Chuck Fink is living an enviable life in retirement. Between performing stand-up comedy, storytelling and acting gigs, along with regular get-togethers with a close group of friends, his dance card has few blank spaces.
But when Fink retired from Cincinnati to Asheville in 2008, he says, he had two plans at best: “to sulk and to mope.” His wife, Cindy, who had worked in academia, had a to-do list of 36 items and she began checking them off one by one. Chuck, meanwhile, was listless.
“I went into depression,” he says, “which meant for a man that you just kind of sit on a computer all day, which led me further into depression.”
Fink attended a presentation by then-AARP Vice President Rick Moody at the UNC Asheville chapter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which organizes educational and recreational opportunities for retired people. He recalls that the speaker described his pattern as common for retired men but added that women, while experiencing similar pressures upon retirement, tend to handle those pressures better, thanks to more robust social networks and greater ease with personal disclosure. Men, especially older men, tend to bottle things up.
“The problem with most men when we retire — and women are experiencing this too as they grow in corporate, organizational America — we establish our meaning through our work,” says Fink. “And when our work goes, if you’re not prepared, it hits you like a wall of bricks.”
For Fink, that night at the talk, something clicked. He reached out to a few acquaintances from OLLI and wrangled them into getting together to discuss their travails as retired men. At the first meeting, “Eight of the nine others said, ‘I’m only here because Chuck made me come,’” Fink says. “One guy nailed it. He said, ‘I’m only here because I didn’t want Chuck to be alone.’”
Circle of support
But the group turned out to be more of a boon than any of them had guessed. The retirees discovered that much of what was on their minds — changing relationships with spouses, with kids, with themselves — was common, and the support group became a social group as well.
“It’s been a real anchor; it’s been really important to me, because these guys are my friends,” says Ron Scheinman, who joined the initial group after retiring to Asheville from New Jersey. “Not everyone equally, but I trust them. That’s the most important facet, that I can feel free to say anything that I might not say to some other person who’s not a member of this group.”
“If I didn’t have the group,” Scheinman says, “I would be still looking for the kinds of relationships that I have with them.”
The model was so successful that Fink replicated it — and then replicated it many times over. Now there are 15 such groups in Asheville: 14 Men’s Wisdom Works groups at OLLI and the “Givens Guys Group” based at Givens Estates, a retirement community in South Asheville. Men interested in signing up for MWW are put on a waiting list by OLLI and then placed in a group when the list reaches a critical mass. At Givens, walk-ins are welcome.
Catherine Frank, executive director of the Asheville OLLI, recalls that at the outset people said a men’s group wouldn’t work. “And then you see it become the sacred time in their weeks,” she says. “It’s one of those things where you may not know you need it until you actually participate and see the effect it can have on your life.” Now, she attributes her chapter’s relatively high proportion of men to the presence of MWW.
Peer to peer network
Details about what happens in the meetings are hard to come by. Members of MWW groups do not discuss what happens inside. But for the most part, Fink says, the groups meet officially every couple of weeks, with regular breakfasts, lunches or, in certain cases, happy hours in between.
At meetings, each man updates the group on what’s been happening since the last meeting. Then the group’s facilitator — a position that in most groups rotates every year — invites members to delve deeper into their updates, which gives them the space to explore issues that might be especially pressing.
But, says Fink, “We do not practice psychology. Personally, being Jewish, I love to give advice. Oy! My job [in business consulting] was to give advice. So for me it was tough. We do not give advice unless it’s asked for.
“Everything we talk about has to deal with an experience that we had — a shared experience or an individual experience,” Fink continues. “We don’t talk about philosophical topics. We try to avoid religion and politics,” although he notes these topics occasionally slip in, as when a retired doctor brought up the Affordable Care Act after its passage in 2010.
MWW also offers a space to “learn about each other’s cultures,” says Fink. He chuckles recalling a gay man who joined to “see what it was like to hang out with a bunch of straight guys.” The man taught Fink that when straight men hug one another, they tend to pat one another on the back three times gruffly, each pat one word of a message: “I’m. Not. Gay.”
As Givens Guys Group member Larry Fincher explains, different groups put the meetups to divergent uses. Fincher’s group is mostly older men, ages 70 and above, so most have already gone through the identity crisis that can come when work life winds down.
But there are other challenges that the Givens Guys Group helps with, Fincher explains. His group mates offered sage words, he says, when his wife began experiencing mild cognitive impairment. “At this age, you never know from day to day what’s going to pop up — prostate cancer, hip replacement, a whole list. Your identity goes from robust and doing things to ‘Oh, I can’t do this anymore.’ That’s tough to handle for some people. And friends die off when you’re in the senior years. The last meeting we had, one of the fellows had been to a funeral of a friend he had for 50 years.”
MWW encourages building newer connections as a bulwark against the loss of old ones. Aside from socializing within the group, MWW places major emphasis on volunteering. “The [number of] volunteers emanating from MWW is extraordinary,” says Fink. “We just give so much of ourselves. And we get meaning from that, because we find out it’s about helping, it’s about supporting, it’s about sharing that part of us that we can share.”
The model is soon to expand beyond Asheville — new MWW groups are set to open through OLLI chapters at Eastern Carolina University and the University of Georgia. And retired women in Asheville, noting the program’s successes, have started a handful of similar support groups: some through OLLI and others as independent groups formed by wives of MWW members.
Frank cautions that making these groups work “takes some tenacity. If you want to start something like this, you need to find a Chuck wherever you are.”
But the opportunity is out there. “Retirement is so different now,” says Fink. “When my parents retired, it was lonely, it was sad; men, especially, typically died shortly after retiring. But now we have new vistas; we don’t just lollygag and mope about the past. We try different stuff.
“The focus is on living life, not winding it down. The focus is on regenerating new passions. And it works.”
Men’s Wisdom Works