Values

Last week someone I barely know leaned on me. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally. As they expressed their values to me in a one-sided conversation of what I “shouldn’t do” with my life coupled with what I “should do” for them, I was reminded of one of retirements’ greatest gifts — the ability to be true to your values like no other time in life.

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Sometimes you have to go along to get along.” To me, no setting requires that more than the work arena. In that venue I would have tried to talk to the above person in the interest of getting along and may have gone along, choking down their shoulds and shouldn’ts. Workplace politics would oblige at least an attempt to give my viewpoint and clarify my perception of their two cents, even as they cut me off mid-sentence.

Fortunately, work days are gone, so I just smiled as I said, “Have a great day!” and walked away. Even in retirement, we don’t completely escape others who want us to adopt their values. But, we can choose to take action based on our values.

While I try not to be judgmental (it’s hard), I also consciously surround myself with people who respect my values and are willing to listen to me as well as me listening to them. Not people who think the same as me. I detest group think (ohhh…there’s the judgmental me). I do my human best to be tolerant of my cohorts’ values. Mutual respect is the foundation of any relationship. That starts with acceptance of our differences, our values and our boundaries.

I have a good friend who I meet with for lunch — she dubbed it ‘munch and chat’. While we have much in common, we don’t always agree. We come from different backgrounds and life experiences. However, we have mutual respect for diverse opinions, making our conversations interesting and our friendship genuine. It speaks to my values of acceptance, trust and respect.

Long, long ago in the 1980s I took a new age type program called Context Training. Everyone at the company I worked for had to take the course. During the three days of seclusion and soul-searching, I learned how our values are created by the context of our life experience. Our values then enter into our decision-making from moment to moment, just like my decision to walk away from the person above or my decision to write this piece today.

Think about what your values are. What is important to you? Knowing what you value provides direction for your life, retired or not. For those of us who retire, leaving work identity behind, understanding and embracing our values, supplies us with a map for our retirement identity. Our values help us create our future.  For example, I value creativity, so it comes as no surprise that I enjoy writing, gardening and drawing. Those make up the three central personal activities of my retirement days.

In my experience, when I find myself dragging my feet to do something with or for someone else, it’s because I’m not being true to my values. If I find myself unhappy, it usually has something to do with ignoring my values. A large part of our happiness quotient comes from being authentic.  Retirement offers the perfect time for us to be exactly that.

Advertisements

Homeward Bound

Last week, as part of my post on retirement lessons, I wrote about choosing where you will live. I didn’t choose my place for retirement as much as stumbled across it as a result of a job transfer Martin took nearly twenty years ago. My friends won’t like me saying this. Some of them even tell me, “Shush. Stop talking about how great Greenville is. We have enough retirees here now.” For me Greenville, South Carolina is a great place to retire. However, not everyone wants to retire to Greenville or anyplace else than where they are at the moment. If you do decide to move, here are a few considerations.

There are all kinds of reasons we choose to move when we retire. According to the US Census, most people move to be closer to family and grandchildren. While we love our families, pinning our retirement location on their location should include both discussion with our family and thought about our needs and wants and their needs and wants. Even then, life has a way of changing the best laid plans.

I met one couple who moved to Greenville to be near their son and daughter-in-law and their two children. Imagine the couple’s surprise after moving hundreds of miles, buying a house and settling into their new surroundings only to have their son accept a promotion that moved his family to Dallas. Ouch! No, they didn’t follow them. Instead they decided to stay here and take an occasional two hour flight to visit them in Dallas.

Conversely, some retirees choose to stay put because of family, only to have the grandchildren grow up and spread themselves in the direction of the four winds. The reality is we live in a transient society, children become adults and create their careers and lives, often moving to where opportunity takes them.

The weather also seems to be a top draw. But, choosing a climate so far removed from what you lived in most of your life may not be a sound idea. I’ve met scads of people who retired from northern or mid-western towns to Florida, only to sell and move to the Carolinas. Locals call them half-backs as this is about halfway between northern states like Connecticut and Florida.

One transplant from the Bronx quipped about his back tracking, “There was something not quite right about sitting around the pool on Christmas Day in your swim trunks.” For native Floridians there is probably something not quite right about trudging through snow on Christmas Day. My point is before you choose to move to the extreme opposite of what you are used to, think about what you will miss about your native climate, scenery and customs. While I don’t miss the frigid January temperatures, I would miss the changing colors of autumn leaves, the cooler dryer air and an evening by the fireplace.

As I mentioned last week, good close by medical care is a must for me. I’m in good health. However, if a heart attack or accident occurs, I don’t want to be out of range of a hospital or ambulance service. I’m tough, but not that tough. Sue of Life Below Zero is definitely more of a risk taker than I am. Hats off to her. Me? I’ll live bolder in more conventional ways. I recommend scoping out the medical care and proximity in your new destination before you make the move.

One of my retirement mantras is never stop learning. While having a college or university nearby is important as part of my cultural experience, so is a convenient grocery store and farmers market for my cooking at home obsession and farm store and nursery for my gardening habit. Although I live in the country all of these amenities are only minutes from my house along with locally owned restaurants and trendy shops. Also consider your partner’s needs, if you have one. Martin can bicycle right out of our property onto roads with little traffic and fabulous scenery.

Additionally, before making a move, look at housing affordability, taxes on property, income, sales and vehicles including boats or RVs. Some states do not tax food; others do. Some states do not tax social security; others do. Consider the cost of your move including the cost of moving household goods, getting new registrations on vehicles, a new license and anything else your new locale may require. Consider, too, the emotional cost of finding your way around, locating a new doctor, insurance company and other services, registering to vote, making new friends, creating a new social and cultural life.

While many retirees move, the truth is most do not, preferring to stay in their climate with the friends, family, services  and activities familiar to them. If you do decide a move is right for you, think of all the implications before making the leap. Otherwise, you may not be homeward bound.

The Downside of Downsizing

Tiny Home Plan

One of the truths about retirement is, if you are a homeowner, the maintenance on your house does not retire with you. After a week of cleaning out gutters, touching up paint, having our roof inspected after a neighbor had to replace theirs due to hale damage, we ended the week with a Friday night emergency electrician call. Our hard wired smoke alarm sounded for over three hours. Putting in fresh batteries didn’t silence it. Neither did turning off the breakers. Martin and I were tempted to pull the detectors out of the ceiling. The sound was deafening.

Fortunately, our roof will last another seven to twelve years barring another hale storm. Who knew smoke detectors are only good for seven to ten years? Ours were thirteen so no surprise they failed, but did they have to malfunction on Friday night? After the electrician pulled them out of the ceiling, he’ll be back on Monday to replace them.

Tired of what seems like a constant repair or replace at the house and just plain curious, coming back from a shopping trip on Saturday, we swung into Lake Walk, a tiny home community. As a rule, we don’t shop on Saturdays. That’s the kind of week we’d had. Between the regular homeowner chores like mowing the field, picking blueberries, deadheading spent flowers and the additional maintenance on the house, a tiny home situated on a local lake with walking trails was tempting. We’d at least take a look to see what this growing trend was all about.

Martin and I were greeted by Randy, the developer and owner of the project. He explained that the residents would buy a tiny home and rent the lot from him for $450 a month. There would be forty-three tiny homes in all on four acres, with an additional eleven acres of trails and a central gathering place for residents to enjoy an evening visiting neighbors on a deck or around an outdoor fire. Set among towering oaks and other hardwoods, it all looked and sounded appealing. He had already sold three tiny homes, including two singles selling their larger houses to move to Lake Walk.

The largest home at 350 square feet plus a, yes, tiny loft, was inviting. Complete with hardwood floors, granite countertops, a fireplace fed by propane and lots of windows providing natural light, I envisioned myself living there — if I had to.

With just about everything built in, gone would be all of our furniture, some of which I’m admittedly attached to. The two bedroom closets would hold my clothes. I didn’t know where Martin would put his. And where would we do our art projects? Keep our art supplies? I suppose we could rent a studio someplace. Ditto for the exercise equipment —gone — to be replaced with a gym membership.

And where would I garden? As if reading my mind, Randy told us there would be community gardens for anyone wanting a space to grow vegetables or flowers. Hmmm…that sweetened the idea. However, there are no garages with tiny homes. Our tools, cars, Martin’s motorcycle and, oh, his bicycle, all outside waiting for hale storm damage in addition to the roof. Ugh! I didn’t like that picture at all.

Although the tiny homes were pretty, the woodsy setting beside the lake serene, I’d seen enough to know this was not for me, not yet. I didn’t even bother to ask if pets were welcome. As someone with seven cats, I thought that would be an issue just because of the numbers. Where would I house four litter boxes in 350 square feet? What about the three that are semi-feral cats used to being outside? The cats, like me, would probably be bored before long in such a tiny space. Then, Martin and I would be complaining about paying rent, neighbors too close for comfort, driving to the gym, paying rent, instead of walking through a door at our house, paying rent for an art studio and me without landscaping opportunities.

Everything has its pluses and minuses. Life is never without a downside and an upside. While caring for a large property and a not so large house takes work and money, where I am right now is where I want to be right now. The tiny home will have to wait.

Freedom

A flag watches over the grape vines

 

This week the United States celebrates another birthday. Since the 4th falls on a Tuesday, it is a long weekend for those workers lucky enough to also take Monday off. Last Thursday as I did my usual grocery shopping for the next month, I passed displays of beach towels and flipflops, towers of soda and beer, end caps filled with backpacks, American flags and fireworks. People frantically rushing to gather goodies for the holiday clogged the aisles. I was reminded of the days when I, in my suit and heels, also rushed through a store at lunch hour or after work to grab last minute Independence Day necessities.

After viewing this scene from my retired perch, I decided I’m also celebrating the personal freedom retirement brought me. For the first time in my life I am not bound to do what society expects of us. Even as a child I did not enjoy the freedom retirement affords me.

Today, there are no parents, managers or other authority figures dictating how I spend my time. The suits and heels are long gone. OK I have one suit and two pair of heels left in my closet for special occasions. But, my wardrobe of choice these days is jeans and t-shirts with loafers, sandals or sneakers. The suit hangs in a breathable bag; the heels are boxed high on a shelf.

Oh, I still have responsibilities. I have to pay the utilities on time, keep a watchful eye on my investments and adhere to a self-imposed budget lest I become a bag lady at ninety. I have to be a good citizen and mind the laws of my state and country, get my drivers license renewed and pay my taxes. But, how I spend my days is up to me. That is a huge responsibility in and of itself. Ingrained in the workaholic boomer generation is the idea that leisure time is wasted time. Freedom just may come with an emotional price.

However, that’s not for me either. I learned a long, long time ago when my workaholic ways caved in upon me, that every life needs balance. I accomplish a lot in my freedom filled life. I also give myself permission to just sit and be for a time each day. Piddling, as my dad called it, is good for the mind and the soul. Taking time to watch birds flutter around the feeders in the back yard while I enjoy my morning coffee is not wasted time.

Accomplishments in retirement are not the same as accomplishments in my past work life. In June I spent a morning trimming grape vines within an inch of their lives. This task is necessary so the vines put their energy into the clusters of grapes. I consider that an accomplishment. Not one that will get me a promotion or a raise, but one that gives me pleasure knowing I will pick clusters of deep purple grapes come fall.

After a day working in my gardens, I always, ALWAYS take a garden tour, strolling leisurely while I admire the beauty. I also consider that an accomplishment. We all need a moment to stop and smell the roses. Otherwise, what’s the point of having them?

This week while workers take a long weekend crowding beaches and camp grounds, turning out for spectacular fireworks displays and enjoying a cold beer around the barbecue, I’m celebrating my successful transition to retirement freedom. Now that is an accomplishment!

 

Getting Old Does Not Suck!

Enjoying my age!

The woman looked at me with what I can only describe as pity as she said, “Getting old sucks.” I started to counter her assumption.  I found it condescending.  Then I closed my mouth. I was already in the middle of a disagreement with her; I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire.

Getting old does not suck. What sucks is the view our society holds about getting old.

We all knew people who didn’t make it this far in life — relatives, friends, classmates, co-workers and neighbors who passed away at a younger age, perhaps even as children. People who didn’t get to fall in love, have a career, reach their full potential, buy a house, the first car, go to college, have children or see children grow or enjoy grandchildren.

No, getting old does not suck. It’s a privilege, a gift.

Yet, people still young, as well as some our age, look at aging as if it’s a disease, at the very least a time of decline, both physically and mentally. I have my share of infirmities, but most are not the result of old age. I had polio at three, which surfaces years later as post-polio syndrome. I also have occasional pain in my lower back, the result of lifting something too heavy for me when I was a mere nineteen. We all have health issues, some worsening from aging. Eventually, the parts will wear out. However, when I see a YouTube of an 89 year-old gymnast vaulting and landing on her feet, I realize the old adage of use it or lose it certainly applies.

Cognitive decline is not inevitable. Recent research and studies at most major universities around the world have shown the adult mind can continue to grow. The brain has plasticity meaning it can form new synaptic connections. We often think of children and young adults as the ones with growing minds. But adults at any age can continue to grow mentally if they exhibit the same curiosity, sense of adventure and learn new things just as they did earlier in life.  These discoveries are changing the view of aging, albeit slowly.

Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, is at the forefront of changing the stereotypes of what it means to get old. We all age. My grandchildren are aging. With kids, we refer to them as ‘growing up’; with over 60’s, we refer to them as aging. We suddenly become seniors, the elderly, the aged, old codgers. We also begin to be talked to as if we were the children, condescending talk.  Talk as if we are incompetent.  Or worse yet, we are ignored. Since I stopped coloring my hair, letting it go to its natural gray, I’m suddenly dear, sweetie, young lady and on and on or I’m invisible altogether.

I took Applewhite’s cue and used a situation as a teaching moment for an early twenties server at a restaurant. I noticed the couple at the next table who appeared to be in their late thirties were called ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’. I’d finally had enough of being called ‘dear’ so I told the server not to call me that. She looked at me puzzled and said, “Why?” My reply, “Because my name is Kathy, not dear. If I were your age, would you call me dear?” She didn’t know what to say. Maybe I raised her consciousness; maybe she thought I was just a crabby old lady. I don’t know. But if we are to change the way old age is viewed, the change starts with us.

Our society views aging as something to be cured or fought as in anti-aging creams and makeups, botox injections, plastic surgery and medications to combat normal body changes that come with maturity. One woman, upon seeing my graying hair, told me, “If I stopped coloring my hair, my husband would divorce me.” I have no idea if their relationship is that superficial, but in our youth obsessed culture, not dying has apparently been known to spark a divorce. Fortunately, we are seeing more and more gray haired models like Cindy Joseph, defying the idea that old is washed up, has been and not beautiful.

Getting old does not suck. Attitudes suck. Do not pity me, feel sorry for me or patronize me. I’m having a good time being old and retired.  You, too will be here someday. And, when you are, stay engaged with the world, realize that your brain still works and can grow, endeavor to try new activities, learn something. Realize you are still beautiful and vibrant. Stay physically active. Recognize ageism and use teachable moments to change attitudes. You are one of the lucky ones. Getting old is a gift. Do not squander it by believing in stereotypes.

 

 

 

Retired Spouse Syndrome

Last Wednesday I joined a small class of Furman University students along with Professor Lorraine DeJong and other retired adults in an intergenerational course about what it’s like to be a “senior” in today’s society. Members of Furman’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) were asked to participate voluntarily in order to bring the experience to life for the students. I signed up for a couple of classes. The subject for the class I attended last week was relationships. While we discussed family, adult children, grandchildren and friends, the segment that caught my eye was retired spouse syndrome.

Researching retired spouse syndrome, I found many articles as well as research in both Japan and Italy referring to it as retired husband syndrome. It’s no secret men have a more difficult time than women when leaving the workplace behind. More of a man’s identity is tied up in his job description and title.

Conversely, women have taken many roles throughout their lives from work to being the main caregiver of children, perhaps even staying at home for a few years while raising them. Women also are more apt to be the caregiver of parents in their later years. And, for most couples women are the ones who maintain the social calendar. As a result women are more flexible about identity.

That said, I experienced unexpected feelings of sadness and loss when I left work. Those feelings were repeated when Martin retired as I also had many ties with his co-workers over his long career at a single company. Admittedly part of my identity was immersed in his identity. When he retired I was no longer the wife of the vice-president.

As Professor Phyllis Moen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and author of numerous books, points out, the first two years of retirement can be a time of enormous stress on a marriage. Both men and women experience the strain as they struggle to create new identities, both as a couple and as individuals. While single men and women also struggle, they may or may not have a partner to consider.

Shortly after Martin retired, I had to remind him I was not going to be his only employee for the rest of his life. Suddenly, the way I filled the dishwasher and the time of day I put clothes in the washer was all wrong. Mind you, we have had a marriage of equal partnership where he washed clothes and did dishes, too. We both cook. It was our habit that whoever cooked dinner that night, the other one of us did the kitchen clean-up. This arrangement worked for decades without comment until retirement.

As I have chronicled in these pages, when we retire, our world shrinks. As it becomes smaller, we are sometimes caught up in minutiae. As I’ve also pointed out, it takes about two years to adjust to a new life and discard the old identity. Avoiding retired spouse syndrome requires an awareness of it in the first place. Once you are aware of it, then it takes commitment and communication as a couple to create the identity you envision for yourselves, together and individually.

Oftentimes, we forget the us factor. Us doesn’t mean we are joined at the hip 24/7; it means we honor and respect each other as we forge new identities. Listening is part of the communication, perhaps the most important aspect. One of the tools Martin and I used was the bucket list. We’d made bucket lists before retirement. We made others after retirement. Then we compared lists. It helped to ignite an honest discussion of who we were and who we wanted to be and whether or not our wants meshed. They did.

As for the dishwasher? Martin loads it — every night.  Renewed purpose takes many forms.  And we do laundry whenever we need to.

Is There A Normal Retirement?


It was the end of 2012 when I first started looking for articles on what retirees did to create a happy retirement.  My queries on the web resulted mostly in articles about retirement timing and finances. There was little to be found about a normal, happy retirement.

Last week one of my readers mentioned, “retirement means different things to different people” (thanks for the idea, Walter). That led to my wondering is there a normal retirement? My current search of the web indicates that most people still plan on their date to retire and their retirement income, but not much else.

Gathering information from you, my readers, I’d say there is no normal retirement. While most people plan on retiring somewhere between ages 65 and 70, what they do after that varies widely. I did an informal survey a few years ago with most of you responding about taking up some type of artistic endeavor — painting, writing, drawing, music, dance, knitting, quilting, acting — there is a wide variety of activities covered under the term art.

I know several people who read, read, read and belong to book clubs. They love literature. One woman belongs to three clubs. She can indulge in her passion for reading stories, then gather with her groups for socializing and stimulating discussion.

Besides volunteering there are many retirees who return to work part-time, whether they need to or not. I know of several people who continue working part-time for the social connections, sense of purpose and challenge that work offers. One woman told me, “My goal is to work until I’m eighty.” Her husband of 56 years does not like her working, but the work gives her such enjoyment, she continues at her job. All of these retirees, in fact, have spouses who did not take up paid work in retirement, opting instead to attend classes, continue hobbies, volunteer and whatever else they want to do.

Some retirees choose to just kick back and let each day unfold itself to them. They reason they worked long hours for decades, had bosses telling them what to do every weekday and maybe beyond, wended their way through office politics and satisfying clients and customers. To them, retirement is a long awaited luxury to just be in their own space and time doing whatever comes along.

Some retirees choose to focus on physical fitness, playing golf or tennis, biking, hiking and swimming. Some take up yoga. I know a ninety-year-old who still golfs twice a week.  His mind is as sharp as his physical fitness.  Staying in good physical shape is important for all of us as we age.  Some retirees choose to make it their focus. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

Then there are those retirees like me. I don’t ever want to go back to the old grind, but I also need meaning and purpose in my life like I need air to breath. Doing activities that are fulfilling to me is totally necessary to my happiness. I’m a proponent of finding new meaning and purpose in retirement. Admittedly, what defines new meaning and purpose is obviously different for different people.

I also know people who spend most of their day watching TV. One man has three TV’s going all the time on the same channel, so as he moves from room to room he can continue watching his chosen show. Sitting around on the couch in front of the boob tube all day isn’t a life.

With a possible twenty or thirty years in retirement, you may reinvent yourself as many times as you did during your working years. You may end up doing some or all of the above or any number of other activities. You may be content to just float from day to day for a while, then find yourself needing meaning and purpose. You may not want to return to work even part-time, then find yourself wanting to engage again. Retirement is no different, than any other time in your life. It has twists and turns, ups and downs, opportunity knocking on your door and days of wonderful quiet. Whatever you choose to do in retirement is the norm for you. But, for goodness sake, do something.

Peer Pressure

When I think of peer pressure, I usually think of my teenage grandchildren. Yet, strangely enough, I’ve encountered more peer pressure in retirement than I thought possible. Oh, it’s not the type of pressure kids face like being hassled to smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol or experience an illegal drug. Rather it’s the push by peers to join the activities they enjoy assuming you will enjoy them, too. Or it’s the pressure to take part as a volunteer because volunteers are needed by their chosen organization. Or, it could be the person likes your company and may want to further the friendship by doing more together.

In just the last few weeks I’ve been asked to join book clubs, a monthly mahjong game, a gym, another writing group, a gardening club and a political action group. While I may certainly enjoy all of those activities, if I said, ‘yes’ to any or all of them, what is important to me would be swallowed up. In the past, saying, ‘no’ was not one of my strong points and sometimes it still isn’t. Why we agree to do something we really don’t want to do is usually based in our wish to keep the relationship.  Thus we try not to offend the other person by saying, ‘no’ to their request.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was busy nearly going down in flames because I didn’t say, ‘no’ often enough, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned to say, ‘yes’ to me. This twist in my thinking made it easier to turn down the requests to join in too many activities. Not to sound mean, but I also figured out sometimes I was agreeing to partake with someone I didn’t really enjoy being around. My wish not to hurt another person’s feelings was taking a toll on me.

How did I arrive at this change in thinking, making self-love (not selfishness) a priority? I remember a spring day where I sat on the couch recovering from pleurisy. The night before Martin drove me the six blocks from our house to the local hospital. I didn’t think I was having a heart attack, but the hospital staff did. Describing chest pain and difficulty breathing got me an immediate wheelchair ride to the inner rooms of the ER where two nurses shoved oxygen tubes up my nose and took my pulse and then blood gases. Finally, a chest X-ray revealed inflammation of my lungs. Whew! In comparison to a heart attack, pleurisy sounded good. The ER doctor told me rest, rest, rest.

The thought of a heart attack scared me. Between naps, I spent the next day in deep retrospection of what my life was at the time. I likened myself to a small plane in a fiery nose-dive about to hit the ground, exploding into flames upon impact. This was not the first time I was in a nose-dive going down in flames. But, I knew it had to be the last.

As I sat in my internal revery that afternoon, a friend, who knew I was home from work sick, called to ask me to watch her eight-year-old daughter as “something” had come up that she just had to take care of. To my surprise I heard myself telling her I couldn’t possibly watch an eight-year-old in my condition. When she coaxed me with how quiet her daughter would be (I knew this kid was not quiet), I said, “Look I know you’re in a bind, but I’m also in a bind. I need rest. I have to take care of myself first.”

Even as I said it, I felt guilty, selfish. Yet, after we ended the conversation, I felt empowered. I felt good. I had said, ‘yes’ to me. That’s when I realized the operative word in these situations isn’t ‘no’; it’s ‘yes’… ‘yes’ to me. I needed to say, ‘yes’ to me and clear my life of activities and relationships that were not passionately important to me.

Although that may sound selfish, participating in activities because we feel we ‘should’ can take a toll on our psychological well-being. I call participating in activities we ‘want’ to partake in self-love as these are the activities that feed our spirit. Conversely, if an activity drains your spirit, it needs to go.

With the possibility of so much unstructured time in retirement, it’s more important then ever to know what you want, what is best for you and how to say, ‘yes’ to your priorities. In order to stay focused, write it down. The bucket list is a good place to start creating your agenda. If you are unsure about an activity, ask yourself if you are truly passionate about participating in that activity. With an unambiguous agenda it’s easier to set clear-cut boundaries with our peers. And, that helps us limit peer pressure at any age.

Crabs In A Pot

 

 

Crabs in a Pot

Crabs in a Pot

Growing up on the shore, we sometimes went to an inlet from the sea with an old bulkhead. As the tide went out, we searched for crabs clinging to the decaying wood. Back home in my parents’ kitchen, my younger 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 my husband and 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. So, the story of the crabs in a pot resonated 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 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 60 to 70 years of age could leave you with 30 to 40 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 goals. 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.

Fences

Setting boundaries

Setting boundaries

In the past few weeks I’ve had more than one friend tell me how, now that they are over 60, they’re having an easier time telling people what they actually think. They are having an easier time saying, “No” and putting their needs first.

One said, “Do you think that’s selfish?” My resounding answer was and is, “Absolutely not! In fact, it’s healthy.”

On the other hand I encountered someone trying to please everyone. As she found out, not for the first time, pleasing everyone is an impossible task. I’ve learned the act of trying to please one person often means being unfair to another person. Then, when that person squawks and you try to alter the situation to please them, the first person is affronted. What a mess! It’s a no-win situation for the people-pleaser.

Being a people-pleaser takes its toll on our stress level. While the people-pleaser is trying to please others, they are usually putting their feelings and needs aside. We already have our own problems. Increasing that burden by accepting ownership of someone else’s feelings or problems also increases our stress level. The current mantra of “Not my circus; not my monkey” is a healthy thought. Leaving someone else’s monkey on their back means you are setting boundaries.

All too often we look at setting personal boundaries as building fences that keep others out. In reality we are making others responsible and accountable for their situation. Remember the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors?” Just like a physical fence along a lot line, setting personal boundaries tells others which space is yours and which space belongs to them. It sets the tone of respect for your emotions, your time and your well-being.

One of the situations I’ve come across in retirement is people who think I am sitting around with lots and lots of time on my hands just waiting for them to give me something to do. Before I retired I was warned by an already-retired acquaintance how I would need to guard my time jealously. He was correct. This is where I found it necessary to set boundaries time and again as people thought I would make a great volunteer for their organization or I had time for one more class or an afternoon of playing cards or joining one more club or group. I struggle at times, but for my personal sanity I learned to say, “No.”

Most of the time I’m in a give and take relationship where my decision is accepted graciously. There is mutual respect. However, if my decision is not respected and pushback ensues, I have no qualms about pushing back myself. And, yes, I find it easier to tell people what I want, need and think now that I’m in my sixties. After decades of caring for others, sometimes to my detriment, this time is for me. Oh, I still have people I care for and want to take care of, but I put my needs at the top of the pecking order.

Working on self-awareness is wholly necessary to reach self-confidence in setting boundaries. Being mindful of who you are in retirement, what you want from these years and what you need emotionally to achieve a fulfilling lifestyle will help you stay on your chosen path. Fences do not keep people out; fences allow you to thrive on your terms.