Thursday, March 31, 2011

Retirement Dreams 2: Can You Afford to Retire?

Some years ago, in our journey toward retirement, Bob and I attended several retirement planning workshops for those in midlife. All gave the daunting message that we couldn't retire unless we had more than a million dollars saved. Though we had fears of working until we dropped, we got serious about building our savings and eliminating debt. Our 401K's and home equity increased. Even if we weren't destined to hit the million dollar mark, we tried to get as close as possible.

Then the financial meltdown of 2008 happened: our 401K's shrank overnight and our home equity diminished significantly. And our planned retirement date was only a year and a half away!

We took a deep breath and came to a new realization: We didn't need to be near-millionaires to be happy in retirement.

What made this possible?  We took a close look at our plans and expectations, comparing our working lifestyle and our planned retirement lifestyle, deciding what was necessary and what we could live without. We felt  that our freedom was worth some lifestyle sacrifices.

The other day, we found that we were not alone in our decision process.

In response to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Baby Boomers falling short of the savings necessary to fund retirement, one very wise reader wrote a letter to the editor that made us say "YES! That's the secret!"

What this reader, Jerry Doane, wrote was: "The key to happiness in retirement isn't so much in maintaining your pre-retirement lifestyle, but rather in trading material wealth for freedom. Unless one has experienced this tradeoff, its value shouldn't be underestimated. One can survive quite happily in retirement on 50% or less of pre-retirement income.  The most important and most difficult step is to reduce or eliminate debt. Other things: reduce gas and clothing costs, downsize your house, furniture and possessions in general, and eating less, which is good for you. Most important is to change your philosophy from an employment-centric model to an experiential lifestyle. This will lead to gaining enjoyment from more simple pleasures. In sum, transfer the energies expended in working to the art of living."

If you're 10 or 15 or even 5 years away from retirement, still fully employed and dreaming, getting out of debt, including mortgage debt, is the best move you can make toward freedom. For most of us, that mortgage payment took the biggest chunk out of our take-home pay.  Credit card debt is another budget buster. If you can retire mortgage free and with no credit card debt, you're way ahead in your quest for freedom.

You might also start preparing for a more frugal retirement by cutting back now -- and banking the savings. You might also forego that dream of early retirement for a more traditional retirement age -- or phasing in retirement.  Bob dreamed of retiring at 62, but agreed that wasn't really practical. So he decided, with his company's blessing, to cut one day out of his workweek, starting at age 62. That day of freedom each week made waiting an extra four years for full retirement more palatable.

Some Baby Boomers, however, have faced the harder challenge of unemployment in their 50's or 60's, or have had the stress of a devastating and expensive illness, a midlife divorce or a home that is underwater.  Some are forced, by necessity, to take Social Security at 62 instead of waiting, as planned, for full retirement age.  Many have had to forfeit their comfortable retirement dreams for something much more modest, maybe something once unthinkable, like moving in with children or other extended family.

And yet, however modest one's retirement, there is real joy to be found in freedom.

Aunt Molly used to celebrate every day of her retirement by saying to herself each morning "Today is MINE!" And wherever you woke up this morning, today is, in fact, yours to live as you choose. And you may find that the simple pleasures of life -- lingering over coffee in the morning, having time to pet and play with your cat or dog, having time for a good conversation, being helpful to others with the gift of your time and attention -- are more pleasing than you could ever have imagined. Yes, there is less money coming in -- whether because of regular retirement or a retirement forced by life circumstances. Yes, your lifestyle may have changed dramatically, but that difference does not have to be negative.

Ask yourself what you really need to be happy.

Is that expensive latte you used to grab on your way to work really as sweet as the homemade variety enjoyed at leisure at your kitchen table?

Was that house -- maybe larger, maybe in a more expensive area -- any more home to you than your retirement house, apartment or shared living space?

Did you get anywhere faster in your new, expensive car than you do in your older, perhaps more modest one? And beyond a first glance, does anyone really care what you drive?

Were all those meals out when you were working and too tired to cook worth the cost in cash and calories? Now that you have the time to plan meals and cook, you can be eating in a truly delicious and healthy way.

How many of the trips and vacations you took when you were working were truly enjoyable? What did you like the most -- the destination or the freedom from the daily grind of work? As much as I loved occasional trips to Maui in my working years, what I enjoyed most was the fact that I wasn't at work. I could feel the stress draining from my body by the second or third day away. Now there is the possibility that such freedom can be part of everyday life.

You have freedom from punching the clock, from the headache of office politics, from demanding clients or bosses, constant deadlines and that feeling of never being able to catch up.

You have the freedom to work in a new field, work part-time or to do the volunteer work you were not able to do before.

You have the freedom to do nothing except relax if that's what you choose today.

You have the freedom to determine what you will do today, tomorrow and the rest of your life.

That can be empowering. It can also be a tremendous burden for some.  Some studies reveal that as many as one-third of soon-to-be retirees are worried about what they will do in retirement.  I've seen this concern in a former boss who wonders what she will do without the structure of work and the feeling of importance and being needed that she gets every day, even though her job has become increasingly stressful and unsatisfying.  She is starting to think about doing volunteer work with disadvantaged youth, inspiring them to complete their educations, to have goals and dreams.  Another friend, still grappling with what to do with her life more than a year after retirement,  is finding some satisfaction in acting as an impassioned advocate for a friend dealing with a medical crisis. For some, it may take some a while to recapture the sense of purpose and structure lost when they left employment behind.

If you're still planning for retirement, it may help to give some thought to the structure and purpose of your future lifestyle. That's at least as important as the financial considerations that tend to take center stage in retirement planning seminars.

If you're retired and feeling at loose ends, it may help to think back on passions and yearnings of the past, and plan how you might bring these back into your life today.  Or find new reasons to get up in the morning. It might mean being there for your children and grandchildren in a new way. It may mean getting in the best shape of your life. It may mean dedicating yourself to a cause or a charity. It may mean finding new comfort in the stillness of a dawning day, the option of using your newfound freedom to do for others, the delicious choices of staying up late with a good novel or sleeping in (a wonderful option, indeed, for those of us who spent years in grueling pre-dawn commutes to work) or lingering to watch a sunrise, a sunset, or enjoying a leisurely afternoon with someone you love.

As Jerry Doane said so well, our tasks today and every day of retirement are in celebrating freedom instead of material wealth, transitioning from putting our energy into work to focusing on the art of living. For each of us, the challenge is to create a life with new meaning, new purpose and joy in the simple pleasures of savoring these days that are uniquely our own.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Retirement Dreams: Move or Stay?

Our retirement relocation dreams started about 12 years ago, during a lovely vacation in Maui.  We dreamed of retiring there for a lifelong vacation: taking an early morning ocean swim, eating tropical fruit for breakfast, enjoying the warmth of the trade winds year around and being endlessly mellow.

Even before we returned to our stressful lives in L.A., however, we started worrying: would we be able to afford a house or condo in this island of our dreams? Would our beloved cats Timmy and Gus make it through the extended quarantine period then required of all incoming animals? Would we feel too isolated, too far from family and long-time friends? Would we be perpetual strangers, always haoles, in this new place? Or would it be as warm and welcoming to us as it felt during our vacation? We went home hopeful and still dreaming, but aware that we had many questions and uncertainties that only time could answer.

Many pre-retirees seem to share our dreams and concerns these days.  A recent AARP survey found that two out of every 10 Baby Boomers anticipates making a move when it's time to retire.  Another study, this one by Del Webb, the builder of active adult communities for those over 55, found that 42% of those over 50 plan to move in retirement. Many of these were looking for a kinder climate or lower cost of living. Some wanted to be closer to children or grandchildren. While many imagined staying in the same city or state, the majority of those polled in the Del Webb survey who planned to move, were anticipating a move to another state.

Deciding whether to move and where to move can spark your imagination, but can also be stressful - especially if your spouse doesn't quite share your dream.

A recent Wall Street Journal article featured couples who disagreed about retirement living plans and some of these imagined living separately and visiting back and forth.  Among some friends of ours, some compromises are in the works.  Our former next door neighbors in L.A. both love the idea of living in an oceanside condo, but the wife doesn't want to leave California.  So they've decided to stay right where they are -- 40 miles inland, but a fairly managable drive to the beach, in a home they love and can afford.  Some other friends have decided to sell their overpriced L.A. homes and purchase two smaller retirement condos --one near family and friends and the other in a resort area. Another couple -- long-time surburbanites -- have decided to move to a city -- but are still arguing about just which city that might be.

Since our Hawaii dreams began to fade a bit in the harsher light of everyday reality, Bob and I discussed many alternatives. We thought about staying put. We liked our house and our community in general. But, as a childless older couple, we felt increasingly out of place in this very family-oriented community and Los Angeles traffic was driving us crazy.  Bob loved the desert and made frequent trips to Death Valley in the summer, in search of extreme heat. I did not accompany him on these expeditions. I've always disliked the desert and am not a fan of major heat.  One early spring, I did go with him to Death Valley and found that the desert had a dramatic beauty of its own. But driving around stark and sun-baked residential areas on the periphery, I couldn't envision myself ever living there.

Then we stopped talking about exactly where we wanted to live and started asking ourselves HOW we wanted to live, what we wanted to do in retirement.  When we compared notes in this way, we found that we shared many dreams.

Our wish list included a mortgage-free home and plenty of time to pursue our interests -- his in music and art, mine in writing.  We wanted to keep learning all our lives, so access to a college or university was key. We wanted to be as fit as possible, so access to a gym or pools was high on the list. We wanted clean air and wide open spaces. I dreamed of living in a neighborhood much like the one in which I grew up -- where neighbors knew each other, were like extended family and where no attention was given to socioeconomic differences. Would such a neighborhood even be possible in these times?

We spent the next ten years exploring areas of California, then Arizona and thinking about Texas, Kansas (where my cousins live), Florida (where a number of college friends have retired) and even New York City, a place we both love. Then we started considering climate. Bob, who suffers from arthritis, ruled out four season environments. We both agreed that New York was too pricey for our retirement budget. We gave much thought to what it might mean to move to a new place -- far away from friends and family -- and, essentially start over.

As California's fiscal woes increased and traffic worsened, an out of state move started looking more attractive.  We were not seeing much of some beloved friends because, with the time and stress it took to get to Orange County or the outer reaches of Ventura County, they might as well be in another state. My brother was splitting his time between the East Coast and Bangkok, where he maintains a home. His L.A. home sat mostly vacant. My sister lives in Seattle. We have no children or grandchildren. Why not move?

Some of our friends were coming to the same conclusion. One couple with deep roots in the L.A. area, decided that they wanted to move away from their children and grandchildren in order to have more private, relaxing time with each other -- anticipating some fun reunions with family, but not the day-to-day stress of constantly babysitting grandchildren.

Two years before our anticipated retirement, our focus narrowed to Arizona. It was close enough to L.A. to return for visits and to have friends visit us. Not all areas were parched desert. There were many resort-type communities, including new ones for Baby Boomers. We visited a number of these until one stood out. It was in rural Arizona amidst wide open spaces -- some of these lush, Sonoran desert with forests of Saguaros, some of these green agricultural fields.  It wasn't a geriatric ghetto but a planned community with an all-ages side and an over-55 side with lots of shared activities. There were fabulous gyms, green parks, lakes and streams. There were lap pools and resort pools. There was an Arizona State University extension on site. There was a terrific shopping center and a hospital under construction -- all on the premises.  A charming, eccentric small farming town, founded in the 1860's,  and some eight miles away from our development, lent its name to our community's mailing addresses. Everyone we met was friendly. Something clicked.

A year before our planned retirement, at the urging of my sister who said "Arizona?? Are you out of your mind? Why don't you go stay at this place for a month in July and see how you like it before deciding to move there!" we rented a home at Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch for three weeks. We bought our home the third day we were there.  July heat isn't an issue when you spend most of your time in air-conditioned comfort or up to your neck in the resort pool. It isn't an issue when you can wear shorts and sandals every day and everywhere. We were hooked.

We have now been retired for almost a year. We made the trip over here from L.A. near the end of April accompanied by our dear old cat Gus (his brother Timmy having died in 2007) and his new feline companions. All of us -- feline and human -- love the new mortgage-free house. We're not on a lifelong vacation, but living our lives, complete with ups and downs and daily responsibilities. But we are mellow. Bob is making music, drawing, reading and taking classes. I'm writing again, taking classes, and rediscovering my joy in singing along as Bob plays his guitar. We both work out at the gym and swim daily. We love exploring the countryside, driving through green fields on our way to the library, having lunch at country cafes where waitresses call you "Hon" and greet you with a hug. If we want to see professional theatre, ballet or opera, both Phoenix and Tucson are just an hour away, not that different from when we lived an hour out of L.A.

But there is so much to enjoy right here. We love the warm, velvet desert evenings and the vivid sunsets. We have come to appreciate the unique beauty of the Southwest. Best of all, our neighbors are like extended family, sharing joys and challenges, united both by what we have in common and what we don't.  Our dear friends here are a wonderfully diverse group -- and our dearest friends in L.A. are still very special to us as well. My brother and his family visited us recently -- and loved this place. He understood, at last, why we moved here. For us, this feels like the best of both worlds.

So our revised retirement dream feels a bit like our Maui dream: we're mellow, eat fresh fruit and swim every day. The ocean is distant, that's true. But the warmth of our new community more than compensates. The answer to the question "How do we want to live?" made our choice about where to live in retirement simple and clear.  We haven't looked back.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rx: Companion Animals

There are times when Bob's epilepsy-related depressions cause him to shut down for a few hours or even a day. At such times, the most therapeutic aspects of his life are his music and our three cats -- Gus, Maggie and SweetPea -- who rush to him at the first sign of distress and cover him with their soft, purring little bodies.  They seem to sense when he needs them and are invariably there for him -- for as long as it takes. Their devotion is both touching and amazing.

Our animals can be our personal angels in difficult times.  My neighbor Phyllis, who is suffering from cancer and who has had some very bad days recently, says that her black lab Daisy won't leave her side when she is struggling to breathe and that her macaw Billie snuggles against her chest, lifting her wings so Phyllis can stroke her soft undercoat, something she finds incredibly soothing.

Animals, especially dogs, have been used for some years in nursing homes and hospitals to comfort, soothe and lift the spirits of patients of all ages.  Service animals -- from seeing eye dogs to seizure alert animals --  help their human companions to gain greater independence and confidence in the world.

Animal-assisted therapy has also gained popularity in recent years.  Although this type of therapy was only a tiny part of my private practice, used only with a select few patients who requested such services, there were times when my official therapy cats Timmy and Marina were able to reach certain patients in unique ways.  Both were unusually outgoing, friendly with strangers and family alike, and incredibly loving. Timmy, a Burmese mix, gave special comfort to patients who were depressed or anxious, in some cases, wiping their tears with his soft little paws or his check or soothing them by curling up on a patient's lap, purring loudly.  Marina was a beautiful little flame-point Siamese. Her specialty was soothing warring couples or families, running from one to the other, helping them to calm down with her affection and happy little trills. Particularly for those who felt greater comfort with animals than with people, these therapy cats helped patients to relax and open up to me sooner or more completely than they might have otherwise. Sadly, both of these wonderful animals are no longer with us.  Timmy died of melamine poisoning from tainted cat food in 2007. Marina passed away from leukemia last May. But they leave a legacy of love. Recently, a former client of mine whose therapy was assisted by Timmy more than a decade ago, wrote to tell me how much he had touched her heart and helped her to heal.

What is it about animals that gives us such comfort, such a sense of safety and contentment? Could it be their trusting, non-judgmental natures? Their ability to love unconditionally, without question or hesitation? Their ability to use physical affection in a way we would rarely dare with a near stranger? Is it because they act on the sense that someone needs them instead of weighing options, wondering how much they want to get involved or worrying about being misunderstood? Is it because they offer quiet, warm support without challenging the validity of one's feelings or expecting a quick resolution?

With our beloved companion animals, it's likely to be all of the above. Some relationships between animals and their people are truly unique.

My Aunt Molly struggled with a variety of health problems in her last year of life.  She found great comfort in what the rest of us saw as an unlikely source: a surly, ailing Persian cat named Sugar, who looked all of his 18 years and more and who suffered from a fatal parasitic condition that had invaded his brain, triggering the sort of dementia that made him fly into a rage with visitors or retreat to the guest bathroom sink where he curled up, growling, for the duration of the visit. To our continuing amazement, Aunt Molly described him as a loving companion who slept beside her and comforted her when she awoke in pain many dark nights. When his vet said he had only days to live, we worried about the impact of his death on Aunt Molly. As it turned out, they died on the same day --- she of a heart attack first and then Sugar of his illness -- and their ashes were buried together -- per Aunt Molly's wishes. When his vet delivered Sugar's ashes to us, she said "He's a much nicer kitty now!"  Shaking her head, she added: "You know, I loved your aunt. She was a wonderful lady. But that was the most bad-assed cat I ever saw. He really lucked out when she chose him as an animal companion."  I couldn't help but think they had both lucked out -- that somehow, as improbable as it seemed, Aunt Molly saw something in Sugar none of the rest of us could see and that they were of immense comfort to each other as their lives came to an end.

The animals in our lives can be there for us in a way other family members can't always be.  They have no time constraints and ask so little -- beyond food, a walk, a loving touch. They can be, at times, heartbreakingly loyal to their people. They comfort, not with words, but with a touch, a look, their mere presence.

When I was a child in parochial school, the nuns used to tell us about our guardian angels and we would envision etherial, human-like beings with wings hovering just above us.  Now I think my guardian angel has fur and purrs and is sitting right here with her head on my hand -- impeding my typing and wonderfully enriching my life.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ugliness and Devastation

Most days I think I'm mellowing with age, open to a variety of viewpoints, willing to listen, slow to anger. But today I feel driven to the brink by the outrageous compassion deficit among certain people in this country.

I've been upset, it's true, as I've watched banksters and hedge fund criminals rewarded with bailouts and hands-off justice while ordinary people suffer from long-term unemployment, lose their homes and any hope for the future.

I admit to some fleeting resentment when paying the taxes on my greatly diminished income while mega corporations who claim their profits were made in the Caymen Islands avoid paying any taxes at all.

I am appalled at Congressional proposals to cut the deficit by slashing social programs like Head Start, programs that aim to ease the suffering, the educational and healthcare inequality and, quite frankly, the hunger that is all too widespread across the U.S. today. It's so easy to demonize the poor and disenfranchised while the greedhogs of Wall Street get a free pass.

I am saddened by the decline of the middle class, the worsening lives of ordinary citizens, the vanishing jobs (to overseas locations) and the fact that successful programs like Social Security and Medicare that have allowed the aged to live out their days in dignity and some measure of comfort may be on the chopping block if Congressional honchos (with their Cadillac health insurance and fat pensions) have their way. All this while two illegal, pointless and costly wars have drained our coffers and bailouts have insured only that those who really caused the financial meltdown of 2008  have landed on their feet, continuing to collect their million dollar bonuses.

More than all of the above, however, I am aghast at the lack of compassion for the suffering of others -- from the poor to struggling middle class citizens -- from people whose affluence has shielded them from deprivation and misfortune and from people who should know better but who have drunk the corporate media infused Kool Aid and vote against their own best interests while condemning, not banksters and corporate criminals, but fellow citizens whom they feel may have fractionally more advantages than they do.

But all of this is not what is pushing me to the screaming point today.

It is what I'm hearing on the airways as the people of Japan struggle with an almost incomprehensible national tragedy, a catastrophic cascade of events in the past week: a 9.0 earthquake, a devastating tsunami that washed away whole towns, the threat of a nuclear meltdown. Thousands have died. Valiant workers are risking almost certain death to prevent a nuclear disaster.  And survivors struggle in makeshift rescue centers, dealing, additionally with winter cold and snow and food shortages, with remarkable courage and strength of spirit. And, in the midst of all this, the compassion-deprived among us are at it again.

Rush Limbaugh joked on the air about Japanese continuing their recycling habits at refugee centers -- and at newscaster Diane Sawyer's reaction to what she was seeing in the shattered cities and towns along Japan's Northern coast.  Did it ever occur to him that perhaps these familiar habits bring these traumatized people some comfort, some sense of normality in a country where life may never be quite normal again? Does it ever cross the mind of this crass, hypocritical gasbag that human suffering is never a joke?  Yes, as he noted, the Japanese took pains to prepare for a powerful earthquake and tsunami with strict building codes and regular drills. But sometimes the forces of nature overwhelm the strongest of human structures and thwart the most logical survival plans -- and when that happens, we reach out. We help. We offer support. We don't joke about how carefully they planned -- "and then got wiped out."

While Rush Limbaugh's comments were particularly horrific because of his vast audience and national influence, there has been other evidence of ugliness around.  There was the UCLA student who made a video mocking Asian students who were calling home to check on their families.  There were people who posted such ugly, racist comments after online news reports of the strength of the Japanese populace in the face of their national disaster that a Japanese-American friend of mine who lives in Hawaii wrote to me in distress and despair.

What have we become as a nation if some of us see unspeakable tragedy and make ugly racist remarks or jokes? How can some of us mock others who have lost their homes or families -- or who fear such losses? Hateful and racist comments are always repulsive, but to make them in the wake of disaster is incredibly revolting.

I'll never forget the raw agony of a woman who came to see me on an emergency basis at the psychiatric clinic where I was working some years back. This was in the early days of the war in Iraq. This woman, born in Iraq but a U.S. citizen, had lost her entire family of origin in one of the initial airstrikes.  What drove her to the clinic, however, was not just this devastating loss, but the callousness of too many of her co-workers, people she had considered her friends, who told her that the only good Iraqi was a dead Iraqi and who showed a complete lack of empathy for her terrible loss.

It is this insensitivity to the suffering of others -- whether here or abroad -- that makes me fear for our future as a nation and as human beings.  When did some of us learn to hate so much? To be so quick to blame the unfortunate for their plight? To be blind to -- or simply unconcerned by-- the anguish of others?

There are, of course, countless Americans as well as those around the world, who are rallying to help Japan -- with money, with medical and search teams, with prayers and messages of support.

For those who have little inclination to join these efforts to help the Japanese people, for those who find humor or righteous justice in their suffering, I have only one request: just shut up!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Old Do You Feel?

When asked, during a recent interview, what people might be surprised to learn about her, the Irish novelist Maeve Binchy replied: "To know that even though I am big and lame and aged 70 and have breathing problems, I feel about 22 and optimistic and full of adventure all the time."

I so know what she means! There are times when my own reflection in the mirror startles me.  When did I get that white hair, that extra weight, those glasses, that aging face? When, in short, did I start to look like my mother? Especially when I still feel so young inside? Even though the calendar says I'm elderly, I am excited by ideas, feel very connected to the world and its events, and very committed to continuing to try to make a difference.  My spirit soars at the dawn of a new day or a beautiful sunset or an authentic moment with another.  Just under my deceptively grandmotherly facade, there is a young woman delighting in new adventures and old pleasures.

I've seen this phenomenon with friends as well.  A few years back, my college friend Georgia Watson was visiting California with three teenage grandchildren in tow. We arranged to meet at a restaurant in L.A.  As soon as she saw me, Georgie, sounding just like she did when we'd greet each other back at school after the long summer, squealed "Kathy! Kathy!" and ran into my arms.  Her grandkids were mortified. "Oh, Grandma," they groaned in unison, slinking into the background, hoping no one was watching. Georgie and I couldn't help giggling at their embarrassment. It felt delicious to be young-old friends greeting each other after far too long.

Sometimes the mind just won't let go of a young face. Michael Polich, a very special boyfriend of mine in young adulthood, just turned 70 this past February. Although we're still in touch -- via birthday and Christmas cards and major life events like parental deaths, surgeries and the like -- I haven't seen him for more than 35 years. Whenever I think of him, it is always as the twentysomething he was when we were together.  Even if I were to see him today, I'm sure I'd glimpse him through the prism of his youth. For even though I've seen my college friend Robert McVea enough in mature adulthood to know that he is a white-haired grandfather, when I think of him, the image that pops up is of the slim, red-headed young rebel I knew in school. And my friend Pat Hill, whom I have known since our kindergarten days, seems just as young and vibrant today as she was as a child -- and sometimes I see both the caring adult and the sweet child in her face.

On the other hand, there have been times, when seeing patients, that I've glimpsed elderly spirits in young bodies -- those who are so depressed, so overwhelmed, so hopeless about their lives that they've stopped dreaming or finding pleasure and excitement in anything. One of the greatest challenges of working with them was to help them reconnect with hope and with their youthful spirits.

So how old do YOU feel today? Your chronological age is much less important than how you feel inside. Do you still have dreams for the future? What excites you about today? What makes you smile?
What makes you feel like dancing? What brings you joy?

My husband Bob once asked my maternal grandmother -- who was in her 90's at the time -- how old she felt inside.  This was as my mother and one of my aunts talked around her as she sat quietly on the sofa. Grandma looked at Bob and smiled, pleased to be noticed, happy to share her secret. Her eyes sparkled suddenly and she said "I feel 18. I've always felt 18 inside."  And she winked at him, a fellow conspirator in the effort to retain the best of youth inside.

One of Bob's favorite moments in nurturing his youthful spirit came some years back when my sister Tai  and her young child Nick were making a rare visit from Seattle. Bob immediately started playing games with Nick, showing her magic tricks, sharing favorite Viewmaster slides and puzzles.  After awhile, when Nick took a quick bathroom break, Bob rejoined the adults. Soon we heard 8-year-old Nick's voice calling from the hallway: "Hey, where's the boy?? I want to play!"

"The Boy" became, in an instant, Bob's favorite nickname, the evidence that, despite his graying beard, his stiffening joints and his AARP card, he was still young at heart.

While our bodies age inevitably -- despite good diets, exercise, expensive creams or plastic surgery -- our spirit ages only as much as we allow.  The most wonderful combination might be the wisdom of age and the exuberance of youth, the kindness and compassion that come from life experience combined with hope and optimism -- so we can live with a youthful spirit of adventure every day of our lives.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sex and the Baby Boomers

The study got national headlines: "Boomers unhappy with sex!"

The recent Associated poll, which found that only 7 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 65 reported being extremely satisfied with their sex lives, was a media sensation. The generation that came of age in an era of the Pill and rapidly changing sexual mores, a generation that celebrated free love was soured on sex.

What's the story? Why are Boomers so dissatisfied -- or are they?

The Boomers polled for the survey reported that the major areas of dissatisfaction had to do with differing sexual expectations: 28% of men 45-65  expressed dissatisfaction with worsening sex lies. Nearly half of all men polled said that their partners didn't want sex as much as they did. Only 17% of women felt that their partner's sexual desires lagged behind their own.

There are many reasons why both sexual desire and performance can begin to fade somewhat in mid-life.  Midlife can bring hormonal changes for both men and women -- with lower levels of testosterone and estrogen causing a lower libido.  Hormonal changes, particularly in combination with common disorders of midlife such as Type 2 diabetes, can also contribute to erectile dysfunction.  Women who are in perimenopause or menopause may experience vaginal dryness and subsequent discomfort during intercourse.

There can also be a number of midlife stressors -- like financial and job pressures and being sandwiched between caring for adolescent and young adult children and aging parents -- that can take a toll on sexual desire.

On the other hand, other studies that include older participants have found that some people enjoy sexual activities well into old age -- including their 80's.  A University of Chicago survey found that over half of Americans continue to enjoy sex well into their 70's -- and found that the secret of enduring libidos and sexual enthusiasm appeared to be good health.

So what can you do to ensure sexual satisfaction in midlife and beyond?

Safeguard your health.  Get regular exercise. Eat healthy meals. Lose as much excess weight as possible.  Being lean, fit and agile can help your love life in many ways. Avoiding life-limiting diseases such as diabetes can also help preserve your sexual functioning.

Keep expectations realistic.  While we all have warm memories of wild and sexy times during our youth -- when having sex multiple times a night was a given -- those nights of greeting the dawn in each other's arms are simply memories now. That doesn't mean sex can't be wonderful -- even better.  It may not be nearly as frequent. But sexual activities can still be immensely satisfying -- and fun -- if you don't try to compare these times with the old days.  Think of it this way: what you might be losing in frequency, you may be gaining in intimacy and comfort. The hot partner of one's youth may be the dear companion of midlife who is still capable of some wonderful erotic surprises.

Find ways to compromise when your desire levels differ.  A woman dealing with vaginal dryness, lower desire and hot flashes is not likely to want sex on a daily basis. A man who is feeling less confident about sexual performance or a lower libido may also not be as sexual insatiable as he might have been in his younger years.  If your partner desires sex more frequently than you do, what do you do? I've had a number of patients who say "Well, I just don't feel like it. What am I supposed to do? Fake it?"  A better plan is to compromise: if you don't feel like having intercourse, you might consider offering your partner an alternate form of sex play -- bringing him or her to orgasm and making him or her feel cherished. You may find that when you engage in varying types of sex play, your own libido -- as well as your relationship with your partner -- will start to improve.

Make use of pharmaceutical aids.  Certainly, Viagra and Cialis have been a blessing for men with erectile dysfunction or flagging sexual confidence.  Prescription hormonal creams or over-the-counter lubricants can help enhance sexual pleasure and functioning for menopausal women. These can extend your sex life well into old age. And these don't need to cause shame or embarrassment. They can be part of your sexual flirtation or foreplay. Asking your husband if this might be a "Viagra night" or suggesting with certain urgency that he run to the medicine cabinet now can increase rather than decrease desire. So can having him apply vaginal moisturizers as part of your foreplay. You're limited only by your imagination and your willingness to incorporate these modern sex aids into your life.

Keep growing as a couple outside of the bedroom.  Participants in the University of Chicago study reported that sex with established partners was highly pleasurable.  Some 78% of men 50 and over rated their most recent sexual experience with a partner as extremely or quite a bit pleasurable. And 68.2% of women gave sex with their regular partners that high a rating.  Part of improving life in the bedroom is paying attention outside of the bedroom: listening to each other, expressing affection spontaneously, being kind, paying attention to hygiene and cleanliness, enjoying shared interests and activities together can keep your intimacy growing -- and your sex life warm and exciting.

Be open to trying new things.  One of the most startling findings of the infamous Boomer sex survey was that the majority of the largely dissatisfied midlife couples were convinced that they had learned everything there was to learn about sex. The happiest couples keep experimenting, keeping surprising each other and are open to trying new things. Even something as subtle as touching your partner a slightly different way or initiating sex when you don't usually do so can change the dynamic of the evening. 

Make pleasure -- not necessarily orgasm -- your goal.  There may be times when you simply enjoy sex play or intercourse for its own sake, without it ending in ejaculation or intense orgasms.  Sex play that focuses on pleasure and intimacy and doesn't impose the pressure of performance can be wonderful, playful, affectionate and warm. It can take away the fear of failure that can plague some people, especially men, as they age -- and bring a new sense of fun to your sexual encounters.

Don't look back with longing to those old memories -- make new ones!  Those memories of your youthful sexual adventures will always be with you.  But best of all is the warm and loving reality of sharing sexual activities now with the person you love, the chance to make new memories for years to come.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Think Danish!

I just finished reading an article about Denmark during World War II and am still deeply moved by this bit of history. Despite the fact that Denmark, like most other European countries, was conquered by Nazi Germany, the hearts and minds of the Danish leaders and ordinary people were not vanquished.  They were united in their opposition to evil and in their commitment for the common good and the salvation of their nation's 8,000 Jews. Ordinary citizens offered shelter and protection, often to Jewish people they hadn't known before. Leaders organized an escape to neutral Sweden for the vast majority of Denmark's Jewish population. Fewer than 500 were caught by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp.  The Danish government sent food and vitamins to those in the camp and eventually arranged for their release and safe transport to Sweden. And when the war was over, the Jewish population returned to Denmark to discover their homes, bank accounts, jobs, businesses and lives intact and waiting for them.  In war-ravaged Europe, their fate was rare and wonderful -- thanks to the courage, kindness and plain decency of the Danish people and their leaders.

As I read the papers and listen to the news these days, filled with red state, blue state, tea party, religious and ethnic divisiveness,  I think we could all use a bit of Danish spirit.

We need to ask ourselves how we can find ways to work together to make our society more equitable, healthy and safe for all.

We need to remember how many people -- some we know, some we'll never know -- helped us to gain whatever security we may have.

We need to look for ways to help others in small ways on a daily basis.

We need to stop judging and try to understand a differing point of view.
We may never agree, but we need to extend the courtesy of listening to one another.

We need to be more caring. We need to be kind.

We need to seek real solutions that will address the common good.

We need to come together with love and compassion.

We need to remember that ordinary Danes made a major difference and kept hope alive when all seemed lost.

Is it possible that we have, deep down, the courage and compassion to be at least a little bit Danish?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Aging and Depression

Aunt Molly was remarkable in many ways.  Not only was she brilliant, witty, a great writer and wonderful company, but she was also an anomaly in her generation and her family of origin.  Despite a family history riddled with depression and alcoholism, she escaped the curse of both. Despite losing both parents while very young -- her father when she was four, her mother when she was a teenager -- and, with her older brother, my father, struggling to work her way through high school and college at UCLA in the peak of the Great Depression, Aunt Molly had a joyous spirit, a contagious love of life.  She was a career woman -- an award winning poet, a television writer and also wrote mystery fiction -- at a time when women rarely had lifelong careers. She never married or had children, but she thoroughly enjoyed making a life of her own as well as embracing us -- my brother, sister and me -- with love. She took us to the beach in the summer, made every Christmas merry and thrilled us with eclectic, no cook dinners when we stayed over at her place some weekends. When I went through a period of depression in college after the man of my dreams fell in love with someone else, she sent me a check to buy some new shoes (for Molly, new shoes were the ultimate emotional salve) and a note that said: "Now get down off your cross and get your sense of humor back."

That's why it was a shock when, shortly after her 86th birthday, my brother and I noticed some signs of depression when we visited her.  "I've lingered too long at the party," she told us.  Although she had survived the devastating loss of my parents -- my father was her only family of origin relative, my mother her best friend -- many years before, the losses were mounting now.  Most of her long-time friends were dead. Her beloved 18-year-old cat was terminally ill and her own health was beginning to fail: she had cardiac problems, disabling arthritis and a kidney problem that required a special diet, eliminating some of her favorite foods. She worried about losing her independence.  We promised to be there for her -- and we were. 

I thought of Aunt Molly this week when Ann, a woman I met at a conference, told me about her 90 year old mother languishing in a nursing home with overwhelming physical problems but a razor-sharp mind that was appalled at and depressed over her loss of control over her life.

Although studies have shown that the elderly, as a group, are somewhat immune to or are much less troubled by depression that some younger cohorts, there are life transitions that can trigger depression as one ages. 

Depression may come after losses building on losses - the loss of spouse, family of origin, too many friends. It may follow the loss of robust good health, loss of mobility, loss of options.  It may strike some after retirement, when, feeling a loss of purpose, some people get mired in depression as they puzzle over how to make life meaningful at this new stage of life.

What do you do if you have an aging relative who is showing signs of depression -- like depressed mood most days, lack of interest in things previously enjoyed, withdrawal from family or friends, even talk of not wanting to live?

Engage your loved one in life again.  That can mean visiting more often, taking him or her to movies, plays or concerts or sporting events.  It can mean frequent cards and notes just to show you care. It means not sitting there in a virtual death watch -- whatever the person's state of health -- but keeping him or her in the loop with news, stories, family gossip.  It means letting this person know, in whatever ways are meaningful, that he or she is very important to you. Let this person know the impact he or she has had on your life.  For example, I thanked Aunt Molly for all the poetry she used to write just for fun, just for me -- off the top of her head -- during a trip to the beach or during a quiet evening hanging out together. I had memorized all the poems and finally wrote them down and gave the poems to her many years later. She delighted in the poetry and also in the memories these evoked.

Urge your loved one to see a physician.  Some medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism or B-12 deficiency, can lead to depression and some medications can trigger it as well. It's important to identify or to rule out any physical conditions that may be contributing to the depression.  In the case of existing medical conditions that are causing depression by limiting his or her life in many ways, it may be helpful to explore options or resources with a physician.  There may be support groups to help or other treatments that can ease symptoms. A change of medication may alleviate symptoms as well. Also, make sure that your depressed elder is taking his or her medication correctly and on schedule.

Encourage your loved one to re-discover old passions or to try something entirely new.  Even with increasing limitations, he or she may be able to do a little gardening or needlework or enjoy another hobby of his youth.  And it can be exciting to learn something new. Some work on learning a language. Or getting involved in music, like our friend and former neighbor Orlie, who learned to play the violin and who re-discovered his love for figure skating, after his retirement.  Aunt Molly started writing again after a long hiatus and, three weeks before her death, produced an incredibly powerful poem called "Waiting".  She also decided to try something that astounded us: bingo.  Never a game player, she decided to try bingo at the local senior center just to socialize and decrease her isolation. She was surprised how much she enjoyed and began to look forward to her Thursday bingo days.

Offer emotional support and encourage him or her to stay with medications or new behavior.  Antidotes to depression -- whether medication or activity or exercise -- aren't instant cures. Anti-depressants may take six to twelve weeks to reach maximum benefit. New habits and attitudes take time.
Encourage your loved one be patient and persistent.

If depression persists, encourage your loved one to seek therapy.  There are more therapists these days who welcome older patients -- and despite the disinclination of people of the Greatest Generation to seek therapy, it can be a real help.  After a lot of hand-wringing over what others might think, my mother sought therapy during what turned out to be the last year of her life.  She found incredible comfort and insight in her work with her therapist Jim -- and she urged some of her depressed friends to get help, too.

And what if you are the one depressed? 

Depression can strike in midlife for a variety of reasons. Physical changes, like menopause, can interfere with sleep.  Your looks may change and fade -- and this can be a source of depression if your appearance has been important to you.  Your physical prowess may lessen. Your children grow from sweet childhood to sullen adolescence.  Financial pressures mount.  If you have retired recently, you may be shocked to discover that you miss the structure and sense of purpose that your working life provided.

Many of the suggestions that might work for an elder loved one could be helpful to you: to see a physician to rule out a physical reason for your depression; taking anti-depressants if appropriate; re-discovering old interests or finding new ones; seeking psychotherapy for new insights and perspectives.

For those in mid-life, exercise can make a major difference in how you feel. So can eating a healthy diet.  Taking care of yourself in these ways is enormously life-affirming.

Giving to others can also elevate your mood. Do volunteer work. Mentor someone at work. Be kind to someone you know whose life seems even worse than yours.  Make time for the friends and family members you enjoy most.

Adopt a pet. You'll not only have the joy of taking care of someone who needs you, but you will also have a gift of the unconditional love a pet can offer.

Do what you love --whether it's an old passion or something you've always wanted to try. Learning something new can keep your mind active and engaged with life.

And, while Aunt Molly's penchant for shoes as comfort objects didn't turn out to be genetic, I often think of her wonderful spirit and courage in the worst of times --  as well as her challenge to me to get down off my cross and get my sense of humor back.

A sense of humor -- the ability to laugh between one's tears -- helps immeasurably at any time of life.