Retirement Transformation

We survived the working years. Let’s tango the rest of the way.

The headline on NBCNews, Dec. 2017, was, Older women are the future and here is why. It rings true to me, but why? What is it about this period of life that makes me agree? Why not older men are the future? What gives?

One of Shakespeare’s many famous passages is from the comedy, As You Like It. It’s opening monologue refers to the seven stages of a man’s life: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, Pantaloon (patriarch), and old age. When the play was written (around 1600), boys acted the females’ parts in plays and women suffrages were centuries in the future.

Jean Shined Bolen, MD, divides women’s lives into three trimesters, prepuberty, puberty, and postmenopausal. Prepuberty is about socialization and cultural programming. It’s when pretty and popular matters a lot. Eight-year-old granddaughter tells me that her friend, Sara, is sometimes really mean and never invites her to a sleepover. I say, “it’s more important to be kind than popular or having blue eyes (like Sara).” My granddaughter looks at me and knows I don’t get it. She lacks the wisdom to question cultural conditioning. So I suggest a trip to the yogurt shop. 

The onset of puberty marks the second trimester.  Our evolutionary and biological instincts to reproduce (survival of the species) take the driver’s seat. It’s a period of mating games, hook-ups, dating and a host of other behaviors legal and illegal. Eons ago, my au-pair, Helga, not conditioned by American culture, said, “I really want to have a baby. It’s all I think about.” She was in her twenties, and I knew nothing I could say like, you are not married, still in school, and broke would deter her. 

In this period of life, males’ urges go into overdrive to fulfill their evolutionary responsibility. Fortunately, unlike the alpha lions who kill the females’ cubs (no stepdad for the King of the jungle) to help get her in the mood and pass on their own genes, our species focuses on the act of sperm delivery. This explains men’s habits of eying at women still in their prime. Riding in the car with me, my teenage sons’ heads could make a 360-degree circle at the sight of a girl. Or so it seemed to me. President Carter once said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” 

Speaking for many mothers, loading groceries in the car at the end of a workday with a toddler screaming for some toy trumps all instincts to scrutinize the opposite sex no matter how well his jeans fit.  Our focus is on finishing what we started, rooting the kids we have and in time easing them out of the lair.

Power surges (aka hot flashes) initiate the third trimester and once again women see blue skies and open spaces. More than at any time in our lives, this is the time when we can find out who we are and take time to think about how we want to spend the rest of our lives. Girlfriend relationships established in the first two phases are nurtured, or we may seek out new women and activities more compatible with who we are now. Tim often expresses his amazement of how quickly women find common ground and the trust to share with one another. “You just met her, and she told you all this?”  And he doesn’t even hear about the juicy parts. 

After studying how men and women spent their adult lives, Joseph F. Coughlin of MIT’s AgeLab concluded that senior women are better prepared for later life than their male peers. 

She is the caregiver-in-chief. Women are caring for more parents than they had ever planned — their parents as well as their in-laws. Getting to 100 is so common now that we see birthday cards in the drugstore for centenarians. There may be three or four generations under the care of one matriarch.

True enough. Let me add to Coughlin’s observation. Women are the recreation director and the chief consumption officer of the home. We know how to operate the washer and dryer. We are Mrs. Hughes of Downton Abbey, responsible for replacing old linen, broken dishes, and making sure pictures of family members are displayed in equal numbers. We are the ones to send flowers, attend bridal showers, and keep family members connected. On the other hand, we never open the dishwasher and call out, “Are these dishes clean?” Nor do we stand in front of an open refrigerator hollering, “I don’t see the butter” or hold out a cantaloupe like a sacrifice asking, “how do you cut it?” 

Retiring at 67, my friend Bob W. said he initially missed the routine of going to work. Even for men who love golf there is a limit to how often you can play, how much sports you can watch, and how fast the grass grows. Whereas the ebbs and flows in a woman’s life meant improvising or reorganize priorities on short notice. Women are more likely to try something new, whether it’s to sing in a chorus, learn to play Mahjong, or start a walking group. Men seldom initiate getting together with other men or go solo to an event. It’s not what their fathers or friends did or do.

Do these differences between older men and women explain the gender differences in the marital status of older people?

At every age, the report shows, older men are far more likely to be married than older women. About three-quarters of men ages 65 to 74 are married, compared with 58 percent of women in that age group. More surprisingly, the proportion of men who are married at 75 to 84 doesn’t decline; among women, it drops to 42 percent. Even among men over 85, nearly 60 percent are married. By that point, only 17 percent of women are.

What Coughlin learned about men: 

When we talk to men about what they think retirement is going to be, it’s almost celebratory. If they’ve saved their money, they see it as a time to play golf, take that trip, buy that new car. And they often talk about spending time with their wives. I can’t tell you how many women have told me, “I don’t know who this man is on my couch, but I wish he would just go and get a job. I have routines, I have things to do, and he’s always there, and he’s always asking me what to do next.”

Women groan about hubby needing something to do. “Hey,” a woman announced at a female neighborhood gathering, “my husband is really handy. He can paint, do house repairs, even replace your garbage disposal whether it needs it or not.” Laughter ensues as she looks for one of us to cast her a lifeline. Lisa’s situation seems direr. “Sometimes, he’s standing outside the bathroom door when I come out.” The rest of us look horrified. “He wants to come shopping with me,” another laments. Even though it’s ten in the morning, we need a drink. Eventually, this may turn into a playdate planning attempt. “Yeah, he may want to play pickle-ball with your husband.” Clearly, some of us see the physical danger of less concern then our sanity. The subject of men, television, and increasing hearing loss is a consistent background hum. Joseph Coughlin’s study concur with our experiences:

The relationship began decades earlier based upon what you brought to the table and what you created together. Suddenly in older age, men get so caught into a routine — partly because of our employment and lifestyle — that they forget that they need to continue to be exciting and delighting. 

I think men, particularly those of us over 50, need to up our game. We really have to take a lesson from women that life is more than work; that we need to develop new interests and keep that romance going.

Of course, some men move into retirement without missing a stride. They become more active in grandchildren’s lives, take online or offline classes. Set up workshops in their garages for wood working. Some dust off the guitar and join locals to create music together. Others take to reading, visiting museums, and attending music performances with or without their spouse. And there are men who assume the role of an “elder,” someone who supports adult children’s questions and offers them a perspective they can’t find with a Google search.   

Likewise, there are women who without a family to raise or a career to attend are at a loss. Their lives’ purpose is lost in the cloud and they can’t find the password to retrieve it. However, it’s never to late to transform this period into a shape of our liking. Retirement “time” planning can begin where we are.  

2 thoughts on “Retirement Transformation

  1. What a great piece Edith.  So much great insight.  Keep them coming friend.  Hope you and Tim are doing well.   Love to one, friendship to many, good will to all.


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