Retirement and how to enjoy your post-career years: A research scientist’s perspective

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Nathan Abse interviews UCLA professor and retirement expert Alan Castel—author of Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging.

Toward the end of the year, employees and retirees connected with the government find there are a lot of economic considerations on the table—and on people’s minds. Our annual COLAs and raises are determined for the next year, our selections for health insurance and other benefits are being made during Open Season, and indeed many of us are thinking over just how much longer we might stay on as full-time employees with our career federal jobs. So, here we are in November 2022 with everything from the big economic picture, to our own personal consumer finance, down to how we will reinvent our lives in the future as retirees on our minds. This week, Nathan Abse interviews University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) psychologist and retirement expert Alan Castel—author of Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging—focusing on some of the emotional problems of retirement, and solutions to them.

Q&A with Alan Castel

Most feds approaching retirement give a lot of attention—and get tons of information—on the financial piece, with much less on the psychological aspects. But it’s a hugely psychological moment: Am I ready to retire? What will I do in it? Who will I be? It’s like a new identity, right?

Castel: Absolutely. Retirement can certainly have that effect on a person’s whole sense of identity—along with other psychological effects. When we’re working, most of us get a lot of our social stimulation from our job. Now, some of that is incidental to the type of job at hand. For example, as a journalist, you might have your colleagues and you might get a lot of stimulation from them and interviewing people. Other jobs have other kinds of stimulation, but we usually have people we work with. So, the fact is, as soon as you walk away from your job you could lose many of those social connections—and preserving social connections we know now is really important for successful aging.

So, that kind of total break with work can be bad for you—literally, bad for your health—right?

Castel: In some cases, yes, it can be. It depends on how you do it! So you should consider what you're walking away from, and what you are going to have the other side of that. In an ideal world, you will be retiring from those things at work that you don't like doing but also hanging on to the things that you do like doing. The trickiest part of this is that often part of what you like and keeps you stimulated are those professional relationships. But it can be possible to hang on to much of it. Maybe once you’re retired you maintain some aspects—for example hobbies and social events related to your job can sometimes be maintained. Sometimes, you can do consulting related to your old job or career. In these ways, as a consultant or semi-retiree, you’re not stuck with the same deadlines or supervisors but you still can engage in activities and work that you feel able and passionate about. If that doesn’t fit, often people satisfy this angle by volunteering or teaching on things they know and did at work. These are very good ways to contribute back—where you’re still part of trying to make the world a better place. And you have an impact without, you know, the grunt work of a nine-to-five job.

About those two wishes—wanting to retire from a full-time grind, but not wanting to lose decades-long human connections—at fed agencies it’s the employer that provides the solution: trending at many and helped by policy changes is letting career feds transition to part-time or consulting, with the employer’s motive to reduce institutional knowledge losses, you see?

Castel: That’s right. And it's called “phased retirement.” It can be very beneficial all around. Employers—as you said—benefit from older workers staying on to some extent as mentors and experts with deep knowledge preserved and imparted to younger employees. For the senior employees, there are advantages like continuing on but with fewer hours—and less responsibility and paperwork and other parts of their old jobs that they didn’t enjoy. This also can benefit the retiree or semi-retiree because they can get a feel for what retirement is like, without jumping completely into it. And there is a lot of variability. Some people who phase into retirement find they like reducing work right where they already live, while others find they like it better if they relocate—as they were considering doing for full-time retirement.

What about home-life issues—like being at home with family many more hours each day?

Castel: Well, this is the old question, isn’t it? Some people come to realize that because in retirement and semi-retirement you're suddenly home all or most of the time with a spouse. Maybe one or both of you are finding it hard to get used to spending all that time with the other. It’s all new. It’s a big consideration. Many people find they are reminded that they need to maintain something with a sense of purpose outside of their home and family. Like I said, phased retirement can really help us learn how to structure things here, and make things work.

It’s an important point: usually, for decades most feds weren’t at home nearly as much (except for the pandemic), and so “phased retirement” helps to learn about ourselves, try things out, and accept there’s no one way that works for all working couples as they near retirement, right?

Castel: Right.

Now, on to physical and psychological health issues: Your and other scientists’ research shows the mind can stay sharp in a multiplicity of ways as we age—what some findings?

Castel: Whatever else people get from this, they should know: the main thing is people need to keep moving and they need to keep stimulated. We absolutely need to keep our brains stimulated in many ways. This can happen through lifelong learning. This can happen through developing hobbies—can be anything, can be building things at home, can be birdwatching, can be learning new languages or taking up or returning to playing musical instruments. It might be revisiting other activities and skills you had or you've always wanted to develop, you know—some frequent ones are painting and photography. Point is it should be something where, you know, your brain is active. Things we often think of in retirement are crossword puzzles and the like—and sure those can be helpful, but what we find is that things with a social engagement are really things people stick to. Crossword puzzles might not be a hobby that can be as engaging as something that has a social component, where you're meeting other people—it could be leisure sports like playing pickleball. Could be you're simply meeting with friends or other people, you know, for coffee and discussing things. My point is the research shows that it helps to have some balance there, where you have the social component, a cognitive component and a physical component.

Can you offer your thoughts on the physical component—how important is that?

Castel: The physical component in staying well in retirement of course is that you're getting exercise, you're moving, you’re getting up and moving. For many of us, when we have a job there are periods when we don't feel we have time to exercise enough. But, hopefully, we're getting out of the house and moving around some. And likewise in retirement or semi-retirement you need to have reasons—or develop reasons—to get up and get out. You need to move physically, to feel valued psychologically, and to do things that keep your brain and your body sharp.

Psychological and other research suggests that to stay well and prevent or delay dementia, it helps not just to physically exercise and engage our intellects, but to engage socially—right?  

Castel: The science shows that social connections are incredibly important, as the evidence shows. Social connections keep us stimulated and that’s important to staying well. So, ideally as we’re older we're around other people—not necessarily all of the time, but we have some sort of social connection. There can be even a social support of people who are aware of your mood or level of anxiety and how that changes. And we can't necessarily rely just on a spouse for all of these sorts of things, right? It is a serious issue. The psychological side of what happens can be very important to consider—in combating loneliness and anxiety. We need social support. We need to stay active and engage.

So, in plain English what helps retirees and semi-retirees to get to a good place, psychologically?

Castel: As a person entering retirement, it’s good to find something that gets your interest. This shouldn’t be just “something” that doesn’t really engage your interest, but ideally an activity you have a level of passion for. Sometimes, it is something that you can mix in with a continuing professional pursuit. Sometimes it can involve picking up something entirely new, or something you used to do that in your career time you didn't have time for. But, oftentimes, we find it’s something that you do with other people that can motivate you—for example, doing exercise of some kind together. If you have someone to hike with, you’re more likely to do it with company. If it’s birdwatching or photography, likewise if you do it in a group setting instead of just on your own, it is more likely to help. Whatever it is, if it engages the concept of lifelong learning—that you're still learning new habits, hobbies, things you find interesting—then that’s a good thing. Look, if you immediately retire from a job, and soon don’t have other activities going on, there can be a big drop off in your level of stimulation. That can lead to bad habits—often led by being sedentary and even, for instance, greater alcohol consumption, or being less socially engaged, or other things. All of which can be detrimental.

Isn’t falling into less activity a danger also for people who work on their feet and use their hands—they too slide into suddenly moving a lot less with unstructured free time?

Castel: Sure. But, as I said, many retirees from all kinds of work can do better with a hybrid plan—like no longer working the night shift or as many hours, but somehow remaining in a similar kind of work in some way. The point is—if you totally stop your regular work and shifting to much less activity, yes, there are psychological components that you need to be aware of. But if we shift into retirement in a thoughtful way, we can learn more about ourselves along the way. And—on a bright note on these tough years with COVID, with many working from home and not getting as much satisfaction from work—many of us were suddenly constantly around family and some of us realized how valuable it is to have other outlets and ways to engage with other people—ways other than just work. These challenges are similar to what most of us have to deal with as we move into retirement.

Again, what about the issue of friction at home? I mean for many retiring feds, isn’t it going to be hard to be around that beloved partner or family a zillion hours more than usual?

Castel: Right. And David Letterman offered a great quote on this. He said, “Here's what I have learned, if you retire to spend more time with your family, check with your family first."

That’s the right quote, I’d say; funny—and true!

Castel: Look, you want your family but you need activities and other things too—you need balance, right? When I interviewed the late John Wooden—the famous UCLA basketball coach—he basically said a good life comes down to finding balance, you can't be retired and have nothing to do. But you also can't be busy all the time with a job that you hate. Often we have problems with balancing all the other important aspects of life you want to enjoy. You want to be around friends and family. And you want to have some professional pursuits and hobbies. As a culture, many of us really struggle with balance—instead just getting on a treadmill of working and working and working.

But—back to identity—isn’t that lack of balance an integral part of our culture, especially in the U.S.—after all, the sociologist Max Weber’s idea of the work ethic runs on steroids here, right?

Castel: Yes. In a lot of ways work is where many of us get so much of our psychological reinforcement. And it’s absolutely why retirement—for many of us—can be such a drop-off. Feeling like you’re being recognized as a professional and being recognized as part of a group of people all doing important things. And then—boom—suddenly, you’re in retirement. And then the question you might ask yourself is, are you still that person? Are you still that label? Do you still have those connections? The important thing is does it make you unhappy to think maybe you are not those things anymore? For many, that's why you really have to start figuring out what you want to do when you retire. And maybe all the more why it suits some people better to go with some sort of hybrid plan—one where, ideally, you can still do some professional things you like—or where you can teach those things or somehow remain involved. But in the hybrid plan, it’s a life focused on those things about work that you did enjoy, with less drudge. right?

What would you say you and other social scientists have found out about aging in recent years?

Castel: I’d emphasize a few main things. As we get older, there are many challenges we need to face and overcome. But—for some people, unexpectedly—there are also benefits to aging that many come to appreciate. Often with age we are a little more balanced. We have better emotional self-regulation. And, for most of us, we are better at focusing on what's positive and what's important to us. We are also more selective as we get older. That's what my research is really interested in. Overall, the way I see it, it’s not really that the brain gets worse or better. It's that it changes in ways that allow us to be more selective about the things that are important to us. Some of this effect happens because we realize we're not going to live forever. That is, we become more motivated to focus on what makes us happier. That’s different—when we were younger, we often were exploring with more uncertainty—like looking for a job, the next career move, etc. So, to summarize, I look at aging as being about changes over time and not a “decline.”

You have said you also are interested in some people who do very well with age?

Castel: Yes, there are some well-known people who have “aged well.” The details of their aging are interesting—they all did it differently. Whether it's, you know Jack Lalanne, or Maya Angelou or, as I mentioned, John Wooten. That’s what my book tries to illustrate: Why these particular people were very professional and in a real sense could never retire. Beyond these particular people, I think when we think about our older adults in general we need to see that they can be mentors to us—in ways that influence us in a good way on how we age, how we retire, and what sorts of habits we should engage in. And it’s important I don’t mean just a “positive” but a realistic approach to what we can do as we get older. The point is there are usually many, many things we can do to make sure things go better. Specifically, when you look at the issue of aging in any depth at all, you see that we have some control and agency versus many factors—over genetics, for instance. Some people approach aging like, well, it’s genetic and you are dealt certain cards. Don’t you believe it—that’s not the whole story!

So you mean with its many dazzling advances, the public got too fascinated with genetics?

Castel: Yes. But, well, I'm a psychologist. So I'm probably more interested in the behavioral things that people can do to live better and live longer, right? That doesn't mean that it works for everyone, I know that. But, there are basic things you can do, like physical exercise. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just keep moving. From my read on research and others’, some of the simplest advice is it seems effective if you can keep moving. Get up on your feet a lot, keep moving and keep a good balance. You know, it’s funny—so many people with age worry about problems with their memory. But to be blunt losing your balance—that’s what's going to put them in the grave. It’s something you can maintain often just by keeping active. But if you get inactive that hastens losing your balance, and you will be much more likely to have a fall, and lose your ability to walk.

What specific activities will help you keep your balance, then?

Castel: Again, if you just do simple exercises to keep your balance—like walking, dancing, or, say, Tai Chi or related pretty simple exercises—then you can really keep not only living longer, but maintaining a better mood and a better life. In turn, you’ll continue getting around with other activities and seeing people—and you’ll be better stimulated. So, I think whatever genetic package you have, you will benefit from these simple things.

Can you tell us about your background and ongoing research?

Castel: I completed a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, that was my interest. Studying how people think, learn and remember—and how those can change with age. I've long been interested in older adults. A gamut of issues—such as susceptibility to scams, how people find they have issues in regarding retirement habits, hobbies. I’ve been doing research on all of this, and I run a lab at UCLA where we investigate issues related to memory, cognition and aging.

Doesn’t your work in part focus on memory in older adults?

Castel: Yes. And in experiments where we show people things like names, faces and pictures, we find out how much people can remember. What we find is that older adults can—selectively—remember the things that are important. So, for example, if in an experiment I say that certain words are worth more points than other words, in a kind of game, older adults will focus on the words that are worth more. And they will remember those better. It suggests that as we get older our memory becomes honed. In many cases, we might remember just fine our grandchildren's birthdays. Or, say, baseball might be important to us, so we’ll recall very easily the score from last night’s—or last week’s—baseball game. Again, that’s because it reflects what's important to us. Now, what’s important of course differs from person to person. With respect to dementia, Alzheimer's disease, our lab is studying this issue of selectivity. We are looking at the issue of how many of us can continue to focus on what's important as we get older—and how that works. (This issue is important in younger people too, because when you can't focus on “what's important,” well, then you end up following the wrong leads or getting too caught up in irrelevant details.)

In your opinion, might this research of yours—or, say, pharmaceutical research—promise a breakthrough anytime soon to finally prevent or slow dementia?

Castel: I’m hoping for breakthroughs, too. But in the meantime I think prevention is the best approach. Besides, instead of trying to treat one aspect of the problem of aging—such as dementia—we already can and should exercise the whole body and mind to help prevent or slow many of these problems, including dementia. We know that simple things like walking and physical exercise, being social, staying curious and making use of lifelong learning bring benefits to the brain and the body. Instead of looking for a magic pill or overuse of blueberries, these known general approaches can benefit us against not just dementia but heart disease and other health issues. I firmly believe in this more holistic approach. Having said that, like everyone else I can of course also hope for a magical breakthrough.

This article has been updated with additional material from the interview. 

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