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Boomer Bust: How to Grow Older with a Social Conscience

The Isthmus newspaper recently published an article by Dave Cieslewicz on the baby boomer generation.  Insights are provided by Drew Howick, a senior advisor for leadership and organizational development at Patina Solutions.

See original article here.

You can think of the baby boom generation as all of us who are older than the most recent Democratic president and younger than the one before him. At 71, Bill Clinton is in the first wave of boomers while Barack Obama, 56, is in the last.

At 58, I’m closer to Obama than to Clinton in more ways than one. Boomers who came of age in the 1960s — and especially those who were of draft age during Vietnam — were shaped by a much different experience than those of us who came later. The uber-outgoing anti-war protestor Clinton is a faithful representative of his people. The cooler, quieter Obama is a decent representation of mine.

Nonetheless, demographers and the popular culture tend to lump us all together. The oldest baby boomers, born in 1946, are now at least 70 years old. And by the time you get to the last of us, born in 1964, there are 77 million in between.

And like it or not, just as they’ve done all their lives, the older boomers will set the stage for the rest of us. Boomers pride themselves on changing every period of life they have passed through. First it was free love and new drugs. Then it was unmarried cohabitation. Then Montessori schools for the kids, working moms and two-income households. In their wake they have left lasting change. Most of it, even younger boomers have to concede, has been for the best.

Now they get a chance to reinvent old age. The most self-consciously socially aware demographic in history now has a chance to go out in a way that leaves something better behind.

For a generation whose youth were schooled not to trust anyone over 30, can we trust them to make the right decisions as they hit 70? Here, gleaned from experts in various fields, are four suggestions on how to grow older with a social conscience.

 

If we consume health care in old age at the same rate as our parents have boomers will crush the system. To be socially conscious, one of the best things we can do is stay healthy for as long as possible, avoid expensive interventions and, when our time is up, go out quickly.

Dr. Alexis Eastman is a primary care geriatrician and co-director of clinical operations in the division of geriatrics at UW Hospital. She told me that more than one of her patients, in this well-read town, have given her a copy of Atul Gawande’s 2014 best seller, Being Mortal.

In that book, Gawande reports that 25 percent of current Medicare expenditures are for the 5 percent of patients who are in their final year of life and most of that spending occurs in the last couple of months with little in the way of apparent benefits.

So, how can boomers improve on those numbers? Eastman explains that her field deals with the mental, physical and social aspects of aging — and they’re all related. She points out that we change fundamentally as we age.

“Older people aren’t just young people who got old. Their physiology is different,” she says.

Early in his book, Gawande takes a startling inventory of all the things that naturally go wrong as we age. Our teeth soften as our heart hardens (literally). Stiffened blood vessels cause our heart to work harder, which can lead to hypertension. He reports that the peak performance of our heart is at age 30 and it declines steadily after that. The decline can be lessened through diet and exercise, but it can’t be reversed. Meanwhile, our muscle mass steadily declines as well, even for weightlifters. He goes into even more depressing detail, but you have the picture: the decline can be managed but it is inevitable. In the end, the prognosis is always death.

But if we want to be as healthy as possible for as long as we can, Eastman suggests two things: get exercise and find a purpose.

“Exercise is good for everything and bad for nothing,” she says.

She says that the two biggest concerns of her patients are dementia and taking a fall that would send them to the hospital and very possibly a nursing home. In fact, she points out that 35 percent of people in their 80s have some form of dementia. Exercise cuts the risk of dementia almost in half and the risk of falling considerably.

“Take ownership of your body,” she advises.

According to Eastman, the best exercises for dementia prevention are aerobic, like walking, biking, running and swimming. These routines get blood flowing to the brain and they improve sleep in older adults.

For fall prevention she recommends “dual task exercises” that work both mind and body simultaneously, like yoga and tai chai, and crossfit training.

And as for having a purpose, Eastman sees a difference between her patients who are in their 80s or older and boomers who are just reaching their 70s.

“Boomers have more of an existential component to aging,” she says. “Their parents ask if they’ve had a good life. That’s more easily defined — did they own a house, send their kids to college, retire well.

“But (boomers) ask if what they’ve done or are doing is worthwhile. After they retire some boomers have an existential malaise. What do they do now?” she says.

Eastman says that that purpose can be anything from volunteer work to spending time with grandkids to travel and study. The point is simply to do more than just exist.

Eastman puts diet third behind exercise and a purpose for living. “When you take charge of your health then you start to think about what you eat,” she says. She recommends “eating a colorful diet and Skittles don’t count.” She likes the author Michael Pollan’s charge to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

But she doesn’t want people to view aging as a competition. Her advice is to enjoy life. “It’s important to do the best you can and if you have a really good milkshake once in a while, you shouldn’t feel as if you’ve failed at aging.”

When I raise the issue of longevity and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are investing in immortality research, she shies away from the subject.

“There isn’t some giant checklist where if you do these things you’ll live to be 100 and feel great every day. The quantity of your lifespan is not nearly as important as the quality of your lifespan.”

 

If we want to be socially conscious, what’s best? Keep working, paying taxes and paying into Social Security or retiring and getting out of the way so that the next generation can move up? The best answer seems to be to stay productive in one way or another, though not necessarily in the job you have right now.

Drew Howick, 65, is a senior advisor for leadership and organizational development in a company called Patina Solutions. Founded in Milwaukee in 2008, Patina lines up experienced managers and other professionals to help out companies and nonprofits often on an interim or part-time basis.

The company currently has about 17,000 professionals registered with them all over the world. Because Patina requires professionals to have at least 25 years of experience, Howick says that the lion’s share of them are boomers.

When I ask him about his clients Howick echoes Eastman: They want meaning.

“A lot of people don’t want just the three G’s: gardening, golf and grandkids,” Howick says. “How much of that can you do? Most want the three G’s plus something else.”

That something else might be coming in on a short-term basis in a management role or on a board to pinch hit or to set things right in an organization that is faltering. Or it could mean making a complete change in careers.

Patina’s founder, Mike Harris, has written a book, Career 180s, in which he documents the journeys of 10 successful professionals who decided at the end of their careers to take a stab at something totally different.

One of them is Jim Berbee. In 2006, at age 42, Berbee sold his successful IT business for a nice profit. He never had to work again. But while taking some time to think about his future he fell off his bike, wound up in the emergency room and got the idea that he could be an ER doctor, which after the usual years of schooling and residency is what he became.

In Harris’ book, Berbee explains why he did it. “I’ve already had one career. I’m not trying to climb the ladder in medicine. I’m doing this because I want to make a difference.”

That story may be inspiring or it may make you wonder why a guy in his 40s who doesn’t need the job was taking up room in medical school. But the issue of being in the way for a younger generation may be less of a concern than it was just a few years ago. Howick explains that when Patina was formed just before the Great Recession people were predicting a labor shortage. That didn’t happen right away because boomers held on to their jobs. But now in a stronger economy, 10,000 people retire every day.

“Organizations will have to build talent or buy talent and it’s a seller’s market,” Howick says.

But he does have one caution for once high-powered professionals who want to sample the gig economy. It’s important for them not to assume that they have all the answers. He says that a question his organization always asks about a professional who wants to work with them is this, “Is the ego in check?”

Berbee seems to have that covered. “I remind myself every day to doubt my own infallibility,” he says.

 

Here are some numbers that should get your attention: 40 percent of boomers have no retirement savings at all and 53 percent of those with savings have less than $150,000.

A rule of thumb is that it’s safe to take not more than 4 percent per year from your retirement account. So, even if you’ve managed to save a million dollars, could you afford to live on $40,000 a year?

“There’s your crisis. We’re going to see increasing numbers of elderly people living in poverty,” says Michael Williamson, executive director of the State of Wisconsin Investment Board. SWIB manages the pension fund that serves retired state and most municipal employees. Those lucky enough to be in that system — myself included — should find themselves in relatively good shape. SWIB is among the most solid and successful pension systems in the country.

Williamson tells me that in planning for retirement people should have not just Social Security but also personal savings and, ideally, a “defined benefit” pension. But in the last several decades traditional pension plans have been in retreat, leaving too many boomers and others without adequate resources for a comfortable retirement.

Williamson sees three advantages to a pension. The payroll deductions are automatic, the investments are professionally managed and the management fees are transparent and reasonable.

As pensions have phased out they’ve been replaced by savings plans that put all the burden on the individual employee. Williamson says that the results are predictable. Too many people start saving too late, they don’t save enough, they make poor investment decisions and they pay fees that are too high.

So what does a boomer do if he has made all of those mistakes? Williamson says it makes for a tough situation because you just can’t go back to your 20s and start over. It may mean that dreams of a retirement cottage and travel might have to be put off or abandoned. But he suggests that those who haven’t saved enough should max out on any employer-matched contribution, put as much as possible of every paycheck into a 401(k) or similar retirement savings plan, and probably expect to work longer than they might have planned.

In contrast to Howick, Williamson is concerned that boomers, forced to stay in high level jobs, will block advancement for those behind them. But Williamson won’t be one of them. He turned 64 on the day I talked with him and he will retire at the end of the year. He plans to pursue his passion of fly-fishing and may continue do a little public speaking on the coming retirement crisis. In other words, he’s looking to have some fun but to also stay productive without clogging the career ladder.

 

It’s the question asked in countless mystery novels: How do we get rid of the body?

Shedd Farley, 58, has thought a lot about that very question. His parents were Drs. Linda and Gene Farley, well-known Madison progressive activists. Socially aware in life, they also wanted to be socially responsible when life ended.

So, when Linda Farley died in 2009 on the family farm west of Madison the family knew that she wanted to be buried there.

“We called the town of Springdale,” says Shedd Farley. “We found out that we could bury her on the farm. So we got friends and relatives together and dug a five-foot hole. That was a lot of work. Then we did our research and found that the microbial layer [where nature could carry on the natural disintegration of the body] is only three feet deep. So we filled back in another two feet.

“Then we wrapped her in her favorite blanket and lowered her in. It turns out that this is really hard on your back.”

Shedd was a contractor in Colorado before coming back home to run his parents’ foundation, the Farley Center. So by the time Gene Farley passed away four years after Linda, their son had designed a lightweight pine pallet that can be lowered with ropes. Then the ropes are pulled out and the pallet remains under the body. He never uses cedar or anything else that won’t deteriorate quickly. It’s all natural and it’s a lot easier on the back.

I was struck by the good-humored, casual way in which Farley talks about death, even the final resting place of his parents. Farley speaks like a man who understands that death and its aftermath is the natural occurrence that it is. He just wants to help people get it right.

In fact, that’s why Gene came up with the Natural Path Sanctuary, which is part of the Farley Center and one of only two green cemeteries in Wisconsin and one of about 70 nationwide, according to Shedd Farley.

On a warm summer afternoon I walked Natural Path with Shedd. From the state regulators’ point of view it’s a cemetery like any other, laid out in its first phase with 7,420 neat plots. About 250 have been sold and about 95 are occupied. Shedd says that they will never use all the plots because he refuses to cut down good trees.

The grounds look nothing like a cemetery. It looks like a piece of Wisconsin — a large woodlot with some open areas. Farley says that most of the graves are unmarked and those that are must be marked with a flat stone or wooden marker. Nothing ostentatious is allowed.

We have to search to find some of the marked graves among the overgrown grasses in late summer. Some families have erected benches, but for the most part the graves are left to fold back naturally into the Wisconsin soil.

Gene Farley’s vision was that the burial fees would be enough to support the work of the Farley Center so that it would not have to compete with other nonprofits for funding through the usual sources. The cost is $2,500 for a legacy gift to the Farley Center and another $1,000 for a “burial right” that covers everything else.

The revenue supports the center’s other work, including 13 start-up farm businesses located in small acreage organic plots, which are adjacent to the cemetery. The center targets beginning immigrant, minority and women farmers. So, purchasing a plot in Natural Path supports the cycle of life literally and metaphorically by supporting a different kind of plot from which life springs.

Cemetery plot sales were brisk in the first few years because Gene and Linda’s friends were waiting for the cemetery to open. Things cooled in 2016 but Shedd says that 2017 is on pace to set a record for sales.

They accept ashes, but don’t encourage cremation because of the environmental costs. Shedd says that the fuel used in cremation is enough to drive a car 4,800 miles.

“We have yet to come across a burial method that might be more environmentally responsible,” says Shedd.

MORTALITY MORALITY PLAY

My government tells me that I have 24.5 more years to live. You can look it up for yourself in the helpful Social Security longevity calculator.

So if they’re right, what do I want to do with my remaining two-and-a-half decades? And if it’s not just about me, if I really have some concern for what I leave behind, then the next step is to give some thought to my health, my savings, how I can remain productive without blocking advancement for the next generation, and what happens to my body after I’m done with it.

There’s nothing really all that new here. It comes down to the common lament one aging generation always shares with their children: We don’t want to be a burden. It’s just that with so many of us in the boomer bubble, if we really care about the future without us, then we’d better mean it.

Departing the stage with grace is more important than ever.

 

View original article here.


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