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Posts Tagged ‘Health and Aging’

Give a Caregiver a Hug

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Adult caregiving hijacks your life. None of us agree to do it because it sounds like fun. But when a loved one needs it, we step up.  Ongoing, it’s a daunting job; at times, it’s downright harrowing.  Once you are in the middle of it, reality warps.

An article published by the American Medical Association reported, “One of society’s greatest assets is the many family members who provide care to ill or disabled relatives.”  One study estimated there were over 15 million American adults serving as unpaid caregivers—in 1998.  And yet, the needs of those doing it remain unnoticed.

Last week in a single four-hour stretch, I spoke with three different women friends, each up to their ears in challenges related to caregiving for aging loved ones.  Each had taken on the caregiving role in addition to the ample responsibilities they still held as professionals.

The first was weathering a major health scare with the man in her life. She had taken him in when he got sick and then became his advocate through all the tests and procedures.  She was struggling to find the right boundaries in what she did for him.

The second needed to find a way to convince her parents to let the housekeepers, who were provided as part of their assisted living rent, into the apartment to clean.  Her folks said there was no need.  But she could smell their unit when she got off the elevator.  She’d been cleaning every time she visited and worrying in the interim that they might get evicted.

The third has been spending her own money for a caregiver for her husband, so she can continue to work as a college professor.  He has a non-Alzheimer’s version of dementia.  She has power of attorney and pays his bills.   His funds could easily cover the cost of the caregiver, but she thought she had to pay for it herself because he would have refused to let her spend money for that if he could still think.  Reality tilts in odd ways when you’ve been a caregiver for long enough.

It’s easy to think it would be different if you had to do it.  That you would draw clear boundaries and insist things be done your way.  But that’s the cruelest part of the caregiver role.  When it gets intense, you don’t realize the boundaries are out of whack or that what you’re doing doesn’t make good sense in the broader scheme.

It’s a lot like the classic experiment with frogs.  They did a study where researchers put a frog in hot water.  It jumped out to safety immediately.  But if the water was cool when the frog was put in and was heated gradually, the frog kept swimming until the water was so hot the frog died.

We do the frog-in-slowly-warmed-water thing as caregivers.  As the disease progresses beyond what we can really handle, we just keep going.  Our own lives evaporate.  We think we are doing fine when we’re not.

Three years ago, I became caregiver to my boyfriend when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Every day there was a new problem, and always one with which I had zero experience.  With each new side effect, I had to figure out something new that was needed to keep him safe and, hopefully, comfortable.  The volume of work was massive, and the possibility I might hurt him by not doing the right thing was terrifying.  Yet when friends asked me how I was doing, I’d say “Fine.”  I wasn’t being a stoic angel of mercy.  I was too worn out emotionally to find more honest words.

In an ideal world, unpaid caregivers would have mandatory breaks.  No one’s going to legislate that.  So it’s up to the rest of us to make a difference.  If you know someone who’s caregiving, do what you can to provide support.  A hug is a good start.  But then offer to do something specific.

I am all too guilty of saying “Call if you need anything” and leaving it at that.  For a long-term caregiver, there’s not enough mental juice available to convert those words to something useful.  “Would you like me to clean the kitchen?”  Or “Why don’t I sit with Aunt Irma for the afternoon so you can get away?” works better.

Caregiving is hard duty.  If we all remember this and offer support in all the ways we can, we can keep each other from ending up in need of care ourselves because we carried too big a load alone for too long.


Take the Stairs

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

I’ve been whining about missing my stairs ever since I moved from a two-story house to a rambler 18 months ago.  Those stairs really were a plus in my life–I got exercise without having to schedule it all day every day. But a week ago, in an editorial in Talent Management magazine, Mike Prokopeak upped the ante.  He suggested “taking the stairs” in the business setting as well.

He was making the same point I’ve been–the more we incorporate physical exertion in subtle ways to do the things we have to do anyway, the easier it is to maintain some semblance of fitness even when things get overbusy.

He pointed out that some business meetings are now conducted standing up (which accomplishes two things–it involves more physical effort, but it also makes the meetings shorter.)  Some managers conduct important one-on-one conversations by taking a walk with that person.  That also has some extra pluses.  Difficult subjects are easier to address while walking.   Creative ideas also seem to come more easily when you’re moving on foot.

But after I thought about his suggestions for a while, I realized this is not just about being less sedentary in business settings.  It’s not even about real stairs.  It’s about taking the more demanding route on anything and everything just for the extra benefits that those approaches often bring.

Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi advocate something similar to this interpretation of “take the stairs” in Super Brain.  If you want to keep your mind operating at optimum capacity for the long haul, you can’t just do the same old stuff the same old way and hope for the best.  Look for a new restaurant instead of going back to the same old favorite every time you eat out.  Learn a new sport instead of relying exclusively on the one you already enjoy.  Make a point of meeting new people and going new places.

To live well as we age, we need a steady diet of new stimuli.  According to Chopra and Franzi, that keeps our brains creating new synapses and the more synapses you have, the better you can weather a situation where some of them are injured or die.

To create those synapses, we need to “take the stairs” as many different ways as we can.

Every time we decide instead to run on autopilot, we lose the chance to build more brain strength.  We lose the chance to build an even stronger social network.  We lose the chance to find new ways to love deeply and be involved in new things that are meaningful.  Those are the real elements of a rich life.  Why forego them just to avoid exerting yourself a bit?

Once we retire, even if it’s to–or in–a single story home, we need to remain committed to “taking the stairs.”  Do something that takes more effort than “same old same old.”  It will make a huge difference as time marches on.


Let’s Dance!

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

When was the last time you danced? Have you ever? Or are you intimidated by the intricate footwork and synchrony of the couple stuff on TV?

We all need to dance. Not just at weddings. Not just with old friends at a favorite watering hole with live music. Every day. It’s a good way to keep your body and soul on the same page.

I’ve always advocated walking. Walking helps you think and problem solve. It reduces stress. It’s a great cardio workout. Walking, at its most effectively practiced, is non-denominational meditation. As your shoes move across the land, you move closer to the forces of the Divine.

But dancing is another multi-purpose marvel for creating a satisfied life. The joy side of the coin. I’m not talking about the ballroom stuff where you have to follow prescribed steps and keep rhythm a specific way though. I’m not even talking about Western culture’s classic “man-leads-woman-of-his-choice-in-movement-on-a-dance-floor” stuff. I’m talking about any situation where you move your body to music.

There are many more fun ways to dance than the stuff we learned was dancing in junior high. You don’t have to wait for a guy to ask you–or to decide on which woman you’re going to dare ask.  You don’t have to limit yourself to places with an official dance floor. And ballroom dancing, with all its choreographed steps and showmanship, is a long way from the real fun. So let’s forget the Dancing with the Stars stuff for now. Please.

Dancing is celebrating. It energizes your soul. It takes you beyond your mind and your aches and pains. Good dancing generates joy. And joy makes everything else better.

So find the dancing that appeals to you. Line dancing, square dancing, contra dancing, folk dancing, salsa, swing, zydeco—and that’s just a quick list. There are groups doing this stuff all over and many of them offer lessons before the dance itself to help you get started. Most of them have websites or else list their events on bulletin boards.

If you don’t want to break into an existing group, take a class—ballet, jazz, tap. That way, everyone is starting together. If not that, you can get involved in a dance practice, where the movements of your body are a form of prayer. The options “out there” for dancing go way beyond the foxtrot.

You don’t even need to be at a defined venue to dance. Dance while you’re waiting for the shower to warm up. Or while your coffee is brewing. In the elevator. In line at the grocery store. Wayne Dyer tells the story of a toll booth attendant who danced his entire shift every day. When you got to his window, you paid your toll at a dance party.

Dancing isn’t about putting your feet in certain places in a defined sequence with a specific beat with other people doing the same thing. Dancing is simply moving to music. And the music can be in your head if that’s all you have to work with.

When you can dance in a social setting, milk it for all the fun you can. A dear dancing friend and I liven up an evening by getting other people up dancing. Sometimes it’s women; sometimes it’s men. Those we coax out on the floor seem to have a much better time than if they’d just kept watching. And we do, too. The younger kids have one upped us on doing this well. Not only do the women go out to dance “uncoupled”(either alone or in groups of more than two), in under 30 crowds, you’ll see the guys doing it, too.

Avoid reducing dancing to “exercise.” That’s a terrible waste of a good time. When aerobic dance first made the scene, I took a class taught by a college instructor who specialized in folk dancing. Lord that was fun! (A classmate suggested all that was missing was a basket of fruit on my head.) Unfortunately, “fitness types” decided aerobic dance needed to look more like exercise. Now, even Zumba comes across as just another workout to music. If you want to get the most out of dancing, find something where the music and moving to it—i.e. having fun–are more important than reaching you target heart rate.

Dancing is not a matter of “knowing the steps.” Dancing is about having the guts. Find some music and start to move. Be a kid again—dance like nobody’s watching (because they really aren’t). You don’t need a partner. You don’t need lessons. If you don’t have music, use what’s in your head. Be happy. Spread joy. Boogey down!


Obesity + Retirement: Yikes!

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

If you want a recipe for disaster, mix those obesity and retirement and add a lot of time.  Talk about awful!  But we aren’t talking about it at all.  Instead we just keep supersizing that soda and looking for a place with now stairs in a nice retirement community.

Today, researchers released a study that found about 18% of us–that’s one in five or so–are going to die from obesity related causes.  That is an absolutely stunning number for any age group.  I suspect it’s even higher for those of us over 60 for a variety or reasons, but even that one-in-five thought is mind-numbing.  A fifth of our nation will die because we got too fat.

We can point to a bunch of reasons for that.  And there are probably a whole lot more that we don’t even realize are part of the picture at this point.  I’m not going to run down the list.  I am going to look at one thing, and that only in the context of being retired.  The issue is how much you are active.

Yes….YOU.  Please do no try to excuse yourself because you have…diabetes…heart disease…cataracts…bad knees…..irritable bowel syndrome….grass allergies…fallen arches….gout…arthritis…or whatever.  No matter what you have going wrong with your body, you can still move something.  So figure out how to move that often and vigorously.

At the moment I am house hunting.  My sweetheart, who will be living with me, has made the following requirements:  single story, no stairs, small yard.  Nothing like buying into your own casket twenty years before you need it.

This is the same guy who can’t understand why he doesn’t do better when we go out to hike, and we’re dealing with 1000 feet of elevation. Kudos to him for wanting to hike–and actually going out to do it.  But how about setting yourself up a little better in terms of how you “train” every day by including some stairs in your daily routine?

My dad died a few days short of his 85th birthday.  He’d had problems with his heart from age 40 on.  He didn’t die of heart disease.  And he went upstairs to take his shower every night until his death even though we could have put a shower in on the first floor.  The trip to the second floor was fine with him.  He was a smart guy.

My mom died way too young.  She was 64 when cancer claimed her.  But she still had the slim figure of a teenager when she passed.  Why?  She refused to give up the exercise of hanging clothes on the line to dry.  And no, she was not a farm wife.  Mom worked her way through college to earn a degree in Intellectual History.

Last Sunday, I took myself on a morning walk in the neighborhood and stopped to talk with a guy creating a border garden in his front yard.  He was not hiring it done.  He was taking pick in hand and tearing out the turf a little at a time.  Let me assure you this is brute work.  But he was happy with the task and excited about what they were creating.  We talked about how neither of us were very good at sitting still.  Then he said he thought staying active made you look younger.  That was certainly true for him–I guessed his age as about 15 years younger than he was.  When you are active, your skin looks healthier.  Your muscles are more toned.  You look better regardless of your age.

Think about it.  When someone gets sick and has to lay around for an extended period just to get better, they look disproportionately older when you see them again after the ordeal.  When you are stuck in a sedentary role (caregiving comes to mind) you start to age before your very eyes.  Sitting around is not good for your looks or your energy level.

We need to get rid of this stupid idea that the ideal retirement is the one where you do all kinds sedentary stuff–fun vacations involving copious amounts of sitting and eating, watching TV at home, playing bingo at the casino….

We are not getting fat because we are getting older.  We are getting fat because we are not using up the calories we consume.  It’s the same equation it’s always been.  But even worse, we’re missing the fun and satisfaction of the active realm to watch garbage on television.  We can do better for ourselves.

Buy a house with some stairs.  Try gardening.  Become a volunteer coach for your local kids soccer program.  Get out and dance.  Go to an exercise class for the wheelchair bound.  Join a ski club–or a bird-watching group.  Go DO something.  Something that makes you move as much as you can.

You will be amazed at what it does for your attitude along with your girth.





Retirement Is Up to You

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

It’s never too late to have a happy retirement. Really. Even if you are mired in debt, hate where you live, can’t stand the people around you, and have enough health issues to warrant a drawer full of prescriptions and a calendar full of office visits, you can still pull it out if you decide you want to.

That’s the crux of it–deciding what you want.  Third parties like the media and the healthcare system suggest that we should be pain free and taken care of once we reach retirement age.  And sometimes we are.   But the expectation that we can always be pain free and always be taken care of is a different matter entirely.  For a happy retirement, we are a lot better off if we learn to have a good time regardless of the pain level.  And we thrive better when we take care of ourselves.

That gets lost in the shuffle way too often.  Let’s use a backache as an example.  That backache is really starting to bug you.  So you call your healthcare provider.  They will most likely say “We need to see you.”  So you make a doctor’s appointment.  That might be in two days or two weeks.  Regardless of which, you will spend the interim thinking about that backache–paying attention so that you can answer the doctor’s questions perhaps.  Or maybe you just dwell on it more and more because it’s bugging you.

The day arrives, and you go to the doctor’s appointment.  He/she may do a bunch of tests.  Or you may be referred to a specialist without much of an evaluation.  Then you wait two weeks to two months to see the specialist.  And during that time you stay focused on the problem, which seems to be getting worse.  But is it because it really hurts more or because you’ve been focusing on it like it was your career?

You see that specialist.  There’s a good chance that person doesn’t know what’s wrong either.  You’re referred to another specialist–and you have another wait with more of the same stewing about this health issue.

Hopefully, especially with a back issue, eventually someone recommends physical therapy and you grudgingly do that–feeling gypped because there was no surgery, no MRI, and no prescription involved.  And the PT actually works.

If we were living in a wiser world, we would have just found a bunch of friends to walk and talk with before we ever started thinking about seeing a doctor.  That “personal options first” solution might have let you avoid this mess we call a healthcare system entirely and gotten your back to full health much more quickly.

Same deal when we start to feel dissatisfied with who we are with, how we have to live, what’s going on at the neighbor’s, etc.  We look to others for solutions to all this stuff.  Someone else needs to change or else help us get the change we need from some third party.

But that’s not the real solution either.  No one is entitled to a perfect life.  All too often, we have that expectation that everyone should make it easy for us because we’re retired–that that’s what retirement is all about.  Why?  We judge and make demands or decree that certain things have to be certain ways just because we want them that way, and are incensed when the World doesn’t do it that way.

Why do we even think we need this deference?  We don’t thrive when everything is perfect, and we don’t have to lift a finger.  We thrive when there are challenges.  We have better lives when we have to work at something, regardless of whether it’s a job or getting along with the party animals down the street.

It’s not always going to give you an instant solution, but trying to help yourself first always offers more solid ground to stand on.  You understand what’s going on better if you’ve tried to fix it.  Other people are more willing to help you if you’ve already done all you can to improve the situation yourself.

But it’s not a case of marching over to your sister-in-law’s and giving her a piece of your mind.  Quite often, the most effective change is a lot closer to home.  The fastest thing to change when you are trying to solve a problem is yourself.  Quite often, the thing that needs to change is the easiest to change–your own attitude If you can get it done with just that, life is better and you are a better person than you were yesterday.  The more you do of this, the easier it gets and the happier you are.

Especially as we move toward the capstone years of our lives, we need to take responsibility for what we want–we need to make it happen with our own effort.  Life is good.  We can make it even better.


Good Versus Easy

Friday, June 21st, 2013

The tee shirts are right. “Life is good.” They are also right in not proclaiming  “Life is easy.”  Or even worse “Easy is good.”  A good life is not easy–at least not all the time.

More to the point, easy is not always good.

It’s important to keep these distinctions in mind once you start looking at retirement.  A good life is not a matter of finding the easy way to get through each of those leisurely days.

If you compare the two words in the thesaurus, they aren’t even close.  Synonyms for “good” are things like respectable, honorable, decent, honest, kind, stable, obedient, etc.(That list goes on and on.)  Words listed as synonyms for “easy” are leisurely, simple, and lenient.  “Easy” lets you off the hook.  “Good” puts you on it.

But we’re encouraged to take to heart the notion that “easy is good” once we are ready to retire. Please don’t.  Easy is not good.  Easy, especially for a retired person, is death.

Use it or lose it is a very real phenomenon.  It’s easier not to climb stairs–but when you don’t, there goes muscle mass you could have kept and aerobic exercise you really need to keep your vitality.  It’s easier to watch TV than go out and meet new people.  But TV doesn’t stimulate you cerebral cortex and talking to others, or even better, learning something new with them, does.  Being engaged in a community of some sort helps ward off everything from Alzheimer’s to depression.

But we still feel gyped when we don’t have it easy after we retire.  We want “easy” when we hook up the TV, DVD, or whatever electronic device currently has us buffaloed.  What we really need is the challenge we’re trying to shirk.  We expect “easy” when we shop and “easy” when we transact personal business.  We get irate when things aren’t easy.

We want to believe we are entitled to “easy.”  That is like insisting we are entitled to smoking a pack a day.  Easy is not good for us.

And good is not easy.  That’s why it’s so satisfying when you pull it off.

Give yourself the gift that keeps on giving.  Don’t let your life be easy.  It means you’re sitting on the sidelines letting your brain cells die and the rest of your body atrophy.

Life is good.  But–if you want to be good to yourself–it should not be easy.


Mary Lloyd is a speaker and consultant and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.

Do Something Scary

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

“Do something every day that scares you.” That advice from Eleanor Roosevelt is particularly useful as we get older.  When we’re young, we don’t even think about what might go wrong with what we decide to do.  We just rush headlong into what looks like fun or seems like the right direction.  If you end up with a broken arm, you heal.  If you lose money, you get on with making more.

But in maturity, we become more tentative.  Maybe the break won’t heal properly and there’s no way to make more money if we lose what we have and are past the age of being paid to work.  Or so we think.  In truth, being too timid can cost a lot more than a wise risk.  We can second guess ourselves right out of a satisfying life.

It’s easy–and almost expected–to become afraid of pretty much everything as we age.  You might waffle about going on vacation to a new place and shy away from a meeting where you won’t know anyone.  You may keep wearing the same hairstyle or sports shirt because you know it works.  You rely on the same friends and do the same things for fun again and again so that you don’t have to step into that scary unknown beyond the familiar.  You read the same kinds of books and watch the same kind of TV shows.

With every act of same-and-familiar you build a smaller and smaller world for yourself.  Eventually, you will bore yourself to death.  Literally.

The truth is, we need to do scary stuff–no matter how old we eventually become.  We need to step beyond what’s easy and do something that’s got a challenge.  Quite often the challenge–especially after we’ve mastered a significant number of life skills–is in getting past the fear that the new thing engenders.

It’s good for us to do that. It’s the only way to build up the emotional muscle needed to get through the tough spots that come into every life.  It’s the door to the new experiences that make life interesting and keep your soul growing and your brain working.  It’s also the best way out there for affirming your self worth.  When you do what scares you, you’re a conqueror.  You’ve faced something that could have stopped you and overcome it.

Notice I’m not saying watch something scary.  Going to horror movies isn’t the same as facing a personal fear and getting on with what you’d planned to do anyway.  This is a do mandate, an action that you must take on your own behalf.  Getting the experience through someone else’s scary situation–be it in a movie, on TV, or in a book, is a really cheap counterfeit to the real thing.  It’s not going to give you anything to work with when life gets tough.

Some of us fear speaking in public.  Some of us fear going to a different city or part of town.  Some of us fear heights or water.  (I personally fear heights and water.  I get a dose of do-something-that-scares-you every time I have to cross a skinny bridge over a roaring mountain creek on a hike.)  We all fear something.  Find what you’re afraid of and use it.

A few days ago, there was a TV show about an unusual group of lions who had learned to swim.  Those lions are, supposedly (I doubt anyone came by and had them get on a scale), 15% bigger than their more timid land-sworn African counterparts because of the pectoral muscles they’ve developed swimming and hunting in the water.  They can access food that most lions can only watch from the shore.  They have evolved because they started going in the water–an act that initially had to be scary for them.

The more you do to help yourself keep going in spite of fear, the stronger you’re going to be for whatever comes into your life.

Another of good old Eleanor’s great quotes applies:  “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  Usually the thing that makes us think we can’t do something is fear.  Get past that natural inclination to shy away from what makes you afraid and use it as a springboard instead.


How to Be Old

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Old has so many definitions, but what I’m looking at here is how we advance in years. And I have become a bit of a snob about it. This surprises me since a few years ago I was rather put off with a local newspaper columnist when she pronounced “I’m not interested in interviewing anyone unless they are over 70.”

Now I’m limiting my own admiration for amazing things done in advanced age, to people not over 70…or even 80. I save my awe for what folks in their 90’s are doing.

My first dose of this was a newspaper article about a local retired teacher that came out a couple months ago. This nonagenarian is just doing what she likes to do but she’s still going strong and making a huge difference to young readers with her effort.

After she retired, she decided to volunteer as a reading tutor with kids who were having problems. But as she worked with these kids, she realized the materials available weren’t what the kids really needed. So she created her own materials.

Cool, huh? That was just the start. The materials worked so well that teachers in the schools noticed and wanted the resource themselves.  So with the help of her daughter–who did the illustrations–she made them into a formal set of materials. GoPhonics was born.

When I read the article, she was just embarking on even another step–to create a program for teaching teachers how to use those materials–because that’s what is needed now. Sylvia Davison is in her 90’s. You would never know it by how she is living her life.

Just this last weekend, I read of another amazingly active person who’s less that a decade from the century mark. Fred Oldfield is has been a commercially successful artist for over three quarters of a century, specializing in Western art,but also doing a lot of murals. He still paints, but even more amazing, he’s active in teaching kids painting and in raising money to help fund art education for kids.

Don’t picture this as doddering old guy who shuffles between his easel and his bed for a few hours every day. Don’t think this guy is just the facade for other, younger volunteers.  He still rides his horse regularly and makes his way around the Heritage Center where he teaches with the ease of someone much younger. Fred Oldfield is 95.

A recent AARP interview with Dustin Hoffman reveals I’m not the only one intrigued with these outliers of continued vibrance. Hoffman mentioned two whom he’s noticed. Manoel de Oliveira is still directing at 104. And then there’s the 94-year old guy who, after finishing a triathalon, was asked if he was going to run anymore. His reply, “Oh, yeah. I got to keep going until I get old.”

That’s a funny line, but it’s also the gyst of what’s going on with these folks. They do not see themselves as “old.” And that is the best way for all of us to advance in years. How many birthdays you’ve had is completely irrelevant to what you will be happiest doing with your time, effort, and resources.

These people are all deeply interested in something and spend a lot of time and effort on it. Age is a totally useless concept for them–at least in terms of themselves. (The ones who are working with kids may have age parameters for the kids they work with, but that’s a whole different thing.)

I preach a lot about having a sense of purpose–something to do that goes beyond your personal comfort and pleasure. That is definitely an essential piece of becoming a centenarian superstar. But there’s another piece to this that we all need as well.

We need to stop thinking the “old” thoughts. When something aches or I don’t have the energy, I can often make it go way if I’m not excited enough about what I am planning to do.  I won’t do that if I tell myself “Well, that’s just what happens when you’re my age.”  It’s way too easy in this culture to start telling yourself that!

I want to be like Grandma Moses.  She got to into painting in earnest when she was 78 and created over 1,500 canvasses before she died at the age of 101.  She went from displaying her art at a local drugstore for $3 each to national renown (and $10,000 price tags) in less than a decade. Her example is far more compelling than that of my maternal grandfather who retired from a corporate job at 65 like everyone else and then just sat there because he “had a heart condition.”  He kept breathing for another 20 years, but he wasn’t really living  them.

The more energy you use, the more you have–no matter how many candles were on your last birthday cake.  Dustin Hoffman, quoting Bill Connelly about the point of the movie Quartet in which they were both involved, had it right: “Don’t die until you’re dead.”


Re-thinking My To Do List

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Are you playing fair with your To Do list? I’ve been abusing mine for about a decade now and didn’t even know it.

I tell myself that I’m not a slave to it–I did finally see the light about the lunacy of “getting it all done at all costs” a while back.  But I’ve just discovered I’m stilling approaching that To Do list the wrong way.

I’ve been using it as a daily confirmation that I have worth as a person—salvation via getting a lot done.  And the painful truth is that this is just another perfectionist strategy—a way to avoid the pain of being deemed not good enough in someone else’s eyes by completing task after task after task, day after day after day.

To let go of perfectionism, you have to stop worrying about what other people will think.  I thought I had accomplished that–and in many ways I have.  But I still worship at the altar of “getting things done.” The wrongheadedness of this finally became clear to me courtesy of Brene’ Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection.  The gifts she discusses aren’t consolation prizes.  Imperfection is actually a whole lot better way to live than all the perfectionist striving I’ve been guilty of over the years, including my worth-through-productivity mania.

Brown knows my game.  She too was devastated when she learned that a stiff dose of work ethic wasn’t a particularly evolved approach to life.  She refers to herself as “a recovering perfectionist and aspiring good-enoughist.”  She’s also a social scientist who’s been doing qualitative research on shame for much of her career.  That’s right—perfectionism is a facet of shame.  I’ve been driving 90 miles an hour down that dead end for decades!

The news was a shock, but also a big relief.  I’ve been frustrated for months about how little I get accomplished these days compared to three or four years ago.  I used to write a long list of chores for the next day every night, and then, bright and early the next day, I would get going on those things—roaring through them like I was on a mission to save the world.  Much of the time, nobody but me had decided they needed to be done.  In the vast majority of cases, if I didn’t get them done, nothing bad was going to happen.  But getting through that list made me feel like a superstar.  I was effective.

Recently, it’s gotten more and more difficult to make myself work on the list each day.  More and more often, I don’t even write one out the night before.  I’ve been worried that this meant I was losing my grip on my life. I can’t even get a simple to-do list done?

After reading what Brene’ Brown had to say, the dawn came.  A while back I asked the Universe for help to get wiser about doing what really needs to be done.  I thought that it was a case of rededicating myself to that daily list.  Until I read about her experience, I didn’t even realize the resistance to my To Do list mania was the answer to that prayer.

Who says I have to get anything done?!  Who’s keeping count?  I’ve been in an ever-accelerating role as Simon Legree, meanly enslaving myself. That’s no more admirable than subjugating someone else.

A few days ago, I turned over a new leaf.  Instead of that long To Do list, I jot down what I really do need to remember to do.  Then I remind myself that my day is mine to do with as I choose.  Yes, I need to honor my commitments, but usually, it doesn’t all have to get done “today.”  And it’s okay to change my mind as the day progresses.

Work is a good piece of life; it’s not work that needs to be eliminated here.  It’s important to keep that in mind.

What I—and maybe you–need to stop doing is the frenzied rush through an arbitrary list of tasks that has become the default proof that I (we) deserve to be alive today.  I need to erase the notion that work—even meaningless work that doesn’t need to be done at all—trumps the less socially acceptable stuff like play and taking a nap.

“To Do” lists are great for remembering what needs to get done.  You do want them in your toolkit.  But they aren’t inflexible marching orders, and there is no correlation between the length of your list (with everything crossed off) and your value as a person. To be really wise, you need to use a strategy that includes knowing when to ignore them.


Get Ready to Age or Stay Young?

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

“Aging in place” home modifications are gaining traction as a way to “get ready” for retirement.  We do need to put some thought into what it would take to be able to live our later years in the surroundings we have come to love in the decades before. But “aging in place” changes can be way too much like “getting ready to die.”  That is a terrible waste of a lot of good years.

Have you ever ended up in the “handicapped” motel room because it was all they had left when you walked up to the registration desk? When this happens to me, I fret a bit about taking it when someone else might really need it.  But that slight bit of empathy is really a disguise for something much deeper.  The message that rumbles from the depths is This is not me!  I feel like I am staying in a hospital when I end up in one of those rooms.  It’s not a place I belong, and I usually don’t relax very well.

Doing a bunch of “aging in place” upgrades to your home in case you might eventually need them can creat the same dissonance.

So if someone is advocating that sort of remodel before you retire so that you are “ready” IF you end up infirm, please think long and hard about what’s being recommended.  How likely is it that you will end up needing those specific things?  What is your family history?  What is your health like now?  Will you enjoy your home as much with those changes as before they were made? Would you even want to remain in your own home if things came to that?

One of the biggest drawbacks of this approach is that it can actually drain away things that would have kept you from getting infirm in the first place.  Gardens can be extremely soothing, and gardening gets you out where you can soak up vitamin D.  It also works your muscles and gives you a sense of accomplishment.  Running up and down the stairs every day gets your heart rate up.  Don’t stop doing stuff you like to do until you have to–whether it’s weightlifting in the garage or having your bedroom on an upper floor or taking three dogs for a walk–separately– every day.

Deciding that you should  have it easier now, even though you can still do all that easily means you don’t get that exercise from here on.  That exercise may have kept you healthy enough to never need any of the modifications you made.

And if you are thinking that you need to move someplace where someone else is responsible for the lawn, run the numbers before you get in line for the newest model.  Homeowners Association dues that include lawn service aren’t geared to cover just that.  You might be able to get all the lawn service you need for much less than what you’d owe the HOA every month at that nice new retirement compound if you just stay where you are and pay to get it done when you need to.

Doing a bunch of modifications to “get ready” before we actually reach the point of age-related decline can be way off base with what we actually end up needing, too.  It might be your sight not your back that fails.  Instead of that wheelchair, you might end up having to work standing because of back problems.  So much for those lower counters!

Let’s find the right balance on this.  If you are buying or doing a major remodel, assuring there’s flexiblity in what you select so you can make changes later if you need them is probably enough. Put money aside for modifications you may need later if you can–for a the new place or the home you’ve loved for 50 years.  That makes a lot more sense than doing a bunch of stuff you might not ever need now and ending up living in a sterile, unauthentic place from here on.

When you reach the point of decline (if you ever do), you may decide there’s a better way than continuing to live where you love now, too.  You’re not going to know what you need then until you get that far.  Trying to get it all set up before you reach that point is silly–particularly since you might never need anything at all modified!

Think about this stuff, yes.  But don’t make  a lot of changes until you know what you need to accommodate.  Instead, focus on staying vibrant as long as you can.  That’s not running away from advanced age–it’s redefining it.