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.

AN ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT

After writing my last post, many of you wrote telling me what gave you renewed purpose in life after transitioning from work life to retirement. THANK YOU! I enjoyed reading all of your stories, comments and notes. There were a couple of surprises from this informal survey but most of you found renewed purpose by finding a new activity, which struck a personal cord. There was an undeniable thread of joy, which ran through all of your stories of self-discovery. Now, I’d like to share the results with all my readers. Since many of the writers asked for anonymity, I’ve decided not to post any comments received on the previous post nor give too much detail.

Most of you retired as I did, cold turkey. No part-time work to ease into retirement like my doctor suggested as the ideal scenario. In fact, a few wrote about leaving work due to stress. For the most part, it wasn’t clear what type of stress but a couple of people wrote about age discrimination and being pushed out by a younger supervisor and/or co-workers. One writer mentioned feeling an urgent need to find new purpose in order to fully move forward in life and leave the stress behind. There was only one writer, but it’s good news we had one, who chronicled a five-year transition into retirement, working three-quarters of the month, including some telecommuting for the company that employed them for 37 years. This writer’s spouse enjoyed a similar arrangement with their employer. So, I guess we can count that as two who were able to transition into retirement the way my doctor suggested. Even after this transitional period, the employer still wanted to keep them around for special projects. Smart employer! Since this person did a lot of pre-planning and transitioning into retirement, when the moment finally came, it was more of a non-event with little transitioning left to do. Most of us, however, do not have the luxury of such an accommodating employer.

The big surprise for me is how most of you found renewed purpose in arts and crafts. While there are a few of you who fell in love with gardening, even a couple who have hobby farms, it seems most retirees are part of an arts and crafts movement. And, gardening can even be considered a type of art form for it requires a certain amount of creativity. Far from unusual, I am not the only one to discover artistic talent after a career in a vastly different environment. After life as attorneys, accountants, bankers, realtors, office managers, manufacturing jobs, medical technicians, teachers, IT administrators, nurses and more, most of you found renewed purpose in painting in all mediums…watercolor, acrylics, oil, jewelry making, sculpture in both clay and metal, glass bead making, knitting and felting, stained glass, photography, weaving, quilting, wood carving and collage art. Two of you mentioned supplementing retirement income with the sale of your art work and one is even teaching an art class. Some of you spoke of travel but it was almost always in conjunction with your ability to photograph new scenes or explore local art and culture. You also spoke of making new friends within the arts and crafts community, joining clubs and social networks centered around your chosen art or craft. I recently spotted a sign in an art shop. It said, “Artists never retire.” Perhaps that’s why we are drawn to our creative sides in retirement. We have now created a job for life.

Another surprise was how no one mentioned volunteering as an activity, which offered renewed purpose. Only a couple of you mentioned any volunteer work at all and even that was as an aside, an “I also do this” type of remark. As a volunteer for the Master Gardener Program, I fully enjoy working the booth at the local farmers market where I answer gardening questions and hand out information to all kinds of people from all walks of life. It makes for a fun morning. However, it’s not something I want to do everyday. Yesterday, at lunch with a friend, I asked for her thoughts on this as she, too, does volunteer work, but, it’s not her focus. Her not-so-surprising comment, “ I don’t want to be scheduled.” I believe, for most of us, volunteering is too much like working a job. It comes with time constraints, supervisors and work-like responsibilities. Many of us want to give back to our community in some way but in retirement, we also want to enjoy a less structured, more relaxing life. If anyone has other thoughts or ideas about this, please chime in.

To all of you, no matter where you are, no matter what your circumstance, I thank you for all of your heartfelt responses. I hope this post inspires those of you who have not yet found a renewed purpose in life to explore the possibilities, explore your wants and needs and perhaps ignite a spark within, which you didn’t know was there.

GOOD GRIEF

Some of you sent messages telling me how retiring is harder than expected. I’ve recommended reading my posts on Stages of Retirement, which some of you had already read. I also positioned those posts on my site’s Header to make them easier to find and have heard from some of you how the posts were helpful. In the last eighteen months I’ve obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how difficult the transition is emotionally and psychologically for most of us. I’ve read a lot of articles and posts on other sites, which is how I came across Robert Atchley’s study on the stages, and have developed further thoughts about the transition. Having reached the fifth stage of a rewarding Retirement Routine, I also have the advantage of hindsight. So, today I’m going to share those thoughts in this post.

From the messages, and judging from my own experience, Stage 3 Disillusionment is the stage which presents the biggest issue. While Atchley calls it Disillusionment, I think a more appropriate description is the ‘Grief Stage’. I say this because we enter Stage 3 actually missing work, grieving for what we had, our purpose, our identity. Most of your messages mention feeling alone. I believe part of the aloneness comes from our society’s penchant for saying, “Buck up, get over it and move on.” Most of the articles I read on grief refer to the loss of a spouse or significant other. And, every author points to people telling them exactly what I just said. Get over it. It’s in the past. Move on. Most people who give this advice are probably thinking they are being helpful. But, for the person going through the grief process, it can feel belittling of their situation.

When I first retired, I talked to an already retired acquaintance about the trouble I was having transitioning. Thinking I would find a kind ear and perhaps some insight, much to my surprise, she wanted nothing to do with my questions, insisting she had no idea what on earth I was talking about. And, according to Atchley, she may not have had any adjustment issues. However, recognizing and supporting others who do experience problems is a needed change in our societal attitude. Until then, it’s important to give ourselves permission to grieve the loss of our work purpose and identity.

Grief, whether it is because of a death, a divorce, an empty nest or retirement or some other life event, plays a very important role in our very ability to re-purpose our lives. Each of us also has a different grief meter. As Atchley pointed out in his study, disillusionment may only last a few days for some; a few years for others. Or, like my acquaintance asserted, it may not occur at all. By grieving we also honor that part of our life. As I pointed out in my post ‘Glory Days’, we don’t want to live in the past, but reminiscing, enjoying memories and highlights of our successes is a way of honoring who we are. We would not be where we are today without our past. Ignoring or diminishing what we accomplished diminishes who we are today.

Atchley referred to Stage 4 as Reorientation. I like to call it Re-Purposing as we seek a new purpose in life to create a rewarding retirement. Stage 3 and 4 overlapped for me so I think it’s important to recognize the lines are blurred. We don’t live in a world where life situations are either black or white; most of the time, there is a lot of grey area. So, you may find new purpose while still grieving your old way of life. That’s O.K. While we may all be on the same journey, we will most often take different paths. Whatever your path, know that it is normal, the journey takes time and you are not alone.

Glory Days

What is it about the past that it takes on a rosy glow for many people as they age? Was our past really so much better than our present? In my sixth decade I notice more and more people of my generation and older looking back longingly at the good old days. As I listen to those wistfully reliving their youth, it was a simpler time where everyone respected everyone else, crime was nearly non-existent, jobs plentiful in a soaring economy and the good times just went on and on. Their remembrance of their past is often contrasted to a perceived gloomy future riding on the heels of a problem ridden today.

Decades ago when my mother was close to my age, she remarked about an old friend wanting to get together to reminisce about the good old days. At the time I thought my mother was being a bit of a cynic as she went on to say she had no desire to relive the past. She didn’t believe it was all that wonderful. Today, I tend to agree with her but in a things are better today than they were in my youth sort of way. But, if people from my mother’s generation glorified the past as much as people from my generation, is this a phenomenon which occurs with each generation as we age or is each decade really better than the previous or each 100 years really better than the previous 100? I doubt 1914 was better than 2014. I doubt 1940 when my mother was a young woman was really better than 1980 when her friend wanted to revisit the good old days. Each moment in time is fraught with its problems and its excellence. So, why do we look back in fondness and yearning for the good old days?

As a baby boomer, when I look back to my youth, I remember social turmoil as minorities and women fought for their civil rights. I remember limited opportunities for women. When I entered the management training program at a local bank, I was told to my face both at work and by men and women in the community how I was taking a job away from a man with a family. Gee, I guess my husband and two kids aren’t a family. See, I can be cynical. I remember horrible diseases where there was no vaccine to spare child and parent from the specter of death or disability, including the dreaded polio, which I had at age 3 and managed to escape relatively unscathed. I remember a communist under every bed as we kids lined the school hallways scrunched down on the floor as air raid sirens blared a practice run in the shadow of the atom bomb threat. By the time I was 10 we didn’t line the hallways, but got under our desks as if that would save us. I remember seeing violence on the news every night as leaders were assassinated, Soviet tanks crossed borders, the civil rights movement erupted with bombs, tear gas and murders and the Vietnam War grew into a colossal loss of life. I remember an economy which unraveled as gas prices soared sending us into a long recession coupled with runaway inflation. Were there good times? Yes! There were great times. But, the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s were also not as rosy as some portray those decades. So, why are some boomers putting on the rose-tinted glasses as they view this particular past?

I think Bruce Springsteen hit it out of the park with his song, “Glory Days”. All of the people he sang about longed for the days of their youth when they were riding high or life lay before them fresh, new and awaiting. Late teens and twenties seem to be the age most people gravitate to with their stories of good old days. For some, it may be early thirties. I’m one of those early thirty types. When I think about the past, there’s a time in my life starting at exactly age thirty where the entire world seemed to open up for me. It actually evokes a very pleasant feeling all warm and fuzzy, eternally rosy. When I think of this time, I get that warm feeling as my mind fills with wonderful memories. It was an exhilarating time of high success as my career took off. I jetted all over the country for my job. We made money, money and more money. Our kids took piano and ballet and played softball and basketball. They went to the best schools in the area. We went out to dinner at tony restaurants, were invited to parties where celebrities were also on the guest list, took vacations and belonged to local museums and art centers. We bought beautiful homes, cars and furniture and were what was known at the time as yuppies. The dreams and possibilities for our future seemed endless as we rode this huge euphoric wave of personal and material success. The pictures in my mind and the warm feeling filter out how stressed I was as I scrambled to meet the obligations of career, spouse, family and community with little or no time for me. In the end, it was a time when I went from soaring heights to nearly going down in flames. However, my filtered view of that time in my life doesn’t appear to be all that unusual.

As we age, it seems to me we have experienced plenty, enough to make us feel as if our moment in the sun is over. No more euphoric waves to ride. It’s akin to that mid-life moment when we say to ourselves, “Is this all there is?” But, as it is in that moment, so it is in this moment. The biggest challenge in retirement is finding activities which challenge us mentally, emotionally and physically. We can choose to be a bit jaded, cynical, worried about today and the future and seek comfort in our glory days. Or, we can choose to seek fresh, new horizons. It is up to us to fire the engines one more time and search for a reason to get out of bed every day, greeting the sun with excitement for the possibilities of today. While it is fun to reminisce and it is essential for passing on family history to the next generation or getting to know a new acquaintance, recognize the past for what it is, the past, with all the good memories, flaws and imperfections. Instead of reimagining the past, use your imagination and energy to create a glory day today.