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Your social dynamics help you live the best possible life during retirement

by Jeanine Joy Geissinger | Contributor
Feb 23, 2020


The social dynamics you choose to adopt during your post-career years can have a significant influence over your health, happiness and longevity. Spending time imagining your best possible future will help you identify the type of life you want to build during your retirement years. During their working years, many people self-identify with their occupation. Self-concepts during the working years are often created around our occupation or parenting status. Retirement leaves many people feeling adrift because the self-identity they adopted during their career no longer fits.

Simply changing the definition to retired doesn’t serve us well. For example, saying “I’m a retired engineer” tends to translate to “I’m someone who made contributions to society, but that’s not something I do anymore.” The career in the example isn’t important. Replace engineer with doctor, lawyer, banker, shoemaker or teacher, and “that’s not something I do anymore” remains the message.

Who we were isn’t nearly as important as who we want to be in the coming years. Once we leave our former occupation, we are free to create a new identity that reflects our hopes, dreams and values.

The freedom retirement affords allows us to change our goals and self-concept easily. A good way to approach defining yourself is by understanding how the decision is likely to affect your health and happiness.

Are a retiree’s social dynamics related to their well-being?

It’s easy to feel isolated when you retire because the people you spent time with during your working days are still busy at work. This can leave new retirees feeling lonely. Building the life you want during retirement takes thought and effort. Companionship with people they enjoy spending time with is important to retirees.

The way we decide to define ourselves post career is very important to our future well-being. Part of the decision about who you want to be directly affects the social dynamics you’ll experience. When G. Clare Wenger was a professor at the Oxford University Institute of Population Aging, she identified five types of support networks that form the basis of an individual’s support system. Each type is associated with specific outcomes in health, longevity and loneliness.

The types of support networks Professor Wenger defined include:

  1. Family Dependent Network.
    This type of support system primarily consists of family with the possibility of a few friends or neighbors whose importance is not as significant as that of family. Loneliness and depression are more common in this type of support network, for both the elderly person and caregivers. They are less likely to be aware of sources of help the community would provide.
  2. Locally Integrated.
    This network is typical of someone who is actively involved in their community and includes close relationships with family, friends and neighbors. Relationships with neighbors often extend into friendships. Morale tends to be high. While they tend to be more aware of sources of help, they may delay seeking it longer than they should as caregiving needs increase.
  3. Local Self-Contained.
    This person tends to stay home and doesn’t have close relationships or frequent contact although there is usually some contact with a relative and neighbors. This type of social network puts individuals at risk of social isolation and unrecognized needs during emergencies as well as early reliance on professional assistance for long-term needs.
  4. Wider Community Focused.
    This person maintains relationships with a broader group of people, often through community involvement, but may not have local family or consider neighbors to be friends. This type of network is also associated with high morale, however, professional assistance is required when ongoing care needs occur. The network is usually responsive to emergency needs but not long-term ongoing needs for support.
  5. Private Restricted.
    This person tends to be isolated with little contact with others although they may be married. While good health is maintained, independently minded individuals can do well in a private restricted social network. If help is needed, the independence is usually lost when professional caregivers take over which can have mental health implications.

Should retiree’s consciously plan their social network?

Most retirees fall into a social network based on how they lived during their working years. If their or their children’s career resulted in their homes being separated by long distances, they often have the ability to change this, but many people don’t make the move. Of course, moving to where your children live may not be the best option if their job is likely to uproot them again. If their location is stable, relocating to be near them and building your retirement social network in that location may be a wise decision.

Whether or not you have children or choose to live near them, the social network you build during retirement influences your health and happiness.

For example, researchers who looked at how positive and negative views of aging effect seniors discovered that negative views of aging shave 7.5 years off an individual’s life expectancy. How can you use that information to make your golden years better? Be picky about who you spend time with and develop a positive mindset about what it means to be a senior. The latter can be difficult given the widespread acceptance of ageism. The first advice is not to watch commercials, especially those targeting seniors, because they project an image of vulnerability and incompetence that is not supported by reality.

Senior couple taking a dance class

How does your social network’s attitude about aging influence your health as you grow older?

The social dynamics of those you’re connected to influence your quality of life as you age. Older people are 44% more likely to recover from severe disability, such as a fall or stroke, if they have a positive self-image, which must include a positive attitude about aging. Pay attention to how you and those around you think about aging. Ageism is common and accepted in our society, so it is up to you to cultivate your own opinion, even if it differs from the norm. This is a great area to rebel against common perceptions because a positive attitude about aging leads to better decisions about your health that result in a longer, healthier life.

Becca Levy, Ph.D. who conducts research on the effect of attitude on aging at Yale University, reports that individuals who have a healthy attitude about aging make better choices about their diets, are more likely to exercise and take their medications as prescribed and be timely about seeing their doctor when problems occur. A significant benefit of ensuring a healthy attitude about aging is part of the social dynamics of those you choose to associate with is that, as a group, you’ll be healthier and happier than peers with a negative attitude about aging.

    Positive Stereotypes

    Healthy Attitudes

  • Contributing to My Community
  • Content
  • Knowledgeable
  • Connected to Family
  • Capable
  • Satisfied
  • Wise
  • Loving
  • Time to Enjoy Myself
  • Able
  • Independent
  • Valued

    Negative Stereotypes

    Unhealthy Attitudes

  • Useless
  • Curmudgeon
  • Dumb
  • Burden
  • Incompetent
  • Unhappy
  • Drooling
  • No Sex
  • Bald
  • Weak
  • Dependent
  • Useless

A book that was the result of efforts by the Institute of Medicine Committee on Capitalizing on Social Science and Behavioral Research to Improve the Public’s Health, published by the National Academies Press, supports a positive attitude about aging. “The good news from behavioral and social research on aging, however, has delivered increasingly positive evidence that aging well is possible for the substantial majority of older adults.”

The vast majority of retirees live independently yet the stereotypes depict seniors as decrepit and too weak to take care of themselves. It is only among the very old that some level of dependency becomes common and even then, many of the very old are capable of taking care of themselves and living alone into their 90s.

If you want to compare the importance of attitude about aging to other health influences, a positive attitude about aging increases life expectancy by 7.5 years. Keeping blood pressure and cholesterol under control only adds four years while choices about exercise and smoking contribute one to three years. A review of the research in this area published in Psychology – Health and Medicine in 2016 reports that the way older adults perceive aging influences:

  • Memory and cognitive performance
  • Physical and physiological performance
  • Medical conditions and outcomes
  • Disability
  • Care-seeking
  • Self-rated health
  • Quality of life
  • Longevity

Clearly, your attitude about aging influences your health as you grow older.

One final and important aspect of the social ties you choose to make during retirement is being open to change. This is important within your social circle as well as in your own mind. Things will change. Being open to and ready to adjust to those changes makes you more resilient. Embracing change can also help keep your extended family connected.

Can you provide examples of how seniors redefine themselves during retirement?

When it comes to continuing to learn and grow during retirement, there are many examples and opportunities. The choices you make will affect the social dynamics you’ll experience as you grow older.

  • Barrie Levine, a graduate of Boston University law school, began her writing career after losing her husband to dementia. Barrie writes an inspiring blog for her local newspaper called “72 is the new 72,” and on Quora.
  • Ray Wenck, a retired schoolteacher and bar owner has penned over 20 novels since he retired a decade ago and expanded his social circle by attending writing conferences. When writing conferences bring him near far flung old friends, he combines visits with writing related travel.
  • Joan Anglea took painting classes and began painting pictures in both the Kincaid and Georgia O’Keeffe styles and used the auditing skills she developed during her career to trace her family’s roots to the Mayflower and ancestors that served in the Revolutionary War. Those ties led to her involvement and eventual leadership positions in DAR and the Mayflower Society.
  • After 40 years as a health care CFO and consultant, his frustration at seeing old ideas for health care reform that didn’t work the first time renamed and introduced as new reforms, inspired retired executive Phil Geissinger to earn his Ph.D. in health care policy at the University of South Carolina. His experience and new credentials give him a seat at the table that will influence the future of health care in the United States.
  • Sally Crail lost her husband not long after relocating to South Carolina from Ohio. As a newly single woman who didn’t know many people, she began volunteering at the local sheriff’s office, where she was recently honored for her many years of volunteer service. She is also in charge of props for plays her neighbors put on at the local community center.
  • Bobbie A., a retired blue-collar worker and Navy veteran, turned his attention to raising money for charities to benefit disadvantaged youth. By introducing a casino corral fundraising event, he quadrupled the amount raised in just two years to more than $80,000.

Retirement provides a blank canvas. How you decide to paint your life is up to you. While finances can feel limiting, if you use your imagination, limited funds are less of a drawback than many people think they are. For example, combining volunteer work with international travel can help you see the world with much less money than you might imagine. A man sitting next to me on a flight to New Zealand was going to volunteer at a horse farm where he would receive free room and board for helping with the horses while they ran a summer camp for disadvantaged children. He would have two days a week in New Zealand to travel and explore. If you own a home, you could rent it out while you travel or use it as an AirBnB to expand your travel budget.

Opportunities for learning are abundant. Many states allow seniors to attend colleges and universities for free or for a small fraction of the cost non-seniors pay. Other programs like Senior Scholars at Queens University and Wild Acres Retreat Center bring seniors who are interested in learning together where they can develop social networks of like-minded individuals.

Finding our place in retirement matters

Many people fall into their careers, driven by financial necessity and a sense of urgency to get on with their lives. During retirement, you can take time to think about the relationships you want, the activities you want to pursue, the ways you want to grow and the contributions you want to make. You are not bound by financial necessity or the urge to get married and start a family. You have time to choose wisely and doing so is likely to have a positive effect on your health as you age.

Wise choices will help you adjust to changes in social dynamics as you grow older and provide networks with resources you may not be able to imagine today.

Your contributions during retirement are limited only by your desire and your belief in your ability to make a difference.

The social dynamics throughout your senior years will depend on the decisions you make as you adjust to this stage of life. Even if you’re a decade or more into retirement you can reinvent yourself and create the social circle you want. While many people will point to physical limitations as an excuse not to do things, they don’t have to look far to see examples of people who continue being active while facing health challenges.

Your mental attitude will influence the way you adjust to changes in social dynamics and the social circles you choose to create. Working backwards, from the life you want to the attitude you need to achieve it will help you achieve a better outcome.

Alliance America can help

Alliance America is an insurance and financial services company. Our financial planners and retirement income certified professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement resources and help you to achieve your future goals. We have access to an array of products and services, all focused on helping you enjoy the retirement lifestyle you want and deserve. You can request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation by calling (833) 219-6884 today.

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