Productive Aging, or How to Foment Revolution in a Post-Career Job

It’s only natural that people are age conscious. We all feel most comfortable with our contemporaries. After all, we share many of the same experiences, and our outlook on life and longevity is likely to be similar. I suppose that I’m no different. I was born in 1936 and experienced World War II as a young child. Now, with advancing years, there are fewer and fewer of us still living. That’s one of life’s intrinsic realities.

Joy in Purpose.

My work is my pleasure. It always has been. It still is at age 85. Shouldn’t that be the case for everyone of whatever age? Who decreed that work is a burden? Doesn’t everyone want to have meaning in life? Doesn’t everyone want to feel that they matter? The idea of retirement as a perpetual vacation never appealed to me. I suppose that’s the case as well with people like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and many others who continue to lead productive lives despite their age.

My case is somewhat different, though, because my wife and I moved to a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) when I was the age that Chuck Schumer is now. We were drawn by the sociability and the life that would be my wife’s if I were to die before she did. I never expected to be viewed as less productive merely because we made that move. That common view of senior living is another reality.

Finding a Cause.

Changing that bias gave new purpose to my life. My professional career as an actuary has little bearing on how one is viewed as person in a senior living community. For those who may not know, actuaries are experts in managing the financial consequences of life’s contingencies, including those of aging. When I was in my early 50s, my go-to-work job was terminated. A Wall Street firm took over and decided to save money by ousting all the officers. I continued my actuarial career in consulting, and I loved helping others. I was still actively consulting when I moved into the “retirement” community.

I never expected to be viewed as less productive merely because we moved into a retirement community.

With that move, I discovered that there is unconscious ageism in senior living. Residents aren’t forbidden to work, but it’s not expected. Moreover, providers like to imagine that they have everything under control. While residents are free to make suggestions, they seldom have a meaningful say in the operations or finances of the communities where they make their homes. What some might think would be a partnership of residents and providers is more reflective of the common ageist image of out-of-date, doddering old people.

Shifting Direction.

Truth to tell, I no longer needed the income from consulting. My goal had long been to have enough money so money wasn’t important, and I was blessed to have achieved that. So, with time, I let my consulting business dwindle, and I began writing for the senior living industry, hoping to bring it forward beyond caregiving into lifelong human empowerment.

It has now been 15 years during which I’ve pursued this “cause.” At first, I just tried to understand why the industry thought of itself as it did. I became active in LeadingAge and other industry groups.

I studied and took the exams to become a Certified Aging Services Professional. I attended gerontology conferences at USC and elsewhere. Slowly, I came realize that the barriers to acceptance of old people as peers were cultural.

Unexpected Resistance.

Gerontologists and geriatricians study old age, but most are not themselves old. It is challenging to grasp the many dimensions of the human journey through life stages. Old age, ending as it does, may be the most difficult to understand. I attended gerontological gatherings but felt like an outsider. The senior living industry can seem even more inward looking. There is an ageist condescension in the notion of a caring industry serving old people who are no longer able to fend for themselves. Attending conferences and offering to contribute was a valuable learning experience for me. It helped me to accept the reality of how people of my age are often viewed, even by those most concerned with aging.

Fortunately, I found a trade publication, Senior Living Foresight, that is the voice for the future of the industry. The publisher welcomed a thoughtful resident voice. They were willing to let me publish, and I continue to publish regularly. At the same time, I was surprised that the entrance fees required by many nonprofit senior living communities were not regulated as the single premium life annuity investments that they appeared to be.

A growing number of thinkers quietly believe that old age should be another life phase, not a life sentence.

As an actuary, I expected that enterprises undertaking lifetime contractual obligations would hold actuarial reserves to provide the same financial soundness as that of licensed insurance companies. Toward that end I participated within the actuarial profession in published discussions of entrance fees and the societal and enterprise impacts of other contingencies of aging. There are a few actuaries active in senior living, but for the most part the senior living industry is run on cash flow despite the lifetime nature of many commitments.

The Pen is Mighty.

Publishing is beginning to influence some forward-thinking leaders. As might be expected when addressing an entrenched unconscious mindset, it takes time to open the minds of people with careers in aging to new perceptions. We see in our political lives that many people who in the past might have been viewed as geriatric are now leading the nation, even the presidency.

Giving the changing expectations for old age, and my published explorations of the implications of that change, it’s not surprising that I have confidential contacts among industry leaders. They want to explore new ways of envisioning life’s final stages, but they are also aware of their peers. These contacts remain largely confidential because people want to find clarity in their own thinking and actions before they expose themselves to the judgments of peers and the tenets of convention. This growing number of thinkers are quietly coming to believe that old age should be just another life phase and not a life sentence.

While change is coming slowly to the senior living industry, other related changes are unfolding rapidly. Advances in technology and medicine are allowing older people to continue to live active, vibrant lives to very advanced ages. The period of age-related dependency is shortening even as longevity is lengthening. Increasingly, people can avoid age-delineated facilities to remain active in the larger community. That’s cause for rejoicing.

Jack Cumming has lived for the past 15 years with his wife in a California senior living residence. He’s convinced that our nation can better respond to the challenges of an aging population by recognizing that old age need not be a time of idleness.