Off on a permanent holiday
2014-07-18, Ming Yeung

Many retirees, after a couple of months of retirement, soon find boredom. To tackle this, a St James’ Settlement (SJS) Hubba Lab has started a brand new experiential platform to assist these people through inspiring activities. Ming Yeung reports.

When Amy Poon started her retirement two years ago, she had plenty of things she wanted to do —  take care of her family, catch up with friends, watch soap operas on TV and travel.

“I expected to retake my role of ‘mother’ that I had not really done very well in the past,” Poon laughed. “As I rarely cooked for them in the past, my son even posted on Facebook saying ‘finally I had my home meal’ when I cooked.”

After 34 years teaching in kindergarten, Poon looked forward to the end of work hassles and to be able to relax. “I didn’t have to get up early in the morning and didn’t have to go to work. I could take my vacations in low seasons. Everything felt comfortable,” Poon said.

Half a year later, boredom set in. “I started to feel depression creeping in. I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to get dressed,” she added.

Poon decided something was wrong. She went out looking for things to do. 

Carmen Ng, manager of St James’ Settlement (SJS) Hubba Lab, which is a brand new experiential platform for retired people to participate challenging and inspiring activities, said Poon’s sense of letdown was typical. When people between 50 and 69 retire, many seem to go through five steps to oblivion.

There’s a “honeymoon period” at the start. People are excited and full of anticipation about what they’re going to do with all their free time. It’s great for the first six months, she said.

One retired woman told Ng she was having a wonderful time for the first six months, especially on the days when it rained. She could eat breakfast and watch the poor people hurrying through the rain outside her window. No longer part of the rat race, she could sit back and enjoy her glorious freedom. 

Then, the euphoria brought about by having nothing to do slowly fades. People start to feel less empowered, less important. They begin to question whether there’s any meaning left in life. Disappointment sets in. The realization that this new, oppressive reality has taken hold, starts a crisis. This is an important time, said Ng — a time for reorientation. Retirees really need outside help to get themselves reoriented as quickly as possible, she added. 

That’s about the time many retirees start turning up at SJS, looking for help, Ng reckoned. 

Reorientation means evaluating long-term goals, possibly setting new ones —  figuring out strategies for achieving those goals. People start to feel happier right away, just for having that extra clarity. 

“Retirees’ expectations are different nowadays because they have excellent health, excellent education and excellent financial standing,” Ng said.


Satisfaction in helping others

Since many of these newly retired people were professionals or company managers, Ng said, they could get much satisfaction by applying their expertise to help others. “If they use those skills doing voluntary work, it may not be a good idea to use the “managerial tone” with others. Retired people think they are on an equal footing with other retirees and don’t like being ordered around.”

As a result, SJS started a program to help professional retirees use their abilities, hone their communication skills and stop being obnoxious and playing the managerial role.

One part of the program was a week’s working holiday on a farm in South Korea, back in May. The retirees even had to pay their own way for this “Live Holiday” so that they could experience a different kind of lifestyle.

Poon had done a lot of traveling already but the idea of a working holiday on a farm really appealed to her.

“I knew working holidays were popular with people under 30, but I never thought I would get the opportunity,” Poon said.

Farm life was not as comfortable as she had hoped and farm work tired her out quickly. 

“I saw some people older than I, walking much faster. I got tired very easily. I wondered why. So I promised myself I’d work on it when I came back to Hong Kong,” she said.

Getting along with her companions, all strangers, on the holiday, also proved to be challenging. There was one cranky roommate who got upset if anyone made a noise that disturbed her sleep. 

Every day, the organizers held a debriefing for participants, trying to enhance the spirit of cooperation among the group.

The group took a longer time on the first day to a complete task at the farm as they were not accustomed to farm work and they did not diversify their manpower very well.

But communication did help create a tacit agreement among the teammates who instantly knew how to diversify their work on the second day. Then they worked much faster.

Poon’s cranky roommate, a woman in her 60s, realized she was being pretty mean, not to mention blunt, when speaking to her traveling companions. “So she promised to improve and said her new aim would be maximizing people’s virtues and minimizing their shortcomings,” Ng said.

Farming not only helped with bonding, it gave the travelers a kind of satisfaction they never had before. Weeding through a large plot of onions, Poon felt like she had accomplished something through her hard work. “That plot of land overgrown with weeds that I could hardly walk through became neatly weeded so that we could clearly see the rows (of onions). That was very satisfying,” she said with excitement. 

Through Ng’s four years of dealing with retired people, she said she has noticed that men and women want different lifestyles when they retire.

“Men are more likely to spend more time at home, probably because they feel they have spent most of their lives working outside. Women prefer more outdoor activities and they take up hobbies,” Ng said.

As the population steadily ages, there will be more retirees with fine health, ample financial resources and high skill levels. They too will have to broaden their horizons and may realize their adventurous dreams should have been abandoned long ago. They need this kind of transitional service, so the demand will keep rising, Ng said.


Where shall we go today?

For older travelers on sound financial footing, the choices of places to visit are almost limitless these days. Tour operators caught on fast to this affluent and ever-growing market of older travelers with money to spend and time on their hands that younger people don’t have. Many of today’s older people also seem thoroughly rejuvenated with more energy and renewed curiosity.

There’s a broad spectrum. Some have almost no experience traveling. They fuss and fret over everything from packing their suitcases to the quality of the local water supply. More numerous however are those who already have plenty of experience as solitary travelers but now look forward to the bonding they can find through group travel.

To meet that diversity of need, there are plenty of travel programs for people from 50 onwards.

Morning Star Travel Service Ltd offers thematic tours. One takes travelers on a monastery crawl. There’s another that offers improved health through a detox regimen. These things are popular with older customers.

Travel tours geared to the elderly can make substantial differences to passenger comfort. 

“We have special arrangements for these older travelers. We will not cover amusement parks and the meals are not greasy or strongly flavored,” said Wilson Yeung, the travel agent’s marketing manager.

He added that the tours are for travelers who don’t want a mixed group. “Customers are more at ease speaking to people of a similar age group.”

Yeung said the tours designed for elderly folk are escorted by experienced tour guides with first-aid qualifications.

“Older travelers know exactly what they look for in tours. After joining, they don’t hesitate to give provide us with  feedback on how we could improve our itineraries,” he said.


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