Medicare Website Update
GRAY MATTERS: Socialized Medicine?

Old Age: Reinvention vs. Reflection

Ever since the oldest baby boomer turned 60 in 2006, just about every media story about aging tells us that boomers are “reinventing retirement.” Without any evidence to back up the statement, reporters rely on the singular example of a 70-plus marathon runner, bungee jumper or skydiver as their ideal, reinvented old person.

A subset of these writers - those who stake out advice-giving as their territory – urges boomers to reinvent not just retirement, but their entire selves. (Reporters now refer to all old people as boomers as though everyone born before 1946 is already dead.)

I've spent more than half a century – and you probably have too – growing into who I am today. It seems to me that one of the great, grand purposes of life is to understand ourselves and reinvention, a word with a strong whiff of posturing and false representation, is antithetical to that goal.

This came to mind recently during an email exchange with 70-year-old TGB reader, Anne Pitkin:

“[T]he celebration of old people jumping out of planes, climbing mountains, etc.,” wrote Anne, “it just makes me tired. One of the things I really enjoy about this age is the realization that I don't have to strive. I can do the things I love for the sake of doing them. I can follow my own natural rhythms - as long, of course, as I don't lapse into inertia!”

“...we should all do what gets our juices flowing, but between us chickens, I don't want to reinvent myself. I want to sit on the porch and watch the birds.”

Which is my “singular example” that old age hasn't changed much whatever reporters who cover aging believe.

Striving and reinventing oneself are activities of the young as they build careers and try on various personas. In a series about Carl Jung's seven tasks of aging three years ago, David Wolfe, who blogs at Ageless Marketing, described two of those tasks that are pertinent to this discussion:

Finding a New Rooting in the Self
“The worldviews of people in the first half of life are generally rooted in the external world,” wrote David. “In contrast, the worldviews of people in the second half of life tend to be rooted less in the physical or mundane and increasingly in the nonphysical or metaphysical (or spiritual).”

Determining the Meaning of One’s Life
“Life meaning among the young is framed by styles of appearance, language, material acquisitions, and social affiliations in the quest for a solid footing in the external world...

“However, the search for life meaning undergoes a major shift in the second half of life. Whatever people’s material success, many find less and less meaning from “things.” So, they begin to look inward rather than to the outer world in their search for life meaning.”

I'm not sure any of us can determine the meaning of our lives, but it is in the seeking that magic lies.

Young people, on encountering an elder “sitting on the porch watching the birds,” as Anne Pitkin does, see idleness. In reality, important work is taking place, work for which solitude and quiet are necessary.

Without a whit of proof, I'm betting that most of the media folks who are so certain they know what the best thing is for elders aren't much past 40. They are not old enough yet to know that reinvention is a contrivance. Old age is a time for honest reflection.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Chaput: The Blacksmith Down the Lane



It's so easy to give advice until you have 'been there, done that.' A few athletic elders are not the norm, nor should they be. Youth is for the young.

Being an elder means making the necessary adjustments to life as you age and accepting who you are and what you are capable of doing.

I will be 70 on my next birthday and I can honestly say, this is the best time of my life! I absolutely love that I can spend time sitting in the old wicker chair watching the birds and listening to them sing. I love that I don't have to prove anything to anyone anymore (maybe I never did, but didn't know it). I love that I can take a mid afternoon nap if I want to and not feel guilty. I love being Grandma. Admittedly there are limitations, but I wouldn't go back for anything.

I have been inspired by those who excel physically and not intimidated. But I also am just as happy to idly watch mother nature in all her glory. I think the best part of aging is choices without judgement and not caring what others think. It is a nice life when not compromised by poor health or poor finances.

Well said, Ronni.

I am noticing that friends and relatives now looking at their 50s are making this transition and discovering their real selves.

I dunno. Any time somebody says, "People who are [name your subcategory] say/think/do [name your generalization]," the statement is probably wrong. The similarity between my life story so far and that of all other (American, white, middle-class, female) 58-year-olds have some commonalities - we remember dial phones and the Kennedy assassination. Beyond that, however, the differences are huge: health, wealth, marital status, dumb luck, interests, beliefs, politics, values...

I've always sat and watched the birds. I spent endless hours in my 20s sitting around drinking cofee with my friends. I want to reinvent myself again and again for the rest of my life.

I've always found opportunitites for reinvention--new job, moving, even the New Year--to be reinvigorating and energizing, making me alive to new possibilities.

Re-invention as a way of talking about the magic of new learning and creativity isn't in the way of going within to reflect on one's life, or sitting on the porch watching the clouds and birds. The media focuses on heroic, creative and physically active elders because our culture is so outer-oriented. We grow to understand and experience the value of the inner life as we grow older, and as we find ways to communicate that to the culture as a whole, we contribute to the emergence of another more positive perspective on aging.

Reinvention or reflection? Well, I'm very close to 70 and I do marathons. Racewalking and not running. But I do them for myself and for no one else. You want to sit on the my guest.
But understand that I didn't reinvent myself to do this, I did this years before I retired and it has everything to do with 'me' and how I feel about myself. If I ever saw a reporter coming to ask me about my age while I was racing I would tell him/her to get lost. I've done it before. There's no celebration here, it's just hard work.
Right now I'm rehabilitating myself after surgery and I'm planning on returning to the races because they make me feel good. It's part of who I am.
And yes, I take naps now. That's also part of who I am.

I agree with Steven. NOT that I'm a runner or marathoner--far from it. I was just thinking that when media looks at elders running races or bungee jumping, I think it most likely is because these folks have been running and bungee jumping all their lives. I think the number of elders that suddlenly decide "hey, I think I'll train for a marathon!", are few and far between.

And, yes, I've been sitting watching birds for many a year now. It's a way I de-stress from work.

Well said. As most of us know, the media is wrong about pretty much everything as they look for a shallow answer that fits a soundbite and draws up their ratings.

When the importance of exercise was introduced in my high school, I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. I continue at age 68 to enjoy swimming (learned at age 50), weight lifting and Pilates on a weekly basis. Do I feel like the old person in some of the classes? You bet I do. However, I do it for me and nothing will stop me from doing what’s right for me except me whether it’s exercising or enjoying the luxury of having absolutely nothing to do, no place to go and no one to see.

These remaining years are much too valuable to waste on what anyone else thinks or says whether young or old.

Reinvent? If it ain't broke, why? We reinvent when the existing device is no longer functional or we have substantial reason to believe that a new design would significantly improve functionality.
I ain't broke and it doesn't seem that either Ronni or the rest of y'all are either.

What is broken is a society that has discarded most of the fundamental virtues that we held to be "self-evident". Loyalty, integrity, compassion trust etc., in exchange for a quick buck and a shiny new self-image replete with silicon accoutrements and botox . The "snows of yester year" are ice cubes melting in my glass.
We can thank our baby boomer friends for all that.

That's the thing about shoe doesn't fit all.

I had an English teacher who always chirped a favorite mantra from William Blake: To generalize is to be an idiot.

And generalize is what mainstream media does best. Hence, they are the best of idiots ;-)

Years ago, I lived in a town in Florida, where toxic levels of ageism flourished. This would seem to be no surprise--there was a hardworking but MUCH poorer younger population rubbing elbows daily in grocery stores and other public spaces with MUCH richer retirees, who were often very demanding and unpleasant.

Now I think there was more to it.

One of the things the young probably hate most about the old is exactly the chronological fact that most ships have sailed. Older folks can't become ballerinas, basketball players, or beauty queens, and even if they once were those things, they're not now, no matter how much "reinvention" goes on. In our competitive culture, most of youth does seem to be about the striving for "more" and "better".

I think the young are actually a little jealous (though they'd never admit it) of what they imagine as a safe and luxurious harbor from the incessant striving and stretching and yearning.

Still, it can't hurt for any of us (unsafe, unrich, unreinvented, and OK with it as we really are) to treat younger people well, with respect from adult to another--a lesson those Florida retirees might have done well to learn.

After all, we've been them. They've never been us.

But what if you like reflecting while jumping out of airplanes? Isn't that ok too?

And I'm with you there in Pilates class, Claire Jean!

What about laid back young people and the old people who support them?

I can't find anywhere Ronni said exercise or even jumping out of airplanes is a bad idea for elders. what she doesn't like is that the media - and after all, the media define the culture nowadays - make reinvention and extreme sports the ideal for old people implying, and sometimes saying outright, that any old person who isn't doing these things is a slacker.

Are you people willfully misunderstanding Ronni?

And Hattie, that is Ronni's point that "We've been them (young). They've never been us." They have no idea what it is to be old (as we did not when we were young) and they have no business defining old age for us.

Nowhere is the nonsense of marketing relative to old age more evident than in the promotional material ginned up to peddle retirement communities in Florida. The brochures present seniors in a laughably--and insultingly--youthful guise, depicted by actors nowhere near retirement age. All these happy, ideal seniors are seen being active--jumping for joy after one-putting for a birdie,
boating, swimming,
dancing,feasting,jogging, etc.
In other words, old age is depicted as entirely given over to the body, with no suggestion the mind matters at all. In fact, the message is that being old--at least in a Florida retirement community-- is no different from being young or middle aged. The imagery isn't very much different in the pitches made on TV for assisted-living facilities.
In effect, the world presented bears a striking resemblance to the one depicted in Aldus Huxley's classic of the Thirties, Brave New World.
The point at which I realized something had gone wrong was back in my teaching days. I remember receiving a copy of the AARP magazine, on the cover of which was a retired professor. Dressed in a bright yellow wet suit, he was waterskiing, holding the tow rope in his teeth. The image remains as fresh and foolish as when I first saw it twelve or fifteen years ago.

I like old age too. I just wish it lasted longer.

I haven't reinvented myself, either. I always enjoyed watching the birds, gardening, reading and other happy pursuits. Now I just have more time for them. Let those who like to go whitewater kayaking have their fun and I'll have mine. To each his/her own!

LOL!! "I like old age too. I just wish it lasted longer."

john, you made my evening.

Well, I guess my husband and I, 80 and 73 respectively, would be considered stone cold dead as far as reporters on aging are concerned, but guess what? We definitely aren't. We're not marathoners, parachutists or bungee-jumpers but, as several writers have observed, that's probably because we weren't at 25. Yet, staying active is important to us.

With or without so-called reinvention, it's great that many older people can do their own thing, to borrow a catchphrase from the boomer generation. I tend to agree with Ronni that the concept of reinvention as applied to older people is overhyped. Not reinventing myself doesn't mean succumbing to inertia. I still enjoy the challenge of striving and the satisfaction of a job well done, but I no longer rise before the birds and return home well after dark, as I did for many years.

As a result of the Great Recession many older Americans lost a significant chunk of their retirement savings and aren't financially able to retire completely; others may choose to remain connected to the workforce. They may work into their 70s and perhaps beyond, while others spend more time on the porch, going fishing, reading, writing or volunteering. Worthy pursuits all. To each her own, say I.

I am fifty-eight, and was fortunate to retire from teaching at fifty-three.

I love all of the time to read the books, paint the pictures, hang out with my cats, meet friends in the middle of the day for fun like taking hikes or just hanging out. I am doing all the things I never had time for while I worked

I started full time work at twenty-one years of age because I had to support myself. I never thought about not working, and although I married I continued to work because I thought it unwise to rely on a man for money.

As far as reinventing myself, well maybe I will, but right now I am most content just to have the whole day to myself.

I suspect that these folks who write about all the "glamorous" and "daring" things that older people do may be writing about aging this way because they cannot face the reality of the changes that are inherent in aging.


See, we are all glad to know we are dead. And too, perhaps all those journalists are young?

Some of these comments are great.

So many great responses. I will be 67 in June. News articles keep telling readers how boomers will change everything.

So far I see no evidence of that. Politicians keep talking about making public transportation easier for seniors.

The media trots out articles about seniors still working, but mostly in minimum wage jobs. It's all talk so far, very little action.

My husband and I are active. We stopped cross country skiing because we hate the cold, but we kept the activities we can and love to do, like kayaking, inline skating, cycling with a retired group, walking.

I take yoga, two zumba classes a week, and garden for many seniors. Plus, I work part time at a university supervising student teachers.

I like breaking stereotypes. So far I am fit, take no medication. My mom is 87, same thing, no meds, no health problems.

Who knows, maybe I'll pop off in someone's garden. If so, I will die doing something I love, rather than sitting around falling for what the media says I should be doing, and a what age.

Like someone else said, you do what your body, mind, will allow. You let go of what you don't feel like doing.

You enjoy your senior years, your way.

My fave bank teller was back on the job yesterday, after retiring.

She told me they call her in 2x a week when they need back up.

I said "so it's true, there are jobs in retirement."

She said "yeah."

I agree completely about the reflection part. And I agree that 'reinvention' is NOT what old age is about. But I think I can see how the misunderstanding may have arisen.
Once we are free of the tyranny of earning a living, there is more time to do things we enjoy. Many of these are going to be be things we have always enjoyed - like watching birds, running races or reading books. But some may be new to us. Because now we have more time to play, to experiment, to travel, to explore places and activities we simply didn't have time or opportunity to explore before. Elderblogging is a good example.
Jung talked about 'individuation', i.e. the process of becoming more fully and completely ourselves, and that may include developing hitherto latent capabilities, such as writing or painting or speaking out on things we care about.
So I suspect that when people talk about 'reinventing' themselves they are in fact describing the continuation of this individuation process. It is a misnomer of course. We are not re-inventing. Reinvention implies replacement. We are not replacing. We are adding.
Until we die, we are all growing, learning, individuating, becoming all that we can be. Not in the striving, goal-oriented way of youth, but in the same slow, natural way that a flower unfolds to its fullest extent and, as the petals fall, the fruit quietly swells and ripens. Even in its last day on the tree, the fruit is still absorbing sunshine. Not reinventing itself, just continuing to deepen its flavour.

Will be 70 this summer...Last 7 years are the best...No more juggling to keep up with work & kids...I know the media is not talking to me anymore & it's a relief...Love watching the huge Ravens on the north coast of California.

As always, Ronni's commentors are thoughtful and valuable, but here's an angle I'd love to see folks tackle:

I'm in my fifth year of retirement from a 30-year career in community college and other levels of education, so I benefit from a small pension (augmented by disabled hubby's Social Security).

My own entire education was chock full 'o continual edicts to produce, excell, climb the academic ladder, and in general be almost totally defined but WHAT I did, not WHO I was/are.

While I know about an internal locus of control, etc. I find it often hard to just relax and enjoy and validate myself in retired activities. A chronic illness which has cropped up mostly post-retirement adds to the challenge. I exercise 3x a week, volunteer 5 days a week at the Humane Society, and read and watch good Netflicks a lot. But I still worry if I'm doing "enough" with my energies.

My quetion to those who've retired a decade or more is "Does it get easier to define yourself in internal, retired-type endeavors as the years go on?"

Even as I write that I think of the external influences of lack of finances, poorer health, etc. which no doubt affect many folks. The mostly cheerful and positive comments to this essay make me a tiny bit suspect. How come we don't hear from more readers who are really struggling with elderhood? Or is it just my perch on the early ledge of elderhood? I'd appreciate your thoughts!

These are the very best years. By FAR. I will not listen to the media. I do what I want to do, read, knit, nap, pick up stones on the shore, sit without apology, ask nosy questions of strangers, wear PJs a lot, work very part time, write a lot, play Scrabble, watch Mad Men DVD series throughout the night and nod (a lot) at the truth of it. I lived it. Take lots of lovely pictures, write poems, have no-do days, write old fashioned letters, design lovely things, find new uses for old cans....need I go on?
We are who we want to be. Thanks Ronni.

Wonderful post, Ronni. Just so long as we live and are relatively is good and not being accountable to anyone for what we do even better. I like the different posts of your readers and agree with Kathy and Guitar Granny. Who is rich - who is happy with his lot...I only wish I had made better $ decisions but that is another story entirely.

If I wanted to jump out of an airplane or go bunging jumping I would have done it when I was young and foolish. I hate when thrill seeking people claim we aren't living life to the fullest unless we're taking chances. I hate when world traveling people make me feel I'm not living because I don't fly somewhere every weekend. I hate when party animals claim I'm dull because I don't stay up all night at noisy events. I can't find enough time in the day to live the life I love now. All the things in my bucket list have been there for decades. I don't want to re-invent myself - I want to finish what I started.

I don't really take what the media writes about Boomers seriously any more. Perhaps those writers are really all about finding an "angle" to attract attention and the rest is just so much rhetoric. Maybe I just have a jaded view about what motivates those writers including that they may not even believe what they say.

You're certainly correct that the generations older than the Boomers are largely ignored in the media unless engaging in extreme activities. I guess we've become "the forgotten generations" -- except here!

The Jungian concept of life stages does not fit all. I was very spiritually and inwardly oriented and mystical in my early 20s. I'm more down-to-earth, practical and interested in competence now (64). But I will say I've given up ambition. There are some things I'd still like to communicate, but it's no longer about being famous or even known for doing so.

The comments to this entry are closed.