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There are many paths through the bonus years

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday October 28, 2012

Several readers have asked, “When do the bonus years begin?”   If you think about it historically, life expectancy was 47 in 1900.  So, from the perspective of history and demography, the bonus years are all those years after 47.  Still, many people begin thinking about their bonus years in their 50s – prompted by ads on TV, their financial advisor, their physician or their children.   It’s not a physical or psychological thing; it’s a cultural thing.

Like many others, it happened to me when I came home one day to find that the US Postal Service had delivered a large envelope, personally addressed to me, from the American Association of Retired Persons – now known simply as AARP. The package included a letter, a membership form, and the current copy of Modern Maturity, the AARP magazine which, by some counts, is the largest circulation magazine in the world.

Receiving this package from the AARP at age 50 is a shocker.  It was like receiving a letter from the Centers for Disease Control with a huge, red CONFIDENTIAL stamped on both sides. It undermined all pretenses of keeping this birthday milestone to myself.  Now the mail carrier knows. Who else knows?

I soon discovered lots of other people were keeping tabs on me. During the next few months, I received many other letters – letters to get a bowel screening, a PSA test for prostate cancer, a vascular screening, and info about cataracts and the wonders of eye surgery, joint replacements and on and on.  I never realized I had so many body parts with a “use by” date.  In short, when I turned 50, I discovered there are all kinds of people out there who not only knew me but who were really concerned about my health. What would it be like to reach age 65?

There are many ways to think about the bonus years.  However, based on the hundreds of people I have talked to over the past couple of years, I have concluded it is not an age thing.

There are lots of “old” people in their 60s – disengaged from the community, stuck in front of the TV, disconnected from family and friends.   Some are simply content.  Others are worried strugglers, stretched and stressed owing to financial, health or family concerns.

On the other hand, there are many, many lively, interesting, upbeat and fully engaged “enthusiasts” in their 70s, 80s and even 90s – volunteers, entrepreneurs, adventurers, explorers and even some trailblazers.

But later-life is not just one phase or stage.  With greater longevity, people tend to move through different stages – not just one “retirement years” stage.  These stages include:

  1. Pre-retirement, which for many will involve financial planning, psychological preparation for retirement and gradual disengagement from the workplace.
  2. Retirement event, referring to the day you terminate your career voluntarily or because of age limits, physical or mental infirmity, or some other cause.
  3. Honeymoon, referring to an active path, sort of like a permanent vacation where you engage in reading, travel, fixing up the house or other activities you didn’t have time to do during your working years.  Some people skip stage #3 and move directly from stage #2 to #4.
  4. Rest and relaxation, referring to a more passive path where you just “take it easy” and “chill out,” a path typical of those who retire from high-stress or physically-demanding jobs.
  5. Routine, referring to a phase where you establish a comfortable and yet (for many) a busy schedule of activities.  For many, this phase will include work of some kind – paid, volunteer, in-kind, enrichment or Samaritan work – activities that are both productive and satisfying.
  6. Letdown, referring to a phase characterized by a significant disruption in life, e.g., death of a spouse, relocation, boredom, a health problem, disappointment; or a sense of loss – e.g., of power, status, standing, purpose in life.
  7. Reorientation, referring to a phase where you take a “time-out” to inventory where you’ve been, where you are, and what you want to be, do and have; and to reboot to activities that are productive and/or satisfying.
  8. Routine#2 – and #3 and #4 and so on.  Many people pass through not one but several different lifestyles during their bonus years – recurring passages through stages #6, #7 and #8.
  9. Off the clock, referring to a phase that comes about when you are no longer able to live independently owing to disability, illness or other infirmity that prevents you from performing the activities of daily living – called ADLs.

In short, the 20-30 years most Americans will enjoy as a “bonus” of longevity are not simply an opportunity for a “second act,” or a “third chapter” or an “encore career” to “finish well” – as if we know when we will cross the finish line.   Instead, longevity gives us “bonus years” that can be as rich and varied as the preceding “working years” – the 35-50 years between leaving school and retirement – provided those in later-life remain socially engaged.  Continued social engagement is, after all, the key to successful aging.

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