“I’m busier than ever, but without the stress that went with my other job before I officially retired.” So says Sadie Bryant, a retired teacher who spends four mornings a week teaching English to immigrant children. Her present group includes one Chinese, one Japanese, one Hispanic, and two Laotian children. As if that were not enough to keep her fulfilled, she has added to her weekly schedule a little boy who needs reading help. “It’s even more fulfilling than teaching because I don’t have all those duties that nonretired teachers have!” she exults.
• Her close friend Effie Erickson was the coordinator who made sure each foreign child was assigned a tutor. She also headed up a volunteer literacy program. Then just over a year ago, without having lost a day of her fulfilling work, she was rushed to the hospital where at the age of 80 she went to be with the Lord.
• Jack Pitau’s neighbors miss him. They had come to depend on his skills in carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. But six months after his wife’s death, he took off for a bush station in Sudan. There he has built a house and a dispensary for a doctor couple and two single missionary nurses who are returning after their evacuation several years ago. He even knows how to make nails from scraps; if he didn’t, there would have been a month’s delay until the mission plane could fly them in. “My kids were afraid I would get some tropical disease.” He grinned. “At 77, I told them that the Lord must be looking forward to seeing me soon anyhow.”
• “We never thought the inner workings of a mission office could have so many facets,” John Zahn declares. “I thought I knew all about financial workings before I started to do the income taxes with their overseas complications for missionaries. Still, I don’t think we’ve ever been more fulfilled in all our lives.” John and his wife, Marg, were describing their past five years as financial secretary and hostess at a mission’s home office. Like the others, they seem to be defying that stereotyped picture of retirement where a person struggles with boredom, real or imagined ills, and a sense of uselessness.
Are these people exceptions to the retirement syndrome we read about in books? Perhaps. But if so, such exceptions are becoming part of a trend evident enough to lead to the coining of a new expression: “the young olds.” It indicates that there are those among today’s 38 million citizens 55 and over who are still vigorous, healthy, motivated, and alert enough to embark on new careers, to develop latent interests, fruitfully to continue on in present jobs, or to fulfill desires to use their lifelong experience in some unique Christian service.
What has brought this about?
First, with the postwar baby boom population well into adulthood, new attitudes toward aging are quickly developing.
Second, better nutritional habits, exercise, weight control, living conditions, and more accessible medical care have had their impact on the number of people who reach the age of the average life expectancy of 70 for men and 78 for women (about six years fewer for blacks).
Once a person arrives at 65 to 70, a third factor enters the picture: his life expectancy dramatically increases. For a male, it is about 80 years, and for a female, 84, white or black. Such helps as hearing aids, cataract surgery, heart pacemakers, bypass operations, and drugs to control blood pressure have dramatically improved the quality of these years. Statistics from the National Institute on Aging indicate that a large percentage of people now remain active and relatively independent until at least age 75.
A fourth explanation is the bare fact that inflation is eroding the spending power of pensions and social security. A 1979 survey directed by pollster Louis Harris revealed that 84 percent of the retired people and 88 percent of the workers polled saw inflation as seriously lowering living standards. However, in interviews with retirees, it became evident that the potential distress of having to work to maintain a certain living level was well offset by the genuine desire to remain active as long as possible. As John Zahn put it, “It’s far more stimulating and just plain fun to be where the action is. It gives a lot more meaning to our lives than rocking ourselves to the grave.” Those who were interviewed left the impression that they would agree.
What are the distinctive choices that Christians among the 38 million Americans 55 and older are making in retirement? What unique challenges do they have to confront, and how do they prepare for them?
Think what it means to the body of Christ when Christians have a longer period in which to apply the vast accumulation of 70 years’ wisdom and skill.
• There is Doug Smith, 69, of Passaic, New Jersey. At 65, he retired from a local assembly line to spend his meager life savings on a van to transport older folks to his favorite eastern historical sites. Eventually a small, yet financially viable, business developed. “In 1982 it looks like the government will let us have all our social security income-tax free once we reach 70. This will permit me to get ahead a bit financially,” he beams, “and I’m doing what I love for once, witnessing and all. You know, people my age have time to think. For some it’s the first time they have taken an inventory of their lives. They know they have to make decisions now or never.”
• Other “retirees” like Bob Stelles are teaching part- or even full-time at Christian colleges or Bible schools. He explains, “I ease their budget because they don’t have to pay pension and hospitalization benefits for me. I already have that as part of my retirement benefits. I can contribute my engineering background to this new generation, and I don’t have to be bothered by all those committee meetings and do all that paper work. This leaves lots of time for the students, and my wife is a top counselor. It makes keeping the bigger house worthwhile.”
• Jack Phillips, 74, a janitor in his church, feels no less needed as he contributes more services than his small salary demands to the church that nurtured him all his life. “I’m really in the center of things here,” he says. “The pastor uses me as a sounding board—I guess ’cause I listen, care, pray, and see that nothing goes further.”
• Tom Staun, 72, although formally retired a year ago from his own construction business, volunteered to direct the building of a church in Alaska. He sees another valuable contribution of active retirement. “You know,” he says, “there are a lot of magazines talking about the burden we elderly people can be on society. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that it is the growing group of elderly who are giving more and more to churches, missions, and other Christian organizations. We’ve had our day, and we know where our values are. In many ways, we are offsetting the problems that could be created by our longer lives.”
The blisters of these seasoned veterans have become the calluses that enable them to face life with realism: its starkness is tempered with the secret riches of experience. They have had their careers, so they are generally more relaxed, less driven to taste success, less concerned about recognition, and less affected by the politics of the system. Their children no longer demand the devotion of time and energy. Their pensions often permit them to work for lesser salaries, or, for others, to contribute their time and skill to organizations and people. Contrary to past thinking, mission societies are finding that these people do adapt well in a foreign culture where they can offer a quality of skills far beyond that possessed by younger missionaries.
What are the unique challenges Christians meet today in retirement? How are they facing them? Although no generalizations include everyone, the challenges are common enough to feel familiar to most retirees.
The Challenge Of Adjustment
John Zahn identified the struggles during his first two years of retirement. “We both had highly responsible jobs. I had been with the same company 30 years, had lots of good relationships, contact with all ages, and plenty of extracurricular activities that grew out of my job—like speaking at Christian Business Men’s prayer breakfasts in many cities. My wife started working when our youngest started college. We jokingly reminded each other how well adjusted and versatile we were. With all our interests we decided we might as well retire early. We had big farewell parties, a silver tea set, gold watch, and all the trimmings.
“We spent the first six months traveling, visiting the grandkids, golfing, seeing old friends, and fixing up the house. But bit by bit, it lost the spice it had when we were limited by time. Suddenly, bango! The bottom seemed to fall out of my life—no schedule, no stimulation, no important demands on me.”
John Zahn was describing what Robert Atchley, a specialist in social gerontology (aging) calls the phases of retirement. In the initial period, the honeymoon phase, activity is the name of the game, doing all those things the person always wanted enough time to do. It is hard to understand how anyone could ever be bored! This is particularly true for those who possess the health and the wealth to be fairly unhampered in their choices.
Doug Smith seemed confused that such a honeymoon could even exist. For him, it was an immediate slump into the disenchantment phase. “Even the sameness of the assembly line was better than being home alone. There was no garden in the inner city. The kids had their own lives. The grandkids weren’t as enchanted with a grandpa who was always there. I got tired of walking to the Passaic Falls by myself. I sure knew what it meant to be in the doldrums.”
Fortunately, both John and Doug gradually entered phase three, reorientation, where they began to assess the alternatives. John Zahn’s new lease on life came with a mission executive’s Wednesday night prayer request. He needed someone to handle the voluminous financial aspects of his mission office, and he needed a hostess for the visitors. For Doug, reorientation started with an old van put at his disposal to take other retirees on shopping trips.
This reintroduction of meaningful activity reduced the loss of purpose and status both keenly felt, and it led to the stability phase. They had a new orientation to life, some predictability, some satisfaction to provide a framework for more refinement of choices. In Doug’s case, it led to the gradual development of a small, but full-scale, private touring business. For John and his wife, it meant a recent overseas trip to train Nigerian church leaders in the rudiments of financial record keeping.
How, when, and if a retiree experiences all of these phases depends on the kind of preparation he or she has made for retirement, the significance of his employment, the degree of realism in retirement plans, and the internal and external resources at his disposal. However different the sequence and number of phases, our very humanness produces a reaction of some kind that is not necessarily correlated with psychological health. It is those who find themselves “stuck” in a phase who profit from talking with someone who can understand their pain. With an increasing interest in aging, many communities provide assistance in facing such trauma. Pastors, too, are becoming more aware of transitional stages in life.
Serious preretirement planning about such things as finances, activities, geographic locations, and housing gives time to weigh the possible choices by investigating the facts and discussing them with others, discovering families’ and friends’ perspectives, thinking through one’s own preferences, and seeking the Lord’s direction. Separating fantasy from realism leads to a smoother transition.
The Challenge Of Role Modification
It was Bob Stelles’s wife who suffered the greatest pain of disenchantment when he retired. He zeroed in on an interest he had only very occasionally expressed in the past when he helped his wife with dinner parties. Now he became absorbed in the culinary arts, complete from doing the necessary shopping to producing an immaculate kitchen before they sat down at the table!
“It wasn’t just that one of my big roles was suddenly pulled out from under me, but it seemed like Bob was always there. I didn’t even feel comfortable to call my friends and chat an hour or so each day. He seemed busy, happy, and proud of the requests for his recipes. Well, we finally went to a pastoral counselor for my depression. To make a long story short, he’s back to teaching and I’m loving the surrogate parenting of the college kids.” She sheepishly added, “I don’t mind the groups he invites unannounced because then he has his chance to do some of his gourmet stuff.”
Retirement demands readjustment by each member of the household. At this point in life, the submerged part of the personality often emerges—the one that didn’t quite seem to fit the contemporary sex role pattern. Women seem more able to let their assertiveness come through, while men tend to be willing to manifest more passivity and more overt need for their wife’s support and presence. Research shows that when a husband and wife are flexible about their emerging roles, not only do they both gain greater satisfaction, but also their longevity may be increased.
The Challenge Of Widowhood
A woman’s greater initiative in meeting her own needs can be a fortunate developmental trait when it is considered that four times as many women as men become widowed. Half of all widowed women are under 70 years of age.
Cathy Kammas and her husband were still in their reorientation phase of retirement when he had a fatal heart attack. The difficulties were accentuated through the sale of the family home just before his death. “It took me two years before I could let go of him, accept our shared memories as a source of strength rather than a devastation, and take a new interest in life. One of the hardest parts was that couples we were close to suddenly excluded me. It was as if I was a reminder that it could happen to them.
“My real healing came when a younger couple at church recognized my despair, and encouraged me to talk about my loneliness and express my outrage that this should happen to me. I started to recognize that part of grieving was even over my own inevitable death and the shortness of life. It freed me to live again. Maybe that’s what helped pull me out of the depression.
“At that point I found myself taking more initiative, yet I knew my Lord himself was guiding. I feel almost like I’m desecrating the memory of Pete when I say I wonder if he’d understand me if he came back today. I feel like I’ve grown so much. I’ve taken a business course and found my niche as an executive secretary—quite a role for a grandmother of seven! I’m sure it was the fact that I belonged to the Lord that kept me from being another suicide within a year after the death of a spouse.”
Some partners have time to prepare realistically for the eventual inevitable separation death causes. The Balens have moved into a condominium where the outside work is taken care of. “A smaller, but adequate house, even when the kids visit, meant getting rid of a lot of stuff. At least we could give the valuable objects to those for whom they have meaning, and yet keep enough to feel at home. Taking care of these things and adjusting to a new home together ought to save a lot of hard moments for the one left. We even gave each other permission to start over any way the other one wants to—like possible remarriage, you understand—no sense in having to struggle with guilt over it.”
The Challenge Of Increased Dependency
Health and possible dependency is at least a vague concern of retired people. Gerontologists say that with increased quality of life, many may eventually simply slip into the Lord’s presence in the midst of fullness of life.
On the other hand, a person may suffer anxiety all his life over the vulnerability he may feel toward becoming dependent in his later years. Perhaps this is even truer among Christians who keep themselves on what they perceive to be the giving end, often quoting, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” But suppose they now need to start receiving care from friends and family? They may not see that by receiving that care they continue to be givers—they give opportunity for growth and service to others. What a contribution! Yet if they do not see this, they can almost instantly become the most recalcitrant of “givers.”
Jack Pitau recently came home from the Sudan with terminal cancer. “The hardest thing I have ever resolved has been the idea of depending on my children. We all had to come to grips with the anguish I was causing in my resistence to more dependency, with their need to experience my peace and acceptance of their care, with a mutual realistic acceptance of what they and I could and could not do for each other. Just honestly facing it has been a release of tension for us all. Those extra-special two years in Sudan have made it easier to prepare to say goodbye down here and hello up there.”
Some of the concern others have about eventual dependency can be reduced through what gerontologists call a penultimate will. It is an expression, written when one’s thinking is still clear, concerning physical care, the use of money, the disposal of goods, or any other factor that would be helpful to family or friends in the event the person becomes incapacitated. Discussing it with a willingly named guardian not only puts the writer’s mind at ease, but can reduce painful conflict for those who would feel responsible.
The Intergenerational Challenge
Erik Erikson, a leading figure in the field of human development, speaks of the need to participate in the lives of others, making a significant contribution, directly or indirectly, particularly to younger generations. This helps avoid the sense of impoverishment that comes from a life lived unto oneself. Those who fail to reach out risk becoming absorbed by an overriding concern for themselves that eventually results in a sense of despair over what might have been. “He who would find his life must lose it.” Today more energy over a greater life span is like a special dispensation—a second chance to reproduce ourselves.
Cathy Croes, single, and Bella Eisenhauer, a widow, are sisters in their late seventies, not physically able to work. Yet they know the fulfillment of reproduction as the younger generation once removed continue to pop in on them and glean the wisdom and support they have offered those “younger ones” since they were teen-agers. The two have played a role in the lives of many foreigners they have never met as they have undergirded in prayer and emotional support those “kids” who became missionaries. “Keeping in touch with younger folks helps us keep in perspective those things that could seem like the shenanigans of the younger set. They fill our need, too, in so many ways. We are such interdependent creatures.”
Cathy and Bella are experiencing the richness of understanding the younger generation. Jack Phillips keeps in touch through the young people at church, although “not without aggravations. I am 72,” he admits. True, intergenerational contacts are not without problems. However, as the ranks of the elderly increase, the body of Christ faces the challenge of learning to combine the fresh knowledge, animated creativity, new perspectives, and high energy of the younger with the wisdom and stability of the older generations.
Challenge Of A Life Inventory
Somewhere between 40 and 55, people start to realize that the years they have already lived are probably more than the years that lie ahead. They tend to ponder on what life has been all about. A most rewarding preparation for retirement comes when they formalize the thoughts into a life review, which is most effectively done through writing or verbally sharing with someone. It means distinguishing in light of Scripture between those life responses that have had a positive or negative effect on one’s own growth and the growth of others. On one hand, it faces a person with the responsibility of deciding what elements he wants to maintain, to develop further, or to express in a different way. On the other hand, one must decide what to correct, to adjust, to eliminate. Often the entire gamut of emotions, from utter despair to great joy, is stimulated. The Christian needs the balance of Romans 8:28 as he recognizes God’s sovereignty at work in his humanness. This involves coming to grips with the unfinished business of life, appropriating 1 John 1:9 and Isaiah 43:18–19.
It is a process of coming as fully as possible to terms with oneself before the Lord. This is the person whose contribution in later life leads to a sense of meaning that eventually allows him or her to accept death with serenity rather than despair.
Fran J. White is associate professor of counseling psychology at Wheaton College Graduate School, Illinois. She also conducts a private counseling practice.
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