Developing Emotional Resilience

The major challenge of getting old is dealing with the emotionally charged changes that come over us – the loss of our physical strength, our slowed reaction time to ideas, our resistance to change, our loss of identity as we get lumped into the “old” category, our increased hypochondria, our loneliness as friends move or die, our loss of connection with what is hip and happening, the way younger people look at and relate to us, our loss of eyesight and hearing, our constipation and incontinence, our bruising and scaring, our slow movement, our aches and pains, our need to use a walking stick, Zimmer-frame or wheel-chair, our trembling hands and weakened grasp.

At 40 or 50, we may say that none of this is going to happen to us and we’ll attempt to avoid the inevitable. But inevitable it is if we are going to live into our 80s and 90s.

However, our 40s and 50s have their own challenges – the loss of a job, a disabled child, the death of our parents, a bad fall, a long illness, the breakdown of our marriage, a missed promotion. And even more challenging are the stories we tell ourself – that we are not good enough, that we are a failure, that we are still faking it. The regrets, the shame, the blame, the guilt – about – who knows what. But they all come to haunt us at 3:00 in the morning.

Our response is often to get busy – we dive into an exercise programme, a changed diet, a new learning programme, a new partner, we pop another pill – anything to avoid the painful images, the haunting memories, the condemning voices.

But they can also make us strong if we allow ourself to see, feel and hear them. They teach us how to deal with adversity and how to get on with our life despite them; they may take us down into the depths of despair but in so doing, we learn how to claw our way back out.

We have been sold a myth called “I just want to be happy” – as if there is a place where everything will always be peaches and roses. Certainly, we all need times when life is easy and the sun is shining, time to recharge our batteries; but our greatest learning and growth comes from our failures, our disappointments, our losses.

And it is in those times that we develop our emotional resilience.

There is a grain of hope in every moment of despair, we just need to learn how to find it. Then we can bring our attention to that grain and help it to grow – “What have I learned, who was there for me? I survived and I can survive again.” And that grain becomes the foundation of our resilience. Every time we survive a let-down, a loss, a dark night, we gain a little strength for the next time.

Imagine for a moment a situation that is causing you pain. Look at it and feel how it affects you. You might experience a twist in your stomach, a tightening of your neck muscles, a shaking of your hands. But look at it. What is it really? Often it’s just a story you tell yourself and we use that story to beat ourself up. Now find that grain of hope. Focus on it and let it grow in your mind. This is not to disregard the pain, it’s still there, and you still have to live with it, but what else can you find?

It might be the trust that others have in you, or the loving support of your partner, or your ability to withstand the pain for yet another day. This is not to advocate some sort of Pollyanna approach to life, but all too often we are encouraged to focus on the negatives, on our weaknesses. Seldom are we encouraged to develop our strengths, to celebrate the good in ourself. And it is there that we find our hope, our joy and we develop our emotional resilience.

If in our 40s and 50s we can develop the habit of joy, then in our 80s and 90s we can face our frailty and continue to en-joy our life.

Finding Joy in Retirement

In their Book of Joy the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu distinguish between Joy and Happiness – where happiness comes from our external environment, and joy comes from within.

Retirement requires that we find our joy. As we grow old, our external environment conspires against our happiness as we lose the characteristics that defined us in our youth, but our joy is entirely within our control. How we view the world and how we interact with the world is our choice to make.

Right at the outset, let’s get one thing out of the way – retirement is not just about the money! Yes it is important to prepare financially, a good pension plan may bring us happiness, but it will not bring us joy. The trouble with money is that is relative –if I’ve got more than you I’m happy. If I’ve got less, I’m unhappy.

So where do we find our joy?

In a sense of meaning and purpose; our retirement could last for 30 years, a 1/3 of our life. So, what’s going to get us out of bed every day for those 30 years – what do we care deeply about and how can we continue to contribute to the wellbeing of others?

In our health; not just our physical health (that too) but in our mental, social, emotional and spiritual health. In our ability to do the things we enjoy, in our ability to connect with others, in our humility and in our ability to be at peace with ourself.

In our free time; our time to do the things we enjoy, the time to just BE! The time to be grateful for the life we have led, for the hardships that taught us, for the good times that rewarded us.

In being of service to others; in our generosity of spirit and in our compassion for the needs of others.

In our sense of community; in our friendships and in the laughter of memories shared and created.

In our attitude to life; to growing old, to death and in our acceptance that our body will become frail and our mind less focused on the here-and-now.

In our forgiveness; of ourselves and of others.

In our awareness of the emotional journey we are taking; as the pace of our life slows down we will be assailed by regrets, by “what ifs” by “if onlys”. But we will also be able to re-live the precious moments, the moments that took our breath away, the moments that made us “shiver with anticipation”. We will have the joy of perspective.

In our preparation; of when to retire, how we retire and how we grow old. The very act of preparation brings us joy because it is in that preparation that we come to appreciate the good that has been, and is still to come. And of course, in that preparation, we increase the likelihood of creating the retirement we desire.

All this being said, we tend not to prepare. It’s one thing preparing for that 2 week holiday or for a family celebration, but preparing for a major life change is something else. We have to step into the unknown, into the world of possibility, into a period of time that might last for 1 year or 30 years.

There is no guarantee that our retirement will go the way we prepare for it, but it is in the preparation that we come to know who we are, we come to recognise our strengths and we come to appreciate the resilience we developed throughout our younger years. And in our older years we are going to need that resilience if we are going to live our joy.

If you would like to find your Joy, contact alan@theeldersjourney.com and start a conversation.

Retirement and Getting Old are not the same.

We tend to lump these 2 ideas together when we talk about retirement. But retirement is when we stop doing what we have been doing and we either start doing something else, or we sit back and let the world get on without us.

Old age refers to a stage when people have limited regenerative abilities and are more susceptible to disease and increasing frailty.

Many of the young-at-heart, physically fit Boomers that I meet, say that they will never retire – and I must confess – I’m one of them. What we have in mind when we say that, is that we will continue working on our projects, running our companies, getting out there and making a difference. We won’t ever slow down because “when my time comes – then I’ll go”.  In other words we will work until the day we die.

And I wish us good luck with getting that right!

We read stories of Nonagenarians running marathons and pumping iron, swimming open water marathons and riding Harleys. One or two of us will beat the odds and become one of those. But for most of us, we have a big challenge ahead. The things we want to do become harder and more demanding on a body that is slowing down.

As we get older our muscle mass decreases, our brain synapses are less plentiful, our bones lose density and our flexibility diminishes. Our eyesight and our hearing start to go. We are injured more easily and it takes longer to recover. We move and react more slowly and the world becomes a little more scary. This may only happen in our 80s, but happen it will.

And if we don’t recognise these changes and we try to over-ride them with a “gung-ho” attitude, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of heartache.

A month ago I lifted my bike onto its storage rack and felt a tug in my shoulder. A month later it’s still sore and I don’t have full use or strength. A while ago I would have recovered in a couple of days. And I’m just shy of 70. How will I be at 80? And what about 90?

There is such pressure to stay “hip and happening” in our retirement – but there will come a time when we can’t any more. When that moment arrives it comes with a few “friends” – depression, anxiety, denial and fear. For many women, they have been talking to their friends, probably for years, or perhaps, they’ve been seeing a Counsellor so they’ve got some measure of the beast.

For most men it is a lonely time – how can we admit that we are feeling lost and useless, we can’t talk to our friends. What would they think of us? All our lives we’ve been told that men don’t cry – so how can we start now. We just suck it up and the “black dog” descends upon us.

It is at this point that we need to find our spiritual connection to the world and to those around us.

That connection may be religious, where we “let go and let God”, or it may be where we find our “oneness” with the world. Our “job” is now … to be. Just to be – in the moment, giving our fullest attention, listening to our inner dialogue, allowing ourselves to feel what we feel without needing to find solutions and “make things right”, allowing silence, allowing our-self to contemplate our history and to forgive our-self for things done and not done, said and not said. And we need to talk about how we are feeling and we need to express our fears. But we need a safe place where we can do that. Sitting in the pub over a couple of beers with the guys isn’t going to cut it. Some of us may be able to talk to our Church minister, but where else can men and women talk to other men and women?

One place where this could happen would be at the many retirement homes and villages that are springing up around the country – their business is retirement and old age. At present their focus is on their facilities and their social environment. Shouldn’t an important part of their service be to demystify aging? They have (should have?) the knowledge and experience to become the University of the 4th Age. A place where we can talk about the impact of retirement, the challenges of old age, the acceptance of frailty and the inevitability of death – not just for their existing residents, but for all the Boomers out there.

These are common issues, but they come with lots of denial and plenty of shame – and like most things – when they are brought out into the open and shared with others, they aren’t as horrible as we fear.

If you would like to start a conversation about your issues contact alan@theeldersjourney.com

The 8 emotions of retirement

There is a belief system about retirement – that it is our opportunity to sit back and smell the roses, that it is a time of perpetual bliss, where we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. But in the background there is another belief – that we are old and useless, sick and frail and waiting to die.

Both are true – and both are false. But it is our opportunity to be our-self. We can make of this opportunity whatever we want it to be. However there is an emotional journey that we have to take before we can realise our opportunity.

The first is anticipation – many of us have looked forward to our retirement day for years – and that can be little sad because it suggests that our working life has been unfulfilling. And unfortunately for many of us that is true. So we see our retirement as a release and an opportunity to do the things we really love doing. I will no longer need to get up early, fight the traffic and work for an ever demanding boss or customer.

The second is excitement – as I plan the things I’ve always wanted to do – the holidays in exotic places, the trips to see the grandkids, a chance to catch up with old friends, giving proper attention to my hobbies, enjoying quiet coffees in my favourite cafe, the books I want to read!

The third is contentment – as I settle into a life of leisure. What a pleasure to be able to lay back and to enjoy the 4 “G”s of retirement – Golf, Gardening, Grand-kids, and Google.

The fourth is disquiet – as the days stretch out ahead of me and I find myself pottering around doing nothing really. This is reminiscent of my school days – particularly that lovely long summer holiday. The first 4 weeks were great, the fifth was a bit boring and by the sixth I couldn’t wait to get back to school – even though I didn’t enjoy school much.

The fifth is concern – this is a 20 year holiday! What am I going to do for the next 20 years? Pottering around and the 4 “G”s ain’t gonna cut it for me.

The sixth is depression – what’s the point? What’s the point of getting up, getting dressed then flopping in front of the TV for the next 10 hours? “Maybe I can go for a walk – but it’s dangerous out there, someone was mugged on the street corner just the other day”. “Haven’t seen the kids for ages and haven’t got together with friends for quite a while”. “My knees hurt and my tummy’s not working properly”. I’ve nothing real to do and I just seem to get under people’s feet. What am I going to do for the next 20 years?

The seventh is fear – is this it? These are old-age years – will I be healthy? Will my life have meaning as I get older? What does it mean to get frail? What does it mean to die? And loneliness – how will I cope if I’m left alone; through death of my partner, through my kids moving away to follow work opportunities, through friends unvisited for months and years?

The eighth is acceptance – not resignation, but acceptance. Frailty and death will come – but until then …. Who do I want to be? How do I want to be in the world? How can I be of service? It is in acceptance that I can look to the contribution I want to make.

So, who am I (without my career to define me)? Where does my passion lie? What is it that gives me a “rev”?  What makes my blood race? What makes it boil? How do I be there to make a difference?

These emotions will come and go, perhaps in a nice orderly way, more likely in a disruptive, roller-coaster sort of way. Feeling one today, another tomorrow, and a couple of others in between. And it can be lonely. Everybody else looks OK. What is wrong with me?

So, how can I make that emotional energy work for me rather than against me? Support from someone who’s been there makes all the difference. Drop me a mail at alan@theeldersjourney.com and let’s talk.

Retirement – a different paradigm

There are any number of articles flying around the Web that talk about the coming crises that Baby Boomer retirement is going to bring. And crises there will be if we continue to look at retirees as redundant. (Thanks Otto von Bismarck for putting a “sell-by” date (65) on human usefulness – that was in 1880 and we cling to the same mentality in 2016.)

Then, life expectancy was to 62, so very few people got there, and a country’s need for a pension provision was negligible. Now our life expectancy is 76 and rising. Most people are going to outlive their pension – so today’s 40 year olds are being handed a big problem.

We have a strange idea about retirees – that we are old, and old people don’t know anything. But we have a “long view” – over the 40 years of our working life we’ve seen good times and bad times, we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, we’ve seen and made good decisions and poor decisions.

How would it be if we saw retirees for what we really are – a whole lot of experience and knowledge wrapped up in a progressively looser skin? How would it be if we understood that retirement is not only an ending – it is also a beginning?

Amongst us there are craftsmen, teachers, lawyers, CEOs, company directors, farmers, politicians, priests, doctors – highly qualified, highly experienced. How would it be if we were to apply our minds to the major crises facing mankind – global warming, environmental degradation, poverty, violence against women, human trafficking ….? If not us, who? Who else has the time, experience and connections to get things done? We “just” need to see retirement differently and we need to see ourselves differently. We have at least 10 good years when we can really make a difference in the world.

And it’s not only at the top end where we can make that difference. Our teachers are groaning under the responsibility for providing quality education amidst a staggering burden of administration. How would it be if we took on that administrative role? That would free up the teachers to teach. And the contact with the kids would keep us on our toes.

This coming crisis of aging Boomers? Why are we waiting for someone else to come up with some answers? We need Carers, Social Workers, Nurses, Drivers, Shoppers and Home Cooked meals. We can do all of that. And the bonus is that other people need that stuff as well – single parents, latch-key kids, the ill, the Night Shelters.

And where are our voices raised in protest at injustice, inefficiency, corruption?

None of these interventions is an exercise in “keeping the oldies busy”. Without our intervention, we and our planet are in trouble. We are already in trouble – and we are allowing the brains and skills of yesterday’s generation to go to waste.