Doing Nothing

Over the last several weeks I discovered a luxury I’d been missing.  I didn’t know it was a luxury.  I didn’t know I was missing it.  I never thought of it as a luxury.  But, it is.  For the moment I’m indulging in doing nothing.  Yes, nothing.  Oh, I know we can’t ever be doing nothing.  Even when we’re asleep, we’re doing something.  One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced during the last year is overcoming the habit of being in constant motion both physically and mentally.  

After two months of decluttering, donating, selling, cleaning, paint touch ups, spring garden tidying, mulching, cleaning some more, making everything sparkle, the damaged deck replaced, it was show time. The house went on the market.  The new deck, which is the result of two cherry trees falling on the old one, the downsized amount of furniture and the fresh feeling of the house and yard almost make me want to stay here.  Almost, but not really.

Following the major clean-up I spent a week or two fidgeting as I looked for activities to fill my time.  Like a leaf in the wind I blew here and there doing whatever I convinced myself needed doing.

Then, I went to Detroit for a few days with a friend.  With tickets to experience Immersive Van Gogh, which was mesmerizing, but way too short, we decided to spend a couple nights so we could shop (I bought one tiny little thing) and visit The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.  Three days of wandering through museums and shops and art space.  Leisurely breakfasts and lunches and dinners.  Talking and sharing.  Sleeping later than usual.  I felt like I hadn’t felt in years.  

Immersed in Van Gogh

Returning refreshed I decided to just be for a while.  To do nothing.  Easier said than done.  Years of caregiving had my monkey brain still engaged full tilt.  Over my caregiving years I learned to anticipate the next need, upset, crisis putting myself into forever proactive mode.  If my predictive efforts didn’t anticipate the next caregiving event, there was, of course, flight, fight or freeze.  Rarely did I freeze because I never stopped thinking or doing.  And, there was never a time including respites where I focused on just being.  Now, I realize what a luxury it is to do nothing.  

Remember mindfulness? I wrote about it, practiced it and left it behind probably at the time I needed it most.  Mindfulness is achieved by being mentally present.  I’d been thinking for so long about the future and replaying the past in my head that I lost the habit of being conscious of my surroundings, my body, my emotions and not even paying slight attention to my current thoughts as they were swallowed up by stressing over what was to come.  Somehow, I had to unearth the ability to live in full awareness of the present moment.  It was there once; I could relearn it. 

Enter neuroplasticity.  Remember that?  I also wrote about neuroplasticity, took classes on the brain and brain research at Furman University OLLI.  Since then, the research on mindfulness and neuroplasticity continues to support the fact that we can create new neural pathways, even in cases where the brain is injured.  When we learn something new, we rewire our brains. I’m on a track to rewire my brain with new neural pathways to respond to situations sans flight, fight or freeze.  I’m reorganizing the connections in my brain.  Doing nothing is helping me.  By deliberately slowing my days I’m choosing what to do with intention each day, to be mindful and conscious.  

Intention is not the same as having a to do list where you tick off each accomplishment.  It’s not setting goals.  My goal is to rewire my brain, but it is the daily practice guided by my intentions, which enables me to reach that goal.  To me an intention sets the tempo for my day.  It guides me.  Working in my garden carries an intention such as, “I intend to be aware of the beauty and life in my garden.”  Other intentions could be “I intend to eat a healthy diet today” or “I intend to practice mindfulness today” or “I intend to forgive others and myself”.  

We often tend to believe if we put ourselves on idle, we’re being unproductive, lazy, wasting time.  For me, doing nothing is not actually doing nothing, but, instead, being present, mindful of the moment with intention.  Remember meditation?  I was always good for about 5 minutes and that’s where I’ve started over with my meditation practice.  Years ago I took a course in Buddhism, which is where I was introduced to meditation.  The one important part of the practice, at least for me, was learning thoughts enter our minds even as we want to empty the mind.  My instructor taught me to identify each thought as positive, negative or neutral, then let it go.  It works leaving me with a clear mind, which affords room to consciously rewire of my brain.

During my years of working I prided myself on what I could get done in a day. In the early years of retirement I felt the same way. Following Martin’s diagnosis and years of caregiving, however, I’ve changed my mind.  It’s taken the last year, and at times, I still find myself feeling as if I accomplished nothing in a day.  And that’s ok.  Letting go of old habits takes practice and time.  For the most part, I now cherish the ability to slow down, reflect, feel joy, be grateful, create and live in the moment.  It’s the luxury of doing nothing.

Decluttering – Or The Big Purge

My Mother’s good luck charm

In order to reinvent my life I must divest myself of fragments from my past.  Like my best memories of Martin, I’m keeping the possessions, which are dear to me.  I’m not seeking a minimalist lifestyle, but one honoring our past while giving breath to what lies ahead of me.  Unlike past decluttering this one requires a wisdom imbued with greater purpose.

I had a longtime habit of cleaning out closets and drawers each January as my version of out with the old, in with the new.  Somewhere along the path I’m on that annual ritual went by the wayside.  When we sold our South Carolina house, I did a major declutter.  Or, so I thought.  

In preparation for the sale of my Michigan house, I began going through drawers and closets with the purpose of decluttering.  As I cleared drawers of stuff, I also considered furniture, which won’t fit in my new smaller home.  Lists of things to donate and items to sell forced me to realize I wasn’t decluttering; this was the big purge.

There were obvious items that must go, like Martin’s bicycle, gear and outfits along with sport coats, dress shirts, slacks, leather belts and shoes. No reason for any of it to languish in closets and cubbies when someone else could make good use of it.  It took two weeks for me to act on selling Martin’s bike.  I cleaned it, polished it and looked at it day in and day out.  I felt frozen in time, slogging through quick sand.  After mustering the courage to drop his clothing at Good Will, I felt relief.  Then, a few hours later, came a serious meltdown as grief washed over me in a torrent of tears.  Divesting myself of his belongings was accepting he would never walk through the door again.  Once I was all cried out, I let go of the bicycle as well.  It was a kind of release.

Martin’s racing bicycle

As I sort through our lifetime with a mostly clear head I didn’t have in 2019, I often ask myself why I paid to have this or that hauled from South Carolina.  Taking a page from organizational expert Marie Kondo, so much of what I had didn’t spark joy.  “Did it spark joy for me?”, became my precept, albeit one which is resulting in keeping a few things that may not evoke a modern farmhouse style.  Looking at my Great-Great Aunt Josephine’s crystal jewelry box, I opened it.  I lifted out a chestnut.  Hard and brown my Mother carried it in her purse as a talisman.  As I ran my fingers over its smooth rich decades old surface this memento from my Mother was now my symbol of juju, mojo, good luck.  A practical woman, a strong woman, her spirit would help me push through this arduous task.

As with the chestnut, possessions carry energy in the memories they summon in our spirits.  I looked at the five sets of dishes from the dinner group we belonged to in the 1990’s.  I hadn’t needed nor used all this entertainment paraphernalia in decades.  The dishes, napkins and rings, table clothes and serving dishes.  In an epiphany I realized it was the memories I was holding onto, memories of those evenings when we gathered monthly to break bread.  Fun nights like the mystery dinners where we dressed up as various characters in a whodunit.  And then, there was the toga party where neighbors must have thought we were crazy traipsing through our garden, glasses of red wine in hand, with our guests,  all of us dressed in bed sheets!  I would keep the memories and some of the accoutrements, but it was time for most of the physical trappings to go.

Following my second car load of memories taken to Good Will the picture was becoming clear.  There were certain objects, furniture, glass ware, keepsakes I would never part with.  Antique pieces from both our families needed to stay with me a while longer.  A few pieces of the furniture we bought during our marriage were now vintage, slightly marred with scratches or glass rings where a coaster went unused.  There is no place for a couple of items in my to-be-built new home, but I’m making a place.  

The large marble coffee table in the great room was originally on the chopping block.  Then came the evening I sat in front of the fire place mindfully looking at its smooth surface and rough edges, the tiny scratches from grandchildren running toy cars across it along with a few water marks from spilled drinks. Martin and I had gone to The Street of Dreams charity event while living in Seattle.  In an 11,000 square foot show house sat a marble coffee table dazzling us both.  A couple weeks later Martin went on a motorcycle ride returning to announce he’d found such a table at Frederick and Nelson Department Store.  He wanted to buy it.  And so did I.  I knew now I couldn’t part with it. It represented a joint purchase, a joint love of beautiful things.  Though now imperfect with blemishes from nearly 40 years of use, this table also represents the joyous imperfection of our lives.  As with ourselves, we looked upon the blemishes as character.  There are possessions, which are just baggage.  And, then, there are things, which warm my heart each day, that spark joy and must continue to color my life.  Despite its ultra modern look the marble table stays.

As I empty the house of remnants of my past life I feel less overwhelmed, lighter, more forward looking.  I’m honoring my past.  And, making room for my future.

Renewed Retirement Dreams

First I want to say, “THANK YOU” to all my loyal readers for staying with me.  I humbly appreciate all of you as well as the kind comments and encouragement.  For those of you on a similar journey as mine I wish you a clear path to ease your way forward.  It will take some time for me to figure out WordPress all over again as they made many changes in my absence.  Time, however, is what I have.  My return to blogging is part of my self-care as I share my retirement story once again.

Most of us retire with deliberateness.  We plan and dream.  As I sit here writing with the serenity of lightly falling snow in my view, I think of all the plans Martin and I made.  None of them included a life shattering illness.  Yet, here I sit mapping a new retirement path.  And dreaming.

As spring 2021 arrived with arrangements to place Martin in memory care, my doctor counseled me.  Don’t make any major changes for at least a year.  Do engage in a period of extended rest and self-care.  After all, I was grieving and dealing with the attendant guilt, which comes with such a decision.   

Seven months later I went straight into the deep end feet first with a major change. It felt right and still feels right.  On the surface my actions appear to be on a whim, but I assure you much thought went into it.

I knew from the moment we bought this huge house I’m living in it was never going to be permanent.  It was too big for the two of us, let alone just me.  But, only five minutes from our daughter, it served its purpose.  I had the nearby help and support I needed as a caregiver.  

After placing Martin, as the months wore on, my mind turned to moving back to South Carolina with its mild winters.  Then, there were the blazing summers.  So, I thought about two homes, summers in Michigan and winters in South Carolina.  Guilt over not visiting Martin for the months in South Carolina chewed at the edges of my heart.  Even with Hospice attending now, his disease is so unpredictable.  The end will come when it comes.  

Yet, while recognizing the fluidity of our situation, I couldn’t help ruminating about my future.  With winter approaching, I also realized I still loved living in a true four season climate.  Wandering online through homes for sale in both markets, hot markets where nothing remained for sale for very long, I found my future.  

Following a visit to Martin one sunny day this past fall, I drove down a pothole riddled road in dire need of replacing.  Forget repairing it.  The asphalt was beyond mending.  But, I noticed the nice homes, the small farms and the seemingly never-ending acreage of a very large farm.  Surprisingly, I was only five minutes from a desirable village where I had established relationships with doctors, dentist, a bank and a few businesses.

A large wooden For Sale sign heralded the two acres I came to see.  Flanked on one side by freshly painted red barns and the original white farm house, my neighbor’s property looked like a beautiful greeting card.  Idyllic.  My acreage – I was already calling it mine – was a long and narrow meadow with oaks lining the frontage.  I could picture the meadow dotted with wildflowers and paths for walking.  And gardens around the house.  Gardens with lavender and thyme and rosemary and vegetables in summer.

Wanting to stick with my doctor’s advice, however, I hesitated even after my daughter affirmed, “Mom you should buy this.”   Even after my builder son-in-law seconded her motion.  Instead I looked at other properties and communities.  Self-doubts about what to do floated in and out of my mind.

Eventually, I realized artificial deadlines were exactly that.  Yes, I bought it!  I determined to forego the one year moratorium on major decisions.  This property, this place called to me as no other in my life.  It had been on the market for two years just waiting for me.  There had been other offers, but mine was the one the sellers accepted.  I was giddy with a renewed sense of excitement for my retirement.

Though bittersweet, I dream of the small house my son-in-law will build for me and the wildflowers in the meadow.  I’m working on a plan with an architect.  A modern farmhouse look, it will be just the right size for my needs.  I plan to sit on my back porch with good friends and family and my cats and good wine and great music.  And writing and drawing and, of course, gardening.

Oh, the road?  Well, I tried to drive down it one day to find heavy equipment being used to tear up the old road before building a new one.  Potholes no more.  Instead, my new road for my new beginning.

Revelations

 

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.”

Yes.

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.

A Perfect House

Thank you to everyone for the heartfelt messages.  Having an international community of support is priceless.  My heart goes out to those of you who have experienced or are experiencing similar situations.  I learned a lot from this move, not the least of which is to follow my own advice to live in the moment.

When our South Carolina house went under contract, we left for Michigan on a sweltering July day with the objective of buying another house.  Since Martin doesn’t drive anymore, the nearly 800 miles behind the wheel was left to me.  Many asked why we didn’t fly.  Martin doesn’t fly anymore either.  Airports are noisy.  Jets are cramped.  Even with the no check-in line, getting through security is a challenge for me alone.  For someone who must be spoken to slowly, succinctly without a surrounding cacophony just getting to the plane is a major stress.  I split the drive into two days with a stopover in Lexington, Kentucky at our favorite Man O’War Boulevard hotel.  Still, it was exhausting, for both of us.  It is what it is.

The closing on our SC house was scheduled for August 28 so time was of the essence.  On the advice of Martin’s neurologist I was working to take Martin from one house to the other with scarcely any stops in between.  Getting him settled into a new environment with as few adjustments as possible was imperative for his well-being and mine.

With the idea of downsizing both in house and land, we arrived with a handful of properties to view.  Houses in Michigan are most often built on basements, many with finished walk-out basements.  I knew there would be stairs.  With that in mind, I pursued only ranch styles to keep it to one set.  After all, I wanted a house where we could age in place.  We had a lot of advantages in our quest, from human help to technological help — the internet, smart phones and GPS; our Realtor, Faith, appropriately named for this adventure, is my daughter, Rachel’s, niece by marriage.  I felt confident there was a house for us among the ones identified.

However, none of the houses “spoke” to us.  Martin was especially discouraged.  After two days of intent looking, I found myself sitting on the sofa in Rachel’s sunroom at 4 a.m.  Our search was taking us further and further from her address.  There wasn’t a point of moving to Michigan if we were an hour away from help.  

During this introspection, an epiphany – instead of buying for the present, I was buying for a future I didn’t even know if we would have.  I had an idea where Martin’s disease would take us, but how many years away was that?  In 2018 his neurologist told us it was moving at a glacial pace.  It could be ten or even twenty years.  We are still in good physical health.  Martin bicycles 80 to a 100 miles a week at 21 miles per hour!  He can certainly climb stairs.  I needed to consider two story houses, two sets of stairs for the moment we were in, not the future yet to come. 

Later that morning as Faith drove us to look at more properties, I mentioned my thoughts to her.  We were minutes from Rachel’s house when she pointed to the right and said, “If you’re considering two stories, there’s a beautiful house behind all those trees.”   After pulling up the listing on my phone, scrolling through photos and showing Martin, I told Faith we wanted to see the house.

It isn’t a style I would have thought about purchasing.  This wasn’t downsizing; it’s nearly 3,700 square feet.  Definitely not the smaller piece of land I searched for, it sits on fifteen acres with a small pond and a slice of frontage along a small lake.  

As I stood in the huge kitchen that day, I caught a glimpse of Martin disappearing down one of the many paths through the woods.  I quickly asked Faith to go after him so I could look around some more.  I watched as her 6’2” frame vanished down the path after Martin.  With her spring green dress and long flowing blond curls, I felt like I was watching Alice chasing the White Rabbit.  I hoped we weren’t about to go down the rabbit hole.  Upon their return I put my doubts aside.  Martin was all smiles.  “Better, better, better” his way of saying this is the one.

There were other two stories, but this is the one.  This is the house for this moment in our lives.  We will grow old.  We will have health issues.  We will die.  All the advice, including mine, about having a house for aging in place deprives us of living in the present, the here and now, the joy of the moment.

This is the house with the family sized kitchen for cooking and gathering, dedicated spaces for the art studio, indoors bicycling when the snow flies, a writing room for me, the house in a private setting with deer, turkey, squirrels and chipmunks, the house with room for bird feeding stations, the house about a mile from a good riding route for Martin, the house with beautiful gardens to tend in good weather and add winter interest, the house with the dining room big enough for our family to enjoy Sunday dinners and the house close enough for help to arrive in minutes.  This is the perfect house for this moment.

Wisdom

 

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.

The Graduate

 

The Graduate of 2018

Born at the turn of the century (does that sound strange?  It does to me.), they don’t have a moniker yet like Baby Boomers or Generation X or Millennials.  Names like Generation Z have been offered up, but nothing definitive sticks.  I have one, a grandson, born in January of 2000.  Last week he graduated from high school as his mother, my oldest daughter, posted on Facebook his time as a caterpillar is over —  time to fly little butterfly.  All the excitement, pomp and circumstance, family celebration party, teary-eyed reminiscences of his mother and promises of a solid future.

 

What advice would I give him?  The same advice I would give someone getting ready to retire.  I believe it’s good advice for any new start in life.

  1. Believe in yourself.  You have innate gifts.  Be confident in your abilities.  Do in life what you want to do, not what others want for you.  There are lots of people out there with lots of advice (including me) on how things “should” be.  Realize that when the “should” word comes out, you are listening to their ego.  Take it for what it is and make your decision for what you want.  Be a little selfish.  Pander to your ego.
  2. Follow your passion.  That old saying  “Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life” is true no matter what your age.  I garden on a large-scale.  People often comment to me, “That’s a lot of work” to which I reply, “It’s not work to me.  I love doing it.”  Yes, do what you love!
  3. Never stop learning.  Going off to college or trade school or taking a job, graduation isn’t the end of your education.  People who are life-long learners continue to grow and thrive.  It doesn’t mean you have to take formal classes.  Stay open to opportunities.  Be curious about life in general.  Ask questions!  Investigate what makes something tick. Then, you’ll always have excitement in your life and something to talk about when you meet new people.
  4. Speaking of other people, keep your old friends and cultivate new friendships, too.  Growing up I was a Girl Scout.  We had a little song that went like this, “Make new friends and keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.”  People with strong support systems have an easier time adapting to life’s ups and downs than those without.  Change is inevitable.  Form your posse to help you through the changes.
  5. Exploring the world goes hand in hand with never stop learning.  Even if it’s just the world in close proximity, be curious about what’s around you.  A Realtor friend recently sent me a list of all the summer happenings in the Upstate.  With enough activities to fill a page there’s plenty to do and see in my backyard.  Get off the couch and out the door.  Or explore the globe.  
  6. Enjoy each and every day.  Tomorrow is promised to no one.  Live in the moment being mindful of the sights, sounds and smells.  Touch the world you have in front of you.  Mind-spinning about the future or reliving the past is time lost forever.  Enjoy today.  And enjoy it with gratitude.  Revel in what you have, especially the things that can’t bought.  Materialism is over-rated.  Stuff won’t make you happy. 
  7. Lastly, life is what you make of it.  There will be good times and not-so-good times.  You will meet good people and not-so-good people.  Choose how you will respond or not respond to what or whom you encounter.  Live your life on your terms.  No one knows what’s best for you like you do.  

Fly, little butterfly, fly!

Dedicated to Jake and all the graduates of 2018, no matter where you are in the world.  You are our future.  Get out there and put your dent in the universe!

 

 

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!

Homeward Bound

Last week, as part of my post on retirement lessons, I wrote about choosing where you will live. I didn’t choose my place for retirement as much as stumbled across it as a result of a job transfer Martin took nearly twenty years ago. My friends won’t like me saying this. Some of them even tell me, “Shush. Stop talking about how great Greenville is. We have enough retirees here now.” For me Greenville, South Carolina is a great place to retire. However, not everyone wants to retire to Greenville or anyplace else than where they are at the moment. If you do decide to move, here are a few considerations.

There are all kinds of reasons we choose to move when we retire. According to the US Census, most people move to be closer to family and grandchildren. While we love our families, pinning our retirement location on their location should include both discussion with our family and thought about our needs and wants and their needs and wants. Even then, life has a way of changing the best laid plans.

I met one couple who moved to Greenville to be near their son and daughter-in-law and their two children. Imagine the couple’s surprise after moving hundreds of miles, buying a house and settling into their new surroundings only to have their son accept a promotion that moved his family to Dallas. Ouch! No, they didn’t follow them. Instead they decided to stay here and take an occasional two hour flight to visit them in Dallas.

Conversely, some retirees choose to stay put because of family, only to have the grandchildren grow up and spread themselves in the direction of the four winds. The reality is we live in a transient society, children become adults and create their careers and lives, often moving to where opportunity takes them.

The weather also seems to be a top draw. But, choosing a climate so far removed from what you lived in most of your life may not be a sound idea. I’ve met scads of people who retired from northern or mid-western towns to Florida, only to sell and move to the Carolinas. Locals call them half-backs as this is about halfway between northern states like Connecticut and Florida.

One transplant from the Bronx quipped about his back tracking, “There was something not quite right about sitting around the pool on Christmas Day in your swim trunks.” For native Floridians there is probably something not quite right about trudging through snow on Christmas Day. My point is before you choose to move to the extreme opposite of what you are used to, think about what you will miss about your native climate, scenery and customs. While I don’t miss the frigid January temperatures, I would miss the changing colors of autumn leaves, the cooler dryer air and an evening by the fireplace.

As I mentioned last week, good close by medical care is a must for me. I’m in good health. However, if a heart attack or accident occurs, I don’t want to be out of range of a hospital or ambulance service. I’m tough, but not that tough. Sue of Life Below Zero is definitely more of a risk taker than I am. Hats off to her. Me? I’ll live bolder in more conventional ways. I recommend scoping out the medical care and proximity in your new destination before you make the move.

One of my retirement mantras is never stop learning. While having a college or university nearby is important as part of my cultural experience, so is a convenient grocery store and farmers market for my cooking at home obsession and farm store and nursery for my gardening habit. Although I live in the country all of these amenities are only minutes from my house along with locally owned restaurants and trendy shops. Also consider your partner’s needs, if you have one. Martin can bicycle right out of our property onto roads with little traffic and fabulous scenery.

Additionally, before making a move, look at housing affordability, taxes on property, income, sales and vehicles including boats or RVs. Some states do not tax food; others do. Some states do not tax social security; others do. Consider the cost of your move including the cost of moving household goods, getting new registrations on vehicles, a new license and anything else your new locale may require. Consider, too, the emotional cost of finding your way around, locating a new doctor, insurance company and other services, registering to vote, making new friends, creating a new social and cultural life.

While many retirees move, the truth is most do not, preferring to stay in their climate with the friends, family, services  and activities familiar to them. If you do decide a move is right for you, think of all the implications before making the leap. Otherwise, you may not be homeward bound.

Retired Spouse Syndrome

Last Wednesday I joined a small class of Furman University students along with Professor Lorraine DeJong and other retired adults in an intergenerational course about what it’s like to be a “senior” in today’s society. Members of Furman’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) were asked to participate voluntarily in order to bring the experience to life for the students. I signed up for a couple of classes. The subject for the class I attended last week was relationships. While we discussed family, adult children, grandchildren and friends, the segment that caught my eye was retired spouse syndrome.

Researching retired spouse syndrome, I found many articles as well as research in both Japan and Italy referring to it as retired husband syndrome. It’s no secret men have a more difficult time than women when leaving the workplace behind. More of a man’s identity is tied up in his job description and title.

Conversely, women have taken many roles throughout their lives from work to being the main caregiver of children, perhaps even staying at home for a few years while raising them. Women also are more apt to be the caregiver of parents in their later years. And, for most couples women are the ones who maintain the social calendar. As a result women are more flexible about identity.

That said, I experienced unexpected feelings of sadness and loss when I left work. Those feelings were repeated when Martin retired as I also had many ties with his co-workers over his long career at a single company. Admittedly part of my identity was immersed in his identity. When he retired I was no longer the wife of the vice-president.

As Professor Phyllis Moen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and author of numerous books, points out, the first two years of retirement can be a time of enormous stress on a marriage. Both men and women experience the strain as they struggle to create new identities, both as a couple and as individuals. While single men and women also struggle, they may or may not have a partner to consider.

Shortly after Martin retired, I had to remind him I was not going to be his only employee for the rest of his life. Suddenly, the way I filled the dishwasher and the time of day I put clothes in the washer was all wrong. Mind you, we have had a marriage of equal partnership where he washed clothes and did dishes, too. We both cook. It was our habit that whoever cooked dinner that night, the other one of us did the kitchen clean-up. This arrangement worked for decades without comment until retirement.

As I have chronicled in these pages, when we retire, our world shrinks. As it becomes smaller, we are sometimes caught up in minutiae. As I’ve also pointed out, it takes about two years to adjust to a new life and discard the old identity. Avoiding retired spouse syndrome requires an awareness of it in the first place. Once you are aware of it, then it takes commitment and communication as a couple to create the identity you envision for yourselves, together and individually.

Oftentimes, we forget the us factor. Us doesn’t mean we are joined at the hip 24/7; it means we honor and respect each other as we forge new identities. Listening is part of the communication, perhaps the most important aspect. One of the tools Martin and I used was the bucket list. We’d made bucket lists before retirement. We made others after retirement. Then we compared lists. It helped to ignite an honest discussion of who we were and who we wanted to be and whether or not our wants meshed. They did.

As for the dishwasher? Martin loads it — every night.  Renewed purpose takes many forms.  And we do laundry whenever we need to.