Critical Point: The retirement problem
Critical Point: July 2006
Many physicists love their subject so much that they do not want to retire. Robert P Crease looks at a community where many retired physicists live near one another
I have, on more than one occasion, needed to discuss an issue with an elderly physicist in his 80s or 90s. When I call him at home, the person who answers the phone is puzzled. "He's still in the office, of course," they reply.
Physicists, I have found, do not like the thought of retiring. What's the point? They have interesting colleagues. They find their work exciting. And physicists feel that they still have valuable experience that they can impart to others.
But having staff who do not want to retire can be a problem for institutions anxious to make way for young blood and cheaper salaries. One increasingly popular solution has been for universities to create special "retirement communities" for their staff. There are now more than 60 such facilities across the US, with the most expensive to date having been built at a cost of $425m by the Hyatt Corporation on land owned by Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
However, universities that sponsor such communities are not being entirely altruistic, for these centres are a terrific way to maintain contact with alumni and hence potential donors.
Of special interest to physicists is a retirement community that was set up near Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1996. Known as "Kendal at Ithaca", it has been home to the now-deceased Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, as well as the accelerator physicist Robert Wilson and numerous other scientists and engineers. The joke around town is that the best physics department in Ithaca is at Kendal.
Kendal at Ithaca was built partly thanks to Dale Corson, a physicist and former president of Cornell, who in the 1940s had set up what would later become the Sandia National Laboratories. The idea for a retirement community at Cornell emerged in 1990 when Corson, along with the widow of another physics colleague, convened a meeting of several people who all agreed that such a community was needed.
"None of us knew anything about retirement communities," Corson recalls, "and we had to do a lot of research." The group set up a committee, led by Corson, to take the idea forward. It discovered that the best developer for their purpose was the Kendal Corporation - an organization that seeks to help people to maintain the values and standards of Quakerism as they get older. It mainly does this by sponsoring a network of independent, not-for-profit retirement centres with a strong emphasis on community life. The corporation takes its name from the town of Kendal in northwest England, where George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, made many of his original converts. (Kendal was also the birthplace of the renowned astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, a Quaker and a pacifist.)
In 1991, when Corson contacted Kendal, the corporation had already built or planned about half a dozen communities. Its first facility was opened in 1973 outside Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, drawing many members from nearby Swarthmore College. Corson's group obtained a 110 acre site two miles from Cornell and, after battling various New York State planning regulations, work began on the retirement community in 1994. Meanwhile, Corson developed a list of prospective residents by contacting thousands of Cornell alumni.
When the community opened in 1996, it had attracted the interest of many physicists - thanks in part to Corson's professional acquaintances, and to a number of prominent Cornell physicists who were soon to retire. Apart from Bethe and Wilson, those who moved in included nuclear physicist Boyce McDaniel, particle physicist Kenneth Greisen and synchrotron-radiation pioneer Paul Hartman.
Today Kendal has about 340 residents, who either live independently or with the assistance of nursing staff. Most of its members worked at Cornell at some point during their careers, and about half of these are former professors. Many still have offices at Cornell - a bus runs from the site to the university - and some even have labs and funding. Other Kendal residents do voluntary work at Cornell or at one of the local libraries or science museums.
Kendal's intellectual atmosphere is vigorous, with more than 40 clubs and programmes created and managed by the residents themselves. Afternoon talks are held twice a week and there is an evening lecture series once a week. Bethe himself gave three lectures to his fellow residents, described as wonderful by physicists who heard them.
There is a library staffed by professional librarians with books donated by residents, including several shelves of books written by Kendal residents themselves. Jack Oliver, former chairman of the Cornell geology department and a pioneer of plate tectonics, runs a film series. Corson, a semi-professional photographer, donated his darkroom equipment to the facility.
I recently gave a talk at Kendal on the life and career of Robert Oppenheimer. On the way to the auditorium I passed a gallery exhibiting pre-Columbian artifacts belonging to a resident. The technician in the auditorium was a former particle physicist. The discussion afterwards was spirited - one person in the audience had Oppenheimer on his dissertation committee, while several others had worked with him at Berkeley and Los Alamos.
On my visit to Kendal, I asked several physicists what had attracted them there. Some mentioned the desire for proximity to former colleagues, others the opportunities to stay involved. As one told me, "What draws all the physicists to Kendal is all the physicists at Kendal."
Kendal at Ithaca is a partial answer to several vexing problems: how to tap the knowledge and experience of older scientists at minimal cost, and how to keep them engaged. It also helps to realize the Kendal Corporation's goal of fostering strong community life among retirees, thanks to the presence of so many residents from similar scientific disciplines. It allows elderly scientists to continue to develop and contribute, even alongside increasing care needs and the limitations that aging inevitably imposes.
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