face—will inevitably involve us with responsibilities, challenges, difficulties and perhaps pain. But these experiences will tend to keep us closer to others and allow us to develop more self-respect and mastery over our own lives—crucial elements for a good life.

From Carter’s comments you could conclude that the first key to aging successfully is to take an interest in yourself. It doesn’t take long in the company of elderly people to figure out which ones are feeling sorry for themselves and which ones are extracting every ounce of life’s possibilities. Those who succeed are self-respecting enough to keep their bodies fit, their minds challenged, and their hearts engaged.

The Vitamin Cs of Successful Aging

Aging reflects the relationship of time on our being. Aging describes, in large part, the state of our body. Old, on the other hand, describes our state of mind. It has always been a matter of great interest to me to discover the spiritual and attitudinal aquifer that supplies the fountain of youth.

Look around and you will see the role spirit and attitude play in relationship to the concept of being old. Do you know any 75-year-olds who act like they are 35? Do you know any 40-year-olds who act like they are 80? If you answered “yes” to either question, you are affirming the attitudinal and spiritual source of that which separates those who are aging from those who are old. This distinction was well described by the apostle Paul in his letter to Corinth: “Though our outward man perishes, our inward man is renewed day by day.”

There is no denying the effects of time on our bodies. Although we can slow certain physical impacts, we cannot prevent them altogether. Hair turns gray or falls out. Skin wrinkles. Senses like hearing and sight can begin to dull—as can short-term memory function. As George Burns once quipped: “You know you’re getting older when everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work.”

Equally immutable as the decaying dynamic of physical being is the constantly renewing and refreshing dynamic of our inner being. This dynamic of engaged living until the day we die is not automatic but is accomplished by the purposeful and intentional discipline of those souls who choose to live every day. They accept the inevitability of death, but simply have chosen not to give death a head start in their souls. Attitude becomes a matter of preeminence, for attitude is the rudder that steers the ship on this journey.

Release the rudder for a single day and you can sense a sort of existential seasickness. Release it for a week, and you will drift aimlessly or be tossed on the rocks. Release the rudder for any longer period and shipwreck is inevitable. This is a truth I have witnessed time and again on the retirement landscape.

So, in observing the forever young, forever passionate, and forever engaged, I have come across five internal focuses and patterns that constitute what I refer to as the attitude instrument—that which steers our lives safely through the existential seas day-by-day of fulfilled and pleasurable living. These focuses I call the Vitamin Cs of successful aging. They are:

  • Vitamin C1—Connectivity
  • Vitamin C2—Challenge
  • Vitamin C3—Curiosity
  • Vitamin C4—Creativity
  • Vitamin C5—Charity

Vitamin C1—Connectivity
A study conducted at the University of Michigan found that in retirement, psychological well-being increases for some individuals and decreases for others. The researchers analyzed variables of physical health, income level, traumatic life experiences in recent years, age, gender, and other factors that might affect the psychological well-being of an individual. They found that the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction right after retirement were not health or wealth but the breadth of a person’s social network.

The researchers concluded that new retirees need a social network more than they did when they were working. They wrote, “Just having a number of people who provide emotional support, listen to your concerns, and let your know that you’re still valued right after you retire seems to make a big difference.”

Why do people retire and immediately move away to a place where they have no social connectivity? Not only are they disconnecting from a major lifeline in the science of successful aging, they might also find out they are annoyed with the accents and culture into which they moved. It might be wise to spend some time doing reconnaissance on the geography and culture you plan on staging the next act of your life. Many people disconnect themselves from important social networks when they retire and don’t realize it until it’s too late.

Stay connected to people you love, people you enjoy, and people that apprectiate you and see value in your presence. Longevity does not favor the Lone Ranger. Both long life and happiness are tied to the quality of your connections.

Vitamin C2—Challenge
The latest Alzheimer research demonstrates that being intellectually challenged and having predictable taxation on our mental acuity literally have the effect of a finger in the dike, holding back the degenerative processes leading to both Alzheimer’s and dementia. This research also concluded that as we hit our 50s and beyond, there is an exigency on ensuring that we have riddles to ponder, problems to solve, and things to fix. The brain is a muscle that atrophies without use. One gentleman told me that after six months of retirement, he could literally sense the dulling in his cerebral muscle with signs of slowed thinking and sluggish articulation.

“I decided to go back to college part-time when I reached age 62 and study psychology for no other reason than that I was curious about it. I’ve always wanted to get a better understanding of human behavior and I figured this was one step toward getting it. When I started classes, I was amazed at how many people were there in my age group. I guess I’m not the only curious grandma out there. I spent my career in business management. I got my fill of that. Now I feel like I’m in the middle of an electric storm. My mind is on full alert. I’m in awe of some of the things I’m learning. I have these intriguing conversations with younger people and just doing this makes me feel like I can go anywhere and do anything.”     —Georgia, student, 62

The pulsating vein of life that Georgia has tapped into, along with a growing contingent of mature citizens, is that of growth. I hold little hope for the aging individuals who live with the delusion that they have “seen and heard it all.” Those who have curiosity racing through their brains are guaranteed an exciting existence. Curiosity fuels both optimism and hope. Lifetime learners have the attitude that their quality of life will rise with their application to learning. This older entrance into new realms of education is, and will continue to be, a growing trend with the end of retirement as we know it. More and more retirees are moving to university towns instead of retirement villages.

It is important to note here that a job of some sort may be the most important source for cognitive demands because it is a primary source of mental stimulation. John W. Rowe, M.D., and Robert L. Kahn, Ph.D., in their book Successful Aging, wrote: “Remember the old adage, ‘We become what we do’? People whose jobs promote self-direction, use of initiative, and independent judgement tend to boost their intellectual flexibility—that is, their ability to use a variety of approaches in order to solve mental problems.” In short, mental flexibility is as important as intellectual curiosity as we age, and being active in challenging work can nurture such mental elasticity. An old and changing stereotype of aging is the old man or woman who won’t listen to new ideas. Mental curiosity and flexibility are the answer to that old problem.

Vitamin C3—Curiosity
On a recent plane ride home from Australia, I flew next to a physicist named Ken Clark from the University of Washington. In his late 70s, he is still teaching and researching. I asked him why he wasn’t retired, as was expected of a man his age. His answer was, “There’s so much yet to learn,” and he enthusiastically began describing his latest upper atmospheric physics research project. When I saw the sparkle in Dr. Clark’s eyes as he spoke, I realized how good it would be if more seniors had their heads in the clouds of higher learning. Curiosity guarantees a pulse in the brain and a reason to keep our bodies healthy. The role of mental alertness cannot be overestimated and neither can the benefits of a desire to grow. Once a person reaches a point where they no longer want to learn or grow, it is time to order the tombstone. It need not be formal education that one pursues; it can be self-taught or experiential learning. The important thing is to have the curiosity and desire to grow. Age is an uphill road. Learning and tasks that demand mental alertness keep us in gear. Those individuals who stay neutral in this area will quickly find they are going backward. Rigorous mental function helps both to facilitate productivity in later years and to strengthen our need and desire to be active—factors that in turn affect our physical well-being.

Vitamin C4—Creativity
I’ve long been enthralled by elderly artists in their 80s and 90s who seem as keen and perspicacious as people half their age. I once listened to an interview with a Canadian artist in her 90s whose lucidity of thought and spry articulation was most inspiring. She also confirmed my suspicions about the virtues of creative engagement in our later years. She talked about the aforementioned curiosity being razor-sharp as well. She reasoned that artists have developed a discipline of observation that requires seeing what others, less curious, might miss. A creative soul looks at the shoreline and sees something new every day. This might help explain why B.B. King, now over 80, is playing 200 nights a year, and why Peter Drucker was able to write a business bestseller in his 90s. Of course, you don’t have to be renowned to be creative and to keep the powers of observation working. You just have to be curious, intrigued, expressive, and intentional. A couple of other gems I heard this elderly artist mention were regularly scheduled, intellectually stimulating luncheons with people younger than herself, a profoundly diminished sense of self-consciousness, and two ounces of Canadian rye whiskey each evening for good measure.

Vitamin C5—Charity
Studies continue to surface around the ameliorative effects of charitable living on quality and longevity of life. Those who think about helping others often talk about how such charitable preoccupations lessen the degenerative effects of stress associated with worrying. Even if we didn’t live a day longer because of charitable pursuits, we no doubt would live better.

I’m reminded of a story a financial advisor told about a client in her 70s who had more money than she could ever hope to spend but had no charitable interests. He challenged her to look around her city for places she might like to make a difference. As she began to observe and listen to her heart, a floodgate of generosity and empathy began to open up for her. Now, her life is full of causes she is passionate about—they have put a fresh spring in her step and added adrenaline to her pulse. It doesn’t require money to live charitably; it just takes concern, generosity, and self-transcendence.

Excerpted from The New Retirementality by Mitch Anthony. Copyright © 2006 by Mitch Anthony. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission Kaplan Publishing. $17.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-621-9621, Ext. 4444 or click here.

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