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  • Genevieve Ross / Special to The Bee

    Gail Reed teaches a meditation class for the Renaissance Society at CSU Sacramento. The society offers a wide variety of activities for retirees.

  • Genevieve Ross / Special to The Bee

    Richard Kowaleski, center, dancing with Joann Flory, teaches the ballroom dance class as part of the Renaissance Society at California State University, Sacramento.

Boomers write new definitions of retirement

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 1, 2014 - 8:58 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 3, 2014 - 6:29 pm

Cary Adams didn’t spend a lot of time kicking back after retiring from his Sacramento law firm six years ago.

He immediately founded MedStart, a program to promote the region’s medical device industry and joined the boards of several firms in which he’d invested money. Recently the 65-year-old launched Almond Tree Capital, a seed fund to finance medical startups.

One good friend told him he “flunked retirement.”

“And,” he says with a laugh, “I think she’s right.”

But, truth is, he’s passing with flying colors – by embracing a new sort of retirement that’s rewriting the traditional view of how we live after careers come to an end.

“The old view was you just gave somebody a gold watch and they went off into the sunset,” says Janette Brown, who runs the program for retirees at the University of Southern California. “The expectations were they wouldn’t do anything significant. They’d go off and knit. That’s not happening anymore.”

Instead, like Adams, many are starting their own companies in a burst of entrepreneurism that rivals what’s happening in Silicon Valley. Millions of others are taking on “encore careers” that meet long-deferred interests and passions. Plenty are pursuing higher degrees – or just taking classes – in subjects they find fascinating but never had time to explore before.

Many, many more are volunteering their time to organizations where they feel they can lend expertise.

And some who are blessed with excellent health are pushing themselves with physical challenges. Such as retired Sacramento administrative law judge Michael D’Onofrio, who golfs four days a week, jogs four days and works out at a gym four days. “That’s my 12-day week,” he says, while grabbing a sandwich with his equally active wife, Bonnie, at Capital Athletic Club in downtown Sacramento.

Fueling all of this activity is a bunch of factors. People are living longer and healthier lives, and they want to fill those extra years with more rewarding activities. More women have been in the workforce and now, in retirement, are reaching out to help others make the same sorts of accomplishments.

But the overriding change is the arrival of millions of boomers to their retirement years – and they’re a group that has been shaking things up since the 1960s.

“The boomers have changed every segment of life they’ve lived through and they’re doing it now with retirement,” says Helen Dennis, a Southern California author and columnist who writes about aging and retirement. “They’re a generation that’s still looking for purpose and meaning in life.”

As they have in other areas, boomers are even changing the lexicon of retirement. The chapter after work now has become “re-careering,” says Dennis, whose column appears in a half-dozen newspapers. Volunteering? It’s being “civically engaged.”

As Dennis puts it, “retirement” is too passive while “volunteering” implies being on the periphery.

“They don’t want that,” she says of boomers. “They want to be players.”

This trend toward more active retirements has huge benefits – for the retirees themselves but also for society as a whole, according to most social scientists.

For one thing, it allows companies, nonprofits, schools and multiple other kinds of organizations to tap into the great well of knowledge and skills accumulated by millions of older people.

“There is incredible talent out there, wisdom and experience, that’s going to waste,” says Brown of USC. Why hasn’t it been used more? “People outside (retirement) don’t recognize it and retirees don’t recognize it.”

But increasingly they are.

The other advantages are just as obvious. Being active gives people connections with others at a time when they have lost their workplace social networks. It enhances health. It gives purpose. And it keeps minds active.

“It helps if your brain cells are percolating. That extends and enhances your life,” says Barbara Hannah Grufferman, author of “Best of Everything After 50” and creator of AARP videos aimed at encouraging activity among seniors.

Despite all the advantages to being active, many people struggle initially, experiencing what some call “retirement shock” after their careers end. Often they haven’t given a lot of thought to retirement other than generally figuring they’ll travel, spend more time with family and relax.

They can find themselves restless after cleaning out the garage and taking the grandkids to Disneyland.

“It comes as a shock. They say, ‘Oh, my goodness. How did this happen and what do I do now?’ ” Grufferman says.

Some find difficulty answering those questions and too many end up withdrawing to a life of TV watching and isolation. Indeed, a 2011 AARP survey of retired boomers found that 19 percent described their post-working lives as “boring.”

But the good news, according to Grufferman and others, is that it’s not that hard to find activities, challenges and meaning with a little bit of effort.

The best strategy is to start planning while you’re still working so that you end up “retiring to something instead of from something,” says USC’s Janette Brown. But it’s never too late to start taking control of your life and, as Dennis puts it, “make the next chapter in life the best chapter.”

A first step, she advises, is making a thorough assessment of the things you found most gratifying about your career.

“You need to take a little time and think about what you loved at work,” Dennis says. “Having influence, being outdoors, doing analysis? Then you take all of that and figure out how to repackage it” into a new sort of activity.

Brown has a similar suggestion and has developed an acronym – VISTA – for the process of determining one’s strengths and passions.

VISTA stands for Values, Interests, Skills, Talents and Always. Doing that self-assessment provides perspective, she says. It’s “like looking out on a city below you. You can see what it’s all about.”

Experts also advise reading about retirement. “There are a zillion books,” Dennis says, adding wryly, “Everybody who has ever retired has written a book about it.” Herself included.

Spending time with a career or retirement counselor is also helpful. Sacramento State recreation professor Steven Gray has helped a number of people in that capacity. One client, a retired cardiologist, was stumped about his future but embarked on an exercise regimen and started judging horse shows after figuring out his true passions.

Those interested in volunteering should approach the task as they would a career decision, researching agencies they might like to help and then interviewing staffers and other volunteers to make sure there’s a good fit.

Finding rewarding retirement activities can take some time. And some boomers are impatient about it, says Grufferman. “They think there must be a quick fix,” she says.

There isn’t.

But a little effort and keeping yourself open to opportunities pays big dividends. That was the experience of six people who managed to turn their retirement years into fulfilling next chapters.

Here are quick snapshots of their journeys:

The model

After retiring from the Circlepoint communications firm in 2011, Michele McCormick assumed she’d have a calmer, less structured life with her husband and beloved schnauzers.

“I figured we’d wake up, have breakfast and then say, ‘What are we going to do today?’ 

But shortly after leaving her firm, the Folsom resident discovered some pictures she had taken in college and got the photography bug again. Before long she was selling her work to stock photo agencies and displaying some photos in fine art galleries.

Then she had a conversation with a makeup artist. “She asked if I ever thought of doing lifestyle modeling,” McCormick recalls. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ 

She learned it was appearing in ads where “real people” – not glamorous supermodels – were needed. So she sent in some snapshots to the Cast Images agency, got an appointment and was signed on the spot. Recent jobs have included spots for a mortgage company, an auto dealer and a breast cancer awareness group.

Being on a film set is exciting. “It helps me stay in touch with younger people,” says McCormick, who is 63. “Once you’re on a set, it doesn’t matter how old you are. You’re all on the same team.”

Late last month, McCormick lost her husband, Don, to melanoma, and she now is dealing with her grief. But she says it was a blessing to have him involved in all of her retirement activities. And she wants others to know that having multiple interests and balance in life is a help in overcoming hardships.

“Life was wonderful,” she says. “It will take a little time but I’m well prepared for it to be wonderful again.”

The board member

Barbara O’Connor had several opportunities when she stepped down from her longtime teaching career at CSUS three years ago.

One was a paid position on a corporate board. The other: an unpaid director’s spot on the board of AARP, the national group that is in the process of rebranding itself as a resource for people over 50, working as well as retired. She was uncertain so she talked it over with her good friend, the late Jean Runyon.

“Jean looked at me like a wise little owl and said, ‘The (corporate) offer, you know that cold. It’s in your comfort zone. You don’t know anything about AARP. You’ll be learning every day.”

She took Runyon’s advice, and, O’Connor says, “it turns out she was right.” She came into AARP with expertise in fixing data systems but has since learned about finance and other disciplines.

In the same spirit of trying new things, O’Connor also has taken up jewelry making in retirement even though she had “never ever done anything artistic.” She gathers each month with a group of artisans to work on jewelry but also to socialize.

“I love it,” O’Connor says. “It’s like an old-fashioned quilting society.”

The student

P.J. Garrido moved to Sacramento to take care of her ailing mother after a merger at her international banking company allowed her to take early retirement.

At first, she says: “I was bored. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Then a friend told her about the Renaissance Society, a continuing learning program that draws about 1,000 people each week to classes and other activities at Sacramento State and some outlying spots.

She signed up. “It’s so much fun to learn without having to take tests,” she says of the Society classes, where lively discussions among teachers and students are the norm. Since then, she’s taken on management responsibilities for the Society and last year was its president.

In addition, Garrido, 70, has volunteered at the Sacramento Children’s Home, mentoring girls, and she serves on the charity committee at Heritage Park, her over-55 living community in North Natomas.

“I was blessed to be able to rise in the corporate world,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to give back a little.”

The volunteers

Susan Sheridan and her husband, Larry, had the busiest of careers, she working as an attorney, he as a podiatrist. They also raised three children.

But now, echoing a refrain one often hears from retirees, Susan says: “We’re busier than ever.”

“It’s a different kind of busy,” she adds. “A fun busy.”

Larry started volunteering at Habitat for Humanity, the international home-building organization, shortly after retiring from Kaiser in late 2012. In June he’s traveling to Nicaragua for the second time to work on a Habitat project there. He also volunteers as a docent at the California Auto Museum, a perfect fit for his longtime interest in cars of all sorts.

Susan, who retired late last year, also is a Habitat volunteer, serves on the group’s board and is leading her own all-women crew to Nicaragua for a construction project in November.

Besides serving with Habitat, she’s on the board of the Rotary Club and the Senior Gleaners food bank and helps out with a program that provides equine therapy for abused kids.

Their kids also have the volunteer spirit. Lacey, 24, is finishing up a two-and-a-half-year stint with the Peace Corps in Zambia, and 19-year-old Haley volunteers to help teens with autism.

Like others, Susan says she and her husband are eager to “give back” to a community where they had successful careers, “now that we can.” And, she says, it’s just plain fun to help out others.

“I don’t get it when people say they are bored in retirement,” she says. “That just means they are not involved as much” as they could be. “And there are just so many things to be involved in here.”

The entrepreneur

Cary Adams barely took a breath before taking on a new challenge after leaving his law firm, Murphy Austin Adams Schoenfeld. He was intent on helping the formation of new companies to improve health care delivery.

“I spent 35 years practicing law (in the health care field),” he says. “Everybody knows how screwed up it is.”

So he founded MedStart as a program within the Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance and reports “robust growth,” with 137 medical device companies now operating here compared to 74 when he started.

Adams and his wife, Carol, have done some traditional retirement activities; they recently went skiing in Canada and a trip to Italy is planned for later this year. They visit their kids and grandchildren.

But Adams says he thinks people are “happiest when they are in flow – engaged in challenging tasks for which they have skills.”

Adams figures his skills are mostly in the area of helping establish companies that aid health care consumers, allow companies to save money and return a profit to investors. When it comes to that pursuit, he says, “I’m pretty much all in.”

The athlete

Harold Alves found himself with lots of time on his hands when he retired from mailing products firm Pitney Bowes four years ago and his wife kept working.

A longtime bike rider, he joined the Sacramento Wheelmen and joins members at least twice a week on their customary 40- to 50-mile treks.

His pace: a brisk 18 to 20 miles per hour.

Through the group, he’s met new friends, helped raise money for charities and participated in several Wheelmen trips to Europe for extended rides.

“There’s no other way I would have been able to ride (Tour de France) stages L’Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux,” he says.

Other physical challenges inspire him. Since retiring, he’s climbed Half Dome at Yosemite, run a 12-mile “Tough Mudder” obstacle course and completed a marathon, coming in behind his wife, Lelani, who works as a manufacturers representative.

“I had a great career and I was able to retire early,” says Alves, 58, who lives in Roseville. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Read more articles by Bob Shallit

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