Growing up on the New Jersey shore, my parents, younger brother and I sometimes went to an inlet to hopefully collect crabs. An old wooden bulkhead provided a place for the crabs to clutch or, perhaps, be blocked from rolling back out with the tide. As the tide ebbed, we searched for the crustaceans clinging to the decaying wood. Back home in my parents’ kitchen, my brother and I played with the crabs on the floor as my mother boiled a large pot of water on the stove. Once the water came to a full rolling boil, my Dad put the crabs in the pot. It seems cruel to me now, but as children my brother and I liked to watch the drama of the crabs in the pot. You see, one of the crabs always tried to climb out of the pot while the other crabs pulled it back in until they all boiled together providing quite a show.
It wasn’t until I took the Dynamic Aging Program at Furman University that I heard crabs in a pot used as an analogy to describe people who are aging in the way our society expects us to age. According to the program creator, Dudley Tower, Ph.D, most people today just follow the expected norm, retiring to a life of leisure where they play golf or cards, travel, do a little volunteer work or whatever activity they choose to occupy their time, until they slowly decline mentally and physically, sliding little by little, day by day, inch by inch, toward death.
We expect to take care of ourselves by following a healthy diet, doing some type of exercise but, believing, inevitably, we’ll need assisted living and eventually, maybe, probably nursing home care. Prior to my mother’s death several years ago, she spent the last three months of her life in a nursing home. After visiting her with Martin and our youngest daughter, as we rode the elevator down to the ground floor, I said to my daughter, “If I ever have to be in a facility like this, it is my express wish that you just shoot me.”
As dreary and desperate as that sounds, my view has not changed, especially after Martin’s journey and demise. So, the story of the crabs in a pot resonates with me. But what is the alternative? Is there an alternative? We all know we are all going to die. As my father used to say, “Nobody gets out alive.” Then, of course, he’d chuckle at his little joke. In fact, most of us have probably lived our lives based on societal norms and expectations of how we should behave. We went to school, grew up with little push back, got a job, got married, had kids, bought a house with a mortgage, raised the kids, advanced in the job and finally, here we are, retired. And, now, we are following the normal model of aging, retiring to a life of leisure and slow physical and, maybe, cognitive decline until we have to go to a nursing home. In other words, we are waiting to slowly boil to death like crabs in a pot. Ugh!
Now, for the alternative to what was the normal aging experience for our parents and grandparents. People are living longer with more and more people in developed countries living to be 100. Retiring at 70 years of age could leave you with 30 years until you die. Think about it! If the idea of spending 20 to 30 years playing golf or mahjong or traveling or gardening or whatever and then going to assisted living followed by nursing care, is your idea of a great life, that’s entirely up to you. But, wouldn’t you rather do something more exciting?
I asked myself the question, “What would you do with the last third of your life if you were not afraid?” It is self-imposed limitations that hold us back. Self-imposed limitations are something we attribute to ourselves out of fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of ridicule, fear of whatever we are afraid of. What would you do if society, your friends, your family, your neighbors didn’t expect you to live a life of leisure until your world becomes smaller and smaller and you decline further and further? Would you go back to college, start a new career, open a business, learn a new skill, follow your heart, resurrect a childhood dream?
The last third of life offers a freedom like none we have ever experienced. What others think about what we do with our lives really doesn’t matter. We can let our imaginations soar. We can take some behavioral risk. Our society, however, does not readily support personal development as we age. Someone who is 20 or 30 or 40 or even 50 is expected to continue developing on a personal level. It’s a given, the same as society’s expectation of decline for our aging population.
By the time we hit the big 60, we are expected to slow down. We start hearing the ‘at your age’ mantras. Oh, yes, we hear on occasion about the 79 year old weight lifter with a great set of abs or the 89 year old gymnast still vaulting off equipment like a teenager or the 98 year old publishing a first book. Why aren’t we all striving to do something we always longed to do but never had the time to pursue? Because we believe the aging euphemisms about slowing down, about being too old to do this or that. As children, we all had dreams. We all learned new things every day, day in and day out. Aging dynamically requires more than taking care of our health. It requires that we look inside ourselves and resurrect our thirst for learning, our thirst for living on our personal edge and maybe a dream or two. We really won’t know what we are capable of as we age until we throw out society’s expectation of aging.
Shortly after retiring, it occurred to me that retirement was not all it was cracked up to be. Sure, I enjoyed the honeymoon after leaving work, when everyday seemed like an extended vacation. It didn’t take long, however, for disillusionment to set in. I missed the challenge and excitement and camaraderie that work provided. Yet, I didn’t want to go back to work, at least not the traditional work place.
Instead, I resurrected a dream and have been pursuing it ever since. My dream was to be a writer. Long, long ago life got in the way. Having to support a family and taking a different career path, I gave up my dream. Shortly, after retiring, with the power of the internet, I started my own blog. I became a writer. Recently, I started taking courses in writing to sharpen my skills. I decided to seriously pursue writing as a craft. And, now I’m writing my memoirs along with some short stories. I may or may not find a publisher. I may have to self-publish. It doesn’t matter. What matters are the possibilities I am creating for myself.
I am feeling more alive and excited about the future than I have in years. I’m more mindful of what I am doing with my life. I have a vision of how I want the rest of my life to play out. I am aging dynamically. And, that is the alternative. We can meet society’s expectation of how we will age or we can chart a new course, throwing away previous models and maps. How about it? Are you going to be a crab in a pot? Or, will you be the one who scrambles over the side to freedom? Come on…dream a little dream or two.
I really enjoy your blog! Thanks for giving me new perspective as I approach the next adventure in life!
Thank you Denise. I’m always happy to hear the comments about helping people viewing retirement as an adventure.
Kathy, I love you.
Yes Claudia I love you, too!
I get it! Since I retired from my career as a business systems analyst six years ago, I have become a certified mediator and also a volunteer at a refugee camp in Greece. I write a blog that’s being read by more people than I know! Every day is interesting.
Good for you Linda! You are helping others and you appear to enjoy your out of the box retirement. You are an example of how we really don’t retire…we just accumulate enough money whereby we don’t need to work for the paycheck…we can do work we want to do. K
Thanks for writing such a great blog. I am 61 and still working full time as a legal secretary. I am starting to think about the possibility of retiring in the future but don’t really feel ready for it yet as I think my job is keeping me young at heart. I love reading about your experiences and wish you lots of luck with your writing. Please keep us updated with how you get on getting your writing published. Good luck
Thank you Susan and good luck to you as well with your future retirement plans. Work as long as it feels right. K
I hope that the expectations of retirement are slowly changing. There are so many people “of a certain age” who are in fact dynamically aging – starting new things, exploring new possibilities, being more active than ever. I personally am doing more things that I’ve never done – from blogging to journaling to yoga to taking classes. And if I’m a crab in the pot, I hope I’m also giving a leg lift to someone trying to get out – I just posted about the 21st Century Retirement! Similar idea – let’s change the rules of the game.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes, Pat it’s people with attitudes like yours who are changing the rules of the game. I like that you are giving a leg lift to others. It is one of the most gratifying parts of writing a blog…connecting to other people and perhaps even changing their lives for the better. Let’s keep the revolution on aging going! K
LikeLiked by 1 person
Your thoughts in this post are spot on! They align with what I learned from Julia Cameron’s book for ‘Retirees and Other Creative Souls,’ that it is up to each of us to create a new identity and fine purpose in this chapter of our lives. I think that doing so is not only key to our personal mental and physical health, but makes us more valuable and interesting to those we love and to those we may meet on our creative journeys.
Thank you for your wisdom in your blog posts. I’ve found several great resources on your site. Grateful.
Also, you might want to explore writing workshops offered in many cities by Ann Wylie, a terrific writing coach I encountered in my working life. I continue to follow and learn from her in this new era as a PIM.
Her site: http://www.wyliecomm.com/wylies-writing-tips/
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you Peggy. I’ll check out the Ann Wylie site as well. I’ve been looking for some workshops to sharpen my skills. K
You are an excellent writer and let us know when you publish!
One of our friends must be a follower of yours because she called today and said you referenced me in a blog post. It is nice to see that you have over 2200 followers and writing more beautifully than ever. The DAP entered its 3rd year this past Fall, and the Winter class I am teaching now has 36 students. The people who graduated from the class you participated in have mostly gone onto an Aging Mastery class I am also teaching. There have been about 60 graduates of the program in its first two years. We have also expanded into the community and my students have created two new organizations matching the skills and interests of older adults with the creation of meaningful volunteer opportunities. Most recently one of my students has worked with the city government and the mayor of Greenville to make Greenville a compassionate city. See below:
I really do need to get the book written, but I had a pulmonary embolism in December 2015, and I just got off the blood thinners yesterday. My energy has come back quickly, and I am looking forward to 2017 being a great year. I wish the same for you. Please stay in touch, Dudley
Like you, I am refusing to be one of the crabs in the pot. Except for one thing: I don’t have the energy or the stamina that I used to have, so I can’t do all the things that I want to do each day. So I have had to cut back my expectations for myself, and learn to make a shorter daily to-do list and be overjoyed when I finish half of it.
If I were not afraid, what would I be doing? Hmmm. I would be traveling around the globe. I’m not doing that right now, because I am afraid I would run out of money and afraid I would become lonely after a while. But I do go on several trips a year (domestic) and one international trip every two years. So those count!
Thanks for discussing honestly a dilemma that many of us face.
We all feel less energy Rin. I used to go outside and work all day in the garden. Now I’m good until noon or so. I think we all have a concern about running out of money. I do the same thing you do…I budget the trips I feel I can afford. No matter what the time of life, we can’t do everything we want. We pick and choose what works for us. K
Excellent post–loved the analogy to boiling crabs. Will remember that one!
Hi Kathy thank you for a very interesting blog! I have been following your blog for over a year now and it helped me a lot during the early months of retirement. This one is a wake-up call for me. Living in a rural area makes it a bit difficult to find a saxophone tutor😉 but I will keep looking. Keep well.
Mada, have you looked online for lessons? My grandson learned to play the guitar using an online program. He’s quite good so it worked. Just an idea. K
Thanks Kathy, I will certainly have a look. I emailed Dudley last year asking about an online course after I read about the DAP in your blog. M
I so enjoy your blog and have recommended it to friends. I’m still trying to find my next step. Like you I was so looking forward to retirement and found the old adage to be true “careful what you wish for you just might get it”. No one prepares you for the loss of contact with the outside world. I only hope I can be as successful as you at redefining myself in retirement. Thank You for giving me hope Linda
Bravo, Kathy! I am so proud of you for pressing on with personal growth following retirement! Excellent points.
I am middle-aged and am in the child-rearing, husband-supporting stage right now. I’m really enjoying writing. Like you, I feel that if I don’t find a traditional publisher, I plan to take the self-pub route.
And if that all doesn’t work out, I plan to go back to being a technical or even a medical writer. Even though tech writing sounds boring, I really did enjoying contributing to my country by writing docs for Army.
Please let me know which courses you take for writing, and if you find any good ones online.
Kathy – great post! My husband and I have been having that “just shoot me” conversation because we have been helping his 96 year old mom deal with her need to move into two different facilities within the last year. Each of them nice. But….. Just today I’ve been allowing that our visions of aging can be altered. That this is a good time of life. That we can be open to change and to making change. No I don’t want to go back to a 50+ hour work week, but I also don’t want to sit at home and slow down physically & mentally. I find myself looking for balance yet again just in a different context. Thanks for your blog.