Mid-February I enjoyed a week of socializing. Valentine’s Day was filled with appointments including a lovely long luncheon with other women, mostly widows like myself. There were flowers on the table, at each seating Lindt chocolate paper hearts filled with truffles, wine and good food and great camaraderie. Then, of course, yoga Monday and yoga Wednesday followed by my third Thursday book club tribe and a stimulating discussion of The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve.
I was flying high when suddenly I crashed with a nasty head cold. Rachel brought a Covid test. I was negative followed by the happy dance. Did we ever think we’d be glad to have a cold? Just a cold. Yay! But, not yay. I felt like crap. No amount of hot tea with honey, throat lozenges, fluids, fluids and more fluids or meds could make me feel much better. And, sleep. That’s all I wanted to do and did as much as my physical discomfort allowed.
On one of those days when rest escaped me, I stared out my second story window watching feather light flakes of white meandering slowly to the ground. Snow accumulating on the branches of the oak outside the turret highlighted its winter gray color, a few dead leaves still dangling as if to be brown ornaments swaying in the light wind. This was supposed to be my winter of just being. In January I envisioned a winter of contemplation, introspection and the claiming of much needed space – mental, emotional, spiritual and physical as I distanced myself from the past. At the same time I wanted to throw myself into activities, which not that long ago were difficult, if not impossible to enjoy.
Now held hostage by this dreadful cold and impossibly icy roads at first I felt trapped. But, as the days of endless nose blowing and coughing wore on my feelings became ones of contentment. I couldn’t remember the last time I just was. No place I really really had to be. No preconceived notions of time to rise or go to bed. No one asking what was I going to do today. When was the last time I actually looked at the oak? I mean really looked, noticing the branches softly swaying in the unseen wind, the deep wintery gray of its trunk, the hint of swelling buds promising spring will come yet again. When was the last time I lived in the moment, every moment, not thinking about what I thought I had to do, but really didn’t have to do?
Once upon a time this is how I wanted my retirement to play out in part. And, I still do. In between all the big events during retirement, the travel, moving, socializing, there is a lull where everyday life hums along. I want that slow, steady whisper of daily events, not the rushing crescendo as in my working and caregiving years. Even vacations were once crammed with places to go, to eat, to see, things to do. Go, go, go. Lists and lists. To do lists at home. To do lists at work. Bucket lists for retirement. I always felt like a squirrel in a cage. No. I want days of just being, of contemplating my surroundings and turning inward toward self-knowledge and contentment and noticing whatever is outside my window.
It’s that time of year again where we made our New Year’s resolutions, face a clean slate, decide what we want to write on our slate.I feel like I started with a clean slate in September.I’m still working on it.If someone told me a year ago, at the beginning of 2020, I’d be living in a new house, different climate and culture, changing my reality, I’d most likely have thought them daffy.Yet, here I am.I didn’t make resolutions again this year.However, I am pondering some revelations.
Rhetorically, does a move to another state change our reality?Decidedly so.
Despite my trepidation about living in the snow belt, our Christmas was not white with snow, but sunny with temperatures in the high 50’s.By Thursday it was 61.I washed, waxed and detailed my car while Martin bicycled 18 miles.Major storms, which made national news, went either north or south of us revealing a short winter season.I’m ready if we get hammered as today it appears ‘The Iceman Cometh’.My new reality includes a snow plowing service for the driveway as well as generator for power outages.
But, compared to my altered emotional, spiritual and mental reality, the change in my physical reality is a minor aspect.
Christmas night, as we prepared to leave our daughter’s house after a day of family, our grandchildren offered up hugs, our son-in-law backed my car out of the driveway and our daughter said, “Watch out for deer.They’re scampering all over the place.”
“I know.We see them scampering.I’m tired.Glad it’s only 5 minutes to the house.”
She smiled.“A lot better than 12 hours.”
Having family, assistance and love just 5 minutes away has granted the measure of peace I hoped for.I’m happier than I’ve been in years.My only regret is not making the move sooner.While being a caregiver is still strenuous, it is now a shared responsibility.The kindness, acceptance, attention, effort, compassion, empathy, time together – I could go on and on.
This hasn’t been easy.After 21 years in South Carolina, even with the help of family, adapting to a new culture is a challenge.Fortunately, we’ve lived here before.Some things never change.At the same time, growth renders cities and streets unrecognizable.Family ties, of course, make it easier to find doctors, hair stylists, the best places to shop and other services.When we moved to South Carolina, we had to rely on maps to get around.GPS makes a new locale a lot simpler, especially wending our way through those now unfamiliar high growth, high traffic areas.
While not making resolutions, I did reflect on what I wanted 2020 to look like.Nearly two weeks into the new year and new decade, I decided to take a page from fellow blogger Pat Doyle’s post (https://retirementtransition.blog/2020/01/06/woty-2020-release/) and choose a Word Of The Year (WOTY) as a guide. I wanted a word to lead the way to the emotional, spiritual and mental growth I sought in this new reality.I wanted a word to aide my focus.I wanted a word to define 2020 for me.My WOTY is ‘Engage’.While I’ve been busy settling in, locating services, changing licenses, address, painting walls and whatever else was needed to make this home our own, other than family, I haven’t engaged in the community in a meaningful social way.
We live in the country.However, looking around at what’s close to home revealed a wealth of interests hinging upon our natural world.Small town activities abound.Then there’s always the big cities, a bit longer to get to, but filled with many pursuits to choose from.
Martin’s Painting of Canadian Geese
Keeping it local, as a first step to engaging Martin and I joined the Michigan State University Bird Sanctuary and Manor House only a few minutes from our home.Similarly, we joined the Kalamazoo Nature Center – yes, there really is a Kalamazoo, Michigan – a bit further down the road.
As a caregiver one of the challenges of engaging is finding activities, which will engage and satisfy both of us as well as finding community involvement for me alone.The Bird Sanctuary is home to Trumpet swans, Canadian geese, ducks and rescued birds such as a Bald Eagle.With nature trails surrounding a large pond and a monthly Birds and Coffee Walk, as longtime hikers, it’s the perfect place for both of us to get some exercise, engage with other people and nature.On our last visit we met a photographer who drives over an hour just to take pictures of the once endangered Trumpet swans.Martin took his own photos of geese, translating them to his artist canvas.For me, there’s also the Richland Area Community Center with yoga and art classes.It’s a beginning.
With an open mind and an open heart and ‘Engage’ as my WOTY, we’ll see what I can draw upon my slate by the end of 2020.Engaging is under way!More revelations to come.
Six years ago today I woke up officially retired from the workplace, a new identity waiting to be formed.Yes, six years!!!And what a six years it has been.
Prior to retiring I received lots of advice, most of it very useful wisdom, from people already enjoying a life filled with options of personal choice.Whether you are now retired or looking forward to it in the future, these nuggets of insight are worth repeating.
The first piece of wisdom came from a couple I volunteered alongside at a local farmers market.I still remember his face when he told me, “Guard your time jealously.”In the moment I didn’t realize how many people would be looking at me as a person who needed for them to fill my time.I found myself thinking of him and his advice again and again as well-meaning acquaintances, friends, even strangers, tugged at me to volunteer or join their organization of choice. This is your time to use as you choose – guard it jealously!
That said, another piece of advice was to give some of your time to a cause you care about deeply.I was already giving my time to volunteering at the agricultural extension’s information booth at the farmers market.So, that one was easy for me.That was my organization of choice.I educated. I taught people how to grow food, to create spaces for butterflies, bees and birds. I helped people make their gardens and the Earth a better place. It was fun. Find a cause where you willingly, happily and whole-heartedly give your time and your being.
That brings me to doing something you love.Whatever your lifelong hobby, now’s your time to enjoy it even more than ever.I know people who golf or play tennis several times a week, spend more hours acting at the community theater, make their garden into a show place around their home or turned their art into a source of income.Whatever it is up the ante. Keep doing it at a quantum leap.
Then, try something you always wanted to do, but didn’t have the time.Retirement affords the opportunity to start something new, fresh, fulfilling a dream.For me, that was taking up watercolor painting.I wasn’t good at it and didn’t enjoy it, but it led to other art mediums I do enjoy.With retirement you can start anew as many times as you wish.This is your moment for adventure! Failure is o.k. As a bonus of my adventures, I’ve met many other retirees in daytime art classes.Some became new friends.
Speaking of friends, realize that many of your friendships will be altered.The people who are still employed may drift away as your identity evolves.Or you may drift away from them as you find new acquaintances with a shared interest and time frame.Your social life will revolve around a daytime persona that is different from the work you.Be open to meeting new people.
Along with the advice of guarding your time jealously, the second piece of wisdom the couple mentioned above dispensed, “Give yourself two years to adjust.”It took all of two years and then some for me to settle in.Others may take no time at all.It depends on a lot of variables, such as your personality, your attachment to the type of work you did, how you left work – forced out, disability or planned exit, your retirement activities, your mental view and emotional feelings about retiring. Two years.
Lastly, retirement is an opportunity.It is not the dictionary definition of ceasing to work; it’s serendipity – the chance to do the kind of work you want to do.It’s the possibility of tapping into your reserved longings, the savoring of freedom to use your time as you choose.It’s the prospect of a fresh start in life.And, I hope this shared wisdom helps you to do just that.
When was the last time you did something for the first time? For me, this was a week of a lot of firsts giving me plenty to write about in future blogs.
This was the first time I took a class on self-publishing, hoping to figure out the daunting task of getting my book out there. It was the first time I met Alex, the psychology student assigned to interview me for her Adulthood and Aging course at Furman University. It was the first time I ever went to a talk on Dementia Conversations about how to broach difficult subjects with someone experiencing dementia. It was the first time I started building a small workshop on my property so Martin and I have a dedicated space for creating art. It was the first time Martin and I took the BrainSpan testing that I’ll write more about after we receive our results. It was the first time I built a fobot (fake robot) with one of my grandchildren. Wow! What a week of firsts!
Working with my eight-year-old grandson reminded me how we did firsts all the time as kids. He’s curious and willing to try whatever. He uses his imagination without hesitation. If something didn’t work well building his fobot, he immediately moved on to another idea. He didn’t give up or lament the failure of the first idea. And, he had fun. We had fun.
Take me to your leader!
As we move through life, we often get comfortable, sometimes too comfortable, with our routine, eschewing any firsts. That’s when we plateau. Avoiding meeting new people, taking on a new project or learning a new subject or skill seems easier than breaking away from our comfort zone. We like our routine. It feels, well, comfortable like a favorite old shirt or chair.
A couple of weeks ago Martin and I took a drawing workshop. All we did for three hours was learn how to draw our hands. We used our observation abilities to the nth degree studying both the palm and the back of our hands. One exercise was to then draw our hand without looking at it too much. I mentioned how I didn’t like doing the exercise. Our teacher quipped, “That’s because it makes you feel uncomfortable. You’re not used to doing it.” Ah-ha!
We adults don’t like doing things that make us feel like a fish out of water. On the other hand, kids expect to learn new things, every day, every week. That’s their routine, isn’t it? To do different tasks, learn different skills, gather up new experiences to add to their preparation for living a successful life.
As we continue to age, many of us go on to ask the question, “Is this all there is?” or worse yet, “What happened to me?” When we start asking questions like that, it’s probably time to take the plunge off the plateau or start climbing the mountain. It’s time to do something for the first time. Your routine isn’t all there is. What’s happened to you is you avoid firsts because they make you uncomfortable.
This week a friend mentioned she had applied for ten days at a silent retreat. While the attendees do chores like housekeeping, they also have six hours a day to meditate. This is not my idea of a good time, but my friend is excited about it. Being open to new experiences doesn’t mean we have to try everything we come across. Personally, this would be more of a challenge than observing and remembering the details of my hand — I don’t think I could keep my mouth closed for ten days let alone meditate for more than five minutes. If it doesn’t appeal to you on some level, a new experience just may not be for you. That said, keeping an open mind can lead you to a first that becomes part of your routine because you love doing it so much.
Think about it. When was the last time you did something for the first time?
This week the United States celebrates another birthday. Since the 4th falls on a Tuesday, it is a long weekend for those workers lucky enough to also take Monday off. Last Thursday as I did my usual grocery shopping for the next month, I passed displays of beach towels and flipflops, towers of soda and beer, end caps filled with backpacks, American flags and fireworks. People frantically rushing to gather goodies for the holiday clogged the aisles. I was reminded of the days when I, in my suit and heels, also rushed through a store at lunch hour or after work to grab last minute Independence Day necessities.
After viewing this scene from my retired perch, I decided I’m also celebrating the personal freedom retirement brought me. For the first time in my life I am not bound to do what society expects of us. Even as a child I did not enjoy the freedom retirement affords me.
Today, there are no parents, managers or other authority figures dictating how I spend my time. The suits and heels are long gone. OK I have one suit and two pair of heels left in my closet for special occasions. But, my wardrobe of choice these days is jeans and t-shirts with loafers, sandals or sneakers. The suit hangs in a breathable bag; the heels are boxed high on a shelf.
Oh, I still have responsibilities. I have to pay the utilities on time, keep a watchful eye on my investments and adhere to a self-imposed budget lest I become a bag lady at ninety. I have to be a good citizen and mind the laws of my state and country, get my drivers license renewed and pay my taxes. But, how I spend my days is up to me. That is a huge responsibility in and of itself. Ingrained in the workaholic boomer generation is the idea that leisure time is wasted time. Freedom just may come with an emotional price.
However, that’s not for me either. I learned a long, long time ago when my workaholic ways caved in upon me, that every life needs balance. I accomplish a lot in my freedom filled life. I also give myself permission to just sit and be for a time each day. Piddling, as my dad called it, is good for the mind and the soul. Taking time to watch birds flutter around the feeders in the back yard while I enjoy my morning coffee is not wasted time.
Accomplishments in retirement are not the same as accomplishments in my past work life. In June I spent a morning trimming grape vines within an inch of their lives. This task is necessary so the vines put their energy into the clusters of grapes. I consider that an accomplishment. Not one that will get me a promotion or a raise, but one that gives me pleasure knowing I will pick clusters of deep purple grapes come fall.
After a day working in my gardens, I always, ALWAYS take a garden tour, strolling leisurely while I admire the beauty. I also consider that an accomplishment. We all need a moment to stop and smell the roses. Otherwise, what’s the point of having them?
This week while workers take a long weekend crowding beaches and camp grounds, turning out for spectacular fireworks displays and enjoying a cold beer around the barbecue, I’m celebrating my successful transition to retirement freedom. Now that is an accomplishment!
It was the end of 2012 when I first started looking for articles on what retirees did to create a happy retirement. My queries on the web resulted mostly in articles about retirement timing and finances. There was little to be found about a normal, happy retirement.
Last week one of my readers mentioned, “retirement means different things to different people” (thanks for the idea, Walter). That led to my wondering is there a normal retirement? My current search of the web indicates that most people still plan on their date to retire and their retirement income, but not much else.
Gathering information from you, my readers, I’d say there is no normal retirement. While most people plan on retiring somewhere between ages 65 and 70, what they do after that varies widely. I did an informal survey a few years ago with most of you responding about taking up some type of artistic endeavor — painting, writing, drawing, music, dance, knitting, quilting, acting — there is a wide variety of activities covered under the term art.
I know several people who read, read, read and belong to book clubs. They love literature. One woman belongs to three clubs. She can indulge in her passion for reading stories, then gather with her groups for socializing and stimulating discussion.
Besides volunteering there are many retirees who return to work part-time, whether they need to or not. I know of several people who continue working part-time for the social connections, sense of purpose and challenge that work offers. One woman told me, “My goal is to work until I’m eighty.” Her husband of 56 years does not like her working, but the work gives her such enjoyment, she continues at her job. All of these retirees, in fact, have spouses who did not take up paid work in retirement, opting instead to attend classes, continue hobbies, volunteer and whatever else they want to do.
Some retirees choose to just kick back and let each day unfold itself to them. They reason they worked long hours for decades, had bosses telling them what to do every weekday and maybe beyond, wended their way through office politics and satisfying clients and customers. To them, retirement is a long awaited luxury to just be in their own space and time doing whatever comes along.
Some retirees choose to focus on physical fitness, playing golf or tennis, biking, hiking and swimming. Some take up yoga. I know a ninety-year-old who still golfs twice a week. His mind is as sharp as his physical fitness. Staying in good physical shape is important for all of us as we age. Some retirees choose to make it their focus. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.
Then there are those retirees like me. I don’t ever want to go back to the old grind, but I also need meaning and purpose in my life like I need air to breath. Doing activities that are fulfilling to me is totally necessary to my happiness. I’m a proponent of finding new meaning and purpose in retirement. Admittedly, what defines new meaning and purpose is obviously different for different people.
I also know people who spend most of their day watching TV. One man has three TV’s going all the time on the same channel, so as he moves from room to room he can continue watching his chosen show. Sitting around on the couch in front of the boob tube all day isn’t a life.
With a possible twenty or thirty years in retirement, you may reinvent yourself as many times as you did during your working years. You may end up doing some or all of the above or any number of other activities. You may be content to just float from day to day for a while, then find yourself needing meaning and purpose. You may not want to return to work even part-time, then find yourself wanting to engage again. Retirement is no different, than any other time in your life. It has twists and turns, ups and downs, opportunity knocking on your door and days of wonderful quiet. Whatever you choose to do in retirement is the norm for you. But, for goodness sake, do something.
Last week Mike wrote to ask me for a quick answer to the question, “What are you going to do when you retire?” Mike plans to retire in three months. I often receive the related question, “What do you do all day?”. Jan of retirementallychallenged.com (thanks Jan) gave Mike a succinct answer, “Whatever I want.” While it’s true we can do whatever we want in retirement, I think there is more behind the question than mere curiosity.
I know that not everyone reading this blog is a baby boomer, but most asking the questions are baby boomers. We’re a generation that hasn’t thought much about stopping what we’re doing. Many of us are still workaholics. We invented the youth culture — remember ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’? Now 10,000 of us are turning 65 every day of the week.
Boomers have always been the huge train coming down the track. Our numbers caused a boom in the building of hospitals, schools, housing, cars and other stuff. We still want everything on our terms, including retirement. Therein lies the rub. We don’t know what our terms look like. We ask the soon-to-be-retired in the hope of finding answers for ourselves.
Unfortunately, many haven’t saved enough to retire outright and will have to continue working at least part-time. Others have the money, but never developed any hobbies or passions. Their lives revolved around work and family. The go to activities in retirement are travel the world, golf, travel the country in an RV. Those activities do not appeal to everyone. The questioners are wondering what the Mikes of the world are going to do hoping to get some insight into what they will do. There is gobs and gobs of information on financial planning for retirement, but very little on living a retirement life.
The truth is we don’t ever really retire. It is my experience that we save enough money not to have to go to a job to earn a living. However, we still need meaning and purpose in our lives. Our jobs provided much of that along with our social identities and structure. Retirement means we have lots of unstructured time with which to create a new role designed by us for us.
A couple of nights ago Martin and I talked about the question. We are engaged in activities we did not have on our bucket list or story board. Some of the activities we did envision never came to fruition. We don’t care that they didn’t. We wear jeans and t-shirts most days. I kept one dress, one skirt, a couple nice slacks, blouses and jackets. Oh, and two pair of heels. The rest went to charity shops. No more concerns about dry cleaning, polished shoes, polished nails, calendars, to do lists for work and home, juggling appointments, clients, office politics, satisfying the boss and spending weekends running errands. And no rush hour traffic! I let my hair go grey and get it cut every ten weeks instead of cut and color once a month.
To me this is the answer to “What are you going to do when you retire?” :
“I’m going to leave my work role and identity behind. I’m going to explore who I am at my core. I’m on a mission of discovery. I’m going to fail at times, but that’s o.k. I’m also going to succeed. It is both frightening and exhilarating. The possibilities are endless. I’m never going to stop learning. I’m stepping outside my comfort zone. I’m reinventing who I am and may do that every few years.”
When I think of peer pressure, I usually think of my teenage grandchildren. Yet, strangely enough, I’ve encountered more peer pressure in retirement than I thought possible. Oh, it’s not the type of pressure kids face like being hassled to smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol or experience an illegal drug. Rather it’s the push by peers to join the activities they enjoy assuming you will enjoy them, too. Or it’s the pressure to take part as a volunteer because volunteers are needed by their chosen organization. Or, it could be the person likes your company and may want to further the friendship by doing more together.
In just the last few weeks I’ve been asked to join book clubs, a monthly mahjong game, a gym, another writing group, a gardening club and a political action group. While I may certainly enjoy all of those activities, if I said, ‘yes’ to any or all of them, what is important to me would be swallowed up. In the past, saying, ‘no’ was not one of my strong points and sometimes it still isn’t. Why we agree to do something we really don’t want to do is usually based in our wish to keep the relationship. Thus we try not to offend the other person by saying, ‘no’ to their request.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was busy nearly going down in flames because I didn’t say, ‘no’ often enough, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned to say, ‘yes’ to me. This twist in my thinking made it easier to turn down the requests to join in too many activities. Not to sound mean, but I also figured out sometimes I was agreeing to partake with someone I didn’t really enjoy being around. My wish not to hurt another person’s feelings was taking a toll on me.
How did I arrive at this change in thinking, making self-love (not selfishness) a priority? I remember a spring day where I sat on the couch recovering from pleurisy. The night before Martin drove me the six blocks from our house to the local hospital. I didn’t think I was having a heart attack, but the hospital staff did. Describing chest pain and difficulty breathing got me an immediate wheelchair ride to the inner rooms of the ER where two nurses shoved oxygen tubes up my nose and took my pulse and then blood gases. Finally, a chest X-ray revealed inflammation of my lungs. Whew! In comparison to a heart attack, pleurisy sounded good. The ER doctor told me rest, rest, rest.
The thought of a heart attack scared me. Between naps, I spent the next day in deep retrospection of what my life was at the time. I likened myself to a small plane in a fiery nose-dive about to hit the ground, exploding into flames upon impact. This was not the first time I was in a nose-dive going down in flames. But, I knew it had to be the last.
As I sat in my internal revery that afternoon, a friend, who knew I was home from work sick, called to ask me to watch her eight-year-old daughter as “something” had come up that she just had to take care of. To my surprise I heard myself telling her I couldn’t possibly watch an eight-year-old in my condition. When she coaxed me with how quiet her daughter would be (I knew this kid was not quiet), I said, “Look I know you’re in a bind, but I’m also in a bind. I need rest. I have to take care of myself first.”
Even as I said it, I felt guilty, selfish. Yet, after we ended the conversation, I felt empowered. I felt good. I had said, ‘yes’ to me. That’s when I realized the operative word in these situations isn’t ‘no’; it’s ‘yes’… ‘yes’ to me. I needed to say, ‘yes’ to me and clear my life of activities and relationships that were not passionately important to me.
Although that may sound selfish, participating in activities because we feel we ‘should’ can take a toll on our psychological well-being. I call participating in activities we ‘want’ to partake in self-love as these are the activities that feed our spirit. Conversely, if an activity drains your spirit, it needs to go.
With the possibility of so much unstructured time in retirement, it’s more important then ever to know what you want, what is best for you and how to say, ‘yes’ to your priorities. In order to stay focused, write it down. The bucket list is a good place to start creating your agenda. If you are unsure about an activity, ask yourself if you are truly passionate about participating in that activity. With an unambiguous agenda it’s easier to set clear-cut boundaries with our peers. And, that helps us limit peer pressure at any age.
Growing up on the New Jersey shore, my parents, younger brother and I sometimes went to an inlet to hopefully collect crabs. An old wooden bulkhead provided a place for the crabs to clutch or, perhaps, be blocked from rolling back out with the tide. As the tide ebbed, we searched for the crustaceans clinging to the decaying wood. Back home in my parents’ kitchen, my brother and I played with the crabs on the floor as my mother boiled a large pot of water on the stove. Once the water came to a full rolling boil, my Dad put the crabs in the pot. It seems cruel to me now, but as children my brother and I liked to watch the drama of the crabs in the pot. You see, one of the crabs always tried to climb out of the pot while the other crabs pulled it back in until they all boiled together providing quite a show.
It wasn’t until I took the Dynamic Aging Program at Furman University that I heard crabs in a pot used as an analogy to describe people who are aging in the way our society expects us to age. According to the program creator, Dudley Tower, Ph.D, most people today just follow the expected norm, retiring to a life of leisure where they play golf or cards, travel, do a little volunteer work or whatever activity they choose to occupy their time, until they slowly decline mentally and physically, sliding little by little, day by day, inch by inch, toward death.
We expect to take care of ourselves by following a healthy diet, doing some type of exercise but, believing, inevitably, we’ll need assisted living and eventually, maybe, probably nursing home care. Prior to my mother’s death several years ago, she spent the last three months of her life in a nursing home. After visiting her with Martin and our youngest daughter, as we rode the elevator down to the ground floor, I said to my daughter, “If I ever have to be in a facility like this, it is my express wish that you just shoot me.”
As dreary and desperate as that sounds, my view has not changed, especially after Martin’s journey and demise. So, the story of the crabs in a pot resonates with me. But what is the alternative? Is there an alternative? We all know we are all going to die. As my father used to say, “Nobody gets out alive.” Then, of course, he’d chuckle at his little joke. In fact, most of us have probably lived our lives based on societal norms and expectations of how we should behave. We went to school, grew up with little push back, got a job, got married, had kids, bought a house with a mortgage, raised the kids, advanced in the job and finally, here we are, retired. And, now, we are following the normal model of aging, retiring to a life of leisure and slow physical and, maybe, cognitive decline until we have to go to a nursing home. In other words, we are waiting to slowly boil to death like crabs in a pot. Ugh!
Now, for the alternative to what was the normal aging experience for our parents and grandparents. People are living longer with more and more people in developed countries living to be 100. Retiring at 70 years of age could leave you with 30 years until you die. Think about it! If the idea of spending 20 to 30 years playing golf or mahjong or traveling or gardening or whatever and then going to assisted living followed by nursing care, is your idea of a great life, that’s entirely up to you. But, wouldn’t you rather do something more exciting?
I asked myself the question, “What would you do with the last third of your life if you were not afraid?” It is self-imposed limitations that hold us back. Self-imposed limitations are something we attribute to ourselves out of fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of ridicule, fear of whatever we are afraid of. What would you do if society, your friends, your family, your neighbors didn’t expect you to live a life of leisure until your world becomes smaller and smaller and you decline further and further? Would you go back to college, start a new career, open a business, learn a new skill, follow your heart, resurrect a childhood dream?
The last third of life offers a freedom like none we have ever experienced. What others think about what we do with our lives really doesn’t matter. We can let our imaginations soar. We can take some behavioral risk. Our society, however, does not readily support personal development as we age. Someone who is 20 or 30 or 40 or even 50 is expected to continue developing on a personal level. It’s a given, the same as society’s expectation of decline for our aging population.
By the time we hit the big 60, we are expected to slow down. We start hearing the ‘at your age’ mantras. Oh, yes, we hear on occasion about the 79 year old weight lifter with a great set of abs or the 89 year old gymnast still vaulting off equipment like a teenager or the 98 year old publishing a first book. Why aren’t we all striving to do something we always longed to do but never had the time to pursue? Because we believe the aging euphemisms about slowing down, about being too old to do this or that. As children, we all had dreams. We all learned new things every day, day in and day out. Aging dynamically requires more than taking care of our health. It requires that we look inside ourselves and resurrect our thirst for learning, our thirst for living on our personal edge and maybe a dream or two. We really won’t know what we are capable of as we age until we throw out society’s expectation of aging.
Shortly after retiring, it occurred to me that retirement was not all it was cracked up to be. Sure, I enjoyed the honeymoon after leaving work, when everyday seemed like an extended vacation. It didn’t take long, however, for disillusionment to set in. I missed the challenge and excitement and camaraderie that work provided. Yet, I didn’t want to go back to work, at least not the traditional work place.
Instead, I resurrected a dream and have been pursuing it ever since. My dream was to be a writer. Long, long ago life got in the way. Having to support a family and taking a different career path, I gave up my dream. Shortly, after retiring, with the power of the internet, I started my own blog. I became a writer. Recently, I started taking courses in writing to sharpen my skills. I decided to seriously pursue writing as a craft. And, now I’m writing my memoirs along with some short stories. I may or may not find a publisher. I may have to self-publish. It doesn’t matter. What matters are the possibilities I am creating for myself.
I am feeling more alive and excited about the future than I have in years. I’m more mindful of what I am doing with my life. I have a vision of how I want the rest of my life to play out. I am aging dynamically. And, that is the alternative. We can meet society’s expectation of how we will age or we can chart a new course, throwing away previous models and maps. How about it? Are you going to be a crab in a pot? Or, will you be the one who scrambles over the side to freedom? Come on…dream a little dream or two.
This post originally appeared June 26, 2013. It has been updated. One of the surprises of going back and reading posts from a few years ago is how much my writing has improved! The more we do something, the better we become at doing it.
Up until recently, I had a blogging routine. I wrote my weekly post on Friday. On Saturday morning I got up, edited the article, then posted it. That routine was broken when I decided to write a book. Writing a larger piece required a new routine. Routines are important, even in retirement. Routines add structure to our lives and it is structure which makes it possible to meet challenges, accomplish whatever we set out to do and makes the special moments special.
After years of getting up at the same time, getting ready for work in much the same way and having to be at your desk, office, station, work site at a specific time every day, suddenly all of that comes to a screeching halt. With retirement, you can sleep in everyday if you want. You can get up and throw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt or hang out in your pajamas until noon or all day. You have no place to go unless you manufacture a place to go. You have nothing to do unless you create something to do.
Part of challenge in retirement is how will you create structure. Why? Do you really want to spend the next thirty years of your life sleeping in and sitting around the house in your pj’s doing nothing more than watching the tube, surfing the net and leafing through magazines?
After placing in the state time trials, the question Martin has been asked most often is, “So, what will you do now?” It’s also similar to an often asked question since we retired, “What do you do all day?” And, therein lies the rub. After 40 years or more of someone telling you what to do all day, there is suddenly no boss.
There are no corporate directives. There are no promotions to a higher level. There are no new products to roll out. There are no employees bringing you problems to solve. There is no job description. There is no company policy manual. There are no rules. In retirement it is up to you to determine your fate. That, folks is the number one challenge of being a person of independent means.
Martin has already decided he won’t be competing in the national time trials. He’ll continue to ride for exercise and his own enjoyment. He’s already exploring taking a college course or two in photography and/or painting with acrylics. We can always find something new to challenge our brains and satisfy our creative vision. But, understand this. Determining your fate isn’t one big round of finding something creative or challenging to fill your days. Your days also need some of the usual — the everyday. The often times mundane. Because one of the things which has also vaporized with your work life is structure. Maybe not entirely, but a significant amount of your routine is gone.
When working, long weekends and vacation days become moments when we do something special in between the structure of work. Structure is the juxtaposition to the excitement of say racing in the state time trials or running a marathon. To be sure, there’s the structure offered by laundry, grocery shopping, house maintenance and family obligations. The latter remains even in retirement. Although for us, shopping and errand running on the weekends and evenings is replaced with doing those chores early morning weekdays when the stores are close to empty. Now we do laundry whenever the hamper is full. House cleaning is whenever we feel like it or, to motivate ourselves, we invite someone for a visit or dinner.
After years of dinner sometime between 6:30 and 7:30, in our new life, we enjoy starting dinner early and eating around 5:30. Structure. Thanks to a little diluted orange cat named Carmen, Martin still gets up in the morning around 5:30 to 6 a.m. Carmie doesn’t care that Daddy doesn’t go to work anymore. She sticks to the routine she was raised with, meowing at the bedroom door in anticipation of Martin rising and giving early morning pets and breakfast.
I sleep in until Martin brings me a latte bedside around 7 a.m. That’s right, he makes me a latte every morning…structure!
Even our choice to age in place on our six acres provides routine, albeit different routines during the different seasons. With an overgrown woods looking like something the Prince had to hack through to reach Sleeping Beauty in the castle, winter’s routine is bushwhacking. Summer mornings are spent picking berries and vegetables, deadheading flower beds and doing chores in the garden. Then, there’s house maintenance like cleaning gutters, painting the trim, fixing a leaking toilet and all the other things you now have time to do yourself instead of paying someone else to do it for you.
No matter what you plan for retirement, skydiving, bungee jumping, spending a year in an RV traveling the country, going to Europe or Hawaii, sailing the seven seas, no matter what you plan for excitement or challenge, in order to make it truly exciting, you’ll need a daily life of the usual. You will need structure and routine. And, even if you have a book to write, you can take off spur-of-the-moment to parts known or unknown.