After being updated, this article is being reposted as it has more meaning to me now than it did when originally published in 2017. Retirement affords an opportunity to grow again, to dream, wish, stretch and do that which may not have been possible when we were young.
Growing up on the New Jersey shore, my parents, younger brother and I sometimes went to an inlet at low tide 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, watch TV 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 illness and demise in a memory care home. 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.
Thank you. I needed some inspiration today and your blog popped up in my emails.
Kathy (my soul-sister), every time I read your blog it’s as if you are writing my story…even down to the boiling of crabs, though my mother boiled Florida lobster, and I was horrified at the image of them trying to claw out of the pot. I never considered writing as a career, but after retiring, and before my husband became ill, I decided I wanted to write a memoir for my kids and grandkids. It took me five years to complete, but the entire process, from writing the manuscript, finding a publisher, working with the publisher on a cover design, to having an archival box made for the book, was the most challenging, energizing, and rewarding accomplishment I had in years! I am now putting thoughts together to write another book; however, this time I will take a few classes on non-fiction writing so it doesn’t take me another five years. Like you, I’m not ready to let the aging process, that is inevitable, take a front seat in my life…not yet! With your talent for writing I am sure your book will be a success!
I am with you.
Let’s crawl out of the crab pot and scurry off to find ourselves anew.
I am learning Spanish & watercolor painting.
Sending warm wishes your way.
I agree! I take classes, sew and donate goods, am involved in research concerning my family, and love to travel, as well as see family members- life is good!
An Alternative View from the Crab Pot? First, congratulations on becoming a writer. I like to write, too, although I never considered becoming a writer much beyond my college days. You have talent, which helps. I can well envision you at a book signing to promote your successful book.
At the risk of sounding less than dynamic, grasping the concept of scrambling over the top of the crab pot is a lot more difficult at 86 than it was at 66 or even 76. From about 40 on, one of my worst nightmares has been simply continuing to exist when I could no longer contribute or even care for myself. The idea of existing–as in merely taking up space–has never appealed to me. Yet, I no longer have the physical ability or mental bandwidth to take on many new challenges. Although I worked until 6 days before turning 78, I guess I fit the old school mold of “normal aging” more than I care to admit. I’m glad I didn’t retire at 62 or even 65.
Given genetics and a less than healthy lifestyle in my youth, I never expected to be around much past 75, if that. However, fortunately or unfortunately depending on one’s viewpoint, I’m still here. I sincerely hope to avoid the “inevitable” end–additional years of serious decline ending up in a “facility”. I NEVER want to end up in a facility, but how does one determine–and execute–an escape plan before becoming too functionally disabled to do so?
I SO wish that older adults were empowered to have more agency over their end-of-life choices. I’m not at the end yet. I have a 93 Y/O spouse and 13 Y/O cat who need me, but the slog to the top of the crab pot against all odds is less appealing than it once was.
Thanks your insight. As a young retiree at 56, I made the best of it, exploring what I am meant to do in this “last third.” I have actually quit some volunteer work which I never done in my life. But, I want to be happy in my pursuits. As a strong Catholic. I have found some profound experiences for which I am suited. And who knew how much I love history in one of the most historic areas in the Us. All of this to say that you are spot on!
I loved this post! Good for you for scrambling out of that pot! I too, went to school, worked and retired. Like you, I found my passion and now write a blog and am starting my second book. There simply are not enough hours in the day to do it all!
I am always disappointed when a blogger does not show comments written by his/her readers. I enjoy the comments as much as the actual blog. You might consider writing a post about it, asking your readers what they think about the comments people submit.
Thanks for allowing me to share this,
I always enjoyed reading your blogs, I’m a fan. But this particular blog challenged me.
Bravo! Can’t wait for your first book. Always love your blog posts. Thank you!
I appreciate your point of view but disagree.
Yes, David keeps saying he is learning so much homesteading it is
keeping his brain synapses going. For me, gardening is actually a big
deal – after 36 years in Arizona – I’d never seen or heard of a
hornworm. I didn’t know you needed to work in your garden almost every
day. I just signed up for a 40 hour video class on permaculture
gardening. I just found out a week ago what a camellia is. LOL. I’m not
making that up! But it is exciting that I have this whole new life to
learn about at age 64! David is learning all about the animals and I’m
learning all about gardens – we can’t both know everything!
I’ve been following you for a while but have never commented. This is a great blog as I reach my 4th year of retirement and wishing I was spending more time writing. Thank you for your encouragement here!