One of my key questions to new clients focuses on what retirement really means. I have heard a wide variety of answers. All too often, someone defines post-retirement solely as a period marked by decline. Declining physical and mental capabilities, declining responsibilities, declining investment accounts, declining interest in doing anything fun, just to name a few. Then I hear about President George H.W. Bush jumping out of an airplane at age 90. Or we celebrate the 101st birthday of a fellow Rotarian who still meets with us every week. So, I want to challenge us to consider more deeply our thinking about senescence and elderhood.
An Outward Mindset — Seeing People as People
Getting old requires a different approach to understanding identity. The Arbinger Institute talks about an “outward mindset,” or seeing other people as people, not as objects. Arbinger teaches that we see others as objects when we see them: 1) as a conduit to our own objectives, 2) as an obstacle to the accomplishment of our objectives, or 3) as irrelevant. We do this subconsciously.
Perhaps part of the difficulty with retirement is a mindset that we are only as valuable as what we do, as opposed to who we are. The transition from adulthood to elderhood is a period called senescence. The developmental task of the senescent is to successfully make the shift from DOING ➔ being, to BEING ➔ doing.
Irrelevant and Burdensome or Purposeful and Engaging?
Let’s ask ourselves: Is caregiving more about taking responsibility for a person suffering a frailty, or empowering an experienced mature person to seek new opportunities for living? Please read that sentence again. There is something to be said for kindling an adventurous spirit in one’s later years. As we relate to elders, it is all too easy to see the elder as a project to manage. Too easily, he or she becomes just another box on a checklist of all the things we must get done. They become more and more irrelevant to the important matters at hand. Their status in relation to our needs is constantly changing.
In the process of getting older, I wouldn’t think of myself as irrelevant. Would you? What then would it look like to be intentionally adventurous? It is difficult not to consider how much more help might be needed to do all the everyday things that used to seem like second nature. Could there be a way, however, to see beyond being a burden, and intentionally invite relationship around such needs? Active employment might be—or might soon become—a distant memory. What other enriching experiences are out there, beyond the office, waiting to be discovered? While travel or volunteering quickly come to my mind, small acts, like exploring a subject of interest that you’ve never considered before, can be intentional and enriching experiences. Those experiences also don’t really require much more than a willingness to try. So, too, is learning to relate differently to another person.
Usefulness and Value
Our perception of usefulness may be the greatest obstacle to redefining elderhood, not only from an aging individual’s perspective, but from the standpoint of a larger cultural context about how we perceive those who grow old. Children are, in their most innocent state, very comfortable with who they are. Many adults lose some of this self-confidence. The more we pursue activities that challenge us or live with the unknown, the more we experience disappointment, failure, and fear. Usefulness becomes a certain measure by which we judge ourselves and others. What can I do? What can “they” do for me? These are simple, yet compelling, motivators.
When a person gets old (however that is defined), the ways in which their identity has been formed through the concept of usefulness don’t quite work any longer. At the very least not in the same ways. Instead of attempting to find new ways to merely be useful, the more fruitful exercise may be to better understand how to see others differently. More impactful than great utility is the ability to have great influence. Isn’t that what being a mentor is? Certainly mentors can have resources to give, and connections to offer. But it is the act of seeing the uniqueness of a person, their character, and speaking in encouraging ways that more often leaves an indelible mark.
To change cultural perceptions of aging, we might need to re-write the story of what aging means to us. There is much written about the power of mindset to change the aging process, but the idea is not to become more self-focused in attempts to simply will ourselves to be healthier or younger. The change in mindset has more to do with changing our view of what it means to be an elder. There is a complex set of negative emotions involved in this: fear of the limitations of ill-health, disappointment of dreams not realized, regret for action or inaction in younger days. Some may find it strange that these same emotions and outlook affect one’s financial future. More than positive thinking, changing our mindset on aging may mean revising the stories we tell ourselves. I would love to hear yours.
Scott Neal is president of D. Scott Neal, Inc., a fee-only financial planning and investment advisory firm with offices in Lexington and Louisville. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his blog at www.dscottneal.com