Recently, I’ve been fascinated by how we age, literally, what is aging and how do we age? Is it merely the number of years we have lived, or a multitude of other factors that impact us differently that we call getting older?
It has taken me in a deep dive into the science of aging, not the physiology of aging or the study of aging (gerontology), but the biochemistry of how we age.
In a fascinating new book, The Telomere Effect, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Dr, Elissa Epel uncover the groundbreaking findings of what causes aging in human beings. The grey hairs, the wrinkled skin, the tired body, loss of muscle both physical and mental -- everything we attribute to aging, they say, is merely a reflection of what is happening to us at the cellular level, as seen in the telomeres.
They explain that "telomeres” (tee-lo-meres) are the “repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of your chromosomes.” That is, if your DNAs are like the material that make up a shoelace, the Telomeres are like the aglets at the end of the shoelaces that keep it from fraying. Telomeres shorten with each cell division. The shorter the telomeres become, the more you “age” at the cellular level. Biochemical stressors in the body hasten the cell division. At some point, the telomeres become so shortened that it begins to impact the health of the DNA “shoelace.” At some point, these cells become “senile” (literally called “senescence”) and although they are still alive, they can no longer divide and rejuvenate. They stop dividing permanently. That’s how we become aged or ill, and lose functioning and the ability to heal.
But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. You see examples of high functioning older people everywhere, those who are full of vigor and look and act more youthful than their chronological age. Perhaps this is your mother or your aunt, or world leaders whose average age is around 70.
Of course genetics have much to do with how we age, but research studies from a range of disciplines are now beginning to show that while our genes impact how we age, how we live -- how we maintain and care for our bodies, our habits of mind, and how we manage emotional well being -- impact how we age even more.
Blackburn and Epel write, "telomeres do not simply carry out the commands issued by your genetic code. Your telomeres, it turns out, are listening to you. They absorb the instructions you give them.” Put directly, “Your cells are listening to your thoughts.”
So how much negative thoughts, anxiety, and needless worry swirl through your mind on a daily basis? “Your cells are listening to your thoughts.” If you are stressed, your cells are stressed.
Finally, here is another enlightening research finding. Blackburn and Epel point out that “Aging is a dynamic process that can be accelerated or slowed, and in some cases even reversed.” (It turns out the body is empowered by a counteragent called “telomerase,” that can actually help slow -- and lengthen -- the dividing telomeres. Who knew!?)
So be kind to yourself. Take care of your body, your thoughts, your feelings. Your cells are listening to your thoughts and responding to your cues.
Someone recently asked me, “If you’re really into ‘this stuff,’ why don’t you offer financial planning for retirement, offer topics on navigating healthcare, medicare, and all that?”
First, I’m not sure what he meant by “this stuff” but my guess is that he meant aging, getting older, working with “older people,” and the whole spiral down to end of life planning. Like many others, he may think that those things -- the traditional concerns about planning for retirement (financial, legal, health care, etc.) -- constitute the central, if not the essential, components of planning for the future.
Those are critical and necessary elements, and thankfully, there are plenty of experts on those topics. (Need a place to start? Visit NextAvenue.org online. You’ll find a host of ideas, resources, and information on a range of topics.)
I’m talking about how to craft the life you want to live, with all that is important to you. You can live more consciously and mindfully, so that you can feel more fulfilled and happier, whatever your situation. How you think shapes how you plan.
Whether you continue to work or are seeking a new job, or finding yourself in transition of some sort, you can be both practical and creative, reasonable and daring. Most of all, you can allow yourself the full benefit of thinking broadly at this stage; yes, at this point in your life. It can allow you to become more integrated, more whole, and more interesting as you grow older.
And that’s where we come back to this “aging” stuff. How do you feel about aging? How does it shape what you do, how you feel and think?
There is power in accepting our own aging. It’s from this acceptance - and perhaps its welcomed embrace - that we have access to the gifts and opportunities that each new phase of life has to offer. It’s not just about living longer, but living longer provides us with opportunities to grow and develop into a more whole, strong, (and hopefully, wiser and kinder) person.
Need a little boost to accept aging? Check out Ashton Applewhite’s “This Chair Rocks. She’s the 2016 Influencer in Aging who fights against ageism in our society and in ourselves. Read Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s “Life Reimagined” for her story on finding at midlife a unique opportunity to reinvent herself and her life. Locally, I recently discovered 3rd Act Magazine, an online and print publication that offers refreshing views on “aging with confidence” (their tag line).
When I talk about midlife and beyond, I’m talking about continued development of ourselves so that we can undertake new challenges and opportunities that life presents to us at each stage of our lives, so that we can be happier, healthier, more conscious and intentional about how we live our lives. While it’s true that there are inevitable challenges as we get older, we also have a unique opportunity to take stock of our lives and re-chart a course or grow new wings.
It’s said, “Aging isn’t for sissies.” That’s so true.
Midlife isn’t a cakewalk either. But it can be fun and open doors for new opportunities and ways of being.
My mother used to say, “old is 10 years older than our current age.” Maybe true, but don’t wait until you’re “old” to accept it -- we’re all getting older. Just start now to embrace it and live your life.
For those interested: Register now for my course, "Midlife Through Retirement: A Catalyst for Change." Class runs Feb. 21 through March 27, on Tuesday nights from 6:30-8:30pm. (No class meeting on March 7.) See North Seattle Continuing Education blog post for more information. Please contact me if you have any questions.
I had the delight of receiving an email today from someone who had taken my "Midlife Through Retirement" class in autumn 2015. It's always wonderful to hear from past participants of my classes and workshops, but it's particularly special when substantial time has passed since class and where the news bears outcomes, evidence of change in a person's life.
"I am well and enjoying retirement," she writes. "I have found some areas to volunteer that bring me pleasure and have taken up kayaking. I am looking at taking a course in the spring from the Wenatchee Valley Dispute Resolution Center to become a trained mediator for them. It is kind of right up my alley, having been a school counselor, and I think I would like the work. Plus I could take those skills anywhere I chose to live and find work."
She continued, “Thank you so much for offering 'Midlife through Retirement'. It has actually crossed my mind to take it again, as I am not sure I was really ready for it the first time. I am more resolved now that some changes need to be made. Anyway, you offer people many great things to think about and the courage to face the future with excitement in knowing they can control the direction they move now as much as when they were younger. (Sometimes I think we get stuck in a rut as we age.)"
I can envision this woman, let's call her June, as a strong, gracious, and competent mediator. When I first met her, she had recently retired from over thirty years as a school counselor.
As much as we look forward to the day when we are free to control our own time, retirement can be unmooring. There is loss of structure, relationships, and roles that define us. We may experience the emptiness of the home, beyond simply the "empty nest." Free time, which we cherished while we worked, may grow to lack definition without activities and meaningful pursuits. And then there are those existential questions: "Who am I now?" "What do I do with the years ahead?" "What matters to me now?" "How do I live and enjoy the years ahead?"
Perhaps, June had those thoughts in mind as she sat in my class and wondered what was ahead in class and in her life. Like many, I think she was taking her first steps outside her familiar comfort zone to explore and clarify what could be her next steps. I'm encouraged to think, through her note and others like it, that the exercises and the conversations we share in class are worthwhile and help people to move forward.
Did you also notice a sense of growth and resolve in June's words? A new sense of empowerment? Something shifted. She moved out of her rut, and new things started to happen. And it's also no surprise that June took up a new activity, kayaking. Other former students have also taken up new activities or endeavors as they step out of their old patterns and comfort zones.
Transition to the next stage of one's life (any next stage), may not always be easy and smooth, and may likely be messy, but it's good to know that you have this time, which is precious, and as June says, that "(people can) control the direction they move now as much as when they were younger." It's true: we teach that to young people, and we can practice it as well.
(Fun fact: Speaking of kayaking, another former student took up kayaking. She found a way to combine free kayaking with volunteer clean up of waterways. Check it out: Puget Soundkeepers. There are so many opportunities and experiences to be discovered out there. You just need to get out of your familiar comfort zone.)
First of all, many thanks to North Seattle College Continuing Education Program for dedicating its January 10th blog post on my class, “Midlife to Retirement: A Catalyst for Change.” I’m grateful for the individuals I’ve met through past offerings of this course (which previously had the subtitle, A Path Forward.)
My students' stories and endeavors have enriched and improved the work I do. They came from all walks of life, ages spanning decades; they were employed, retired, transitioning, single, married, partnered, widowed, separating. Some were trying to regain new balance after a major disruption like a health scare or personal loss, and others were simply re-evaluating life after decades of work -- all not uncommon in the second half of life.
However you define the “second half of life,” one seems to know it when you’re there. You’re not a spring chick anymore, life takes on different meanings and responsibilities, somehow you realize the mortal nature of our lives, and grow a sudden awareness of our indefinite time on this planet and consider changes, both tangible and external (e.g., place to live, things to do) and internal (shifts in attitudes, behaviors). New questions arise... Who am I now? What’s most important to me now? What matters?
People rarely like change when it’s imposed on them - people don’t like being told what to do and when to do it; they don’t like being told they have to change, or that change is inevitable.
But like a hardy perennial, people also perpetually want change! They want to be happier, healthier, have more inner peace, want better relationships, more confidence, new activities, renewed hope, or some other thing… and all these things require change.
So if you want change, what have you tried? What has worked for you? Do you believe you’re “too old” to change, or that people don’t change after a certain point? If you believe age itself limits you, you’ve bought into ageism, the thinking that age and various age-related stereotypes and expectations define people. Current scientific research refutes the notion that you're "too old." Take a look, for example, at recent research on Mindsets by Stanford psychologist Carol Dwek. See her TED Talk on The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.
If you want to change, you can be your own change agent at any age.
Happy New Year! Happy 2017!
How did you ring in the New Year? I love this holiday that people the world over celebrate on a personal, communal, and societal basis. Whether with fun and frivolity, solemn tradition, or a quiet night spent at home, we wish each other “Happy New Year!” in shared optimism for an opportunity to start afresh and to hope for a better future.
The New Year allows, actually, encourages us to suspend our current realities for a moment and be optimistic that the future in fact holds potential for new possibilities and opportunities. We share greetings for the New Year that we might be happy, healthy, and prosper in the new year.
In many cultures, this sense of optimism and hope is further encouraged to take form as an expressed goal or a personal resolution. With all its good intentions, resolutions may help some people, but more often than not, it becomes a burden or a disappointment or simply another thing forgotten, in matter of days and weeks.
But what if you could carry that “New Year’s Day” sense of potential and possibility, not just as a wish on the first few days of January, but in every new day or moment by moment as you recognize it throughout the year? Would your world seem different? Perhaps your outlook might change? Perhaps things may not seem so engrained, not so stuck? Perhaps your thoughts and emotions might feel lightened? You might become happier.
If at times you find yourself wondering, “is this all there is to life?” or “couldn’t I be doing something else, or differently, or in addition to…?” - listen. These are wonderful questions, and I hope you see them as opportunities presented uniquely for you. They are pointing to a window of opportunity that you haven’t explored, possibly not even seen, yet.
Welcome New Year, and welcome to a new year in your life!
If you'd like to start off the New Year with the gift of time and focus on your own life, please join me in my North Seattle Continuing Education Course ,"Midlife Through Retirement: A Catalyst for Change." This interactive workshop runs from Feb. 21 through March 27, on Tuesday nights from 6:30-8:30pm. (No class meeting on March 7.) You can learn more about my class from my Sept. 2, 2016 blog post. (After winter quarter, my next course offering will be in Autumn 2017.) Please please free to contact me if you have any questions about my class.
Phew! 2016 has been a tough year for a lot of people.
I’m thinking of young people who are struggling to make ends meet and make dreams possible in a society increasingly unaffordable for them. I’m thinking of people whose dreams have been dashed, or whose lives are not going the way they had hoped.
I want to say to them, “Hang in there, You’re being challenged right now. Squeeze every happiness and wisdom from each experience, and it will serve you later.”
But how? I know it will, but that’s an audacious statement if it cannot be backed up.
Then I saw a lovely little phrase in an essay, “An ode to Leonard Cohen” (by Shozan Jack Haubner, NYT, 12/9/16). He wrote that for Cohen, the much acclaimed legendary musician, poet, and studied monk, “The opposite of despair was not hope - it was clarity."
That’s true. We, as individuals and as a society, seem to ride a pendulum of extremes -- from optimism to pessimism, from motivation to procrastination, and from hope to despair. But “clarity” -- that suggests something new entirely. It comes from new knowledge, understanding, acceptance, or presence of being. It’s aplomb, a new direction. It allows the full range of emotions from hope to despair, but clarity shows a new way forward.
We can get away from the either-or, the win-lose, dichotomous thinking.
So, quick, let’s try an experiment. I ask, “What’s the opposite of fragile?” And you answer -- “strong”? “solid”?
In his book “Antifragile,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb challenges our conventional ways of thinking. Taleb says there are things that are clearly fragile and things that are strong, but that there is also the Antifragile -- things that actually grow stronger from challenges or turbulence. He says, “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors…”
This notion might not be so foreign. We see this all around us in life. Bewildered children are dropped off by nervous young parents, delivered from the safety of their homes to the unknown newness and organized chaos that is the first day of kindergarten, but over time, the children grow and flourish. Young adults navigate the confusion and insecurities of college or their first jobs, and grow stronger and more confident even with increasing demands.
So let’s try again. Quick, in your mind, what’s the opposite of despair? Hope? If you embrace the “antifragile” in you, perhaps you can grow and strengthen beyond your current circumstances, beyond your current thoughts, feelings, and understandings to create something new. That can bring about a whole new direction.
Social scientists and educators might call this grit -- that formidable quality of a person wanting to overcome obstacles and challenges to become better, stronger. MaCarthur Genius Award winner Angela Duckworth thinks it is one of the most vital elements of one’s personal growth and how we turn out as individuals. She believes grit can be innate - or learned, by anyone, at any point in life.
Changes happen at the individual level and sometimes, unexpectedly, on a societal scale. We don’t know the future and what will surprise us -- what will develop as a result of exposure to challenges and hardships.
How much grit do you have? I believe one’s personal rewards will accrue by striving with patience and effort.
Let’s make 2017 an extraordinary year!
If you'd like to start off the New Year with the gift of time and focus on your own life, please join me in my North Seattle Continuing Education Course ,"From Midlife Through Retirement, A Path Forward." This interactive workshop runs from Feb. 21 through March 27, on Tuesday nights from 6:30-8:30pm. (No class on March 7,) You can learn more about my class from my Sept. 2, 2016 blog post. (After winter quarter, my next course offering will be in Autumn 2017.)
Last week, out of sheer boredom, I picked up an autobiography of one Josephine Whitney Duveneck in the library of the assisted care facility where I was visiting. You wouldn't know of this local hero and legend unless you have deep roots in this particular part of the California Bay Area. I randomly flip through the pages, and my eyes rest on this line, where young Josephine in 1912 observes that there are some people (most certainly men) who are "singers" of the world and they will have their reward, "but what about the rest of us whose work is but chaff? We will be left in nakedness having neither accomplished our dreams nor labored for our souls." (Life on Two Levels, by Josephine Whitney Duveneck).
Wanting more than the life she had, she seeks to engage with the larger community and do what she can to serve others. Her greatest social contributions came after her midlife ennui, when she began to activate her values and strengths. That might be the case for you as well.
You don’t have to just live your life. You can create the life you live. You can seek to be happier, and you can seek the work that is in you to do.
Even if it’s a small thing, a side gig, or an effort to eliminate a negative thing in your life, you can get moving on it. You can seek it out, no matter how big or small. Place your intention out there and take the first step. It’s the only way to awaken the possibilities that exist in your life.
Some may say it’s an extravagance for those who can "afford it" -- for those who have the money, time, energy, resources, confidence, or whatever their perceived deficiency. But don’t you hope that it’s possible for anyone to strive to better oneself under any circumstance? That a will to try counts for something?
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke says...
You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.
But what you love to see are faces that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old, and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secrets.
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours
Do your own thing, however small. If you have a dream or a wish, what’s keeping you from trying? Knowing you are striving for your own thing can give pleasure and something to focus on. When do you think is a good time to start?
I’m in California tending to my dying mother. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about death and dying - over decades of my parents’ illnesses - not just days and weeks. Mostly, what I've learned is about living, how to live and what is important.
At my mother’s bedside, hours stretch on indefinitely, one indistinguishable from another. Outside, it’s another day, except it's a warm November day, bright sun against a blue sky. The living are busy with the tasks of living and making a living. The dying are busy in their own world, between worlds.
I recall two poems by Mary Oliver. "In Blackwater Woods” starts
Look, the trees
their own bodies
And I notice the persimmon tree, its leaves now turning bright orange, setting the tree ablaze with color before it it drops its last fruits and leaves. People can be like that too, glorious, shining out for others in an unexpected season of their lives.
To all of us, Oliver says,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Long ago, the poem, "When Death Comes," became my anthem for living. I’ve never forgotten it. It changed how I live, and hopefully, how I’ll pass from this world.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Poems from Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1
So I get this in my email last week. Someone is telling me I have to see this. It’s a link to a Huffington Post article:
80-Year-Old Model Crushes Stereotypes With His Runway Swagger
High fashion runways don’t usually feature older models, let alone those with more than half a century in life experience. But this 80-year-old grandfather is proof designers have been making one BIG mistake. ... Read the full story
The story is eye-catching because we don’t expect “old” people to be runway models, much less an Internet sensation because of it. (Ageism is all around us and it colors our expectations, so this calls our attention.)
And here’s Deshun Wang - his confidence, vitality, physicality - strutting down the catwalk and he becomes an instant international hero to young and old alike.
Watch his video “Be the Fiercest” as he tells us about himself. He laughs, simultaneously heartily and relaxed, at the fact that he’s being called “the Hottest Grandpa” and an “Internet sensation” after his catwalk in a Chinese fashion show last year.
“But you know what,” he says, “to prepare for this day, I’ve been getting ready for 60 years.”
He explains: At age 24, he was a theatrical actor, and he started learning English at 44. At age 49, he started a pantomime troupe and went to Beijing and became a “Beijing Drifter” starting “everything from scratch.” He began working out at a gym at age 50, and returned to the stage at 57 with his original “Living Sculpture Performance.” At age 70, he “really started getting serious about working out,” and he had his first runway experience at age 79. Turning 80, he says he “still has some left in him” - things he yet wants to do.
He tells us:
“Potential can be explored.”
“When you think it’s too late, be careful you don’t let that become your excuse for giving up.”
“No one can keep you from your success, except yourself.”
“When it’s your time to shine, be the brightest!”
On the Internet, “life coaches” and health coaches are eating this up, but for very different reasons than mine. It is true as Deshun Wang says in a separate interview, “People can change their life as many times as they wish.” But this doesn’t happen just by motivation and having a goal, while those things are critically important.
For me, it’s a case study in what I call “VIPS” -- one's personal Values, Interests, “the three Ps”, and Strengths. Based on online interviews, it’s clear that Deshun Wang knew his VIPS from an early age and adhered closely to it throughout his life, undeterred by the twists and turns of life.
Look now at his signature strengths and values, how they are reflected in all that he is and has become, and how they shine through him: a display of creativity, courage, curiosity, vitality, physicality, persistence, openness and adaptability, humor… of being “fierce” (strong) and unstoppable… Deshun Wang lived and is living his VIPS. He made them his core centerpiece, and they made him shine, unique and extraordinary.
What are your VIPS and how do you honor them?
Finally, it's about having a mindset that allows you to experience your life as an adventure. As Deshun Wang says about aging: “One way to tell if you’re old or not is to ask yourself, ‘Do you dare try something you’ve never done before?’ ”
"Dying is easy; Change is hard" -- that was the title of a book review in the New York Times for the lukewarm reception of How We Are (by health psychologist Vincent Deary). I haven't read the book, but I understand Deary's premises -- that it's really hard for people to change, even when they have the best of intentions!
One medical study showed that even when confronted with a life threatening condition and told by doctors that they had to make changes in their personal lifestyles (e.g., quit smoking, exercise, etc.), it was found that, one year later, only one out of seven had been able make the necessary lifestyle changes. (From Kagen/Lahey, 2009.) If it is that hard to make personal changes, even when faced with a life threatening condition, consider the challenge it is for us to change everyday behaviors to reduce hardships and suffering or to create new habits and behaviors that bring about positive changes in our lives.
We sometimes knock ourselves for things we haven't done or can't seem to do, and then perhaps knock ourselves a second time for feeling badly that we feel bad, as if we weren't good enough or were lacking as individuals. Or we might feel that we are just fine the way we are, or we're too old to change!
We all have something -- (perhaps we eat too much, or not exercise enough, or procrastinate too much, or engage in self=limiting behaviors in a myriad of other ways) -- and no amount of goal setting, motivational encouragement, or information seems to help.
If this isn't you, you're so lucky! -- But it could be that the changes you need are in your blind spots - and others can see it, but you can't.
Harvard researchers Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey suggest something new altogether -- that by the time we have lived a while, we come to develop a certain immunity to change, Just as we accumulate antigens and antibodies to offset outside invasions to our bodies, Kagen and Lahey suggest we develop an immunity to change to maintain a dynamic equilibrium of "who we are." The fascinating thing is that they have developed a method for helping to uncover our immunity to change that is proving itself to be quite effective, and it is quickly becoming part of organizational change and leadership training, as well as being used for individual growth and transition work. Kagen and Lahey's work was even recently featured in Oprah!
I've been interested in Kagen's work since 1987, and I see also that change comes more easily and in step increases when we integrate our consciously expressed goals and intentions with an understanding of our subconscious influences. That's when change seems to happen more effortlessly! I'm attending the Immunity to Change Facilitator's training in March. I can't wait.
Thoughts for creating success in the second half of life.