One of the most damaging myths about retirement is that “easy is good, and hard is bad.” But when in our lives did we ever get something worthwhile by taking the easy way out? What if I were to say that, especially in the case of an older adult, exactly the opposite is true – easy is bad and hard is good. This fits much better with my experience of reality over the past 67 years, and all the research on aging I have done in support of the Dynamic Aging Program (DAP). So, why do most retired people drift towards an easier version of retirement, even when that version has never really made any sense in the past?
My intention here is not to crack a whip over newly retired people. Most of them need a transitionary break before launching into a whole new stage in life. After all, it is very time consuming and difficult raising a family and forging a career. The problem is that many people unwittingly adopt new roles and responsibilities immediately upon retirement that our society says are appropriate for an older adult. This might include taking care of grandkids, traveling, volunteerism, hobbies, games, committees, boards of directors, and many other pastimes that are fun (at least for a while), usually social (although I do have a couple of acquaintances with model train set-ups in their basement), and/or not too challenging. However, once we have spent some time in this transition, most of us find that we have become comfortably ensconced in a set of activities that are both easy and well within our comfort zones. It is all too common for a 1 or 2 year transition to turn into 5, 10, or even 20 years before the person realizes they have squandered the one opportunity to find their unique purpose in life and accomplish something of importance.
Just Passing Time
My observation from teaching literally hundreds of retired students is that many newly retired older adults launch into an array of activities hoping to find something that will make their lives meaningful – such as POA Boards, book groups, taking classes, golf, tennis, bridge, visiting the grandchildren, travel, etc. The list is different for every individual, but these activities are usually mildly entertaining, keep us busy, and help fulfill our need for social interaction. However, whether we know it or not, our tendency is to limit ourselves to society’s interpretation of retirement, and what it believes older adults should and should not be doing. It is kind of like a social herding process to keep us out of the more fertile pastures – and corralled into a confined, fallow place where our movements are restricted and all we can do is play and interact with the other old horses. In reality, what these activities all have in common is they are just different ways to easily pass time before death. However, this is becoming an increasingly longer period of time with lifespans of older adults now approaching 90 years.
What seems to happen most frequently is that many retirees easily get caught up in what Martin Heidegger called a state of “Entangled Everydayness.” In other words, newly retired people tend to become immersed in a relatively comfortable daily routine and social life, forgetting – or else never realizing – they have a greater purpose to accomplish. Now, if you don’t feel in the depths of your Being that you have a greater mission to fulfill here on earth than your prior job as a sales manager, accountant, lawyer, builder, etc. – or if you think your main purpose in life was to simply shove your genes forward in time by raising a family – then I suggest you stop reading this blog for now, and wait until the need for something greater in your life arises. But, if your experience of life is that you are constantly driven to become a better person, or that you feel a need to be progressing towards something of greater importance or significance – even if you don’t know what it is at this time – then please read on.
The majority of retirees I see – even in a learning in retirement program such as OLLI – seem to act like they are in a kind of fog. I believe this lack of passion, enthusiasm, and dulling of consciousness is at least partially due to the person understanding – at some level – they are wasting their remaining lives by not actively pursuing their unique potential as a human being. It is like a partial dream state they can’t get out of that seems real, but unconsciously they know it is unreal: The “Senior Matrix” so to speak. This dissonance between what the person is feeling and what they are actually doing leads to confusion, discontent, fear, and a lack of self-esteem which we often see in older adults, along with its exact opposite behavior in those seniors who defensively lash out against any and all who imply they need to learn more about their own aging process – or anything else for that matter. However, this defensive behavior is a false bravado, and both types of personalities contribute to the negative images we currently have of aging adults in our society.
What I teach my students, who range between 52 and 93 years of age, is that “normal retirement” leads to an acceleration of physical and cognitive decline in an older person, and the best thing we can do – mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually – is to establish an age appropriate physical exercise routine, and get out of our comfort zones by interacting meaningfully with new people, ideas, and ways of doing things. Along with regular exercise, this deeper and more profound interaction creates new neural pathways in our brain, improves our immune systems, increases longevity, stimulates an accelerated process of personal and spiritual development, and injects passion and purpose into what we do – all of which are essential to the actualization of our unique life’s potential.
Most of us retire at the peak of our mental capabilities, but if we do not engage almost immediately with something meaningful and on the edge of our comfort zone, these mental capabilities decline swiftly (for those of you familiar with the concept of neuroplasticity, this is the “use it or lose it” principle). Given some time we actually become the stereotype of an aging adult because we have internalized and acted according to these stereotypical beliefs about retirement – allowing these untruths to limit our behavior to doing only what we think a “normal” retiree would do.
Dynamic Aging: Hard is Good
Dynamic aging is not easy, but it isn’t really hard either. After all, there is a feeling that we are moving forward positively in spite of our years, and personal development has the capability of making our lives so much more enjoyable. Aerobic exercise, strength training, flexibility and balance work are not easy – especially if we haven’t engaged with these activities our whole life – but if we don’t do this work, science has told us we will probably live vastly shortened lives, with a lower quality of life. More and more people seem to be getting this, but many more never will.
Exercise might be difficult and seem like pure drudgery for some, but all the other aspects of dynamic aging are not really work – unless we define work in terms that include intentionality, focus, mental effort, contemplation, and practice. Actually, I find these aspects of dynamic aging to be quite enjoyable. It also takes time, but so does everything else. How are you currently spending the majority of your time? If you are not currently using at least a portion of your time to create new neural pathways and become a more positive person, you will quickly become irrelevant – perhaps even the caricature of an aging adult in our society. Is this what you really want?
It’s not that dynamic aging is so hard, it’s just that there is currently very little support for anything other than normal retirement, and our society has defined retirement in terms of “dis-engagement” and “activity” theory which do little, or can actually detract, from our mental and physical health. This is especially true in the final decade of our lives where medical science might be keeping us alive longer, but the state of our minds, bodies, and emotions have been neglected.
I understand that humans have difficulty seeing their own future as anything different than they feel today. The path we are on might seem obvious to everyone around us but rarely do people see the self-inflicted damage they do to themselves by simply taking the easy way out and going along with what their friends are doing. The fact is that if we are not doing everything we can to preserve our physical and cognitive health as we age, we will probably one day regret it.
Doing this work is not easy, but it isn’t all that hard either. Instead, I believe it is a choice.