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Retirement: Savoring The Second Half of Life

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The TTN Monday Night Book Group meets to discuss “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”
The TTN Monday Night Book Group meets to discuss “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”

SPECIAL FROM

By Deborah Harkins

Charlotte Frank and Christine Millen belong to the first generation of women who achieved widespread success in the corporate world. But when Frank, an executive with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Millen, a partner at the consulting firm Deloitte, faced retirement a decade ago, they did so with the same apprehension that many high-level men experience: How would they cope when they lost the status, camaraderie, authority, and challenge of their careers?

After conferring with likeminded friends (who were to become “founding members”), Frank and Millen pooled their skills and resources and created The Transition Network (TTN), an organization designed to nurture women who are transitioning out of full-time careers or coping with the inevitable problems of aging. Through small-group interactions, programs, lectures, and workshops, TTN would provide support and direction for women over 50 who were looking for new ways to channel their skills, energy, and education.

The idea hit a nerve: TTN now has 11 chapters nationwide (and 4 in formation), with a total membership of 6,000. It has also inspired what TTNers call “the book”—Smart Women Don’t Retire: They Break Free, written by founding member Gail Rentsch. Its theme, “From working full time to living full time,” nicely captures the TTN take on life after retirement.

I belong to TTN’s flagship New York City chapter. It’s the largest, with 600 members; the annual dues are $125 (but less in other chapters). We are editors, social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, college professors, lawyers, corporate executives. We are in various stages of professional and personal transition—working full-time, part-time, retired; married, partnered, single, widowed, divorced. We range in age from our fifties to our eighties. What we all have in common, though, is perspective. We are all discovering what it is like to be an “aging” woman in this society.

“Information, Inspiration, Community”

A long-term goal of TTN is to spark a change in Americans’ dismissive attitude toward older women. At last year’s annual Pride of Age banquet, Frank and board member Mona Kreaden shared their Thoughts About Our Milestone Birthdays. “When we began to age, we panicked,” Frank acknowledged. “Terrified, we lied about our age, were shamed by the approach of milestone birthdays. It was clear we were at the point where we needed to define ourselves more appropriately...not looking at [ourselves] as a cohort with rapidly accumulating deficits. We needed to look at our longevity with pride and celebrate our lives as well lived.”

According to executive director Betsy Werley, TTN offers members “Information, Inspiration, Community.” And it is “community” that members value the most highly. A 2009 New York City chapter survey asked what impact TTN had had on respondents’ lives; 87 percent checked: “Provided a community of women whose friendship and support I value.”

TTN runs on member zeal (Werley is TTN’s only full-time staff member). Volunteer energy generates the peer groups, the excursions, the newsletters, the Member Mingles, the Caring Collaborative (see sidebar), the volunteer projects, and the monthly Third Thursday meetings. At these large gatherings, speakers—who have included Jane Bryant Quinn, Gail Sheehy, Marlene Sanders, and Gael Greene—talk about topics relevant to aging—sleep, social networking, hospice, financial planning, caregiving.

Peer Groups

But peer groups are the heart of TTN—members’ regular source of warmth, intellectual stimulation, and support. There are 60-odd discussion and special-interest groups in the New York chapter; each has sprung up because someone has an interest or issue she wants to share with compatible women. (Above, members of the In Focus digital-photography group on a shooting trip to the High Line. Photo by Eleanor Foa.)

Members’ enthusiasms range widely: The special-interest groups include (among many others) meetings devoted to poker-playing, doing improv, navigating the single life, sharing a love of classical music, harmonizing on Broadway songs, travel, exploring New York City, and advocating for abused women. The general interest discussion groups, composed of 8 to 12 women, meet monthly, usually in one another’s apartments, for wine, snacks, and the chance for thoughtful reflection on a topic chosen the month before. Sometimes the theme is lighthearted (“sharing our passions”), sometimes it’s serious (“ageism,” “the road not taken,” “dealing with our partners’ transitions”).

These are not therapy groups or griping sessions, “but they do raise consciousness,” says Kreaden, who, in the course of her seven years as a “full-time volunteer” for TTN, has sparked the creation of many of its peer groups—and the chapters in other regions. “The key thing is that you’ll meet women you would not normally meet, and these women are active and engaged. All of them are thinking about how to live their lives differently. You relate to these women in a different way than you do when you’re hanging out with your best friends. Being with these women meets our intellectual needs.”

And our social needs as well. Anita Jaffe’s peer group, The Visionaries, just celebrated its fifth anniversary. Why did they bond, this professionally diverse group consisting of a nursery-school director, an events planner, a speech therapist, a corporate-marketing researcher, a computer-systems consultant, a fine-arts dealer, a law-firm administrator, a patient-advocacy director, and a newspaper reporter? Jaffe explains why in the New York City chapter’s newsletter. One pleasurable ingredient was the outings her group has taken: “That went a long way toward solidifying our friendships,” she writes. “Over the years, we’ve been to the New York and Staten Island Botanical Gardens, Storm King Mountain, the Grounds for Sculpture, the Philip Johnson Glass House, and Wave Hill. We went by car, by train, or by bus, and laughed, picnicked, took photos, and enjoyed each other's company immensely.”

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