Dang Independent Old People

Mom in North Dakota, Sept. 2010

Mom in North Dakota, Sept. 2010

Mom’s almost 90. She’s bright, independent and social. She’s also frail and tiny. On the rare occasion she goes out in the evening, she lets me know ahead of time. This is because everyone, from local family to relatives from back east, will call me worrying if they can’t reach her after dark.

So when I called around five on Sunday night and she didn’t answer, I figured she was indisposed and would call back. She didn’t. An hour later, she didn’t answer either her cell or landline, so I drove over to her house (four blocks away). Her windows were dark but the porch light was on. I figured she went somewhere with her friends and forgot to tip us off.

Over the next couple hours, I phoned a few more times, and then let my sister know. Karen was concerned. “Have you gone inside her house?” she asked. Feeling like a jerk, I let myself in and checked every room and closet. The car was home, so I checked inside that, too. Looking out the patio slider, I was grateful to note she was not lying in a crumpled heap outside, and in fact, the door was locked, further evidence she’d gone out. As I drove back home, I noted a Christmas program going on at the Lodge, which is the clubhouse for our 55+ community. Probably she was inside, I told Karen.

It was unlike Mom not to keep us posted. She’s very responsible and thoughtful. Over the next few hours, Karen and I called and left a few more messages. Nothing.

Pretty soon it was 9:30, and I called Karen back. “What are we going to do if she hasn’t turned up by 10 when the Lodge closes?” I asked. Karen said, “Why don’t you go inside and see if she’s there?” Smart, but risky: if I showed up at the ballroom, Mom would think something horrible had happened to a family member. Then, when I told her why I was there, she’d be embarrassed in front of her friends.

But maybe I could sneak in, see if she was there, and split, undetected. I put my bra back on, as well as some decent slacks and a dab of lipstick. It was now 9:45. At the Lodge, I parked in front and headed toward the ballroom.

Great timing. The party was ending and a crowd flowed toward me. There she was: the shortest person in a sea of elders, her auburn hair barely visible over someone’s shoulder. I fled to the car, leapt in, and drove down one of the parking aisles, where I shut off the lights and waited to make sure it was her. It was dark, but her walk is distinctive after that broken leg of three years ago, and she has a slight hunch from osteoporosis. Then I saw the glint of her cane, and knew I could relax.

I called Karen. “Found her!” I said, laughing at my sneakiness, all for the purpose of ensuring Mom’s safety without her feeling impeded. Karen asked, “What is she doing now?” Suddenly angry, I said, “She’s crossing the parking lot with her old biddy friends!” I was mad with relief. Then I got the idea to race over to her house and watch to make sure she got in okay. I parked on her street, stalking her again, feeling like an inept spy.

She never showed.

I drove around back, thinking she might have gone in through the garage. Nope. I circled her neighborhood for a few fruitless minutes, but assumed she went over to a friend’s house for a snack. I drove home, mumbling and cursing to myself. And there she was, in the back seat of her friend’s little car. They were on my street, looking at Christmas lights. I managed to get inside my garage undetected.

It was after ten. I went to bed. “She okay?” mumbled Bill from under the covers. “Fine. She’s out partying.” It was, after all, my fault and my success that Mom had come to this. I was the one who lobbied hard for her to move to my community. “You’ll have friends,” I’d said. “There are always activities at the Lodge. You’ll never be bored or lonely.” Now, three years after moving away from her beloved home in the high desert, she was thriving, independent, and social.

And her kids were freaking out, acting like they were the parents.

The next day, she was slightly defensive. “I figured you wouldn’t call,” was her argument, but we both know that’s a load of hooey. I said I was glad she had friends and a social life, and that we kids put her through more than this when we were teenagers. We laughed and changed the subject. She’ll never know how upset I was. If my elderly, fragile mother is capable of independence and self-determination, and has all her marbles, I’ll stay out of her way.

Even if she does drive me apeshit.

What Drives You, Angelina?

imgresWe often discuss the idea of purpose, particularly after midlife, because that’s a time for new directions. The theory is, you’ve done the required stuff in the first half of your life. Now, hopefully, you have more choices. What direction now? Will you start a new business, volunteer, or enjoy some well-earned rest? The answer depends on what drives you.

I’m driven by a love of writing, and a desire to share my perspective on positive aging. A friend is driven by a passion to help others, and she spends so much time running a community pantry (as a volunteer) that she traded in her sedan for an SUV that would haul neighborhood donations. Another friend volunteers on so many boards she’s about to have a nervous breakdown. One friend golfs four days a week! She is living fully, according to her own definitions, and is happy. We are all driven by different experiences over our lifetimes, and different needs.

Even though Angelina Jolie is a bit young to be featured in AnyShinyThing, she fascinates me as to purpose. This woman could do anything or nothing. She’s famous, rich, married to Brad Pitt, and has lots of kids to keep her busy. So what’s she up to, in her “spare” time?

Jolie is a special envoy of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR). My old job, as Bill Maher would say. Her job is to expand the advocacy campaign of the UNHCR and engage in high-level mediation in complex emergency situations. She travels constantly to war-torn places in the world, to help and observe displaced populations. She has gone on more than 50 missions to refugee camps, and “traverses the same perilous dirt roads that relief workers and doctors and foreign correspondents do. In these settings, there are no red carpets, no Donatella Versace gowns.” (I’m quoting Janine Di Giovanni, the war correspondent who profiled Jolie for the December issue of Vanity Fair magazine.)

According to the article, “…she has no real diva side. She often arrives at meetings early and sits quietly, waiting with a book or notes. There’s no entourage. She packs lightly and often travels with one bag — a valuable lesson from working for humanitarian organizations and having to jump in and out of helicopters in remote locales. She is unfailingly polite and is loath to complain about being tired or feeling sick.” Jolie traveled to The Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013, shortly after her double mastectomy. “If she was in pain, you never knew it,” says a colleague who was there.

Why is she so driven? I wish I could ask her. For whatever reason, this is what Angelina Jolie feels compelled to do, and if she, or I, or you, can’t explain our motives, it’s okay. The point is to live to your limits, regardless of age, gender, or life circumstance. Whether you’re stretching your mind or body, go at it with everything you have, with the greatest appreciation, gratitude, and utilization.

You only get one life. At the end, you can die happily, knowing you didn’t squander the gift.

Are You Downsizing Your Holidays?

Mom's House by mattbeccemjay

“Mom’s House” by mattbeccemjay

You’ve dragged in the boxes of Christmas decorations from the garage, attic, basement, or storage unit how many times now? You’ve hiked around tree lots or unfurled the fake tree for how many years? Maybe it’s time for a change.

You may love the holiday hustle, but I’m getting lazier in that respect. I like decorating for the holidays, but I don’t want to go to as much trouble anymore.

Which brings up a side issue: have you noticed how useful it is to be able to say, “I’m too old to…” or “I’ve been doing that for so many years…” or “At my age, I don’t have to…” If you haven’t yet played the OPC (Old Person Card), I recommend it. Don’t be afraid to let your freak flag fly. It’s handy at times, if you’re not too proud to use it.

But I digress.

We graduated to a fake Christmas tree about ten years ago. Last year, I pulled it out of storage and it was so raggedy I tossed it. Bill and I decided not to replace it. We were giddy with our new freedom! Could we really have a house with no Christmas tree? Then we saw a logical reason: it would be smart to make that change before the grandbabies get old enough to expect one or feel sad about its absence.

So we strung lights on the patio, arranged holiday centerpieces on tables, and hung a wreath over the fireplace. It looked beautiful and was a lot easier to set up and put away. We even had Christmas dinner for eight, not counting the babies. Everybody had fun and nobody complained about the lack of a tree.

This year, I’m going to see if the Christmas tree lot has boughs they’ll sell or give me, and I plan to array them on my dining and coffee tables, decorated by ornaments. If they don’t have a big enough pine fragrance, I can always count on my candles. The most fragrant pine scent I’ve found is Frasier Fir by Thymes. Instead of smelling like Pine Sol, the candles have a nice undertone of cedar and sandalwood. It’s really rich. I love it. (Note to marketers: please don’t ask. I don’t do ads.)

So I’m turning into a holiday minimalist. I’m not a Scrooge. I’m just too old to go to a lot of trouble.

How about you? Have you changed the way you deal with the holiday season, now that, as an adult, you’ve enjoyed fifty or sixty of them?

Are You Following Your Dreams?

Writing was my dream, but I had to delay it for almost forty years as I worked and raised a family. Even though I was too tired every day to write, I kept the dream alive. I read short stories and novels, studied articles and books on craft, attended classes and workshops, and asked writers why and how they did things. Often, I spoke my ideas and thoughts into a voice recorder during the one-hour commute up and down the Cajon Pass.

Musing at La Quinta Resort, Coachella Valley

Alone at La Quinta Resort, Coachella Valley

When I began writing my first book, I worried that it wasn’t good enough. I’m self-taught. My degree was in business, not writing. I had learned to write memos, not fiction.

Treebones Resort in Big Sur

Treebones Resort in Big Sur

But then I saw this: a recent review on Goodreads (for somebody else’s book, not mine) said, “The writing and characters were not high quality fancyass literature. And there were some glaring holes in the plot. And sometimes I got the characters confused now who was related to who. But by GOD this one kept me enthralled and spellbound from the first to the very last page.” The reviewer gave the book 5 stars.

Plane over Discovery Passage

Plane over Discovery Passage, Campbell River, BC

The review filled me with inspiration and motivation. I felt sure, maybe for the first time, that my creative writing degree from Self-Taught University was good enough. I would tell the best story I could, and maybe the reader would feel the connection. Maybe even love my stories.

Beach at Singer Island, West Palm Beach, Florida

Singer Island, West Palm Beach, Florida

So that’s what I did, and based on the reviews, it seems like the right choice. I’ve had some success now with my two books. After postponing my dream for four decades, it feels good. Real good. I am finally living the dream, one I intend to pursue for the rest of my life.

Sydney Harbor at night. We took the picture as we set out for open waters on a cruise ship.

So here’s the takeaway, readers. If you are old enough to finally pursue your dream, are you doing so? If not, is it because you’re afraid of being exposed as imperfect? In that case, remember that life is unpredictable, and get moving. Don’t let the perfect, as they say, be the enemy of the good.

And if you’re a younger person, still churning away in the white-hot middle years, caring for everybody other than yourself and not a spare energy molecule to expend on your dream, at least do this: start a folder or binder or box, into which you can toss or write down anything you want pertaining to your dream. Inspirations, notes, magazine articles, pictures, people who’re doing it, possible approaches, what you expect to enjoy when you finally get to focus on it – anything that will keep the dream alive. Because you want to remember, later, what it was your heart pined for when you were younger. So you can follow that melody some day.

What is your dream, and are you chasing after it now? If not, do you have a strategy? Let me know in the comments below.

Tell the Truth: Aging is Pretty Cool

We Boomers are a monster demographic. When I was in elementary school at St. Gregory’s, the nuns struggled to teach as many as sixty kids in a class. We’ve already changed the culture of this country. We can do that simply by our sheer size. There are so many of us, no matter what we do, a little bit goes a long way. Good or bad, yes, admittedly.

You’re old enough to remember the theory of The Big Lie; that is, if you say a thing long enough and loudly enough, people will start to believe it. Let’s try a few:

  • Smoking is harmless.
  • Cars will never get more than 20 miles per gallon.
  • Saddam Hussein, yellowcake, WMD.

Well, how about we employ the Big Lie strategy to the promotion of this Big Truth:

It’s Good To Get Old.

You don’t have to think very hard to come up with benefits of aging. Sure, there’s all that stuff about having a more positive outlook and not panicking so easily, and having better control of your emotions and – oh, yeah! Bilateralization. That’s a biggie. (Last winter, I wrote four posts about the positive changes to the aging brain. You can start with the first one and scroll through.)

But on a simpler level, how about the fact that many of us get to cut back or stop working? My brother-in-law just turned 66 a week ago. Instead of full-on retirement, he now works a few days a week. If he feels like it. As a trucker, he’s had to be at work by 4 a.m. for years. Now, he can go in late and leave early, and the boss is grateful.

At midlife and older, many of us start small businesses, particularly women. Some of us are able to volunteer, helping out with causes we believe in. Or maybe we just do more for our families. It’s no biggie. As a grandmother, the little guys wear me out but I get to go home and sleep through the night.

At this age, my siblings, friends and I talk about what we’re going to do with our free time. It’s like graduating from high school. Back then, we were exuberant to think we could chart our own course, no teachers or bell schedule to answer to. I feel the same way now, a sense of rising excitement. Sometimes I work on my next novel, but other times, maybe I’ll go to a movie in the middle of a weekday. Even running boring errands is more enjoyable when everybody else is at work and you have the place to yourself. On the weekends, Bill and I tend to stick around home. We don’t want to fight the crowds.

And the other bennies: I keep going through my closet, weeding out the career outfits I no longer use, especially the heels. Even if they’re low; I don’t care for them. And if I don’t care for something, I can usually avoid it. I have that freedom now.

In spite of the physical stuff, old can be pretty cool. Unless you’re a slave to youth culture, which by now you should have the confidence to rise above. So, given that it’s true, not even a lie, how about we start talking about it? Just try not to gloat around the younger people. We don’t want them to feel bad about their age.

Mom enjoying Carlsbad with my sister

Mom enjoying Carlsbad with my sister. In midweek. We had the place to ourselves.

Joan Rivers

I think nobody is that surprised, but it sure brings mortality home. She was one of the hardest working women in show biz, had like thirty gigs scheduled between now and the end of the year. Went in for a procedure. Boom. We’re reminded to appreciate every minute. Rest in peace, Joan. You earned it.Joan Rivers

 

The Puzzle of Purpose

question marksI was talking with my friend Martin Rice, formerly of the Fifty2Ninety blog, about having a sense of purpose in the last third of our lives. He had been wondering what older people do if/when they lose that sense, and considered starting up a new blog dedicated to this issue. As we talked, it occurred to me that older peeps are more wedded to purpose than necessary. Maybe we’re addicted to the idea of productivity, unable to unhitch from the parental and career wagons we’ve pulled all these years.

If so, the alternative could be hedonistic and decadent! Just for fun, let’s consider.

When you’re a kid, your purpose is to grow up and become skillfully independent. Then, as a young adult, it’s to create a sustainable life for yourself and your dependents, supporting your part of the world (family, community, workplace, state and nation). Finally, as an older adult, your purpose is – what? If normal cycles play out, people aren’t depending on you as much anymore, and you have the luxury of free time and choice. So now, what is your purpose?

Must you have one?

Yes, because purpose is critical to quality and length of life, according to this article by Paula Span. But the research came from interviews with old people, who were raised in a time when we believed one must be of service to others. That Puritan work ethic still influences us, for good and bad. We feel more worthwhile, confident, and secure when we can say we’re struggling with some kind of load.

Not to go all Byron Katie on you, but is it true, or is it training?

When my father died, Mom felt she no longer had a purpose. She had spent her adult life serving others, first raising us kids, and then looking out for Dad more and more as he declined. After many years, his death freed her, but freedom didn’t look that great. Losing her sense of purpose added to her grief. As she and I discussed this, I asked if she might find purpose in showing us four kids, then in our fifties, how to age well. She shrugged, and I felt embarrassed at sounding self-centered.

Fast forward six years. Mom, now 89, lives a few blocks from me, in our 55+ community. She has friends, drives herself around town, exercises, and has hobbies and interests. She no longer serves the needs of others, unless you count the normal generosities inherent in living an ethical life. In fact, it seems she spends her time staying healthy and enjoying herself. I recently asked how she feels about the question of purpose.

“I wonder why I’m still alive, but God must have his reasons,” she said. “Maybe He figures I’ve earned a vacation.”

What does a person have to do to earn that vacation? I worked hard from a young age, volunteered a lot, and supported everybody and his brother (and his kids). Sometimes I fantasize about cutting loose from everything and just savoring my existence. When I said this to Martin, he replied, “Maybe that is your purpose.”

God, wouldn’t that be a relief?

I think older people might stay busy out of a sense of guilt, because they have all this freedom while their kids are struggling under the pressures of child-rearing and careers. But might we try to feel justified doing nothing beyond that which is required to preserve and savor our existence? Assuming the normal generosities, of course. Like stepping up to the plate when your community needs you, and not just being a selfish you-know-what.

What do you think?

Robin Williams and Getting Old

Robin WilliamsSo sad to think of this poor man suffering with the almost-insurmountable problems of addiction and depression (LATE ADD: and possibly also Parkinsons’.) He also had medical problems (and we’ve seen that heart surgery can bring on depression). On top of that, he had money problems, and Robin Williams wasn’t in his peak earning years anymore.

His death has prompted important conversations. According to this story in the Washington Post, white males die by suicide more than any other group by gender or racial demographic. The number is four times as high as for the next highest group, and it dwarfs every other demographic on the chart. 

…Aging may take a larger toll on the male psyche. Older men who value their self-reliance may find themselves less able to cope as they age, when they are no longer in their prime physically, sexually and at work.

“I often refer to them as being developmentally unsuccessful, because they’re not equipped to handle the challenges of getting older if they are so tied into their masculinity . . . and making a lot of money,” said Christopher Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” said Dost Ongur, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. . “The power you knew, the control you knew, aren’t the same.”

I want to tread carefully here; what I say next is not meant to minimize Robin’s physiological and psychological burdens. I’m not qualified to offer an opinion, but want to use the statistics as a starting point for discussion. 

Many of us, particularly men, are unable to accept have a hard time accepting the aging process and our own mortality. We’re swamped in a noxious wave of cultural messages that, at a certain age, we’re worthless, stupid, pointless…and we buy it. We look in the mirror and see the work of time, and it’s not flattering. We retire or get forced out of jobs. We wonder what the point is. What good are we?

After a lifetime of being brainwashed to believe bad stuff about old people, there’s new research that says people who believe negative things about the aging process die, on average, 7.5 years sooner. What a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Yes, physically, we’re on the losing end, but mentally and emotionally there is much to be grateful for. Here are a few tidbits worth celebrating:

  • Myelination doesn’t peak until your sixties. Myelin is a substance that coats the brain circuits and improves neurotransmission. I wrote about that here.
  • Positivity increases later in life, and you have greater control over your emotions – even though older people feel them more strongly. Something about changes to the amygdala. That’s in the same blog post, linked above.
  • Bilateralization occurs later in life. It means you use both halves of your brain all the time, instead of just the right brain for art/left brain for analysis. This adds up to deeper, more creative, more out-of-the-box thinking.  Have you ever heard this before? More here.

So we’re on the short end of the mortality stick, but from what I hear, the older you get, the more at ease you are with the prospect of death.

Robin Williams was a generous benefactor to many causes, and even now, he’s helping humanity by raising difficult subjects. I ask that you consider the positive aspects of aging, and talk about them. Give your kids, and the rest of society, a reason to feel good about the last third of life, because there is good. Why not celebrate it?

Rest in peace, Robin.

Resilience: The New Self-Esteem

We Boomers may have tried too hard to give our kids a sense of self-esteem. We stand accused of rewarding the munchkins for all manner of nothingburger “accomplishments” and fostering a sense of entitlement in Gens X and Y. Now, the tide has turned. Self-esteem is out and resilience is in.

Resilience, which allows a person to roll with the punches, is built internally, and does not rely on external validation. I’ve been trying to develop it myself, because older age can be daunting.

When I am in a situation where somebody is driving me nuts, I enjoy being able to turn it around. I consider how this crazy situation might enhance or inform my life. How might I see it differently and laugh about it, or use it for enlightenment? When bad things happen, I try to find a different, more empowered, perspective. For example:

  • One day, Bill was noticeably bummed out. He said he was missing his parents (both deceased). I said I was sorry, and he said, “I’m not. The pain reminds me that I loved them.” Way to turn it around.
  • A guy flies past me on the freeway, cutting in and out. Instead of being pissed, I imagine he’s racing to the hospital, having gotten bad news about a loved one, and sympathy replaces my anger.
  • Falling asleep last night, I was wracked by anxiety. Instead of buying into it, I told myself, “Your amygdala is on overdrive. Sleep will fix that.” It wasn’t me, it was a gland; a tired, overactive, mixed-up gland, which I could repair by nurturing my body.
  • Standing in line at the pharmacy, I’m fixated on how annoying, and annoyingly slow, everybody in front of me is. But wait: it’s actually an opportunity. I whip out my phone and resume reading a novel I started last night on Kindle. Or check my email.
  • In the same line, guy is talking loudly on his on cellphone, and I’m forced to listen. Instead of getting annoyed, I listen avidly for characters and situations I might use in my next novel. Thanks for the material, buddy!

I admit my examples are pretty lightweight, but the brain has a certain plasticity about it; what if you started small and worked your way up? Might this skill not help you when dealing with the heavier difficulties in life?

I get a real rush out of not feeling stuck, trapped, or victimized. Resilience is a powerful tool to use, and a good skill to model for our kids and grandkids.

What are some examples of resilience in your life?

Empty Nest: Heartache and Opportunity

“For 20 years, we packed lunches, helped with homework, and paid too many bills…”

Carl Love, columnist for The Press Enterprise

Carl Love, columnist for The Press Enterprise

So begins the lament of the empty-nester, in this case, Carl Love, a columnist at my local paper. I can identify. I’ve been providing child care for my two grandbabies for three years now, and each year is a tidal wave of diapers, teething, bottles, binkies, making breakfast and lunch, Play-Doh, stickers, crayons, building blocks, walks w/ and w/o strollers, buckling into carseats and swings, pool, park, naps, monitors, and potty chairs….

And: (take a breath) being greeted with “GRANDMA!!!” when I arrive in the morning, slobbery kisses, sharing a cup and seeing the little one learn to drink from it, reading the same book for the 3rd time in a row and sensing that someone is reluctant to leave the comfort of my lap, pushing on swings, playing in the sandbox, looking for me in a crowd, two babies crowding to get on either side of Grandpa in a recliner so HE can read the same book 3 or 4 times, stealing my Honey Nut Cheerios because they’re sweeter than the ones Mom buys, holding my hand, hugging my legs, stealing my sunglasses, watching Baby Einstein and turning around to grin with delight at the sight of their old buddy, the smiley caterpillar…all of a sudden, it ends. On the last day of Mommy or Daddy’s work year (both are teachers), I kiss the babies goodbye at their door and turn to get into my car, grateful but blinking back tears.

Such a transitional moment conjures reminders of mortality that cast a pall on the otherwise searing brightness of a late-spring afternoon. For all of the challenges, what can I do that is more precious or valuable? Now that I’ll have all that free time, what will be as meaningful? I think this is what Carl was feeling. He’s happy to have done his job well, but after so many days, months, years of a full house and schedule, living within a Short Attention Span movie, dealing with tired muscles/bones/joints and sleep deprivation, it just ends, and then what?

Somehow, it feels like the parade not only passed you by, but the cacophony faded and now you’re standing on the curb, alone in the silence. Questioning your place on the timeline, the existential questions you’ve been too busy to ask. Who are you now, with nobody to raise? And that seems to me the most exciting, frightening, confusing precipice over which to lean. The view could be sublime, if only we dare look.