By Caitlin Connelly
A good paradox can turn the obvious on its head.
That’s a fair way to describe the aging paradox, a concept well-known to gerontologists that challenges presumptions about the way people feel as they grow older. True, there may be many forms of loss or limitation that come with older age. But there is also empirical evidence that shows people actually experience a greater level of life satisfaction as they grow older.
In the process of living to an older age, transitions often become more than a simple shift from work to retirement and bring people to a more peaceful frame of mind, according to Kathrin Boerner, an associate professor of gerontology at UMass Boston.
“Older adults often arrive at this point where they feel like they’ve experienced a lot but they’ve also learned a lot from the experience,” said Boerner.
Those transitions can be driven by conventional forces of work and family. But the kind of older-life satisfaction described by the aging paradox is often rooted other kinds of experiences. “People get to that point from very different trajectories,” said Boerner.
The Gerontology Institute Blog asked members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston to describe their transition into the earlier stages of older life and how they felt about it. Their responses illustrate just how different those trajectories can be.
Mary Doller worked for many years as a special education teacher while raising five children and going back to school for further professional development. She had her last child at age 42 and, five years later, lost her husband to cancer. Her life, as she describes, was extremely busy for many years. Then, in her mid-sixties, her youngest child moved out and, one year later, Doller retired. “All of a sudden, structure was gone,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
At first, Doller overcompensated by saying yes to everything and found herself overwhelmed. After pulling back and crafting a schedule more to her liking, she found herself where she wanted to be. Now Doller fills her time with OLLI classes, quilting, church, and visiting with her grandkids. She says that, “I would have to say that my life is just about where I want it now.”
Another OLLI member, Al May, ended up cutting back his hours at work in his fifties to become a caregiver for his wife, who had lung cancer, and his mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In reflecting on that time he says, “it took a toll on me that I didn’t really anticipate,” and his method of coping became drinking.
After losing his wife and his mother within six months, May says he thought that, “being a typical macho man, I can just handle this. But I didn’t.”
May’s drinking led to a falling out with his son and he found himself in a homeless shelter at the age of 61. At that point, May took steps to begin his journey into sobriety.
May described his thinking: “Do I want to be hungover every day or do I want to try and do something with my life and hopefully enjoy the time that is left?”
Today, May is nearly seven years sober. Like Doller, he has crafted his life to be full of the activities of his choosing. These days, May is busy taking OLLI classes, volunteering, going to AA meetings, and spending time with his young granddaughters after rebuilding his relationship with his son.
An active OLLI student and board member, Jean Hunt, is as busy as ever now. She is five years into retirement after working as a nurse practitioner at Massachusetts General Hospital. When asked about a transition to later life Hunt says, “I’m still waiting for it to happen. I don’t feel like I’m seventy”.
For Hunt, retiring from her work did not feel like a shift and she says, “I do have a full time job. Working on my relationship. I’m very fortunate”. Hunt and her husband met as teenagers and have been together ever since. As for her experience of getting older, Hunt says, “I think I’m just taking it as it comes”.
Steve Vorenberg felt isolated and wanted to broaden his social circle as he entered his sixties. But something important had been holding him back. So, at the age of 63, Vorenburg came out as gay. “That was a big change and marked the beginning of the second half of my life,” he said.
After coming out, Vorenberg said, he felt as though “that big bird is off me finally.” In his later life transition, Vorenberg said he was able to gain a newfound sense of freedom.
Vorenberg got married in 2011 and now spends time with his husband, teaching and attending OLLI classes, singing in a gay and lesbian chorus, and playing bridge in the gay bridge club. After retiring and finding these activities that he enjoys he says, “I’m basically doing things I like to do instead of things that somebody else wanted me to do.”
Although their experiences differ greatly, all four OLLI members have all found themselves in this new chapter of life filled with intention and engagement in communities of their choosing.