What’s most important for well-being in later life?

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Julkaistu: 19.12.2018




No matter how different full grown 60+ are, there are four steps important to everyone on the road to well-being after working life.

Oh, I can easily come up with an answer to that question, was my first response when I was asked to contribute to an international survey on ’What is most important for well-being in later life’. A few seconds after I said yes, I realized that I should not come up with what matters most to me for a good life in my third age, but most importantly as such – most important to all. How to tackle that challenge, when you know that what is important for one is not necessarily important to the other, and when you add, that what’s important for the full grown 60+ is even more different just due to the growing diversity inline with several years on the bag.

In pursuit of a common denominator – a flexible common denominator -that can accommodate the differences, I can see four steps important to everyone, and four steps I think most 60+ come through though very different when they arrive into the third age. The third age, where far most people are healthy in the many years we have had with a longer life after work, before increasing fragility and disease sets in the 4th age towards death. Some arrive to the third age with a sense that it is something new and quite different in life now unfolding after the phasing out of work and parenting. Others are dumped more or less unprepared, perhaps seduced by the sweet story of the great freedom and that it is only a long vacation – in 20-25 years.

However, for most seniors it is apparent, that at the transition to the new phase of life there are more barriers and difficulties than expected.

It will not be easier when the difficulties are usually overcome alone and without a helping hand from the trade union, workplace and municipality, who may well have taken responsibility for good guidance, so that life after work is also good. The transition from a long working life to the third age is a solo event and perhaps the most difficult change in adulthood.

1. 60+ a new beginning

The story you enter into, the day you ride home from last day on the job and with the echo of colleagues’ song about how lucky you are not having to work the rest of your life, this story is more about ending than it’s about startup and a new beginning. Pensioners’ lives are described and perceived in our culture as a downward spiral, regardless of whether you are 65 years old and fit for fight or 95 years and finished as first-time lovers. There is only one chapter in this story. Although it has freedom and holiday in the title, nevertheless from the first sentence, a one-sided decay story is introduced physically and mentally towards the final end of life.

All of this, of course, does not make it easier for the individual to see and perceive his own story as a new retired, as a new beginning. Many maybe surprised by the story that it’s just a long vacation, and holidays do not require much preparation. They are overwhelmed and do not see it as a new beginning.

But when strong social roles like being a worker and being a parent are phased out in the lifetime of 55-75 years, and brand new roles like grandparents and stay-at-home with plenty of free time pop up, one can talk about a new phase of life, such as sociologist Robert Havighurst described it more than 50 years ago. Even more clearly, the drawing of the third age becomes a new beginning with Professor Peter Laslett, describing the third age, just 30 years ago, as the ’culmination of life, where the individual can deliver the most important contributions’.

Finally, with an average life expectancy of 80 years, it is difficult to see the last 20 years of age from 60-80 years, other than a new phase of life that requires completely new purposes.

The goals that were taught in and sat in the first 20 years period; To get an education, a job, a partner and a family, after another two 20 years of age as 60 years you can tick off the goals – one or more depending on how changeable life has formed. You have achieved the original goals that you set early in life, and with a fourth and probably last but historical brand new 20 years of life in front of you, you need to find new purposes.

To find well-being in later life, it is therefore important to spot the starting line of the new beginning and give yourself a time to think of the new purposes in life.

Unfortunately we have too little exact knowledge about how 60+ prepare for the third age, but it is my impression that the fewest allow themselves a time to find a compass for their own direction and purpose in life in the third age. This is what the next three steps are all about.

2. Add more good years

If there are a few 60+ seniors who see the start of the new life phase between adult and old, as a new beginning, then it is a majority that is highly active in the second stage that is important for a good life in the third age: Keeping healthy physical and mental for years to extend the third age, where many are at the top of their performance, and perhaps reduce and shorten the fourth age with fragility and disease.

It is not always easy to change ingrown health habits, although you know that for example, it is inappropriate to smoke or to drink too much red wine. It was Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, who, after he had cancer, said that ”death is the change agent of life”. Similar stories are often heard from people who, in a late age manage to change their lifestyle by changing dietary habits and exercise habits. It was only after a serious illness that the desire for several good years bent the will and energy to drop long-term parking on the couch for the benefit of hiking, cycling and perhaps regular visits to the fitness center.

Already several years ago, the fitness chains claimed loud that the morning hours were also close to sold out to a new target audience – seniors 60+. Not only in the training rooms, but as something new also around the coffee machines. Maybe just half an hour of coffee talk is just as important for several good years in the third age as the whole hour of high pulse in the fitness room.

Just as it is important to physically challenge the body to strengthen immune and health, equally crucial are the mental health habits with good social relationships, a positive view of life and daily brain challenges.

In a recent US study, Professor Julianne Holt-Lundstad concludes that ”loneliness and social isolation is an increasing health problem. The loneliness can ultimately result in a far earlier mortality, and loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity”.

We also know that the highest suicide rate is found among older men who have become alone and lonely. Scary stories are good at raising awareness, and sometimes they are necessary to make 60+ seniors serious about the desire to have a better lifestyle and more appropriate health habits – and more good years in the third age.

3. Do something you are good at and meaningful for yourself.

The third step that is important for a good life in the third age comes almost by itself, one should believe: To fill your life with activities that you like and which you are good at.  However, one can ask if guidance on that issue ever is necessary, because is it not just what people do, when they now have the time? Yes of course. Especially for the 60+ people who have found their passion (’find your passion and you will never retire’) or who are already in full swing with a hobby or to care for a garden. Gardening, both literally and transposed, is the French’s overall perception of the good life after working life: ’Il faut cultiver son jardin’.

For others, however, it may be harder than expected to find activities they are good at and make one happy. It is not so straightforward for everyone after 30-40 years at work, to find out the possibilities for where to develop their talents, use their experience and know-how and feel that one is needed and that one still can make a difference. Just the way you have experienced it and found it ’natural’ at work for many years.

One of the problems with the transition from a long working life is precisely that you only look forward to all that you get, vacation and freedom to do just what you want, and forget to look back on all that you lose.

One might say that the great challenge of a newly-retired pensioner is to figure out how to recover some of what you’ve lost, including daily intercourse with colleagues and the ability to do something you’re good at, and then combine it with freedom you have got.

One way to go if you cannot spot where and how to fill your life with something that you are good at, can be spending a day of the exercise: What did I do when I was the best? Start thinking about your whole life and try to list 10 situations where you’ve been really good and had the best. It may be from school, work, hobbies, the family, etc. where you felt you were completely happy to do what you did the way you did it. Then try to look a bit closer at 4-5 of your listed memories, where you were most involved and engaged and explain a little more in detail why it worked so well. These explanations are key factors when completing the exercise to outline what you would like to transfer to your life in the third age of the best elements of your work life and your life outside of work. An exercise that can uncover valuable step stones for the good life of the third age.

4. Do something good for others

One of the reasons why the third age not only offers a good life but directly can become the ’culmination of life’, is described by the American researcher Jonathan Rauch, in his recently published book, ’Why Life Becomes Better After the 50’. In continuation of psychologist’s long-standing research in the U-shaped happiness curve, where young and older feel relatively happier than the middle ages, Rauch concludes in his study, that it is largely we during the ageing process are moving away from individual competition and ambition and towards good social relations and care for others.

This movement may also be what is reflected in the latest research in Denmark of which age groups are most involved in ’doing something good for others’.

The report on national voluntary activities from 2016-18, where active citizenship is registered, shows that age groups 65-70+ are most active with weekly contributions to solve social problems.

Around 85% of respondents point out that the motivation to use own experiences and talents within voluntary activities is the experience of ’helping others and making a difference’. The movement and psychological development that takes place over the years, psychologist Erik Erikson summarized in the term ’generativity’. Which is understood as an ability that develops with age to exceed personal interests to care for both younger and older generations.

To many who arrives at later life, time has come to give something back of all that has been gained and experienced throughout life. What a lot of seniors already do in relation to their own children and grandchildren and to family and good neighbors. In order to find the way to a long and good life in the third age, it is important to fill one’s life with activities that give personal satisfaction. For many, however, it gives an extra satisfaction – and the experience that it’s the purpose of life – to experience that one is still needed and that all the experience and know-how you have gained through life still can continue to be transformed and contribute with something that has value for others.



This article was originally published in Danish newspaper Politiken December 17th 2018. With the promise of Poul-Erik Tindbaek we publish the English version of the article, also written by Poul-Erik Tindbaek. Click HERE to read the original article.

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