Monday, August 22, 2011

Golden vs. Olden: Balancing Your Days in Retirement

Leaving the gym one day recently, buoyed by a runner's high, Bob looked up at the cloudless sky and, in a burst of exuberance, cried  "Ah, the Golden Years!"

A few steps ahead of him, Diane, a gym regular, turned around and snapped with mock irritation: "Lose the G! These are the olden years!"

It's true that some days are, indeed, olden, despite our best efforts and life-affirming surroundings.

The Golden Years hype can be especially strong if you live in an active adult community: the community brochures as well as murals on the walls of the community center depict attractive, middle-aged, lively people pursuing sports, hobbies and social activities -- all with healthy, fit bodies and radiant smiles.

                           Wall Poster 1 at gym at Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch

                            Wall Poster 2 from gym at Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch

                        The view from my favorite gym treadmill at Sun City Anthem

                          The indoor lap pool where I love swimming and meditating
With such encouragement to be active, to be mellow, to have fun, how can anyone have a down day?

It may be a little harder here. The default mode seems to be happiness and contentment.

Besides the inspiring wall art and excellent work-out and recreational facilities, many days at an active adult community can, indeed, be golden. Your peers are all around the same age and are supportive of the challenges and struggles you may have with this new phase of life. You can go to the gym or, for heavens sake, the pool, and not worry about people staring at your cellulite or sagging inner thighs. Except for an occasional trophy wife or visiting daughter, no one is a babe. Acceptance and comfort are a great blessing.  If you want to be active, there are many opportunities.

But there are times, even in a community like this one, where you just don't feel like going with the program. Sometimes you don't feel so relentlessly cheery and fit. Sometimes you're tired. Sometimes you ache. Sometimes you just want to hunker down and read.

And sometimes darker thoughts intrude. You think of travel and wonder how long it will be possible. You clean your house and wonder if a smaller place might have been a more sensible choice. You wake up stiff and sore, but realize this may be the best you will ever feel.  You experience the loss of yet another friend or family member and wonder when it will be your turn.  You live with a sense of growing limitations -- physically and in terms of time. You realize with new clarity that possibilities and time aren't endless.

It's entirely reasonable to give yourself permission -- no matter how blessed your life or beautiful your surroundings -- to have an off day, to take it slow, to mourn losses, to feel mortal. You're not a spoil sport. You're simply normal.  We all have our off-days.

Even Babette, the ultimate gym rat here -- a fabulously fit 44-year-old wife of an older retiree who exercises for two hours a day at the highest settings on the treadmills and exercycles -- confessed to me the other day that she sat home for several days a few weeks back feeling burned out and listless before returning to the gym with new enthusiasm. It made me feel a little less guilty about skipping the gym for two days in a funk over recent, painful oral surgery.  My neighbor Phyllis, usually an enthusiastic Mah Jong player and a regular at the outdoor pool social circle most afternoons, has felt more like lounging on her front patio this week with a good book and Daisy, her sweet Labrador. This time alone feels just right for her right now.

The secret to making your days more golden than olden, however, is to balance this downtime with activity and involvement. Times of quiet reflection and more active, exuberant times are all important in thriving through your golden/olden years.

Taking a walk, swimming, riding a bike, hitting the gym can ease that stiffness and pain.

Spending time doing for others -- whether they are family, friends or strangers can help you feel connected and that you're still making a contribution to the world.

Exploring your passions -- working on that long-deferred novel, learning to play an instrument or a new language, learning to paint, traveling locally or to faraway places, volunteering for your favorite charity or cause, mentoring a young person, taking classes at your local community college -- can keep your mind sharp and whet your excitement for living and learning.

Counting the blessings of your life -- however changed -- is another thing that turns olden days to golden. As we age, we are blessed with wisdom and perspective, with dear friends who know us well, with families that are growing with grandchildren even as our elders pass away, with more time and freedom and courage to be ourselves, to give back and to share love with those who matter most.

And laughing -- at yourself, at the indignities of age and the absurdities of life -- can be positively therapeutic.

Aunt Molly used to tell me "Laughter is the best exercise I know. You have to have a real sense of humor to thrive through these Golden Years."

She was so right.


  1. I really don't know if I could adjust to living in a retirement village such as Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch. We visited there a few years ago, even looked for a home. My husband was dead set against it. In reality, while a part of it appeals to me, I just don't know.

    I like being surrounded by people of all ages. I walked into a Senior Sneaker class today and nearly turned around and walked out. I may ache and hurt, but I wasn't ready to exercise from a chair yet.

    Most days, even with my health not what it used to be, my attitude is youthful. You are right, attitude, humor, and balance are key.

  2. It's an adjustment, Sally, but this one isn't totally a retirement community. We are mixed with an all ages community so share some all ages facilities like the water park, second swimming pool, etc. I'd be depressed, too, if I walked into a chair exercise class. Because this is a new community, the population is younger -- some spouses in their forties. So there are spinning and step classes that I can't begin to handle! So far, it doesn't seem terribly geriatric. The adjustment has been that life has its ups and downs wherever you are, even in a sort of adult Disneyland.

    And, Rosaria, thanks so much for your comment. Great to see you writing and commenting again!

  3. I live in a regular neighborhood. I have a senior exercise class three mornings a week and a regular gym. I like seeing people of all ages.

  4. Very thought provoking post. It's true that relentless cheerfulness can be wearing and it's hard to avoid down days, specially when limitations hit us in the face. I do hope your feeling better post surgically.

  5. You've given me much to think about, you know.

    Not sure if I should thank you or what. :-) (I'm just kidding about that -- there's so much to learn about every age of life, isn't there?)


  6. Sometimes I swear you are living in my brain. Well, I'm not living in a retirement community, but I do have a gym I don't go to often because oh! I'd so rather do art or read a book. Yet, you go. I picked my gym because the people looked like me. Well, and also some like I want to look. It's a good mix with a minimum of spandex. But still...

  7. Thanks for sharing the idea there would be some apprehensions from segment but i am up for it.