The words identity and crisis are often associated with privacy invasion and financial ruin, but there is another form of identity crisis that older people face when too many changes occur at the same time. An identity crisis of this magnitude is as terrifying as anything the outside world can throw at you.
Your identity is personal. Any radical change in your lifestyle has the potential of turning into a crisis, an identity crisis. Who are you really? You become accustomed to being someone’s spouse, a parent, an employee, or a boss. You identity is wrapped up in what you do; until a change occurs. You lose your spouse, your children leave home and/or you retire from the workplace. Change makes you have to reevaluate your self worth; it is tough when you realize that you aren’t as indispensible as you thought you were. You relished your role as spouse, parent, employee or employer because your job defined who you were. Your job, even if you hated it, made you feel good about yourself because you constantly faced challenges and were always learning new things. It was awesome, but what happens now?
A sense of identity hinges on these very premises; you still need to feel challenged, you still need to learn new things, and you still need to feel you have accomplished something by the end of the day. It isn’t enough to putter around the house, meet friends for lunch, or doze in front of the fireplace. You need to find something to do with your time that makes you feel good about yourself.
How do seniors find projects that interest them enough to make them feel good about themselves? How do they find a new identity? Do you experience a vicarious thrill when you read articles about an 80 year old activist being thrown in jail for storming a nuclear power plant, or read about a 94 year old excelling in track and field? You don’t have to be that motivated, but at least take their lead and find something to be passionate about. What are you going to say when someone asks “what you do?”
Do you know how to live alone? People are living longer today, which makes deciding where they will want to live a relevant issue. Living with others versus living alone often comes down to personal preference.
Some people are more “people oriented” than others. Young people of our generation were eager to strike out on their own, but economic constraints have made it more difficult for young adults today. Regardless, you spend most of your life surrounded by other people. Many of you went directly from living with parents and siblings to sharing quarters with others in college. After college it was, more often than not, financially prudent to share apartments or houses with friends. You probably stayed there until you moved in with a spouse or partner to create a home of your own. Later in life the situation changes as more and more people, particularly women, find themselves living alone. It is quite an adjustment especially if it is a first time experience. No matter why you are living alone you will face many challenges.
The number of singles who opt to “age-in-place” tells us that many older people like living alone. Although most enjoy spending time with others, they spend the majority of their days alone. Is this a bad thing?
Can solitary activities, beyond simply passing time, contribute to a person’s sense of well-being? Is it time to enjoy being quiet and introspective? I knew a gentleman who declared that he had been “busy all of his life and didn’t want to do anything now.” Was he a recluse? Perhaps, but after years of nonstop activity he felt he had the right to scale back his activities and focus on himself.
What do seniors living alone do with their time? Common solitary activities are discussed by Meika Loe (www.colgate.edu/facultysearch/FacultyDirectory/meika-loe) in her book “Aging Our Way”, in which she writes about living at home and mostly alone.” Activities considered include: growing in faith, consuming media, immersion in books, playing games, caring for the body, embracing creativity and learning how to reflect and enjoy balance in ones life.
Why do we regard living alone and loving it with suspicion? Few people living alone complain about being lonely because for the first time in their lives they are at liberty to do what they please. The can eat when they want, sleep when they want and watch whatever television programs they want.
Our society admires "busyness". Slowing down is not a trait much admired, but taking time for oneself can be liberating. A senior sometimes has to fight to be allowed to slow down. Not everyone who lives alone is lonely, but those who are lonely can become anxious and depressed. There may be a fine line between enjoying ones own company and being too quiet and too much alone. What do you do to find balance in your life?
When you hear the word retirement you probably think “non-stop vacation.” Nothing could be further from the truth; stress and anxiety follow you everywhere. Seniors need vacations too. Whether you are working from home, embarking on a fitness program, volunteering, helping with family, or going back to school, you end up being busier than ever.
Everyone needs a vacation. I’m not talking about a working vacation or even a “see the world” vacation, but a ‘real vacation’. A traditional vacation leaves you feeling that you need to go back to work to rest-up; a real vacation leaves you wanting to go back to work because you feel good about yourself.
People don’t like to admit that they did nothing on their vacations because it doesn’t sound cool. If the idea of planning a “do nothing at all” vacation makes you uncomfortable you can call it a retreat. Retreats are very popular, and you can create your own retreat anywhere.
I’ve been on a lot of vacations but only one or two of them have come close to being the real deal. Maybe you have to be older to appreciate what a vacation should be. This year the setting was perfect. We rented a house in a small village on the beach. It was so quiet that we could have heard a pin drop and the sidewalks were rolled up by 6 p.m. At first I complained about the lack of entertainment and the difficulty finding a good restaurant, but in retrospect it was probably a good thing. We had to entertain ourselves.
We slept late, took the dogs for long walks in the forests and watched hummingbirds work the trees in the backyard. We ate most of our meals out (our goal being to try all of the “award winning” clam chowders) so no cooking. I had time to read books, work on my writing, and taking long naps. It felt good. I actually had what I would like to think of as an “ah ha moment” when I realized that this might have been one of the best vacations ever.
Nothing refreshes like a change of scenery and no work. A “do nothing” vacation requires planning and doesn’t have anything to do with travel brochures, but you do have to get away from it all. This might mean leaving your watch at home or cutting all of your electronic ties. It not only means not taking your work with you, but not letting yourself get stuck being the chief cook and bottle washer. Take a real vacation; rest your body and renew your spirit. Please write and share your favorite "real vacations."
Retirement and living happily ever after articles are often clipped, scanned, and filed away to be read later. Hopefully you read enough of them to discover that retirement, like everything else, takes careful planning. If you live alone you will find that some rather unique and special circumstances apply.
If you are accustomed to living alone the idea of filling your hours and making plans might not seem like a big deal, but others who find themselves without a spouse, partner, or family may not find it quite as gratifying.
You may be looking forward to enjoying peace and quiet and catering to your own needs, but living alone is not always what it is cracked up to be. If you tend to feel lonely when left to your own devices, or if your health or your financial situation is questionable, you may need help. A financial planner or a pre-planned support system could give you much needed peace of mind. As independent as you like to think you are, it is good to know that you have a plan in place.
Friends or distant family members may not notice if you are struggling. You may not notice it yourself, or if you do you want to keep your private fears and thoughts to yourself. A financial planner might be the first person to notice if you are skipping meetings, having trouble keeping records straight or forgetting to pay your bills. Before you reach the point where you actually need help, consider setting up a bill paying service and keep meticulous records of your assets, advisors, and important people in your life. A financial planner is a good place to start. If they are not able to provide services as comprehensive as you would like they can surely point you in the right direction. There are also service providers in your community who can help you maintain your current lifestyle.
Living alone is fine and many people enjoy and relish the idea, but there comes a time in every ones life when they will need a support system, and not just in regard to finances. If you don’t want to move into a facility that provides these services you can investigate the possibility of creating a system of your own. If you are thinking along these lines you know that there are others with the same concerns. Remember that there are many services that a person might need that don’t involve money at all. What about a daily call system to make sure that everyone’s needs are being met? Pool your resources to help out if someone needs a ride to the doctor, a hot meal or someone to talk to. A group of people with similar needs can work together for the common good. Look into services within your own community that provide senior services and educational opportunities that you can share. Through knowledge, sharing and networking you can create your own support system and work together to live happily and independently.
Thousands of books have been written about finances and retirement. Unfortunately most of them don’t look far enough into the future. If you are entertaining the idea of living well into your 90s or beyond, you are going to give financial planning closer scrutiny. We aren’t just talking about what you will leave your heirs, but about how you are going to be able to continue living life as you know it today.
People get into the habit of living from pay check to pay check during their affluent years, but what happens after retirement? If you haven’t been paying attention to your finances, expenses, investments, debt, taxes, and any other assets you may have, you may be in for a rude awakening. If you don’t have money to cover basic needs your lifestyle is going to be seriously limited. Even people with retirement savings may find that they don’t have enough money coming in to pay the bills, much less handle a serious illness.
So, how long do you have to work until you can afford not to work for the rest of your life? In this economy it may be longer than you think. Where will your income be coming from? Will your income be able to handle unexpected emergencies?
Guard your money. Get rich schemes should never be considered. Older people are easy targets for scam artists so hold your money near and dear. It has become common practice for young wage earners to live beyond their means. This has to stop. When you get older you no longer have the time to catch up or make up the difference between what comes in and what goes out. The time has come when you absolutely must learn how to live below your means.
Managing your money is a full time job. Who will manage your money as an adviser or representative if you can no longer manage? If you are managing your money and your investments now, could your spouse take over that responsibility if something happened to you? Financial experts often recommend setting up a trust with several individuals working together to protect your interests.
Longevity as well as the shifting economy may mean that leaving a sizeable estate for children and grandchildren is no longer a given. At this point meeting your own basic needs it a priority; as well as making sure that your family doesn’t go into debt caring for you. Your future has to have a place for you in it.
Being a mom or a dad and then a grandparent is a lifetime of hard work. Many seniors have been so occupied with family dynamics that they don’t know what to do, or how to act, when that period is over. It is hard to let go. Dear Abby fielded a question from a busy dedicated ex-mom/ ex-grandmother the other day. The woman wrote in asking for help with getting her life back on track. The troubling question came up because she could sense that her previous role was not only not needed, but not as welcomed as it once was. Instead of sulking and feeling depressed she wanted to move on, but didn’t know where to start.
Dear Abby in her infinite wisdom reeled off a list of things to think about. The list went beyond the usual grand parenting advice about maintaining a working relationship with children and grandchildren. She was assured that it was okay to back off without having to feel guilty or feel selfish. She can still be available to help out without seeming to micro-manage their lives.
You don’t have to be so busy that you shut others out, but you do want to develop your own interests. Think back, she suggested, to the interests and dreams that you had before going away to school that first time. Childhood stopped and it was time to be practical. You had to go to school to learn how to do something that actually led to a decent job. Most of the young people I knew trained to be either nurses or teachers. The rest went off to business schools to learn how to be office managers. It was the beginning of the sensible pursuits that ultimately led to marriage and family. Despite a lifetime of being sensible, there were probably a few subjects in High School that you were deeply interested in, even passionate about. Was it history, or literature, or art work? For me, it was art. High School art classes were really fun. I enjoyed them and actually seemed to have a little talent along those lines. Art school, of course, was not an option. I remember thinking that “someday” I would be able to pursue my interest in drawing and painting. That someday didn’t arrive until forty years later. Has your “someday” arrived yet?
What were your interests from way back then? Were you in the drama club and dreamed of being an actress/actor, did you want to study photography, paint landscapes or finally read the set of classics that you have been saving? Do you want to travel, landscape a flower garden, speak a foreign language, start a journal or write a novel? Your “someday” could be now.
Not everyone wants to be a writer or an artist. If being a mother, a father or a grand parent was all you ever wanted to do, that is just fine. You don’t have to let that go. Dear Abby suggested being a foster parent, volunteering for a literacy program, or being a classroom assistant. There are many agencies and programs that will allow you to work with children. Your skills and your love will be much appreciated.
My seventy-five year old cousin and her husband have a rather nice RV. They have and hope to continue taking a number of mini-vacations each summer. They love attending Engine Shows, reunions, and shopping/touristy attractions around the state. The outings are pleasant and the campground camaraderie is always good. They are perfectly happy with their present camper, but like everyone else they can’t resist going to RV shows every year. The last RV show was fun to attend but they didn’t see anything that they couldn’t live without. One thing they did notice, and commented on, was that none of the new and improved RVs had assist bars to make entering and exiting the vehicles safer for older campers. They mentioned this to the sales representative and he said that he heard that a lot.
If they hear that a lot, why is it that the manufacturers are not responding to the question? Perhaps they are. It could be that the people in my crowd have just missed hearing about it. I would love to hear comments and news about universally designed but affordable RVs. Retired people make up a sizable percentage of the RV customer base. I am sure that many older people and/or handicapped individuals would like to upgrade their rigs, and would do so if the means were readily available.
Older people like to travel and many would do more of it if they didn’t have to deal with finding motels and restaurants equipped to meet their needs. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had your own universally designed quarters with you? Major modifications are possible but the cost is often $10-20,000 more than the original price. Surely some mini-modifications should or could become standard for people of all ages? At the very least an assist bar attached to the outside of the vehicle would be nice, and would wider doors and center aisles, lift rails, easy access shower facilities and a accessible galley be asking too much?
An article by Tom Spisak in Trailer Life magazine (Jul 2003) about modifications to make recreational vehicles more accessible is a good place to start. This magazine is still in publication (www.trailerlife.com) and good reading for anyone loving the RV way of life.
Retirement is a time of reflection. You probably scoffed when you received your first AARP magazine and admit it; the idea of checking out your local senior center was not high on your list of things to do. “Not for me”, you probably said, “I am not ready to be old yet”. After a few years you may be ready to entertain those thoughts again, but why wait? If you are looking for inexpensive classes, interesting activities, information, and a good social network, the time is now.
Visit your local senior center. Many senior centers now call themselves activity centers because they are more than just places to hang out for lunch, play cards or enter Bingo tournaments. A senior center is like a club, except that this club has a mission. A senior center is a place devoted to fun and leisure. A senior center is where seniors can learn how to help themselves through education. A senior center is a place to find health and fitness programs. A senior center is a place where seniors go to help each other through group activities and it is a place that serves as a conduit for senior care. Seniors centers have changed to reflect the drive for independent living, and are focusing on people age 55 and over. That doesn’t sound so frightening does it?
Do you want to learn something new, meet people, engage in a fitness program or are you looking for a volunteer opportunity? A senior center can be your gateway to all sorts of programs and services available for older adult. If you don’t feel “old” enough to be thought of as a “senior” you can still get involved by volunteering. Teach a class, help out at the reception desk, offer your managerial expertise, wow them with your cooking skills, or you could serve as a board member. Your center will be as good as you want it to be.
I am sure you can find something that will pique your interest whether it is social and recreational activities, educational and art classes, seminars on health and wellness, fitness programs, civic engagement opportunities, employment assistance or transportation services. Dance classes, book clubs, social hour, meal service, creative writing, bridge groups, yoga or better balance instruction, gardening, cooking…you name it and you can find it at a senior center near you Nearly every community has a senior center. I can count at least four within driving distance of my house, and that is pretty typical. Some are large and some are small but one of them is sure to offer something that you might enjoy. The people are friendly, accepting and supportive. What more could you want from a social “club”?
Isn’t it grand that togetherness is “in” again? Hectic schedules and multiple interests make it difficult to spend quality time with your own family. It is even more difficult to spend quality time with an extended family that is scattered across the country. If you want to have a relationship with your parents or if your children are going to have a relationship with their grandparents; someone is always going to have travel.
Why not travel together? The idea of trying to relax while dealing with noisy kids and opinionated grandparents might not sound like a vacation to you, but if you think about it, it might be your only chance. In retrospect, a lifetime goes by very quickly. There may be precious little time to bond with your children or to get to know your parents as people other than mom and dad. Vacationing together is one way to get back in touch with your family, in a way that isn’t possible at home.
Families have grown so far apart in these busy times that many of us need reminding that a vacation isn’t all about sleeping late and drinking too much. A vacation might be the only real “together time” that you get to spend with your family.
Anne Tergeson (email@example.com) came up with delightfully exotic options in her Wall Street Journal article (Monday, July 16, 2012). Many cruise lines, resorts and tour packages cater to families and multigenerational groups. Having someone else do the planning can rid you of the notion that you have to be in each others hair every minute. The benefits of vacationing together will outweigh the disadvantages and give you something “real” to remember. This isn’t about going to grandma’s house and expecting her to ride herd and wait on everyone. A vacation isn’t about mom spending days at the beach or at a campground doing all the cooking. A vacation needs to be a vacation for everyone. Why not meet half way and do something that is fun for everyone.
Taking your kids and your parents on a planned vacation with you is a wonderful time to plan family activities, whether apart or together. If an organized tour isn’t on your agenda you can surely put together something yourself, but remember:
It is sad when a child leaves home to go to college. It is sad when a parent dies, but it is even sadder when you discover that you didn’t take the opportunity to have a real relationship with them. Spending time together is one way to rectify that. What do you think about multi-generational vacations? Is this something that you could do?