Pitfalls To Aging Well

What ones have you encountered?

As we go through life, there is one thing we all face – getting older. We are led to believe that the years after retirement, the “golden years,” will be filled with love and joy. Seniors are promised flexible schedules which allow them to live their dreams - dreams such as traveling to foreign countries, doing more things with the family, enjoying the fruits of their labors, and discovering new hobbies: free from constraints. It’s the perfect time for seniors to do things they’ve always wanted to do, but never had time for. The concept of retirement as an endless holiday isn’t as old as you might think.

The phrase “the golden years” was coined in 1959 in an advertising campaign for America’s first large-scale retirement community. It was a roll of the dice to see whether folks ‘55 and better’ would embrace ‘an active new way of life,’ move away from their families, and buy one of the modest homes on a $2 million golf-resort development in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Dr. Seuss saw it a bit differently:

So, let’s look at four hidden and unrecognized dangers or difficulties, that might arise as you confront the golden years. Pitfalls you may not have considered.

Pitfall #1  You were expecting the golden years, but money is tight and no one is hiring.

Sam’s story is a good example. He worked at a trucking company for 30 years – it was the only job he ever had. He had a good work record and expected to work another ten to fifteen years before retiring. Wrong! When COVID-19 arrived, he was laid off and two months later he lost all his benefits. He saved some money and had a small retirement but not enough for him and his partner, who had emphysema, to live on for more than a couple of months. Initially, he thought “no big deal, I can collect unemployment while I look for a new job – it’s time for a change, anyway.” Wrong again! He hadn’t realized how many other people had a similar plan.

In fact, according to a January, 2021 New York Times article, “Americans filed 900,000 applications for unemployment benefits last week, a signal that layoffs are still going strong as the coronavirus hammers businesses and workers alike. The feds have now reported about 75.6 million initial jobless claims over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic — a number equivalent to roughly 47 percent of the nation’s workforce.”

True, some people were able to adjust, as USA Today noted:

An unemployed stagehand is suddenly an e-commerce mogul, peddling hard-to-find items such as toilet paper and home fitness equipment. A laid-off personal vacation adviser may have found her true calling: teaching English online to students around the globe. A recruiter is paying the bills as she awaits her unemployment benefit checks by day-trading stocks. With the coronavirus pandemic throwing tens of millions of Americans out of work or reducing their hours, many are scrambling to make ends meet by taking on part-time jobs and other side hustles, launching new ventures or playing the market – often from the safety of their homes.”At 50 years old, Sam was willing to make changes, but he had limitations. He needed back surgery, he was twenty pounds overweight, and he used the computer only to play video games. After being laid off, he worked briefly as a delivery man for a small company, but was concerned about his partner’s health issues and the lack of safety measures the company had in place for avoiding the virus. So, reluctantly, Sam quit the job. Now, he has no income, no insurance, mounting back problems, and little hope for the future.

Sam began drinking heavily to manage his despair and back pain, but alcohol didn’t really help. Something had to change!

Friends suggested he could exercise to lose weight and relieve the back pain. They referred him to the local job center where he could identify his skills and learn new ones. Finally, they encouraged him to sell items on Craig’s List, explore other options, and make a plan for the future.

Sam didn’t like exercising; he never had. He looked around the house but found few items to sell on Craig’s List. However, he was willing to contact the job center and read. He needed to work.

The job center currently provided free services online; so, he made an appointment with a career advisor. He suggested that Sam attended virtual workshops on assessing his career objectives, creating a resume, learning how to network, and understanding how to negotiate a possible employment opportunity.

Because his computer skills were lacking, Sam also enrolled in an online course.

When he and his partner read the book entitled Aging Well: 30 Lessons for Making the Most of Your Later Years, he found a guide for moving forward. He realized that to make the essential changes that were needed, he had to make difficult choices. He had to change some of his beliefs, his mindset, and his attitude. The first belief he changed was about going to the doctor. Rather than doubting the outcome, he chose to focus on the benefits of making the appointment. He wanted to lose weight, he was willing to commit to a healthy diet, and to get relief from his back pain. . . the doctor could help.

Pitfall #2. No reason to get up in the morning.

Many people identify themselves by the work they do. For years, I described myself as a wife, mother, and teacher, but after I retired, and especially as the years went by, that was “old news.” People were more interested in what I am doing now. Today, I describe myself as a grandmother, writer, and traveler.

Having a job is a huge issue for many, particularly, during the pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center,

The COVID-19 outbreak and the economic downturn it engendered swelled the ranks of unemployed Americans by more than 14 million, from 6.2 million in February to 20.5 million in May 2020. As a result, the unemployment rate shot up from 3.8% in February – among the lowest on record in the post-World War II era – to 13.0% in May. That rate was the era’s second highest, trailing only the level reached in April (14.4%).

Today the unemployment rate for the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. is above 20%.

While not in the category of lowest paid worker, Hank was unemployed because of the pandemic.

Hank loved his job at the hardware store where he worked for forty years. He was originally hired as a part time stock boy. Over the years and with a lot of hard work, he became the store manager.  Shortly after the stay at home order was given because of the pandemic, the store was sold and his position was eliminated. Yes, there was severance pay, yes, his insurance remained intact, but, at age 63, he was lost – there was no reason to get up in the morning – nothing to look forward to. His work was his life and there was nothing to replace it. He had no hobbies, wasn’t interested in sports, and had no family close by. It wasn’t only the work he missed, but the many friendships he made over the years.

He tried playing golf and volunteering at the local food bank. He also went on a cruise before the pandemic, but none of that was enjoyable and he was bored. His only pleasures now were smoking weed, taking naps, and playing video games.

Recently, Hank had lunch with his old boss, Jim. Jim was concerned about Hank’s lack of enthusiasm and suggested that Hank get a wellness check, to see if he had any physical or mental health problems, look for another job, help part time in his comic book business or look for other ideas.  He even offered to look with Hank.

Hank was willing to get a wellness check, it was free and he hadn’t had one for a couple of years.  He really wasn’t interested in looking for a new job or working in the comic book business. He was tired of the daily grind. He was not interested in doing any reading, either; but Jim insisted. After reading several articles, Hank admitted there were ideas he could use and he had to admit that he was really stuck in self-pity. The truth was he had a lot going for him: he was healthy, he had plenty of money, and plenty of friends. Maybe it was time to explore other options.

Pitfall #3. The Scales Must Be Wrong!

As a person gets older, losing weight becomes more difficult. This happens for various reasons - from increasing stress levels to a slowing metabolism to the inevitable muscle loss. In fact, it is estimated that your metabolism slows down 5% every decade after you turn 40. So, losing excess weight takes more effort and intention.

There are numerous reasons for not being physically active. Some of those reasons are valid; but laziness is not one of them. Roughly 3.2 million people die each year because of physical inactivity. The most sedentary group of Americans are over the age of 50 and most of the musculoskeletal changes that come with aging are actually due to a lack of use more than the aging process itself.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that an inactive lifestyle is one of the leading causes of death and disability. A small amount of exercise may increase one’s lifespan 3 to 5 years. So, regular exercise, especially among older adults, is critical to good health.

British researchers at the University of Birmingham and King's College London compared the muscles and immune systems of a group of older adults who had exercised all their lives with a group of similarly aged adults and younger adults who had not exercised regularly. “The study suggests that simply getting older doesn't cause a loss of immune protection. Rather, it's a lack of exercise that's to blame.”

"Hippocrates in 400 BC said that exercise is man's best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly a sedentary society."

Bella knew that she wasn’t as active as she once was. She no longer went to the club; it was too expensive. At age 70, her body was less strong even though she walked regularly and did stretching exercises daily. She wasn’t as flexible as she used to be, got tired more quickly, and didn’t have the energy she once had. She was dismayed when the scale showed a gain of ten pounds and her blood pressure was high, even though she was eating and drinking less.

It was clear that what she was doing wasn’t working. So, she considered watching exercise programs on TV, joining an exercise group at the Senior Center, cutting out sugar,looking for new ideas online and in books

The exercise programs on TV were boring; she just couldn’t get herself to do them. The Senior Center was closed because of the COVID virus and there was no date when it might reopen. Bella loved her desserts and cutting them out was not an option. Although, she was doubtful it would help, she decided to read several articles about losing weight to see if other ideas came to mind.

Surprisingly, one idea that popped out was that it didn’t have to be all or nothing. She didn’t have to cut out all the desserts; maybe, she could limit herself to one dessert instead of two or cut down on the portion size. She didn’t have to exercise for a whole hour; maybe, she could start by working out for five minutes and then add a couple more minutes to her routine each week. She could also create her own program which focused on exercises she actually liked or get together with a couple of friends to exercise. Why not give it a try?

Pitfall #4. Out of Whack with the World!

Ebony was a stay-at-home wife and mom.  While she was involved in many activities, she didn’t learn to use the computer. When, her husband, Joe, died, she was at a loss because he had taken care of the finances, the taxes, and the health records: all of which were online.  Now, at age 60, she tried to teach herself how to use the computer, but just could not figure it out. She felt dumb and hated to ask her friends for help all the time. She was stuck.

She read an article written in March 2019, about the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy report identifying innovations designed to improve the lives of older adults and persons living with disabilities. The report outlined key areas where technology can support continued independence for aging Americans and identified research and development needs to make these innovations a reality. After reading the list of innovations, Ebony knew she had to learn how to use the computer. She wanted to learn more about

  • Key activities of independent living that supported good nutrition, hygiene, and medication management.

  • Changes for maintaining financial security.

  • Video calling and other technologies that could connect her with friends and relatives.

  • Access to healthcare to align and coordinate care.

Ebony was not alone. People are bombarded with new information and the pace of life is faster, yet an older person’s memory may not be as sharp, they may move more slowly, and they may not be technology smart. All of those factors lead them to feel out of whack with the world - particularly so given the pandemic. She could no longer go to the mall, attend concerts, or even see her new grand son.

Nationally, one-third of adults ages 65 and older say they’ve never used the internet and half don’t have internet access at home. Of those who do use the internet, nearly half say they need someone else’s help to set up or use a new digital device. Even in San Francisco – the home of technology giants like Twitter, Facebook, and Google – 40% of older adults do not have basic digital literacy skills, and of those, more than half do not use the internet at all.

 For many Americans, being online is an important way to connect with friends and family, shop, get news, and search for information. Yet today, 10% of U.S. adults do not use the internet, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of survey data. In fact, many older adults don’t own a computer or have access to one. This has become particularly apparent as people try to get appointments for the vaccine.

Because she really needed to use the computer, Ebony talked to her friend, Sam, who suggested that she go to a job center, where she could get training, let him teach her to use the computer, or read articles on line for new ideas, he offered to do the search with her.

 The job center was closed because of COVID, but she was able to talk to an advisor on the phone. The advisor suggested that Ebony take several free courses the center offered on basic computer skills. Ebony was reluctant to ask Sam for help, but he insisted.

After doing some reading, she realized it was time to change her beliefs about what she could do and change her habit of not allowing others to help her.  She needed a more positive attitude in general. She was very proud of herself when she was able to chat with Sam on Skype and order items online. Now, Ebony has enough confidence to tackle the iPad and the smart phone.

What pitfalls might you encounter as you age and are you prepared for the challenge? Stay tuned for new ideas.