Women Seek New Models For Later Years

Challenges include caregiving, forging fresh ties

For 37 years, Anna Nassif's life has revolved around her career as a professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In addition to teaching, she has traveled the world studying dance, spending one sabbatical year in India on a Rockefeller grant and another in southeast Asia.

But next June, Professor Nassif's routine will change dramatically. She will clear out her office, bid colleagues and students goodbye, and retire. Although her decision was voluntary, the prospect initially filled her with anxiety.

"It felt like being on a mountaintop and falling off," says Nassif, who is single. "It needn't be like that, but that's the first reaction to the realization that a very important part of your life is coming to a close."

As the ranks of working women grow, this kind of response, once the province of men, is growing more common. Women now make up 60 percent of the 65-and-over population in the United States. By 2010, almost half of adult women will be at least 50. As they approach retirement, many face complex social and economic issues.

"There's a notion that retirement isn't going to be hard for women, because their lives involve more than a job, and they take care of a home and people," says Robert Weiss, a senior fellow at the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. "That's utter nonsense. It's just as likely that work becomes as essential a part of women's lives as it becomes of men's."

Sandra Lerner of Newton, Mass., a psychologist who took an early retirement this summer, says, "We're still the Pepsi generation - I have no models for this. When I look at my parents or my in-laws, their later years were very different from what ours are. Shuffleboard isn't going to do it anymore."

In a study by the National Policy and Resource Center on Women and Aging at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., women were far more likely than men to say they missed friendships at work. Explains Phyllis Mutschler, the center's director, "They lost not only the structure of the workday but meaningful ties with coworkers." Even so, once these women negotiated the sometimes difficult transitions of the first year, they said they were happy.

A welcome change

Sheila Atchley, professor of sociology and gerontology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, reports similar findings, saying, "Socially, the vast majority of women very much enjoy retirement."

Their families also become beneficiaries. Dr. Atchley sees "a very positive aspect in terms of relationships with grandchildren in retirement, because women have more time to be the kind of grandmother they want to be." Marital happiness often improves as well. "Their children are gone, their stresses at work are gone. They have more opportunity to spend time on their relationship, and on things they want to do."

Still, some married women face very real conflicts in the timing of their retirement. Ronald Manheimer, director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement in Asheville, explains that most often the husband has worked longer and wants to retire. "The wife says, 'I don't want to do that yet.' These women want their day of glory too."

Dr. Lerner knows the dilemma firsthand. Because of her husband's health, the couple recently decided to spend more time in Florida, which required her to end her private practice.

"That created some issues for us," she says. "I felt I was at the peak of my professional abilities. I wouldn't have chosen to leave now. But when pushed to make the ultimate decision, of course I chose the relationship with my husband over my career."

By contrast, Lerner has met women who maintain commuter marriages to Florida while their husbands are "happily staying on the golf course." She adds, "Perhaps we'll see more of that."

Even when a wife continues working after her husband retires, Dr. Manheimer notes, "He might say, 'I want us to travel for more than a week at a time, but you have to be back at the office.'"

Perhaps not surprisingly, single professional women tend to continue working slightly longer than their married counterparts, Atchley finds.

But married or single, women are the ones who must often interrupt or end careers for caregiving. "It doesn't matter how you look at this issue, it's women," says Deborah Briceland-Betts, executive director of the Older Women's League in Washington. Eighty percent of family caregivers are women. Sixty percent are wives caring for their husbands. Nearly three-fourths of those wives are 65 and over.

Wages, pensions, and the bottom line

Those interruptions become one factor, along with lower wages and smaller pensions, contributing to the biggest retirement issue of all for women - economics. Almost three-quarters of those over 65 who are living below the poverty line are women.

Women average 14.7 years out of the labor force, compared with 1.6 years for men, according to Ms. Briceland-Betts. Those years are averaged into Social Security records as zeroes. Payments are based on a worker's 35 highest-earning years.

"They're being penalized for doing what our culture expects them to do, which is to be nurturers and caregivers for their children, their parents, and even for their elderly husbands," says Atchley.

In studying data collected by the federal government, James Schulz, professor of economics at Brandeis University, noted several troubling patterns. "The rates of poverty among older women who are not married, and among older women of color, married and not married, are higher than any other subgroup in the population," he says.

The exceptions are women who divorced early and built careers. "They were able to move into retirement with better incomes," Dr. Schulz adds.

Yet regardless of race or marital situation, women in Dr. Mutschler's study said that it was "a shock" to realize that their expenses in retirement did not drop as they had expected. "There's a need to make financial plans early," she cautions.

In Nassif's case, those plans include savings and a university retirement program.

There is also a need for women to define what is important to them. "Women frequently tend to put other people's needs before their own," says Mutschler. "That may mean they aren't paying as close attention to their own well-being or to following interests that might be gratifying." She asks women: "What would you like to pursue?"

Lerner is ready with an answer. She plans to link seniors with students in a community-service program. "That would be one example of how to use the expertise and creativity of retirees," she says.

She adds, "The concept of retirement is dead. I think about managing my time as I might manage my finances. I'm not going to put all my eggs in one basket. I'm going to spend some time with mentoring, some with volunteering, some with family."

Nassif plans to do choreography for colleges and dance companies. Her list also includes painting, community work, and "a huge extended family." She says, "People think you're not supposed to achieve after you retire. It doesn't make any sense.

"I believe there are other mountains to climb, and new things to learn and achieve and discover."

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