From Retirement to Renaissance
From retirement to Renaissance is a phrase from Michael Gelb’s book Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age that inspires me greatly. How to foster vitality, creativity, and active engagement with the world as we grow older. Re-imagining aging as a time of fulfillment rather than decline is a process from Lewis Richmond’s book Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide for Growing Older and Wiser that comforts me greatly: that aging gracefully can bring inner satisfaction and contentment.
This e-newsletter presents the yin-yang of aging for my baby boomer generation. 76 million of us in the U.S. are facing retirement age (and a life expectancy of 80 at the turn of this century rather than 45 at the turn of the last century) where 65 may not be a time of winding down but gearing up.
I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
– E. B. White
How to choose to continue on a path of personal growth and self-transformation in service to the betterment of the planet and humanity and how to surrender to the flow and cycles of life that carry us into slowing down and fully resting.
It’s not how old you are but how you are old.
– Jules Renard
May these reflections and tools be useful to you and those you hold dear.
REFLECTIONS ON RETIREMENT TO RENAISSANCE
Brain Power provides many tools and techniques to prevent mental deterioration as we physically age. All couched in the context that our mental attitude about aging greatly shapes our physical experience of aging. That opening our mind to what’s possible rather than presuming impossibilities can lead to longer life, better health, and a more resilient brain.
Gelb cites the groundbreaking research of Ellen Langer, reported in her book Counterclockwise. [September 2009 e-newsletter on Healthy Aging] Two groups of elderly men, being cared for by relatives, spent a weeklong retreat at a secluded monastery in New Hampshire. The first group of men reminisced about their lives twenty years earlier in 1959. At the end of the week they reported they had had a pleasant week and showed some improvement in their mental and physical functioning from pre-to-post tests.
The second groups was instructed to return as completely as possible in their minds to 1959, as though living again at a time when their brains and bodies were younger. At dinner they debated about the threat of communism and the need for bomb shelters. They discussed the “recent” books of the day, Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. They watched “newly released” movies like Ben-Hur and Some Like It Hot. They listened to current pop stars like Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole on the phonograph After one week of living as though they were twenty years younger, the men showed dramatic improvements in memory, flexibility, vision, hearing, appetite and general well-being. Previously dependent on relatives for care, the men began serving their own meals, cleaning up afterwards, initiating their own social activities. Some men had even begun playing touch football.
The discovery of the brain’s innate neuroplasticity – that the brain can grow new neurons and new connections among neurons – lifelong – means that we really can choose to expand and grow our brains, lifelong.
Learning a new skill can change hundreds of millions of cortical connections.
– Michael Merzenich, neuroscientist
The human brain is astonishingly adaptable and flexible. When we know – and practice – the right tools and techniques, we can continue to expand our capacities to process information, improve our memory, think creatively, solves problems and learn new skills as long as we require our brains to do so.
The brain has an almost boundless capacity for reshaping itself over the years, for adapting, for expanding its power, while accumulating knowledge and recording experiences. Modern neuroscience tells us that the aging brain is no longer the declining brain, but rather a learning organ whose limits are still unexplored.
– Marco Iacoboni, M.D. Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, UCLA
You may have a great fear of Alzheimer’s, as I do having cared for my father as he lost memory and function to that disease. I was relieved to learn in Brain Power that
…the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness are associated with a substantially reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and a less rapid rate of cognitive decline in older age.
– Patricia Boyle, PhD, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago
Research is now showing that many of the practices of mind and heart we explore frequently in these newsletters – gratitude, humor, forgiveness, optimistic expectations – help people live on average 7-9 years longer that people who don’t, with greatly enhanced life satisfaction and well-being.
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Aging as a Spiritual Practice is the yin to Brain Power’s yang, though, as in the Taoist symbol of yin-yang, the seed of one can be found in the other.
Richmond uses contemplative reflections to help us engage skillfully with the deepest truth of life – Everything changes – so that we can re-frame change as possibilities to experience wisdom, open-heartedness and inner freedom as we age. How to find the gift of each moment and the new possibilities with each breath, even when facing the disruption of unwanted changes.
Whether we live to a vigorous old age lies not so much in our stars or in our genes but in ourselves.
– George Vaillant
With bows to the importance of physical exercise and diet, Richmond focuses more on using the extended life span to maintain healthy relationships, serve others, explore our own deeper nature in Nature, and deepen our spiritual practice.
Richmond identifies 4 stages of coping with any change and offers many moving stories of people applying them to aging:
1. Lightning Strikes – a life-threatening diagnosis for ourselves or someone close to us; hearing of the death of a friend we went to college with. We experience a “Wake up! Pay attention!”
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver, The Summer Day, New and Selected Poems
2. Coming to terms – accepting that life is changing; has changed; there’s no going back.
3. Adaptation – adjust; remain flexible; enjoy everything you can. This change is not just worry and regret; it’s also new possibilities.
4. Appreciation – no matter what we’re facing, we’re alive to face it. When we wake up to the preciousness of every moment and the aliveness of every breath, we take nothing for granted. We savor all the possibilities life is offering in this moment, and the possibility of new moments.
Give me these hills and the friends I love. I ask no other heaven.
– inscription on bench on hiking trail on Mt. Tamalpais, CA
Richmond offers contemplative reflections to encourage several practices that help us grow wiser as we grow older, among them:
1. Come into the present moment.
Step off the treadmill of horizontal time, as though your life is moving along the conveyor belt of a timeline, and drop into the depth of vertical time – this moment, here and now – and experience the infinity and eternity of it, free of concern, worry, regret. Richmond uses the example you may have had in childhood of lying back on the grass on a summer day, looking up at the shape-shifting clouds – everything changes, but in that moment you can experience the spacious timelessness of “nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.”
(Research shows that spending time in the vertical affects how much time we can expect in the horizontal. People who meditate, pray, or attend religious services at least once a week also live on the average 7 years longer than folks who don’t. The suggested explanation is that even as our bodies age and become less reliable, relying on or having faith in something larger than ourselves, however that is experienced or named counterbalances physical diminishment with spiritual enrichment. Feeling held by something larger helps us let go of what we’re having to let go of.)
2. Shift to flexibility and optimism. Not a snap of the fingers, you say. The courage to cope with changing circumstances comes from changing how we relate to our circumstances. Many of the reflections in Aging as Spiritual Practice are meditations that open up our perspectives so that we can see new choices.
In Buddhism, what is known as beginner’s mind is a way to look at the world as if for the first time: with interest, enthusiasm, and engagement. This may be the optimal state of mind for a healthy brain.
– Louis Cozolino
You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.
– Pearl S. Buck
Seeing our way through difficulties and challenges does require our brain to grow.
Resilience in the face of adversity is the most distinguishing characteristic of those who age gracefully and adapt well. And resilience is a function of optimism.
– Michael Gelb
Richmond cites research similar to Gelb’s citations demonstrating that cultivating positive approaches to life experience like gratitude, generosity, loving kindness connects us to a larger sense of our world and fosters a shift to resilience and optimism that help people live longer and with more well-being.
3. Embrace the role of elderhood.
We can move beyond learning from our elders as role models (which Gelb heartily recommends) to becoming role models of the wisdom, dignity, and integrity of elderhood ourselves. We move into Erik Erikson’s final stage of development: integrity vs. despair. We look back on life with feelings of integrity, contentment and fulfillment, having led a meaningful life and made valuable contributions to society. If, in this stage, we lean toward a sense of failure and despair, we may fear death as we struggle to find a purpose in our lives, wondering “What was the point? Was it worth it?” Practices offered in both books help us develop our lives in the direction of integration, integrity, and wisdom. We come to understand our place in the world, our contribution to it, and are willing to give back or pay forward to the next generations.
The old should be explorers, be curious, risk transgression, explore oldness itself.
– T.S. Elioty
None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.
– Henry David Thoreau
This emerging contentment and altruism also keeps us connected to the larger whole.
Social interactions and neural plasticity are synergistic. Isolation, and lack of challenge and stimulation, are the enemies of neuroplastic processes and brain health. It is clear why elders who become isolated are more likely to lose cognitive functions. On the other hand, positive social support is associated with better mental health, cardiovascular health, immunological functioning, and cognitive performance in older adults. Those that remain connected and needed are far more likely to remain vital and alive.
– Louis Cozolino, PhD, The Healthy Aging Brain: Sustaining Attachment, Attaining Wisdom.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
– George Bernard Shaw
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Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.
– Benjamin Franklin
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How does one keep from “growing old inside?” In community. The only way to make friends with time is to stay friends with people.
– Robert McAfee Brown
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A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful that God has implanted in the human soul.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use.
– Charles Darwin
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For the unlearned, old age is winter; for the learned, it is the season of harvest.
– the Talmud
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And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
– Abraham Lincoln
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
Retirement without the love of learning is a living burial.
One of my favorite role models is Charlotte Siegel, the 93 year-old mother of my friend Eve. And here’s one of her most recent stories.
When Charlotte was widowed at 83, she decided to close one of the most major chapters in her life, 61 years of marriage to her anthropologist husband Bernard. Rather than live on alone in the home on campus where she and Bernard had lived for the last 35 years, she sold the home, found a promising young student to become the new guardian of Bernard’s precious grand piano, and moved into a senior residential complex where she could have a sense of companionship and community with others in similar boats facing similar sea changes in their lives.
Within a few months of moving into her new complex, Charlotte, a social worker for more than half a century, saw the need for people to come together and wrestle in an honest way with the “treachery of transition” but also to explore what the possibilities of the new chapter might be. She started a weekly, drop-in transition group where people could feel safe to discuss the “over-ness” of things: loss of health, loss of spouse, loss of freedom, privacy, lifestyle, loss of identity, loss of financial security. And also find support for the new adventures, bus trips to the symphony, guest lectures on contemporary art, expanding concerns for the world beyond the personal.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that what’s healthy is engagement. That’s what keeps my brain percolating. I feel my brain “jiggling” from these conversations, from engaging directly with the issues confronting us,” says Charlotte.
The transition group continues to this day, 12-25 people gathering every week to face into the limitations of time, and the possibilities of the new, together.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
1. The language of longevity
Michael Gelb reports a study by Rebecca Levy, PhD that demonstrates the power of words to reinforce or change negative stereotypes. Levy exposed different groups of older individuals to words flashed on a computer screen so quickly that they weren’t consciously aware of what they were seeing. One group was exposed to words that reflect a positive attitude toward aging, such as wisdom, experience, and creativity. The other group was exposed to words that reflect a negative stereotype of aging, such as disease, senile, and dying. The group exposed to the negative words scored significantly lower on memory and mathematics tests, due to the increase in their stress levels and a decreased sense of self-confidence. Levy commented:
Negative stereotypes of aging may contribute to health problems in the elderly without their awareness. This, in turn, could lead to older individuals mistakenly attributing a decline in their health to the inevitability of aging, which might then reinforce the negative stereotypes and prevent successful aging.
1. Check in with yourself. Which of the following self-limiting phrases do you find yourself using about your own aging process:
* I can’t remember anything anymore.
* Everything was easier when I was younger.
* My memory is going.
* My best days are behind me.
* I might as well pack it in.
* I’m over the hill.
And which of the self-affirming phrases:
* So many things don’t even worry me anymore.
* Everything is so much richer now.
* If I stop worrying and struggling, whatever I need to remember pops up out of the blue; it was there all the time.
* I never could have understood [whatever] when I was younger; it takes time to figure life out.
* I never could have imagined this much freedom to live as I pleased.
* I’m over the hill…and ready to roll! [My aunt Gen proudly got herself a sweatshirt with this slogan when she turned 60.]
2. Find good role models of aging
Both Gelb and Richmond suggest finding examples of people who have remained creative and productive well into old age. From Gelb’s list:
Michelangelo, who began work as the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome at age 63.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who completed part 2 of Faust at age 83.
Helen Keller, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom when she was 84.
Florence Nightingale, who worked to promote nursing as a profession until she died at 90.
Martha Graham, who choreographed major new dance works until she was 96.
Georgia O’Keefe, who painted until her death at age 98.
…and many, many more.
Satchel Paige, who overcame racial discrimination to break into major-league baseball at age 42, an age when many other players have already retired, said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?”
Richmond suggests writing down words that describe qualities you most admire in your role models – passion, commitment, perseverance – and then set an intention to cultivate those qualities in yourself.
3. Physical exercise
Every brain fitness program worthy of the name prioritizes physical exercise as essential to keeping the brain fit. While the average brain accounts for 2% of body weight, it uses 20% of the oxygen consumed by the body. Aerobic exercise (break a sweat) strengthens the heart muscle so it can pump more oxygen to your brain. According to John Medina, PhD in Brain Rules, exercise cuts the risk of dementia in half. Kelly McGonigal, PhD at Stanford, says cardiovascular exercise stresses the brain in just the right way to activate the release of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which causes the brain to grow the new neurons we need for learning and memory.
Richmond suggests taking gratitude walks in nature as part of any exercise program. Even ten minutes of a longer walk or run spent noticing and being grateful for the towering trees, the sweetness of birdsong, the occasional friendly puppy or frisking squirrel can bring us out of our worries and into the present (vertical time) in ways that allow us to deepen our appreciation and trust of being connected to the larger flow of life.
4. Learning something new
Likewise, all brain fitness programs recommend learning something new, especially new processes (rather than new facts) that will require your brain to grow new neurons and new connections among them.
Just the attempt to learn a [new] language is like running different software through the brain.
– Andrew Weil, M.D., Healthy Aging
Learn a new language and get a new soul.
– Czech proverb
Standard recommendations are to learn to speak a new language, learn to play a musical instrument, learn to play a mental sport like chess. Gelb recommends learning to juggle; studies have demonstrated that juggling helps the brain grow new cells, and juggling may be easier to pick up than the cello or Italian.
The excitement of learning separates youth from old age. As long as you’re learning, you’re not old.
– Rosalyn Yalow, Nobel laureate
Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age by Michael J. Gelb and Kelly Howell. (New World Library, 2012)
Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Gide to Growing Older and Wiser by Lewis Richmond. (Gotham Books, 2012.
Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility by Ellen Langer. (Ballantine Books, 2009)
Grow Younger, Live Longer: 10 Steps to Reverse Aging by Deepak Chopra and David Simon. (Harmony Books, 2001)
Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being. (Knopf, 2005)
The Healthy Aging Brain: Sustaining Attachment, Attaining Wisdom by Louis Cozolino. (W.W. Norton, 2008)
Magnificent Mind at Any Age: Natural Ways to Unleash Your Brain’s Maximum Potential. (Three Rivers Press, 2009)
The Roadmap to 100: The Breakthrough Science of Living a Long and Healthy Life by Walter Bortz and Randall Stickrod. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.)
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey. (Little, Brown, 2008)