Retirement redefined

Repurposed. Recalculated. Revitalized. Reborn. Reinterpreted. Reconsidered.
Saturday, March 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:26 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

After 31 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 60-year-old Frank Gordon retired — to three part-time jobs.

Deatra McGary’s successful sewing machine business never brought in enough to let her save much. Now, at age 62, she keeps working while she dreams of a more traditional retirement spent traveling and volunteering — a lifestyle she got a taste of in her 20s.

David Oliver’s Top 10 Tips for a happy, healthy “r

David Oliver is a trained gerontologist and, in his “pre-retirement” career, was director of service quality for the MU Health Care system. Now 64, he is back at work, this time as assistant director of the MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging. He says new retirees often suffer “The Hardware Store Syndrome.” They are eager to finally fix up the house or build a shed in the backyard — projects they never had time to complete when they were working full time. But once the long-postponed project is done, reality sets in. “After about nine months, they’re sitting there in their newly built creation, looking themselves in the mirror, saying ‘now what?’” Oliver says. “And we can’t always answer that question.” He cured his own Hardware Store Syndrome by coordinating studies on aging. Along the way, he developed a list of ways to avoid getting stuck in a retirement rut and to stay healthy, active and young at heart in the fourth stage of life. 1. If you’re married, surround yourself with younger companions. If you’re single, marry someone 18 years younger than you are. (Oliver said his closest friends in Columbia range from their 20s to their 50s. His wife, Debra Oliver, is 46 and an associate professor with the MU School of Social Work.) 2. Raise a second set of children. It’s much easier, less stressful and more fun than the first time. (His five children range in age from 16 to 40.) 3. Travel, travel and then travel some more. (Later this month, Oliver and his wife plan to leave on what he calls a “Medicare Cruise” through the Sea of Japan, stopping for tours in China, Korea and Japan. He will turn 65 on that trip.) 4. Stay intellectually stimulated. Take up a cause or causes. 5. Do volunteer work. Oliver suggests you do this throughout life, not just in retirement. 6. Focus on today, not yesterday or tomorrow. 7. Do something good for someone each day. 8. Smile, laugh and have fun each day. 9. Cry for someone who hurts or is suffering. Feel it and notice it. 10. Never take yourself too seriously.

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Thanks to a university pension and Social Security, 77-year-old Roy Wilson divides his time between golf and more exotic pursuits, such as surveying elephants in Kenya or floating the Amazon River.

These three Columbians are at or near the end of their traditional work careers. Each has approached this stage of life differently, depending on each one’s desires and circumstances.

Over the next two decades, the largest generation in American history will enter retirement age. In 2006, an estimated 3 million Americans turned 60 — the first wave of the massive Baby Boom generation born between 1946 and 1964.

But as with every other life passage, baby boomers are rejecting the norms of the past and having it their own way. They came of age in the post-World War II era of Social Security and advanced health care. They are living longer and demanding more of life.

Along the way, they are forcing fundamental questions. Some are financial and political: Can the government continue to support a growing senior population? But others are more personal: When, and what, is old?

“In the U.S., your identity is so often linked with what you do,” says David Oliver, assistant director of the MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging, and a post-retirement worker himself. “If you are who you are based on what you do and what you produce, who are you when you retire?”

As longevity increases, life spans are dividing into distinct stages: the first quarter as children and students, a second building family and career, a third settled into a mature personal and professional life. That leaves a final one-fourth of a person’s life for “retirement.”

Through each stage, identities are constantly changing, but in the fourth stage, assuming basic financial security, people have the freedom to redefine and re-evaluate their goals and roles.

Oliver has lived that trajectory. He spent a traditional career as a gerontologist in the MU Health Care system, only to retire and return to MU to work with seniors. He has identified four basic life elements, or “pillars,” that gain importance as traditional careers end: family, church, recreation and activity, both physical and mental.

“When you think about retirement, you really have to think about all the pillars in your life,” Oliver says. “Those are huge ties and they bring great meaning.

“These pillars in our society are like the Missouri Columns. They’re a little cracked and we worry about them and we try to prop them up the best we can, and we hope they last forever.”

A glimpse at the lives of three Columbia “retirees” shows how a generation is redefining life in the fourth stage.

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