Growing Older: It’s Better than the Alternative

Aging. I’ve been doing it my whole life, but it’s only since turning 60 that I’ve become mindful of it. I wish I’d started earlier.

If I had paid attention, I’d have stayed out of the sun, stuck with yoga, journaled more consistently, spent more time in therapy and consumed less alcohol. I’d also have spent more time with family and friends and worked more diligently at developing resilience.

For most of my adult life, I planned, in as much as one can, that I would live to at least 90 and die peacefully in my sleep, just the way the grandmother I adored did. (She’s pictured here just months shy of her 91st birthday.)

But then, my parents died: my dad in 1997 after a year-long battle with lung cancer, and my mom in 2000 in an instant due to a stroke. They were both only 70. I was in my early 40s.

That’s when I began to realize that I, too, could die at 70. Ever since, I’ve been reminding myself that if I do, I only have 25 … 20 … 15 … 10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … years left. And if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes the pandemic, making my thoughts of death even more omnipresent.

Even if I live longer than my parents, and I sure hope I do, life expectancy isn’t what it used to be. According to an article in the April AARP Bulletin, U.S. life expectancy “plunged” in the first half of 2020, primarily due to COVID-19. As a result, we Americans can expect to live a full year less now than we could have expected in 2019.[1]

The numbers are worse for African Americans and expected to worsen for all Americans as the number of COVID-19 deaths continues to rise.

But just because death is inevitable doesn’t mean that I (or any of us) should go gently into it.

That’s why I started reading about aging, including a book a found both enlightening and engaging: Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power of and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel Levitin.

Via it, I learned that a woman’s chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease now exceed her chances of getting breast cancer.[2] Also that two-thirds of overall risk of getting the disease is based on one’s genes, with the remaining one-third associated with environmental factors such as a history of depression or head injuries.

While Alzheimer’s doesn’t run in my family and my only head injury was when I was knocked out by a football in my early 20s, I have already undergone a Mini-Cog test during which I was I asked to remember and repeat the names of three common objects, name the president of the US and draw a clock face showing the correct time as specified by the doctor who examined me. (This was harder than I thought it would be as it’s been years since I’ve used an analog clock.)

Thankfully, my doctor had no concerns. But I do. Every time I can’t remember a person’s name or forget my coffee cup in the microwave, I wonder if it’s a sign of cognitive impairment.

I hope not. But I also realize that I might be the last to know.

Either way, the timeline of my life is getting shorter: today’s average life expectancy is 77.8 years.[3] And with the pandemic front and center, the possibility of an earlier-than-hoped-for death looms large. While I could let that depress me, instead, it’s motivating me to pay more attention to both my physical and mental health and to put family and friends ahead of work.

How about you? What, if any, changes are you making in order to enjoy the years that lie ahead and increase your own chances of aging successfully?


[1] AARP Bulletin, April 2021.

[2] Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power of and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel Levitin.

[3] AARP Bulletin, April 2021.

Cracking the Ice

Cracking the lacy edge of iced snow with the heel of a boot or shoe is a simple springtime ritual that reminds me of childhood—my own, my children’s, my granddaughter’s. The sun has announced its return to longer days of warming concrete, pavement, earth. There will be lots of melting and all the snow that falls after that these melting days will have a shorter life.

This morning I watched a small red squirrel struggling for traction on ice under a parked car and felt for its lack of progress. And I laughed, although staying upright while carrying groceries to the back door or garbage out to the trash cans is still a challenge. The universal human experiences of twisting an ankle, ripping pants or landing too hard on the tailbone while innocently walking from one spot to another, can happen in March. My most painful fall of the 2019 – 2020 winter season happened late in March. While untangling the dog’s leash after eleven at night my feet slipped out as I tilted sideways. The wet dog and soaking pjs were immediately fixed. A variety of body aches took longer to go away.

Sharp claws, sturdy boots, favorite sneakers, clamp on treads don’t guarantee smooth moving on ice. Spring melt produces the fun cracking the edge of snow, but the sneaky clear path across a sidewalk might be wet, or might smack your back end down in seconds. It is a time of year that jetpacks would be helpful. Even if you are deeply isolated from COVID with groceries delivered and others doing your errands, at some point the garbage can has to dragged curbside. As long as the temps stay low and shade covers your steps, ice can take you down.

For those suffering from what the pandemic brings, at least a moderate winter didn’t add more suffering. Eventually we will be able to stand in our yards, alleys, boulevards and talk to others. We’ll be able to minimize the isolation and exchange stories. In the meantime, there are people out here willing to lend a hand, even if it means a walk across spring ice. Give someone a call. 

Walking to Nowhere

My father walked forty-five minutes a day. Whatever the weather, whatever kind of workday he had had, he headed out to do his exercise. Quintuple bypass surgery in the days when your chest was sawed open, scared him into obeying his doctor’s instructions. Walk or wake up one more time with tubes coming out of unexpected parts of your body. 

He didn’t have walking shoes, special clothes, a pedometer, sunscreen, tunes playing in his ears. Just good leather shoes, a hat, and a watch to keep him honest. He didn’t drive anywhere to change up the scenery. He just walked. For decades.

After a career of office work that meant little time on my feet and lots on my seat, I’ve joined the crowds walking daily to nowhere. I put some time in on asphalt streets and concrete walkways and some on a simple treadmill. I don’t know if special shoes are any better than his thick soled leather tie models. An athletic tracker on my wrist provides feedback that is nice about my heartbeat and steps. Podcasts fill my mind while I wander about. 

This is how many people in non-physical jobs today fight weight gain, arthritis, general aches, aging. It’s what we substitute for not using our bodies the way they are meant to be used. We walk around neighborhoods, on lake or park pathways, with our dog, maybe with another person. We feel good about piling up our miles and wearing down our shoes.

I’m behind for the day and kind of crabby about putting aside writing projects with due dates in order to do my steps. Curse the pandemic, I miss playing with my granddaughter, machines at the gym, sweating through a dance class and swimming. On the other hand, I’m alive and walking my way to vaccine and herd immunity and the opportunities to get back into an active community. Thanks for the lesson on resiliency, Dad.

Twisting Traditions

Living alone in his final years, my father developed a soft spot for Hallmark Christmas movies. From Thanksgiving through early January his television choices were predictable: football any time a game was broadcast, morning news on NBC, midday news on a local show, Hallmark Christmas movies from dinner to the FOX nightly news.

He knew every plot twist and how the pretty young woman and handsome young man would find a future together. He probably didn’t discuss Hallmark movies with his dining room buddies, but he and I talked about them. We shared the inability to remember the names of characters or their imaginary hometowns, but we could connect on parts of the shows that reminded us of times in our past. We had different memories about my reception to Santa riding through Luxemburg, WI on Christmas Eve. He would laugh about my dismay when ordered to hand over my babysitting money to my brother who decided December 23rd that he had to drive from Milwaukee to Philadelphia to be with the woman who would become his first wife. We treasured the wonder of having a newborn under the Christmas tree.

Every year holiday traditions twist apart a bit. A month ago I wasn’t ready to think about Christmas. I don’t track each evolution, but changes are noted. Some are mourned. Some are a released with relief like producing multiple fancy meals while wearing dressy clothes, make-up and heels for example. Or the discomfort of sitting on folding chairs in the grade school’s basement to watch Christmas services on a large screen, when it is easier to stay home and watch a televised version.

The pandemic is shaking traditions out of the holidays faster than a cat knocking ornaments out of a decorated Christmas tree. Economic hardships make generous gifting feel off. Hunger in the community demands assistance. Uncertainty has crawled into of all our minds and souls.

My father’s example has helped in thinking through 2020 holidays. He could have been morose about losing his wife and son. He could have been clingy. His memories of sitting at the head of the holiday dinner table with children and grandchildren could have overshadowed the simplicity of a small tree in his apartment and a side seat at our table. He found other ways to mark the season– contributing more to favorite nonprofits, listening to seasonal music, wearing holiday socks, relishing when we crowded together to cheer on the Packers, and watching Hallmark Christmas movies. 

A change noted: We don’t always know the lessons taught until after the teacher has left. 

In memory of Roman Frisque: January 21, 1927 – December 26, 2012

Money Matters

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I listen to a lot of podcasts. A few weeks ago, I discovered a new one: small change—Money Stories from the Neighborhood.

Hosted by entrepreneur Twila Dang and Minnesota Public Radio economics reporter Chris Farrell, the podcast disrupts the notion that people with low or unstable incomes don’t know how to manage money. To the contrary, they are often the most creative and collaborative when it comes to doing so.

I’ve listened to all seven episodes that have been released so far, but one in particular got me thinking about the smart money lessons I learned from my parents, both of whom were born into the Great Depression and grew up on modest family farms, my dad in western Minnesota and my mom near St. Cloud.

My parents, Vi and Jim Bachel

Their philosophy was “live off what you have.” This, combined with the fact that my dad supported our family of seven on not much more than $20,000 a year, led me to learn important money lessons that have made a huge difference in my financial wellbeing. Here are a few:

Lesson No. 1: If you don’t have the money, don’t buy it. I never saw my parents use a credit card. Other than the utility bills my dad paid by check every month, my parents paid cash for everything from groceries to Catholic school tuition to an occasional new car. They kept meticulous track of how much money they had via their Midwest Federal Savings Passbook.

Lesson No. 2: If you want more money, ask for it. I learned and was reminded of this lesson just about every week when my stay-at-home mom asked my dad for money for groceries. No matter how much he gave her, she always asked—and often lobbied vigorously—for more. Sometimes she got it, sometimes she didn’t. So, midcareer, when I was offered a job with a consulting firm, I took a deep breath and asked for—and eventually received—a pay increase, a signing bonus and an additional week of vacation.

Lesson No. 3: Don’t be afraid to haggle. I can’t recall the exact amount the seller of my house was asking, but I was do know I was prepared to pay that amount. That is, until I talked to my dad. He advised me to offer considerably less, so I did. The realtor told me the buyer would be insulted by such a low offer. He was. But he eventually agreed to sell me the house for considerably less than his original asking price and only $3,000 more than my original offer.  

Lesson No. 4: Always get three estimates. Now that the pandemic has me hunkered down at home, I’ve been getting estimates for long overdue home chores, including painting the exterior of my home as well as the upstairs. In soliciting the estimates, I’m doing just what my parents taught me to do: calling three contractors. Their estimates range from roughly $5,000 to $20,000+, reminding me once again of the value of my parents’ advice.

Lesson No. 5: Save for retirement. Thanks to my parents’ urging, I started saving for retirement in my early 20s, when I got my first full-time job. It was at Honeywell. While I’m unsure how much I saved in the two years I worked there, I still have a 1984 Retirement Savings Plan statement showing that I contributed $55.94 in the fourth quarter of that year and had a yearend balance of $233.48. While that doesn’t seem like much to me now, I’m certain it did at the time.

I’m also certain that these and other money lessons I learned—from my parents, as well as friends, colleagues and podcasts such as small change—have made a huge difference in my financial wellbeing.

How about you? What money lessons did you learn…and from whom? And how have those lessons impacted your own financial wellbeing?