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100 Years Old and Still a Beginner

 

dr. christina butler

Dr. Christina Butler has explored the compelling idea of "beginnerhood" in her research. She is a retirement coach, editorial chair of The Older LEARNer Newsletter published by the American Society on Aging and owner of Over60Learning, LLC.

I reached Dr. Butler at her office in Columbus, Ohio.

Ruth Dempsey: A recent newspaper article reminded me of your work. It told the story of 100-year-old Clarence Brazier, who decided, at 93, following the death of his wife Angela, that he’d have to learn to read if he ever hoped to shop for himself. This is an extraordinary story. But you see beginnerhood or starting over as normal in today’s world? Is that right?

Christina Butler: Mr. Brazier’s story is extraordinary today but I believe that it will be commonplace in the next 10 to 20 years as middle aged and older adults acclimatize to the fast pace of change.

Young people entering the job market today know that they are likely to change professions six to eight times and many of them will experience multiple adaptations in their personal lives as well.

Longevity with good health currently enables those in their 60s and 70s to work longer, to retire and begin new careers and avocations, to retire a second time or just keep going indefinitely, either by choice or of financial necessity.

Mr. Brazier’s choice to begin reading in his 90s says something important about human potential – it does not diminish with age. As long as one is willing to become a beginner, living remains an adventure, full of challenge and satisfaction.

RD: Like Mr. Brazier, people are compelled to start over when they come up against some transition in their lives. How does this work?

CB: I like to talk about transitions because we experience them regularly throughout life, and, if we understand how they work and how they help us grow, it’s bound to reassure us during the times of change and instability in our lives.

William Bridges’ concept of transition explains that every transition involves an ending (loss), then a time of confusion and uncertainty called "the neutral zone", followed by the "new beginning". The neutral zone supports the introspection and reflection that leads us to find a new passion, a new relationship, a new career, and the courage to move on to the new with greater self-knowledge. If we realize at midlife that we have already successfully negotiated numerous transitions, it assures us that we will survive the current one, make the necessary re-adjustments, and perhaps even thrive in the new situation.

RD: After his father lost his eyesight, Mr. Brazier, then only seven years old, ran the family farm, while his mother cooked for a nearby logging operation. Later, he served as a hunting guide, worked in logging camps and in the Timmins gold mines. Do you think people like Mr. Brazier are more likely to be risk-takers in later life? Our culture is uneasy with beginners, after all. We value achievement.

CB: The risks that Mr. Brazier took in his youth seem to have been directly related to his and his family’s survival, not leaving him a choice whether to risk or not. As a survivor of those early risks, he may have developed an openness to risk that others have never had to develop. If given a choice, many people will remain in a comfortable situation rather than take a risk even if the situation has become stale or joyless. Until the discomfort of remaining in the current situation outweighs the risk in moving on, they will not undertake a change.

Bill Treasurer’s book, Right Risk: 10 Powerful Principles for Taking Giant Leaps with Your Life, encourages the taking of risks that are "deliberate, life-affirming, and closely aligned with one’s deepest core values." Treasurer points out that the most fulfilling times in our lives, those times when we feel most alive, tend to occur when we have surprised ourselves by doing something hard or scary that we’ve never dreamed we could do.

Having reinvented myself professionally several times, I wholeheartedly agree. The last time I set out to change careers at the age of 55, long-time colleagues asked me, "What if you fail?" Failure is anathema in our culture. Our culture rewards getting it right the first time instead of learning from failure, thus conditioning us to avoid paths that involve risk. Those who embrace risk must have a tolerance for potential failure. I heard myself responding to my colleagues, "Yes, this change is risky at my age but it makes me feel young just to give it a try."

RD: The art of self-renewal is central to your work. In a recent article in Adulthood: New Terrain, you describe the renewal cycle as having four phases. Can you explain these to me?

CB: I described the renewal cycle proposed by Frederic Hudson in his book, The Adult Years: Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal. It grew out of his realization that life in our time of rapid change is no longer linear – education in youth, work in adulthood, leisure in retirement – but cyclical, involving education throughout life combined with a desire for a work life that allows for periods of leisure and relaxation.

The four phases of Hudson’s cycle proceed in a clockwise fashion through periods of stability, called "life chapters", and periods of instability, called "transitions", that lead to new chapters.

He calls Phase 1 "go for it" since it’s a time of envisioning a new dream that feels right for this time of life, realizing the dream, and maintaining it until the time of high energy invested in the dream wanes into a plateau.

Phase 2, called "the doldrums", is characterized by a time of ambivalence toward the dream, when one begins to explore whether to become reinvested in the dream with renewed commitment or to let go of it in order to find a new dream.

Phase 3, "cocooning," involves grieving the lost dream, a quiet, introspective search for the next set of goals, and a return to stability or equilibrium in the last phase.

Phase 4, "getting ready for the next chapter" represents a time of exhilaration and creativity, new learning, and personal renewal.

It’s always interesting to locate oneself in the cycle, it helps us realize that periods of psychical unrest are normal, and eventually lead to growth.

RD: This opens up rich possibilities for older adults. Do you agree? Is this something people need to plan for? Can you give me some examples?

CB: Yes, I agree that it opens up rich possibilities, but I am concerned that what is lacking is social support for new beginnings in the middle and late years, as we experience what sociologists call "structural lag". Social structures are not keeping pace with rapid lifestyle changes brought on by increased longevity and medical advancements.

As a culture, we are not looking to elders to help us solve the many problems that assail our communities and our planet. That’s why I argue in Adulthood: New Terrain, that it’s time higher education and local communities establish centers where retirees and others in transition can get assistance in forging pathways that will fulfill their need to learn, to start new adventures and to contribute to society.

Ageism still exists, even as boundaries continue to blur between age-determined expectations. The best examples I can think of – and the trigger that catapulted me into this new course in my own life – emerged from my doctoral research with women over 60 who were either pursuing undergraduate degrees or who had recently graduated in that age category.

Their difficulty in discovering satisfying ways to contribute after graduation overlapped with issues of finding satisfaction in retirement. In a nutshell, they were unable to find professionals equipped to help them answer the "What’s next?" question and support them in their individual searches.

Here were persons with enormous energy, enthusiasm, and up-to-date knowledge and skills. Still, they had difficulty finding genuinely fulfilling ways to use them in service to others.

Their situation fuels my commitment to retirement coaching, and to urging higher education to establish centers to meet the emerging needs of older adults.

To learn more about Dr. Butler’s work and research, please visit: www.over60learning.com.