Most of us are going to live 30 years longer on average than people who lived in the early part of the last century. While that extraordinary and “startling” extension of our lifespans has turned the notion of retirement on its head, author Gail Sheehy says it’s also given us not just the gift of extra time, but a slew of new challenges.
“Who had thought about finances to stretch over that longer period of time? Who had thought about staying healthy all those extra years of life?” said Sheehy in an interview about her new book, Daring: My Passages. “We knew this was coming because of developments and innovations in science and medicine, among other things, but still, this sort of crept up on us. And it’s brought with it new considerations.”
While her 1976 bestseller Passages described the “predictable” crises of adult life and many of her subsequent books delved into the discreet aspects of those crises, such as being a caregiver (something Sheehy knows well after taking care of her husband, editor Clay Felker, until his death in 2008), today Sheehy says the second adulthood we’ve been given needs a dedicated and careful focus.
“Too many people die of retirement,” she says. “They deprive themselves of a sense of purpose and of an organization to their day. All too often, people who retire slide into depression, isolation, and a situation of limited income. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
In a far-ranging interview, Sheehy spoke about the extra time many of us now have at our disposal – and how to maximize it:
Make your health priority number one. “Take care of yourself well and consistently. Get your medical checkups. Men need prostate checkups and women need to take care of themselves and not just everyone else. Get plenty of regular exercise. We make excuses not to do it because it’s not that much fun, but we’ve got to keep it up because the greatest investment in longevity is consistent exercise. Eat a low-sugar diet. Find ways to take the pressure off yourself, to de-stress.”
Sheehy emphasizes that such commonsense measures don’t apply only to those who are older. “The healthier you keep yourself, the less dependent on doctors and medicine you may be when you’re older.”
Get your finances in order. “The wealthy will be fine. It’s the middle class people we have to worry about on the very tough issue of money and finances in later life. The vast majority of people need to keep working as long as they can and try to save as much as they can. Professional people also have to figure out what they can do as a retirement alternative." Other basic tips: Consult a financial adviser. Understand your Social Security choices. Plan for retirement as early as possible.
Learn from millennials. “If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes millennials to raise a retiree today,” says Sheehy. “Most people of retirement age have not kept up with the digital revolution. It’s hard. They try but they’re just not as facile as most 25-year-olds who grew up with this.
“So hire them. Learn from them. Ask for their help and let them give it. I use assistants in their 20s to help me and I think it’s the only way to do it. They know social media and the apps that are constantly being developed and they keep me up to date on all of it.” Or take workshops. If nothing else, learning new things is good for the brain.
Find new ways to exercise your passion. “The smartest people say they’re never going to retire,” says Sheehy. “They just want to change the pattern of their lives so that they’re not working all the time but still doing what they care about.
“Look at Warren Buffett,” she adds. “Look at Bill Clinton, who still says with nostalgia about the White House that he loved the work. People of their ilk end up becoming more active or active in new ways because they have more to give.”
If you’re a caregiver, ask for help – and expect to get it. Scores of women in their 50s and older become caregivers for ill and older parents while still herding high school kids through adolescence, says Sheehy. Or they care for ill spouses. While some have given up their full time jobs for part time work, others have quit working altogether – putting themselves at great financial risk. “If caregivers give up their jobs, they really are in jeopardy of never getting their jobs back. They lose their skills and their contacts – and the confidence they had.”
The problem, of course, is money. Sheehy says that “it’s going to require both government help and private help for these caregivers to make their role work. There absolutely must be support for home care by family members, as opposed to repeated and costly entries into the hospital for sick older people.”
She adds, “Fortunately there is talk at the government level about Medicare being able to provide for caregiving support at home instead of expensive hospital readmissions. That will help people in their 50s and older to not be totally burdened by the caregiving role and to think about their own financial security – otherwise we lose two for one. We just can’t keep exploiting midlife caregivers for free.”
Take chances. Don’t be afraid to fail. Think about using your abilities in new ways – and prove you can still be daring as an older person. “Surprise people by what you can do and what you’re willing to do. It’s a wonderful way to change their attitude about you and make it more possible to be employed, even if it’s as a consultant. Do what you’re interested in. The best compliment people can give you is to say about you, ‘Do you know what she just started doing?’”
Sheehy adds that not everything we do in our later years or at any time, for that matter, needs to be a stunning success. “Maybe it’s a great learning experience. Maybe it leads you to something else. Even if it ‘fails,’ taking a chance and learning something new is a way of life in this country, especially for the most innovative people.”
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