Sunday, April 29, 2012

Things Just Don't Seem Very Clear...

Like my grandson Henry, I'm finding my visibility just a bit murky. Despite the positive steps I've taken recently to get on with my life, I don't feel I'm making any progress towards real answers about what comes next. My future seems as illusive as ever.

I must admit to feeling a somewhat discouraged. All my life the next relocation, the next promotion, the next project, the next big thing has been my motivation. Waking up to realize there is no "next" on my calendar other than filler-appointments I've made to keep myself occupied, is enough to send me back to bed.

For me the carrot at the end of the stick has always been the motivation that kept me moving forward. It was the promise of change, reward, happiness ahead that spurred me to meet the challenges of each routine day. How do I learn to find joy and satisfaction in the moment, rather than continually reaching for what is just beyond reach?

Friday, April 27, 2012

STEP THREE: Learn Something New. Knowledge is Fuel For The Mind and The Soul.

    The older we get, the more set in our ways we become. The skills we've cultivated over a lifetime - whether it's making scratch biscuits, leading a panel discussion or managing a client crisis - are handled with ease, grace and precision simply because we've done them so many times before. Our actions are automatic and effortless. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make us experts in our field can also make us dull, repetitive and stuck behind the times.
     With my past career focused on the creative culture of advertising and marketing, it was my responsibility to stay on top of product trends along with lifestyle and demographic evolution. In order to develop targeted and effective campaigns with timely images, it was mandatory that I have my finger on the pulse of change. I was constantly learning new ideas and perspectives. Now I find myself moving farther and farther away from my familiar sources for insight into our ever-changing world. What's worse, I also find it ever harder to give a hoot. The undertow of patterned thinking and the mindlessness of habit are taking hold, and I'm showing signs of becoming a real bore, even to myself.
    Learning something new, as often as possible, is the best way I know to keep my mind, my spirit and my life fresh and interesting. I'm not ready to give in to indifference just yet. Here are some of the tricks I'm trying to help me stay in the game.

  • Break The Routine:  When we were raising our kids, building our careers and our lives, the daily rituals we created were the only things we could truly control. The rest of our day was generally chaos. In retirement every day is routine. That is why it's important to shake things up a little to break the pattern. If you always drink orange juice in the morning, then try a V8 for a change - just like the commercial says. If you only read the local newspaper, pick up the Washington Post or New York Times to get a new perspective. If you never wear bright colors, throw on that red sweater you've never worn and see what happens. Surprisingly even the smallest change from the norm can be a giant step when it comes to spicing up your life and your desire to make it richer.
  • Take A Class:  What better time than right now, no matter what your age, to try something you have always dreamed of trying. Enlightenment is the best antidepressant - no prescription necessary. Sign up for Conversational French. It may inspire you to take that trip to Paris you've always imagined. Take piano lessons. You have the time to practice now. Learn Latin dancing. What could be more stimulating than a little Salsa music? Learning something new, or refreshing old skills will breath new life into tired thinking. I took a motivational class for stymied writers. Now I have my own blog and am attending a writer's conference for the first time. Anything is possible if you take the initiative.
  • Interact With Younger People:  In the work environment we are surrounded by a wide range of diverse coworkers of all ages. Sadly, when we lose that connection our world and our vision narrows. Make a point of spending time around younger people whenever possible. Then watch, listen and learn. The world revolves around the next generation, not the previous one. Put away your judgement and criticism and tap into budding ideas and flowing energy. I go to the Apple retail store from time to time, not only to check out what's new in technology, but to watch the young customers and sales team. Their clothes, their technical savvy, their relaxed attitudes are fascinating and inspiring, and they are surprisingly open to explaining things. Attend sporting events on your local college campus to watch the crowd as well as the game. Dine at the hottest new restaurant in town, always a great place for people watching in addition to sampling the latest food and beverage trends. When you serve the newest cocktail and play the latest jazz favorite while entertaining your regular gang, you will be the trend setter for a change.

    What's important is finding creative ways to learn new things, large and small. By being receptive to different viewpoints, experimenting with new foods and music, or learning new skills you begin to stimulate your thinking and your life. It is the simple act of learning that leads us to vitality and passion, the very things we need to remain enduring contributors to our world.

Next week, STEP FOUR: Making Time For Physical Activity. A Body in Motion Stays In Motion.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

STEP TWO: Reaching Out. There's No Need to Feel Alone.

     Without realizing it, over the years my need for social interaction had become limited to my work environment. It's easy to understand how this happens when you consider that on average 60% of one's waking hours are spent commuting to and from work, working or thinking about work. The organizations we join, the events we attend, the conferences we travel to all stem from our job and our business associates. It is not surprising that without an office to report to every day, I find myself feeling isolated and alone.
    At first I relished my new found solitude and the freedom to meander through my days without commitment or obligation. It didn't take long for that solitude to turn into soul searching and eventually sadness and the first signs of depression. Having spent most of my forty year career working as a team player, sharing, encouraging and motivating my coworkers, and thus myself, I am reminded how important interaction with others is for me. If I am to remain emotionally healthy, I need to find a new community to connect with.
    Here are some things I have experienced that are helping me color my world and expand my horizons.

The Company of Strangers

    Not long ago, when taking my dog for her daily walk, I decided to venture to a nearby park rather than the usual trip around the block. While there I encountered an elderly gentleman strolling with his aging Basset Hound. As our dogs sniffed noses, I began chatting with him about his dog and my own 15 year old Basset mix who had recently died. In turn, he shared the intimate story of recently losing his wife. When we turned to go on our separate ways, he called back over his shoulder, "Thanks for stopping." I told him our conversation had made my walk and my day much richer. "You'd be surprised how many people don't understand that simple thing," he replied as he walked away.
    Now, whether on a walk in the park, at the deli counter or doing business at the bank, I make an extra effort to not just greet, but to speak to the people I encounter. The rewards are boundless. I have new friends all over town who remember me as the nice lady who takes the time to ask about their day. I always smile when my name is remembered, knowing I've contributed something good to someone else's life as well as mine.

True Friends Are Never Lost

     With so much time to think and reminisce, I often find myself wondering about old friends. Thanks to the Internet - especially email and Facebook - it is now easy to reconnect.
Granted there are some people in everyone's past that should be left there, but there are many who were once important and meaningful. Why should we let them fade away?
    I joined my high school website and went to a reunion after all these years, something I said I'd never do. It turned out to be a wonderful experience. Now there are a few of us who enjoy staying connected on Facebook, despite being miles apart. 
    I ran into someone in my yoga class by a quirk of fate, that I haven't seen in twenty years. I gave her my contact information and heard back from her the next day. We now look for each other at class time. We met for lunch this past week to catch up on all that's happened in the years we missed, and found we also share new common ground.
    Another old friend and I spotted each other while dog walking, after years of separate lives. I followed up with an email and she replied. Now we meet often, with doggies in tow, to share experiences and laugh about old times.
    Old friends help us remember who we are, something easily forgotten in the fast-paced madness of our middle years. By simply reaching out to a few old friends the energy begins to flow anew. My days are much richer and my emails much more interesting, since I chose to be brave and started clicking Search, Send and Reply regularly. 

Just Say Yes to The Possibilities

     Once you become comfortable staying home, you may find it harder and harder to leave your home. I know I certainly did. In fact, I found I was saying no more and more often when invited to venture outside my new comfort zone. Invitations to dinner or for weekend excursions, requests to join a group or even a card game, became a succession of lame excuses and little white lies. Later, while flipping channels alone on the sofa, I found myself regretting my sequestered lifestyle.
     Now I'm working hard to evolve from cranky hermit, back into the gregarious companion and hostess I used to be. I force myself to go to at least one party a month, and thoroughly enjoy myself once there. I try to meet a friend for lunch, or drop by to visit with a neighbor at least once a week. While making the commitment to join a group still makes me hesitate, I recently took a 6-week class and was amazed by how creatively stimulating it proved to be. I've even invited my fellow classmates and instructors for a follow-up gathering in my home next month. To my surprise and delight, everyone is coming. 
     What I have learned is that it is easier to say yes, and take the risk of enjoying myself, than it is to say no and be forced to invent an excuse to be miserable. There is simply no reason to live in isolation, when there are limitless ways to become part of a community outside my own four walls.

Next Week: STEP THREE: Learn Something New. Knowledge is Fuel For The Mind and The Soul.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

STEP ONE: Getting My Finances Under Control. It's a Process, Not a Quick Fix.

     If I cared enough about money, I would have married it. My dear Uncle Harry always said it was just as easy to love a rich man. Unfortunately, the accumulation of wealth (much less a string of wealthy ex-husbands) was never my motivation. Instead, I was drawn to the rewards of a job well done; to pride, recognition and notoriety, in addition to being fiercely independent from the get-go. I have no regrets for taking this path, and it has paid the bills well enough. On the downside, it provided little opportunity for investing in future financial security. The truth is, if it wasn't for my parents' frugal post-depression mentality, I could easily have ended up living in my car instead of my house.
     My career path made a steady climb up the ladder of success until 2001 and the after-burn of 9/11. The entire world changed that day, right along with the rosy future we Boomers envisioned for our Golden Years. The reality is that none of us were financially prepared to handle the aftermath of the past ten years. Huge drops in investments, the drastic economic downturn, a failing housing market, limited employment opportunities (especially for Boomers), along with rising healthcare costs blindsided everyone. With more than 40 million Americans entering the preretirement Danger Zone, ages 55 to 64, many of us were, and still are, extremely vulnerable to financial ruin.
     This is why it is so important to get your ducks in a row now, before receiving Social Security benefits. Here are some measures I've taken over the past couple of years. There are many more to go, but believe me, making this start has me sleeping better at night.
  • Eliminate Debt:  I have closed all of my credit card accounts except AMX and a gas card for emergencies. I am now using cash or my debit card for everything. If I don't have the money, I simply don't buy. I worked with a debt management company to negotiate lower interest rates and manageable payments on my outstanding balances. I remained diligent about chipping away the debt, making payments on-time and without fail, until it was gone. That was a joyous day! TIP: Use tax refunds or bonuses to pay down debt, and resist the temptation to go on a spending splurge.
  • Get Organized:   After my parents passed away my poor brother, as executor of their estate, was left with the overwhelming task of finalizing their estate. He spent months sorting it all out. Not wanting to leave my son with a similar mess one day, I have collected my financial information and important legal documents into one quick-reference file. I used a 3-ring binder for legal documents: birth certificate (you need at least two official copies), passport, Social Security information, will and final wishes, divorce papers, name change documents, etc. I have a second binder for all my banking, credit card and investment information, including account numbers, pins, passwords. This is especially important if you use electronic banking. Also include copies of your last two tax returns. Place all these documents into a fire- and flood-proof lock box with duplicate keys, and be sure a family member is aware of it and has access to it. You may also want to appoint a legal proxy, in case of an emergency.
  • Secure Health Insurance:  No more denial. Anyone over 55 must have health insurance. If you lose your job, buy the COBRA insurance coverage until you can get an individual policy (a lapse in coverage makes it harder to get covered again). According to the Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 86% of Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 have some type of pre-existing condition that could restrict their access to private health insurance coverage.  Be aware that the new Inclusive Health Federal Option Plan (if it still exists after the June Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Healthcare Act) may be your only insurance choice until age 65 when Medicare benefits kick in. I found this out the hard way. Between jobs and without insurance, two consecutive hospitalizations not only left me with more serious debt, but also  uninsurable.  Thank goodness I qualified for Inclusive Health coverage with a reasonable premium that paid for recent surgery - no questions asked.
  • Pay Off Your Mortgage:  In my younger days, I thought of my mortgage payment as "rent" because of frequent moves, and as an interest deduction opportunity on my taxes. Not so these days. Now I understand that if it isn't paid for, I don't really own it. The bank does. This means it is entirely possible to lose my home if I experience a financial set back (job loss, unexpected medical expenses, etc.). Instead of spending my inheritance on a bigger home or some other unnecessary luxury, I paid my mortgage in full. If nothing else, I'm assured of a place to live, and have something of real value to sell should the need arise. My house is money in the bank - MY bank.
  • Manage Inheritance Wisely:  If you are over age 55, you are most likely in line for a family inheritance in the near future. Be practical. Whether large or small, and despite the temptation to go on a spree when you receive gift money, consider real needs first. Pay off debt. Buy a short term CD. Drive your current car a couple more years. Consult with a financial advisor for advice on secure investments, tax protected opportunities and stable stocks and bonds. Your aim at this point should be security, not speculation. Whatever you decide to do, be sure you plan for future financial needs, rather than immediate gratification.
  • Learn to Live on a Budget:  Living on a fixed income is not what we hoped for in our Golden Years, but it is the new reality. Most of us will find it difficult, if not impossible, to cover our monthly expenses with Social Security benefits alone. Let's face it we've been spoiled. If you begin now, you'll be better prepared for what's next. TIP: As an experiment, track all your expenses and splurges for one month. Add up the total and compare it to your projected monthly Social Security benefit. Believe me, it's a shock. I've been doing this for the last six months. Each month I try to cut back a little more on my spending by doing things like passing up the drive-through window, entertaining at home more and dining out less, combining errands into one trip instead of half dozen mini-trips to save on gas. While I've cut my spending almost in half, I haven't reached my projected Social Security benefit. It's definitely a learning experience.
  • Find Ways to Generate Supplemental Income:  I have an energetic friend who happily adds several hundred dollars a month to her budget by baby sitting and pet sitting. Her clients love the security of  having a reliable, mature person in their home while they are away. Another friend, who loves negotiating and knows cars, helps people like me when it's time to buy or have major repair work done. The small fee he charges is more than covered by the savings I gain. He earns cash for extras. Tap into the old ingenuity instead of wallowing in gloom and doom. We were clever on the way up, and we are just as clever now!
  • Social Security Benefits:  There are pros and cons regarding early filing at age 62 for Social Security benefits. By waiting until age 66 or even 70, monthly payments will be slightly higher so you will receive a little more money each month. Also consider that once you start receiving benefits, you must adhere to guidelines that limit how much other income you can earn. You must understand that the amount of your Social Security benefit is based on the amount you contribute. Payments are based on the total dollar contribution, spread out over your remaining years. If you won't be contributing significantly going forward, there will not be a measurable increase in your benefit. After considering my current and projected work opportunities along with my financial and health status, I have opted for early filing, primarily to receive some consistent monthly income. When to file for Social Security is an individual decision. Weigh your options and make your decision based on your personal reality.
     With my finances organized and in a manageable state, I now have a solid foundation to stand on. Understanding personal finances are ever evolving, I have learned what seems secure today, could crumble tomorrow. I feel better prepared to handle the surprises. Taking these few important steps has eased my stress and provided a small sense of security. Now I can focus on the rest of my journey.

     Next week, STEP TWO: Reaching Out - My efforts to expand my social perimeter from the isolation of working at home to the world beyond.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Map the Journey. Follow the Map... And Your Heart

     I had a dream about rearranging furniture. 

     The room is stacked with bits and pieces. Chairs, tables, chests. Some worn and tattered, but made of good solid wood. Other pieces are slick and modern, but cheap, made of plastic or aluminum. I know I can make something out of the jumble. With some effort there can be a sense of order and purpose, a flow and function to the placement of things. Some of it will have to go, some will need patching and polish. I can see the possibilities. Somewhere in the clutter there is a place that welcomes, intrigues, comforts and functions with meaning. It will take some finesse and some vision, a little ingenuity. I have nothing but time.

     Could a dream be a more literal reflection of this very moment in my life? I sit here staring at my computer screen, contemplating, sorting through the many chapters of my history. I can't imagine what is next for me.
     By the time I was thirty, thanks to life as an Army brat and eventually a military spouse, I had lived on three continents, in eight of the US states. By forty-five I had traveled to 21 foreign countries and crossed all but ten state lines. I started my first job (wrapping gifts at the local department store) at age fifteen, and spent the next forty-seven years turning what talents I could cultivate into a means of survival in my ever changing world.
     As a single mom for many more years than I was a young wife, and eventually as a caregiver to aging parents, responsibility was my motivation, determination my fuel, a passion for challenge the igniting spark. Today, the spark seems to fizzle. The determination is half hearted. The responsibilities a dead weight on my shoulders.
     Still, the journey must go on. There is no alternative. In this blog I will map my future, and begin to follow my map, one step at a time. You can follow too and perhaps offer guidance, through my regular updates, as I venture forth into the next chapter, into the unknown. Its all new again at age sixty-two.

FIRST DRAFT MAP The First 10 Steps Toward the Rest of My Life:

  1. Get finances under control
  2. Reach out. You can't do this alone
  3. Learn something new (repeat as often as possible)
  4. Make time for regular physical activity
  5. Pay it forward
  6. Evaluate myself, lead with my strengths
  7. Find my niche
  8. Grow and prosper
  9. Laugh and love
  10. Rediscover contentment