Many boomer men and women share the "homeless guy" or "bag lady" fantasy -- that there is no future for us beyond "retirement" age. Coupled with increased longevity, reduced savings and dwindling income, many of us are also caring for our own parents, as well as our grown kids. From the trenches, our future may seem very uncertain, and in our worst dreams, we wind up alone, poor, just scraping to get by, living on an inadequate social security stipend, abandoned by friends and family.
As Paul McCartney wrote: "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?"
But it doesn't have to be that way. Rather than looking at the last act of our lives as a downward slide into powerlessness, loneliness and abandonment, we can start to pave the way right now for a rich old age full of meaning, connections, support, love and caring.
How can we use the five reinvention steps for boomers to prevent the "alone, helpless and abandoned" fantasy?
1. Reframe! While our physical vitality will certainly slow down with age, we are not our bodies or our physical capabilities. We are much more valuable for our experience and our wisdom -- and for sharing our understanding with the rest of the (younger) population all around us. Maya Angelou was a great example of someone who discovered new insights about life as she got older. Her celebration of, and enthusiasm for her old age was inspiring and infectious. Rather than see ourselves in a downward spiral, we can reframe our reality to revel in what we know about life, and in our ability to share our learning with others. Recognizing what we've learned, and our gratitude for all of our experiences, can help turn old, limiting beliefs into optimism and appreciation.
2. Listen! We want to be the old person that everyone seeks out because they can talk to us. Our compassionate, focused listening ability allows people to open up to us. As older people, we want to be warm and cuddly, not brittle and off-putting. Making ourselves available as heart-centered listeners sets this process in motion, and draws people to us. Paradoxically, listening more and saying less makes us seem smarter. As we get older, we may be tempted to "teach" others from our all-knowing perspective, but this is exactly the wrong approach, and the easiest way to close off communication. People are more likely to turn to us and to seek us out if they sense that we're interested in hearing them without imposing our own agenda. As Theodore Roosevelt said: "Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care."
3. Accept! As we get older, let's embrace our age. Let's accept our physical slow-down with grace and humor. Forget where you put your phone? Rather be home in bed by 10:00 PM on a Saturday night? This is everyone's fate -- right? Some of us will be more fortunate than others in being able to sustain our health and energy, but we all have a choice about our attitude, and how we project ourselves out into the world. Let's just agree right now that we're going to roll with it and make the best of it. Let's try to keep the complaining and the drama to a minimum. If we manage to stay positive or philosophical, or at least laugh at ourselves, those around us will welcome our engagement and equanimity instead of dismissing us for being burdensome victims. Remarkably, we will get more and better care and attention from those around us by soldiering on valiantly, versus playing the "woe is me" card -- which will make everyone want to run away from us.
4. Express! We need to feed our souls as much as we need to feed our bodies. Many if not most of us have been on an all-consuming treadmill for many years: career, family, relationships. As our responsibilities have expanded, we've had to narrow our focus to keep up with whatever curve ball life throws our way. We have most likely not taken the time to realize how much we've grown and changed over the years. Our experiences, good and bad, have shaped who we are today, and given us a springboard for identifying who we want to be and what we want to be doing down the road. Let's not forget to take the time to reflect on our inner potential. Why not carve a little time out of the week to think proactively about our future? Keep a note pad (or a set of note cards) to jot down ideas -- a business you've always thought about starting, ways in which you could simplify your life, new experiences you intend to explore...
5. Connect! There is one single word, one single practice, that binds the previous four steps together in a strategy that will completely prevent the "alone and abandoned" fantasy from ever materializing. That word is "service." Is there anything more inspiring than the vision of an older person devoting their life to helping others? We may not all be Mother Teresa, but just think about how powerful her image (her "brand" if you will) was while she was alive. What an icon she was. And it was all based on her selflessness in service to those less fortunate. We don't have to set our sites so high. But we need to get into the habit now of spending time engaged in service to others, volunteering in our community (whether at work, at home, or in the neighborhood). Connecting with people on this level is essential to our longevity and to our success. Being of service, mentoring others, providing assistance for its own sake -- this is the ultimate magnet that draws people to us, gives us a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, and helps transcend every other material concern that we might have. Being of service doesn't require any particular training or certification -- it's based on who we are and our willingness to just show up.
If we get all this right while we're still relatively young and fully productive, then by the time we reach old age, we will be living truly authentic lives, riding along on the momentum that we've begun to generate now. Imagine being the open, engaged, playful grandparent that you either had as a kid, or wished your cranky/grumpy/distant grandparent could have been. If you can focus ahead, and set your intention to wake up engaged and ... yes, grateful each day, imagine keeping that going all the way up to the very end.