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Choking on Being Retired

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A new story, Gifts For Elders on Your List has been posted on my Blogher blog.]

category_bug_ageism.gif A week ago The New York Times, which has lately been covering the “aging beat” with increasing depth and frequency,” published a QandA with Dr. Robert N. Butler. The man has a remarkable resume which the Times enumerates in its introduction:

He also coined the term “ageism,” and this list does not begin to cover Dr. Butler’s lifetime contributions to the field of aging.

The Times QandA is too short and at least one of the questions is awesome in its stupidity:

“Q. Your report mentions that the elderly are left out of most emergency planning. Why is this important?” [emphasis added]

Being more a gentleman than I would be in the face of such ignorance of the obvious, Dr. Butler patiently explained:

“Because most of the people who died in New Orleans were older. Following 9/11, my wife, Myrna Lewis, who was a social worker and who died in 2005, went to seek out the elderly in the neighborhoods around the World Trade Center. She found lots of older people who were really neglected in the emergency. They went without medications. Home health aides couldn’t get through to them. Some were living in feces.

“Both events should get us thinking about what happens to older people in assisted care and nursing home facilities during emergencies — tornados, blackouts, hurricanes. Society is not sensitive to the fact that old people are not as able to survive under perilous circumstances. Homeland Security needs to be considering this.”

No kidding. But I was interested too when, in response to a question about ageism, Dr. Butler, who will soon turn 80 and works full-time, focused on a word that comes up more frequently these days in my life: retired.

“I’m fairly vigorous. I have financial resources. And I’m the boss here, which certainly protects me from ageism,” said Dr. Butler.

“But there are two things I’ve noticed. One relates to the ‘R’ word, ‘retired.’ When I stepped down as the chair of geriatrics at Mount Sinai to build the Longevity Center, people began referring to me as ‘retired.’ I quickly realized that ‘retired’ was not a good word. If you are applying for grants from the N.I.H., you don’t want to be perceived as ‘retired,’ which seems to be a synonym for ‘over the hill…’”

Personally, I choke on the word “retired.” On the rare occasions I have used this term to describe myself, I’ve seen the same kind of veil come over the eyes of people who ask what I do as I saw on the faces of young interviewers (before I gave up looking for full-time work) when they saw how much older I am than I sound on the telephone.

In my job search, that veil meant I didn’t have a chance of being hired. Now, when I use the word “retired,” it is amusing (or would be if it weren’t so infuriating) to watch the other person searching for a way to politely extricate him- or herself from our conversation.

Apparently, in the eyes of the culture, as is believed about elders in general, retirement causes stupidity and hence, retirees couldn’t possibly have anything of interest to say, let alone contribute society.

Like almost every elder I know who qualifies as retired through having no full-time work and/or having reached the age of receiving Social Security benefits, I have never been more intellectually engaged in life and in the world around me. And if the thousands of comments and discussion on this blog over several years now is any indication, I am hardly alone.

Still, it is language again - in the kneejerk, negative response to “retired” - that isolates elders from the mainstream. Even a man as eminent as Dr. Butler falls afoul of it.


People need to understand that "retired" means from a specific job, not from life.


When I lost my job, I described my situation initially as "laid off" because "unemployed" seemed more chronic and negative--easily linked to "unemployable".

As the years wore on, I switched to "retired" because it sounded more as if I'd chosen to bask in a life of ease especially if I followed up with, "I've gone back to school." Sometimes I muttered, "I'm a housewife." as if choking on my new dependency after a lifetime of independence. When I was feeling particularly bitter, I'd spit out the British-ism, "I've been made redundant." which is certainly what it feels like.

As for you, Ronni, you are not retired. You are a writer. "Oh, what have you written?" "I write a daily column on issues related to aging and age discrimination."

I say that I'm a "retired technical writer." It makes it easier for the person to follow up.

As I say, the Prime of Life can last until forever...

That dr. is one cool dude and I didn't know all you noted. Thanks...

Thank you for a very thoughtful column...and certainly you are a contributing member of our society. I have struggled with those forms that ask my occupation. There have been so many occupations in my life that it would take a couple of pages to write what is is that I have "retired" from. Mostly I have just moved on to another phase of life. It is a progression, after all, not a simple halt.

I am in the process of contemplating 'retirement' and have decided that I shall call myself a 'fiber aritist' when the time comes as I plan to KNIT like crazy.

Interesting thoughts and I agree. The word retired doesn't have much meaning anyway these days given the typical 'retiree.' My husband is one example. He took retirement but not to retire (as in recreate all day) but rather to start his own consulting business which he has been doing since that time. I know quite a few others doing the same thing or finally with the time to donate to causes in which they believe. You could honestly tell those who ask that you work out of your home in communications. The word retiree does tend to mean someone who no longer does work and many who are not paid salaries have more work than they can handle. I think the whole thing has changed a lot for what retirement means since my parents' generation retired.

Just a note on the reporter's question. While in court you get your hand slapped for leading the witness, in journalism it is de riguer in order to give the responder an opportunity to state the obvious, as what is obvious to some is not to others, and also to shape the interview in the direction the reporter wants it to go.

True that life doesn't end at retirement! I am a writer for Gilbert Guide, where we compile the best in long-term care facilities and services. I recently wrote an article, "Silver-Collar Workers at an All-Time High," which can be seen at Check it out!

Or you can use the W.S. Gilbert response that I give people who ask what I do:

"I do nothing in particular, but I do it very well!"

And I'm 48.....

Instead of referring to someone who is no longer working for a living as a "retired person" we should, instead, say they changed jobs. It's been my experience that the people I know who have retired from the work force now work harder than ever. It has certainly been the case for me, but I am now doing what I want to do instead of following orders.

When I check off the word, "retired," on a form, I am simply advising that in a former life, I had been a worker. "Retired" is not a form of address, but is a word with many meanings, as are so many words in the English language. "Retired" could mean gone to bed, to (literally) take a few steps back, to withdraw from circulation (think notes and bonds), and has a few other meanings as well.

Those who know me know of my many interests and activities. They also know I am retired, and that being retired, as in not being employed (which also has several meanings), does not mean I have no life.

There are many worthwhile causes for which to fight. There are far too many ways to say hurtful things. I cannot get worked up over "retired."

You are doing such worthwhile work with your blog, Ronni. Thank you!

I hope you will direct readers to yesterday's Frontline, "Living Old." I think we are on the cusp of an important happening. As baby boomers retire and grow "old," I bet they will change the way we approach/view aging and death.

Yes, it's "retired from" which is how I identify myself - a retired teacher. I feel that way, too, since I'd rather not have to explain anything anymore to a too-large group of teenagers ever again. I am so thrilled to be retired from grading papers, attending pep rallies, overseeing float building and fund raisers, managing behavior, allowing people to go to the bathroom (how weird is that?), motivating, cajoling, evaluating, planning, and especially the crap that is known as leaving no child left behind (without funding). It was fine when I did it, but that's a closed book I'm glad to have finished. Sorry, I got carried away! I'm still in the euphoric stage of retirement FROM a career of 37 years. I've moved on to living for myself and doing what I want to. Makes me giddy. :-)

It's a shame that we have to strategize ways to avoid ageist interpretations of the word retired. Means to retire should be a cause of joy and celebration, not shame and ostracism. Thank you for bringing this to light, Ronni.

When I hear "retired" what I hear most of all is "tired." And also something about retreaded tires. And "retired" for the night, so basically asleep.

The word itself just has all the air let out of it and moss and barnacles all over it.

Thank you, Ronni!! At 59, I am living a great deal of what you've said here and have written about it. I'm tired of the discrimination against and belittling of elders.

Maggie Kuhn, a founder of the Gray Panthers, said it best: "Old age is not a disease - it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses.”

I have proposed that we aging Boomers hit the picket lines as many of us did in our youth. Perhaps we could get those in power to pay attention.

I am 64 years old, and for the first time, actually feeling it. I am planning to retire in 2007 and I must admit I am scared. But I don't want to give up any more of my time to my job. I have worked many years in the academic setting and have enjoyed much of it but never have enjoyed the politica jockeying and downright meanness that often accompanies it.
ok. I'm kinda bitter.

But I am afraid of retirement because I am alone and I am not sure if I can stand my own company without the distraction of others. I plan to have a little jewelry business, and love that, but it is is a scary situation.

Any advice?

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