- By Kerry Hannon
“My Mother’s Senior Years Were So Different From Mine.” That’s the title of the first chapter of the intriguing new book, The New Senior Woman: Reinventing The Years Beyond Mid-Life by Barbara M. Fleisher and Thelma Reese. (Highlights of my recent interview with Fleisher are below.)
Since I’m visiting my 84-year-old mother in Pittsburgh this week, the authors’ opening chapter title got me thinking. Mom’s past two decades have been quite active, filled with publishing cookbooks, travel and volunteer work, in addition to caring for my dad, who battled Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade.
Dad passed away five years ago, but Mom kept striding along and continues to live independently. What’s kept her life meaningful and relatively healthy, I think, is the combination of her spirit, attitude, state of mind and willingness to embrace new things (she Skypes with her grandkids and pays bills online).
In a word, she’s engaged.
(MORE: The 4 Money Lessons I Learned From My Mom)
That's the key to making the most of our senior years, according to retired professors Fleisher and Reese, ages 83 and 80 respectively, who run the cheekily named ElderChicks website, a meeting place for senior women.
To research their book, Fleisher and Reese traveled the country talking about aging with more than 200 vibrant women, ranging from age 50 to their late-‘90s. All are successfully traversing their senior stage.
Here’s what Fleisher learned about “The New Senior Woman,” including some great advice for women in their 50s and 60s:
Next Avenue: What surprised you most during your book research?
Fleisher: Interestingly, we found that women in their 50s are really thinking about what’s next. That would never have been the case in past generations.
(MORE: Want to Age Well? Learn New Tricks, Not New Facts)
The women said they feel they have a whole other life to live. They see the last half of their lives ahead of them and want to make decisions based on the wisdom they have gained in the first half. We often heard them say that decision-making during the first half had been by almost blind propulsion and the next decisions would be made with more consideration.
You call these women “elderchicks” and say that you’re one. What are elderchicks?
We’re women 50 and beyond who are interested in living vital lives and are very young in spirit. Elderchicks have mastered the art of senior life and are living it with flair, dignity and a sense of accomplishment. We’re not doddering or diminished by age. We look for life outside of ourselves.
What’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks for women to be happy at this stage of life?
The loss of identity after retiring is big. The woman who feels defined by her career or occupation, can have a hard time dealing with the loss of that position. It can be crushing to realize that many adherents may have been responding to our title more than to our dazzling insights and wisdom. Losing the satisfaction of wielding authority or of addressing an admiring audience can lead to genuine bewilderment. You think, "Will anyone ever listen to me again?"
What are some tips the women you interviewed offered for navigating the financial roadmap at this age?
First, you have to make a financial plan. Do you have health care? Do you have long-term care insurance? Do you have an up-to-date will?
Next, downsize sooner rather than later. Start with one section of the house — one room. Take baby steps and, say, toss five things a day. That’s what I did. I called my children and said, "Tell me what you want. Anything you want I am mailing to you." It was amazing how little they wanted.
And look for ways to give back to your grandchildren. There is so much joy in that. You might consider kickstarting a Roth IRA for a grandchild who is earning income, for example.
How important is it to keep learning?
New learning equals new energy. You could return to something you always loved to do as a kid, like sewing or gardening, and build it into a small business.
Get out of your comfort zone and learn about technology, keep up with the new gadgets. The real bugaboo of aging is isolation. People who have not embraced technology at all are increasingly isolated.
(MORE: The Good News About Women Working After 60)
What about volunteering? Is that a worthy endeavor?
Yes, as long as it is not stuffing envelopes. A lot of volunteering is busy work. To me, and to many women, that really is not satisfying. However, you might find an opportunity to volunteer by writing copy for a newsletter, or whatever it is you like to do.
I think volunteering is really important because it gets you to reach out into the world to stay relevant.
(MORE: Can We Get Some Volunteers, Please?)
You also say it’s important to get out of the “senior bubble” and meet people who aren’t like you. What do you mean?
You need to find ways to interact with a multicultural, multigenerational world. When you’re with people of different generations, for example, it’s less isolating because they will challenge you to remain connected.
What are the three words the new senior woman needs to live by?
Curiosity, interest and courage. “Courage” seems to be the most important. Older women tend to feel afraid. They feel invisible. They feel scorned and an object of stereotype jokes. They prefer not to put themselves out there. It takes a lot of courage to push on.