Elderhood: Preparing from the head and the heart

I have friends counting the months till retirement, and others who cringe at the word. The former group have lists of projects put off till this day, the latter love what they do so want to keep at it, or need to augment or replace savings.

Others were laid off and are now involuntarily retired as jobs remain few for the post-60 woman.

A post by the theologian and writer Matthew Fox explores the opportunity that comes at this point in life; playing with changing "retirement" to "refirement". The full post is here. Though aimed at retirees, many of his questions are also relevant for those in late career.
Fox's questions address contribution and engagement.  Some I could answer readily, others I'm sitting with.

1.  What is getting you angry and stirring you up? Is it education?  Ecology? Homelessness? Low voter turnout? Organize or join others in the struggle.

2.  What do you most cherish in life? How can you get another generation excited about that and involved?

3.  What fire do you sense in the young people you know? How can you join forces and contribute to their passion and concern?

4.  What books do you read or speakers do you listen to who stir some fire inside you? How can you share that fire with others?

5.  Some fire is cool (blue) and some fire is hot (orange, red). What are the cool fires burning in you?  How can you stoke them to a fuller heat and involve others in your interest?

6.  Creativity is a fire. How are you being creative? What art forms are you expressing yourself through these days?

7.  What are your talents and what is your experience in life that might be
valuable to others, especially the young?  How can you take this to them and
join them in their journey of self discovery and community building?

8.  In what ways are you an elder and not just a ‘retired person’?

9.  Have you found a young person (or persons) to mentor lately?  Go for it!

The wedding photo of my in-laws, who just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at a buoyant family party, reminds me of Fox's list.

They have been models of giving to their family and to the town in which they've spent all those years: the uncountable hours of volunteer work, the devoted attention to family (including a family friend who was an "adopted daughter"), a home filled with art and good cooking, books and late-night talks. Now in their 80s, they can look back on a life of service, love and prudent decisions, and plenty of fun.

They also represent a life many now say is a closed chapter: a hardworking father and stay-at-home mother, a rock-solid, defined government pension after decades of service with one employer.  

The new reality is outlined in a straight-shooting article by Jeff Sommer in the New York Times; he advises those with a million bucks in savings that they might want to keep working, because they could well outlive that nest egg. 

To anyone except the firmly well-off, Sommers delivers crisp advice: save as much as you can, prepare to work longer, and question how much you really need. I'd add, since the two biggest expense categories for seniors are housing and transportation, put those in your sights and resolve to get down to one or no car and a smaller space to maintain.

Fox is speaking to the heart, Sommers to the head. We need to heed both, as individuals and in community.  

What I'd like want to see most for my American family members is universal health insurance, and for me, living in Québec, the passage of the end-of-life bill.



Anonymous said…
Bravo, what an excellent post and food for thought, I have only just started thinking about the future and it's causing quite a panic in me, I've been blundering along like teenager.
Madame Là-bas said…
Jubilada,the Spanish word for retired is a happier,more positive one. Abbeyfield Houses are a possible solution to housing and carless before 65 is my goal. We are fortunate in Canada with healthcare. End of life choice would be a partial solution.

Alexandra said…
Great post! The list reminds me of my parents who now, in retirement, look happier and somehow younger than before. Their social calendar is busy, their garden (both edible and ornamental) is thriving, and they both have cool new hobbies.
Susan said…
I would love to live in a city where there is ample public transportation. Without that, one cannot go without a car.

And yes, universal healthcare that all contribute towards would be good for our citizens and good for business.
Anonymous said…
I've written before but a quick update: I'm a Canadian living in America. My husband dumped me after 28 years of marriage and I am disabled. The future frightens me in so many ways. I will be moving back to Canada in the near future.

My husband quit his job, and now we have no health insurance. I just paid $440- for a month's supply of Nexium. How can anyone pay that? His new company's insurance will kick in a month or two down the road but I won't get much of that $440 back.

All I feel I can do now is move home, and save as much as possible. However, my ex still spends as if the money will come in forever. I've seen a financial planner and all he can recommend is live like I'm poor with more going to savings, but he also suggested taking an occasional trip.

How encouraging that the endoflife might be passed. I have seen far too many family and friends die in agony that none of us would make our dogs suffer.

Susan B said…
Great food for thought, Duchesse! I'm starting to look at whether I'm going to want to retire in a few years (if I'm still one of those fortunate enough to retain my job). On one hand, my income helps us to be able to travel, on the other, I'd love to have more time to devote to volunteering and creative pursuits. We've already had the discussion about living someplace with good public transportation; that's a must. I've known too many seniors in remote "retirement communities" who (whether they realize it or not) become very isolated.
Great post Duchesse.
My retirement event was held at the golf course last night!
It will be a whole new chapter for me and with a second grandchild due this September I am so excited. There are many many things that I want to dabble in from volunteering to helping my family. Taking a course or two and perhaps joining a bridge group. Living on a fixed income will be a bit of a shift but I am not afraid as we have never been big consumers and both my husband and I love living a simple life.
(((Duchesse))) Wise, and thought-provoking. Thank you for taking the time to share these thoughts, this information, and the LOVELY wedding photo. Much for us all to consider...
Duchesse said…
Bourbon: You are a mere child; these things do not encroach on most womens' thoughts till their fifties :)

Mme: I love that word, thank you for teaching it. It's related to jubilation, non?

Alexandra: That's good to hear and may they have many years of such active retirement.

Susan: Well, some of us do move!

Christine: While much of your situation is unknown I cannot help but infer that a return to Canada will be of benefit in terms of expense management. So many factors to consider, though, so I hope you have advice re taxes, health care and a comparison of living costs on both sides of the border.

Une femme: A retirement community is not my preference but I also see why someday I might change my mind.

hostess: I am often amused by what people describe as their "simple life". Ah, denizens of the middle class developed world, we are so privileged.

Duchesse said…
Janice: On the cusp of your big change, these questions seem to be ones you have been considering too.
Beth said…
A really excellent post,and thanks for including Matthew Fox's questions. As an artist and writer, "retirement" isn't something I plan on, though we are doing less of our professional design work now, and happily so. I'm glad we planned ahead and were frugal, and very glad we now live in Canada where healthcare and quality of life are priorities. I'm resistant about retirement communities, though like you I can imagine getting to a point where it would be more attractive; what particularly doesn't appeal is the isolation from younger people.
Anonymous said…
Retirement communities are not popular anymore, boomers will not be going there and they also won't hang out in "seniors centres" either. They are more apt to move to centrally located areas instead. Retirement homes are also disappearing, in my area they have rebranded them as short term recovery units for people who have had say hip surgery and such.

Your in-laws lives were "of the moment" it's gone and passed. I live in an area full of seniors and as a younger boomer have nothing in common with these women. They lived very simple lives obsessed with cleaning and laundry and have no concept of things like poverty, job loss, commuting, getting downsized and not having a fully indexed pension. I also find them resistant to change of any sort in the community fighting everything tooth and nail, so try to distance myself. I certainly don't want to emulate them.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous@2:18: Your description of the seniors in your area is the opposite of my experience in all respects save one: every elder I've talked to hopes to age in place rather than in an institution.
LauraH said…
A thought provoking post indeed. I love my retired life - this is a wonderful time to dive deeply into things that I could only skim while working. Luckily, my Toronto neighbourhood that has almost everything I need within walking distance and great transit as well. Maintaining physical well being takes more effort now and I expect that to continue. I agree that we are very privileged, so fortunate compared to many many others.
Anonymous said…
With health problems and the knowledge that dementia runs in the family, it's hard to be excited about retirement in a few years. An institution may be in my future to spare my family. Still, working hard on finding a walkable, livable community and a smaller home (no yard, please!)and would love to have time for activities that have been put on hold because we are lucky enough to still have jobs. Lynn
Duchesse said…
Beth: That's what I minded about my mother's retirement home, where she moved at 92- however, it did not seem to bother her a bit. Instead, she resented having to give up her driver's license, mandatory in her state.

LuaraH: WHere are you? My former TO neighbourhood was like that, as is my current Mtl one. No need for car.

Lynn: I recently re-read Susan Jacoby's "Never Say Die" and recommmend it. She presents stats re dementia: we have a 50% chance of developing some form and it's not affected by heredity, according to her research. Yikes, was that sobering.

LauraH said…
I'm in the west end between Bloor West Village and the Junction, so I can walk to either for shopping/services. It's ideal. Sounds like you are enjoying the same thing in Montreal. Btw thanks for suggesting the Kalabandar show, I went today and bought several scarves as part of my wardrobe renovation.
Happy Summer Solstice to all, and happy Aboriginal Day (in Canada). The idea of Elderhood makes me cringe, I don't think I'll become a different person on some magic birthday, but it is true that Elders are valued in some cultures, including many Indigenous ones.

As for dementia, I see it as an end of life. Life isn't just breathing and digesting. Don't get me wrong, I hope to die peacefully of old age, but have no desire to be warehoused as a no longer quite human.

Enough slightly morbid thoughts on the longest days in the Northern hemisphere, with such beautiful light.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: I "see" where you are, great area. So happy to introduce you to Kalabandar. I'm begging Jan to open an online store. For the moment she is mailing me the occasional piece.

lagatta: Our present-day North American culture is not characterized by its appreciation of age. I recenlty had someone tell me I shouldn't work anymore to make room for youger workers.
LPC said…
Most of all it's just good to be having as much open online discussion about aging and death as we have about what clothes to wear, how to raise our children, and who should be President.
M said…
In response to Lagatta's post, I've heard other people make similar comments about "warehousing", although not quite that brutally, and find it very upsetting. Caring for the elderly in need is a physically and emotionally tough job and to have that work described as "warehousing" and old people depicted as "not quite human" is inaccurate and vulgar. It's usually hard-working underpaid women who love and care for the aged and sometimes senile family members when others won't or can't handle it. It takes a mountain of strength and compassion for these folks to do their job. Both the caregivers and the fragile elderly people they serve, deserve our respect. Lagatta, I think I understand what you were trying to say. None of us wants to be in that predicament. I just hope after some retrospection you will soften your rhetoric because I'm pretty sure you didn't mean to sound so unkind.
Duchesse said…
LPC: I hope more of us talk about end of life issues, both on blogs and IRL.

M: Your comments led me to reflect on my mother's caregivers in nursing homes and retirement homes, and from the agency she hired for supplementary care. They were truly remarkable people (save the rare exception). Their strength, compassion and a sharp eye for reading symptoms extended her life by seversl years and added immeasurably to its quality.

M, I am ONLY referring to my own choices. I would rather die than be in that state (I mean dementia or utter helplessness). I know several other people middle-aged or older who feel exactly the same as I do, and it is not out of any death wish.

I am certainly not Dr Death who wants to save on elder care by imposing "death committees" (which were a myth). Here in Québec we are very far along in terms of choice about life and death, and many of us do want to be able to tell them in advance that we don't want to "live" in dementia, not knowing who anyone is...

I agree that good elder care and palliative care are essential; if not, dying in dignity is not really a "choice", as vulnerable seniors could feel obliged not to hang around for too long.

But such discussions are really only possible in countries where there is National Health Care.
Unknown said…
Much food for thought in this post Duchess. I like the idea of balancing contribution, engagement and sustainable living, financially and otherwise.
Duchesse said…
Susan Partian: It's quote a balancing act as so many of us have accumulated possessions and now are thinking, What am I going to do with the stuff?
Well, your household did an excellent and impressive job!

Anonymous said…
An interesting post. I note several of the questions about engaging with younger people, influencing, mentoring etc. I'd suggest (as a younger person) not to mind if ignorant younger people don't want your advice and mentoring. You can offer, but you can't put an old head on young shoulders (as the saying goes).
Northmoon said…
I am so glad to see my community of bloggers discussing these issues, thank you Duchesse. Loved reading the comments.

I thought I'd always want to work until I got into my 60's a few years ago. My attitude is gradually changing as I get closer to 65. I'm still conflicted though as I enjoy my job, but I'm looking into retirement more seriously now. Lots of decisions to be made.

Regarding the New York Times article, for me the key phrase is "maintaining your standard of living". He's talking about people who are "accustomed to living on $150,000 a year". My standard of living can be much lower than it was even a few years ago and I don't think I'll feel deprived. I have fewer needs(and wants!) now, my kitchen is set up, my furniture and decorating done, even my wardrobe is pretty much okay as is.
Susan said…
I think it is important to realize that there are vast areas of our country that are not urban (or rural) areas which are friendly to aging in place. The cities with good mass transit and walkable residential areas are few and far between. AND, what about the elderly person who has mobility issues?

I think the idea of "aging in place" CAN be overrated and can be isolating in itself when the "place" is a home which may even be in an older neighborhood (not a suburb). Many of the elderly have been predeceased by their spouses and/or friends.

Take my mother's situation. She lives in a midsize Texas city (no public transit) and lived in her own home until age 87. She is spry, mentally strong, and likes to stay busy. She did NOT like maintaining her home, hiring people to take care of her yard, and having most of her meals alone on a daily basis. She still drives, but wanted something different.

She moved to one of those dreaded "retirement communities" and has a lovely two bedroom/two bath apartment with a full kitchen and a lovely balcony with a great view. She still has her car (age 90 now) and drives wherever she wants to go.

What she LOVES about the retirement community is all her new friends and activities onsite (art lessons, dancing lessons, movies, lectures, card games, parties.) She also enjoys the unexpected joy of helping the elderly who are younger than she is who may have a walker, or need some help in their wheelchairs.

Moving to the retirement center was entirely her own choice and we have never seen her happier. Everyone who has seen her has commented that she seems to be happier than ever before.

I write all this to let people know that there are many ways to age and that retirement communities (many lovely new ones being built) are an option which works very well for some people.

Duchesse suggested (correctly) that older people CAN move to areas which have good mass transit. This is very true, but, in doing so, many would find themselves in a different part of the country altogether and away from family and what friends they have who have lived to be elderly.

For example, my husband and I are Texans--where are we going to move in our area to find a place where we could age in place with good mass transit? While it is true that downtown Dallas is being transformed, it's not there yet. And, as it stands, does not appear to be a friendly place for an aging person. Maybe it will get there in some years.
Duchesse said…
Susan: You point out many of the drawbacks to staying in one's home, and the benefits of a nice, well-run retirement home. But you are looking through the lenses of affluence. Most elders cannot afford the cost of a "lovely two bedroom/two bath apartment" in a retirment home, even if they can maange to unlock the equity in their house, if they own one.

Like your mother, mine could afford a nice retirement home, but she definitely wanted to be in her own home, a condo, rather than an institution, and stayed in it till 92. (The condo was much less work than a house.) She still had meals to manage, though, and eventually needed that service.

In her state drivers over 80 must pass a vision test, which she failed at 90.
Duchesse said…
Northmoon: One of my financial service clients showed me a their research showing discretionary expenditures at 65; travel was a huge expense ategory- people retire and travel at whatever level they can afford. It seems to be quite a predictable life stage! That category tapers off, and by 80 it's very low.

birdybegins: I am always delighted when a younger reader finds the Passage, thank you.

Duchesse said…
birdybegins: (This part of my comment was cut off.) Some younger people appreciate elders' eperience, and some don't- and vice versa. I have been deeply impressed by comments from young adults and teens.

Lately, I was called "dear" twice in one week by young adult males... that I did not like
From the sad watch as Nelson Mandela slips away, an admirer outside the hospital:

"We love you to be with us, but not in pain, not in pain".

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