As those of us north of 50 come to know, retirement is not what it used to be. In fact, many older Americans are retiring from their principal professions only to pursue a different kind of passion. Often it’s one that takes us well beyond our ZIP code, and comfort zone.
The dividend that comes with age
Ann MacDougall is the president of Encore, a nonprofit organization based in California whose mission, Ann told me, is “to tap into the experience and wisdom of older adults for the greater good.” Ann describes the dues that older professionals have paid during their years of working as “a dividend of talent and experience.”
It’s a dividend, she says, that we can apply toward making communities better.
I had a chance to see some of that dividend when Lori and I visited San Miguel de Allende, a picturesque city in the central highlands of Mexico with a thriving community of American expats.
“The expat community here is all about contributing,” Robin Loving told me.
Raising money, winning trust
A successful public relations executive who sold her company when she was 51, Robin left Austin, Texas, to come to San Miguel de Allende on a calling.
“I had this notion I should be working with girls,” she says. That notion turned into a seven-year project helping a local orphanage for girls, raising a million dollars for them in the process.
“The triumph for me was getting the protective Catholic nuns to allow me to come into their orphanage and see what they needed,” Robin says.
Robin had studied Spanish in school, but like many of us who did, never used it on a consistent basis. In San Miguel, she decided to forgo the kinds of classes she’d had the first time around and work one-on-one with a Spanish tutor instead.Part of Robin’s success is her engaging, warm nature. “As friendly as a stray dog in a meat market” is how one Texan friend describes her. But she also became adept at trading her delightful Texas twang for a very respectable Spanish accent.
“I didn’t want to hear anybody else’s mistakes,” she says. “There would be enough of my own.”
Jennifer Lawson is another American expat in San Miguel. A retired executive from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., she had long had on her bucket list a wish to become fluent in Spanish.
She chose a different path from Robin, undertaking a full immersion course that ran from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day, and living with a local family.
Having a second language in this, her second act, “makes me feel that I’m more a citizen of the world,” Jennifer says.
Adventures in language learning
At the language school that expats Warren Hardy and his wife, Tuli, have run in San Miguel for 27 years, they see a lot of older Americans experiencing a broadening of horizon.
“These are people 60, 70, 80 years old,” says Warren, “all lifelong learners. They’re still engaged in reading, learning and growth.” Learning a second language adds to the adventure.
“When people first come to San Miguel, they’re nervous,” Warren says. “They learn enough Spanish to get by.” But as they settle in, they’re eager to learn more of the language. “It’s an evolutionary process,” he says.
“A win for our country”
It also flies in the face of what Ann MacDougall of Encore calls “pervasive ageism”—the myth-guided notions that older people are rigid, fear technology, and don’t know how to learn anymore.
And the notion that older people can’t learn other languages?
“Nonsense,” Ann scoffs. Older people learn a language differently from younger people, especially children, who learn more reflexively. But older learners, according to Ann, “bring a discipline and focus to the job.”
That’s true even for older Americans who see their second-act adventure closer to home. Says Ann: “The whole notion of making our country more multilingual is a win for our country.”
Click here to hear more from Ann, Warren, Jennifer and Robin in Episode 16 of my America the Bilingual podcast, “Bless the Late-Blooming Bilinguals.”
And I’d love to hear from you about your second acts—those in play, and those you’re planning.