The Third Age

Author: Walton Collins '51

June 30, 1995:

I ended a career today. It started 52 years ago when I was a sophomore in high school and took a summer job in the morgue of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Morgue is what they used to call newspaper libraries. That job, which earned me $15 a week minus a dollar withheld for union dues, was clipping newspaper stories for someone else to file in banks of gunmetal-gray cabinets that reporters would visit now and then to gather background for a story.

But I digress. The end point in my career was the editorship of this magazine. I have given it up voluntarily. I am 65 and in good health and I’ve been the editor for 12 years and it’s time to do something else. It’s called retirement.

They gave me a party — two parties. Friends and colleagues wished me well and asked if I planned to do some traveling. Tomorrow, for the first time since I started my first full-time job in 1951, I won’t be able to define myself by a job and a title. I’ll just be . . . a retiree.

November 22, 2000:

I had to fill out a form yesterday, and there was a space labeled occupation. I wasn’t sure what to put in the blank. I could write professor. Or freelance writer. Or freelance editor. Or bicycle commuter. Or international traveler. Or husband. Or grandfather. Any of those would be accurate but incomplete.

Another choice would be retiree. Why do I still shy away from the term five years later? When someone asks if I’m retired, I invariably respond: yes, but . . .

It’s all about perceptions. When I was young, the perception of retirement meant relaxing in a rocking chair and enjoying the golden years while waiting for the sun to set. Perhaps the cliché still applies to some retirees. But not to most of the ones I know.

They — the healthy ones, anyway— are embarked on second careers, or third. One friend works in the hardware section of a superstore, not full time but as many hours a week as he chooses. Another is an artist whose post-retirement output has been so extraordinary, his paintings are stacked to overflowing in his ample workroom. A third uses his business management skills to assist voluntary agencies in his community. Then there’s Father Ted Hesburgh, who continues to travel the world on high-level missions almost as often as he ever did; he told me recently that the chief difference is, he now has to carry his own bag through airports.

Not very long ago, 65 was the traditional retirement age, and it was “old.” Neither is so today. A story in a recent Chicago Tribune reported that when researchers asked Americans to define old age, the most common answer was 78. It didn’t matter whether the respondent was 30 or 70, the answer was almost always between 75 and 80. Sixty-five is simply no longer old, the reporter concluded: “Sophia Loren is still turning heads at 65. Sean Connery, 69, hasn’t slowed down much from his James Bond years either.” (My own role model is John Glenn, who grabbed a shuttle ride back into space at 77.)

Longevity increased exponentially in the century we just finished: A boy born in 1900 could expect to live 48 years and a girl 51, whereas a boy born today can anticipate 74 years, a girl 79. Actual life spans tend to exceed those averages, thanks to developments in medicine and changes in lifestyle. Clearly there are a lot more “senior citizens” now, to use the standard euphemism: 35 million or 13 percent of the population, according to the National Institute on Aging, an arm of the National Institutes of Health. In another 30 years, that number will double to 70 million.

It follows that 65 no longer automatically means time to retire. Court challenges have virtually wiped out mandatory retirement policies in the workplace, and most people are able to stay at their jobs almost indefinitely if they wish. Early retirements are another part of the equation these days, sometimes forced but often freely chosen.

For Christmas last year, my sister sent me a 40-year calendar that lets me calculate the date for any day between 1999 and 2038. It was a gesture of optimism on her part for which I am grateful. Since I’ll be 108 in 2038, I’ve put her on notice that I’d like her to replace the gift with a fresh calendar that year. Don’t laugh. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the number of centenarians in this country had nearly doubled during the 1990s, climbing from 37,000 to 70,000, and the way things are going there could be as many as 834,000 of them hobbling around by 2050. My own father nearly made it to 95, which I’m told is a good genetic sign for me. On the other hand, he spent the last five years or so in a nursing home.

Which brings us to the dark side of a long life. For the aged, health is the ominous wild card. Cancer and coronary-artery disease are trapdoors that can plummet one into a pit of misery at any time, with or without warning. For older men, the prostate becomes the enemy; for women, osteoporosis can thin bones and twist bodies. Parkinsonism is an especially vicious predator; multiple sclerosis is another. For me, Alzheimer’s is the midnight monster under the bed, though it’s said to be harder on family members than on the victim. Even if one avoids the big threats, there are plenty of smaller hazards waiting to diminish quality of life. Memory becomes less reliable. Deterioration of sight, hearing and flexibility can nibble away at one’s independence. And the longer one lives, the better the odds for one or more of the above.

Saddest of all, perhaps, the very old find themselves bereft of peers and friends. At my father’s funeral, the mourners consisted of his children, some grandchildren and the local postman, who happened to see the death notice in the newspaper.

January 15, 2001:

Carol, my best friend and wife of almost 49 years, got a new hip today. The old one made her days and nights increasingly painful over the last few years. When all the other remedies failed, hip replacement surgery became an attractive alternative to hurting for the rest of her life.

The amazing thing is that such surgery is now routine. It sometimes seems to me that half of my peers have replacement parts of one sort of another. Hips are the most common; one friend has two of them and a new shoulder to boot. Another has two artificial knees. Those who don’t have replacement joints have coronary bypasses, and some have had two; they call themselves members of the zipper club.

And yet, spare parts and zippers aside, older Americans are not only living longer these days, they’re feeling better — or so claims the Federal Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. An overwhelming majority rates their health as good or excellent, surveys show, and disability rates are declining. But good health doesn’t come cheap. Outliving one’s fiscal resources is an ongoing threat for the long-lived. Modern medicine can work miracles, but at a considerable cost. What’s more, our society consigns the old and sick to nursing homes, and such places can drain even substantial resources in a very short time.

And as much of the rhetoric of last fall’s presidential election campaign pointed out, drug costs alone can be punishingly high. Thanks to Notre Dame, I have a splendid Medicare supplement policy, expensive but worth the outlay. That is, it’s been splendid so far; when I see the bills for Carol’s hip replacement, I’ll know how good it really is.

January 1, 2000 – Vienna:

We greeted the millennium last night at a formal-dress ball in a Viennese palace. Despite Carol’s hip we danced a couple of waltzes, and at midnight we sipped champagne and ate a nibble of roast pig, a good-luck custom in Austria. At noon today, I slid my bankcard into an ATM slot and got back a fistful of schillings, confirming my suspicions that the Y2K hysteria was overdone.

Later today we attended a Strauss concert and emerged from the Hofburg Palace after dark to find snow gently falling on this ancient storybook city. A horse-drawn carriage clopped by as we walked toward the Ringstrasse, playing tricks on our sense of time – which turn of the century is this really?

Travel has been a lifelong craving for both of us, though we postponed the big stud while we raised five children. Since my retirement, our travels have shifted into high gear. We’re hiked atop China’s Great Wall and watched whales sound off Newfoundland. We’ve run our fingers over the ancient stones of Machu Picchu, trying to diving why the Incas left abruptly only 80 years (by some accounts) after completing their redoubt, which the jungle quickly reclaimed for half a millennium. We’ve sung rebel songs in a pub in Donegal and craned our necks, awestruck, at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and squeezed up the claustrophobic inner passage to view the Chacmool with jade eyes deep inside a Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza. I’ve (note the pronoun switch here) hurtled down an Olympic bobsled run in the Alps at Innsbruck, Austria, and hung mesmerized off Cozumel’s “wall” 90 feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea, holding my own against the drift current as I watched tropical fish swarm over fantastic coral gardens.

In the summer of 1996, we spent a month tracing Route 66 “from Chicago to L.A.,” as the 1940s hit song had it. We scouted out blue-highway segments of the old transcontinental road wherever we could find them. We rolled through Joplin, Oklahoma City, Amarillo and Gallup, marking our progress by the lyrics being crooned on the car’s tape player by Nat King Cole, whose version of “Route 66” still strikes me as the authentic one. We passed ghost towns in the Texas panhandle and timed things in New Mexico to spend a night in Tucumcari, which put me in the tiny subgroup of Americans who have actually been to both Tucumcari and Truth-or-Consequences, my two favorite town names in the United States. On the drive home we took a northerly route and dipped into Idaho and North Dakota, he only two states I hadn’t previously visited.

Although travel appeals to us greatly, moving away from South Bend, where we’ve lived for 44 years, does not. Some of our retired friends have skipped off to the southwest, others to Florida. Winter warmth obviously holds a lot of appeal, and never more so than a couple of Decembers ago when I slipped on a patch of black ice between the Law School and the engineering building and broke my wrist. But any distant move would take us away from friends and family, and we’ve never seriously considered it. We try to slip away from northern Indiana briefly once or twice during the snow months, as my teaching schedule permits. Some day we might try longer wintertime absences, but a permanent move isn’t on our horizon.

The Third Age:

The phrase “third age” is used a lot to signify the period of life that follows the employment years — the first age being schooling and preparation for a career, and the second being the years spent earning a living. Fordham University has helped put the phrase in circulation through its Third Age Center, formed to examine “the process of growing old in society; disability and the structures that deal with it; and religion and aging.”

Notre Dame psychology professor Tom Merluzzi, who has done some gerontological research with a focus on retired priests, notes that retirement represents a destabilizing change in an individual’s life, one that ranks right up there with such events as the death of a family member, buying a home, getting married or starting a new job. “Retirement,” Merluzzi has written, “represents a transitional event which may be fraught with adjustment problems . . . The movement away from active employment typically necessitates alterations in economic status, social status and personal identity.”

The retiree is not the only one affected by these alterations. The wives of some retirees I know chafe at the lifestyle changes they had to deal with when their husbands stopped going to work every day. “Suddenly he’s underfoot,” they say, and “he’s around for lunch,” and “he doesn’t consider that I’m still working.” Some retirees experience a period of listlessness or depression, and these problems inevitably affect the spouse as well.

How retirees manage the adjustments depends on several factors. An important one is what triggered the retirement: Being fired or having a business fold beneath you or being forced out by health problems are not good precursors of a smooth transition. “Good health, adequate income, a strong social network and a flexible personality style” are much better omens, Merluzzi has written. He offers a list of positives and negatives that helps one gauge what sort of equilibrium will emerge. Life satisfaction, contentment, happiness, security, serving as a role model — all these are positive factors. Negatives are anxiety, fear, anger, resentment, abandonment, depression, addictions and low esteem. “Some variety of stability will eventually be reached,” he writes in an article about retiring priests, “whether that of ‘grumpy old men’ or an experience of the ‘golden years.’”

Cindy Bergeman, a colleague of Merluzzi’s in Notre Dame’s psychology department who has done research into successful aging, sees individual resiliency as the litmus test for weathering the transition. Part of resiliency, she says, lodges into personality styles: How much control do retirees have over their lives? How open are they to new experiences and challenges? Just as important is that amount of support and validation retirees get from friends and family members. Among the best predictors of longevity, Bergeman says, are feeling productive and having a purpose.

Fortunately for me, it didn’t take long to find a purpose.

February 23, 1999:

It is past midnight when the flight that began at sunset in Miami gropes its way through rain and fog-shrouded mountain peaks toward Quito, Ecuador, a city perched almost 10,000 feet up in the Andes. Over the groan of jet engines, the pilot announces that conditions are barely above minimums for a landing, but he’ll give it one try before diverting to Guayaquil. Moments later, ground lights flicker past my window and our place thumps down onto the Quito runway. Passport control and customs take only minutes to clear, and I hurry outside the terminal, certain that a contact will be waiting to greet me.

The night is dank and dismal, and a steady rain pelts down. Taxi after taxi loads fares and drives off into the night. By 1:30, a single taxi driver and I are the only ones left, and I’m ready to concede that my contact won’t be coming. It requires a 20-dollar bill and every shred of my tourist Spanish to reach a hotel; fortunately, there’s one room left.

Travel is like that sometimes. So is freelancing, which is what has brought me to Ecuador.

I consider myself a lucky retiree. The skills that carried me through my working years translated easily to retirement. At long last, a youthful dream of being a freelance writer (every young newspaper reporter has the dream) has become reality. Freelancing is a tough way to earn a living unless you have a secure primary income. But with the luxury of a retirement income, I can now indulge myself.

Over the last five-plus years I’ve done a lot of freelancing. Some assignments have been for this magazine and others have appeared in a variety of commercial and university periodicals. The stories have taken me to an orphanage in Honduras, to the inner sanctums of network television studios in New York City and onto the sacred green turf of Wrigley Field.

When I’m not writing, I’m teaching in Notre Dame’s John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. This is 31st consecutive year in a college classroom, 17 of them at Notre Dame. Contact with bright young minds is as important to me as it was at the start, and maybe a little more so. I harbor the conceit that it keeps me young, or at least mentally flexible.

Not all of my acquaintances have been successful in transferring workplace talents into their retirement. A doctor-friend who moved to Arizona after years of practicing medicine in the Great Lakes region tells of showing up at a Southwest hospital as a volunteer. He was coolly informed that the hospital had no need for physicians from a distant part of the country with different ways of doing things. “They wanted me to sweep the floor and push gurneys,” my friend recalls, the shock still obvious in his voice.

My activities produce income, though not a great deal of it. Many retirees I know put purpose in their lives not by working but by volunteering. Indeed, the Notre Dame Alumni Association has a special subset designed for retirees looking for ways to give back to their communities. It’s called ND’s FIRST (the acronym stands for Fighting Irish Retired Service Team). Not that retired alumni are incapable of finding projects on their own. They serve meals in homeless shelters, assist low-income seniors with their taxes, do plumbing or roofing in Habitat for Humanity or Christmas in April projects; they serve on the boards of social service agencies or arts organizations; they take part in, and sometimes coordinate, service projects for their local alumni clubs.

Whether their choice is working or volunteering – or both, as is often the case – what’s important is keeping busy at something that makes one what to hustle out of bed in the morning and get started on the day. Human beings, it appears, were made to be active and have goals. Without that, some evidence suggests, health is likely to decline and life spans wither.

Smart retirees will reach the last day on the job having done some thinking and planning. Financial planning is one part of it, but there’s more to think about. Sure, take the big trip and enjoy not turning on the alarm at bedtime. Savor the fact that you don’t have to go to the Monday staff meeting any more. Play 36 holes of golf without your office beeper sounding. Take in a movie matinee on a weekday afternoon and relish the guilty feeling of playing hooky.

Then get busy.

July 1, 1995:

The house Carol and I have lived in for 31 years sits on a bluff over the Saint Joseph River. When we look out the front windows in the morning, we can see the sun balloon up through a stand of trees and watch mist from the river curl around the branches. In winter, the mist often sheathes the bare branches in ice, which the sunlight splinters into a thousand sparkling shards, but on this morning winter is only a bad memory, and the sunshine intensifies the green of midsummer leaves.

Ours is a morning house, even though we prefer to break our fast on a west-facing, glassed-in porch where we can watch the early sun catch the tips of towering oaks and spill its light slowly down the trunks across the lawn. We sit here this morning and talk about yesterday’s festivities, and about the trip we’ll embark on in a couple of days: a leisurely drive to New York City where I’ll drip in at one last professional meeting, then on to Boston to visit my brother and his family, northward again to upper Vermont to see a daughter, then on into Canada’s Maritime Provinces before heading home.

I’m always invigorated at the prospect of a trip. To buckle into the driver’s seat when the sun is still low on the horizon, eager to savor new sights and experiences, ranks high among my favorite moments. Soon we’ll be starting the first journey of our new time of life.

No, that’s not quite right. The real journey started when we arose this morning. It means getting to know Carol afresh as we embark on the new roles of retiree and spouse of retiree. It’s a little like a courtship, or the first months of a marriage. We have to work out fresh ways of living, find ways of balancing togetherness and individual space, try not to get in each other’s way, time the things we like to do together. I have to remember not to force changes in the social habits she’s developed: her weekly lunches with friends, her Monday-morning “stitch-in” gatherings of the Embroiderer’s Guild of America, her Wednesday mornings as a volunteer in the local library’s genealogy room. We’ve chosen not to buy a second car, but the snowy, icy months will curtail my habit of biking to campus for classes and require some meshing of our schedules.

The up side is having the chance to get reacquainted after the distractions of our child-rearing and work years; we are different people than we were when it all began, but both of us are eager to get on with it. Every new role takes work getting used to, but so far the payoffs have far outweighed the costs. We have weathered other transitions: the last child to leave the nest, becoming grandparents, seeing on grandson get married, with its implied threat of turning us into great-grandparents.

Now the Third Age has arrived. It’s morning again. Let the journey begin.

Walt Collins is editor emeritus of Notre Dame Magazine.