Now that I have your attention let’s have some fun playing with this idea. Let’s be clear – I am NOT saying we should always continue with our paid jobs until we drop dead. I am NOT saying no to good pensions. What I am saying is that each of us needs something to do of value for others that gives our lives meaning, purpose, health and importantly value to the society – as perceived by those younger than us. In other words, unless we contribute we can never aspire to that ancient and respected role of “elder” that allows our “golden years” to be real gold instead of fool’s gold.
First, let’s begin at the beginning. When did the idea of retirement begin? The first pension plan came after the Prussian conquest of France by Otto von Bismarck. And what does this have to do pensions? Well, it turns out that most Germans had not wanted to be ruled by the Prussians as they were very liberal minded and tending towards socialism. Bismarck and the Prussians who formed the German State were not – they wanted absolute power and none of this democracy nonsense. So, Bismarck had the brilliant idea of bribing the German workers with the world’s first pension plan  and health care system . A retirement age of 70 was chosen, because by that time most workers were already dead – how convenient! So already we can see that retirement was not started to be “nice” – it was a political instrument. Now, be clear, I still think we need pensions, but be aware that there is a danger of seeing yourself as “useless’ and the society seeing you that way too. Thus, the dangerous part of pensions is that when you start collecting your pension you stop living and participating in the world. You are no longer of value to come to for advice. Your opinions are too out of date to matter. That is the danger. So, by all means I believe all Canadians should have a good pension, but never “retire” in the sense of contributing to society and our families.
Use it or Lose it
Second, the human body and mind are both designed based upon the principal of “use it or lose it”. If you stop using a muscle it atrophies. I am learning that right now the hard way with my physiotherapist as we seek to loosen up muscles around my hip that have not been used for decades. The result is a lot of pain. The heart is the same. If you don’t push it by exerting yourself to the point of sweating it weakens slowly over time and stops pumping efficiently. The body needs some ‘pain’, it needs to be pushed; otherwise it becomes ‘fat, lazy and stupid’.
The formula is no strain or less strain on the muscles equals small, weak muscles. Conversely, more strain on the muscles equals larger, stronger muscles.
This logic also applies to our emotions and our thinking. We need to put ourselves into emotionally challenging situations to grow – no matter the age. No stress, no growth. Obviously the amount and type of stress changes with age. For example, I heard the sad story of a local Professor who when he retired wanted to repeat the climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa that he had done in his youth. Well, he died on that mountain. His heart could not take the low oxygen air. If he would have brought bottled oxygen with him he would have lived. So, don’t do that! Emotionally we can also ‘get stuck’ in old ways of seeing the world. We have no choice to change IF we want to have a high quality of life because by definition life is change and thus to not change is to die. Our thinking is like this too – stop challenging your thinking and you guarantee that you will accelerate your slide into senility. Think until it hurts! Play chess. Attend lunches at CACOR. What I do now is play piano every day. I write these articles and books to push myself. I do these thing because I have decided in my “old age” to try things that I have not done before. Besides being enjoyable it has stopped my younger wife from seeing me as a boring, complaining, out of touch old guy. Anything you can do to push your boundaries helps. I used to be a terrible cook but last night I cooked a delicious meal for Valentines Day and for that I was awarded the top compliment in our household: “That tasted not ½ bad!”
Focus on your Health Span not your Life Span
Third, living longer without being healthy enough to enjoy it is probably not your idea of the “golden years”. This idea of longer AND being healthy enough to enjoy it is called the “health span”. It was the obsession of a good friend of mine who retired early from the government to become a Yoga Master and Massage Expert. His focus was to improve the quality of life not just for himself, but for others. The latest research tells us that, sadly, while most of us are living longer, the number of years we are living “sick” is actually increasing. In other words, our ‘health span’ is decreasing!
Unlike average lifespan, which is now 79.3 years in the US, we don’t have a statistic to mark the end of the average healthspan. To address this, the World Health Organization (WHO) has developed an indicator, HALE – healthy life expectancy.4 A simple way to approximate HALE is to figure out the average age of the first occurrence of each of the most common serious diseases, determine their incidences, and then take the average of those two numbers (Table 1). This gives us 63.1 years old (which is close to the 2015 HALE estimate of 67.3 years old, Figure 1). 
This means that we, on average, we live up to 20% of our lives unhealthy. Needless to say, that is a long time.
If this is true the obvious question is “how can I increase my health span?”. Well, we don’t know exactly and there is not magic elixir. However, what we do know is that the more you are engaged in the world and do not retreat into your ‘bubble’ by isolating yourself the more your health span increases. This means being socially connected, by keeping up with the news, joining a choir, learning a new activity, doing yoga or Tai Chi, reading something challenging like the Economist, pushing your body with exercise. [even if it is only walking your dog. A little known fact, dog owners, because they HAVE TO walk their dogs every day, live years longer than most ]
In traditional societies it was the exceptional person who lived to a ripe old age. Obviously ‘the gods’ had blessed this person with good luck and wisdom that could be of benefit to those younger – otherwise why would they still be alive? Well, I think those of us who are lucky enough to reach old age and still be healthy enough to engage with the world would all love to be considered ‘respected elders’, but our society has, unfortunately, developed the idea that old people are just waiting to die and have nothing left to contribute. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, like all good things in life, this respect is earned. It is also needs to be cultivated within our culture. There are still cultures which value their elders  – why don’t we try to recreate what theydo as best we can in how we live each day? I have been tutoring teenagers with parents from India for several years where the grandparents live with the family. This quote rings true:
“Many Indians live in joint family units, with the elders acting as the head of the household. The elders are supported by the younger members of the family and they in turn play a key role in raising their grandchildren. Advice is always sought from them on a range of issues, from investment of family money to nitty-gritties of traditional wedding rituals and intra-family conflicts. And this is not just passive advice; their word is final in settling disputes.”
I think that the view of older people as being ‘useless’ is just one sign of a culture with immature short term thinking that has got us into many of our current social, political, health and environmental problems. Obviously, the older you are the more perspective you have on life. That perspective, that ability to see the important from the unimportant, the ability to know what really matters and to not react to the ‘small stuff’ is a great gift that us ‘oldies’ can give our young friend.
Many people who retired at 55 or older find retirement isn’t the idyllic life at the pool or on the links, he says. They “thought they would be happier and suddenly find out that they are missing something.” The key, Lomb says, is for older workers to work in something they’re jazzed about. It helps the soul.
“In my observation, people who find the type of work that they are passionate about and a place where their contribution is valued are energized and happier,” Lomb said. “It seems to rejuvenate people. It motivates them to get out of bed in the morning. I see a real transformation in the way people show up, talk and are engaged. It’s good for the mood, the body and also for their relationships.” 
As the Bible says “What you sow so shall you reap.” Don’t retire. Don’t put yourself out to pasture to graze and do nothing. Do something of value. Do something that challenges you. Contribute. Be part of the world. Stop complaining about how the world ignores old people like yourself and become engaged in a cause. Help your kids and grandchildren. Exercise. Think. Find new challenges, and while you do so, as this figure skater below shows us – SMILE!
- https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-bond-for-life-pets/do-dog-owners-live-longer https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2019/10/08/aha-journal-study-owning-dog-may-help-you-live-longer/3907770002/