The Key to a Happy Retirement

Don’t just grow older, grow bolder.

Preparing for retirement isn’t just about financial planning. It’s about getting ready mentally for a big transition.

I don’t write about the mental transition to retirement very often since my expertise is in the financial area, especially federal retirement benefits. Also, it’s hard to find good resources or inspiring references on the subject.

That changed this week when I attended a NARFE Florida meeting in Orlando. The Florida federation is the fourth-largest in the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, serving about 12,000 members.

One of the presenters was Marc Middleton, a media entrepreneur and TV journalist. His book, Growing Bolder, is about changing the notion that aging is all about taking it easy, managing chronic conditions and avoiding risks. I read the book and found it to be as inspirational as his presentation at the conference.

Middleton and his associates interviewed hundreds of people who are in their 80s, 90s and 100s to find out what keeps them going. These “rock stars of aging,” as he calls them, are doing things like bowling regularly at 108, playing in a ukulele concert at 103, and buying a new Chevy Camaro at 101.

Middleton said one of the keys to dispelling prevailing cultural beliefs about aging that can lead to mental and physical illness is to learn to say yes to new adventures. He has found that the rock stars of aging can teach us three things:

  • Longevity is 30 percent a product of your genes and 70 percent determined by your lifestyle.
  • Most active centenarians don’t suffer from chronic illnesses commonly associated with aging until shortly before dying.
  • They’ve taken the initiative to make positive changes to their lifestyle.

I’ve known a few rock stars of aging. My friend Edie Bierley sold real estate well into her 80s and went to the gym regularly until she passed away from a short illness at 93 in 2018. She was such an inspiration to me because of her attitude and wit. She had a passion for other people and a knack for telling a story that was engaging and honest with a healthy dose of humor to keep the listener engaged.

Millie Parsons is another rock star of aging. She worked at the FBI from 1939 to 2002--that’s right, more than 62 years. She was the longest continually serving employee in the history of the FBI, working for more than two dozen bosses as secretary to the special agent in charge of the agency’s Washington field office. She also was a regular at the dances held at Glen Echo Park in Maryland. Parsons never took a sick day. Even when she broke her wrist after a fall on her lunch hour, she returned to work the next day.

It’s important to understand new ways to think about aging, because we’re halfway through seeing the baby boom generation turn 65. Census Bureau data shows that 76 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964. According to the Population Reference Bureau, nearly 11 million baby boomers had died by 2012, leaving some 65.2 million survivors. But when the effects of immigration are factored in, the number of boomers swells to more than 76 million again. That represents almost one-fourth of the estimated 2012 population of the United States.

The Census Bureau projects that the baby-boom population will total 61.3 million in 2029, when the youngest boomers turn 65. By 2031, when the youngest boomers reach age 67 (the age at which persons born in 1964 can receive full Social Security benefits), the baby-boom population is projected to be lower, at 58.2 million, but will make up 20 percent of the population, up from 14 percent in 2012.

Marc Middleton’s stories of people like Grandma Moses, who began painting at age 76, and Jean Calment (the longest-lived human on record at 122 years, 164 days) who rode her bike every day until she was 100, kept the NARFE Florida audience engaged and inspired. My takeaway from the event was that retirement can be a time to reinvent yourself and try new things that you’ve never had the chance to do before.