Aging with Gusto: I’m Trying

Several years back, while serving on the board of the Vital Aging Network, I helped develop Aging With Gusto, a program designed to help people develop more positive views of aging and live their own lives with gusto.

Research shows that people with more positive views of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with more negative views.[1] What’s more, people who perceive their elder selves as a burden to others tend to view their lives as less valuable, which in turn increases their risk of depression and social isolation, both of which have proven to be “silent killers” for older adults.[2]

I felt like I was doing pretty well when it came to living with gusto—I was working less and enjoying life more—but then COVID came along and all my gusto got up and went away-o.

So did the me I knew…and liked.

That me juggled a lot of things at once, effortlessly kept track of deadlines, friends’ birthdays and bill due-dates. She walked 10,000 steps a day, volunteered often, went to yoga on Saturday mornings and loved getting together with friends, even if it meant driving across town in rush-hour traffic.

She also traveled. In 2019, she spent February and March in Panama, May in New York City and much of that summer and fall at a rustic fishing resort near the Canadian border. In 2021, she was set to spend March and April with her sister and her family in Los Angeles, but that trip was cut short due to COVID. So were other travel plans.

And now, roughly 18 months later, I’m no longer she.

My hair, which I used to color blonde, is now gray. My face has new wrinkles. My skin, once taut, is now crepe-y. And while I know these changes took time to develop, it feels like these changes occurred practically overnight while I was quarantining due to COVID.

And the changes aren’t just on the surface. Last summer, after walking became so painful I stopped doing it any more than was absolutely necessary, I was told I need hip replacement surgery. With elective surgeries advised against at the time, I’ve put it off, which is why, when friends invited me to walk with them (one of the few things that felt safe enough to do), I declined.

Instead, my friends and I did a few Zoom calls. Then, because looking presentable wasn’t high on our lists, we talked on the phone. Eventually even that got to be too much, in part because many of us were dealing with some big stuff. Not used to being together 24/7, my partner and I were struggling to get along. One of my sisters and her husband almost lost their business. One friend had pancreatic cancer. Another had a husband with a brain tumor and a son who nearly died from alcohol poisoning.

Living through—and aging—during a pandemic has caused so many of us to reprioritize. As a result, rather than traveling and enjoying many of the other out-and-about activities that we enjoyed pre-pandemic—we are busy taking care our relationships, our livelihoods, our health and the health of our loved ones. No one can blame us; it’s the right thing to do.

But the pandemic has made everything more difficult, more urgent, more immediate. And more solitary. In the process of caring for ourselves and our loved ones, we risk isolating ourselves from support we may desperately need. Doing so can be costly: one study says isolation increases the risk of death by 29 percent, another that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.[3]

So, I’m working on reclaiming my Aging-with-Gusto mindset by being more proactive in maintaining my own social connections: I’m calling at least one friend or family member each day and sending at least five cards each week. While these are small things, I know from being on the receiving end that they can make a difference. Plus, it’s one thing I can do no matter what is happening with COVID. I call it Gusto Lite, but at least it’s a start.

What are you doing to age with gusto? Please share.


[1] https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-832261.pdf

[2] https://www.mylifesite.net/blog/post/positive-aging-changing-mindset-growing-older/ 

[3] https://www.artandhealing.org/isolation-and-loneliness-fact-sheet/

Staying Connected While Keeping the Distance

Between the pandemic and the resulting stock market tumble, my mind is often a crazymaking mess, fueled in part by our president’s lack of concern, care and compassion.

To keep myself from getting derailed by the body’s fight, flight or freeze response, I’m practicing mindfulness, which my friend Jacquelyn Fletcher Johnson, founder of Heartwood Healing, describes as paying attention to the present moment without rehashing the past or panicking about the future.

While I’m certainly not convinced that things are going to be “just fine,” being mindful has helped me think more clearly and calmly.

Two other things have helped: a mantra I’ve borrowed from my sister Karen (“Whatever happens, I’m going to be okay, today and in the future”) and a practice I learned from my friend Diane (Focus on what you want, control what you can).

To help keep my focus positive I’m staying connected with others while spending my days at home. I’m sending at least one card a day and even some handwritten letters. I’ve found a bliss buddy; she and I occasionally text one another what we are grateful for. I’m having weekly conversations with aunts, uncles and cousins, some of whom I haven’t talked with in years. And on Saturday, I’ll be meeting with my book group via Zoom rather than in person.

I’m also taking inspiration from what others are doing.

Deb Shanilec, my minimalist friend who helps people discover that less truly can be more, plans to celebrate her upcoming birthday via a virtual party around her backyard firepit. Teresa Thomas, founder of 50 Fun Things, is hosting an open-to-anyone online “Happier Hour” each Friday afternoon with the goal of raising a toast to joy.

And while joy isn’t my constant companion, it does remain my friend, in part because I’m practicing what Jacque refers to as the “art of the return.” By repeatedly and gently bringing my attention back to the tasks at hand, to my values and to the people and causes I care about, I gradually return to my future hopes and dreams.

How are you keeping calm? What are you doing to carry on? Who is sustaining you? What hopes and dreams are you envisioning for your own post-pandemic life? We’d love to hear. Please share.

 

Inventing a Life

During recent conversations with friends, I realized that each of us is considering how to reinvent our lives. One is widowed at 65. Another’s ailing father recently died, ending her time-consuming caretaking responsibilities. A third friend is trying to understand what retirement will look like. I’m contemplating how my life will change when my oldest son moves to the West Coast in a few weeks.

The widow said, “What do I do with all of the expectations I had?” Unspoken is how devastating her loss is. Her best friend is gone. Her children live out of town. This is not what she imagined for her life.

The friend whose father died now has the ability think about how she wants to use her free time. She said, “Now is the time to enlarge my circle of friends and activities. I’m going to need them as I get older.” Unspoken was the awareness that some friends might move away—to warmer climates or to be closer to grandkids—and some will get sick or die. During the next 30 years, the ranks will thin out. Better to cast a wider net.

My semi-retired friend is also considering how to enrich her next 30 years. She already has a full life—plenty of friends, her writing projects, yoga, biking and more. She asked, “What experiences do I still want to have?”

I don’t have answers for my friends, but I do understand the questions. Numerous times, I’ve had to re-envision my life.

Sometimes I’ve embraced the need for a major life change, like when my husband and I decided to downsize and move from the suburbs to the city. We eagerly searched for a new house and tried to picture ourselves in a variety of neighborhoods. We were seeking a new lifestyle, and I was excited about the possibilities.

Other major changes were thrust on me, like family illnesses. When my younger son severely injured his knee and needed to rehab with my husband and me, we all had to figure out the new dynamics.

How odd he must have felt to move into one of our spare bedrooms at 25. He’d been on his own and managing well since he was 19. While he was bedridden, we cooked for him and helped him wash up. He could make his own health care and financial decisions, but little else was under his control at first. When he wanted privacy, he even had to ask someone else to close his door.

Seeing him grimacing in pain and knowing that I couldn’t fix that was hard for me. I also had to walk the line between suitable caretaking like fetching ice packs or water and fussing too much. None of us knew what the next day or next week would bring, but I knew we’d figure it out. And we did.

Image taken by Daniel Schwen. Made available through Wikimedia Commons.

Some big changes are mixed blessings, like my oldest son moving out west. He and his significant other have dreamed about new opportunities for him and a well-regarded medical residency program for her. After months of uncertainty, their life is unfolding as they had hoped. I’m excited for them and think the Bay area will be fun to visit. But I’ll really miss them and know our time together will work differently. We won’t have the impromptu dinners and walks we all love. Instead, our future visits will be planned well in advance. We will need to create different rituals for birthdays and holidays. Inevitably, he’ll be far away and miss out on some events, like going for a beer with his brother, hearing my husband’s band perform, or attending one of my publication readings.

Whenever I’ve undergone a major life change, I’ve had to invent a life that better fits my new circumstances. That requires emotional energy, and sometimes that’s hard to find. But I’ve been separated from family before. My husband and I moved away from my Ohio family nearly 30 years ago. I know a lot about maintaining strong long distance connections.

So I’ve begun thinking about how we can use phone calls and FaceTime to maintain close ties with my son after he moves. I’ve checked out airfares. Bit by bit I’m inventing the new shape of my life.