Doing Nothing

Over the last several weeks I discovered a luxury I’d been missing.  I didn’t know it was a luxury.  I didn’t know I was missing it.  I never thought of it as a luxury.  But, it is.  For the moment I’m indulging in doing nothing.  Yes, nothing.  Oh, I know we can’t ever be doing nothing.  Even when we’re asleep, we’re doing something.  One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced during the last year is overcoming the habit of being in constant motion both physically and mentally.  

After two months of decluttering, donating, selling, cleaning, paint touch ups, spring garden tidying, mulching, cleaning some more, making everything sparkle, the damaged deck replaced, it was show time. The house went on the market.  The new deck, which is the result of two cherry trees falling on the old one, the downsized amount of furniture and the fresh feeling of the house and yard almost make me want to stay here.  Almost, but not really.

Following the major clean-up I spent a week or two fidgeting as I looked for activities to fill my time.  Like a leaf in the wind I blew here and there doing whatever I convinced myself needed doing.

Then, I went to Detroit for a few days with a friend.  With tickets to experience Immersive Van Gogh, which was mesmerizing, but way too short, we decided to spend a couple nights so we could shop (I bought one tiny little thing) and visit The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.  Three days of wandering through museums and shops and art space.  Leisurely breakfasts and lunches and dinners.  Talking and sharing.  Sleeping later than usual.  I felt like I hadn’t felt in years.  

Immersed in Van Gogh

Returning refreshed I decided to just be for a while.  To do nothing.  Easier said than done.  Years of caregiving had my monkey brain still engaged full tilt.  Over my caregiving years I learned to anticipate the next need, upset, crisis putting myself into forever proactive mode.  If my predictive efforts didn’t anticipate the next caregiving event, there was, of course, flight, fight or freeze.  Rarely did I freeze because I never stopped thinking or doing.  And, there was never a time including respites where I focused on just being.  Now, I realize what a luxury it is to do nothing.  

Remember mindfulness? I wrote about it, practiced it and left it behind probably at the time I needed it most.  Mindfulness is achieved by being mentally present.  I’d been thinking for so long about the future and replaying the past in my head that I lost the habit of being conscious of my surroundings, my body, my emotions and not even paying slight attention to my current thoughts as they were swallowed up by stressing over what was to come.  Somehow, I had to unearth the ability to live in full awareness of the present moment.  It was there once; I could relearn it. 

Enter neuroplasticity.  Remember that?  I also wrote about neuroplasticity, took classes on the brain and brain research at Furman University OLLI.  Since then, the research on mindfulness and neuroplasticity continues to support the fact that we can create new neural pathways, even in cases where the brain is injured.  When we learn something new, we rewire our brains. I’m on a track to rewire my brain with new neural pathways to respond to situations sans flight, fight or freeze.  I’m reorganizing the connections in my brain.  Doing nothing is helping me.  By deliberately slowing my days I’m choosing what to do with intention each day, to be mindful and conscious.  

Intention is not the same as having a to do list where you tick off each accomplishment.  It’s not setting goals.  My goal is to rewire my brain, but it is the daily practice guided by my intentions, which enables me to reach that goal.  To me an intention sets the tempo for my day.  It guides me.  Working in my garden carries an intention such as, “I intend to be aware of the beauty and life in my garden.”  Other intentions could be “I intend to eat a healthy diet today” or “I intend to practice mindfulness today” or “I intend to forgive others and myself”.  

We often tend to believe if we put ourselves on idle, we’re being unproductive, lazy, wasting time.  For me, doing nothing is not actually doing nothing, but, instead, being present, mindful of the moment with intention.  Remember meditation?  I was always good for about 5 minutes and that’s where I’ve started over with my meditation practice.  Years ago I took a course in Buddhism, which is where I was introduced to meditation.  The one important part of the practice, at least for me, was learning thoughts enter our minds even as we want to empty the mind.  My instructor taught me to identify each thought as positive, negative or neutral, then let it go.  It works leaving me with a clear mind, which affords room to consciously rewire of my brain.

During my years of working I prided myself on what I could get done in a day. In the early years of retirement I felt the same way. Following Martin’s diagnosis and years of caregiving, however, I’ve changed my mind.  It’s taken the last year, and at times, I still find myself feeling as if I accomplished nothing in a day.  And that’s ok.  Letting go of old habits takes practice and time.  For the most part, I now cherish the ability to slow down, reflect, feel joy, be grateful, create and live in the moment.  It’s the luxury of doing nothing.

Beating Back The Winter Blues

Enjoying winter beauty on my walk to retrieve the mail.

Another snowy day.  Watching a Blue Jay on an oak branch outside my window, I feel a sense of peace. That feeling is not the norm for me this time of year.  Following the holidays I’m usually overcome by the winter blues.  It doesn’t matter where I lived, north, south, east or west, a certain melancholy always set in.  But, not this year.  This year I decided to embrace the season.  

Instead of pining for spring I would make a conscious effort to enjoy the snow, the cloud cover and even the cold.  I would be mindful of winter’s beauty.  Instead of seeing a stark landscape I would pay close attention to the birds flitting from tree to bare tree.  I would eye the snow covered branches and listen for the sound of the wind.  I would smell the clean cold air on my walk to the mailbox and filling the bird feeders and shoveling the walkways.  I would arise every morning with gratitude for waking up in a warm bed, having a roof over my head, food to eat, cats greeting me at the door and all of us herding to the kitchen for breakfast.  I would drink coffee and write about the smallest of things in my gratitude journal.  

It is working.  By starting each day with an attitude of gratitude, I find my spirit lifted.  In the past I wrote in my journal in the late evening.  The small change of writing in the morning or sometimes the afternoon turned my mind in an unexpected way.  I also occasionally write in real time right after something as simple as watching a Blue Jay on an oak branch occurs.  By doing so it keeps the feeling of gratitude alive throughout the day.  In addition to a reflection upon the immediate past, my journaling becomes part of the present, creating a more mindful approach to life.

Embracing the season seems easier with retirement.  I never thought I would enjoy living in the north again.  Yet, here I am.  Since I don’t have to go out on the roads during stormy weather, the luxury of settling in for the day with a fire going, instrumental jazz playing, a pot on the stove filled with water and scented oils like orange or cinnamon and later a hot cocoa or tea conspires to fend off the blues.

After shoveling snow I’m ready for a hot cocoa! (note:faux fur)

Self-care is my main agenda this year.  This past month of indulging myself in simple pleasures not only brought that goal into focus, it renewed my sense of purpose.  I started by preparing my house for sale in the spring and I started that by decluttering.  I thought I’d done a bang up job of decluttering when I left South Carolina.  Now, I look at what I dragged to Michigan and wonder why I brought so much stuff.  And the old paperwork!  I went paperless years ago.  Yet, I still found a couple of boxes of old records.  I proceeded with a shred-a-thon.  Having a clear space allows for clear headedness, at least I think so.  

Living in a basically neutral space also brings a certain serenity.  I like using furniture and art to bring in color.  Being homebound with the pandemic raging while also caregiving, I spent many days stripping wallpaper covered with oversized roses, plaids and wild game and painting over walls of bright pinks, greens and browns to create a more relaxing space.  For someone looking for a calming peaceful space neutrals did the trick. Add that to how buyers prefer a clean palette that’s move-in ready and it’s a win-win.

My mornings after coffee, breakfast, cats on my lap, writing in my journal and catching up with friends, I head for the shower.  There I sprinkle an essential oil before starting the water flow.  Lavender or camomile if I want calm, peppermint if I want invigoration.  My favorite is grapefruit, the light citrus smell creating a spirit lifting mood.  I also treat myself to hand milled soaps with similar scents of lavender, peppermint or lemon honey.  Finally, I make my own sugar scrub with a half cup of sugar, enough almond oil to moisten and a dash of essential oil.  That’s my spa-like routine adding to my self-care.

As I finish this it’s the day after the snowfall.  The sun is shining from a blue sky dotted with ghosted clouds.  The glistening snow reflecting warmth into my writing space.  I shoveled sidewalks yesterday and recovered my garbage curb cart from under a drift left by the snow plows.  I’m off now to feed the birds and enjoy the beauty of the season.  

I’d like to hear what you do to beat back the winter blues or perhaps you aren’t effected by them.  Let me know.  Enjoy you day!

A Perfect House

Thank you to everyone for the heartfelt messages.  Having an international community of support is priceless.  My heart goes out to those of you who have experienced or are experiencing similar situations.  I learned a lot from this move, not the least of which is to follow my own advice to live in the moment.

When our South Carolina house went under contract, we left for Michigan on a sweltering July day with the objective of buying another house.  Since Martin doesn’t drive anymore, the nearly 800 miles behind the wheel was left to me.  Many asked why we didn’t fly.  Martin doesn’t fly anymore either.  Airports are noisy.  Jets are cramped.  Even with the no check-in line, getting through security is a challenge for me alone.  For someone who must be spoken to slowly, succinctly without a surrounding cacophony just getting to the plane is a major stress.  I split the drive into two days with a stopover in Lexington, Kentucky at our favorite Man O’War Boulevard hotel.  Still, it was exhausting, for both of us.  It is what it is.

The closing on our SC house was scheduled for August 28 so time was of the essence.  On the advice of Martin’s neurologist I was working to take Martin from one house to the other with scarcely any stops in between.  Getting him settled into a new environment with as few adjustments as possible was imperative for his well-being and mine.

With the idea of downsizing both in house and land, we arrived with a handful of properties to view.  Houses in Michigan are most often built on basements, many with finished walk-out basements.  I knew there would be stairs.  With that in mind, I pursued only ranch styles to keep it to one set.  After all, I wanted a house where we could age in place.  We had a lot of advantages in our quest, from human help to technological help — the internet, smart phones and GPS; our Realtor, Faith, appropriately named for this adventure, is my daughter, Rachel’s, niece by marriage.  I felt confident there was a house for us among the ones identified.

However, none of the houses “spoke” to us.  Martin was especially discouraged.  After two days of intent looking, I found myself sitting on the sofa in Rachel’s sunroom at 4 a.m.  Our search was taking us further and further from her address.  There wasn’t a point of moving to Michigan if we were an hour away from help.  

During this introspection, an epiphany – instead of buying for the present, I was buying for a future I didn’t even know if we would have.  I had an idea where Martin’s disease would take us, but how many years away was that?  In 2018 his neurologist told us it was moving at a glacial pace.  It could be ten or even twenty years.  We are still in good physical health.  Martin bicycles 80 to a 100 miles a week at 21 miles per hour!  He can certainly climb stairs.  I needed to consider two story houses, two sets of stairs for the moment we were in, not the future yet to come. 

Later that morning as Faith drove us to look at more properties, I mentioned my thoughts to her.  We were minutes from Rachel’s house when she pointed to the right and said, “If you’re considering two stories, there’s a beautiful house behind all those trees.”   After pulling up the listing on my phone, scrolling through photos and showing Martin, I told Faith we wanted to see the house.

It isn’t a style I would have thought about purchasing.  This wasn’t downsizing; it’s nearly 3,700 square feet.  Definitely not the smaller piece of land I searched for, it sits on fifteen acres with a small pond and a slice of frontage along a small lake.  

As I stood in the huge kitchen that day, I caught a glimpse of Martin disappearing down one of the many paths through the woods.  I quickly asked Faith to go after him so I could look around some more.  I watched as her 6’2” frame vanished down the path after Martin.  With her spring green dress and long flowing blond curls, I felt like I was watching Alice chasing the White Rabbit.  I hoped we weren’t about to go down the rabbit hole.  Upon their return I put my doubts aside.  Martin was all smiles.  “Better, better, better” his way of saying this is the one.

There were other two stories, but this is the one.  This is the house for this moment in our lives.  We will grow old.  We will have health issues.  We will die.  All the advice, including mine, about having a house for aging in place deprives us of living in the present, the here and now, the joy of the moment.

This is the house with the family sized kitchen for cooking and gathering, dedicated spaces for the art studio, indoors bicycling when the snow flies, a writing room for me, the house in a private setting with deer, turkey, squirrels and chipmunks, the house with room for bird feeding stations, the house about a mile from a good riding route for Martin, the house with beautiful gardens to tend in good weather and add winter interest, the house with the dining room big enough for our family to enjoy Sunday dinners and the house close enough for help to arrive in minutes.  This is the perfect house for this moment.

Silence Your Inner Critic

The woman sitting across the table from me said, “I know I’m ugly.”  Instantly, I thought, she just told me what her inner critic was telling her.  I looked her.  She wasn’t going to be the next cover girl; nor was she ugly.  She had beautiful green eyes with lashes not needing mascara, blemish-free, teeny-tiny pore skin I would give my eye teeth for, and perfectly aligned pearlies surrounded by full lips.  There was a lot to like.  And I gave her my opinion (of course).

We all have one, an inner critic, that is.  According to my therapist (yes, I have one of those too), the inner critic shows up during childhood as others criticize or correct to the nth degree.  As children we internalize the negativism as a voice, often a destructive voice, inside our heads.  We tell ourselves we’re ugly or fat or can’t accomplish our goals or aren’t smart enough to understand this or nobody cares about us.  Whatever the dialogue, it is often not the reality.

Thirty-five years ago I read book after self-help book, took an employer-sponsored course called “Context Training” and learned to ditch much of my inner critic by separating fact from the fiction in my head, just as I hope I did for the woman mentioned above.  Books like “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale changed my life as I became more self-confident, enjoyed more success and became still more confident in my abilities.  I embraced failure as opportunity instead of failure.  My inner critic became a squeaky little buzz of white noise that was quickly silenced when doubt knocked on my door.

As a caregiver the voice recently tried to resurrect itself as I struggled with new challenges.  Faced with mounting stress, my caregiver coach (yes, I have one of those, too) told me, “The stress will never go away.”  My inner critic started saying things like, “You’ll never have a day of peace, so why plan for one?” or “You’ll never get to relax, so why try?”  It took me awhile to realize my inner critic was getting louder.  I needed to duct tape its mouth before a tough situation became tougher.

Self-acceptance, self-compassion, self-love is the first step to silencing your inner critic.  Today I did the best I could do with what I have to do it.  Even in retirement, if life presents you with a crappy hand, as with any other time in life,  tell yourself how much you did right today and how much went right today.  Remind yourself that most people do most things right most of the time.  Give yourself a break.

Oh, I’m no Little Mary Sunshine.  I still need to unload on someone.  My therapist gets paid to listen; my family and friends are there for me.  However, I remembered how our thoughts influence our view of life, our way of handling life and our confidence…the power of positive thinking.  That’s the next step.  Be mindful of your thoughts.  What you put in your mind is like what you put in your body.  You want a healthy diet of positive thoughts.

I started keeping a gratitude journal again.  I might write something like,  “I got up this morning to the sun shining, birds chirping, a garden full of flowers with more to come, a yummy breakfast, worked in the art studio with alcohol inks, talked to a friend.”  Separate the fiction in your head from the facts of your life.  Instead of thinking you are ugly, think about your beautiful green eyes. 

Or, remember making a list of pros and cons when trying to reach a decision?  It works for silencing your inner critic, too.  Make the two columns and write down all the good things about your life and then all the negative things about your life.  Chances are you can find more good than bad.  And recognize the negatives, not as failures, but as opportunities for improvement. 

My stress may never go away, but it can be reduced with positive thinking.  I just had a chance to relax by writing this post.  It gave me a slice of peace.  You see?  I just gagged my inner critic!  And you can, too.

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.

Your Brain On Eggs

This post first appeared on May 21, 2016.  With more research coming out about the benefits of Omega-3, which the egg provides as one of the best sources, I thought it was worth re-posting.  There are other sources of Omega-3, of course, and I will write more on current research on those sources in the future.

 

Your brain on eggs

Eating a balanced diet is important at any age. My mother used to hand me words of wisdom like, “you are what you eat” and “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” I guess that’s why I was never one to skip breakfast. One of the worst habits at any age, but even worse as we get older, is skipping breakfast. A cup of coffee won’t give you what you need. After all, breakfast is short for breaking the overnight fast.

For years and years I started my day eating eggs. However, after learning about my skyrocketing cholesterol numbers, I changed my eating habits to limit my egg consumption. Because they are believed to raise cholesterol in the body, eggs got a bad rap for many years. At one time, I totally gave up eggs for breakfast for an entire six months. Instead I ate oat based cereals. Anticipating a lower cholesterol number, I was shocked when my doctor told me my number dropped only one teeny-tiny point over my previous six month blood test. I’m no scientist or nutritionist, but that piece of information made me wonder if all the hoopla over eggs was — well, just hoopla.

Despite my questioning, I continued to eschew eggs at breakfast. Instead, I ate cereal or an energy bar. I didn’t feel more energetic. In fact, by 11 a.m. my stomach started sending signals of hunger. I felt depleted, even tired.

Now, along comes a book I’m reading, Rewire Your Brain by John B. Arden, Ph.D. It’s not a new book. The copyright is 2010. It’s been sitting in my to-be-read stack since 2015. While the book has a lot of technical information on how our brains work, Arden also offers up a chapter on “Fueling Your Brain”. Guess who is the breakfast heroine in this chapter — yup, you got it — the egg. There are lots of other foods we need and should eat to fuel our brains, but the morning egg, breaking the fast, carries a lot of weight.

Speaking of weight I, like many people, think about what I eat in terms of feeding my entire body and keeping my weight in check. Until reading Arden’s book I never really gave the specifics for fueling my brain a lot of thought (no pun intended). According to Arden, “A bad diet can have a major impact on the brain’s ability to function properly, making you less apt to think clearly, pay attention, and cultivate neuroplasticity.” As we know, all of these abilities are really, really important for aging well.

Memory is also important for aging well. Arden goes on to say, “One of the neurotransmitters you need for processing memory is called acetylcholine. Your body needs an amino acid called choline in order to manufacture acetylcholine. One source of choline is eggs.” While there are other sources of choline, the egg is the one for getting your brain off to a good start for the day. Remember, it’s been fasting all night long with the rest of your body.

As we age we also lose muscle. Protein builds muscle. Eggs are a good source of protein. Eggs are also a rich source of vitamins, including B vitamins like B12, essential for energy. Other vitamins are A, E and K plus riboflavin and folic acid. Eggs also contain Omega-3 that good for your brain and heart component. Exercise and a balanced diet can help keep our muscles, including our heart muscle, in good working order.

 

After reading all of this, I decided to try Arden’s suggestion of eating an egg (sans saturated or trans fats), a piece of whole wheat toast (sans butter), and a glass of orange juice for breakfast. It took about a week for me to start feeling more energy. I noticed I can go until noon or later without feeling hungry. Since mornings are when I write, I realized I was mentally sharper. And, I sleep more soundly. This is my brain on eggs.

What about the cholesterol? According to the Mayo Clinic, “Most healthy people can eat up to seven eggs a week with no increase in their risk of heart disease. Some studies have shown that this level of egg consumption may actually prevent some types of strokes.” They go on to say, the risk of heart disease is more closely tied to the saturated and trans fats used to cook the eggs than the eggs themselves. As always, you should check with your doctor about your egg consumption as, according to the Mayo Clinic, it is not recommended if you have certain diseases, such as diabetes.

Whether or not an egg a day is good for you is up to you to determine. For me, I’m continuing my breakfast egg routine. Regardless of what you eat in the morning, make sure you do eat to break the fast and fuel your brain and body. That’s essential for living well and aging dynamically.

A Stress-Free Retirement

Ahhhhh…retirement. Free at last from the stress of the workplace. No more stressing over meeting deadlines, competing for promotions or absorbing yet another policy change. No more training sessions for a new job and you better get it right or the boss won’t be happy with you. No more demanding co-workers, supervisors or customers to face every work day. Life will, instead, be a perpetual weekend or better yet, a vacation.

During the last two years I’ve met several people who retired earlier than planned due to the stress of being in the workplace. Stress happens when people can’t take one more thing. As the pressures pile up, they feel a lack of control. Overwhelmed.

Many, many years ago I read how the administrative assistant of the company CEO is under more stress than the CEO because the assistant has less control over their day. The CEO is the person at the helm, calling all the shots, and, therefore, feeling more in control. After all, the CEO gets to tell their assistant and everyone else in the company what to do, when to do it, how to do it. And, the employees aren’t necessarily told why they are doing it…just get the job done! Their perception is a lack of control while the CEO enjoys the perception of control. The idea of leaving all of that pressure behind as you enter retirement is, indeed, enticing. It’s also just another perception as the pressures of work are replaced by new pressures in retirement.

What would we have to stress over in retirement? Well, to the surprise of even those of us who believe we have enough money, the number one stressor is money. That constant feeling of insecurity lurking just below the surface of everything we do, as we check our portfolio, watch the ups and downs of the stock market and ponder our choice of financial advisor, is stress.

A close second to money is our health. Some of us retired due to health issues, which may be the result of stress in the workplace. My doctor told me most illnesses are the result of inflammation in the body brought on by stress. Or you may have retired in excellent health only to be diagnosed with an unexpected condition such as diabetes, heart disease or even cancer.

Then, there are other people. Other people, it seems, is the number one stressor for the population overall and yes, other people are still a stressor in retirement. Heck, you may even find yourself stressed out by your spouse. After spending a lifetime apart during most days, to suddenly be together 24/7 may be overwhelming at first. But, remember, you are ‘other people’ to someone, which means you are someone else’s stressor. And, then, there’s the big question of, “What am I going to do that has meaning and purpose for the rest of my life?”

There is no such thing as a stress-free retirement just the same as there is no such thing as a stress-free workplace or a stress-free life. Toward the end of one Dynamic Aging class, our instructor brought in a stress coach, Donna Donnelly, to talk to us about stress as we aged. An enthusiastic and fun presenter, Donna not only provided lots of insight into the stress conundrum but infused the class with laughter. Laughter, it turns out, along with sex, is a major de-stressor as the extra oxygen produced goes to the brain. Extra oxygen is part of the relaxation response of deep breath from the abdomen, smile, relax.
With the invention of the MRI, we now know these activities light up both sides of the brain. They increase T-cells, which boost our immune system, helping us to fight off disease as we age. Smiling cuts down on stress. The brain knows when you smile because the corners of your mouth turn up and your lips part a bit. Your brain likes that warm fuzzy feeling smiling evokes and releases neuropeptides, which fight stress. If you’re not used to smiling, guess what? According to Donna, if you aren’t a smiler by nature, stick a pencil in your mouth and your brain will register that as a smile! Sound silly? If you imagine seeing people walking around with pencils in their mouths as they go about their day, it probably is, but, then again, just the thought of that image can put a smile on your face…sans pencil.

Besides smiling, here are a few other things you can do to reduce stress, many of which you probably know but now is the time to practice them, if you’re not already:

1. Adopt an attitude of gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal, taking time at the end of each day to name the things you are grateful for in that day. It could be as simple as seeing a rose bloom in your garden or taking a walk around the block with a friend.

2. Accept change. If you are someone like myself, who needs the perception of control, use the Serenity Prayer to let go of the things in life you can’t control, which, by the way includes most things.

SERENITY PRAYER
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

3. Practice mindfulness. Staying in the moment, actively engaging with your environment of the moment and letting your thoughts and emotions arise and dissolve away, will help you let go of the past and keep you from worrying about the future.

4. Put together your support system. We all need other people, especially as we age. Family, very close friends and community groups all provide support. And, don’t forget pets. They also form part of our support system. My cats always know when something is off. They gather around and hang out to cheer me up.

5. Find stress relieving activities. Yoga, meditation, journaling, gardening, a walk around the block or a hike through a nearby park can all relieve stress. Find your stress reliever and use it as your go to when you feel stressed out by life.

6. Get plenty of sleep. As we age, that seems to be a tough one for some of us. However, it is even more important than ever as it keeps our brains functioning at top capacity. So, aim for at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night.

Even though retirement will never be stress-free, it can be a less stress time of life if we focus on the positive and adopt the above practices. Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives. Nor the most intelligent that survives. It’s the one most adaptable to change.” Be a person who adapts. And, don’t forget to smile!

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.

The Sleep Challenge

Hoping to find some answers to my on again, off again challenge of a good night’s sleep, my busy February included a two hour presentation by Clemson University Professor June Pilcher on catching some zzz’s. When I worked, getting a good night’s sleep was rarely a problem. Most nights regardless of a bad day or what I may face the next morning, I was able to sleep through the night awakening refreshed. According to Professor Pilcher’s insights, when I left the traditional working world behind, I unwittingly set myself up for sleepless nights.

I’m retired, right? My decades old regimen of going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking at 5:30 a.m. is no longer necessary. I can sleep in if I want. I can stay up late or go to bed early. Everyday is Saturday. Wrong! By giving up my routine, I confused my brain.

When it comes to sleep our brains apparently like a set pattern right down to the very minute. They like us to have a going to bed ritual signaling them to get ready to sleep.  When it comes to sleep, our brains are creatures of habit.  For me, then, the most important advice from Professor Pilcher was going to bed at the same time every night and rising at the same time every morning, just like I did when I worked. Train the brain and you should have a better night’s sleep.

In fact, I learned my 7-1/2 hour sleep from my working years was perfect as it’s divisible by 90 minutes. We go through the five stages of sleep every 90 minutes cycling into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the last and most important stage, throughout the night. Getting REM sleep is imperative for waking feeling rested. Curiously, REM sleep is also of short duration the first 90 minutes of the night — as little as 5 minutes. It becomes progressively longer and longer with each 90 minute cycle up to 45 minutes by the last cycle.

Should you wake during REM sleep as with an alarm clock or a pet needing attention, it’s known as ‘waking up on the wrong side of the bed’. You will be off to a grumpy start to the day. It seems our bodies and brains know we need REM. Disrupting it irritates us on some primal level.

During REM sleep our body becomes limp like a rag doll. However, our brain remains active. We dream. Our brain races through some pretty weird stuff at times, little of which we remember upon awakening. Apparently, there are hundreds of books written on the hidden meaning of dreams. However, sleep researchers doubt there is any meaning to our dreams. They believe it is simply a matter of the brain remaining awake and uncontrolled while our bodies descend into our deepest sleep.

There is also a ‘switch’, as Dr. Pilcher referred to it, in our brains, which turns the body into the limp rag doll at the beginning of REM sleep and turns the body back on at the end. Then, we cycle once more through the first four stages of sleep before entering REM sleep again. When people die in their sleep, they were most likely in REM sleep and the ‘switch’ malfunctioned.

Dr. Pilcher also advised against using sleep aids as they disrupt the body’s natural rhythm, but (disclaimer) mentioned seeing your physician about that. We had a couple of people in the room who are addicted to sleep aids. Another good reason to stick with a natural approach.

In order to train your brain, you may need to go a few days with a sleep deficit. For example, if you go to bed at 11 but wake up during the night, instead of sleeping in the next morning, force yourself to get up at your appointed time for rising. And no afternoon naps! The next night you will, of course, be more tired. Naturally, you should be more apt to sleep better.

If sleep is interrupted and you can’t go back to sleep within 30 minutes, get up. However, no ‘blue’ lights. No TV, computer, cell phone or anything else well lit. Dr. Pilcher advises read a book — the more boring, the better. When you feel sleepy again, go back to bed.

I’ve been working on training my brain by going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time. It seems to be garnering positive results. We’ll see if it continues to give me a good night’s sleep or it’s another case of on again, off again.

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.