New Moorings Help Men Break Retirement's Isolation

In the past six years, Robert Hammann has faced two major adjustments. He retired early because of a downsizing at GTE, where he was on the technical staff. A year later, he became a widower after a 35-year marriage. Living alone, he misses the companionship of his wife and contact with co-workers.

Yet in recent months, Mr. Hammann has found a new way to ease his isolation. Every Friday morning, he joins six or seven other men for the Older Men's Seminar Group, which connects men over 60 with their peers.

"It's an opportunity to get out and meet people, and to get somebody else's perspective," says Hammann, of Acton, Mass.

Although recreational activities fill one gap for the nation's 23 million retirees, specialists in aging increasingly recognize the need for deeper connections. That need will increase, they say, as the over-65 population climbs from 33 million people today to a projected 70 million, or 20 percent of the population, by 2030.

For this generation of men in particular, their lives often revolved largely around work. Many never developed hobbies or close friendships as their wives did, leaving an even bigger void after their careers end.

"When people retire and it isn't working, it usually has to do with the fact that they've gone from an environment where there were a lot of people to one with fewer contacts of a creative, stimulating nature," explains Paula Doherty, a geriatric specialist who founded the older men's group four years ago at Concord-Assabet Family and Adolescent Services Inc. "People can be social by going to the grocery store and saying 'hi' to the clerk. But we need more. It's the intellectual stimulation we lack when we stop working."

That lack, Ms. Doherty says, can be one factor contributing to statistics showing "a preponderance of successful suicides" among older men.

Seated in a cozy community meeting room on a brisk January morning, Hammann and four other men begin with doughnuts and pleasantries. They talk about the New England Patriots, who will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Vincent Merrill of Lincoln, Mass., a landscape architect and recent widower, tells about his trip to a family reunion. David Forrant, a retired electronics worker, updates the group on electrical repairs in his house after a winter storm. And Ruben Novack of Maynard, Mass., a retired technician in a research laboratory, jokes with a photographer, urging him to focus on his "best side."

But the conversation, guided by Doherty, also includes weightier topics, ranging from the men's previous careers to the high cost of health insurance to personal concerns. As Mr. Novack says, "You spill your guts a little bit."

For some participants, the weekly gathering also offers a respite from caregiving. Novack and another member, Michael Sarno of Acton, both care for wives who are ill. And Mr. Forrant, whose sister is mentally unstable, says, "It's quite a strain at home. It's a great relief to come here and talk to somebody you can communicate with."

James Garland, a professor of social work at Boston University who leads discussion groups for midlife and older men, emphasizes the importance of conversations like these. "It's not as easy for men to open themselves up emotionally as for women, because they haven't been trained that way," he says. "We've been training men for ages to leave the bosom of the family, to become independent, to become a warrior, a traveling salesman - all of these kinds of things. Sometimes, all of a sudden, as they go into these retirement years, they say, 'Where did all my relationships go? I was out working hard.' "

When those relationships involve family members, Doherty finds a recurring theme with the men: They don't want to be dependent on their children. "Older women will share with their kids how they're feeling and managing," she explains. "They'll say, 'I'm lonely, I didn't do anything today, I don't know what to do.' An older man will say, 'Nope, I'm fine.' We tell men in the group that they have to let their kids in on how they're doing."

Initially, many are hesitant to follow that advice. Says Doherty, "Some don't want to change their status with their children, thinking, 'I'm the dad, I'm strong, I can manage,' when in reality both parties know that things are changing." As one measure of the need for this kind of sociability, she says, "I get a zillion calls from adult children, asking, 'How do I sign my dad up?' "

Whatever the men's own challenges, Doherty is constantly impressed by their kindness and thoughtfulness, and the concern they express for one another. On this particular morning, for example, Mr. Sarno is driving the group's oldest member to and from an appointment.

"They really understand at this age the value of listening, and giving and receiving," Doherty says. Adds Professor Garland, "One of the nice things about the lessening pressures of employment, the lessening pressures to prove oneself as an aggressive executive, is that the nurturing potential of men often comes out."

However beneficial the sessions, no one pretends that an hour and a half of talk can fill the gap left by a career. Hammann, for one, would like to work again if he could find something meaningful. "I'm still looking for ways to expand and other things to do," he says. Mr. Merrill, who still works part-time as a landscape architect, adds, "I'm extremely lucky. My work brings me in contact with a lot of nice people. They're very appreciative."

For a small group of retired men in nearby Bedford, Mass., sociability takes a different form. Three mornings a week, they meet to repair household items at the Men's Fix-It Shop operated by the Bedford Council on Aging. Residents bring broken VCRs, lamps, and other small appliances. The men donate their labor. Owners pay for parts, then make a contribution for the work.

"It gives men an opportunity to come together around common interests, and to find new friends," says Carolyn Bottum, director of the aging council. "They also provide a very needed service. It gives them a sense that they're contributing in much the same way they did when they were working."

Like Concord, Bedford reflects the graying of suburbia. Approximately 19 percent of those in both towns are 60 and over.

On a Tuesday morning, four men sit at a semicircular table cluttered with tools and items to be fixed. Peter Malo, a retired electronics engineer, is replacing the switch on a Lladro lamp. When it works again, Mr. Malo, who sports a black T-shirt reading "Mr. Fix-It," smiles and says, "That makes me feel good."

Louis Anderson, a retired carpenter, pauses from soldering wires and says quietly, "Two years ago today I buried my wife."

Aldie Johnson, a retired engineer fixing a chain saw, says, "I want to return something to the community. My wife has been active for years, but I never had the time when I was working."

Still, conversation groups and service projects like these represent only two small ways of providing meaningful activity and contact for retirees. Garland sees other, larger needs. First, he says, more employers need to find ways to allow men and women to do part-time work.

He also believes senior centers must expand. Such meeting places, he says, "have been a tremendous boon to isolated men and women, and those who are not so isolated, to get together with their own generation."

Similarly, Garland would like more community gathering places for people of all ages. "One serious problem in our society is the isolation of generations," he says. "We need to strengthen the church groups and community centers that used to be a strong force in keeping elders in touch with younger people." Finally, he says, "We need to try to re-create the ancient institution of the multigenerational family, even if it's not your own kids."

With or without societal changes like these, counselors and retirees emphasize the importance of individual activity and initiative. As Hammann says, "There's always a lot of opportunity. You just have to keep your interests up and keep doing things."

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