Women Seek New Models for Later Years Challenges Include Caregiving, Forging Fresh Ties Series: New Outlook on Retirement

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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. …