When someone starts talking about preparing for old age, most people think about finances, RSPs, and maybe physical accessibility issues. Workplaces offer workshops on it, your banker (if you have one) is preoccupied by it. In the past, there wasn’t really very much old age after retirement. But here in my mid-50s, I am thinking about my old age in a wholly different way. I am thinking of the way I want to live, be cared for, and die.
Now, I have noticed, as I am sure you have, that this is not the topic of polite conversation at most dinner parties. So, this winter, when I heard about an opportunity to discuss just this topic with other people who were interested in it, I lept at it. The course was offered in Montreal by Janet Torge, of Radical Resthomes, and the topics covered were: what don’t you want for your old age, what do you want, what’s out there and where to find it, what are you bringing to the table (finances, skills, other resources) and what happens when you or someone you are living with or very near, gets sick or dies. It was a well-structured course that I recommend if you are interested in this topic.
Back in the day, most folks retired around 65 and died 10-15 years later. This is no longer the case; folks live into their eighties–that’s 20 years or more of… what? So, yes, it is important to think about finances and to plan to have enough to live our extra-long lives in a reasonable fashion. AND, yes, it doesn’t look like the next generation is going to have the dosh to take care of us, so it would be a good idea to think about financing beyond your presumed pension (if you are lucky enough to have one!). But it ain’t the only thing to prepare for yourself and your retirement and old age.
What about preparing yourself for retiring from your work community? How will you stay socially active and fit if you don’t see your colleagues every day? Or if you have children or a partner and s/he/they are still around, what will you do when they are gone and you no longer have to make those little social adjustments that you do now without noticing them? I think of those adjustments as the movement of social proprioception muscles. Proprioception is the sense of how our bodies are positioned in space and you can experience it easily by trying this little activity: stand on one foot and notice all the action in the standing leg muscles. That is your body practicing staying upright in space. Now, imagine that you are living with your child or your partner and all the small things that you do to keep the relationship on an even keel–a little touch here, an offer to make dinner there, a noticing that the light is not as bright as usual in those beloved eyes, etc. Those are your social proprioception muscles at work. OK, now imagine that you don’t have that daily practice. That some days you don’t even leave the house, now that you don’t have to go to work and you did the shopping yesterday. And imagine that those social muscles get a little slacker every day without meaningful contact with others. And that is not even taking into account our human need to be seen and appreciated ourselves!
Research is impressively clear about very little, but about living in some kind of defined community, it is clear. And what that literature says is that we live better, happier and healthier lives when we are in community. That doesn’t require you to join a commune, although you might want to. It just suggests that you might want to think about what kind of community you want to spend your old age in. Do you want to be surrounded by people your own age or do you see yourself as a part of a multi-generational community? Do you want to be in a multi-cultural setting or be with people who look more like you and share your cultural norms? An organized community or not? What do you NOT want? What do you want?
Thinking about this when you have taken the plunge into retirement may be too late. Thinking about how you nourish yourself now may give you insight into how you want to nourish yourself later. Do you want to live alone? Do you want to live in your own space, but in a community, intentional or improvised? The city or the country? Do you want to have input and agency into your community or be taken care of? How, and by whom, do you want to be cared for when you are sick, and where do you want to be cared for? How do you want to end your days.
New movements about having an end-of-life medical plan more detailed than simply a DNR are coming to the fore. We have never been taught to have these difficult conversations. What better time than now to learn to have them?