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By Sandra J. Cohen and Roger Cormier

The eloquent and charismatic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen inspired millions of Americans via radio, television and books throughout the mid-20th century. Countless people tuned into his weekly TV show, “Life Is Worth Living,” to hear his views, to experience the warmth and passion in his piercing eyes and to reflect on the meaning and purpose of their lives. Each of us has been influenced by inspirational figures and our life’s experience, but how do we determine whether at the end of our own life it has been worth living?

The answer to that question comes more easily for some than others. For many it changes as life changes them. Dreams can lead to disillusionment and pain, and despair can lead to hope and fulfillment. Whether we believe in an eternal hereafter or life that ends at the grave, what do we want to have in our hearts and have given to the world when our time comes? How clear and satisfying is our answer to this ultimate personal and individual question at this time in our lives?

At one level, how things are going for us and how we are feeling can influence our goals in life. Urgent matters and demanding personal and work obligations may leave us little time to get in touch with our deepest and ultimate goals. On the other hand, how often we have heard the advice “Live each day as if it were your last” or “You know not the day nor the hour.”

We want to balance our activities with our values. If we cannot afford the time to go on a spiritual retreat to review our life and clarify our goals, we can make some time today or very soon to focus on these needs. Even in the midst of busy days, we can make this happen. For example, we can reflect on how we feel about our life and what we most deeply want while we’re driving or walking somewhere, without the sounds of music or cell phone chatter.

As important as this is, there is a time for every purpose under heaven, to quote the Old Testament and a song by Pete Seeger. Two songs on Tony Bennett’s album, “Duets,” remind us to balance the deep and purposeful with the light and even frivolous. “If I Ruled the World” reminds us that we really want our life to count and “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” encourages us to live in the moment and welcome the joys thereof.

At this point in your life’s journey, how would you assess the way it has gone so far? Your main values may be family and friends; career and calling; development of your talents and interests; contributing to community, social justice and the environment; living according to certain religious beliefs; kicking around and doing no harm; writing a book you feel the world needs; exploring the physical world and foreign cultures through travel; or only you know what else.

Are you happy with your goals? Do you want to make changes? Are you pleased to realize that overall you are satisfied and at peace? Or do you want to make it as much “our way” as “my way” going forward? If you ruled the world (your own or the outer one), how would you rule it? Are you havin’ any fun, son (or daughter)?

Life is about giving, receiving and coping. We are not all-powerful, but we can determine our hopes and attitude and give the world our all. As they say, today is the first day of the rest of our lives. How will our life be worth living?

 

By Sandra J. Cohen and Roger Cormier

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement,” Rachel Carson once wrote. “It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”

It is true that as we move into adulthood, we face challenges, assume responsibilities, suffer disappointments, and find our waking hours filled with adult tasks. Some claim that grown-ups who retain some childlike behaviors should grow up, yet they often marvel at, enjoy, maybe even envy those who live in the moment and approach life with playful abandon.

Ironically, many think today’s children are forced to grow up too soon because they are placed in so many structured activities and exposed to more of the adult world than they probably should be. On the other hand, people from adolescence through advanced ages don’t feel they can give themselves permission, in playwright Tom Stoppard’s words, to “carry your childhood with you.”

Like so many of life’s paradoxes, we can convert this seeming either-or into a both-and approach that enriches our lives at any chronological age or state of development.

Sure, we may be busy, responsible and engaged in career, family and community, but we don’t have to let worries and fears keep us from enjoying activities associated with being a kid. Consider some of the ways we can be childlike today. On her website, http://www.tinybuddha.com, Lori Deschene offers these suggestions:

LEARN: Fill out your own permission slip to go to the aquarium, a museum or a nearby tourist attraction. If something looks interesting, take a break and go!

PLAY: Be silly. Look for funny things in your day and let yourself laugh about them.

CONNECT: Make a spontaneous play date. Invite people over right now, for no reason but to have fun.

CREATE: Assume you’d be really good at something — piano, rock climbing, organizing a club — and then find out, instead of assuming the opposite.

BE: Relax and do nothing. Don’t try to fill that empty pocket of time. You’ve been productive enough. Kick back, cut loose and let yourself waste a little time.

IMAGINE: Visualize a tomorrow with endless possibilities.

“It is never too late to have a happy childhood,” writes novelist Tom Robbins. What childlike quality in you is ready and eager to enjoy today?

By Sandra Cohen and Roger Cormier

You can’t break your funny bone

He who laughs, lasts. — Anonymous

There is more than enough adversity and stress in the world and in our lives, but probably not enough laughter. Think about your most recent and other good laughs, and a smile will appear on your face. Laughter is good for us at any age or stage in life.

img_0831Studies have shown laughter can help reduce stress and pain, lower blood pressure, elevate mood, boost the immune system, improve brain functioning and protect the heart. It can connect us to others — we laugh 30 times more with others than alone — foster instant relaxation and make us feel good and be more open to others.

Author Missy Buchanan, in her book “Living With Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults,” recounted how much she loved visiting her mother in a senior residence at lunchtime. A group of tablemates, all limited by multiple medical conditions and disabilities, told each other story after story and laughed their way through their meal. That caused other diners to brighten up and enjoy their meal more, too.

Laughter is good medicine and it is contagious. Think about it. Even when we’re alone, when something funny tickles us, first our face lights up and we smile; then we laugh, sometimes out loud; and occasionally we need to dry our eyes and regain our composure. Often our first thought is to share that experience by calling or e-mailing someone or passing it along in person.

Speaking of e-mail, many of us regularly receive jokes and funny stories and pictures via the Internet. We may wonder who has time to think these things up and start them on their way around town, the nation and sometimes the world. Fortunately, people do make time for humor, even in our busy and stressful world. If we would like to laugh more, how can we make that happen?

We can spend more time with people who make us laugh and who enjoy our funny lines and stories. Include more humor in our entertainment — reading, films, radio and television. Think back to funny experiences and swap them with others. Revisit the same image or story, and discover even more nuances that will tickle your ribs.

Studies show health-related benefits of laughter. Links to laughter web sites and laughter groups in North America and elsewhere: http://www.laughteryogaamerica.com/maps/; http://laughteronlineuniversity.com; http://laughteryoga.org

Roger-Sandy

By Sandra J. Cohen and Roger Cormier

One day we saw an older man finishing a walk around a local reservoir with friends. From a distance only the words “I survived” stood out on the back of his T-shirt. We assumed it referred to his completion of a challenging run or walk. But it also occasioned some reflection on what it means to survive.

As we get older, we look back and recognize that we have survived in many ways. We remain physically alive thanks to a combination of genes, circumstances, luck and care. We have withstood and even grown through physical, emotional and financial losses. Our identity and roles in career, family and community have changed. Dreams have shattered and loved ones have been lost, and here we are finishing another walk or run around the reservoir of life.

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Why do those T-shirts always proclaim survival? We can just as well wear the message “I thrive.” Think about it. At any point in our lives, we both survive and thrive in different ways. Retirees struggle with the loss of their work identity, but they pursue new interests, activities and relationships. Elderly people lose some mobility, but apply themselves to new expressions and experiences such as watercolor painting or travel.

We don’t tend to advertise on T-shirts, however, when our lives take a nose dive from the pain and disorientation of such events as losing a loved one, feeling betrayed by someone we trusted, or sustaining a big financial loss or a serious medical event or illness. We go inward, do our grieving, accept support and understanding from people close to us, and emerge to test the waters in a vulnerable yet hopeful way.

The reservoir in this story can remind us that beneath our surviving is always a reserve, a source that calls forth untapped spiritual potential to thrive and move forward. Some seniors live in the past. Others fear the future. Many thrive in the now with gratitude, hope and commitment to themselves and others.

On a different, glorious, sunny day, we experienced a park with water cascading from every direction into crystal-clear lakes with fish visibly swimming everywhere. It reminded us that if we are stuck at the surviving end of life’s continuum, we can experience moments of surprise, wonder and awe that can inspire us to extend ourselves and thrive in ways we might dare to imagine.

The man at the reservoir met and celebrated his challenge. What waters will each of us allow to carry us to our next stage of living, learning, loving and laughing?

Roger-Sandy

By Sandra J. Cohen and Roger Cormier

Now that we have the prospect of living at least 20 to 30 more years than previous generations, how can we prepare for and use those years? Our choices are no longer limited to work, then retirement; good health, then quick decline and death; expanding horizons, then sunset and darkness. Whether we are in our 40’s, 60’s or 80’s, we can choose to grow, contribute and thrive within ourselves, socially, and in a world hungry for what we can offer.

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People of any age can take a fresh look at their bag of tricks, and add a few for opportunities and challenges on the road ahead. Retirement no longer is either/or regarding work or involvement in the community. Health is not solely a function of our genes. The world’s problems are not only for the next generations to solve.

Organizations such as Second Journey (www.secondjourney.org) encourage and gather people who are creatively aging or who are working with and dedicated to such people. This online organization helps aging people find their untapped potential for growth and for social, civic and environmental engagement.

Aging advocates such as psychiatrist Gene D. Cohen suggest such tools as a social portfolio, analogous to a financial portfolio, to build up and diversify interests, activities and involvements for active and satisfying aging, and for the prospect of reduced mobility, energy and social interaction in one’s advanced years. His book, “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life,” offers some why’s and how’s toward this goal.

Not all people want to continue to work when they reach a financially viable retiring point. For those who avoid change, anything new and different makes them uncomfortable. Some are skeptical toward people who choose new paths and involvements in their later years, and they assume that such joie de vivre is possible only for people who have been lucky to live “the good life.” Security and familiarity remain the top values for some, even if they are bored, bitter and bereft of purpose and people in their lives.

What a shame it would be if we failed to respond to the gift of prospective longer lives with wide-eyed anticipation. Whatever our personal history, we can choose to enrich and deepen our own and others’ lives today and throughout our time to come. Today truly is the first day of the rest of our lives, a good day to revisit our life ahead with fresh eyes.

Roger-Sandy

By Sandra Cohen and Roger Cormier

Older people often are widowed after decades of a life together. Although each widow’s or widower’s grieving is unique, many, at first, find their life and emotions in shatters. If they seek guidance and support, they are advised that grieving eases up only after the hard work of experiencing painful feelings, letting go of the past and re-engaging in life.

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However, each grieving person’s path is different. Their emotional makeup and the nature of their lost relationship combine with consolations, discoveries and sometimes unexpected opportunities. To a newly widowed person, life may feel only sad and scary. After some grieving and connecting, it may start to feel more hopeful. Some invest more in previous interests and involvements like hobbies or volunteering. Others meet someone who becomes their new life partner.

When we are close to someone who suffers the loss of his or her spouse, it is important to impose no general judgments about their feelings, behaviors and decisions. One person may be reconciled to their loss because their partner is no longer suffering after a long, painful illness. Another may fall apart and become angry and bitter because the death cheated them and their spouse of long anticipated plans for retirement.

Occasionally a recently widowed person is attracted to and forms a deep, loving relationship with someone not terribly long after losing his or her spouse. Some of the family and friends might feel such an action was too soon in consideration of the deceased partner’s memory. Others might recognize that the newly widowed person never had a deep, close relationship with the late partner. The new pair deserves a chance to become a happy match.

Some widowed people, very engaging and enjoyable in the eyes of those who know them, always had close friends and much involvement with their family. Although they continue to share and spend time with people close to them, they also continue to miss their spouse every day for years. They could not imagine meeting and wanting to partner with anyone else compared to what they had with their spouse.

Because of our mortality, it is paramount to live every day as fully and lovingly as possible with our partners. It also is important that our life include more than just our partner’s closeness and companionship. Each person and couple work toward their unique, healthy, happy balance. When one of them is left behind by death, the bereaved person needs to work toward a new balance with understanding and support from the other people in her or his life.

 

Roger-Sandy

Sandra Cohen and Roger Cormier

Seniors and younger baby boomers often find themselves torn between wanting to address the big picture of people and planet problems, and getting through days filled with too many tasks, choices and decisions. How can we resolve this dilemma?

Comparing ourselves with people who are featured in the media for chucking a career and starting an amazingly innovative and effective medical, social or environmental program can be very discouraging. Putting ourselves down because we barely get our work and domestic activities done, and cannot even find time to volunteer in our community will make matters worse. Resolving to stop thinking about it may make us feel guiltier.

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We sometimes hear exhortations like “Follow your passion or your heart’s delight and you’ll find your role in the world and your own personal happiness.” Yes, we can pay more attention to what makes us feel good about ourselves and alive to our experience. But how can we be sure that such attentiveness will help reveal who we really are and how we can contribute and make a difference in a world full of so much injustice, suffering and waste of the gifts of the earth?

Talking about it with a professional or personal friend can help. Putting it aside at times can give us much needed relief. However, a good option is to consider a few ways to contribute that speak to our personal values and financial resources. Examples might include:

  • Empower people and communities in situations of poverty, illiteracy, disease or social injustice by making a micro loan to a person or group to help them start a business or resolve a community infrastructure problem (Examples of microfinance organizations: Finca International – http://www.finca.org; Kiva – http://www.kiva.org).
  • Contribute to supporting the education of young people in a third world country (Example of a nonprofit organization that accepts donations for scholarships: Journeys Within Our Community (Cambodia) – http://www.journeyswithinourcommunity.org/sponsor-a-scholarship-student
  • Name in your will one or more nonprofits, whose missions and outcomes appeal to you.

As they say, “Try it, you’ll like it.” It may help you resolve guilt and uncertainty about the nagging question: “What more can and will I do to share my resources and improve the world?” What’s more, you can always add, subtract or change your initial commitments as other needs and opportunities come to the fore in your awareness and your heart.

Roger-Sandy

By Sandra Cohen & Roger Cormier

We overheard a woman telling a friend she had literally taken a leap of faith off a platform. The friend commented that it also took faith to mount that platform because it was shaky. The literal leap may have been a bungee jump or a ride along a cable above a jungle canopy. However, we found ourselves thinking about figurative leaps of faith that may or may not be physical or visible.

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The common meaning of “leap of faith” is believing in a truth without evidence. What struck us about the leaper above is that she believed and took a risk that at the end of the bungee or cable ride her adrenaline rush would pay off in a safe and very memorable outcome.

Whatever your age and stage of life, you probably have taken leaps of faith. In fact, such leaps are what enable us to grow older rather than just get older. Whether or not your leaps were physical and dramatic, they were by definition risky because the desired outcomes were not assured. In fact, the last state could have been worse than the first.

The shaky platform referred to above struck us as much as the woman’s leap. It seems that whenever we take a leap of faith, we do so from the platforms of our lives, which always are a little shaky. Even a fairly stable life platform does not prevent our legs from shaking when we feel invited or even compelled to leap into the unknown.

As we move into 2016, it may be the right time to consider our next leap of faith. It may have to do with our work, relationships with others or with ourselves, our health, travel, encounters with nature, or a long held dream or a brand new interest.

If you have not taken a leap of faith in a while, ask yourself why. Recall the feelings and outcomes of a previous happy leap.

Choose a leap that you feel optimistic and excited about.

Gauge how much resolve you feel and how much encouragement and support you need. Get feedback and backing from someone who is familiar with the shakiness of your platform and will celebrate with you when you land.

If you feel more like a procrastinator than a risk taker, accept the side of you that may feel like postponing your leap, but affirm the side that wants to move ahead and broaden your world.

Take one leap at a time. Get familiar with your changed world before taking your next leap.

Whatever your age and current attitude and outlook, as you entertain a possible leap of faith, remember the exhortation: Do what you have to do, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are.

Happy leap and happy landing!

 

“Don’t get all weird about getting older! Our age is merely the number of years the world has been enjoying us!!” (from a “Maxine” cartoon)

People often forward funny cartoons and stories via email to family and friends about people who are getting older – as in active senior citizens or frail elders. That is partly because it is easier to laugh about our aging than to just dread it.

We have been writing about growing older since the other side of senior citizen status. For us, probably the biggest change is that we retired five years ago and have been enjoying international living and travel with no serious health problems ever since.

Having created and run home care and geriatric care management companies, we are familiar with the impact of frail physical health and memory loss on aging individuals and their families. This perhaps is what most people fear as they move toward later life. It not only is painful and frightening to the affected senior, but it often dominates and diminishes the lives of primary family caregivers.

Another dreaded event is the loss of one’s treasured life partner. After deeply sharing life for decades, it is difficult to even imagine living without the partner. Adjusting to such a loss takes persevering courage, time, and patient support from people close to a grieving partner.

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We have always used the expression “growing” rather than “getting” older. That is because we believe it is critical to live our later lives, just as our earlier lives, with emphasis on positive activities and attitudes rather than passive fixation on what we might lose or fear. Fortunately, we have been blessed to have outstanding role models in this regard. We know many people who, in spite of diminished physical capacities and sometimes tragic loss, have continued to explore the world through travel, creative hobbies, volunteer service and dedication to their family and friends.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, a friend of ours (Tom Stella, corporate chaplain for a health care organization in Colorado) emailed “A Pledge for Grateful Living written by Benedictine brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB, in which he encourages us to overcome those aspects of life that hold us back from living not only gratefully, but generously, creatively, non-violently, and courageously. When our lives are characterized by the virtues he espouses, our living becomes a thanks giving.”

Tom concludes his Thanksgiving message by encouraging us to “live with abandon, taste all of life, savor the sweet and the sour. Bon appetite!”

Roger-Sandy

Sandra J. Cohen and Roger Cormier

As we grow older, we hope to grow wiser. One of life’s lessons, that two heads (or hearts or souls) are better than one, remains important in later life. These examples suggest the many wise ways we can grow by putting our heads together at any age:

-Life partners: Why do we tend to match up for life with someone who is so different from us? After infatuation comes the hard work of building a relationship with some-one whose personality and idiosyncrasies, and perhaps to some extent values, often conflict with our own. What a relief it is when we discover that compromising with or even adopting some of our partner’s perspective can add to the quality of our life. This can be helpful in countless ways from hanging pictures on a wall and choosing vacation destinations to handling adversity and opening ourselves to life’s simple joys and deepest mysteries.

"Just married"

“Just married”

-Family: An old saying reminds us that we can’t pick our family. We are born into it. From sibling rivalry to differences in chosen values and lifestyle, most of us are closer to some family members than others. Whether we’re best friends or have contact only at family events, we can learn from each other in matters of cuisine, culture, career, child rearing, politics, hobbies, retirement planning and more.

In families, there are ties that bind. Families often come together out of common love for an older relative to make difficult elder care decisions. Blending diverse perspectives and concerns often leads to mutual enlightenment, a truer picture of the elder’s best interests and more successful decisions.

-Friends: There is no deadline for forming and nurturing friendships. Many older adults have lifetime soul mates and continue to make friends at advanced ages. How do your friends complement your interests and needs? How often do you visit or communicate by phone, e-mail or mail? How much untapped potential is there for encouraging, advising and entertaining each other?

Friends come and go throughout our lives. Many people in their 80s and 90s have lost, in many cases outlived, most of their friends as well as families. Yet they sometimes welcome new friendships as if there were no tomorrow. As we often hear, all we really have is our present moment.

Memories by definition are from our past, and anticipation reminds us of our uncertain future. Friends can share some of our memories and aspirations, but more importantly, they can engage us today. They can help fill us up, go the extra mile or rest in the shade. They can help make us whole and receive what we have to give. The same is true for family and life partners, as well as people we work with or serve. Two sets of heads, hearts and souls are better than one.