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.

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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.

SHOULD YOU JOIN AARP?

During the last year I’ve read a few articles posted on other retirement blogs and in magazines asking this same question. Should you join AARP? All of the articles, like most information about retirement, focus on the financial aspects of becoming an AARP member. In other words, are the discounts on travel accommodations, insurance and restaurants worth the $16 per year membership fee? Every article ends up saying for the most part you can get the discounts anyway just by virtue of your age as many companies give senior discounts starting at age 55 or 60. So, instead of flashing your AARP membership card, simply flash your driver license with birth date and you receive the discount without spending an extra $16 a year to get it. If you’re looking at AARP strictly for discounts, this is probably true, unless you’re in the 50-54 age range, in which case, joining AARP at 50 may get you some discounts you won’t otherwise receive. But, I didn’t join AARP for the discounts. And, I think there’s a financial aspect being overlooked in these articles.

When Ethel Percy Andrus founded the American Association of Retired Persons in 1958, I was only knee-high to a grasshopper just learning how to spell in Miss Niles’ first grade class. Spelling retirement wasn’t even on my radar much less what it meant. For Andrus, however, it meant taking up the cause of aging persons seeking dignity, quality of life and, yes, health insurance. In 1958 she saw a need to expand the organization she founded in 1947 for retired teachers seeking health insurance. At a time when health insurance was pretty much non-existent for older Americans, Andrus approached many insurance companies looking for one that would insure retirees. This, folks, is what AARP started out as and still is, a lobbying organization for older people. Retirees. Seniors. Persons of independent means. Whatever you want to call us. AARP is a voice for us in Washington and even some other parts of the world. Spending $23 million a year on lobbying efforts and with nearly 40 million members, it is one of the largest lobbying organizations in the U.S. AARP makes the aging in America a powerhouse to be reckoned with and listened to. Having graduated from Miss Niles’ first grade class to baby boomer rabble-rouser, making my voice heard in Washington, even as I age, is the main reason I shell out $16 per year to be a member of what is now officially only known by the acronym AARP.

Yes, I like the discounts I use from time to time. I like the magazine and newsletter I receive. And, since I’m also on the information highway, I like receiving financial, health and lifestyle newsletters in my email inbox. I particularly like their advice on movies made for adults (get your mind out of the gutter…they’re referring to intelligence and maturity). How else will I know which flicks are trending now and worth watching? Yes, I could trawl the web, Google this or that, and probably come up with the same info. But, being a little on the lazy side, I’m willing to shell out the $16 for someone else to do it for me. And, included in this bargain is a membership for your spouse, no extra charge. But, the biggie…a gargantuan lobby.

While some believe AARP’s agenda is too liberal with its focus on hunger, income, housing, health insurance and isolation, the organization certainly keeps the needs of older people in the minds of our politicians. And, with the money and sheer numbers, it’s enough to make any aspiring politico think about what could happen in the voting booth. With a family history of longevity on my side, I figure I have about 30 years left on this planet. And, being part of a generation who is used to having its way in the world, I have no intention of leaving my voice behind with the workplace. So, when I read about the financial ups and downs of paying out $16 a year, that’s $1.34 a month rounded up, I think there’s a financial component not being addressed. Just think if there was no AARP. Do you think our friends in Washington would hesitate to rip Social Security and Medicare to shreds? I don’t know the answer to that. But, I do know I’m not willing to chance it, not for $16 a year.

For information on joining AARP, go to AARP.org.

STAGES OF RETIREMENT II

Last Sunday, as Martin and I sat in the kitchen waiting for dinner to finish baking in the oven, we sipped a glass of wine and talked about our latest projects. Suddenly, I realized the day before was our one year retirement anniversary. A year!?! Gone already! And, we didn’t even celebrate having made it a full year. A year of ups and downs as we adjusted our way to a fulfilling retirement routine. Mind you, we’re not there yet. But, we managed to make it into Stage 4, the Reorientation Stage. With six retirement stages, we’re more than halfway there. Yipeeee!

Last week I wrote about Disillusionment, Stage 3. After meeting someone who was obviously disillusioned with retirement and having been there myself, I felt the need to forewarn as many people as were willing to read my post. But what happens before and after disillusionment? Well, in the past year we’ve experienced all the before.

Pre-retirement, Stage 1, was filled with euphoria. We planned what we would do in retirement. Martin gave his notice at work. His employer threw a catered retirement bash. Bucket lists were made. Lists included all kinds of things we always wanted to do but never seemed to have the time for. Travel made it onto the list, an activity we never liked much before, so whatever made us think we’d like it in retirement, is anybody’s guess. After a work life of travel, travel, travel for both of us, we decided travel was, in reality, one of the last things we wanted to do. Little did we know, this was just the beginning of adjusting our retirement goals and outlook.

Initially, Stage 2, Retirement, aka the “honeymoon” took on a feeling of perpetual vacation as we motorcycled, hiked, gardened, bicycled, engaged in some artwork, sat on the screened porch reading in the warmth of sunny fall days. Winter arrived to a long trip to visit family for Christmas, a luxury we never enjoyed while we worked. That was followed by lazy mornings sipping lattes by the fire and staying in my jammies ’til noon as I took on the new hobby of knitting.

But disillusionment was seeping in. Spring arrived to six months of perpetual vacation giving way to a feeling of restlessness. A feeling of missing the challenge, the mind stimulation, the purpose afforded by the everyday grind of work. What!?! Miss the rat race? No. Not possible. And worse of all, we were getting on each others very last nerve. Our marriage, made in heaven, was being tested at every turn or so it seemed. We arrived at Stage 3, Disillusionment, not even realizing what it was or that it happened to most retirees. But, we did know, something had to give. So, once again, I trawled the web for answers. I’m here to tell you, there’s not a lot out there, not even on the so-called “senior” (I hate that word but that’s what we have) websites. However, in one Google search, I stumbled across Robert Atchley’s research into the stages or phases of retirement and voilà!, a lot of things fell into place. For starters, we made a conscious decision to aim for Stage 4, Reorientation.

To me, Reorientation, is a couple of things. First of all, you put on your designer cap and pull up all the creative muscle you can find on the right side of your brain and start designing a retirement lifestyle to put you smack in the middle of your happy place. Secondly, kiss the rat race goodbye. Let it go. Sever old ties, if necessary. You still need people in retirement. You still need human connection. You still need to network. But, staying in touch with the old gang still tethered to the work place can keep you tethered there as well. Keep the real friends. Let the rest go. And, give them permission to let you go.

Retirement is a reinvention of who you are. For us, we are right brain people who lived our work lives in a left brain world. We wanted to explore different art mediums in retirement but held ourselves back. You know, the old fear of failure specter. What if I can’t draw? Can’t paint? Can’t carve? What if I produce ugly stuff nobody likes? Scary as the thought was, when we decided to seriously enter the world of artists, that is the precise moment we started our reorientation. After several enjoyable weeks of watercolor class, yesterday I took my first drawing class. Don’t even think it…I already know I put the cart before the horse. Anyway, my drawing instructor told our class, “After today’s class, if anyone asks you what you do, you tell them, you’re an artist”. He went on to tell us how he wanted us to start thinking of ourselves as artists. Think it, feel it, be it. (I really like this guy.) Besides classes, we’ve become involved in a couple of artists’ guilds, Martin helping out with the fall arts festival, both of us attending openings (wine, cheese and art…doesn’t get any better than that) and me joining a board of directors. We’ve made new friends. Artist friends who encourage and support. We feel like we’re well on our way to creating a rewarding Retirement Routine, Stage 5.

Once we are comfortably settled into our new retirement lifestyle, we intend for it to last a long, long time. What about Stage 6? you ask. Stage 6 is the Termination of Retirement. That’s when you’re so old and frail, you can’t do any of this fun stuff anymore. You’re focused on meeting your maker. As I said, that’s a long way off. Until then, I’m an artist.

PLAIN VANILLA

Maybe it was our inability to find deli grade authentic Italian hot sausage in Upstate South Carolina. Maybe it was my constant whining about most chardonnay no longer being aged in oak barrels. Whatever the cause, lately everything seemed to be plain vanilla.

Instead of Italian sausage having real herbs and spices like fennel seed and hot pepper flakes, some ground up hot chili mixture was thrown in for color and heat by the butcher. “People don’t like all that fennel seed in their sausage”, he told me. A local vintner chimed in, telling me chardonnay was no longer aged in oak barrels because “the public” didn’t like the “oaky taste” of tannins. So stainless steel vats were now used to age the wine, not only leaving it devoid of the rich taste I enjoyed on a hot summer day but also the deep butterscotch yellow color, a tell tale sign of an oak barrel aging. And to be sure, as a real estate broker I used to tell people, plain vanilla sells. Most buyers wanted a shade of beige on the cabinets, walls, tiles and carpet. I even worked for one company where the president insisted his employees wear navy, gray, black and white. And vehicles? White seems to be the most popular color for SUVs, trucks and vans these days. We live, for the most part, in a plain vanilla world.

Retirement, though, offers up yet another opportunity. An opportunity to break from the collective thinking I, too, have engaged in. After decades of living in a plain vanilla world, I’ve been slowly rebelling. And, my life’s partner has joined me on this quest to bring back not only color but spirit to our lives. After all, we were married in a hay field. So, our renegade spirit has been there all along, just buried beneath the trappings of corporate America. With that cloak lifted, retirement affords a new freedom.

So, recently, when the mail box needed painting, Martin asked if I’d be O.K. with his painting it something different. Go for it, said I. Letting his spirit run wild, he proceeded to produce a sparkly silver and blue concoction with little copper faces and shimmering car striping for accent. Even the birds are wowed by this new look, no longer perching atop to desecrate our box with their poop. Now, sitting at the end of our driveway is a message to birds and the world at large…Plain vanilla doesn’t live here anymore.

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COMFORT ZONE

Earlier this week there was mention on the news of a man who won a $30 million lottery. Of course, with his newfound wealth, he left his job at a concrete company. That’s probably the first thing we’d all do. We’d also probably go off on a travel log or buy the dream home or a Ferrari or do all three and more. Well, within a month, this accidental retiree asked for his everyday grind of an old job back. For the millions who play the lottery dreaming of winning, this guy must seem like he’s crazy. He told his former co-workers he’s bored. Bored? Are you nuts? With $30 million to spend on whatever, unless this guy has zero imagination, it’s hard for me to believe he’s bored. More likely, he’s moved outside his comfort zone.

We all have a comfort zone where we feel safe and secure psychologically. Stepping outside your perceived zone is challenging, upsetting or even exhilarating, depending on your personality. That’s what happens when you retire. Like the lottery winner, you leave behind the known, which even if your job is just a daily boring grind, offers a certain security because it’s a given. There’s security in the routine. There’s security in your work community. Even if you work with someone you don’t like, there’s security in knowing they will be their engaging selves every day, day after day. Even if your routine at work is upset, you still have a sense of security in the safety net of your work community and place.

During my 40 years in the workplace, I stepped outside my comfort zone on many, many occasions. I even worked at one company where you were deliberately placed in positions, which took you outside your zone, if only for a while. If you were an accountant, get ready to work sales. If you were in sales, get ready to work in operations. Our CEO thought it was beneficial for people to stretch their limits. He believed if you did something new for a certain amount of time, it would eventually become routine. Old hat. Part of your comfort zone. Exposure to new ideas eventually made you a more resilient person.

So, at that time in my life I was stretched plenty just by doing my job. I went from working in an office 8 hours a day to flying into a new (to me) city just about every week for a year. This was a time when there was no GPS, no cell phones. At most airports you still walked across the tarmac to board your plane! Once you reached your destination, you went to a car rental company, standing in line for your turn to rent a car. When your turn came, a customer service rep ran (and I mean ran as in mouth) through your choice of rental cars, pushing a couple of forms in front of you to sign, a map of the city ripped from a thick pad of maps on the counter (remember, no GPS) finally handing you a set of keys. In the rental lot you joined other souls wandering around looking for their rented vehicle. Once you located your car, if you were lucky, you found your way out of the lot and onto the highway where your ability to read a map and drive at the same time was tested. That was before carrying out my job in each unknown city with people I’d never met before. After the first year of doing this, my CEO was right, it became routine. My comfort zone expanded. I also learned how taking some risk, trying something new, shaking things up was actually an opportunity to grow. And I liked playing that game.

Over the next twenty years 77 million baby boomers will step out of their comfort zones and into retirement just as Martin and I did. Most won’t have the $30 million the lottery winner turned accidental retiree has. Unlike him, I’ve learned I like the game of shaking things up. Finally getting acclimated to neither of us going to a workplace, we’re creating a new comfort zone for our lives. It’s been more stressful than we anticipated. In many ways, it’s also been more rewarding than we anticipated. One of the rewards is we can shake things up when we want by trying something new on our terms. Choices. That’s what the lottery winner has in common with us. Choices. With a $30 million dollar lottery win, he can pretty much choose to do whatever he wants. But, his first choice is to step outside his comfort zone. Don’t go back to your old job, fella. Take a chance. Take some risk. Shake things up. Buy a Ferrari, shop for the dream home and get yourself a great travel agent.