Aging is definitely changing … and as a result, the concept of retirement is changing right along with it.  But have our beliefs about aging and thoughts about retirement kept up with these changes?  And if not, what role does that play in our lives?

What we think matters.  In fact, according to a Yale University study, those who have a negative image of aging are twice as likely to die of a heart attack, versus those with a positive perspective, who are likely to live 7 years longer!  Without delving into all the specific aspects of this outcome, clearly what we think and believe affects how we live our lives. But it also affects how we plan our lives … particularly, financially.  If people don’t really understand how long they’ll likely live (let alone, the financial cost of longevity) and/or look forward to this new life phase, they’re far less likely to make the financially sacrifices necessary for a time they’re not only not real excited about … but unlikely believe will even happen anyway.

There’s a lot to unpack with all this, but let’s start with the fact that the majority of people have a very negative image of aging and therefore, don’t look forward to growing older.  The good new is, these beliefs are predominantly outdated.  So if we can get people current with the reality of living long today, we can change thinking … and even change lives.

It’s really no surprise that most people don’t look forward to living long as the majority of studies and images until recently have been primarily focused on decline and frailty.  In fact, I vividly remember some of my first days in Gerontology 101 class at USC in 1978, where not only did I read about all the problem sides of aging … the problems of aging was all that was ever studied!  I finally raised my hand in class one day and said I’d seen a whole different side aging (via my time on the golf course), and that perhaps we needed to start looking at what’s right with age instead of just what’s wrong with it and maybe we could prevent some of the ‘problems’ so widely accepted as just ‘normal’ aspects of aging.

Getting a fresh set of eyes on situations can often lead to new results, and what we discovered was that up until 1978 (the year I started studying Gerontology), all the studies on aging in this country were done in the nursing homes! All of them – and that’s a problem! So while that may have been a very convenient way to study one side of aging … the only side of aging?! And as a result then, has society been conditioned to believe age is a time of decline? Do people age because they expect to age?!

One of my first and most impactful time in my early academic work in this field was during my case study work in the nursing homes when it dawned on me that the majority of these people were the exact same age as my older friends on the golf course!  Clearly there was something more than just aging going on here … and there definitely was!

What we determined was that we actually do have some control over not only how long we live, but perhaps more importantly, how well we live.  Most people in the nursing home had no idea they’d live as long as they did, and didn’t take the proper steps to get there … mentally, physically, financially. The people on the golf course however, had every intention of living long, and took the proper steps to get there. Now I know this sounds very simple, but maybe it is that simple … maybe we make things way more complicated than we need to and are quick to pass responsibility somewhere else.  I recognize that unexpected stuff happens that’s not part of our plan … but when you have a plan, you get back on track!  And that may actually be one of, if not the most important thing for people to do … and understand about both aging and retirement.

Join me next time as we explore this new image of aging and retirement and see just how differently people are living in this new phase of life.