By Michael M. Ego, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut, who teaches the graduate course, “Adaptation and Development in Adulthood”. Dr. Ego was At Home In Darien’s special guest speaker at our Annual Meeting on December 6, 2018. The following Op-Ed was published in the Stamford Advocate on December 20th and reinforces Dr. Ego’s comments that were presented during his lecture.
The Wall Street Journal recently offered a salient look at the current issues related to loneliness and isolation among the older population. It reported that researchers have found loneliness is worse for longevity than being obese or physically inactive. The story depicted a looming darkness for future generations of older people in America.
My doctoral dissertation was about retirement adaptation. What happens when people retire? Do they adjust and adapt easily to a new lifestyle? Are there predictors to a successful transition from full-time employment to full-time leisure? What physical and/or mental changes affect the aging process? The results of my research indicated that the expectations for post-retirement activities were similar to pre-retirement activities.
Many theories have sprung up about retirement adaptation by a variety of scholars in the field through the years. Research measured the Big Five personality traits Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion and Neuroticism, and the results show stability throughout the adulthood phase of the life span.
One theory that has garnered notable attention is the Continuity Theory of Normal Aging — developed by Robert Atchley, a noted social gerontologist at Miami University (Ohio). I completed my postdoctoral fellowship there at its world-renowned Scripps Gerontology Center.
The theory states “that in making adaptive choices, middle-aged and older adults attempt to preserve and maintain existing internal and external structures; and they prefer to accomplish this objective by using strategies tied to their past experiences of themselves and their social world. Change is linked to the person’s perceived past, producing continuity in inner psychological characteristics as well as in social behavior and in social circumstances. Continuity is thus a grand adaptive strategy.”
I have interpreted Atchley’s as follows: if making adjustments throughout the life span is smooth, then retirement adaptation will mostly likely be seamless. That is, if you adjust well to life events that include starting college, getting married, getting divorced, becoming a parent, changing jobs, adjusting to stress, planning to prepare for anticipated life changes, etc., then Atchley’s thesis will be the predictor — positive or less positive in retirement. It remains the theory that I believe best explains retirement adaptation.
Retirement happens in many shapes and forms. Today, individuals are seeking Encore careers; opting to continuing to work full-time and not being interested in retiring till later; working part-time; becoming leaders and helpers in many civic, social and cultural organizations in their community; “aging in place” where you reside; choosing to move to Florida or the Carolinas; grandmothers and grandfathers becoming surrogate parents; and endless other options from which to choose.
To reinforce my point, a research study was cited in the WSJ article by researchers at Brigham Young University, in a review of more than 148 independent studies with 300,000 interviewees, found that greater social connection was associated with a 50 percent lower risk of early death. Therefore, the concerns raised by the WSJ are not necessarily a “doom and gloom” scenario for older adults in the future. There is optimism to the contrary, based upon research and theoretical constructs presented in this essay.