Not In A Million Years

Still swinging in the wind

Five years ago I started this blog by posting a photo of myself on the bridge spanning Grandfather Mountain near Blowing Rock, NC. Taken a year earlier the photo has always symbolized my trepidation about retiring. Today, it symbolizes my apprehension about the future. I remind myself daily that today is all I really have, all any of us have. The past is in the past. The future has yet to unfold itself. Enjoy today.

Out of deference to Martin I have not written about this part of our journey, but the time has come where his condition is advanced. I don’t think there is anyone in our circle who isn’t aware of it. It is also time for me to start writing about it. My experience might help others. It is the reason I have not finished my retirement book. It’s hard to produce an Ernie J. Zelinski type How To Retire Happy, Wild and Free when you have a huge unanticipated cloud hanging over your retirement.

As an unexpected caregiver, I have created a good support network, including a therapist I see once or twice a month. During one session I sat with her silent in my thoughts. She said, “I’ll bet you never saw this coming.”

“Not in a million years.”

She continued. “I’ll bet there are some days you could just go outside and scream.”

I nodded. Not just some days — every day. And once in a while I go to the top of the hill on my six acres and do just that. As a caregiver much of my time goes to doing everything and anything requiring reading, writing or verbal skills. There are my doctor’s appointments and Martin’s, my emails and his, snail mail, financials, repairs around the house, the art studio we decided to build, shopping, pumping gas, reading recipes so he can cook, programming the thermostat and anything else requiring the understanding of words. Some days the pressure is enormous.

Like a coyote stealthily slipping through the night woods in search of prey, it started in 2010 with personality changes in Martin. They were attributed to stress and depression. Averse to taking medications, he refused antidepressants. It took years of intermittent doctor’s visits, struggle with Martin’s denial of the facts, cognitive tests, blood work, CT scans, MRI’s, and finally one very good neurologist to reach a diagnosis of Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA). That was two years after an initial diagnosis of Aphasia, which is usually caused by a stroke or brain injury, and of which there are several versions of the disease.

Aphasia Poster

What is Aphasia? It is not Alzheimer’s. It is a loss of language skills — reading, writing, verbal abilities and comprehension of the spoken word. According to the Aphasia Association most people with PPA retain the ability to take care of themselves and pursue hobbies. However, they confront a 60% chance of the brain deteriorating into Alzheimer’s. That said, Alzheimer’s drugs do not help with Aphasia. Because so few people have this condition — it’s estimated only 200,000 have the PPA version — there are no drugs and most physicians know little about it. Martin’s neurologist only sees one or two cases a year. Obviously, this is one of the reasons a solid diagnosis took so long.

Nothing makes a person stop and realize what is important and what isn’t like a diagnosis of a serious disease. Our priorities definitely changed. Everything came into focus.

Oh, I threw my pity party, a long one in fact, of about a year. My negativity almost swallowed me up. It took time to realize this is not about old age. I had polio at age 3, lost my oldest brother in a car accident when I was 7, followed by the loss of cousins from brain tumor, leukemia and other tragedies similar to my brother’s death. Adversity can happen at any age. One day I asked, “Why us?” A voice inside answered, “Why not us?”

Bicycling is good for the brain

Martin still bicycles a hundred miles a week. He creates all kinds of art. He cooks, cleans and works on the property. I have to leave the washer and dryer on the same cycle. If I move the dial, he doesn’t recognize it has been moved. I have to watch for things like his microwaving fresh carrots in the plastic bag they came in from the store. When he sets the table, I may find a spoon and knife instead of a fork and knife. It could be worse. It may get worse. But we have today and today is good.

Along with prioritizing comes a focus on what works best for both of us. As a caregiver I often put Martin’s needs first. When his neurologist asked him what stressed him most, he answered without hesitation, “Other people.” As an extravert, not having people to the house as often has been difficult. I do most of my socializing outside our home.

Martin’s bird among coneflowers

While it’s important for Martin to remain engaged, his neurologist recommends limiting any situations that may cause him anxiety. Speaking of other people, some understand that; some do not. Since all looks normal with Martin’s appearance, there are those who do not understand the unseen changes in his brain have rendered him a different person than he used to be. Their presence alone can cause stress as he struggles to converse with them and comprehend what they are saying. We learned to distance ourselves from those who are not understanding about our new normal.

As my time is taken up more and more with caregiving, I have grappled with discontinuing this blog. I’ve decided to post once a month instead of foregoing it altogether. It’s important to me and I feel like it is to my readers. I have started rewriting my retirement book to speak truth about my journey. No, retirement is not always rosy. But, neither is life at any juncture. This is just one more change, one more challenge, one more adjustment. Even in the face of adversity, even with an event I would never see coming in a million years, there is still much to be celebrated. Enjoy your day, no matter what it brings!

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Are You A Caregiver?

To Do List

To Do List

Some of my best ideas for posts come from friends, family and, of course, my readers. A friend, who is in the process of finding nursing home care for her 92 year old mother, suggested I write this post on caregiving. With reader comments about their caregiving responsibilities, it’s a subject I’ve looked at before. Admittedly I avoided it because caregiving is such a broad subject with many layers. Where to begin? I decided to begin with the caregiver, a many layered and varied subject in and of itself with as many scenarios as there are people.

According to caregiving.org in 2015 there were nearly 44 million unpaid caregivers in the United States alone. With 10,000 baby boomers arriving daily at their 65th birthday, that number is expected to rise. Boomers are not only giving care, they are needing care. However, caregiving.org reported 1 in 10 caregivers were over the age of 75. Forty percent of caregivers report the care as being a high burden for them and higher hour (44.5 hours a week) caregivers are stressed. The physical burden, especially at an older age, appears to carry a larger emotional burden as the hours of caregiving amount to that of a full-time job with little or no time for a personal break.

As a wife and mother I’ve been in the role of caregiving in the past, one that comes as a natural part of raising children or caring for a spouse recuperating after an accident. Most of the caregivers are, in fact, women. I can imagine that as we age and find ourselves caring for someone, we may not view ourselves as caregivers. It’s what we have always done for family or sometimes, even friends.

I’ve known many people, like my friend, who are either caregiving directly or are responsible for arranging caregiving. It is a complicated subject. There is no one size fits all. Some people are caregiving for an aging spouse or other relative or friend, while others are continuing the care of handicapped adult children and others still are taking on the upbringing of grandchildren. Some retired not expecting to be in this role.

Earlier in the summer I had the pleasure of having one of my grandchildren visit for two weeks as he accompanied Martin and me on a trip to Michigan to visit our oldest daughter and her family. An active, engaging seven-year-old caring for him takes a lot of energy. There are the usual undertakings like making sure he is eating his vegetables or getting a bath or off to bed at a prescribed time to the unfamiliar activities of assisting with the technical gadgets this generation carries with them as a matter of course. Then there was keeping track of him, keeping him occupied, making sure he is spending his time well. I found myself more tired in the evening. What was a snap when I was thirty takes more effort for the aging me. And, I wasn’t having to be concerned with school, financial responsibilities or healthcare.

This reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago when I was interviewing the local Alzheimer’s Association as a volunteer for United Way. The woman representing the organization remarked about how stressful the role of caregiving is for the caregiver, impacting their quality of life and even their health as they care for their loved one. Support and a respite, if only for a few hours a week is important. Depending on the extent and duration of the caregiving, it can be stressful, especially as we age.

According to the Center for Disease Control more than half of caregivers said they do not have time to take care of themselves and almost half said they are too tired to do so. It’s easy for me to say because I’m not in that role, at least not yet, but this brings to mind one of my favorite sayings, “Put your own oxygen mask on first. Otherwise, you may not be able to help the other passengers.” If you are in the role of being a caregiver, it is important to take care of yourself so you are able to continue to care for your loved one. Otherwise, what will happen to them if you leave this world first?

That means eating well balanced meals, finding time for some exercise, getting your immunizations, health check-ups and taking any medications you may need. A support group where you can share your story and network for needed services can provide some relief for the stress. Is that easier said than done?

As I mentioned above, caregiving and receiving care is expected to take on more significance as baby boomers age. This generation’s huge numbers is expected to be an opportunity for companies in the healthcare and senior care industries. Most of this generation wants to age in place using in-home services. Realistically, they may not have the financial capacity to go to assisted living facilities.  Aging in place may not be by choice but necessity.

As also mentioned, some of my readers have written comments about caregiving responsibilities. I’d like to hear from any and all of you who are engaged in caregiving be it a spouse, parent, adult child, grandchildren or friend. Caregiving runs the gamut of taking someone grocery shopping, to the doctor or doing some housework to being responsible for attending to all physical and personal needs, finances and even some medical or nursing duties.

For starters:  What are your responsibilities?  How does your caregiving impact your hours for taking care of yourself?  Do you have time for activities you enjoy like a hobby? Do you feel burdened by caregiving responsibilities or is it something you enjoy doing? Why is that? Did you expect to be in this role when you retired or did it catch you by surprise? If you didn’t expect to be a caregiver, how did it change your retirement? Do you consider yourself in good health? Has being a caregiver caused your own health to decline? Do you feel more stressed or is caregiving just one more hat to wear? And whatever else you want to comment about.

Let us know what it’s like on the front lines of caregiving. Tell me your story.  I’ll post your comments and pass your observations on to others in a future post. Your story may help someone else.

ARE YOU HAPPY?

Are you happy? There seems to be a lot of attention given to this question. There are blogs, books and podcasts on the subject. Writer Gretchen Rubin (http://www.gretchenrubin.com) has made a multi-million dollar career out of how to get to your happy place. There are research projects on why some of us are happy and other people are not so happy. In keeping with the current pursuit of the question of happiness, the “Are you happy?” question was asked of us during the Dynamic Aging course I took recently. We were directed to the University of Pennsylvania’s website on Authentic Happiness (https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu) to take some interesting, fun and mostly short tests to reveal our happiness quotient. The results also included where we rank with others who took the test and happen to live in our particular zip code.

I’ve never thought of myself as being happier than other people. But, my results revealed how I was happier than most, giving way to much thought on my part as to whether this was really true or not. One of the tests, which points to the reason for my specific level of happiness, is the test of optimism, where I rank exceptionally high when it comes to looking ahead to a positive outcome during a negative event. Since some of my most dismal life failures have been the catalyst for my most outstanding successes, hope springs eternal in my mind and spirit. Think Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone With The Wind… “After all, tomorrow is another day” or Little Orphan Annie belting out “tomorrow, tomorrow”. One of my favorite sayings is, “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings” and for good reason. So, an apparent must-have for a happy life is optimism.

If you want to stay optimistic, try surrounding yourself with like minded people. Many years ago, I made the decision that just because someone knocks on my life’s door, it doesn’t mean I have to open it up and let them in. I steer clear of the toxic influences. And, periodically, I have to clean house. If I can’t completely eliminate the influence, then I at least make every effort to minimize time spent with that person. You know the type of person I’m talking about. The one who never smiles let alone laughs. Any sense of humor eludes them because they are too busy focusing on all the negatives in life, including events around the world, over which they have little or no control. While I want to be aware of what’s going on in the world, a steady diet of murder and mayhem can have an adverse effect on attitude and outlook. The spring of eternal hope may be put in jeopardy of drying up. On the other hand, reading an upbeat blog like self-described ‘happiness bully’ Gretchen Rubin’s may actually help you to arrive at your happy place.

All of us experience negative, sad or unpleasant moments in life such as the recent passing of my father-in-law. Losing a loved one can definitely be a depressing experience. However, if you are a generally happy person, going through an unpleasant or negative experience, doesn’t make you a generally unhappy person. It makes you a person who is feeling down about a particular event not your entire life. Although it was sad to see my father-in-law pass, I still have all the other wonderful people in my life, who make me smile and enjoy life. In this example, they provide comfort and solace as do certain activities like working in my garden or writing for this blog. During a tough moment in time, counting your blessings or keeping a gratitude journal can act as a reminder that your glass is really half full instead of half empty. Focusing on all the good things in your life is a great way to prevent yourself from becoming the old sourpuss described in the previous paragraph.

So, the three things I do to promote my happiness are:

Remain optimistic even during adversity;
Surround myself with positive people, information and activities; and
Count my blessings.

While you have to set up an account to access the testing on the University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness site and the results are retained for the University’s research, it is well worth it to obtain some insight about your happiness and a few other things like character strengths and optimism. I would love to hear from you, even if you don’t take the tests, about whether you think you are happy or not and/or what you think keeps you in your happy place. Let me know. Are you happy?

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.

A STRESS-FREE RETIREMENT

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

During the last two years I’ve met several people who retired earlier than planned due to the stress of being in the workplace. Stress happens when people can’t take one more thing. As the pressures pile up, they feel a lack of control. Overwhelmed. Many, many years ago I read how the administrative assistant of the company CEO is under more stress than the CEO because the assistant has less control over their day. The CEO is the person at the helm, calling all the shots, and, therefore, feeling more in control. After all, the CEO gets to tell their assistant and everyone else in the company what to do, when to do it, how to do it. And, the employees aren’t necessarily told why they are doing it…just get the job done! Their perception is a lack of control while the CEO enjoys the perception of control. The idea of leaving all of that pressure behind as you enter retirement is, indeed, enticing. It’s also just another perception as the pressures of work are replaced by new pressures in retirement.

What would we have to stress over in retirement? Well, to the surprise of even those of us who believe we have enough money, the number one stressor is money. That constant feeling of insecurity lurking just below the surface of everything we do, as we check our portfolio, watch the ups and downs of the stock market and ponder our choice of financial advisor, is stress. A close second to money is our health. Some of us retired due to health issues, some of which may be the result of stress in the workplace. My doctor has said most illnesses are the result of inflammation in the body brought on by stress. Or you may have retired in excellent health only to be diagnosed with an unexpected condition such as diabetes, heart disease or even cancer. Then, there are other people. Other people, it seems, is the number one stressor for the population overall and yes, other people are still a stressor in retirement. Heck, you may even find yourself stressed out by your spouse. After spending a lifetime apart during most days, to suddenly be together 24/7 may be overwhelming at first. But, remember, you are ‘other people’ to someone, which means you are someone else’s stressor. And, then, there’s the big question of, “What am I going to do that has meaning and purpose for the rest of my life?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

PRACTICE NOT DOING

Another New Year and I deliberately chose not to make any resolutions. In past years I almost always had a resolution or two. Or three. Or four. Like most people, 80% by the latest figure I read somewhere in my reading travels last week, I didn’t keep my resolutions. Well, maybe once in a great while. So, this year is the year of no resolutions. Instead, I’m choosing a different path.

The thing I wanted most in 2013 was for the transition into my retirement journey to be made. Understanding there is a period of adjustment to a new life style didn’t make the journey any easier. There seemed to be constant stress over money and health issues and Martin and I being together 24/7. The budget I so trustingly established in December 2012 went to Hell in a hand basket somewhere around mid-year. I was in a constant health watch mode as everything from multiple yellow-jacket stings to a mystery allergic reaction (stress?) sent me to the doctor’s office again and again. Happily, somewhere around the one year mark of our retirement anniversary I reached the moment in time where I stopped stressing and started enjoying. Miraculously, retirement was suddenly fulfilling, stress free. This transition didn’t happen by accident. It took a certain mindfulness to achieve.

Traditionally, October is the month when I do a quick and dirty assessment of our income taxes. If there are any surprises, knowing about it gives me a couple of months to make adjustments before the wolf…er…IRS is at the door. It also affords the opportunity to sort through files and be sure I have receipts to date. Yes, I’m organized and its effortless really because I’ve been doing it for decades. One shortfall in my organizational plan is a college type notebook of blank paper I keep on my desk. This is where I write lists, reminder notes and squirrel away slips of paper with more notations, pictures and whatever else I don’t have a file for. This year as I sorted through the minutia I pulled out a paper with a saying I’d come across much earlier in the year. Apparently, it didn’t resonate enough at the time for me to try to internalize its meaning. But, that sunny day in October it hit me with a punch and I mean a whopper of a punch.

I read a lot. Somewhere, I read this quote by Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu and jotted it down. “Practice not doing and everything will fall into place.” What does that mean? Am I supposed to turn lazy and do nothing? And, take my taxes for instance, nothing will fall into place if I’m not organized and on it. Not only did I read the quote again and again, turning it over in my mind for meaning, I did what any internet surfer would do, I Googled it. After reading about the life of Lao Tzu, who lived about 600 years before Christ, I came across an analysis of some of his quotes. This one means life has a natural flow to it, including the ever constant and dependable change. In fact, change is inevitable. Yet, as human beings we like our comfort zone so another constant is our inevitable resistance to change. How many of us have worked someplace where a change occurs and, without fail, someone will say, “But we’ve always done it that way.” Wailing, complaining and resisting all the way, they make life miserable for themselves and everyone around them perhaps even to the point where they are fired. Tzu’s philosophy says resistance to life’s changes and the natural ebb and flow only creates strife, pain and sorrow. Instead, accept what is. Let reality be reality. Allow the natural order of things to move forward without resistance. Acceptance creates a less stressful life. Hmmm…Was finding a fulfilling retirement simply a matter of acceptance of what is?

I began asking myself, on a scale of one to ten, how bad is this issue or that issue? Is there anything you don’t have right now this minute such as housing, food, clothing, even good health? Is there anything in your life right now this minute which is truly a crisis, a problem? Mentally, I assigned a number to each issue that arose. If the issue was put in perspective, well, then, it didn’t seem so bad. Yes, being stung by 8 yellow jackets and having your hand swell to the size of a small cantaloupe while a red streak courses its way up your arm is scary but it isn’t cancer. With my changed view, stress just seemed to evaporate as I put the stuff life dishes out in perspective, accepting it. What is, is.

Resolutions? No. I decided to just keep following Tzu’s philosophy. Resolutions are unnecessary. No sweat here. Instead of being a week into the New Year and already casting my resolutions aside, feeling guilty at letting myself down, in 2014 I’m just continuing to practice not doing. Heck, I might not even look at the tax file next October.

REGRETS ONLY

When sending out an invitation to a party, it’s common practice to add “RSVP Regrets Only”. That, of course, means only let the host know if you’re not attending. Otherwise, you’re expected to be at the party. There is no RSVP for the party of life. We show up and it’s expected we’ll be present and accounted for. But, as I’ve read again and again, all too often we end our life in the ‘Regrets Only’ column, failing to realize our own dreams, attend our own party. In her article for AARP.org, ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’, Bronnie Ware places failure to live a life true to ones self at the top of the list. Current wisdom for dying with no regrets advises us to make a bucket list, a list of all we dream of doing while here on earth. Hollywood even made a movie about it. So, young and old alike are making lists of all the things they want to do before they die.

Looking at some of the lists posted online, most, if not all, contain dozens and sometimes hundreds of items. Places the writer wants to visit, people the writer wants to meet and things, like skydiving or swimming with dolphins, which the writer wants to do. Thinking this was a great exercise for figuring out how I wanted to occupy my retirement, I made my list. It’s a short list. But, it’s the result of really, and I mean really, looking inside my mind, my spirit and asking what is it which Kathy dreams of doing? And, I found, more importantly, what was it, which I dreamed of long, long ago?

Looking deep inside myself, I admitted, in all honesty, I was not so keen on traveling the globe and scratched that wish off my list. I’ve never yearned for cruises or trips to other countries. My true self likes to be home most of the time, spiked with short jaunts here and there. I’ve also met and socialized with some famous people. They’re really no different than you and me, just famous. I have no desire to skydive or swim with dolphins or bungee jump. It’s enough thrill for me to hop on the back of a motorcycle and ride the tail of the dragon at Deal’s Gap until my own tail needs a hot tub. In short, I began to realize I had spent my life in such a way as to have few unfulfilled dreams. But, there were some.

As I searched inside for the girl I’d been before life got in the way, I recognized a long held regret. Forty-five years ago (yes, that’s a lot of life) I was in journalism classes at my high school. I was copy editor for the Manasquan Blue and Gray. I interviewed a now very famous, but at the time a very young and upcoming, alumnus of my high school, my first famous person, Jack Nicholson. And, after participating in a tri-state tournament, I received an award from Temple University for outstanding high school journalism. I wanted to be a writer. Instead, because I needed a paycheck, I ended up working in banking and real estate, never feeling in sync with those professions even though I excelled in both. Fast forward to today and with the power of the internet, I’m a writer. Some might say, you’re too old or you can’t go home again or people will think you’re crazy at your age, blah, blah, blah. But, think of this. Julia Child didn’t become Julia Child until she was 50. Anna Mary Robertson Moses didn’t become Grandma Moses until her late 70’s.

Regrets are a product of our own actions. Our unfulfilled dreams are choices we made in life or didn’t make along the way. They are a reflection of our own lack of courage or fear of upsetting the apple cart we already built. Maybe you can’t go home again. But, it’s never too late to create a new reality built around an unfulfilled dream. So, my short little bucket list is made up of doing the things I dreamed of doing. It has nothing to do with people’s expectations of me or me thinking I ought to do this or that. It has to do with fulfilling my RSVP…no regrets.