Nancy Schlossberg: On Aging Gracefully

This is the latest in a series of interviews with APA Books authors. Here Andrew Gifford, Development Editor at APA Books, interviews Nancy Schlossberg, a well-known authority on aging and life after retirement.  Nancy will be speaking at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC (5015 Connecticut Ave NW), this Sunday, April 23, at 1:00pm to kick off the release of her new book, Too Young to Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age. See more about the event here!

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.

--Photo by Rod Millington

–Photo by Rod Millington

Nancy K. Schlossberg is an expert in the areas of adult transitions, retirement, career development, adults as learners, and intergenerational relationships. Past President of the National Career Development Association, Co-President of a consulting group TransitionWorks, she is a Professor Emerita, Department of Counseling and Personnel Services, College of Education at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Schlossberg has delivered more than 100 keynote addresses, and has been quoted in the cover story in USA Today, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Sarasota Herald Tribune, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, U.S. News and World, Consumer Reports.  She has appeared on PBS In the Prime, Derek McGinty’s national talk radio show, CBS This Morning, CBS evening news and is featured in a 90-minute PBS Pledge Special June, 2007, “Retire Smart, Retire Happy.”

AG: In many ways, your latest book feels like part of an unofficial trilogy, starting with the smash hit Retire Smart, Retire Happy which provided a primer on how to adjust to retirement. It was followed by Revitalizing Retirement, which discussed how retirees could reshape their identity and play a vital role in their community.  Too Young to Be Old takes the lessons from the first two books and really emphasizes the idea that retirement is not an ending but a beginning. In it, you discuss relationships, finding your place, embracing adventure, and aging well. Could you tell us a little bit about your own experiences as an author, a psychologist, and a retiree who, herself, is aging very well throughout the process of writing these three books? Do you also see something of a “trilogy” here?

NS: I had not thought of the three books as a trilogy but now that I think about it, each book was an outgrowth of the other. So maybe it is a trilogy. It started with Retire Smart, Retire Happy. I had thought retirement would be a piece of cake. After all, I was an “expert” on transitions and had retired voluntarily. However, retirement for me posed unexpected challenges so I decided to learn how others fared. The result was Retire Smart, Retire Happy. That book became the centerpiece of a PBS special by the same name.

I had many opportunities to continue interviewing and learning about retirement. I realized there was another book which described the paths people follow and the need to strengthen their psychological portfolios. The result was Revitalizing Retirement. This book elaborated on what I had learned in Retire Smart, Retire Happy.

I then became involved in a number of aging projects including writing a transition column for a local magazine. Over time, I realized there was one more—the last—book to focus on aging. This new book broadened my concerns to cover more than retirement. And thus Too Young to be Old was born.

AG: Much of the inspiration for your writing on retirement and aging comes not just from your own experiences, but from the people you’ve worked with in your daily life. Especially after the first book came out, you’ve been engaged by fans and concerned retirees who have come to you with questions about what is often a difficult life transition. What are some of the encounters that have had the most impact on your philosophy and your writing?

NS: Perhaps the most important factor was my own transitions. I found the decade of my eighties filled with transitions—I retired, I became a caregiver, then a widow. I had several surgeries and orthopedic issues. I recovered, began dating and actually went on line, met a retired lawyer, and we now live together. We then moved to a retirement community.

All these transitions make the image of someone in a rocking chair fade.

In addition, many who read my columns reached out saying how they were helped. That made me realize I wanted to keep writing and sharing mine and others experiences.

AG: When Retire Smart, Retire Happy first came out, it coincided with your own decision to retire after nearly three decades teaching counseling psychology at the University of Maryland.  When did you start thinking about ways to retire and age well? Had this been on your mind even in your youth? Or was it your own life transition that spoke to you?

When I was in my late sixties, I went to a retirement party for a much older woman. She was still productive and dynamic. By accident, I left the party walking with two deans. One said, “She should have retired years ago. She is too old to teach and advise.” Right then and there, I knew I would leave before anyone said that about me. And thus began the process of disentangling first from teaching, then advising. My husband and I decided to move to Sarasota where we used to vacation. Since retiring, I have written 4 books and become active in the community. This year will be the first time I have not had a book contract since 1984. So now I will really be retired. I am a bit anxious about it. It is time to reread my own retirement books!

AG: What advice do you give retirees and the soon-to-be-retired about handling this difficult transition?

NS: If someone is struggling to figure out a new path, think about regrets. Is there anything the person wishes he or she had done? If so, is there any way to turn the regret into a plan? That can get someone thinking about a new dream, a new plan.

too young to be oldAG: Too Young to be Old is the first of your titles to really delve into the issue of ageism. America, certainly, is an aging nation. The number of Americans age 55 and older will increase dramatically between now and 2030 – from 60 million today (21 percent of the total US population) to 107.6 million (31 percent of the population) – as the baby boomers reach retirement age.   You’ve written these three books over the course of a decade. What changes have you seen in that time? Is ageism on the rise or the decline? How can individuals embrace aging, and combat ageism?

NS: Ageism is all around us. Even those who are demographically in the old or old-old group exhibit age bias. As the president of AARP wrote, we need to “disrupt aging.” The first step is to be honest about our own ageism, then confront others when they make derogatory comments like, “I live in an old person’s home,” “I just had a senior moment,” “Look at that old lady,” etc.

AG: Do you have some advice on how the children and grandchildren of retirees can help their elders age well and embrace life and happiness after the retirement transition?

NS: Family is very important to most older individuals. So it is important to stay connected. Many of the people I interviewed for Too Young to be Old resented their adult children “bossing” them. Therefore, give the benefit of the doubt to older individuals, give them as much freedom as possible, show respect and help them maintain their dignity.

AG: What is the best thing about aging?

NS: I love the freedom of being 87. I say my age with pride. I never expected to live this long and continue publishing. I like my white hair but must admit the wrinkles surprise and dismay me when I look in the mirror. It is important to remember George Vaillant’s advice–stay young at heart by learning something new, trying something different, and embracing the time you have to spend with family.