As a baby boomer, I grew up believing that most people would work until age 65, then retire to a life of rest, play, and living out their favorite fantasies. Today I have friends who retired at 40 and 55. Others are still working in their 80s. Colleagues who shut down their careers at 60 or 65 have gone back to work out of boredom or financial need. I saw my aging mother end up ina wheelchair after a series of mini-strokes, unable to speak or make meaningful emotional contact for the rest of her life. I watched my father, a retired judge, continue trying to make a difference in the world until he died at the age of 87.
As I get older, my thoughts and emotions careen from one view of aging to its opposite. In the anxiety mode, I notice how much more often I struggle to find the right word for something, or that I reverse letters and numbers when typing quickly. Then the specter of my mom’s strokes, and the possibility of Alzheimer’s, grip me with fear that sometimes expands into panic.
At other times, I feel good about being older. I love feeling that my years of experience have given me a sense of wisdom and calm that I didn’t have before. The idea of sharing this with others in my work and in my life makes me happy.
Some of the strengths and shortcomings of aging may be new territory for you personally, as well as many of your clients. You’re probably familiar with the main financial issues: income generation, “decumulation” strategies, Social Security benefit maximization, and so on. But what about the mental and emotional aspects of growing older, and how these changes may affect your own life as well as the way you work with people of retirement age?
You can expect to see more and more boomer clients struggling with issues of loss, life transition, financial insecurity, and fear of declining capacities. Aging always involves letting go, which has aspects of mourning and sadness in it. Don’t try to jolly clients out of feeling this loss. But after giving them a little space to vent, you may be able to help them return to sources of hope and healing, thanks to new research that shines light on how they can keep learning, revitalizing themselves, and deepening their sense of wisdom and mastery.
How the Brain Changes
Brains are unbelievably complex. Within about three pounds of tissue, there are a 100 billion or more nerve cells, each one able to make thousands of connections with others. As we age, the brain’s physical makeup becomes a little less robust, and like other parts of the body–and muscle strength–brain capacity operates on a “use it or lose it” principle.
As we age, observed neurobiologist James L. McGaugh of the University of California-Irvine in 2004 in an article for the AARP division NRTA and The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, “We can make the brain work better simply by accumulating more knowledge, which builds more networks of connections in the brain. The wisdom that we acquire can compensate for the decline that may be gradually occurring.”
“The brain wants to learn; it wants to be engaged as a learning machine,” wrote neurobiologist Michael Merzenich of the University of California-San Francisco in the same NRTA-Dana Alliance series. But that doesn’t mean rehashing the same old stuff learned in high school. The brain wants new ideas, new experiences.
“Recent discoveries in neuroscience show us that the aging brain is more flexible and adaptable than we previously thought,” agrees Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University Medical Center and author of The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (Basic Books, 2006). According to Dr. Cohen, these studies suggest that our brain’s “logical” left and “creative” right hemispheres become better integrated as we age, leading to greater creativity.
This integration also makes it easier for older people to reconcile thoughts with feelings. Personally and professionally, I’ve known people in their 20s who agonize over each decision, large or small, and whose emotional perfectionism creates tremendous psychic stress. Older clients and friends seem to trust their own instincts more. They appear to be more comfortable with their decisions, and are able to make them more quickly and with less effort.
Learning and Communicating
Like it or not, some faculties do decline with age. But it’s not as though we fall off a mental cliff at age 65; these declines actually start as far back as age 20. According to research from NRTA-Dana, these are some of the changes you may notice in clients or in yourself:
1. Taking longer to learn. Processing speed slows down with age, so you may need to factor in more time to perform tasks and learn new things. Be prepared to educate your clients about this normal fact of life, and help them take the time to work on what they want to master.
2. Difficulty in multitasking. Executive functions such as planning and reasoning become more difficult with age, as do tasks that require keeping many things in mind simultaneously. You’ve experienced this parallel processing glitch if you’ve ever gone into the next room for something, only to forget why you went there. (Here’s a tip: Name the item out loud before you go.)
If clients seem confused or uncertain when asked to consider a number of options at the same time, slow things down. Try to break down the decisions into simpler yes-no, either-or choices, in such a way that you still cover all the important considerations.
3. Inability to remember random facts and sources. Now where did I see that really interesting article? And what did it say that I wanted to tell my friends?
Being able to store and retrieve new information easily, a function called “strategic memory,” is one of those faculties that starts to decline after the teenage years. (My 24-year-old son obviously wasn’t making it up when he recently complained to me about “getting stupider.”) To combat this decline in your own strategic memory, learn to tell yourself, “I need to remember this.” Underline it mentally by repeating the information out loud or making verbal or visual associations with it. If clients complain of this problem, these solutions may help them cope.
4. Plain old forgetfulness. My contemporaries and I now find we’re much more understanding when one of us forgets an appointment, fails to return a phone call, doesn’t deliver a message, or neglects an errand that used to be routine. This is another normal consequence of brain aging.
Suggest to forgetful clients that the best remedy is to write things down. They can make agendas for meetings and lists for multi-errand trips, and put notes on the dashboard or computer monitor. If they lapse, remind them to be gentle with themselves. After all, they’re only human!
Many older clients lead creative, active lives, pursuing career or charitable missions, and generally enjoying their older years to the hilt. In fact, some may be enjoying life so much that overspending their limited resources becomes a concern to their families–and to you.
Spending is already a concern with the Silent Generation (ages 59-71). Many people in this age group give little thought to longevity risk, according to a June 2005 MetLife Retirement Income Decisions Study. Most of the study participants felt confident of having enough money to live comfortably to at least age 85. However, their retirement planning tended to focus on asset accumulation instead of the possibility of outliving their savings or having to care for an incapacitated spouse or parent.