“Retirement,” says the 95 year old, active journalist-author, George Seldes, “is the dirtiest ten letter word in the English language.” If so, it is a dirty word that is mandatory at a certain age for many jobs in western societies. The more industrially advanced an economy becomes, the more its people are put out to pasture at an arbitrary age and the less purpose society accords its older citizens.
This trend even occurs in places that historically have had a profound veneration and role for the elderly — such as China. Now, any visitor to Peking cannot avoid hearing every day a vehicle or two full of people clanging their musical instruments in celebration of someone’s retirement. They retire early in China’s big cities — as early as their mid-Fifties.
If a society defines “work” as something you retire from instead of retire to, then it is quite likely that a patronizing cultural stereotype will evolve to paint those people, who no longer are expected or allowed to “work,” as no longer useful.
Is there “work” after retirement? If the answer to that question is “no”, there is going to be a growing number of Americans who feel unneeded and who are unhappy as a result. Almost 122 of the U.S. population is over 65 years of age. These nearly 25 million people are living longer than any previous generation. There are now 2.6 million Americans over 85 years of age. Though there are still many among the elderly who are needy, the expansion of the social security system and its COLA have helped recipients think or dream about things to do other than how to get the next loaf of bread.
People who are self-employed, and therefore not subject to any retirement rules or customs, can continue leading productive lives in their chosen labors. But over 93 percent of the working labor force in the U.S. is riot self-employed. For them, is there life after retirement beyond resting, waiting or hoping?
The most resounding reply has come from the Gray Panthers, led by the irrepressible 79 year old Maggie Kuhn. She launched this group, presently with chapters all over the country, in 1970 and deliberately gave it a supercharged name. Once, while addressing a gathering of citizens fighting to preserve their homes from displacement by a GM factory in Detroit, she let out a bloodcurdling Panther scream. She wants older people to assert themselves, link up with the young, and become a force in their community and nation.
Elderly role models can be the first steps in breaking the rocking-chair image. For several years in the late Seventies, the National Council on the Aging distributed a weekly syndicated column featuring an older American who was achieving or starting something. Some started pro bono consulting organizations to help communities solve technical problems. Others began producing live shows on cable television. Another at age 68 ran across the United States after coming out of a bout with high blood pressure and obesity with a vow to get in shape. Still others formed a lobbying group to guide needed bills through a state legislature.
More recently, George Burns at age 88 displays a whirlwind comedic, acting and writing career. “I’m an accepted commodity,” he says. “I’m making old age fashionable. You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”
Sammie A. Abbott, the 77 year old mayor of Takoma Park, Maryland, is doing it his way. He persuaded the city officials to declare Takoma Park a “nuclear-free zone” in 1983 and is active in the arms control movement. He believes in people transcending governmental barriers worldwide in the quest for peace. During the last 25 years, he led many civic struggles in the Washington, DC area and is probably the record holder for the most street demonstrations in the area.
One spreading idea I find just excellent is bringing together children and older folk for living history narrations. In an age of MTV, youngsters need all the history they can get and elderly citizens are signing up to tell them, during the after school hours, what it was like in the past. There is a personal transmission of some wisdom and broader perspective for the young generation out of such meetings.
Staying active has long been connected to health maintenance among the elderly. This summer the New York Times reported on mounting evidence that the development and growth of the brain continues into old age and that an “enriched environment” or stimulation of the mind is an important factor.
Dr. George Hatem, an American-born physician who has lived in China since 1932, is testimony to this connection. After decades of hardship and spectacular achievements in public health, he is helping start a large science park for children in Peking and is leading a new 15 year campaign to abolish leprosy in China by, the 21st century.
He is only 75.