This month a new feature is added to the Put Old on Hold Newsletter: An advice column written by The Know-It-All Sisters, Mary Lloyd and Barbara Morris. It is the only advice column on the planet (well, okay, maybe not) that provides “been there and done that” guidance exclusively for boomers and beyond.
You may recall that a couple of months back readers were asked what they needed or wanted to successfully navigate the roiling waters of advancing age and did we ever get replies!
Mary and Barbara are eminently qualified to help because between the two of them — Mary a boomer and Barbara an older ageless diva — they know what it takes to take the bite out of “getting on”.
So, to kick things off, Sister Mary and Sister Barbara respond to a reader’s question about dealing with fear.
This Month The Know-It-All Sisters Received This Request For Advice From “City Mouse”:
“You asked what the biggest challenges are as we age. For me, it’s fear. I’m afraid that I will live longer than my money. I’m afraid I will get cancer like my mom. I don’t go out for fear I will get mugged if I go out to a movie by myself. I’m afraid of many things that didn’t bother me when I was younger. Does getting older make you afraid? I hope not because living this way is very unhappy.”
Dear City Mouse,
With our cultural mindset about “getting older” it’s easy to become more fearful as we age. But it’s not something you want to buy in on. Fear serves an important purpose in our lives when used properly. Too often these days, what we’re worrying about isn’t the right stuff.
With so many media alternatives, many of the messages that make us worry come from something external—TV shows that warn about an infinitesimal cancer risk as if succumbing to it is inevitable, insurance companies that want to sell you long-term care insurance, etc. So start weeding your fear garden by getting rid of the things you’re worrying about that came from people who tell you about the “danger” so they can sell you something.
Next, look at how much your assumptions about aging are feeding your fears. The notion that you will unavoidably become a victim at some point simply because you’re getting older is baloney. No one has to be a victim. But the cultural expectations around getting older make that look like the only option. It’s not. You can stay strong and active as long as you choose but you’re going to need to put some effort into it. (Barbara’s reply gives you a lot of ideas on this.)
Once you get rid of all the garbage other people encourage you to be afraid of and all the stuff that you can make go away just by looking at the life you have room to live more realistically, you have a more manageable set of fears to deal with. Embrace them. Fear is part of life and the gateway to new adventures and achievements.
It’s good to be afraid sometimes. Fear in its effective form engenders one of two reactions—fight or flight. Either you take action to repel the source of danger or you take action to get away from it. Just stewing in the fear instead, worrying but not taking any action, isn’t healthy or useful. Don’t do that. If it’s not something you can do something about, being fearful of it will just stress you into being sick.
So that’s your last bit of “weeding”–do something about your remaining fears. My mom used to use the phrase “What’s the percentage in that?” What she meant was “how likely is that to happen?” Figure out how likely what you’re worrying about is to happen. Once you know that, it’s easy to let go of the ones that aren’t very likely.
If you can’t find a way to confirm how big what you’re worrying about really is, get some help. Ask your doctor, lawyer, accountant, minister—whoever would have the relevant insight–to help you decide. If it is a big deal, the next step is to define effective action to either avoid it now or deal with it when it happens. An example of the first is spending less to be sure you have enough to live on later. And example of the second is identifying a lower-cost living arrangement—like taking in a roommate or living with a family member—that you can resort to if it does happen.
Too often our fears come from failing to look at all the options that are really out there. You may be right to think you won’t be able to keep up your two acres of gardens and five-bedroom house when you’re in your nineties, but do you need to worry? Will you want to keep living there then? Or living there alone? Take the time to brainstorm a list of solutions rather than grabbing the first thing you come up with. Knowing you have a “Plan B” reduces worry considerably.
Fear has another important benefit besides avoiding danger. When you do something you’re afraid of, you increase your self esteem and expand your world. Eleanor Roosevelt was onto something when she advised “Do at least one thing every day that scares you.” It helps to start small. When you conquer your little fears, dealing with the bigger worries becomes doable. Plus your new adventures reawaken your excitement in being alive.
It’s not a case of never being afraid. Be authentically afraid. Manage what you let yourself be afraid of. Use your fear to help you go places you haven’t gone yet and do things you still want to do. Ignore the fake fears that come from people who want to sell you stuff. Don’t’ buy in on the stereotype of “old.” Take action (fight or flight). Don’t stew in you fear. Your life will re-blossom. After a while, you might have trouble finding that one thing to do that you’re afraid of every day.
Sister Barbara Says:
Dear City Mouse,
Does getting older make you afraid? it can and often does, but it doesn’t have to.
To combat fear it’s important to understand that fear is viral and it can be contagious. It spreads through observation, association, as well as though subliminal and overt cultural messaging about the perils and pitfalls of aging.
We are all aware of stories about horrible things that happen to old people and as time goes on we worry that some (or all) of those things will happen to us. The “It’s going to happen” prediction leaves you not feeling in control, and fear is the result.
The antidote to fear is knowledge, toughness, determination, and preparation. Until you are certifiably non compos mentis, don’t be afraid of anything. Yes, as we get older we become more fragile mentally and physically but that doesn’t mean we should be fearful about living. Getting older simply requires that we apply more experience-based common sense to how we go about our business. Know yourself; be honest about who and what you really are, and what you are capable of. Ignore cultural “group think” about what you OUGHT to be like or what you should be doing, or what you should or should not be afraid of based on your age.
Let’s get to some specific concerns:
About outliving your money: It’s a real worry, especially if inflation destroys the value of savings and investments. If you are mentally and physically able (and don’t sell yourself short in the “able” department) try to find a job so you don’t have to dip into savings too much. Having a job is also a benefit because it leaves you with less time to entertain your fears and mentally keeps you on your toes. Please don’t allow your ego to keep you from working at something for which you are “over qualified.” By being open to new experiences you may find work that will open up a completely new fulfilling world you never dreamed existed.
One great way to increase net worth is to get rid of things you no longer need. How much “junk” have you accumulated over the years? Much of it may be valuable and have “antique” status. Get it appraised, and consider selling it, not just for the money but also to simplify your life. Having “stuff” can be stressful even when it represents good memories. Getting rid of it can be liberating, not just for you but also for those who may have to deal with it after your demise. Your heirs may throw away things that have value that could have been sold and the money used while you were alive. And speaking of heirs, don’t give up a decent lifestyle in order to leave them a windfall. They can fend for themselves as you did.
About health fears: The reality is you may or may not get cancer — or any other deadly disease. Being fearful will not prevent it from happening. Prepare — while you are in reasonably decent health, educate yourself about good health practices and implement them. Decide now how you intend to deal with unforeseen illness, and then get on with living.
About fear of harm: It’s a crazy world we live in and it’s wise to recognize it. Use common sense. Do you really need to go out to see a movie? Rent one and enjoy it at home with friends while having a glass or two of wine or beer. You can get as tipsy as you like and just plop into bed and you won’t get a ticket for driving drunk. But look — you shouldn’t become a hostage in your own home. Enroll in a self-defense course–you are not too old to learn how to defend yourself.
And speaking of driving, sober or otherwise, many older people develop a fear of driving because they recognize their reaction time is not as keen as it used to be. If you are still in driving condition, now is the time to get a software program that will help sharpen your driving skills. PositScience (positsicience.com) has a variety of brain fitness programs that are excellent. They are a bit pricey but a worthwhile investment. Perhaps you can share the cost with a friend. If you live in a retirement community that provides recreational services, ask them to sponsor a brain fitness program. It’s far more beneficial than playing bingo or bird watching.
Don’t allow fear to disable your life. As long as you have your wits about you, you have free will and the ability to make choices. Adopt a spunky “to hell with it” attitude and get on with living as you know you are capable of doing.
Claim your power and your right to live free of irrational controlling fear. Go the extra mile to face your fears; you will emerge more confident and in charge of a fulfilling life and be a blessing to others.
About the Know-It-All Sisters:
Mary Lloyd and Barbara Morris are ageless know-it-alls having lived long enough and acquired enough common sense and experience to mind not only their own business but everybody else’s. (No, the Sisters are not affiliated with any religious order.) They are eager to tell you what to do and how to live. Just ask. You may not be pleased with the advice, but hey, it’s free!
Mary Lloyd is author of Supercharged Retirement. Barbra Morris publishes the Put Old on Hold Newsletter and is author of several books, her most recent being I Don’t Wanna Be My Mother