What’s Going On In Your Head?

Barbara Morris

Passage of the Social Security Act in the 1930s did more  than institutionalize retirement. It also set into motion the gradual development of a leisure oriented retirement mindset and lifestyle that has become the norm and model for the retirement years. In my opinion, that model is the worst thing that has happened to healthy older people because a leisure oriented lifestyle for older individuals is deadly. The mind and body, regardless of age, are not designed to luxuriate in leisure as a lifestyle. The old cliche, “use it or lose it” is much more than a cliche — it’s reality.

A “given” of the traditional retirement model is that once you get to your 40s you have reached  “middle age” and at that time you are expected to accept and put into practice established ways of thinking and living that gradually lead to decline. In more ways than you can imagine, you are primed to start accepting that you are a senior. Let’s make certain we understand the meaning and effect of the word “senior”: No matter how you massage the definition to make it sound better,  “senior” means “old”. Once you accept and internalize that you are a senior, your goose is cooked. The good news is that you DON’T have to accept and adopt the established model.

Each decade after the 40s has its own unique senior oriented norms to be followed if the traditional model is to be adhered to. Friends, relentless media messaging of all kinds encourage you to adopt the mindset and lifestyle that has been established for your particular decade. Remember, you don’t have to accept and adopt the traditional model for the retirement years. It may be difficult, but you CAN do it.

The early years of leisure oriented retirement are the honeymoon years. You finally get to do all the things you dreamed of doing while slaving away at your work. It’s Nirvana on steroids. You become so in love with your new freedom that you don’t realize the “retirement virus” has invaded your thinking and lifestyle.  That virus causes you to prefer leisure over effort. Unfortunately, you don’t have a clue that you have the “infection” that is causing decline.

If you have family around you, they probably see the decline — halting speech, slow recall, slower movement, and without telling you that they see you are declining, they start to do for you those tasks you had been able to do before, and but for your lifestyle choice, you probably would still be able to do. While you may deny your edge is gone, you realize you are not as sharp as you used to be and gratefully accept whatever help is offered.  And the decline continues.

Much “retirement decline”, particularly mental deterioration, can be avoided or delayed if you have the courage to live and think “out of the box” and find a  more growth oriented way to live in the retirement years. According to investigators at the University of Texas at Dallas,  mentally challenging activities are key to maintaining a healthy aging mind.

Lead investigator Dr. Denise Park said, “…we are cautiously optimistic that age-related cognitive decline can be slowed or even partially restored if individuals are exposed to sustained, mentally challenging experiences.” What she is affirming  is that if you don’t use your skills,  you are going to lose them.

So, as you look forward to retirement, or are already retired, and want to retain youthful mental and physical abilities, dare to break away from the traditional retirement thinking and lifestyle. Enjoy your retirement with a healthy dose of reality. Travel, play golf, tennis, or whatever. Just remember to exercise consistently and expose your mind to sustained, mentally challenging, even demanding  experiences. Having a job or doing work that requires you to produce and be accountable is an excellent way to keep your brain sharp and flexible. You will avoid becoming a clueless traditional debilitated little old or man or little old lady a lot longer.

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