HEARING LOSS IS A FAMILY MALADY
In a recent Washington Post article by Marlene Cimons, former President Jimmy Carter, 91, said that 90% of the arguments he has with his wife of 70 years, Rosalyn Carter, 88, are about hearing. Mr. Carter said that having to repeat things “drives him up the wall”.
According to the article 25% of people 60-69 have some degree of hearing loss. That grows to over 50% for those 70 to 79 and to almost 80% for those over 80. Curious isn’t it, that this is such a prevalent health care problem, yet most insurance coverage totally omits hearing loss?
Provoked by the article about President Carter and Mrs. Carter’s candor about hearing loss and its impact on their lives I decided to interview a friend that I knew had recently gotten hearing aids. Call him Eric. He’s 57 and otherwise in excellent health. His wife Nancy had been complaining about his hearing for the past 2 years. When he went to the audiologist for testing, sure enough he found that he had a gradual, early form of slow hearing loss. Hearing devices were required prescribed and delivered to him, along with education about how to use and maintain them.
Eric and Nancy, both attended a new-hearing-aid-device-wearer lecture. They continued to cling to the false notion that once the hearing aids were in place and Eric was accustomed to them; life could and would go on as before.
Some things did change, of course. Wearing his new hearing devices at home, Eric’s first question was “Who turned the tv up so loud?” Nancy was quick to point out that it wasn’t turned up. This was the volume level he had needed pre-aids. Also, Eric was much more aware of Nancy speaking to him from another room. He just couldn’t understand what she had said, which left him having to go find her and ask “What did you say?”.
Eric was the first to realize that even with hearing devices life wouldn’t return to exactly what it had been before hearing loss. While he was getting increasingly real about what he could hear and what he could not, Nancy continued in the opinion that hearing aids should fix everything.
He realized the devices really helped but he wouldn’t ever have the hearing of a 30-year-old again. This meant that he and Nancy needed to begin to look at home environmental factors that affected his hearing; ambient noise, proximity, volume and pitch, and a much greater moment by moment awareness of each other.
Thus began the real hearing arguments between them.
Paying close attention to his environment, Eric noticed 4 key factors:
- Nancy frequently begins conversations with Eric just AFTER he has left the room
- Nancy frequently speaks to him facing away from him (he jokes that it’s common for her to talk with him with her head in the dishwasher as she works)
- Nancy, at 57, no longer projects her voice the way she did when she was younger. Her voice is simultaneously softer, quieter, and airier.
- While it’s easy for Nancy to notice, comment on, and even complain about Eric’s hearing before and after hearing aids, it seems almost impossible for her to admit to her part in the environmental factors and make a commitment to do something about them.
Earlier they had almost gone to a counselor to air the friction over Eric’s hearing loss. Now, because they have begun to fight about it, he is asking her to go to a counselor with him discuss the environmental factors in their communication and her part in them. So far she is resisting.
We’ll see what happens. Hearing loss as it turns out, can indeed be a family malady.
What is the condition of your hearing, and what have you been able to do about it that really worked in your daily life?
TWO OF THE IMPORTANT AFTER 50 LESSONS MR. TRUMP CAN TEACH US
I don’t know Mr. Trump. I see an experienced showman on television, read his speeches, and listen to the pronouncements of his staff. Arguing crowd size isn’t what it’s about for me. I’m not a therapist. Analyses aren’t going to happen here. I’m not an Ethicist, so you won’t find words like “lie” and my reactions to it in this blog. I’m not a politician. You’ll need to go elsewhere for political analyses.
I am, however, a Developmental Psychologist and can speak my opinion with some authority here about life After 50. What’s the connection?
More often than not, when we say “Developmental Psychology” we’re studying and talking about children. How does a good 3-year-old get to be a great 6-year-old? What do we need to understand and do to support this happening?
What far too few of us understand about After 50 is that human development is lifelong. We need to learn new skills and ways of thinking across our entire life spans. If we don’t, our personal, decreased relevancy is guaranteed. Not only are we not fully “cooked” by the time we’re in our forties, some of our greatest opportunities and best work can happen in our 60s, 70s, and 80s. How does a good 50-year-old get to be a great 75-year-old? That’s the important question to me, the one to which I’ve dedicated years of research, writing, and observation.
Enter Mr. Trump. We all need to learn from each other through observation and conversation. Who is the most visible After 50 person in the world? You guessed it. With all due respect, he leaves Queen Elizabeth (90), George Clooney (56), Sarah Palin (52), Clint Eastwood (81), Sonia Sotomayor (62), and Bruce Springsteen (67) in the After 50 dust when it comes to constantly holding our attention. I think we’re only beginning to learn from him and, as we all know, After 50 isn’t a time to stop learning.
Lesson #1: In the process of our own After 50 development, at some point it’s crucial that we each move from 51% or more externally validated to 51% or more self-validated. Later in our lives opportunities for external validation will decrease and so will our quality of life if we fail to learn this lesson.
I recently did some retirement work with a couple in their late 50s. The husband, a top national salesman, was terrified of retirement. His entire identity and self-esteem were built around his job performance each month. During the months he exceeded his sales target numbers, his self-esteem was through the roof. During the months he failed to meet his sales goals, his self-esteem was somewhere below the basement. If he were retired, who would he be? He and I took opposite views on what to do. He wanted in retirement to find the next thing at which he could be a champion. I thought he was going to have to find a way to give up his addiction to ongoing “proof” because as he aged that external proof would become less and less likely in the long run. He wanted to know what would be satisfying and a guarantee to go with it before he made the leap. His wife, after many years on the proof rollercoaster with him, sided with me. Did he have the courage to give up being so dependent upon repeated external validation that ranked high on the “never enough” scale? Was he willing to do the work to get really comfortable and happy in his own skin? On a scale of 0 (low) to 10 (high), where do you rank Mr. Trump’s ongoing comfort in his own skin without dependence on validation hits? On the same scale where do you rank your own?
Lesson #2 In the process of our own After 50 development, at some point it’s crucial to allow disagreements without creating enemies and opponents. Living a life of constantly seeing only opposites (self and opponents) and being at war is unlikely to create an After 50 life of any reasonable quality for you and your loved ones.
A couple came to me to do some life planning work. Money wasn’t an issue. The husband had lots of interests and looked forward to exploring them. The wife, however, was so dependent on the adulation of her children and grandchildren that they had begun to avoid family holidays with her. Why? She demanded their attendance at each and every holiday, birthday, celebration, and anniversary. She was pugilistic. Anyone who wasn’t totally with her was considered to be against her. She could be verbally abusive and a bully. She was tenacious, a veritable bulldog. And this pattern – if you aren’t fully with me you must be against me – extended to friends, colleagues at work, staff, and, especially, her husband. Given time, she could recite long lists of opponents including her son in law, his family, and neighbors. Was she willing to go into a retirement that was less dependent upon war and opponents? What was reasonable to demand of retirement, and what was she willing to do to make it work? On a scale of 0 (low) to 10 (high), where do you rank Mr. Trump’s ongoing preference for having opponents and conducting interpersonal wars? On the same scale where do you rank your own?
In my own case, I’ve assumed some of my best work and greatest opportunities will happen After 50. I’ve written a book about retirement and life planning in times of increasingly unplannable, discontinuous change. “How Do I Get There From Here?” will be released by AMACOM (publishing division of the American Management Association) in July. For me it’s a bold expression of what experience and expertise tell me will work for most of us in the coming years. Some days it also feels like a huge risk to put myself and my ideas so far out there in public. My own, personal developmental job is to rely more on my independent sense of myself than I am on the book’s success. Usually I’m OK with it. Some days are a bit of a push. How could I possibly write about After 50 ideas if I’m not willing to take them head on myself?
I don’t know Mr. Trump but I’d like to thank him for the lessons he makes available to me. We are all – or should be – mirrors for each other. We After 50 will do well to pay attention. I hope he is intensely successful as President for all our sakes. We certainly stand – if we’re available for it – to learn a lot about how to build or injure our collective future.
The Slippery Road To Isolation Well Before We Are Old
One of my longtime California friends recently sent me an email commenting on how many long-term friendships are affected by the recent presidential election. His observation is that a significant number of people – from both of the major voting spectrum positions – are unable to comprehend how their friends could possibly have voted the way they did. Even worse, they are currently unable to forgive. On the surface they can still socialize but it’s awkward because conversation topics are now limited and everyone knows things just aren’t the same between them. Trust has been broken and, once broken, repair is not in sight. “How could you?” is the question hanging, unspoken in the air between them.
Provoked by his email, I checked with other friends around the nation. Sure enough, it’s not just a California phenomenon. I had previously thought of divisive as an adjective. Somehow, while I wasn’t looking it turned into a transitive verb with long term friends as the objects. And this is a potential, durable problem for all of us After 50.
In social network theory Strong Relationships/Strong Networks of Relationships is used to describe interpersonal connections characterized by high levels of trust, significant shared history, similarity of values, intentions in common, mutual support, and well established assumptions about one another. How many of these relationships are enough depends upon the individual. Strong Relationships/Networks are very important because they are efficient, reliable, and trustworthy. You don’t have to explain. You can make direct requests without preamble. Working on something at home or on the job can feel choreographed because you know how to move together. And sometimes you can even finish each other’s sentences. We all need Strong Relationships/Networks.
Again in social network theory Weak Relationships/Weak Networks of Relationships is used to describe interpersonal connections characterized by little knowledge of each other, few if any shared friendships, potentially different background or approaches to life, and values which are not identical to our own. How many of these relationships are enough depends upon the individual. Weak Relationships/Networks are very important because they are the source of new possibilities, contacts, and approaches. They are also the source of a significant number of AHAs! and fresh ideas. If you are looking for an insightful answer or piece of information, weak relationships are more often than not a superior source because the individual is not burdened with assumptions about you and is likely to come from a totally different place than your own. We all need Weak Relationships/Networks.
The severing of a longtime friendship at this time is more than the termination of one strong relationship. It’s also the eradication of a significant number of weak connections your former strong connection could have arranged for you. How many strong relationships do you currently have and how does this total compare to what you really need in your life right now?
How many weak relationships – including connections through your strong relationships – do you currently have and how does this total compare to what you really need in your life right now?
Impoverishment in relationships later in life often comes because:
- The individual has not maintained his/her strong relationships AND has failed to replenish the network as people dropped out through moving, illness, no longer working together, or any of a number of other causes.
- The individual has failed to maintain and adequate weak network of relationships and, therefore, has few candidates in line to occupy strong connection positions.
- 1 and 2 lead directly to isolation.
I am asking you to consider how much energy, time, and effort it takes to build and maintain enough strong relationships. No one knows where our country is really going. It’s like hanging on to a surf board bouncing across the waves at the moment.
Do you have such an excess that you can easily afford to jettison previously important and strong relationships?
How are you resolving the relationship divide and the loss of trust with your strong friends who didn’t vote the way you did?
How strong is your Weak Network?
I propose a checklist of isolatioin conditions:
- Impoverishment of Strong Networks
- Failure to nurture Weak Networks
- Diminishment of curiosity
- Failure to remain and interesting person
- Capitulation and victimization
How many of these conditions exist in your networks? What can you do about them?
Please let me know.
What Do We Owe To Our Grandchildren?
There I was in a long line with my grocery cart. The lady at the front – the OCD woman with 30 clipped magazine coupons to scan, each of which will save her 1.5 cents – was proudly waving her fanned collection at the checker as if she were about to be a big winner in Reno. This was going to take a while.
So, I did what I always do to distract myself. I looked for something to read. To my immediate left at eye level were THE TABLOIDS, the early, spawning originators of fake news and voyeur headlines.
How often has your first reaction to something been “I’m so glad my grandchildren aren’t here to see/experience this.”? It happens to me with surprising frequency. It isn’t that I want to insulate them from the world. I don’t have primary responsibility for them nor should I be setting priorities. They have parents for that. Still, these times always trigger in me concern about what I am doing on a regular basis to help my grandchildren.
Grandparents come in a dazzling variety of configurations. Some can’t wait to buy teddy bears and books to read together. Some don’t want much to do with them until they are old enough to get into the car on their own for a ride. Other grandparents delight in baby sitting or taking a teenager out for her first cup of coffee or helping them become diehard team fans or setting aside money for college or attending piano recitals and T-ball games.
My personal configuration is built around the intention that I can give each of them confidence and adaptability. Provided we have the foundation of high quality one on one time together, I can add experiences which will serve them well for the rest of their lives. For example, finding their way (safely) through a new experience in a place they don’t know well with other kids they don’t know at all – Circus or Marine Biology or Theater day camp, for instance. Or lunch with me at a white table cloth restaurant followed by a movie or a play. Or walking down Grant Avenue together hand in hand and going into a tea shop for a cup where the rest of the customers are all Chinese and over 70. Or going down ALL the waterslides together several times at a sunny resort.
How does what I want to give to them differ from what I owe them? THE TABLOIDS pushed me into exploring the difference.
I discovered I’m clear about what I want to give to them: any kind of new experience that will 1. allow them expanded forms of curiosity and knowledge they hadn’t thought of before, 2. provide them with enjoyable social and cultural surprises and insight, and 3. add to their confidence that they are smart, adaptable, and highly competent people.
As for what I owe to them, I have to remember that their lives won’t necessarily be an extension of mine. In fact, their lives may differ as significantly as the world they are inheriting differs from the one handed to me.
Here, after much reflection, is my list of what I owe to my grandchildren:
- My own authenticity (and non-pedantic exposure through me) to the norms of my generation
- Explanation more than total protection. I could blind them to THE TABLOIDS or I could have a serious conversation about the implications of rampant voyeurism and fake news.
- Trust and respect that in the long run they will make good decisions about their lives as they move into a future which I can only imagine.
- Unadulterated, non-demanding affection.
- Continual remembering – and the behaviors that go with it – that I am their grandfather and not their parent.
- Sincere interest in them and their interests.
- Enough high-quality availability without being like hot water, always available at the turn of the tap.
- Respect and support for their individuality. I remember, when I was 17, my own maternal grandmother gently taking my hands in hers and saying “Do what you want to do, dear. You will anyway.” I have never forgotten it.
In a nice way, I owe the OCD coupon-waving customer and THE TABLOIDS in the rack a moment of gratitude. Without them I wouldn’t have been pressed to distinguish between give and owe.
As for what my grandchildren want from me, I’m saving that for a future blog.
The new year is now upon us. What is it you want to give to your grandchildren in the coming year?
What is it you think you owe to your grandchildren in the coming year?
What is it you think your grandchildren want from you?
Let me know, please.
Inspiration Might Be Sitting On Your Left
I’ve just come back to the office from a deeply inspiring lunch meeting. For all our important work with “Seniors” and the services many of them need, I think we tend to carelessly lump then together, regularly falling into the trap of no longer seeing them as individuals and very, very bright people with full biographies. The fact is lots of “Seniors” are still trucking along admirably with significant humor, vigor, and insightful thinking. Chronological age is clearly not the primary determinant of much of anything.
I am fortunate enough to belong to an almost 70-year-old professional media and journalism-oriented organization. It is made up of retired print and broadcast executives and professionals, along with the rest of us still working in several forms of journalism and media.
These older men and women were heavy hitters with long careers in exciting times for their industry, complete with opportunities that are now unlikely if not impossible. It’s always a revelation to occasionally experience myself as one of the youngest people in a room full of really articulate, experienced, passionate people. How often do my peers and I get that chance for inspiration?
Essentially, the organization is a luncheon club where we come together at a common table with microphones available to review and discuss a wide variety of topics from journalism and media perspectives. We discuss current issues of local, national, and international importance (political positions and religion are not permitted). This isn’t a bunch of geezers telling war stories and reminiscing. This is a group of thoughtful, experienced minds coming together for highly informed discussions. About 45 of us gather each time, both men and women. The membership is larger than that, so the attendance is slightly different at each meeting.
What did I find inspiring today, you ask? I’m glad you inquired.
A woman in her late 70s (an unrepentant thespian) played her instrument-studded washboard and sang everything from Jazz to Rap as warmup entertainment. She remarked on her pig tails and wrinkles, and then announced that all it took was moderate musical prowess and, blessedly – no longer having much sense of shame – an increased capacity for joy. She knew how to seize a point and get it across, grabbing our attention without doing or being anyone we would usually expect. And all the while her significant dignity shone through. How many of us can do that well, I ask you?
The gentleman on my left, 93, remarked about having written a piece with his daughter announcing his wife’s recent death for posting on his Facebook page.
Two men in their early eighties got into a heated debate about where journalism ends and media begins. Journalism and media, although we often mash them together, are not synonymous as we all know.
Today there was a general discussion about the November 13 letter to New York Times readers from the Publisher and the Senior Editor reflecting on issues with their campaign and election coverage. Full article HERE .
A famous elections polling analyst/scientist and journalist, easily in his late 70s, talked about the intelligent limits of polling and how they can miss what’s really going on.
I’m not some voyeur at these lunches. When it was my turn, I talked about my notion that we had all been prisoners of the images and language of local/regional/identity politics and, therefore, unwilling and unable to think and behave otherwise. It’s my opinion that we, as a nation, HAVE AN EXCESS OF LANGUAGES AND IMAGES THAT SEPARATE US AND are missing the ALTERNATIVE language and images to understand commonly shared pain and hope, without which we have little opportunity to actually create an inclusive dialogue. I’d like us to do a journalistic investigation of this without having to have another September 11 to pull us all together again.
The lady to my right, in her middle 70’s, is so alert and attentive that her eyes sparkle. She worked with Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, among others, and clearly understood the historic nuances in all of the remarks.
It’s my experience that many of us suffer from absence of intelligent intergenerational engagement and the inspiration that can accompany it. My grandchildren regularly teach me important information I might otherwise miss entirely. When I say intergenerational engagement, I’m not talking about 3 or 4 generations showing up for a big holiday meal and watching sports on television rather than actually interacting. I’m talking about seizing the opportunity to look to my right and my left and observe the wisdom and perspective each generation brings from the lives they have led, regardless of age.
I’m inspired and this came from accomplished professionals senior to me.
What do you do for inspiration in your own life, especially multigenerational inspiration?
The Return Of The 10’ Christmas Tree
I admit it. By the time the boys were teenagers, my enthusiasm for decorating for the holidays, putting up a large Christmas tree, hanging lights on the house, and later taking it all down and putting it away again was so minuscule it could only be detected through a microscope.
This was eventually followed by the day when I sold the family house and, for the first time in decades, I no longer owned a house, hose, lawn mower, wheel barrow, outside holiday lights, or an extension ladder. Of course I paid for packing and security locker storage of the indoor holiday decorations we had bought together, along with all of those Halloween, Easter, and Thanksgiving items the kids had made in school. Those were of obvious historic and sentimental importance, weren’t they? In the meantime, Liberation! The “Urban Condo Period” of my life had begun.
Then Linda came along and everything changed hue. Throughout our wonderful urban condo years together, holiday decorating totaled:
- a wreath on the front door
- extra candles Linda placed around strategically
- a lovely but reusable 4’ decorator-designed tree I bought at a charity auction.
Decorating for the holidays became a 20-minute process. Putting everything away took 15 minutes.
Eventually I was struck by the we’re-too-young-to-get-too-comfortable-so-let’s-go-challenge-ourselves-while-we’re-still-young-enough bug. Developmental Psychologists who believe in walking their talk will tend, as a part of integrity, to do these things. The idea was that if we could move to a really well-selected place where we knew no one and then build a great life for ourselves within 5 years, nothing was going to happen to us for the rest of our lives that we couldn’t handle together. The theory has since proved to be sound in practice.
To begin our challenge to ourselves, we built a template of great-fit characteristics. We spent 3 years looking for a place that would work for both and each of us. It had to be someplace where we could pursue our interests and continue our work with no desire to “retire”.
The 5-year experiment began when we found a great-fit area on the opposite coast, bought a house we loved, and moved across the country. We kept our city condo as a fallback, renting it instead of selling it. All of our good friends were supportive. Several of them still think we’re crazy but have finally given up waiting for us to move back.
Our 1st Holiday Season in the new house was limited to decorations A thru C above from our Urban Condo Period. The following year, to our great surprise, we acquired a 10’ Christmas tree for our living room which we happily spent 2 full days decorating with our large assortment of tree and home decorations (fresh from security storage after all those years). We had tree ornaments my parents collected throughout my childhood, Linda’s parents’ ornaments from the earliest days of their marriage, ornaments we had each acquired through the years, and ornaments we had given each other. We did have to sort through and purge the junk and, I admit it again, dump much of that stuff the kids had made years ago that no longer seemed to be of such obvious historic and sentimental value. Actually I wondered why I had kept all that stuff they didn’t care about. In the end the tree looked great and we had plenty of ornaments for all 10’. We bought more anyway. And we have looked forward to doing all of it again every holiday season.
Now we’re approaching the 10th Holiday Season of our 5-year experiment. A full decade of life can make a big difference in preferences and priorities for all of us. We have benefited and prospered in our now-not-so-new location and have no regrets about having made the big leap. It’s still lovely after all this time to be back in a real house with bigger rooms, higher ceilings and lots of space and light. We enjoy having room for our professional work and special, personal projects and interests without having to put them away in a closet or drawer all the time. We have great confidence in the quality of the experience and skills we’ve accrued over these years.
What brings all of this up? The holidays do. It’s Appreciation Time for all who have become part of our lives as well as for the depth and breadth of our friendships.
I concede the 10” tree is looking taller and more daunting than it did 10 Christmases ago when we bought it, but it really goes with the house and who we are in it. Of course, we have the added inspiration of living in this neighborhood. Ours is one of the few houses that won’t have imaginative outdoor holiday lights. Down the street you’ll find a 16’ Frosty made of industrial-strength chicken wire with a gazillion lights. For counterpoint there’s a lighted Menorah in one yard and a house where not one bush or tree has escaped some form of seasonal electrification.
This all makes a 10’ tree in our living room seem like a really happy tradition for Linda and me. None of us knows what the future will bring or what decisions we’ll face. The day will come when a desire for simplification will overtake us, and we’ll be on to the next residential period of our lives. After 18 years together we know our lives, like most people’s, won’t unroll like a ribbon in a straight line. We’ve kept our 4’ decorator tree all these years as a happy remembrance and just in case we need it again someday in smaller quarters.
Our holiday commitment to ourselves and to our friends is to open-eyed “normalcy” in a world currently sloshing through changes we hadn’t imagined and can’t control. In the “spirit of normal” our tree is decorated with memories, hopes, good intentions, and sincere best wishes to all of you and yours for happy times during the Holidays and throughout the coming year.
Blessings from our home to you and yours.
The After 50 Goal Shift – From Validation to OK Anyway
Aging, let it be acknowledged, seldom arrives in our lives all at once. Instead, it appears in large and small changes in our environment. I was recently on a crowded metropolitan bus and a very polite teenager stood up and offered her seat. At first I looked around to see where her gestures were directed and was flabbergasted to realize…she was offering her seat to ME.
Gray hair. Loss of longtime friends. Fine print getting smaller (Surely it can’t be our eyes!). Consonants or vowels becoming more elusive in fast paced vocal music. Widespread challenges to our iconic values and beliefs (like permanent employment, home ownership, the relevance and place of a college education, our alliances with one political party or another). Our precious little grandchildren turning into people as tall (or taller) than we are, with strong opinions and positions of their own. Loss of muscle tone and skin suppleness. The winnowing of what’s important to us and how we continue to reassure ourselves of our potency and efficacy. Openness (or the opposite) to new experiences. The tectonic shifts in what we aspire to and what these aspirations mean to us.
All of this is offset, at least in part, by some magical combination of having little left to prove, greater patience with ourselves and others, a much shorter list of things we think of as life and death issues, the reward of longtime friends to whom we don’t have to explain a thing, and new friends who bring fresh ideas and interests to the mix of our lives.
If we’re paying attention this can be an amazingly rich period of life regardless of the national elections and turmoil.
Which brings me to our increasingly tricky relationship with goals After 50.
Earlier in our lives goals were a part of a complex approach to our personal development, and focusing primarily on our goals could be a kind of roller coaster. Still, If things didn’t work out we had lots of recuperative years left to move on and conquer something else. Goals were often irretrievably intertwined with our validation.
Example: Being a salesperson with significant, monthly territory sales goals. If you made your numbers you were on top of the world, but you were only as good as this month’s numbers. Next month you had to prove yourself all over again.
Example: Being a parent whose sense of successful parenting depended upon kids’ grades, athletic prowess, and college admissions. If your kid did well in your eyes, you had achieved your parental goal. If your kid did not do well there was something wrong with both of you. And you couldn’t be really OK until your kid was.
Example: Taking off 25 pounds and fitting into that dress or suit for your high school or college reunion. You were often only as good, at least for that evening, as your weight loss achievement.
Note in each example the direct correlation between your goal achievement and your sense of your own OKness.
Linda and I have friends (a married couple) who are serial entrepreneurs. They worked together in each business across the decades. Two years ago, for the first time, they disagreed. Her goal was to retire. His goal was to start a brand new entrepreneurial business. Eventually the wife capitulated. It was a struggle. He was only going to be as OK as his new venture was successful. How did they get through? For the first time in their lives together it was OK to have goals BUT NOT to hook their personal OKness to goal achievement. Their OKness had to be hooked to something else or, like the salesperson example above, they could only be as OK as their latest performance and results. Not the ideal condition for high quality of later life.
We also have long time friends who set up an elaborate set of travel goals. They had just retired and were so happy together. Their sense of self-esteem was closely coupled to the goals of being able to check each of the continents off their bucket list until none remained. Quite suddenly the husband died of lung cancer. Was it great that they had goals? Yes. Was it great that, as a widow, the wife’s OKness was uniformly tied to her husband and their shared bucket list of goals? No. She had to do the painful work of creating new goals for herself and not tying her ultimate OKness to them.
This all comes up for me now because I’ve just realized one of my biggest goals. I have signed a contract with a national publisher to publish my new book. Manuscript is due 12/15/16. Publication date is around July 1, 2017. What’s different for me – and somehow paradoxical – is that I can and do have goals but no longer have the luxury of letting them define my OKness. It’s not easy to give up the success/failure paradigm. I’d have to be pretty much OK whichever way the publication hammer falls. This is a huge shift in my relationship to goals.
What are your goals now?
What do you do to create your consistent OKness that isn’t tied to goal achievement?
My wife Linda left last Tuesday to go to her high school reunion in Hawaii. I didn’t want to go with her, and she didn’t press me on it. How many days can you devote to making small talk with very nice people you haven’t met before and probably won’t see again? AND I had an ulterior motive: As someone who is seldom alone for more than a few hours at a time, I wanted to experiment with being alone for a week and a day, safe in the knowledge that it was temporary.
Given the statistics on longevity, Linda will likely outlive me, and it will be her job to wrestle with being alone. Still, I could be the one left alone. And I’ve begun wondering how I would handle it.
I have most of the required domestic skills for solo survival because I was the oldest son and also a single parent for so many years. I can cook, clean, and do laundry, shop, mess things up, tidy things up, pay household bills, arrange for events with friends, take psychic nutrition from the serenity of our otherwise unoccupied house, say “no thank you” to lunch and dinner invitations from friends who already think I’m nuts by conducting this experiment, sleep reasonably well alone, and ask for help when I’m feeling isolated. (For me, isolation could be a real problem.)
I began my alone research by observing some of my male friends more closely, and myself during the eight days Linda was away. I discovered several faces of alone.
Conscious aloneness. I have a friend, call him Adam, age 69, in Pennsylvania. His wife died 10 years ago. The right woman hasn’t come along, and through the years I have watched him adapt both his comfort levels and his expectations without abandoning his efforts. Adam has an apartment that’s a kind of nest, comfortable without ostentation of any kind, with book-lined walls and all kinds of recorded music. There is great public transportation nearby and a charming shopping street within walking distance. He has an active social network. Sometimes he is lonely but isn’t undone by being alone. Retired now, Adam meets people when he volunteers and when he travels. He is at one end of what I have come to see as the Alone Continuum, the guy who has for the most part found his place alone and with others.
Confusing aloneness and not busy enough. Another friend, call him Ben, age 73, lives in Ohio. He’s retired, and was divorced three years ago after a 30-year marriage. His M.O. is that he is only content when he’s busy. The rest of the time he’s anxious. Ben is without any noticeable nesting instincts of his own. He is seeking the right female companion with no expectations of exclusivity or permanence. He says he can’t stand being alone, that it’s actually painful for him. I’m unclear whether he’s more afraid of being alone or more undone by lack of busy-ness. I am clear, however, that Ben is at the other end from Adam along the Alone Continuum.
Alone In A Crowd. Now we come to Charlie, age 58, who lives in California. Charlie attends a lot of large social events and pays great attention to his appearance. He can’t stand being wrong or being challenged. So he surrounds himself with people who won’t disagree with him, often hanging out graciously but alone in crowds. If Charlie isn’t happy, no one around him is allowed to be happy either. He says he’s lonely. Charlie shares one end of the alone continuum with Ben.
As for my time on my own, how did I do? I have had a great week, filled with joy and feelings of competence. Still, I’ll be glad for my wife’s return home tomorrow. (I’m already marinating her favorite teriyaki steaks.) Did I miss her terribly? No. Is missing immediately and intensely somehow a requirement for great love and devotion? I don’t think so.
As a result of my experiment, I’m much clearer than ever before that:
- I have the ability to be alone if that is what life hands me. It isn’t what I want. But I won’t be undone by it, and that’s a relief.
- I am no longer embedded in a role (parent, spouse, homeowner, consultant, author, grandparent, researcher, speaker) as my primary way of knowing who I am; somehow in the last 10 years I have developed a sense of myself that endures without roles as a requirement. And this already gives me a leg up, so to speak, on being alone.
- I think it would be good for all of us to experiment with solitude before it knocks on our doors with utterly unforgiving permanence.
- My friends Ben and Charlie would be well served to take Adam out to dinner and inquire in depth about how he manages. And then to try some of what worked for Adam in their own lives.
- Our society often views singlehood after 50 with a dark and suspicious eye. It doesn’t have to be so. We get to choose what alone means for us.
- One of the best things we can do for ourselves after 50 is to take consistent action, renewing and replenishing our social networks. We need to meet and socialize with people of different backgrounds, interests and viewpoints. Building relationships only with people we agree with isn’t renewal. It’s acquisition. Besides, that’s exactly how older people get isolated—they hang out with the same people for years. Then their friends die off and move away while they did little, if anything, to replenish their group of friends.
Which brings me to one my biggest takeaways from this experience: As Linda and I grow older, it’s important that we have our own lives, even though our shared life dominates. This does NOT mean I’m less devoted to my wife. It does mean we can’t depend upon each other exclusively to be OK. We have to depend upon ourselves, too. And upon others. That seems to be a requirement of aging well.
Here’s another important lesson: Loneliness and isolation aren’t completely avoidable, but they don’t have to swamp us. NOW is the time to consider practicing with being alone, at least occasionally. NOW is the time to take all of this seriously, because later may be way too late.
You may want to start, as I did, with Home Alone. Or do you have other strategies in mind?