Finding Purpose

There’s a theme that keeps recurring in my books. Whether I’m getting advice from elder role models, figuring out the best home for a long life, or talking with men about their retirement, the need to find purpose is a powerful mantra. I’m writing a new book on legacy, which examines the importance of living a life driven by positive values and community commitment. By living a life of purpose we have an impact in the here and now, and our contribution keeps giving after we’re gone.

Sometimes we feel we have nothing to give. We may be overwhelmed with our own personal challenges; we may have health issues; we may doubt we have a skill or talent that would make a difference. But, in truth, we always have the capacity to contribute something to someone, or something. And by giving back we also receive. I found an eloquent example of this truth in Daniel Gottlieb’s book - Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life. Gottlieb started to write these letters to his grandson Sam when Sam was born. At that point, Gottlieb had been a quadriplegic for twenty years as the result of a car accident. His letters to his grandson share his experience as a practising psychologist, combined with the insights he gained from his disability.

The memorable incident happened about two weeks after Gottlieb’s accident. At that point, he was thinking he would prefer death to being a quadriplegic. He was in the intensive care unit, hooked up to monitors and tubes, his skull bolted in a fixed position, and he began to hope he would never wake up. That night, a woman he was unable to see clearly sat beside his bed and asked if he was a psychologist. When he replied “yes,” she asked if she could talk to him. In a voice not much more than a whisper, she explained that someone had left her. She had an unbearable sense of aloneness and was having thoughts of suicide. Because he understood her pain so deeply, Gottlieb was able to listen with great compassion. After they finished talking, he offered her a referral, and he was certain he’d been able to help her. It was at that moment that Gottlieb knew he could live as a quadriplegic. “Everyone else had been trying to convince me that I was still a worthwhile person, but the only way I could really learn that lesson was from someone who asked something of me.” That evening they likely saved each other‘s lives.


It's Also Blessed to Receive

Coquitlam Men's Shed

Doug Mackie knows a lot about aging but admits to being surprised at a recent life lesson. Doug is the founder of the Men’s Sheds movement in Canada and it was his daughter who inspired him to start the program. “She learned about the Australian Men’s Sheds in a chance conversation at a conference,” he explains. “She immediately called me and told me to go online, learn about Men's Sheds and start one. Of course I did just as she told me and opened the first Men's Shed in North America in Winnipeg. That was over eight years ago. Now there are fourteen Men's Sheds in Canada, from Quebec to BC, with funding in place for one to open in Summerside, PEI. Worldwide, there are now close to 2,000 Sheds.”

Now comes the lesson. On a bitter January day (-44°C with the wind chill), Doug fell on some ice and broke one rib and cracked another. “It’s no fun for a 76-year-old very busy guy to suddenly have to stop nearly everything,” he says. “I know I need to put this in context - I didn’t hit my head, wrench a knee nor break a hip! But when I learned they can do nothing for cracked ribs other than pain killers and rest, I knew I was in for a new experience! I am very lucky to have a 25-year-old son and a 26-year-old daughter who live in Winnipeg and both have stepped forward as excellent and firm caregivers. So this is new for me - learning to rely on my family members. It’s humbling - but has turned out to be very rewarding.”

This was one of my big lessons from You Could Live a Long Time: Are You Ready? To retain your independence you must learn to accept help. It’s not easy being on the receiving end when you’ve always been a giver, but as Doug found out – learning to receive has its own rewards.

If you’d like to know more about the Canadian Men's Shed Association, Doug would love to talk to you about it. Send us a quick note by clicking this link and we will connect you.

Vanderhoof Men's Shed


Gratitude for the Perfect Home

Gratitude fills the air this time of year. Many of the stories I’ve received give thanks for homes and communities that are sustaining and supporting us as we age. Jean has given me permission to tell her story. When I interviewed Jean for The Perfect Home For a Long Life she was 70 years old and living in a second-floor suite of rooms in a rambling 1910 heritage home owned by a childhood friend. Several years earlier her marriage had fallen apart and she was happy to retreat to the welcoming sanctuary of this home-like environment. That was four years ago. A couple of months ago Jean broke her ankle in one of those classic accidents, stepping the wrong way on a curb outside the store while her arms were laden with groceries. The break was bad enough that surgery was required to insert metal supports to shore up the bones. She’s still in recovery with probably six more weeks to go. You know it’s serious when the doctor says you aren’t allowed to put any weight on your leg - for months.

At this point, you’re probably trying to envision Jean struggling on one leg up the precarious narrow stairway of the hundred-year-old home - but your imagination is failing. There are 15 stairs by the way, and the same number to get into the house from the street. Knowing these old homes you would have guessed accurately that there are few bathroom facilities on the ground floor – in this case, only a toilet and tiny sink, with no bath or shower, but the room is too narrow for a wheel chair or walker, anyway.  Regardless, there is no room on the ground floor available for Jean to stay – even temporarily.

But Jean’s timing was impeccable. About a year and a half before her accident she realized it was time to move and her one criteria was that the building should have an elevator. One of Jean’s friends noticed a well-priced condo was available in an ideal location, and another friend with interior design skills helped ease Jean's apprehension about downsizing to a 600 sq. ft. home after being used to a large house. “I was so worried about the size and shouldn’t have been,” Jean says. “This darling apartment is perfect for me. It’s cozy, has a great view, and is really bright. There’s a balcony that’s just right for sitting on and growing a few things. And I’m on the top floor so I can hear the rain on the roof.  I’m grateful that when the universe gave me a thump and broke my ankle I was living here. I'm in the perfect place for my three-month recovery. First I hopped around with a two-wheeled walker and now I’ve graduated to a knee scooter and I scoot around happily. I hope I don’t have to move again until I’m carried off.”


Opportunities for Second Youth

Being interviewed by the talented and thoughtful Nam Kiwanuka on TVOntario’s Agenda in the Summer was such a pleasure. Nam has a real following judging from the feedback I received when our interview aired late last month.

One of the delightful responses I received was from Nancy Angus of Thunder Bay. Nancy was particularly taken with my response to Nam’s query about whether I was optimistic about retirement. I explained that I am optimistic because the concept of retiring - pulling back from life and from engagement - is completely out-dated. We need all the assets and skills of our retirees to be fully engaged. I said I’d love to see the development of an “Opportunities For Second Youth,” which would galvanize seniors to participate in community building projects across the country. (Also see the Huffington Post article)

Nancy wrote to say that my comments about “Opportunities For Second Youth” made her want to jump into action and help launch something like this.  Back in 1978, she was a participant in the federal youth program Katimavik.  “I’ve always felt that there could be a market for those of us “seasoned” youth!” she says.  Nancy would be an ideal person to have on this team. She just retired from the Recreation Division with the City of Thunder Bay and has been working on her encore career phase helping with age-friendly initiatives and recreation for seniors strategies.

You'll get a sense of Nancy's spunk by watching the digital story she produced called “Goddess of the Deep End”  It’s about her journey of learning to swim at age 55.

If you’d like to contact Nancy to talk more about her interests click on Contact Us on the left column and I’ll put you in touch.


Women and Retirement

     When I spoke with my publisher about writing a book on retirement we tossed around the theme “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” The stereotype is that men are attached to their work so they have difficulty retiring. But when it comes to women, although they may enjoy their work, they don’t have as much difficulty saying goodbye because they have many other irons in the fire and are more likely to have strong networks of family and friends. But I was reluctant to go down this road because I had seen many examples of the converse. I knew women who had struggled in retirement and men who found this stage of life to be a time of reinvention and jubilation.

     To do the topic justice, I felt I needed to focus on one gender and I chose to look at what was happening to my generation of men when they hit retirement-age. One of the happy outcomes of this decision is that many women have told me they identify with the men’s stories and find them equally reflective of their own connection to work and their experience with retirement. I received the following thoughtful feedback from Anne-Marie Bugeaud. Her own dad worked until he was 78, then died at 80. “I vividly remember him always wanting and needing to be active,” she says, “always meeting people, staying energetic and vibrant and being a great inspiration to his family and friends.”

     She writes, “Why would it be any easier for women to adapt to retirement than for men? For the past three or four decades women have invaded the workplace, many as either the main or sole bread winner, many others were single or single moms, in all walks of life, from teachers, psychologists, to doctors, nurses, programmers, engineers, architects, police officers, managers, business owners. etc. Therefore for women, as for men, work is often extremely rewarding and gratifying in many more aspects than just the financial side. We invest so much for so many years that when we retire, we face similar psychological, intellectual and emotional challenges. We can fall in the same kind of ‘black hole’ that some men do. It is as difficult to find valuable gratifying replacement activities, we feel useless at times, and we also appreciate not having to deal with the stress of a constantly overbooked agenda. The fact is, we have not left our brain and our heart at work and we still wish to use them in a positive way.”

                        Authors for Indies at Tanner's Books in book city BC