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Author: Mary Lloyd

I run a company dedicated to providing useful, current, relevant resources to those who want meaning and satisfaction in the years after they retire. To address the non-financial aspects of planning for and living this stage of life we currently offer: Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love, A practical, fun to read book with exercises to help you chart your own course. www.mining-silver.com, a content-rich website on the topic Planning Tools for Bold Retirement, a workbook of exercises to help you figure it out, and Living Silver, a four-part, eight-hour course on how to make this phase of your life sparkle. I left an executive position in the natural gas industry at 47 thinking I had it all figured out. After 13 years of working on how to make it work, I am now ready to make sure I can help everyone I can reach learn that the current "Golden Years" model falls far short of what we need to thrive for as much as another 30 years once we no longer have to go to work.
Ahem…about your “stuff”…

Ahem…about your “stuff”…

This is a repost from 2014. It’s still really relevant.

It’s time to admit something important. At some point, someone is going to have to deal with your “stuff”. We don’t seem to be aware of this as we keep adding belongings.  Clutter is just a fact of life, right?

We keep stuff for all kinds of reasons–  “I might need it…”  “It was Grandma’s…” “I might decide to go back into that…”  But the ongoing accumulation of “things” is a slow motion disaster.  A few weeks ago, a woman in Connecticut was killed when the floor of her house collapsed—because of the weight of the stuff she had on it.  They didn’t find her until two days later; the volume was so massive that it looked like the floor was still there when the police checked initially.

That’s an extreme case, but we’re all affected by “stuff.” If you haven’t had to deal with someone else’s after they’ve died, count yourself lucky. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. But here’s the deal. If you can’t face dealing with it, how can someone else—who knows a whole lot less about it–manage to do it after you’re gone?

My family just went through this. Six siblings plus a dear and unflinching sister-in-law hauled load after load out of my youngest brother’s 900-square-foot home for five full days. We got rid of over 100 cubic yards of “stuff.” Don’t naively assume it was just a case of walking it to the dumpster again and again either. Landfills have rules these days. You must dispose of electronics, assorted batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, oil-based paint, other hazardous materials, etc. in very specific ways—or face a fine. There’s a whole different routine for latex paint. Plus, if those doing the disposing have half a conscience about environmental stewardship, there will be trips to the local food bank, Goodwill or a similar second-hand store, and perhaps the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore to donate appropriate “stuff.” And there will be lots of trips to the recycle center.

Accumulated “stuff” is not the benign, minor flaw we want to believe it is. Letting stuff you don’t need, don’t use, and don’t care about pile up leaves less space, resources, and time for what could bring you joy now. Holding onto too many things from the past means you don’t have faith in the present–or the future. It’s also a waste of money if you’re insuring, maintaining, paying for space to keep, and otherwise lavishing resources on all that “stuff.”

My loved one didn’t set out to leave a huge mess for the rest of us to clean up. He felt he needed everything he acquired. That’s how we usually amass stuff…a teeny bit at a time, time after time. But “stuff” doesn’t go away on its own. Somebody is going to have to deal with it eventually.

All six of us siblings came home vowing “I’m not going to do that to anybody!”  So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do make getting rid of my “stuff” less of a burden when I depart. Everyone’s list will be unique, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Clean out the file drawers! Going through files is huge time sink for next of kin, and I can find most of what I’m keeping online if I do need it.
  • Make sure my kids really want what I’m keeping for them.
  • Whenever I learn someone needs what I’ve discovered I have (and don’t need), give it to them.
  • Mark the contents of boxes I do keep. Include a “Get rid of after ___” date to avoid going through boxes again myself when I can.
  • Donate to the food bank from my pantry. (This gets food I bought for a unique reason and then didn’t use onto someone’s plate rather than sitting on my pantry shelf until it expires.)
  • Dispose of the old paint immediately when I repaint. (But do keep the new paint for repairs.)
  • Be honest with stuff I get as gifts. If I’m not going to use it, return it, donate it, or regift it.
  • Remove anything I haven’t worn in the last year from my closet. Donate what I’m willing to part with. Put the rest in a separate stack. If I don’t wear it in another 12 months, donate it then.
  • Go through my bookshelves quarterly. Pass on anything I don’t expect to read again.
  • Leave notes for my loved ones about what’s what and how to get rid of it.

I want to do this right. From what I’ve seen lately, it’s a really good way to say “I love you.”

“Disneyland” Retirement

“Disneyland” Retirement

We have all these fantasies when we are getting ready to leave work. The excitement. The fun. The joy of just doing what you want as it occurs to you. It is a bit like Disneyland when you dream of it.

Photo by Taylor Rogers on Unsplash

But what happens when you actually live it? Well…

That’s like Disneyland, too–at least at the start. But it’s the reality of an actual trip to the Magic Kingdom in how things play out.

Yes, there’s Adventureland–all the exciting things you want to do that you’ve been waiting to experience. Yes, there’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle–where you are special (if you book and pay for that experience). Yes, there’s Mickey’s Toon Town–where you can act like a kid and no one raises an eyebrow. Maybe you will even do the Star Wars stuff–or maybe you’ll pass because of the crowds (but on a mega cruise ship or in a busy city you’re visiting, not in Disneyland itself).

But there are two things about actually living your “Disneyland retirement” that are starkly different than the still-at-work fantasy: it wears you out, and it’s fake.

Anyone who has actually gone to Disneyland (or Disneyworld for that matter) knows the trip typically involves a lot of planning, a significant amount of expense, and days of nonstop effort to make sure that you’re having the maximum amount of fun. You fall into bed each night. You rub peppermint lotion on tired feet and aloe vera on sunburned arms at the end of the day to be ready for the next day. You eat anything you can find because finding it is more work than when your refrigerator is within arm’s reach. You walk and walk and walk and wait and wait and wait. You love it. You pull it off for three or four or five days.

Then the fantasy starts to wear thin. Do you really want another ride, even if it looks like the Matterhorn? Do you need anything else with Mickey Mouse ears on it, even if your five year-old granddaughter is begging for it like her life depended on it?

You start to notice this magical place is a business. You become aware of the “cast members” (staff), cleaning up trash and trying to keep order in the crowds. You are a customer. It’s not real magic. It’s a consumer enterprise. Buy your ticket and stand in line (literally!)

All this is fleeting with a real trip to Disneyland. It’s a short period of time, and it’s easy to dip back into the fantasy to have fun while you’re there. But in “Disneyland retirement” the timeline is a whole lot longer. There, you will eventually surrender to the fact that you need something more authentic–more substantial. Why?

A trip to Disneyland is a vacation. The idea is to step away from your normal identity for a short time for fun–to recharge. Then you go back to being the Real You. With actual retirement, trying to live as if you were an extended trip to Disneyland isn’t satisfying because you give up your real identity to do it. That’s why vacation doesn’t work as a full time, long term gig. Retirement needs to be custom fit and an honest reflection of who you really are. You need to build it out of the stuff that really makes a difference to you, not off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all adventures day in and day out.

The Real Deal still includes a lot of fun. It might be fishing with your grandson rather than riding around a fake lagoon on a fake paddlewheeler. It may be creating a garden instead of walking through one carefully maintained along the Grand Promenade. The genuine experience will last longer and resonate more deeply than the commercial version. It might not be as flashy as the theme park variety, but it will feel right for you. (Then again, it may be a wilder ride than anyone concocting the commercial version could have imagined.)

Don’t buy a ticket and wait in line. Customize what you decide to do from Day 1 of your retirement. It works a whole lot better if you make it your own.

Livin’ in Fast Times

Livin’ in Fast Times

So much of what we do in our lives now is “fast.” Fast food, of course. We don’t have to buy the ingredients, make the dish, put it on the table, or sit down to eat it like our grandparents did. We just order it without ever getting out of the car and eat it as we drive out of the parking lot. Done.

author in 1981

Last week, I watched a news article about “fast fashion.” We can buy so much for so little–because of cheap labor in China and other developing countries–that we no longer focus on those “few good pieces” like we used to. Forget the classic blazer and the “great pair of jeans.” We buy and buy and buy–ten pair of jeans and that cute little jacket that will be out of date by next spring–because our money goes far enough to do that with what the world economy offers.

We’re also ingesting way too many “fast facts.” We get our information via quick paragraphs and video snippets posted on the internet and consumed in less that a minute. The “facts” are not in context. The validity of the source is rarely questioned. And the selection is curated “just for you” via the artificial intelligence used by Google and others to guess at what you want to see. “Just bits of the facts, m’am. Nothing but the bits.” Most of us could not knit a comprehensive statement of what’s going on in the world together to save our lives (which it could….).

What is said about fast food is true of all this other fast stuff. It’s JUNK. Our big, uber-sophisticated society is trying to live on junk, junk, and more junk. Usually, consumers vote with their wallets. They decide not to buy junk so it stops getting offered. But we’ve become anesthetized. Like zombies, we just keep buying–food, clothes, facts–that simply aren’t worth being consumed.

It’s time to give some thought to why we buy all this “fast” stuff. We all know that eating real food gives you a much better nutritional bang. But what about the rest? What do we gain by owning ten pair of jeans? What do we get from slurping up the garbage that’s presented as “news” rather than seeking out a longer, more thoughtful presentation of what’s going on so we can truly understand the situation?

A counterfeit sense of having nourished ourselves? A bulging closet that confirms our ability to buy things? A false sense that we know what’s going on?

We need to slow down. On all of this stuff. This fast-paced world is not doing us any favors. Going too fast can get you killed–from a traffic accident, a heart attack, or a stressed out coworker (or the collapse of your closet because you had too much in it!).

As the older members of society, we could be the ones to lead the way on this. We are wise enough to know that getting there first usually means you wait longer for whatever is going to happen. Getting there with nine pair of jeans in your suitcase just means it’s heavier to carry. Eating something from a drive thru that you gulped in four bites will leave you feeling like you haven’t eaten. Those strategies don’t serve us–or the world

“Fast” is good in racing. In saving a life. In stepping up to a priceless opportunity. But in day to day decision-making, perhaps not so much.

Time for an Annual Check-up?

Time for an Annual Check-up?

We get a lot of advice about doing a financial “check-up” once a year. And we tend to be aware of the value of making the effort to have an annual health check-up. But there’s another check-up that we need just as much. How are you doing on learning?

There’s more and more research coming out that confirms the importance of continuing to learn as we age. The more we put effort into developing new skills and enhancing our knowledge, the better our brains will continue to work.

But there’s even more to it than that. Learning also keeps us healthy physically. Plus the emotional benefits of staying engaged, of being an active part of the social fabric outweigh the benefits of all the preventative medicine a person can find to practice.

Learning = growing. Growing = thriving.

What are you learning these days? How are you giving your mind good solid exercise? Travel is good–if you do more than sit on the beach or hang out in the casino. Your grandkids are good–if you are listening to them instead of thumbing your phone on the days you agreed to watch them.

Crossword puzzles and Sudoku are better than nothing. But those are solitary pursuits using a limited range of mental gymnastics. Taking a class or joining a discussion group will stretch you more. And be more fun. (Kind of like the difference between hiking in a beautiful place with good friends on a gorgeous day and walking the treadmill while you watch the news alone at home.)

Actually making a commitment to take a class or learn a certain body of knowledge and then following through has additional benefits, too. Completing something enhances your sense of worth. And if the others in your class aren’t people you already knew, you get the chance to make new friends.

The blend of learning opportunities that works best for you is unique, just like your health and finance efforts. But to be sure you have what you need going, you need to take a look at what you have going for learning every once in a while. What better time than the start of the school year?

When the wheels fall off…dealing with decline

When the wheels fall off…dealing with decline

The last 24 hours have given me a front row seat on something none of us want to think about: decline.

Photo by Jacob Kiesow on Unsplash

Yesterday afternoon, I visited a dear friend who is dealing valiantly with the limits imposed by a 99 1/2 year-old body. Her ability to continue to be engaged is inspiring. She remembers that I have granddaughters, asks about my time with them after I last visited her, tells me about her family, sees me to the door at her home, and makes me feel about ten feet tall in her opinion of me. She is definitely a gem. But there’s no denying that it’s getting harder and harder for her to be alive physically.

Last night, my son and daughter-in-law were over for dinner. My daughter-in-law is in the unenviable position of having to manage her dad’s finances when he still believes he’s capable as an investor but has reached the point of making mistakes. So far, she’s been able to mop up behind him. She doesn’t want to deny him his identity as a savvy business person, but how many mistakes is too many?

This morning, a good friend is starting a “tile job.” He has done this work for friends for a long time. This time, he needs to do it with one hand that doesn’t work very well because of the combined mess of falling off a ladder and too much delay within the healthcare system. He’s been resilient his whole life. Can he figure out a way to do it again?

These things don’t look similar on the surface, but a closer look reveals them to be the same thing: how to keep on living the best you can when life smacks you with some kind of “disability.”

In other words: What do you do when you can’t do what you used to do the way you’ve always done it? Especially if that activity has defined you as a person?

We need to see it differently than we see it as a culture now. Decline…becoming less able…isn’t some kind of personal failure. It’s a normal part of life and deserves respect. It’s also not “the end.” It’s a turning point–a change in direction. As with all turns in the road, it’s diffcult to see what comes next until you’re through it. You still need to keep going. You may need to slow down to get a sense of what this curve can tolerate, but stopping entirely isn’t even safe, much less interesting. And turning around isn’t an option at all. This is where you are and forward is where you need to go.

You can still have a life, you just need to figure out how to accomodate this new reality in how you go about it. That’s not easy, but after about thrid grade, most of life is not easy. Believe or not, we’re back to Nike time: Just do it.

Start by figuring out what was most satisfying about what you were doing before. It could be the competence you felt. Or the interactions that effort involved. Or what you created. Or one of a million or more other things. What did it give you?

Then work at coming up with other ways, that are more feasible in the new reality, to give yourself that same kind of satisfaction. Choose one and try it. If that does it, great. If not, choose a different one. Keep going. Period.

Not being able to do what you used to do yourself also means you have the chance to learn something most of us never get good at: Asking for help. This critical skill is not taught in our society. We mature either expecting someone else to do everything for us or refusing to admit that we need help at all. Ever. Learning how to ask for the help your really need–and only that–takes skill. And skill takes practice. This is one we’d probably all do well to work on our entire lives. Later in life it’s mandatory if you want to thrive.

Decline is inevitable. But there is a choice in how to deal with it. What you do when you can’t do what you used to is a chance to grow into someone new. Someone more skilled. Someone who’s moved to a higher level on how to gets things done. This is not a bad thing. Unless you decide it is.

Good Work

Good Work

It’s Labor Day. Let’s talk about work.

Did you groan? Or maybe even flinch? If so, there’s a whole lot of stuff that you can’t see in what you’re seeing as “work.”

Photo by NEoN Brand on Unsplash

Work–absent the paycheck and the boss and the nosey cube-mate–is something humans have been doing since we arrived on this earth. Some of it was for survival. Some of it was for the approval of others (another form of survival). And some of it was just because it was fun.

Yes, work can be fun. Actually, work should be fun. We have things really screwed up in our current approach to it, and that’s killing us, individually and as a society. We work work work without feeling joy in what we are doing–and that’s not “good work.”

We need to be doing work that reflects our sense of what’s important. If that’s not happening, a lot of things can go wrong. Physical health. Job performance. And the biggie, mental health. Doing bad work really can kill you–or someone else. This is not safe. Is anybody listening?

Even worse, when we retire, everyone assumes this problem is solved. It’s not. It just morphs. Sometimes there’s still a paycheck involved. Sometimes it’s unpaid–as a caregiver to a family member or to help kids who need child care for their own kids. Work does not stop when you retire. It shouldn’t. But it needs to be good work.

If you do not want to do it, it’s going to be bad work. So a big factor in work once you retire is honesty. If we were doing this right as a culture, that would be true from the get-go. At least in retirement, you have control over what you choose. So put some real effort into choosing well. If your friend wants you to volunteer and you really aren’t interested, don’t say yes. If your service guild needs a President and begs you to take on the role, only do it if you believe you can take pleasure in doing the work.

More important than anything when you get far enough in life to decide whether you want to do things or not is to choose the things that you want to do.

The vast majority of the time, this will not mean choosing to avoid work–which you may find surprising. Work has huge personal benefits even when there’s no money coming in as a result. Work is confirmation of your competence. Doing work says you have value to the world. Work usually gives you the chance to be with other people, too. And we do need to be with other people. Social connections have more impact on our health as we age than everything modern medicine can do.

Once you retire, you’re still going to work. Get used to that idea. You’re going to need something, both to confirm your value and to offer good social contact. You many need some time to figure out what that is once you leave the job. You may have been doing it as a hobby or volunteer effort for years. But you’re going to need it–provided it’s GOOD work.

To Age Well, Be Kind

To Age Well, Be Kind

photo by Guy Basabose on Unsplash

We have an epidemic of nastiness going in the country that’s going to kill us. Not just because politics have become so ugly. No just because Thanksgiving dinner has become a minefield. Because all this nastiness is literally bad for our health–individually and collectively.

Three bits of information that I chanced upon today draw the picture well.

A friend forwarded me a post from a blog he subscribes to and asked what I thought of it. It was a rant about “the Bolsheviks” (liberal Americans) and how awful it was that they were happy David Koch had died. I agree that jubilation over anyone’s death is wrong. But I also disagree with the label the blogger was repeatedly applying. We are never going to get anywhere by belittling other people’s point of view. (Turns out we will get somewhere –the hospital after a heart attack–but more on that later.)

The second snippet was off the internet and was about two second grade boys on their first day of school. The one noticed the other was in distress, walked over and took his hand, and walked into school with him. The boy who helped was black. The boy in distress was white and autistic. None of that made any difference to the kids. Kindness was what was called for and kindness was what was given. (Who do you think is the more mature male, the blogger or the black kid in second grade?)

The third bit of information came from the PBS News Hour this evening (my chosen source of news when I can stand hearing about it at all). They interviewed Dr.Kelli Hansen, an MD whose book, The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness, came out today. Her premise is that the most important resources for maintaining our biomedical health come from our social environment not the healthcare system. Yep. Kindness keeps you healthy. I haven’t had the chance to read her book yet, but I’ve read enough other research on the subject to know she’s on target.

To age well, you need to be kind and to put yourself in situations where you are treated with kindness.

Is this not cool? Instead of worrying about how many reps you did at the gym, you get to play with your kids or your sister’s kids. Or run to the store for milk for your sick neighbor. Instead of worrying about whether you are eating the exact right things to avoid a heart attack, you get to do the things you like to do that someone else needs done. There are a gazillion ways to be kind. They are never boring. They don’t “all taste the same after a while.” Kindness is always a kick.

Perhaps we needed this massive dose of the bitter medicine of conflict to help us embrace the better way. I don’t really think so, but it’s where we are and what we need to start with. When someone is calling names or making fun of people, turn away. When someone wants to fan the “we/they” flames, ignore it. This is simple stuff, but it’s crucial. BE KIND AND HANG AROUND WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE KIND. Not just for the greater good. For your own health.

And for heaven’s sake don’t think you can wait until you are “old” to make the change! Heart attacks don’t wait for you to get old.

The Joy of Complexity

The Joy of Complexity

Maybe we have this “simplify” thing all wrong.  Yeah, we don’t need anywhere near as much “stuff” as we all seem to continue to own.  And maybe we don’t need a lifestyle where the calendar is jammed so full you can’t make it from appointment to appointment without total love from the traffic gods.  And maybe even switching to a single story living arrangement makes sense.  But for heaven’s sake, let’s not get carried away with making everything simple.

We need mental challenges.  We need to step up to things we aren’t sure we can do.  We need to stretch—mentally, emotionally, and physically.

I just got back from one of the best vacations of my life.  When I was on the brink of it, I wondered if I was insane to have set it up the way I did.  I hadn’t committed to climbing Mt Everest or anything dramatically daunting.  But I had committed to doing a lot of different things in a place that I didn’t know my way around easily and totally on my own.  When I laid it all out on paper, I could not help but ask myself “Are you NUTS?!” 

In the course of nine days, I got myself TO Colorado (by plane—with  a ride to the airport from my older son, bless him), rented a car, found the hotel I had also set up, went to dinner with an internet friend and his significant other, found my way back to the hotel (in the dark), made it to the new home of friends from college that I hadn’t seen in 30 years the next night, met with the curator of a mining museum to begin research on the sequel to a western I published a while back the day after that, met with a friend I hadn’t seen in 35 years, found another hotel, toured an underground mine, visited six museums related to gold mining in Colorado in the 1890’s, found the third hotel I’d booked, found the remote address of another set of friends, dressed for and went to a toga party (and danced like I was 19), attended two other parties  with total strangers, drove back to Denver from the high mountains to spend the night with yet another pair of good friends, got myself back to the airport with the rental car full of gas and properly checked in, flew home, and then got back to my house (thanks again to the same son) to start working on a dinner party I’d committed to two days later.

Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot to you.  If so, you probably haven’t been listening to the well-meaning mess-makers telling us “Slow down.”   I have had that going in stereo from various healthcare providers for over five years now. In this case, I ignored that advice and did what I wanted to.  WOW!  Did I have fun!  And I felt just as good (well….BETTER) than if I’d been doing what the “experts” were telling me was right.

As I write this, my two granddaughters are working on craft projects in my dining room.  They could have just opted to read a book or play with toys that they already know how to use.  No way!  They wanted the challenge of something new—something where they had to master a skill they didn’t already have.  This does not go away.  We still need to do complex stuff when we are older.  NOT expecting that of ourselves is how to get to where we can’t. That’s how you get to “old and decrepit.”   It’s totally natural to want a complex challenge to work on.  At EVERY age.

It might be wiser, as we start to throttle back, to think in terms of choosing the best challenges in what we keep.  You don’t have to keep the challenge of maintaining a 7000 square foot house.  You don’t have to keep the collection of Hummels that your mother so lovingly amassed.  But you DO have to expect yourself to learn new things, to try new stuff, to tackle new challenges.  THAT is what being truly alive involves.

So when someone tells you, “Simplify,” don’t be too quick to jump on that.  Do you really want to let that complexity go?  NO one knows what you need as well as you do.

The 180 Degree Rule

The 180 Degree Rule

One of the ways we can start modeling wisdom is to implement the “180 degree rule”: Go toward what you want to move away from. The benefits of that adjustment are profound. Both personally and for society.

photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

I got a nice reminder of this a few days ago. An online professional friend put out an all-points request for people who held conservative views. She decided she needed to broaden her thinking by conversing with people who didn’t think like her.

She was using the rule and was smart in admitting that it’s too easy to believe everyone thinks the way you do when all your friends do. That’s like thinking everyone drives a Subaru because all your friends do.

I decide where I stand on the political things one issue at a time (yes, a dyed-in-the-wool “Independent”). But I tend to lean conservative on fiscal stuff so I volunteered for her project. It turned out to be a very enjoyable conversation. Finding something we might disagree on became more and more the underlying joke as the 80-minute discussion progressed. Yes, we had differing opinions, but it was more a matter of degree, sequencing, or methods than of outright, irreconcilable differences. I was pleased I’d had the chance to learn that. Again.

Sometimes, the needed “one-eighty” has to do with an adventure. I didn’t particularly want to go on a very long cruise my then-husband suggested. I am oh so happy I did it anyway. Maybe you’re not a fan of Greek food. Go see if there’s something on the menu that you missed. The mousy little person in the corner at the HOA social? She might just turn out to be your new best friend.

This was pretty much what happened when I moved into a new neighborhood as a young mother. The other neighbors welcomed me, but they warned “Don’t be offended if your next-door neighbor doesn’t seem friendly. She just keeps to herself.” The “unfriendly” neighbor became best neighborhood friend. Over 40 years later, we still keep in touch. When we start laughing on the phone, it’s like we are still living next door to each other with young sons instead of 2000 miles apart with grandkids.

Don’t let fear keep you from doing “one eighties”. Fear is a spineless bully. Don’t let other people decide for you. They don’t know what you need or what you’re interested in. Sometimes staying away is a good idea–pit bulls and tsunamis come to mind. But it’s too easy to stay in your comfort zone just because it’s…well….comfortable.

That’s how we end up divided as a nation. That’s how we end up lonely as individuals. We don’t go see what’s really going on. We let what we want to believe get in the way of figuring out what’s real.

We can change that.

And we can lead the charge. We can set a good example for younger people by taking risks and reaching out. We can go toward what we normally would shy away from. We can build bridges and start bucket brigades. We can dance in the street with strangers. Life is too precious to view it from the couch with a triple lock on the door. Get out there.

Age Is a Really Useless Number

Age Is a Really Useless Number

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Barbara Morris’s online newsletter, Put Old on Hold.

Last month, Barbara proposed that we initiate the option of using “perceived age” where chronologic age is currently expected.  That way, people could say they were the age they felt instead of what a document prepared decades before professed to be the case.  Barbara and I agree on a lot of things.  This is not one of them.  It’s a waste of effort to try to find a better version of a really bad idea. 

We need to stop using age as a legitimate piece of information for all but official things like starting kindergarten, getting a driver’s license, and signing up for Medicare and Social Security (and those last two might become suspect eventually).

As a measure of a specific person’s potential, “age” is a pathetic loser.  Individuals vary widely on what they do when in the trajectory of their lives.  Some are late bloomers, suddenly catching fire on something they’re passionate about after being total flakes for five decades or more.  Some can play Mozart piano concertos flawlessly at age 3.  You can become a permanent couch potato at age 28 or run a marathon in your 90’s.  It depends on the person—NOT the number in the blank that says “age”—or its cousin “date of birth.”

We put an incredible amount of weight on age with how we use it now.  We decide people are “too old” to hire.  We decide that being a certain age means you personally…individually…are in a body that can’t do certain things, even if you are doing them every day.  We decide whether we want to get to know someone as a friend or romantic partner.  We decide what a person’s healthcare needs should be.  The date you were born does not have the correlation to life skills, competence, OR needs that we give it. It’s almost as useless as birth weight for assessing a specific individual’s potential.

Often, we are trying to determine one or more of the following:

  • Vitality
  • Thinking ability
  • Appetite for assorted things
  • Ability to do a job/contribute to society
  • Physical stamina
  • Attractiveness

We need to start working with these parameters themselves instead of using age as a universal key on who can do what.  AGE JUST CAN’T TELL US THAT.  I do more complex quilting projects now than 30 years ago.  I also do more complex computer work now. Even my practical jokes are getting more complicated.  I have friends who are the same way about physical strength (often because they now have the time to work on it).  Look at the person in terms of whether they can do, not his or her date of birth.

When we think in terms of “how old” someone else is, we deny much of what they truly ARE.  There’s nothing in that number that holds an accurate accounting of what that person is able to accomplish and how he/she lives life. 

It’s normal human behavior to take shortcuts in processing information.  If we can assume something instead of sorting through a lot of data points, we can make more decisions and take action faster.  The problem arises when what we assume doesn’t come anywhere close to reality.  Judging people by their age is definitely in that category.  It’s a lazy substitute for the legitimate information gained by actually watching that person DO what you are interested in having them do.