More and more grass-roots programs support seniors as they plan and manage their retirement
By ELIZABETH POPE
One afternoon not long after retiring, psychotherapist Bernice Bratter, 67, of Westwood Hills, Calif., was feeling isolated and restless. Book in hand, she headed to a nearby park. As she was reading there, a homeless man sat down beside her. "All I could think was, 'Is this what my life has come to? Hanging out with the homeless?'" she says.
An expert on aging, Bratter had given no thought to her life after directing a nationally known counseling center. "You'd think that because I'd written and lectured on retirement, it would be a breeze for me," she says. "Well, it was a disaster." Losing her sense of identity as well as the stimulation, daily responsibilities and social interactions of her job left her listless and depressed. Eventually, she returned to work, but this time she planned ahead for her re-retirement.
Bratter gathered 10 Los Angeles professional women to discuss so-called retirement transition and life planning. That first conversation lasted four hours and spawned five other groups of eight to 10 women who meet monthly in one another's houses to talk about career switches, relocation, wellness and the physical changes of aging. The women dubbed their venture Project Renewment and trademarked the name, intending to produce a manual someday to help others replicate their group.
"It's been life altering for me," says Bratter, who used to worry when she went into a store in the middle of the day to buy lipstick that she would be tagged as a retiree. "Most executive women feel that if you aren't productive every minute, you're going downhill. We've learned to give ourselves permission to relax, go slow and have fun."
In the six years since Bratter started it, Project Renewment's cheerleading, brainstorming and 1960s-style consciousness raising have helped launch some impressive second acts. A former health-care executive has just returned from a photography tour of India and is mounting a gallery show. A corporate lawyer became a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children. An ex--probation officer is now an actor.
Across the country, similar grass-roots groups, courses and programs are popping up as 50-plus adults grapple with a period some call "the power years," "my time," "refirement," "the bonus years"--anything but the R word. Through informal gatherings over coffee at Starbucks or $1,000 life-planning courses with speakers, homework and skills assessments, these initiatives provide help for retirees and preretirees who have nowhere else to go for information, moral support and camaraderie during one of life's trickier transitions.
"There are plenty of opportunities to do financial planning for retirement, but when it comes to figuring out a period of life that's as long as midlife in duration, you're on your own," says Marc Freedman, head of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco nonprofit that encourages older adults to remain active citizens. Two years ago, there were just a handful of such programs, but today there are more than 20, and the numbers are growing, Freedman says.
Private-foundation money is helping by underwriting resource centers and gathering places in libraries, community colleges and municipal buildings. In Tempe, Ariz., the public library is adding space for a café and retirement-planning workshops, while community colleges in nearby Mesa and Scottsdale are designing programs to keep older adults connected and involved in their communities. The town of Chandler, Ariz., has just launched a Boomerang program, whose website, www.myboomerang.org provides links to local resources on lifelong learning, volunteering, second careers and wellness. "In our focus groups, boomers don't see retirement as freedom from work but as freedom to choose what's next," says Linda Meissner, coordinator of the program.
In Ocala, Fla., trained volunteers at Central Florida Community College coach 55-plus adults on creating a road map for the rest of their lives. The coaches, most of whom are retirees, provide three no-cost one-on-one sessions in the Pathways to Living, Learning and Serving program www.pathwaysmarion.com)
Nearly 1,400 women, most of them in New York City, have joined the Transition Network www.thetransitionnetwork.org) A nonprofit, it was set up five years ago by two Manhattan executive women who were determined to make use of their skills, talents and interests after retirement. In addition to monthly meetings, special events and nontraditional volunteer projects, the venture fosters peer groups of eight to 10 women who meet in private homes to discuss financial management, health and individual transitions. Chapters are being formed in Chicago and Washington.
Peer groups can be a safe and supportive place to discuss retirement issues that are taboo in the workplace, says Ronald J. Manheimer, director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement in Asheville, which puts on weekend workshops www.unca.edu/ncccr) "People find it awkward to raise the subject [at work]. They tell us, 'I'd be dead meat. I'd no longer be seen as part of the team, and my co-workers would look at me in a different way.'"
Scott Schillen of Newton, Mass., appreciates the insights and curiosity of the eight or so like-minded souls he meets with each month at the public library. "I find a lot of my contemporaries are becoming stale and content with the status quo--their eyes don't light up when you talk about what's next," observes Schillen, 58, who recently earned a real estate license after 35 years in higher education and music administration.
Michael Salkind, 67, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, had retired as CEO of the Ohio Aerospace Institute when he signed up for the Fairhill Center's What's Next! program. Salkind says the classes on learning, wellness, spirituality, creativity and life planning were "a good time to stop and take inventory of life values and expectations and think through a plan." His original intention was to continue to work on improving Cleveland's primary education, a longtime interest, but he was drawn back into business as a consultant. Now he finds his day planner crammed with breakfast meetings and lunches. But he pencils in time for volunteering, visits to far-flung grandchildren and a regular boys' night out with chums.
As for Bratter, she sees Project Renewment as the trailblazer of what some aging experts are calling a cultural movement. "When I started this, no one else had thought of it," she says. "I knew it was hot, and I could take it national--I've got the contacts, and I've done it before. But then I'd be back where I started." For the moment she's content to spend time with family and a group of women she says will remain lifelong friends.