By David T. Hellkamp, Ph.D.
I am 76 years old at the time of this writing. Over the past 57 years, I have functioned as a father of seven (including one step-child), grandfather of eighteen, great grandfather of four. I have also been a husband for two women, the first for about 20 years, then there was an 8 year single parent hiatus, and I have spent over 27 years with my current spouse. Following earning a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, my work experience included being an educator, clinician, consultant, administrator, researcher, and entrepreneur, until five years ago, when I retired. I have been asked to write about my life as a senior (“old guy”) since the person, a former colleague, doing the requesting apparently sees me as aging successfully! That judgement I experienced as a “feel good” moment.
My hope is that some of my memories and ideas might add to the case study literature on aging. I will be brief, as many of my selected experiences could be elaborated at greater length. I have organized my thoughts into the areas of Identity, Finances, Social, Physical Health, Hobbies, Intellectual Curiosity, Spirituality, and Concluding Remarks.
I strongly believe transitioning into the last stage of life is no different than transitioning into any previous stage of life, from the standpoint that one must reasonably prepare for it in order to be more likely to experience success. I believe the word “success” does not describe best my current experience, but rather, I would substitute the word “contentment.” Hopefully, as you read more, the distinction will become more apparent. Maybe each word reflects a different side of the same experience.
I can’t emphasize how fortunate and blessed I feel to have had the opportunity to live a full life (not that I’m expecting to check out in the near future!). For me, experiencing a full life adds greatly to accepting the onset of inevitable illness and death. I am experiencing this final chapter in life in a more wholesome way than I anticipated when I was much younger. I, like some of my peers, am generally enjoying this stage of life, but in different ways than previous stages. Advances in technology, especially communication, allow us to stay connected to persons and events, thereby, contributing immensely to the enjoyment. Finally, I do not assume my experiences of aging would apply to any or all readers. I would recommend the reader become aware of other discussions and writings, especially what the latest geriatric research tells us.
Whatever anchor points a person may use to identify the onset of late life for themselves (age, retirement, the mirror, etc.), I believe one must be reasonably secure about one’s own personal identity! That, for me, was very different from feeling secure about my professional identity. The concept of retirement is relevant here as it represents the cultural standard for psychologically divorcing yourself from work. For me, it involved not just stopping or cutting back my work (professional) activities, but knowing myself well enough to realize I was “more” than my work identity. To do that successfully involved both planning for the change and being comfortable with the change in my identity. I no longer experience myself primarily as a psychologist (i.e., teacher, researcher, consultant, administrator, or “doctor”). Most importantly, that shift in identity was significant, and very noticeable to me.
Starting some years before I retired, I spent many hours talking to colleagues who were either close to retirement or already retired, as well as doing a review of the latest literature on retirement, hoping to learn something about what to expect and how to prepare. There was no big surprise when I actually retired and, just as important, I felt “psychologically ready.” I’ve noticed some of my peers have struggled with this change in identity by holding on to, or trying to hold on to, their previous work identity. It was as though they did not plan solid goals for where they were heading, but rather, seemed to only plan for leaving their work lives. In other words, they knew what they were leaving, but were not clear about where they were heading. Not too long after retiring, they reported being bored, sometimes depressed.
Transitioning into old age also involved “losses” for me in a number of different areas of life. I will attend to some of the losses below. As much as possible, you need to be prepared for such losses. Continually learning about yourself, including your effective coping skills, has been extremely helpful as a method for preparing for the journey.
Needless to say, one major contributor to my feelings of contentment was to have acquired a reasonable financial foundation by the time I retired from my work life. I owe much gratitude to a colleague (Dean of the Business College) in my early career at Xavier for giving me the best financial advice for preparing adequately for retirement. I was in my late 20’s at the time. During shower and dressing times following daily pickup basketball games at noon among faculty, staff, and former college players, we had “life” talks. He was in his late 50’s at the time. One such discussion included advice to make sure I maximized contributions to my retirement account at the University, giving it a high priority, even though I was young and retirement savings was not high on my list for how to spend my money. He also strongly recommended the monies be kept primarily invested in stocks, not bonds or money market funds. Additionally, he advised me to always try to have more than one source of income. As a clinical and consulting psychologist, the advice helped encourage me to move into a part-time practice. Later, it included learning how to directly invest monies into stocks and real estate. By following such advice, he stated I would put myself in the best position to develop later financial wealth. He was right. It worked for me. By accumulating reasonable wealth, I was in a position to choose when and how I wanted to retire, not whether I would be able to retire.
The transition from work to retirement also required dealing with many other financial issues. Learning about social security payouts, life insurance policy specifics, how best to house your retirement accounts, and, very importantly, making sure you have a will and/or appropriate trust in place, while realizing they usually require tweaking every so often, are all so important. Becoming familiar with specific retirement benefits from your employer also should be addressed. Health insurance plans, including Medicare plans are very critical. Overall, adequate finances (and financial planning) are one major source of contentment feelings, but not the most important contributor.
During the later stage in life, I believe continued relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, and others are extremely important to feelings of “success” or contentment. Family is most important. As indicated above, my family consists of many loving people. I sometimes joke to others that my family is so large that it is no longer just a “family,” but a “community!” Despite the size and numerous complexities, it takes much effort to deal with the mechanics of maintaining meaningful relationships with all. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Other times, it is extremely fulfilling. Watching and helping family members develop independence and growth in their own lives is most fulfilling and a source of enormous pride.
As a side note, I believe it would be very challenging today to have a large family if your personal goal is to maximize each child’s personal growth. Suffice it to say, a very different culture with regard to family existed 60 years ago. It was, and still is, not easy raising a family.
Many stressors will occur, sometimes testing you to the core. My second oldest son was diagnosed with ALS in my first year of retirement. The disease progressed rapidly to imprison him in his body prior to his passing away the following year. About the same time, my oldest daughter developed breast cancer requiring much adjustment, as well as serious medical and family attention. Shortly thereafter, I was also diagnosed with cancer. Overall, it was a horrific period of several years. On the positive side, I am proud and relieved to say both my daughter and I are cancer survivors! I point out these events as examples of life experiences which were extremely stressful and reflected unanticipated loss, but, paradoxically, did not destroy my underlying feelings of life contentment. To be sure, I experienced significant worries, fears, concerns, and “holy” anger, among other feelings, but a soothing feeling of contentment remained. I do remember thinking during those times I had no direct control over those and other enormous stressors. Maybe that was a coping mechanism that worked for me. Regardless, I now count every day as a blessing! Support from family and friends was (and is) extremely important for all of life’s surprises!
Support from and for your spouse is also very important during retirement. We did not experience any major adjustment problems as we experienced more time together. It is interesting that prior to and during retirement, many people would freely talk about couples having major adjustment problems during this time. Maybe we were just prepared because we have many similar interests and have freely given each other individual space. In other words, we both felt comfortable with our separate identities.
Maintaining selected friendships and developing new ones during this stage of life is very important to me as well. You must take an active role in such endeavors. For me, I have developed or joined breakfast groups (a ROMEO CLUB: Retired Old Men Eating Out), discussion groups, book clubs, a neighborhood club, and maintained many friends who, like my wife and I, are avid supporters of Xavier University sports, especially basketball. Many new friends and acquaintances are among those groups.