Ours being a youth-oriented culture is a cliché. Yet at a certain point in our lives we may neither know nor care who the Grammy winners were, be indifferent to the screen resolution of the latest iPad, and in the mirror realize those pricey anti-aging supplements aren’t working as magically as advertised.
All this is mostly irrelevant when compared with the jolt that inevitably arrives via snail mail sometime in your late 40s. This will be your first of many invitations to join AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, now known only by its acronym and pronounced like the very last sound that comes from your mouth before the lights go out on you for good.
Somewhere on the internet there’s an ever-expanding list that begins “You Know You’re Getting Old If…” Don’t bother finding it. Just wait for your first copy of AARP’s magazine to show up. That’s all you’ll need. Read one issue from front to back and your vision will blur with cataracts, your joints will creak, teeth loosen, hair thin out, and you’ll notice difficulty peeing.
Being critical of AARP is sort of like being critical of the Girl Scouts. But just as the Girl Scouts seem to exist as a vehicle for cookie distribution, AARP has become one massive and persistent financial services company. The magazine itself, with aging but undeniably attractive (and certainly airbrushed) movie stars on its cover, has a lot of the usual where-to-retire/new-hobby/discounts-for-seniors blather, plus lots of ads for the latest pharmaceuticals–to prepare you for your future?–and many (many!) programs to sell you insurance and invest your retirement largesse.
In fact, AARP earns far more–$700 million annually–from its for-profit financial services division than it does from its modestly priced membership fees.
Golden Years My Ass
A more sensible, amusing, and undeniably cynical approach to aging than AARP’s magazine is the small book Golden Years My Ass, by Daniel Krause, former head of sociology at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. Krause’s professional focus was gerontology, the study of aging, and his previous book, Home Bittersweet Home, was his take on the nursing home industry.
Krause reminds us that our retirement years could easily last as long as those spent working and offers some worthy insights, a few of which you likely knew but preferred not to acknowledge aloud. Based on my own experience with older patients (I started my medical career in geriatrics), Krause’s observations are astute, among them:
—The act of retiring can be experienced as a kind of identity theft. For many of us, far more of our identity is wrapped up in our occupations than we think. Unless you’ll be fulfilling some very specific and long-cherished post-retirement dreams, like writing your novel or opening a coffee house for intellectuals to discuss semiotics, it’s psychologically quite a shock to go from being Creative Director, Financial Analyst, or Special Ed Teacher to Anonymous Retiree. In other words, if you like what you do for a living, try to keep doing it as long as you can.
–Financials permitting, exit on your own terms. If you’re fortunate enough to have a pension that hasn’t been swept into the personal coffers of some Harvard MBA, then don’t wait to retire–just quit when you’re tired of doing what you do. It’s much more empowering to exit on your own terms, toss the keys onto your desk, and say to no one in particular “I’m outta here.” And then find something to be passionate about. Sadly, too many of us are ending our careers with Social Security and a pittance. If this is your challenge, obviously you’ll need to downsize expenses and perhaps find something part-time. One of my older patients works three days a week at Home Depot, which she really enjoys for the interaction with people and because she knocks out (in her words) “my weight-bearing osteoporosis prevention!”
–When you’re no longer working, if you’re not careful you might find yourself surrounded by people who have nothing to do all day long. There will be a tendency to talk about, and listen to, health problems. Let that inner voice scream “I can’t believe I’m talking about my bowels (bad back, bypass, prostate, etc.)!” Keep your mouth shut about your health and find a new circle of friends, start a book club, and/or volunteer.
–Think twice about moving someplace else (especially a “retiree heaven”) unless you really can’t stand where you live now. The devil you know is better than the devil unknown. You might like warm weather, but you might also end up in a gated community with no theatres, bookstores, or jazz clubs surrounded by demented Republicans.
–Don’t give up all the little pleasures thinking you’ll be rewarded with a long life. Have the Dove bar, enjoy your martini. Krause quotes Woody Allen as saying “You can live to be 100 only by giving up everything that might make you want to live to 100.”
–Will you end up in a nursing home? Probably not. Only about 5% of primarily the very old ever live in nursing homes. Also, there are now so many housing options available for older adults that buying long term care insurance is a serious waste of money.
After all this, if you need a little inspiration for what to do, click here and meet Elaine. Then get moving and embrace your own inner Elaine.
Finally, since the priorities of AARP broadly parallel those of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, you might think twice about joining. AARP lobbied against single-payor health insurance and pushed Congress to pass Medicare Part D with its financial windfall for the pharmaceutical industry.
Don’t let the priorities of AARP drag you down. Like Elaine, you’ve got more important pursuits.
David Edelberg, MD