Discussing Retirement with Thelma Reese

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I’m nowhere near retirement age, something that’s been increasing as we live longer. Still, at some point, I’ll probably consider myself at least semi-retired. I sometimes wonder how I’ll feel since so much of who I am hinges on what I do. (Note that this is evidently a US-centric problem. In many European countries, you would never answer the question “What do you do?” with a work-related answer.)

Against this backdrop, I recently sat down with Thelma Reese author of The New Senior Woman: Reinventing the Years Beyond Mid-Life. The following is an excerpt from our conversation:

PS: What was your motivation for writing this book?

TR: Invariably, wherever and whenever Barbara M. Fleisher and I talked about our first book The New Senior Woman, someone in the audience would ask, "When are you going to write about men?" Usually someone else would laugh and say, "They'll never talk!" We realized that men's lives had changed every bit as much as women's in the last few decades; the women's movement certainly affected them at least as much as it had women. But would they talk? Books for men entering retirement suggested that improving one’s golf game, financial planning, or perhaps a new fitness regime would be all that interested the New Senior Man. Most men had been raised to "man up" and keep feelings hidden when faced with a crisis. But we found that they really wanted to be asked. They wanted to be heard. And they definitely wanted to talk. They wanted to discuss the personal, emotional, and social adjustments that aging brings. We find that these men recognize that they are a new breed of "senior."

PS: You write that men are experiencing ageism as they live longer and longer. Explain this.

TR: Men who want to remain in the workplace longer than the traditional retirement age know that we live in a culture that prizes youth, often above experience. While increasing longevity and many more active, productive seniors are everywhere, so are the stereotypes that men will start to fade or lose relevance. Even vigorous seniors may experience a "takeover" of independence or decision-making by younger family members or, worse, no attention at all. Condescension goes with ageism. But people who age successfully keep growing. They become role models for each other, and for younger people. They accept the challenges of aging — and meet them. PS: Why to today’s retirees need far more than a financial plan to head into their senior life?

TR: How to live and even why to live are the most pressing questions facing men in retirement. A man's identity is often tied firmly to his work or his role in the workplace. Suddenly being without them can be traumatic. Losing one's routine and the security that brings can be unmooring: Is he the same man? A financial plan is important, but it doesn't solve the identity question. Exploration, both outside and within, may take time, but a whole new world is out there, and more time than ever before lies before the new retiree. Instead of retirement, think of it as the Age of Discovery. PS: How can older men maintain a healthy love life?

TR: That’s a great–and common—question. For our chapter on Health, Sex, and Intimacy, we gathered the best common-sense advice, cautions and encouragement from experts. We particularly appreciate an expert's last words on the subject: Sexual experience is positive as long as everyone involved takes proper precautions, consents, finds pleasure, and has a good time.

A healthy love life for older men definitely reflects warmth and intimacy that may or may not involve the same sexual behaviors of youth. We live in an age when information is available to all, so ignorance is no excuse for carelessness. Smart older men recognize that age does not bring immunity to STDs, and that real friendship and mutual respect are at the core of a healthy love life.

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