What Will You Do In Retirement?

Last week Mike wrote to ask me for a quick answer to the question, “What are you going to do when you retire?” Mike plans to retire in three months. I often receive the related question, “What do you do all day?”. Jan of retirementallychallenged.com (thanks Jan) gave Mike a succinct answer, “Whatever I want.” While it’s true we can do whatever we want in retirement, I think there is more behind the question than mere curiosity.

I know that not everyone reading this blog is a baby boomer, but most asking the questions are baby boomers. We’re a generation that hasn’t thought much about stopping what we’re doing. Many of us are still workaholics. We invented the youth culture — remember ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’? Now 10,000 of us are turning 65 every day of the week.

Boomers have always been the huge train coming down the track. Our numbers caused a boom in the building of hospitals, schools, housing, cars and other stuff. We still want everything on our terms, including retirement. Therein lies the rub. We don’t know what our terms look like. We ask the soon-to-be-retired in the hope of finding answers for ourselves.

Unfortunately, many haven’t saved enough to retire outright and will have to continue working at least part-time. Others have the money, but never developed any hobbies or passions. Their lives revolved around work and family. The go to activities in retirement are travel the world, golf, travel the country in an RV. Those activities do not appeal to everyone. The questioners are wondering what the Mikes of the world are going to do hoping to get some insight into what they will do. There is gobs and gobs of information on financial planning for retirement, but very little on living a retirement life.

The truth is we don’t ever really retire. It is my experience that we save enough money not to have to go to a job to earn a living. However, we still need meaning and purpose in our lives. Our jobs provided much of that along with our social identities and structure. Retirement means we have lots of unstructured time with which to create a new role designed by us for us.

A couple of nights ago Martin and I talked about the question. We are engaged in activities we did not have on our bucket list or story board. Some of the activities we did envision never came to fruition. We don’t care that they didn’t. We wear jeans and t-shirts most days. I kept one dress, one skirt, a couple nice slacks, blouses and jackets. Oh, and two pair of heels. The rest went to charity shops. No more concerns about dry cleaning, polished shoes, polished nails, calendars, to do lists for work and home, juggling appointments, clients, office politics, satisfying the boss and spending weekends running errands. And no rush hour traffic! I let my hair go grey and get it cut every ten weeks instead of cut and color once a month.

To me this is the answer to “What are you going to do when you retire?” :

“I’m going to leave my work role and identity behind. I’m going to explore who I am at my core. I’m on a mission of discovery. I’m going to fail at times, but that’s o.k. I’m also going to succeed. It is both frightening and exhilarating. The possibilities are endless. I’m never going to stop learning. I’m stepping outside my comfort zone. I’m reinventing who I am and may do that every few years.”

And, as Jan says, “Whatever I want.”

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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.

From There To Here

This post first appeared on May 6, 2013.  It actually took another 18 months to find real satisfaction in retirement.  But, this was a turning point. 

One of the Rolling Stones most popular hits was a song titled “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. That seemed to be my theme song for the first 6 months after we officially retired. But, finally after 6 months plus, we have adjusted to our new life. So, today I’m posting what I believe are the steps for getting here from there.

Like most people preparing for retirement, we focused on the financial aspect. And, I don’t want to make light of how important that factor is. It’s, in fact, the single most important factor. No matter where you are in life, if you don’t have enough money to at least meet your basic needs, you aren’t likely to be happy. But, as we approached retirement, the big surprise for us was how our enthusiasm gave way to stress and emotion at saying goodbye to a forty year way of life.

Planning your financial security is a piece of cake compared to addressing the emotional components in your retirement planning. Early on I posted The Transition about being broad-sided by the emotional aspect of retiring. We planned, planned, planned for the money but didn’t put a lot of thought into the psychology. I guess that’s because most books, articles and web sites focus on the finances. We had lots of activities, family and friends and a wish list of travel and learning. But, we were very unprepared for the emotion and stress. After 6 months of ups and downs, corrections in mindset and adjustments, I am able to identify what we should have done to make the transition more painless.

What is the saying about hindsight? It’s 20/20. I hope my 20/20 hindsight vision will help anyone contemplating retirement. Here we go…

  • When we decided to retire, we looked at retirement as a destination. What I realized about two months into it is retirement is a journey. Hence, the tagline for my blog. There is no one place you are going to. It’s, instead, a never ending adventure. Wrap your head around that because your mindset is very important to entering your journey. You need a forward looking attitude. If your employer has an Employee Assistance Program offering a few weeks of free counseling as one of the benefits, take advantage of it. Even if you think you don’t need it, see a counselor and take your spouse or partner with you. You don’t know what you don’t know. Does that make sense? I hope so. A counselor can help you focus on this next part of your life and how to make the transition less bumpy.

 

  • With that in mind, sever the emotional ties to your old work place as soon as possible. Sounds harsh. But once you really say goodbye, you are free to focus on your new life. So, move on as quickly as possible. Martin was really good at saying goodbye. I had a more difficult time. Staying in the loop on your old employer’s activities, politics and (brrr..shudder) the gossip is counterproductive to what you really want to accomplish by retiring. I’m not saying discard true friendships developed through work. I have real friends I met at work, but we have lots of other things in common, which is why we’re friends. Ditch the relationships based on nothing but the work. You left work because you are looking for a new community and activities. Don’t cling to the past.

 

  • Like many people we chose our date based on birthdays. Sounds logical because, again, it’s all about the finances. Right? Wrong! You can start collecting from your 401K or IRA at 59-1/2. You can start collecting social security at 62. Base your date on these events and you may be making a big mistake. In choosing your date forget the finances and look at your activities. What are you planning to do with your days? Plan for this just like you plan for your finances and be specific. That was our mistake. When people said, “What are you going to do in retirement?”, we gushed about motorcycling, bicycling, gardening, hiking and some travel. Most of our activities are fair weather types. In South Carolina, the weather is such, you can normally do some outside activities even in the winter. However, we had an unusually rainy, cold, long winter. In fact, as I write this, it’s 52 degrees and 3-5 inches of rain pouring down in May! Even our travel destinations were not conducive to a lot of sightseeing during this winter. We went some places anyway but it was not as enjoyable as anticipated. Fortunately, we had plenty of indoor activities and we stayed open to trying new ones. Choose your date carefully.

 

  • Speaking of timing, if you have a spouse or partner, who is also retiring, choose the same retirement date. One of the most difficult transitions was my adjustment to Martin being at home. You see, I left work two years earlier. My routine was mostly just up to me. Once he left the house every day, I did things on my schedule. I’m also less structured than Martin so part of my routine was no routine. Suddenly, I had someone else in the house all day wanting to know what I was going to do with my time or wanting me to tag along with them when I had other ideas. It took the first three months for us to mesh our wants, needs and routines. I’d like to say that occurred without a lot of stress, disagreements and negotiation, but I’d be lying. This is an area where an EAP counselor could have made a difference for us.

 

  • Next up, be sure you have enough activities to occupy your time. If you work an eight hour day with an hour for lunch and a 30 minute commute one way, that’s ten hours of activity per day or 50 hours a week you have to replace. The first couple of weeks you feel like you’re on vacation. Enjoy that feeling of just kicking back and doing nothing. But, after that, you need a boat load of activities to take up 50 or 60 hours each week. Make a list of your hobbies, crafts, volunteer activities and how much time will be dedicated to each one on a weekly basis. Martin and I have also been watching one of our grandkids two days a week. He’s also continued to visit his parents for lunch weekly. We had a few maintenance items, which needed performing on our house and property. Include anything like that as well. If you can’t come up with at least 40 hours of activity to replace your work time, start looking around for clubs to join, new volunteer adventures or classes to take. And, once you retire, keep your mind open to learning new things and taking on new adventures. I’ve read retirees watch way too much TV. Don’t become one of them! This is an opportunity to grow and re-energize your life. Don’t squander it on the boob-tube. We’ve quickly figured out how taking up a new project or learning a new skill adds excitement and purpose to our lives. I want those feelings to continue, don’t you?

 

  • We also found the word ‘retirement’ in and of itself was a negative. The definition and societal view of retirement is such a has-been, life is over connotation. I kept reading every article I could find on the terms used to describe someone who is growing older and retired. All of them so dreary. I also read several articles about others trying to find a better definition for the words ‘retiree’ and ‘senior’. So, I’m not alone. I guess my subconscious was just working away to find another term because a couple of months ago, it just popped into my head. I’m a PIM…Person of Independent Means. The definition is since I no longer need to work for money I can do whatever the Hell I want with my time, including working for money, if I want to. Even retirees who have to work part-time can be PIM’s as they also have some independent means. Being a PIM instead of a retiree is liberating. It gives you a whole different mindset about this segment of the journey of your life. We have choices. We are healthy. We are active. We get to write a whole new chapter on our terms. And, the term is PIM!

So, how do we feel about being retired…errr…PIMs? We could not even begin to think about returning to the work force. That’s how we feel. We’re having too much fun.

We’re enjoying the freedom of so much choice. We’re enjoying the challenge of finding new and interesting things to do. We’re enjoying the exploration and the thrill of discovery. We’re enjoying meeting other PIMs and developing a new community of friends and acquaintances. We’re enjoying not having to make a 30 minute commute to work in the pouring rain and instead, making spaghetti sauce, chocolate chip cookies, snuggling in to read, write, knit, spin on the stationary bike and talk. Then, later, opening a bottle of red and enjoying a delicious dinner.

 

I guess the final step is just relax, give yourself time to adjust and keep an open mind. The journey to here from there is just beginning.

What’s A Senior?

After announcing last week that I was only posting once a month, some of you wrote to suggest I re-post older blogs and others talked about searching my archives. I thought you had a good idea (thank you) and decided to re-post older blogs. This post originally appeared February 28, 2013.

 

I receive a monthly e-newsletter from an organization called care.com. Care provides all kinds of services…babysitting, tutors, pet sitters, senior care, housekeeping and more. I originally signed up with them for pet sitting for when we are away on our jaunts. Until recently I didn’t pay much attention to any of the other topics. But, a couple of days ago I received their newsletter including an article titled, “A Checklist for Aging in Place”. Thinking we intend to age in place as opposed to a retirement or assisted living community, I thought this is a must read for me. But, when the author started talking about walkers, wheel chairs, tripping hazards and the inability to drive a car, I immediately jumped to, “Wow, this isn’t me! At least not yet. I’m not a senior.”

Granted, when we built our house 12 years ago, we built it with the idea of aging in place. With an eye to the far, far away future and the help of our builder, we came up with an open floor plan one story with wide hallways, a huge walk-in shower with bench, and very few steps to the outside areas. According to a 20 year study by the US Census Bureau, 90% of baby boomers are planning, just as we have, to age in place.

But, back to the article. It made me realize there is a huge expanse of years involved when we talk about seniors. My point here is there are so many different stages a person can go through during a fifty year expanse of time that the term senior cannot possibly be all encompassing. In fact, the dictionaries I checked all define seniors as being elderly, on a pension and over either 60 or 65 years of age. Elderly is further defined by Merriam-Webster as “rather old” with synonyms like aged, geriatric, unyoung, ancient, over-the-hill (really!). As someone who goes out on my property and cuts down dead trees with a chainsaw, I do not consider myself elderly! Further, I know people in their seventies and eighties who I wouldn’t look upon as elderly. And, I doubt they view themselves as elderly.

Before age 50 I always thought of seniors as 17 or 18 year olds in their last year of high school. Then, when I reached 50 and saw how many times in our societal order of things, age 50 is referred to as being “senior” I thought this is too young an age to be considered a senior. Ditto for age 55. Now that I’m 64 and hitting my stride I question the entire use of the terms senior and elderly just as I do retiree and retirement.

As Bob Dylan, who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature at age 75, once crooned, the times, folks, they are a changin’.  According to the last census, it’s estimated by 2017 there will be more 65 year olds in the US than kids under 5. And, by mid-century there will be approximately 600,000 centenarians. So, if you become a senior at 50 and live to be 100, that’s your second half of life! Instead of seniors, retirees, elderly, this age group should be called “second lifers”. Or, maybe we shouldn’t be defined at all.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Tell me, what do you think a senior is?

Reconnecting With My Past

Pike Place Market in Seattle circa 1988

Pike Place Market in Seattle circa 1988

Next week I fly to Seattle to visit a longtime friend. I’m looking forward to seeing both her and the Emerald City. Surrounded by two mountain ranges and boasting thousands of acres of parks within the city, it is truly the gem of the West. This is also a chance for me to reconnect with my past. I’m not talking about glory days or living in the past. I’m talking about a short visit to a place where I have emotional attachment.

I lived in Seattle for six years in the late eighties, leaving the city, my job and dragging my family back to our previous home because living in the West never felt right to me or to Martin. At the time, several people told me, “You can’t go back. It won’t be the way you remembered it.”

But, something was missing. Seattle never felt like “home”. Part of it was geographical. Having grown up on the New Jersey Shore, watching the sun rise over the Atlantic, my inner compass felt out of sync watching the sun set beyond Puget Sound to the west. And, nine months of cloud cover with the Emerald City shrouded in a wet mist, the only glimpse of the sun as it set over the Olympic Mountains, was beyond my mental fortitude. While on one hand, I loved the rhythm of the city, I also eschewed the long commute, heavy traffic and constant noise. Moving closer to my roots would also put extended family into closer proximity.

My daughters on the Olympic Peninsula

My daughters on the Olympic Peninsula

So, we pulled up our stakes and left. No, as people told us, it wasn’t the way we remembered it. It was different. We grew and prospered and grew some more. We also moved again to South Carolina. We created the life we craved. No place I have ever lived, including my New Jersey cradle, has felt more like home than the South. When we left Seattle, we weren’t going back to reclaim the past; we were going back to claim a different future.

My trip to Seattle is purposed with a visit to reconnect with my friend and hopefully some others as well as to remember and honor my life there. Not only is my past in Seattle part of my personal identity, it was central to my learning what was important to me in life.

In retirement, after years of following the corporate money trail, people sometimes return to the place where they grew up. I know several who returned to South Carolina after years of living someplace else and many who left this locale to return to their roots. The emotional pull of a childhood home is powerful. The smells, the sights, the sounds, old friends and family are not just remnants of the past. They are the very fabric from which we are made. I feel the same way about my life in Seattle. It was an important part of my life’s journey thus far.

When we return to a past home, we don’t just revisit the past. We reconnect emotionally with a part of our identity, which lies at the core of our authenticity. Based upon what I know about my own struggles with creating a retirement identity, reviving your youthful selfhood with all its trappings may help with the transition. I’m not recommending that everyone move back to their childhood home or any home they loved in the past. For some, like myself, it’s not a practical or desired option. But, a visit, whether real or imagined, may prove helpful.

I visited my childhood home in 2008 when my mother passed away. Her memorial service was held in New Jersey providing the perfect time to reflect on both her life and mine. My childhood home was much the same as I remembered. There was yet another addition. The hedge my father faithfully clipped was gone. Yet, it looked much the same. My hometown was burgeoning, empty fields now held other homes, the highway filled with businesses. It was the type of busy, bustling place I steered clear of as a choice for my home.

While I wouldn’t go back, the visit reminded me of who I am at my core. The schools I attended, the beaches and boardwalk where I whiled away summer hours, worked my first job and dreamed of who I would become. The places I played with friends, the streets I walked selling Girl Scout cookies. Wreck Pond where I learned to ice skate. The smell of salt air and sea gulls gliding above the washed sand looking for a tasty snack. And, of course, the sun rising over the Atlantic.

Me in my Seattle office circa 1989

Me in my Seattle office circa 1989

My visit to Seattle may well accomplish the same thing. While I loved the city and look forward to my visit, I am also reminded of why I left. I am reminded of my present identity, created by me for me, fashioned to replace my work identity left behind when I retired. Yet, this identity is more authentic than any I have ever claimed. It is not only a reflection of my past, but my hope for the future as I live in the present. I am going back to Seattle, not to reconnect with the past, but to reconnect with myself. And I will.

Who Am I Now?

On January 3, 2013 I posted a blog entitled “Who Am I”. The post reflected my struggle to figure out who I was without my work identity.

At a recent social event Martin and I were asked the new acquaintance question of “What do you do?”

Martin looked at the questioner and said, “We’re retired.”

In 2013 I realized that what I did to make money wasn’t who I am. And, three years into it, I know retired isn’t who I am either. Retired is nothing more than a description of my social status.

According to the Huffington Post, Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity said, “Older people today are like pioneers of a new life stage, trying to find their way.” I believe the answer to who I am lies in Carstensen’s statement. As you can tell in the pages of this blog, finding my way has taken up a lot of thought space. I not only think about it and write about it, I read a lot about it.

Filling out forms during the last three years, mainly in doctors’ offices and colleges offering continuing education courses, I’ve filled in the occupation slot with the word retired. After the evening when our new acquaintance asked the usual question, I hesitated over such a form. If retired is my social status, who am I? Staring at it, I realized I carry business cards with me saying I’m a writer/blogger. Should I put that in the slot for occupation?

Yes. As a description for how I occupy my time, the answer is I’m a writer/blogger. However, from a philosophical view, I’m not a writer/blogger either. That’s just another label to describe what I do with my time. The reality is I am who I have always been _ an experiencer of life.

While life experiencer may not be an answer I’d give to someone at the next party I attend _ although it may liven the conversation _ it sums up who we all are at the end of day. We are all going through life at every stage, whether it’s paid work or not, just trying to find our way. We are experiencing life. We may all be pioneers at some stage, in any given circumstance.

Retirement is no different. Whether we write, garden, paint, cook, golf, travel, bicycle, take classes or we were an engineer, lawyer, banker, teacher, medical, office or manufacturing worker or whatever, we are all travelers through time separately and together.

Who I am is changed from who I was three years ago when I wrote the first post, the same as who I was then had changed from my previous working self. Identities, labels, names, titles will continue to change as I experience life at this stage of my journey through time. This, of course, is why I believe retirement is a journey, not a destination. Life is a journey. Retirement is simply a continuation of your life’s journey. How you live it and who you are at any given time is up to you.

THE BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN RETIREMENT

At a party during the recent holiday season, I met a woman who retired to Upstate South Carolina with her husband. This region has a lot to offer retirees, but my new acquaintance told me how she really didn’t like living here. Instead, she longed to move to the state where she grew up. At first I thought she must be crazy not to love living here and she must be really crazy wanting to return to the northeastern snow belt of harsh winters not to mention high taxes. But, as I listened to her heartfelt description of her childhood home with all the familiar haunts and family she loved and missed, I realized a sense of place was lacking for her here. She moved here for the warmer climate, relatively inexpensive yet plentiful housing and the scenic beauty of the area. But, even after living here a few years, she didn’t feel like she belonged here.

Each year there are magazines and web sites, which offer up the best or worst places to live. Interestingly enough, the area in which I live has been in the line-up yet doesn’t make the grade year after year. One would think if a city was a great place to live this year, it would still be a great place to live next year and maybe the next. But, if the editors didn’t offer up some new venues each year, they wouldn’t sell magazines or garner visits to a web site. Their research departments also use some very general criteria such as taxes, cost of living, weather, crime rates, health care, recreation and, of course, housing availability and cost. While those criteria are all important to us, where we choose to live in retirement is lot more personal. More often than not, the best place to live comes down to a sense of place, your sense of place.

To me, a sense of place is a feeling of belonging there, of fitting in with the culture, the landscape and the people living around you. It just feels right. While I’m a proponent of living on your personal edge, where you live in retirement actually needs to be more like snuggling into the cushions of a worn familiar sofa or putting on an old flannel shirt where the familiarity and character of the item offers up a feeling of inner comfort. I once had an old flannel shirt so well-worn and comforting, it had holes in the elbows and a tear down the front before I finally ripped it into pieces to be used for cleaning rags. That’s kind of the way I feel about where I live. I don’t want to ever have to give it up. This is where I’ve chosen to live for many reasons. There are other places, which give the same comforting feeling but I’ve chosen not to live there due to the cost of living, large populations or weather. For example, when I go to the beach, I’m instantly transported back in time to the New Jersey shore where I grew up and immediately feel that same sense of place from my childhood, where I fit in with the sights and sounds and smells. I identify with the character of the place even if it is a different shore. It’s that feeling, which we are looking for when choosing a place to retire.

Even when you find the area or city or town in which you want to live, you may find certain neighborhoods of the community evoke more of a sense of belonging than others do for you. Do you want to be able to walk to the store or park? Do you want a place to meet neighbors? Do you want a new, thoroughly modern house or one that shows it’s age? Do you want all the conveniences and hustle and bustle within a short distance or do you want the quiet of the country? One of the things which gives me such a sense of place is my home. With the help of our builder, a structural engineer, we designed and built this house. Of all the houses we’ve lived in all over the country, this is the one in which I feel that I belong. It’s ours in every detail and, after ten years, it is worn in all the right places with our living in it.

While reading all the lists about the best and worst places to live in retirement is a good place to start your search, where you finally choose to live is as special as you are. It’s very personal. No researcher or editor can tell you what will give you a sense of place. For that, you have to reach deep inside yourself and do your own research. Like my acquaintance from the party or my feeling about going to the beach, you may want to start with your childhood. It’s been a long, long journey from there to here but going back in time just may hold the answer to where you’ll find your best place to live in retirement.

MYTH BUSTERS

It’s the time of year again when we start looking forward to what a new year will bring as well as saying goodbye to the recent past of the old year. Auld Lang Syne as poet Robert Burns called it or days gone by. Thinking of the recent days gone by, I ruminated on how much I learned in the last year about the changing face of aging. I read plenty of dreary articles about the supposed inevitable cognitive decline, which comes with aging. There are the articles advising us to talk to our children in our sixties about our finances and health and how we should make a plan for the kids to take over for us on both fronts as we age. Well, poppycock. That’s how I felt as I processed what these authors advised. I kept thinking about all the eighty and ninety somethings with complete control of their minds, senses and lives, often continuing to live in their own homes rather than an institutionalized housing arrangement. How is it that a few maintain their cognitive selves right up to their last breath, while the majority slowly decline into a muddled mental state? Was that even true?

As it turns out, the belief that our brain inevitably declines is totally untrue. There is nothing inevitable about it. At universities like Stanford and Cornell, studies of the brain over the past ten years using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have busted a number of myths concerning our brain power, from children to aging adults. Back in the 1970’s when I was just getting my first buzz on from a nice glass of cheap wine, we used to sit around imbibing and joking about killing off brain cells with alcohol. Ahhhh, youth. At the time, it was believed we only had so many brain cells and alcohol was a brain cell killer. But, hey, we also believed our twenty something brains were at their peak performance and would soon begin the inevitable decline toward old age when we couldn’t even balance our checkbooks anymore. But, the technological revolution of the late twentieth century produced some incredible gadgets with even more incredible computing power, among them the machine responsible for mapping our brains during different experiments with various aged subjects. Though the research is complicated and there’s a lot more out there on the subject than I could ever hope to cover in these pages, the bottom line is cognitive decline is NOT inevitable. There are even indications your brain is actually at its peak somewhere in your 50’s.

September of this year, I heard the term neuroplasticity for the first time. Neuro what, you ask? Plasticity meaning the brain is pliable, adapting to its changing circumstances a lot like plastic can be molded into different forms. The term use it or lose it never held greater meaning. Our brain may actually have the ability to grow additional tissue if we just keep using it. In fact, over the past couple of years, as a survivor of one of the last polio epidemics in the United States, I researched findings on post-polio syndrome. One of the theories behind the recovery of people like myself who exhibit few residual effects from the disease is the idea that polio victims’ neurons grew extensions to compensate for the damage done by polio. Our bodies heal from cuts and broken bones by growing new tissue. Our muscles can be strengthened, the minute little tears from exercise mending to create more mass. Why is it, then, we bought into the belief our brain can’t grow more intelligent or recover from an occasional sip of wine or even trauma or maintain its capacity to manage our finances as we age?

In our society there is a strong belief that if we eat a healthy diet, get some exercise, take vitamins and use the medications our doctor prescribes, we can stave off aging…to a point. Our society believes it is inevitable our bodies and cognitive abilities will decline. The specter of dementia looms ever present as we have ‘senior moments’ when we can’t find the right word, walk into a room and can’t remember what we came for, or we forget where we left the car keys. Well, eventually something will lead to our demise. But, believing our brain is most certainly one of those parts is no longer justified. Research is now proving that belief to be a myth of aging. Sure, we’ve all heard of the heart doctor still performing surgery in his nineties. But, that’s unusual, right? What if that’s really what the norm is if we all believe we can continue to maintain our cognitive capacity and we work at it and I mean really work at it, instead of buying into our societal myth of inevitable mental decline? If we continue to use our brain, our mental capacity can stay intact. Using our brain means staying engaged with other people, with life, with learning new things, accepting new ideas, absorbing and growing like a baby in the first year of life, opening new neural pathways. A growth mentality where we continue to learn and grow, even as we age, is the key to keeping our cognitive abilities intact.

As we move into 2015 and leave 2014 behind us, let’s also leave the myths of aging behind us as well. Make 2015 the year you take control of your aging process. Determine right now to add a new activity to your 2015 calendar. Learn something new. Try something new. Go somewhere new. Get out of your comfort zone. Live on your personal edge. We are the generation who can reshape attitudes about aging. We are the myth busters. And, the first step is to use our brains.

YOUR TRUE POTENTIAL

It’s been five weeks since I started the Dynamic Aging Program. Yes, time still flies! I wish I could tell you, “Here are the five things you need to know in order to age dynamically.” But, it’s not that simple. In fact, between the class time, books to read, websites to visit, personality and intelligence tests to take and the class forum questions, I feel like I’m back in college. Class alone is over 4 hours on Wednesdays, which, for someone who has been out of the workforce for a few years now, requires a bit of effort to remain focused toward the end of each session. But, enough whining about the work load. What you really probably want to know is what am I learning.

Well, this could be categorized as cheap therapy as self-examination, self-awareness and self-actualization are at the center of all this time and effort. As I’ve chronicled in this blog and, as most of you surely must know, most people who have a career and retire, usually have identity problems. According to what I’ve learned so far, they also apparently think they are going to continue with the same hobbies, pastimes and activities for the 20 to 30 years of their retirement. That is, until the loss of identity and boredom set in, which is the moment in time for introspection. While self-examination can be done at any time in life, all the stars and planets are more apt to be perfectly aligned during our last third of life when our basic needs are met, the career is over, the kids are raised and we finally (finally!) have time for ourselves.

While making personal development a priority may appear selfish on the surface, if we are to reach our full potential as human beings, which puts us in a position to truly give our best to the world, then personal development must be a priority. If we are to age dynamically, enjoying a higher quality of life where new meaning and purpose emerge, we must continue to expand our personal capabilities. Another benefit for taking this less traveled path is greater self-esteem as we discover our unique potential. The difficult part in all of this is taking responsibility for your personal evolution, especially in the face of societal norms, which tell us we need to wind down instead of gearing up. Choosing to take action means you will not be one of the flock. You will most certainly encounter people making comments about how you can’t teach an old dog new tricks or how these are your golden years…relaxation is what you’re supposed to be doing. You earned it. Right? Wrong. What you’ve earned is the right to reach your unique potential. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this course, it’s that stability is not an option. We live in a rapidly changing world. That world will continue spinning at light speed. And, it belongs to the people who are ready to change and grow with it, including those of us in the last third of life.

Clearly, as we age, our bodies will decline, health issues will arise, the parts will wear out. However, cognitive decline is not a given. Continued dynamic interaction with other people will keep neural pathways open, fending off cognitive decline. So, another benefit of working toward finding our true potential is maintaining our cognitive function. Rather than crossword puzzles, which apparently only open new neural pathways to a point, my instructor recommends Mind_Spark or Lumosity computer games. But, the best option by far is continued meaningful engagement with other human beings.

What is meaningful engagement, you ask? Well, again, in order to answer that question, you have to take responsibility for your personal evolution. That’s the part requiring introspection, thought and self-awareness. It’s work. And, working toward something meaningful, especially when you don’t know what that something may turn out to be, takes a leap of faith. The first step is identifying any self-imposed barriers to your personal growth. Our barriers often show up in negative self-talk such as, “I was never any good at doing that kind of thing.” or “I never liked doing __________.” You fill in the blank. The key here is having (1) an open mind; (2) a willingness to recognize your personal barriers as self-imposed limitations; (3) an openness to new possibilities; and (4) readiness for change. You don’t have to go jumping out of an airplane or off of a bridge with a bungee cord but you do have to be willing to ask yourself, “If I could do anything, what would it be?” And, give yourself an honest answer. You may want to read one of the recommended books for this course, “The Untethered Soul” by Michael A. Singer, to put you on the road to identifying any self-imposed barriers to your self-actualization.

There’s a lot of self, self, self here but aging dynamically is all about yourself. You are much more than your ego, your work identity, your family, your community. What could be more fun in life than seeking your true potential as a human being and actualizing that potential? What could be better than giving your family and community your full potential as a human being? The work I have done in the last few weeks has left me more open to new experiences, more aware of living in the present moment and more willing to trust my own feelings and instincts. It is absolutely empowering. As I think about what I want to be when I grow up, I feel more alive than I have in years. So, that’s where I am with the Dynamic Aging Program. There will be more to come in the next few weeks…stay tuned. In the meantime, try taking a leap of faith. No bungee cord needed.

DYNAMIC AGING

Tomorrow I begin a course, Dynamic Aging, at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Furman University. The program, developed by Dudley Tower, PH.D, is the first of its kind. Additionally, this is the first time it is being taught by Dr. Tower so those of us taking the class are brave souls indeed. And, after reading some of the literature on Tower’s website (www.dynamicaginginstitute.com), I’m thinking that’s exactly what he is looking for in his students…people willing to take a risk, a chance, a bold step into a different type of future than the one most retirees ultimately end up with. During the past nearly two years, I’ve written numerous posts about the need to move out of your comfort zone in order to achieve a rewarding retirement (see “Comfort Zone”, “Ch-Ch-Changes”, “Living Bolder”) so when I came across this course offering, I was both intrigued and delighted. Finally, after reading way too many articles suggesting actions like involving your children in your finances and medical conditions in your sixties (as you would soon slip into a declining cognitive state rendering you incapable of understanding those items), here was someone, not only thinking along the same lines I was, but, willing to teach me how to actualize it!

In April 2013, I wrote, “bold living begins right after leaving the comfort zone”. Yet, most people enter retirement with the idea of continuing with their same hobbies maybe adding some travel or, for those wanting extended travel, an RV. Several much, much older people advised me to do everything I really ever wanted to do right after retiring because as I aged, it would be “too late” as I would decline physically and mentally to the point of not being capable of doing anything requiring any effort. Sounds like they read some of the same articles I read. The only difference is they believed what was being peddled in those articles. Scary as it is, that dreary bit of advice and those articles, in a nutshell, is our society’s current view of retirement. We will maintain as well as possible but inevitably slowly decline to a point where we can no longer function independently needing our children’s intervention or an assisted living community or (shud-d-d-der) a nursing home. I believe this view results in a self-fulfilling prophecy as our minds create a reality we believe to be true. Prior to retiring, I heard of one couple, retiring at 60, who bought a home in a “senior” community and, even though neither golfed, anted up for a golf cart to drive from one home to the other as well as the clubhouse where the residents could play cards, pool or party. Just shoot me, now!

The view of a leisurely retirement where we slowly decline into oblivion is nothing more than mindset. For example, when we retired, an item on Martin’s bucket list was to participate in the state time trials for bicycling (see my post “Second Fastest Old Man in the State”). Never having the time to put in the practice miles while working, retirement meant he finally had the time to invest. As he started biking 100 miles or more a week with thousands of feet of climbing, we began hearing comments like, “Don’t over-do it. You’re getting old. Your body can’t take that kind of a workout anymore.” Well, his body did take it. He received a silver medal for his efforts. And, he’s still cranking out 80 to a 100 miles a week with his times getting better and better. Last spring, during a routine physical, Martin’s much younger doctor told him he was intimidated by Martin’s fitness. While I’m not in as great a shape as my husband, I still hit our jungle of a woods on a regular basis chainsaw in hand and have had my share of naysayers telling me I should “slow down” or how that’s dangerous work for a woman my age. Ha! That’s dangerous work for anyone at any age but I find it exhilarating and will continue my bush whacking.

According to Tower, “dynamic aging is a unique, systemic, more fully engaged, and proactive approach to one’s own aging process.” There’s a lot to this idea but I believe the one component necessary to a fully engaged, proactive approach is an open mind. Our mindset will determine the unique outcome for each and every one of us as we age. Instead of withdrawing from a rapidly changing world and buying into the notion of decline, turning your mind in such a way as to stay engaged and even welcoming what may come, will provide ongoing mental and physical stimulation. During the last several years, I’ve met many, many people who have not engaged in the technological revolution. Yes, we live in a world where there is an inherent risk in being online or using a debit card at the store. But, there has always been a risk of being robbed on the street. And, frankly, I’d rather have my debit card compromised at a store than have a mugger take my purse at gunpoint. Yet, I’ve met many who will not bank online or use a debit card at a store, carrying cash instead from place to place to pay bills and make purchases. They refuse to make purchases online or engage in social media for fear of someone stealing their identity apparently unaware most identity theft today occurs at the mailbox or trash can at their door step. I believe it is this very mindset, which prevents most people from leaving the comfort zone of our society’s current view of aging and staying fully engaged in life.

The world will continue to change at light speed due to the very technology some choose to avoid. Wishing for the good old days and following the already forged path into a slow decline is a dismal way to spend a couple of decades or more. We are at an age where fear of failure, fear of what others will think of us, fear of making a mistake, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of any kind should not even be on our radar. During the next year, as I take the Dynamic Aging Program at OLLI Furman, I plan on posting my thoughts on the program so that, you, my readers, may benefit from what I’m learning. My hope is we will both learn some things, which will make our retirement a more meaningful, more exciting, more rewarding time in our lives than we could have imagined.