Peter and Bev McNeil are enjoying their retirement at their Blue Mountains house, but many men have trouble adjusting. Picture: John Feder
SHIRLEY is bursting with energy. The 70-year-old Sydney woman has always embraced life, cramming her days with endless activities. She has a law degree, but worked part-time from when her children were at school and she became caught up in parents committees and running the tuckshop. She has now cut her work days right back, but has plenty to keep her busy, including evening meetings planning campaigns for local environmental issues.
It was fine while her dentist husband was busy with his own career but then he retired and the cracks started to appear. “Even if I prepare a meal for him in advance he drives me crazy ringing to see if I’ll be there to join him. He’s resentful that I still have so much on my plate, yet he never takes up my suggestions of things for him to do. I know he wants me home to do things with him but I don’t want my life shrinking.”
For all the jokes about men and women living on different planets, it’s the post-retirement period that lays bare the telling consequences of the way modern men and women live their lives.
That’s when the chickens come home to roost from men’s dependence on women for their social networks, the failure of many men to develop close, lasting friendships and their devotion to their careers, often at the expense of developing other interests and worthwhile activities.
The golden years burn brightly for many older women but for men they often splutter as they struggle with creating a meaningful life post-retirement. Once the lives of older women were dominated by the “empty nest” as mothers struggled to come to terms with the loss of their mothering role. But for years now, research has shown many older women are thriving. As noted feminist Betty Friedan explained in the book The Fountain of Age, “What the women experienced was increased activity, increased excitement, increased overall happiness, a decrease in depression and an increase in pride. No such change was found for men.”
Research shows that when Australian married men give up work they tend to come home to their wives, with the bulk of their social contact shifting from time spent with work colleagues to time with their partners. But many of the women move in the opposite direction — instead of increased time with their families they are out and about, enjoying friends and other social contacts.
“Retired women recorded a big increase in time spent with family/friends outside the household, while retired men recorded a decrease,” reports Roger Patulny, a sociology lecturer at the University of Wollongong, who analysed data on social contact in old age in the journal Family Matters.
Most of the time retired men used to spend with work colleagues now gets spent with their wives. Patulny: “After retirement men’s family time increases from 13 to 15.7 hours per day, while their daily time with friends decreases by nearly 20 minutes and with colleagues/acquaintances by over 2 ½ hours. By contrast, many women grasp the opportunity for more time spent away from their partners when they retire, increasing average time spent with non-family members from 75 to 103 minutes a day.”
“Men are hit pretty hard by retirement because they haven’t really had the opportunity to diversify their social networks as much and then find themselves devoid of the one network they have constantly relied upon for years,” Patulny comments.
It’s hard on marriages, particularly because for men this stage of life was traditionally associated with a new drive for intimacy and closeness after his big career thrust was over. But a man’s new neediness is hardly welcome to the wife enjoying spreading her wings.
A longitudinal study conducted by Marjorie Fiske and colleagues from the University of California Medical School interviewed men and women before and after retirement and found retired women often made positive changes in their lives — like training, travel, more education — but many of the men were bored and isolated. Fiske: “The men got angrier and angrier as their wives over the years got more confident and began to do more things, instead of just taking care of them. The wives began to resent their husbands’ demands on them. The men simply got more and more depressed.”
Most men brush off the idea that they resent their wives’ new enthusiasms. “Every time I turn around she’s off again. Off to her choir one minute, then shopping, or a book club, then off to have coffee. It’s endless,” laughs Peter McNeil, 82, before hastily explaining that it’s not that he’s resentful of her busy life. He’s also a very busy man, he tells me, explaining the various discussion groups he’s involved in as well as taking a very active role in the Blackheath Men’s Shed. It’s just that sometimes there’s a problem when she’s off in their shared car, he says.
It was interesting how often older women list off a string of activities they are involved in — learning painting or pottery, attending university courses, writers festivals, book clubs, all sorts of stimulating activities, but ask their husbands what their wives are up to and they’ll mention shopping or the hairdresser. And talking … “I don’t know what these women find to talk about all the time,” one man grumbled to me.
Melbourne psychologist Dr Peter O’Connor sees many older men in this situation who react to their wives’ desire to pursue new interests with obstruction and objections. “There’s often a resentment fuelled by envy. The man finds himself with no one dependent on him and, even more frightening, he encounters his own feelings of vulnerability, loss of power and potency and increasing dependence. Sometimes these men defend against the anxiety generated by their wives’ changes by deriding and denigrating their activities, denying that they are doing anything remotely important,” O’Connor says.
In his book Facing the Fifties — from denial to reflection, O’Connor draws on important work by American geropsychologist David Gutmann, who wrote about the “crossover effect” where psychologically older men develop passive, nurturing or contemplative “feminine” qualities while older women acquire more bold, assertive, adventurous “masculine” qualities.
O’Connor says he’s watched many older women acquire a new zest for life as they make these changes. “It’s my turn,” they tell him as they move away from the “accommodating self” they used for so long to keep the peace in their marriages. O’Connor reports great conflict in some marriages as women pursue new interests while men flounder to re-create a meaningful post-career life.
“I often see retired men who are genuinely lost. They no longer see the point of life. They have always focused on problem solving, ‘doing’ privileged over ‘being’, and are ill-prepared for the chaos and uncertainty that comes with change,” says O’Connor, suggesting women tend to be more flexible, partly because women’s lives include more transitions and they learn to be adaptable.
It all leaves many older men playing more and more golf or making a fetish out of the size of their super. “Superannuation is like secular heaven, a rewarding after-work life,” jokes O’Connor, suggesting an obsessive preoccupation with retirement finances can be a reflection of a deepening anxiety about dependency and older age — issues men find hard to confront.
For single men, the problem of boredom and isolation looms even larger, with research showing they are much less active than partnered men. According to the 2012 Disability, Ageing and Carers survey, over a three-month period only 31 per cent of men in this age group living alone attended a movie, concert or other live event compared to 40 per cent of men with partners. Single men were less likely than partnered men to be involved with arts or craft, go to church or restaurants or clubs, be involved with voluntary activities, visit museums, art galleries or botanical gardens, participate in physical activities or attend sporting events or education groups.
“They are so boring! Bored and boring,” says one of my dating clients, Sharon, a lively 62-year-old Melbourne woman who’s spent much of the last decade looking for a mate. She’s met dozens of retired men through online dating who are often shocked by her busy schedule. A former physiotherapist, Sharon has found retirement has opened up endless opportunities for expanding her horizons. She jams philosophy lessons, art shows and anti-fracking meetings in between music and writers festivals, with her active social and family life filling in the few gaps.
She’s increasingly disenchanted about her chances of meeting a simpatico companion. “What is it with these men? They expect me to entertain them, to share my busy life and enjoy my friends, yet they have so little to contribute. They are often men who had interesting careers, big lives, yet when they gave up work their lives shrank to hitting little white balls into holes. And they have no friends. How’s it possible for a 65-year-old man to have no real friends?”
That’s all too common, says men’s health expert Steve Carroll. He’s spent more than 30 years travelling around rural Australia talking to groups of men about their health — conversations that often end up focusing on men’s relationships.
“For many men, the problem is their lack of real relationships. While they have a working life they have plenty of social contact, superficial banter with their workmates, although it is striking how rarely they actually see their work companions outside of work. But when they retire they lose their major source of social contact and they become increasingly dependent on their wives,” he says, mentioning a gregarious elderly former businessman who hasn’t left his house since his wife’s death three years ago.
They just don’t have the skill set to establish more meaningful relationships with other men, says Carroll. While he applauds efforts being made by the Men’s Shed Association to bring older men together for shared activities, he believes very little of the interaction taking part in the sheds translates into proper friendships. “That’s not addressing the problem of changing the male culture that leads to men’s isolation,” he says.
Peter McNeil admits this is true. He sees retirement for many men as like “turning off a tap”, denying men of their major source of a social life. But he acknowledges the type of relationships that develop in most sheds seem simply to replace the “working association” that men used to share in their workplaces, centred around superficial conversation concerning their joint projects, chat about politics or the football. “Nothing too deep. We rarely get into our personal lives, apart from some skylarking or banter about our wives — ‘Couldn’t have the car again yesterday because the wife was off having her hair done’, that sort of thing. It’s pretty rare that men develop friendships that extend beyond the hours they spend together in the sheds.”
Asked whether they’d ever talk about their wife leaving them or erection problems after prostate cancer, there was an audible shudder from a number of Men’s Shed participants. “There’s a few doctors in our group. We’d go to them about that sort of thing,” one commented dismissively.
Most women are still thrilled that the Men’s Sheds are keeping their men busy. “I was delighted when he got involved,” says Peter NcNeil’s wife, Bev, 77. “It meant I could go out without him saying, ‘You’re not going out again?’ ”
Privately, some of the wives admit they can’t understand how men can spend so much time together and know so little about each other. “Men are hopeless,” says a partner of one of the silent men of the shed. “I’ll ask him, ‘What did you talk about?’ Blank. Or ‘What’s so and so’s wife doing?’ Blank. We women are so different. We never shut up.” She mentioned a recent cruise with her husband where she got so bored with the one-sided conversation that she spent her whole time reading books. “I’d love a deep conversation,” she says wistfully.
“If you are not in touch with your feelings you can’t offer proper companionship and it seems to me that’s what women are now yearning for,” says Peter O’Connor, who believes men’s resistance to tuning in to their ‘inner life’ and sharing their feelings not only prevents close friendships with other men but lies at the heart of the demise of many long marriages.
While we constantly hear stories about older men dumping their wives for the younger woman it is far more common for men to find themselves turfed out of a marriage. The percentage of divorces involving men over 50 more than doubled between 1985 and 2010, from 11 to 22 per cent for men in their fifties and 4 to 10 per cent for men aged 60-plus.
A Family Court study by Pauline Presland and Helen Gluckstern back in 1993 showed women made the decision to leave in two-thirds of mature-aged marital separations. Australian National University professor Matthew Gray confirms this is most likely still the case: “Research from around the world shows women make the decision in most, around two-thirds, of all marital separations,” he says.
Of course, there are exceptions to these patterns, gregarious older men with strong friendship networks, males totally connected with their inner lives and keen to share them. Many experts working with men also see hopeful signs that younger men are learning to break down traditional mateship barriers. But elderly men are currently one of the key risk groups for suicide, which has led to new attention being focused on the failure of these older men to develop meaningful lives and strong social connections.
Last year BeyondBlue sponsored research that found the Men’s Sheds are reducing isolation of men, particularly in rural areas, improving wellbeing, promoting friendships and providing men with a new sense of purpose.
It’s a positive start, suggests David Helmers, executive officer of the Australian Men’s Shed Association. It’s a movement, he says, that has created an environment in which men can gather, socialise and share,” he says. That’s all good stuff, but in the meantime the busy women and bored men of our senior world will just keep rubbing each other up the wrong way. Harmony in the golden years seems a long way off.
Bettina Arndt is a social commentator and online dating coach.www.bettinaarndt.com.au