Americans once looked at early retirement as reward for decades of hard work, a chance to relax and the opportunity to do more of what they enjoyed — including doing absolutely nothing.
But statistics show that a century-long trend toward early retirement for older Americans has been reversed, with more staying on the job longer than ever before.
The good news is that continuing to work whether for pay or volunteer, can be excellent for brain health.
U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show more than 18 percent of the workforce — 7.7 million workers — is over age 65. The number over age 75 is at an all-time high, making up 7.8 of all workers That’s nearly double the percentage from 1987, when record keeping began.
“We’re living longer, and we’re healthier in our older years,” says Christina Clem, spokeswoman for AARP California. “Boomers coming into their older years don’t look at retirement in the old way; many plan to work as long as they can.”
AARP interviewed more than 2,000 baby boomers in 1998 and found 80 percent expected to continue working at least part-time during their retirement years — some for income, but more than one-third for pleasure.
In fact, the American Association of Retired Persons officially changed it’s name in 1999 to the acronym AARP, dropping the term “retired” because it no longer accurately described its 38 million graying members.
WHY WORK IS GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN
The keep-working trend is good news for the living standards of elderly Americans, for the fiscal balance of Social Security and Medicare and for the brain health of older folks.
A number of studies, including a University of Maryland review of 12,000 retirees, show that meaningful work, whether for pay or as a volunteer, is great for the brain, providing four of the “big five” benefits associated with keeping dementia at bay and the mental machinery humming (see page 109). By contrast, research continues to show that mental inactivity is associated with increased risk of dementia and other ailments.
Some people thrive on the free time to engage in projects explore interests and travel, but other retirees become inactive, withdrawn and even depressed.
Dropping from the workforce before usual retirement age has long been connected with earlier death and cognitive decline, especially among men. A 2010 paper from the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, for example, found retiring early was associated with an increase in alcoholism, obesity, vehicular accidents and chronic disease among men.
Of course, some retire early because they are in ill health or work in stressful, exhausting jobs. And there has always been a question about whether working keeps older people healthy or if healthier people keep working longer.
But even when controlled for existing health conditions, a 2011 study of more than 2,000 retirees published in Health Economics found retirement increased the risk of illness. Other studies, including the University of Maryland review, found similar results. Researchers do point out that these are averages, that retirement is only one risk factor for bad health and that it doesn’t trigger bad health in all retirees.
These and other studies also found that an active life after retirement contributes to better health and a longer life.
WHAT RETIRING REALLY MEANS
The key, say experts on aging, is that retirement from work doesn’t mean retiring from life.
“It’s not retirement but (rather) the amount you are engaged in the world that matters,” says Lisa S. Miller, an associate professor specializing in cognitive aging at UC Davis, citing recent studies. “In general, the more you are active both physically and cognitively — and the more your contribution is valued — the better for your aging brain.”
Seniors interviewed for this article regularly challenge their brains with real-life problem solving and participate in email and social media. They keep moving through bike riding, walking, gardening, tai chi and tennis, socialize in their work or play and participate in creative activities.
And they do it their way.
Some tried retirement and returned to work. Don Holl, 70, was retired from the California Department of Transportation for eight years. Like many retirees, he dug into the undone projects and longed-for vacations, worked around the house, landscaped the yard, traveled. Then his old department called in 2010, seeking his expertise.
“I didn’t even ask the pay — I was excited about going back. I didn’t realize how much I missed working, the mental stimulation, the camaraderie and the feeling that I’m contributing something,” he says, describing his three-day-a-week job as “perfect.”
Looking back, Holl says he’s not even sure why he ever retired: “I guess I thought it was what I was supposed to do.”
Some people have “retired” many times. At 88, Citrus Heights resident David Clark has been a teacher, insurance salesman, ski instructor and, at 77, the oldest sailor to circumnavigate the world alone. Now he’s playing the clarinet — an instrument he took up at age 50 — for tips at area eateries, including Café Vinoteca and Matteo’s Pizza & Bistro. “I can’t afford not to work,” he says. “Its not in my nature to sit around. I like to work; keeping active is the key, keeping interested.”
Others “re-career”, starting new businesses at what would be retirement age. Bill and Bobbi Roth, ages 70 and 68, respectively, followed a dream this year and opened the Capital Dance Center in Rancho Cordova.
“My kids ask me if I don’t know the meaning of retirement, and I say I do and I don’t want anything to do with it,” says Bill Roth.
It doesn’t have to be work for pay: Volunteer work offers rich rewards, and the level of activity for some volunteers makes the head swim.
Herbert Hoover, 83, who retired from a career in law enforcement, found he “needed something to do.” He’s out four days a week volunteering at the Crocker Art Museum library, the California Automobile Museum, the UC Davis Medical Center and Shriners Hospitals for Children.
“I don’t do it for any humanitarian idea, but for myself,” he says. “Now I see I’ve been able to help people, and it’s been a big help to me.”
Janet Bonner, 86, is president of the board of the Stockton Opera, supervises the bookkeeping, writes the newsletters and more. That’s when she’s not involved with Friends of Chamber Music, the Tidewater Art Gallery, chairing the personnel committee with the Unitarian Church or doing tai chi.
“It’s keeping your mind engaged,” she says.
Bill Roth sums up his life in the same way: “When you stop being active, the aging process accelerates, and I don’t want that to happen. I want to get the most out of my life that I can.”
For more about keeping your brain sharp, see Judith Horstman’s latest book, “The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain,” or visit judithhorstman.com.
Volunteering for Your Active, Aging Brain
Create the Good
Got 5 minutes? 5 hours? Every day, you can find new opportunities to do service in your community that fits your life and interests and that will connect you to like-minded neighbors. This is an AARP organization.
Educational, international adventures for adults over 55. Elderhostel experiences include educational trips, university- and college-based programs, and short-term volunteer projects in the U.S. and around the world.
The Executive Service Corps
Retired business executives volunteer their time to consult with nonprofit and public service agencies. ESC consultants provide advisory services in a variety of areas such as accounting, budgeting and finance, planning, marketing, public relations, personnel administration, board development and governance, organizational systems and facilities management.
Generations of Hope
Providing secure, nurturing adoptive families and caring intergenerational communities for foster children. Generations of Hope offers salaries for stay-at-home parents, on-site staff and therapists, weekly training and one-on-one support for families, and rent subsidies for seniors in exchange for volunteer work.
A national organization that advocates for the mutual well-being of children, youth and older adults. Generations United also works to educate policymakers and the public about the economic, social and personal imperatives of intergenerational cooperation.
Habitat for Humanity
A Christian housing ministry dedicated to eliminating substandard housing and homelessness worldwide and to making adequate, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action.
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
A participatory and self-directed group furthering the pursuit of lifelong learning by offering a diverse educational program of high quality, affordable courses and events for seniors living in Davis and nearby communities.
More than 400 seniors currently serve overseas as Peace Corps volunteers, and 20 percent of all senior volunteers are serving as married couples. Senior volunteers work in all skill sectors but are most concentrated in education and business. There are 11 regional recruiting offices around the country.
Renaissance Society of Sacramento
A lifelong learning program of Sacramento State, members of the society develop seminar ideas and the society coordinates them. Seminar topics have included Don Quixote, American pop music, U.S. foreign policy, Japanese feature films and astronomy. There are also social gatherings, excursions and other events.
The Score Association is dedicated to entrepreneur education and the formation, growth and success of small business nationwide. Score is a resource partner with the Small Business Administration, and volunteers serve as counselors to America’s small businesses. Working and retired executives and business owners donate time and expertise as volunteer business counselors and mentors.
Volunteer Center of Sacramento
Connecting local volunteers to important causes like the humane treatment of animals, the fight against hunger and mentoring our children.
Volunteers in Medicine
Volunteers in Medicine Clinics provide free medical and dental services to families and individuals who otherwise have no access to health care. The clinics are staffed by retired medical professionals, currently practicing volunteers, community volunteers and staff.
Assessing the care your loved one is receiving
From a distance, it can be hard for a friend or family member to adequately assess the quality of a loved one’s caregiver or obtain a full picture of what’s going on behind closed doors. Lack of contact or involvement with an elder family member can open the door to abuse or neglect, including domestic violence, financial abuse and emotional abuse.
Sometimes a geriatric care manager can help; these eldercare professionals can stay in touch with you and your loved one’s caregiver by phone and in person, regularly stopping by to check in. Additionally, long-term care facilities must take steps to prevent and report abuse. Even so, abuse and neglect can occur, and the risks can increase as elders enter the mid to late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, according to Agis Network Inc., an eldercare information and service provider.
If you suspect that your loved one is in physical or financial danger, contact the authorities. If you suspect abuse or neglect but do not perceive an immediate risk, Agis recommends contacting someone who can assist on your behalf, such as your parent’s doctor or a home health agency.
Here are some signs to look for, according to the National Institute of Aging:
-Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions or burns
-Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities and/or relationships
-Sudden changes in financial situations, which could be the result of exploitation
-Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene and/or unexplained weight loss
-Strained or tense relationships and frequent arguments between the caregiver and client
-Failure to take essential medications or refusing to seek medical treatment for serious injuries or illness
-Not dressing appropriately for the weather
-Inability to attend to housekeeping and/or leaving dangerous appliances, such as lit stoves or fireplaces, unattended
The Big 5 for Brain Health
Staying engaged late in life on the job or through volunteer work helps keep your brain healthy and nimble. Here’s what experts say could help you preserve what you’ve got, minimize what you’ve lost and keep your brain (and body) at their best. It’s never too late — or early — to start.
1. Physical activity: Daily exercise is associated with lower risks of dementia and may halt or reverse mild cognitive impairment.
2. Mental stimulation: Challenge your brain by problem solving and by learning something new and difficult.
3. Nutrition: Eat wisely, well and less. Extra weight is connected with diabetes, heart diseases and stroke, all of which are associated with higher risks of dementia.
4. Socialization: People need people, and isolation and loneliness are increasingly connected with illness and dementia.
5. Creativity, soul and attitude: Enrich thyself with participation in artistic, creative and spiritual practices, and cultivate an optimistic outlook.
Retirement communities are facing the challenges that come with catering to seniors in the 21st century. These consumers — and there are a lot of them — are demanding greater access to technology, life-long learning programs and attention to overall wellness.
It all began six years ago, the year my parents turned 80 within a month of one another. Suddenly my strong father, a former steel worker, couldn’t lift most things. At the same time, my multitasking, do-it-all mother became increasingly frustrated by all that she couldn’t accomplish.