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Prime Time/A conversation about growing older

On the flight home, a middle-aged businessman sat down next to a distinguished-looking older man with snowy white hair. After striking up a conversation, the businessman ventured, "What would you say is the secret to enjoying your life after retirement?"

The older man replied, "First, let me ask you a question. What is the secret to your professional life? I take it you are happy and succeeding at what you do?"

"Let's see," the businessman began. "It starts with the fact that I define my goals clearly. I do careful planning. I try to envision what I want to accomplish and, most importantly, why I want to accomplish it."

He continued, "I've specialized and learned my area well. I learn as much as I can about related areas as well. I try to understand my business environment. I'm open to new ideas and improvements. I take the initiative. I'm a self-starter who knows how to take responsibility and follow through with what I've started.

"Finally, you might say I have a healthy appreciation for my weaknesses and try to compensate for them by working as a team member with other good people. I'm not afraid to look at myself and get the help I need to stay current. I trust others with important responsibilities."

The older man had a twinkle in his eye. "You just answered your own question about growing older. Managing retirement is something like managing a career.

"You say you're involved in goal setting and planning. Excellent! Most people underestimate how important their goals and plans are to their success. Choosing goals means you have a purpose and a focus to your time and energy.

"You're not trying to do everything. Right?" The older gentleman plunged on. "Older people have even more reason to be selective and to pick out a few areas to concentrate on. Like it or not, our energy and vigor begins to fade. I simplify. I've cut back a lot. There is no way I can do the things I used to do.

"The things I do, I do well. I haven't stopped learning. I'm active. I keep busy. I'm making the most of my time. I've accepted my limitations and have even become more focused on just a few goals.

"I have a couple of hobbies I pursue with great enthusiasm. I love my grandkids and make them a huge priority in my life. My life is much simpler now."

The businessman interrupted. "But don't you lose your edge? I mean, I've always thought growing old meant losing some capacity."

The older man smiled and started again. "Yes, that's true. I wear a hearing aid. My memory isn't as good as it used to be. Tomorrow I'm going to rest up before doing anything else. This trip has worn me out.

"Just like you mentioned working around your weaknesses, I take note of my declining health and abilities and make the necessary adjustments. But I'm trying my best to keep the quality of life I want. I use whatever it takes to compensate for the changes in my life."

"Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point."

"Have you ever heard of the pianist, Rubinstein? One time he explained his strategy on how he dealt with the issue of age and wanting to continue playing the piano on tour. First, he reduced his repertoire and played a smaller selection of pieces. Second, he practiced these pieces more often. Third, he slowed down his speed of playing prior to fast movements, thereby producing a contrast that enhanced the impression of speed in the fast movements.

"You see, he had all the elements of success right there. Thoughtful selection of goals. Sustained effort in a smaller area of expertise. Compensation for his loss of speed.

"In a way, my life is a little more complicated, especially since I've retired. I have to pick and choose among many things I can do with my time. I work hard at keeping friends and staying socially involved. I want to stay independent as long as possible. Most importantly, I have to manage my health and continue to narrow my focus to fit my limitations when they happen. My world becomes smaller with time.

"I adjust my view of myself to new realities. I don't compare myself with young people like you or even with the way I used to be.

"What is important is what I can do with what I've got left. The business of growing older is being smart enough to outwit the body and still get the most out of life. In some small way, I want to be growing and learning until the day I die. At least, that is how, God willing, I hope to handle it."

The businessman reflected, "So what you are telling me is that older people need to work toward worthwhile goals, meet challenges, continue to learn and then adjust creatively to their changing circumstances. It sounds like work to me."

"Exactly!", the older man exclaimed. "Retirement is another form of work. Work of your own choosing. In retirement, work and play become the same thing."

Ideas for this column were taken from the work of psychologists Paul and Margret Baltes. They edited a book, "Successful Aging," published by Cambridge University Press.

For more information on aging and retirement, visit Val Farmer's website at


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist who specializes in rural mental health and family relationships.