Friday, September 20, 2013

Busting Negative Stereotypes of Aging: Ursula Staudinger

Ursula Staudinger at Columbia
Ursula Staudinger is among the most innovative thinkers I have met. Ever.
And, as a scientist, she has the data, the research, to support her edgy ideas. Should they catch on, her vision could upend the way we view our most experienced and least appreciated workers.
That would be older adults.

Here are some widely held myths Staudinger busted recently at a seminar at Columbia University, where she heads its multidisciplinary Aging Center:

*Older workers are less productive. Not true. Research shows that while older workers may lose speed in certain tasks, they also gain accuracy. Teams made up of people of mixed of ages, including older adults, have proven more adept at certain projects, particularly engineering.
Check out this video about VitaNeedle, a manufacturing company in Needham, MA,  from PBS. At VitaNeedle, the average age of workers is 74. It has earned record profits in 18 of the last 20 years, thanks to its many older part-time workers, whose loyalty and competence are rewarded with flex time and a sense of purpose.
Another study --  of an auto plant -- concluded that older workers “are especially able to grasp difficult situations and then concentrate on the vital tasks.”  While they may have made a few more errors, their long experience made them less likely to make serious errors.
*A person’s chronological age is highly informative.  That’s a myth, too.  For shock value, Staudinger, speaking at the university's Age Boom Academy, showed the Albert Durer drawing, “Mother,” from 1514. At the time, the mom was 63. A very old 63. Not like the 63 of many today.
"Mother" at 63, by Durer
Chronological age is not biological age, Staudinger reminds, and even that varies with all kinds of things, including genetics and life experience. She cited the work of James Vaupel and others to show that while humans are living longer, they are also living a longer stretch of their lives in better health and that the stimulation of work can play a role.
Since the 1950s, she said, cognitive ability (which, for the most part, does decline with age) has increased as education, early nutrition and other variables have had an impact – a trend known as the “Flynn effect.” Among older people, aerobic fitness, among other activities, appears to play a role in activating the brain to build neuron connections. “We can move the cognitive curve,” Staudinger said.

*Older employees have difficulty learning new things. Not always true. Although older workers may not learn a brand new skill as quickly as younger ones, they beat the kids when it comes to learning a new skill related to their long years of experience. “What’s clear is that we need to be exposed to new challenges regularly or our brain goes to rest. Good bye,” she said.

So why, in recent decades -- as we are living longer -- have we been retiring earlier? And  “what does that tell us about the meaning of work?” Staudinger asked.
The ability to retire earlier was seen “as a big cultural achievement,” she said. But what is really known about the relationship of work to health? And under what conditions?

“Should  [our cultural attitudes] change now that we are living longer?”  A survey of older adults working at a particular company found that a large proportion of those still working were looking forward to leaving. But 85 percent of those retired from the company for a year wanted to return to work – maybe with fewer hours and more autonomy, but working nonetheless.
“It’s very hard to establish the value of work before we lose it,” Staudinger said. It offers social connections, a structure to the day, a routine. “The utility of work only gets graspable once you don’t have it.”

As the research of Staudinger and others continues to reveal the strengths of older workers, will a more positive image of aging take hold? Will what she calls “age smart companies” emerge  (as they are beginning to in Europe) to take advantage of this workforce?

And are national social policies and financial incentives needed to make this happen? For instance, if older workers’ first insurance was Medicare and not a company’s private insurance, would that firm be more likely to retain older workers,  rather than treating them as an increasing financial liability? And if those workers were offered the flexibility many desire, could that benefit younger workers seeking employment?  
 “For such fundamental change,” Staudinger concludes, “the individual is too burdened to accomplish it. There’s need for institutional help and support.”

Here are additional readings on the issue of aging and health:

"How Cardiovascular and Coordination Training Improve Cognition in Older Adults"

Friday, September 13, 2013

Judge Judy Ponders a Major Decision

The Honorable Judith Wizmur doesn’t have to retire. There’s no mandatory age for federal judges to leave the bench. And she adores her work.
But shortly after she turns 65 next April, Judge Wizmur plans to step down from her post as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the District of New Jersey. 
Judge Judith Wizmur
It’s something she wants to do. She has grandkids she’d like to spend more time with. And she has friends who’ve recently experienced “life altering circumstances” that gave her pause – sudden illness and the death of a spouse.
But she’s nervous about leaving her job and what she’ll find afterward.

“I wonder if I’ll fall off the cliff?” she told me the other day.

Within the next five years, a lot of other federal judges will be facing the same dilemma, said Judge Wizmur, who last month chaired a meeting of a Retired Judges Committee. The group, part of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, met in San Diego at the Conference’s annual gathering.

Losing the connections they’ve made with each other is a huge issue.

“The judges have a blog about what’s going on in their courts. The idea of being cut loose from all that is of concern for us,” she said. The group just issued a questionnaire asking retiring judges “what they’d like to see – contact information, news about pensions, and to exchange retirement experiences.” Since many travel, one question was whether they’d like to host traveling judges in their homes.
But the far bigger issue is:

What to do next when what you’re doing now is the best job you’ve ever had or likely ever to have? 
(No matter that their salary is a fraction of what lawyers of their caliber can earn. In 2012,  federal bankruptcy judges were paid $160,080 a year, with no increase for experience.)

A lot of judges want the next thing to be the same thing, just less of it -- by serving on recall or as a Senior Judge. “People love what they do and want to continue to do it even if not full time. They’ve built up experience and a level of confidence in what they do,” said Judge Wizmur.
No matter that the remuneration is small, she said, with travel expenses sometimes not even covered.
Still, she estimates that more than 50 percent of federal district judges choose to stay around on senior status.  Serving on recall for a bankruptcy judge is more difficult, with levels of approval required for every individual case.
Other jobs to which judges are well suited include teaching, which many already do while working.
“And many,” she said, “go into ADR, alternative dispute resolution –arbitration, mediation. Judges are particularly suited to that kind of work.”
But there’s a catch to that route.
“If a bankruptcy judge chooses to do that, it’s considered to be the practice of law and they lose the chance of cost of living increases in their pension for the rest of their lives.”
 Judge Wizmur is contemplating ADR, but isn’t sure. Right now she’s focused on reclaiming time.

The life events that have befallen her friends, “made me stop and think about the basic proposition that you don’t know what’s coming around the corner. Time is the most precious commodity and I need to spend time thinking about that commodity.”

As to how she would savour it beyond precious time with her two children, two grandchildren and her mother? “I can think of courses, volunteering, and there’s always the basement and garage,” she said, laughing. “I don’t have a million ideas."
“I wonder about my ability to fall into a routine, to organize myself, to spend the day-to-day in a productive way. Many of us have been working since our teenage years and need organizational tools to run our lives.”
Yes, Judge Judy. That could be an issue. My own organizational tool box disappeared along with my parking spot, office keycard, and my desk. At home, a dozen desires distract me from my day's goals, though deliciously so. Let me know what you learn! 

Anyone have any tips on staying organized when you've left the Organization behind?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Two Hearts Together, Yes. But All the Time?

Everyone needs space. And a circle of friends. And a challenge doesn't hurt. So, how does a couple in retirement negotiate personal space, separate circles of friends, and different interests? This excellent Wall St. Journal article, "Why Too Much Togetherness can Ruin Retirement," lays out the issues.

And here is a little sidebar that went with the package -- about a woman who retired after her husband, only to discover that, while she was busy working, he had reinvented his life. While he always had the martini waiting for her when she walked in the door, he had worked out a daily routine for himself involving his guy friends and projects. Once she retired and was home, too, she discovered that their life together wasn't the forever-vacation-together that she had imagined: leisurely breakfasts, long bike rides, trips and explorations, candlelit dinners. A happy ending: after an adjustment, they worked it out. For the full story, go here.

Here's a piece of it:  (by Sydney Lagier)

"My husband, Doug, retired a few years before I did. He wore retirement well from the moment he slipped it on. And I must say, having a stay-at-home husband fit me pretty well, too. He managed things at home: grocery shopping, home maintenance and, most important, dinner. And on those exasperating days, if I alerted him before I left the office, I arrived home 17 minutes later to the sound of my martini shaking.I imagined our retirement days together, sleeping late and lingering over coffee and the paper. We'd ride our bikes to lunch, work together in the garden, and enjoy a glass of wine out on the patio, admiring our handiwork. We would rarely get on one another's nerves because we would have removed the major source of aggravation—work—from our lives. It would be like a honeymoon all over again. It would be the perfect life.
"Well, it turns out Doug already had a pretty good life. And since I was at work all day while he was living that life, it didn't really include me. He had biking buddies, lunching buddies and things he liked to get done. Not only did he already have a structure to his days, he didn't actually need me to coordinate his fun.....
Luckily, I had a real live retirement expert living right under my own roof. First, I copied him. I scheduled a weekly walking date with one friend and a regular lunch date with another. Then I picked up yoga and a little volunteer job. And when Doug was off biking with his friends, I used the solo time to write. Now each evening, we have stories to share about our day, and they don't involve my crappy day at work.
"Before I retired, I thought I'd work out in the garden more often. Ditto for the gym. But as it turns out, I don't really want to. And given the choice between doing things I don't want to do and things I do want to do—well, I'd rather do things I do want to do, like writing. Writing is something I didn't even know I wanted to do until I actually retired.
"The truth is it's hard to know who you'll be without work until you take away the work and find out. Seeing where retirement takes you, discovering who you are now that work doesn't define you, that's the fun part."

To read about a couple's life when only one is retired, see my previous blog

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Reversing Course: We May Not Live As Long As We Think

Jay Olshansky: Hitting a dead end
Will people live ever longer and longer? Will life expectancy keep pushing towards 100 and beyond?
No chance,  says Jay Olshanksy, a demographer specializing in longevity, who today upended for me this widely held notion.
Olshanksy, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health, was speaking to journalists at the Age Boom Academy –a gathering of aging experts pulled together by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and its Mailman School of Public health.
Worse yet, he believes that life expectancy is about to reverse course. Japan, he said, is on the verge of decline. And the same could be true of other Western countries.
How is this possible?
“Every generation,” he explained, “carries its own set of mortality and morbidity risks.” We should not forecast the future based on the longevity we’re seeing now.
He cites research out of the United Kingdom that found that people born between 1925 and 1934, who grew up during the difficult years of Depression and World War II, are living longer than those born before them –and after them.
Why? It’s not known but one theory, he said, is that this group, known as the “golden cohort,”  experienced “caloric restriction”  during critical years in their youth. Food rationing might have extended their lifespans, much as some dietary experiments with mice have done. (A study of long-lived Okinawans offered a similar explanation.)
Olshanksy guesses that the generations of obese children that followed carry a different, and likely shorter, life expectancy. “The obesity epidemic that swept the globe will carry those effects for generations,” he predicted, citing his 2005 study.
Another reason humanity might well have reached a lifespan limit is because we’ve found ways to push back age-related diseases such as heart disease and cancer. That leaves us face to face with what kills us all in the end – “senescence” – the body’s natural aging process.
“We’ve reached a point of limited returns,” Olshansky said.  'We may have reached the biological limitations of our bodies."
But living longer should not necessarily be the goal. Rather than “life extension,” science, medicine and public policy should be working toward “health extension” –- trying to increase the number of years that we live in good health before the grim reaper does us all in.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why We Are Who We Are--- It's All About 1968

Chicago, 1968-- protesting Vietnam

Janis Joplin, Newport Folk Festival
Where were you in 1968? Did you watch Mission Impossible? Dragnet?
Did you see Peggy Fleming win the Olympic
gold in figure skating in Grenoble, France?

Peggy Fleming, Olympic Gold
Or hear Janis Joplin at the  Newport, R.I. Folk Festival? Where were you when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed? Did you see Apollo 8’s view of “earthrise.”? Were you in a foxhole in Vietnam or were you clubbed at the Chicago Democratic Convention?  Did you wear patchwork madras?  Were you among the stunned who stood along train tracks when Robert Kennedy’s coffin rolled by? Did you watch the first Black Miss America pageant? Can we count you among the more than 12 million women using contraceptive pills by then, maybe enjoying “free love”? Did you smell smoke in a burning city?
Earthrise, from Apollo 8

As the exhibit "1968"
 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia makes clear, it was an extraordinary, frightening, tumultuous, and pivotal year that is indelible in the minds of those who lived through it. It's also key to who we are today.
I, for one, came home from a year studying in Chile on June 7, 1968. It was the Chilean porter who carried my bags to the airplane, who told me that Robert Kennedy Jr. had been shot the previous night. What a homecoming to my country.
Here are some of the hundreds of notes that visitors have posted at the exhibit, which closes Sept. 2.:
 I lived in Chicago in 1968. My husband went to deliver blankets and food after the riots in ’68. It was a frightening time. Our neighbor, a divinity student, was on the cover of Time Magazine with blood dripping down his face. --Denise Convention, born in 1941.

I remember my Dad making fun of my mom –calling her a women’s libber.  --Unsigned, born in 1952

I remember the smell of smoke on a sunny Easter Sunday. We had an Easter Egg hunt in the park. The smoke was from the riots in downtown (D.C.) after MLK’s assassination. –Dr. R.K. Allen, born in 1964.

I was visiting family in Greece in the summer of 1968 when Russia invaded Prague. Greece, under military rule at the same time, instituted a curfew and I saw military tanks roll down the streets of Thessaloniki. I had never seen a military tank before. --, born in 1953.

I was involved in campus protests at Fordham U. We demanded that the university admit more black students. We demanded an end to ROTC on campus, an end to recruiting by Dow Chemical, mfrs of napalm. We wanted  the troops to be sent home. They did not deserve to die in a senseless war. – Dennis Loughlin, born 1948.

I was involved in the first draft lottery. My birthday was picked #3. Very scary times!! Eventually sworn into the N.J. National Guard. We should have finished the job. 2-3 million South Vietnamese died when we left. –John Miller, born 1949.

What was your experience? What do you remember? How has living through this time made you who you are?