Retirement Models for Career Women

with Helen Dennis,

Speaker, Author, Syndicated Columnist

This week on the Art of Aging, host Rev. Beth Long-Higgins welcomes Helen Dennis to the show. Helen is a nationally recognized leader on aging, employment, and retirement and discusses the concept of “renewment”, a term coined to describe the phase of life combining retirement and renewal. She shares how her passion for this topic began and the impact of the renewment movement, including the formation of enduring communities and meaningful connections. Helen also talks about her role in combating ageism, personal inspirations for aging abundantly, and more.
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Highlights from this week’s conversation include:

  • Helen’s passion for the new retirement (1:18)
  • The birth of Project Renewment (1:49)
  • Renewment’s significance for women (8:30)
  • Unintended Consequences of Renewment (14:05)
  • Connections which lead to relationships (16:04)
  • Creating Change through Ageism Awareness (19:55)
  • Helen’s abundant aging role models (28:06)
  • Connecting with Helen and Renewment (31:36)


Abundant Aging is a podcast series presented by United Church Homes. These shows offer ideas, information, and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. To learn more and to subscribe to the show, visit



Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 00:07
Hello and welcome to The Art of Aging, part of the Abundant Aging Podcast Series from United Church Homes. On this show, we look at what it means to age in America and in other places around the world with positive and empowering conversations that challenge, encourage and inspire us all to age with abundance. Our guest today is Helen Dennis. Helen is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement. She has received awards for her university teaching at USC Davis School, the Andrus Gerontology Center and for her contributions to the field of aging, the community and literary arts. She has edited two books, written more than 100 articles and is a frequent speaker and lecturer. She is the weekly columnist on successful aging for the Southern California Newspaper group writing over 1000 columns, and as assistant to more than 25,000 employees in preparation for the non-financial aspects of retirement. Fully engaged in the field of aging. She was a delegate to a White House Conference on Aging and his co author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller, Project renew, meant the first retirement model for career women. Helen has extensive experience with the media, including primetime NPR Network News, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and the Christian Science Monitor. And not last but not least, she was recognized by PBS Next Avenue as one of the 50 influencers in aging for 2016. Welcome, Helen, let’s start by talking about your passion for this topic. How did you get into talking about the new retirement in the first place?

Helen Dennis 01:48
This is a story from 1999 When my good friend and colleague Bernice called me, and she had just retired from her second position as an executive director. And she said, Helen, is there anything done for women who have been passionate about their work, have made an impact. And now we’re moving to this next phase called retirement? She said, I’m a little bit at a loss. So what does the literature say? And what are the programs? And I said, Renee, great question. We are not on the agenda. We are not on the screen. There is almost nothing about this cohort of women as they move into retirement. So the passion came from the need. No one was talking about it. It wasn’t a cohort, it wasn’t a segment that anyone’s paying attention to. And yet, as the baby boomers are aging, we know there are more and more women who have had impactful careers moving to this next phase. So that’s where the passion came from, it was just an empty space.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 03:01
Because so you do call this project renew meant but why the word renew meant, let’s start there.

Helen Dennis 03:07
So that’s a word we made up. The women who gathered around this first renewing table, talked about the term retirement, it just didn’t seem to fit. So we came up, we made up the word renew, it is a combination of retirement and renewal. And what’s interesting, many of the women who belong to renew and have said, you know, I’m in the renewing phase of my life, not necessarily the retirement phase. But implicit in is real.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 03:38
I love that idea. One of our guests at our recent symposium, Richard Eisenberg, has a concept that he likes to call retirement. Are we talking about the same kind of thing?

Helen Dennis 03:49
Not really, renewing is pretty broad. So you can be retired, you can be working, you can be working part time. It’s broad in the sense that it would apply to anyone mid to later life, who is moving perhaps to the latter part of their career, and is being thoughtful about that next segment. And I think it’s the thoughtfulness that is an integral part here. It’s not a clear definition of you’re either this or that. And it’s also self definition. If you think it fits you’re part of you want to be part of renewing.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 04:28
So you have this conversation with your friend and in 1999 and here we are 24 years later, what has happened since that first launch, and the launch of a book and and here we are post pandemic. Tell us a little bit about the ARC of this movement that you’ve helped to create.

Helen Dennis 04:49
Now we’re talking 23 years later. The call from Bernie’s initiated a lunch where Bernie’s and I said, Is there anything really to talk about? It was a four hour lunch. Super nice. You invite some like minded people, I’ll do the same, we’ll have dinner. That was a four hour dinner. And so we proceeded to meet monthly to talk about a topic that was relevant to transition and change. Because I do a sidebar here. It’s about supporting career women through transition and change. And not only supporting I would say supporting and inspiring women, particularly career women, through transition and change for work to retirement. And beyond. There is no graduation, transition changes part of life. So part of the story is we met, and we proceeded to meet monthly, we had no intention of growing. But then we had some women from the westside of Los Angeles that said, you know, could we join your group? From a group process perspective, that can be difficult, we said, we’ll help you start a group. Well, then there was another group and another group, well, 23 or 323 years later, you’re about 35 to 40, renewing groups that had been launched virally. Some have made it in two years, some have been together for 23 years. But here’s a new piece. Here’s a notice the pandemic hits. People can’t move, people can’t meet. So we made up something else. We made up the virtual renewal roundtables. And we said, the 15 seats around this table first come first serve, while the seats were filled. And then there was a waiting list, and another waiting list. And we just launched room 15 with women from across the country coming to talk about a topic that’s relevant to their lives, that involves transition and change, and thriving. So that’s an executive summary. There’s a story about the book, but I don’t know if you want to go into that. Yeah,

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 06:59
tell us the story about the book. That

Helen Dennis 07:01
story about the book, I always knew there was something here because no one was talking about this cohort. So the first five years, we took notes that were transcribed, not knowing what to do with you. So we got a little press, unsolicited from the LA Times, and also another publication and the CEO of Scribner, which is a sub of Simon and Schuster, read it, called, called the journalist who wrote the story. And they called us and they said, we’d like you to write a book. What this is, so we can do that. So 18 months later, we submitted a manuscript, but those five years of conversation gave us something significant to talk about, in addition to the research on the topic. And the last piece is, there’s a guide to the last section that tells you how to start a renewing group, what are the topics? What school classes? So that’s the executive summary. And all of this has happened without marketing. So we were very fortunate.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 08:14
So what is it? Do you think that that makes this so significant for women? And have men tried to, to emulate this? And are there any renewal groups for men? So

Helen Dennis 08:30
Why is this essential for women, women’s work career, generally, it’s different from Beth’s. They’ve taken time out of the workplace, they’ve traveled with their mate for practical reasons. And so they have been kind of second in order. And not much attention has been paid to them. And these are particularly women, for whom work is more than money. Okay, so give me the first part of your question

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 09:02
Again, have men tried to replicate this?

Helen Dennis 09:06
It’s a great question because we have a partnership with a quasi sibling group called the life transition group. And these are about 25 to 30 men to meet monthly, highly organized, they have a topic a month, they’re planned for the year in a row and our first meeting was around a conference table of 16 seats. So we took eight women and eight men, eight of our women, eight of their men, and we came together to talk about a topic. So the life transition group is an example. But as men are and I’m making an assumption here, men are assuming different roles in the family, with children, with stay at home, dads, etc. We are seeing men not a lot but more men’s groups being formed. But I’m not sure about the vocals. And I will add one piece, which is going to sound sexist, but I’m going to be brave. I’ve worked with 25,000 employees on the non financial aspects of retirement, men and women go about this differently. I mean, linguists will agree, and that women generally are very communal. And they get to the topic very quickly. And I would say men take a little more time, a little bit about politics and a little bit about sports. So these are stereotypes, but I’m speaking in generalities. So I think the men are coming along. But I think women very naturally, commune if you will, and they get to the issues pretty quickly.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 10:50
Tell me a little bit more about what are some of the things, whether it’s from the work that you’ve done with employees and helping to prepare them or through the renewal movement? What are some of the general themes that you see people need to address the nonfinancial things that people need to address as they approach this transition of life?

Helen Dennis 11:09
I think one of the primary ones is identity. And we have an essay in our book called Who Am I Without my Business Card. So that’s a big one. And now there is a redefinition of productivity. There are no goals, there’s no managing by objectives. There are no rewards, external. So the notion of redefining what productivity means? Another one is passion. People say, what is this thing? Passion? You know, we never talked about this was not our language growing up? And what is it if I don’t feel passionate about something? Where do I find it? Relationships, we have a segment on the book called, who will be there for me? Who will be there? And in our virtual groups, we talk about resilience. We talk about role models. We talk about a sense of purpose. We talk about radical acceptance. What does that mean? Redefining relationships, priorities. So the list is actually endless for thoughtful people.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 12:23
I am sitting here beaming, I don’t know if you know, but I teach a course through Eaton Theological Seminary in St. Louis. And I started this during the pandemic. So it’s online. It’s a non academic course. And this is what we’re teaching. It’s for folks who are entering this period of life. And we meet every other week, throughout the semester, and you just named the themes that we had identified, and that we work into the course. So this is very affirming to the work that we’ve been doing. And yeah, and for me, part of it has come from listening to those friends and all ahead of me who have retired. And, you know, I can remember my sister in law saying, Who am I going to tell people I am, when I meet them for the first time when I’m no longer actually teaching? I’m not a teacher anymore. And so that started my energy and engagement in this process as well. So you’re really teaching a renewing course. Yeah. Right. It’s, you have a group? Yeah. And it’s a little more formal. And we take the larger group and divide them into smaller cohorts, and they meet in the off weeks. And what we did not anticipate we’ve been doing now for about three years. And each of those semesters, there’s at least one cohort that has continued to stay in touch. And these are people from around the country. And that’s something we didn’t anticipate, and we don’t make assumptions about it. But it happens. It happens every single semester.

Helen Dennis 14:05
So I want to just comment on that. Because we have found the same, I call it unintended consequences. Yeah. But people don’t go into this to make a new best friend. But the relationships because the values are so similar. You can come from diverse backgrounds. But the values are so similar. And we have found that these groups have been meeting some for decades. Yeah. We know a lot about loneliness, and what happens with older adults. So one of our unintended consequences is that we have built small, enduring communities of women. And I think you’ve found the same thing. I think we’re onto a formula. Where do you think it is?

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 14:48
I think so. So what are some of the other unintended consequences that you have observed?

Helen Dennis 14:53
A couple of stories. We had a woman who was recently widowed, wanted to sell her house, you Aren’t Palace birdies, and we had another woman who was a real estate agent in Palm Springs. Not only that she is a psychologist, so she finds the best house for the best person. They connected on Renu. Within two weeks, this woman sold her house, moved to Palm Springs, and became a best friend. We had another case, where a woman was the recently retired prosecutor in New Jersey, looking for what’s next we had another woman who was headed up Democrats for democracy. Well, they connected and she got a new volunteer. Something happened recently, which I call a stunning moment. We have that formal collaborative relationship partnership with the University of Southern California and maritime center. And we had a meet up about 40 Women recently got a panel and there was a discussion and the discussion moved to caregiving. And a woman got up and said, ” I have known this woman for 40 years.” She said, I have Alzheimer’s disease. And let me tell you, you go to your doctor. And they say, We have bad news and good news. The bad news is you have Alzheimer’s disease. The good news is you don’t have cancer, so you won’t die from that. So get your things in order. So Carol says, I went from Alzheimer’s disease to death, there was like nothing in between. At the same time, we had a PhD student who was participating get up and say, I’m working on a project to reframe Alzheimer’s disease as a human rights issue and a disability. Consequently, these two people have gotten together. PS Carol was misdiagnosed. misdiagnosed, she lived with this for 14 months, she was misdiagnosed nonetheless, she’s looking for her new mission. And this graduate student and Carol will go on this mission to reframe Alzheimer’s. So to me, the moral of the story is to show up. If you show up, things happen. So these are just average shares of three stories.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 17:14
The stories are powerful. I attended your workshop at the American society on aging conference last March. And you had us break into small groups and with a couple of people who were sitting around us, and the conversation with those other four women, just within that 15 minutes or so was absolutely amazing. And the woman on my left, had retired six months before the woman on my right was retiring the next day when the other two women who are across from me are in the process of thinking about retirement. So I was the one that’s a little bit further out from all of that. But yeah, I was really surprised about how quickly the conversation picked up. And there were definitely themes and connections from folks. So that’s my little snippet and experience of renewing Matt and your leadership. And I look forward to that in the future. And to see what else that brings. I want to move to another topic here because you led a meeting just yesterday. Helen is co-chair of the ageism and culture advisory council with the American society on aging, and we had a Zoom meeting with our group. And do you just want to share, brag a little bit about what the group has done? And the energy that’s coming out of this endeavor? It’s a part of I think maybe perhaps I’m not getting the assumption, part of your passion projects at this point in time. Yeah,

Helen Dennis 18:54
I think underlying all of my work is to combat ageism. Whether it’s the workplace with the media, it’s just so endemic. It’s so systematic. So co chair of this council and have this extraordinary team. If you had, you had to have your 18. This is the 18. And we decided to focus on something called Ageism Awareness Day. Now the World Health Organization has their own agenda. There was nothing national. And we started small. And we started with the components to really make people aware of ageism. And so a great team put together the facts. What do we know, all cited in research, all based on research evidence, what are the facts? And if we want to submit an op ed piece, what is it that we have to say? And if we want to have a permanent proclamation, what should that look like? So a toolkit was developed for anyone to tap. If they want to advance ageism Awareness Day, well, it exploded. It exploded with, I don’t know, a million sites, a million references. And it went into nonprofit organizations and corporations into the national record of eight different countries. And it has become a big thing with the logo. And it has become a national mission movement that is moving forward. So we have done a good job in awareness. I think we’ve done a good job in knowledge. And I think our next challenge is how do we affect behavior? Because we can be extremely aware we can teach a course on it. But is it making any difference in what we do in our policies and our practices? But the impact has been more than we could imagine. But there’s another, I think, moral to the story, not only the mission, but what can the volunteer group do to create change? Every individual had a part. And every individual has that capacity. So we can implement change, often with a team never alone. That’s reassuring as a volunteer. Because alternative volunteers say, Well, what difference does it make, it makes a big difference. So we are very excited about Aging Awareness Day 24. I also want to acknowledge there are many other entities who have worked on this, changing the narrative. And Colorado has done its extraordinary work as many other organizations. But this launched it nationally, this gave it a big umbrella. And everyone could be a player within that umbrella, there was room for everyone. So thanks, bass, for acknowledging that it is really quite extraordinary what happened.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 22:08
So I know that when asked to tell people that you’re an author, a columnist, you’re a lecturer, I think you need to include it on your list. And if I were to do business cards today, I think you need to include a movement maker, because you’ve got the RENU meeting a new vet that you’ve been involved with your help on to chair this movement about ageism awareness, through AASA. I think it’s a gift that you have. And we all benefit from your leadership and your wisdom and helping to guide these processes. But

Helen Dennis 22:43
Thank you, Beth. You know, movements are never one person. And I think, you know, I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who are ready to move mountains. And what a pleasure that is.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 23:07
It has to do with passion, and also what brings you joy.

Helen Dennis 23:10
What brings you joy? And what do you really believe? Yeah, when you believe in something, you can sell it? Yeah, you can sell it if you are authentic. You can sell it. So we’re in the sales business.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 23:30
So Helen, do you want to just share before we? I have three questions to ask you that I asked everyone. But before we get there, where can people find you? Where can they learn about your movement making?

Helen Dennis 23:42
So you can go to renew And I don’t know if you put that somewhere in your chat or in some writing. My website is Helen and And so you can contact me. And I should I’m very good at responding, I have to say, in my columns, and I published a LeBreton version. I answer every Congress correspondent. Wow. That’s the answer. And that’s also building community with movement building is community building. And I’ll just add, I believe strongly in the power of small groups, large groups too, but small groups can move mountains. Absolutely.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 24:29
Well, thanks. Thanks. Okay, are you ready for the three questions?

Helen Dennis 24:34
Ready for the three questions?

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 24:36
Okay. Here’s the first one. When you think about how you have aged, what do you think has changed about you or grown with you that you really like about yourself?

Helen Dennis 24:46
I am unclear on my priorities. And one thing I’m very aware now in this life stage, that I continue to have a mission . As long as I’m physically and mentally well, a retirement that would be exclusively leisure would not be fulfilling to me. I’d like grandchildren to travel, and I like to walk in groups like the theater. But I have to have an overarching something I believe in to make this life stage and actually all of my life stages meaningful. So I guess it’s not stopping because of my life stage. And that’s becoming very clear to me.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 25:35
Excellent. It’s evident, it’s evident in what you’re doing. Okay. Question number two, what has surprised you most about you, as you have aged?

Helen Dennis 25:45
Well, one of the things that has surprised me is how others have commented or perceived me Since I turned 18. So I’m the same 79 as when I was eight. So I have a wonderful colleague, who, whenever we are in a public forum, introduces me and there’s my friend Helen Dennis, who’s 80. By the way, I’m now at three. I think you’ve seen, I guess, what, why does that matter? So could be a compliment, maybe, or, Oh, my God. She’s doing what she’s doing. And she’s even eating. Or maybe he’s uncomfortable with his own age. But it’s strange. No one ever said. And here’s Helen Dennis. She’s 79. SOAP that ad. And the other thing that surprised me, I’ll give you another example. He had some routine work done at a hospital. And I walked in and reasonably fit walked in, I sat down. And a woman came over to me and said, Would you like a wheelchair? I said, thank you. I appreciate that. I don’t think so. But she just looked at my birthday. And assumed I was in the hospital. So I couldn’t move very well. So the response for a woman I would say turning 18, it gets a response. That surprised me.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 27:14
So do you think you do, do you think you’re experiencing more blatant ageism?

Helen Dennis 27:20
I don’t know. Because I’ve never experienced this before. And my age has been irrelevant to me until I started to pay attention. So that was surprising. Yeah, surprising. And I don’t find it a problem. I’m just saying it’s surprising, which is fine.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 27:40
When a gracious way to approach those situations. Okay. And here’s the last one. And I think that this is easy for you to do, because as you talked about some of the things that you deal with through the RENU men’s movement. You talk about role models, is there someone you’ve met, or someone who has been in your life that has set a good example for you and aging someone that inspires you to age abundantly?

Helen Dennis 28:06
I love the word abundantly by the way. It’s a great word. So hey, I’m going to do part a and then a small part B. So part A is my mother. My parents were immigrants 1938 from Germany, worked very hard, starting from the bottom up, immigrant story. And when they retired to Florida, my mother continued to eat very healthy, and in very healthy ways. Mother went swimming, volunteered, and continued to learn by taking adult education classes in her synagogue. Beside the doing part. My mother had grace and kindness. Yeah, I was very deep, forgiving, thoughtful, charitable, philanthropic. My mother spent her entire social security in various envelopes, sending them to people she knew who needed some money, but they never knew where it came from, which is the highest form of charity. So I hope to emulate those traits more than the doing piece, but what made my mother who she is and who she was. So that’s your goal. How beautiful thanks have to do a small part B. And that’s Norman Lear. I do not have the talent of Norman Lear. Okay. But there’s this wonderful thing, it’s on YouTube. It’s called if your name is not Neopets, that breakfast. And we use a piece with Karina or Mel Brooks to vent right here. So all of these men, and there were some women in there too, but these men were close to 100. They were passionate about their work, they were successful. And they continue to do what they love to do. I mean, one of the best lines of the moment the leader says is, I don’t know why people applauded when I bend over to tie my shoe. I mean, they had a great sensation of Dick Van Dyke being in it. That, to me, is a possibility. Even if society says, you’re still working, you can say yes, I continue to do what I love to do. So the small d is these models of men who continue to do what they love to do, and have great joy. That, to me, is an aspiration that I hope to fulfill, and I feel at the moment I’m able to do it.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 30:52
Thank you. Thank you. And thank you to our listeners for listening to this episode of The Art of aging part of the abundant aging podcast series from United Church Hollins, we want to hear from you. What has changed about you as you’ve aged that you love? What has surprised you most? And how do you define abundant aging and who is your abundant aging influencer? Just visit us at to share your ideas, you can give us feedback when you visit the Ruth Frost Parker Center website at And Helen, tell us just one more time. Where can people find you?

Helen Dennis 31:36
They can find me at And happy to respond to any inquiries and welcome questions. Welcome questions about renew meant and happy to respond.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 31:52
Thank you very much, Helen.

Helen Dennis 31:53
My pleasure. Thank you, Beth.