Things I’ve learned in the first four years of being in my sixties
Trigger warning: these are my opinions. Take them for what they are, personal observations
We’re living longer, or we’re not. It is the conundrum of life, that we can’t be certain as individuals when we’re going. But we are, as a society, living longer. Those days of reaching 65 and automatically retiring no longer make sense. In fact, retiring can be fatal. If the first third of your life takes you through the first thirty years and the next third gets you to sixty, then you’ve likely reached the third third. And you’ve been around enough to know that old age as our parents knew it is farther out than it used to be. We have to have a completely different set of plans and goals if we are to fully enjoy these times. Unfortunately many of us are not equipped by society to take full advantage of this time. These observations are my take on things you need to think about to enjoy your third third of life. And maybe make it to the fourth third!
Time to break things
Let’s take stock. If you have kids, they’re presumably on their own. If they’re not, kick them out- this time of life is when we get to own our life as an adult. This is part of what should be liberating- taking away the need to fulfill roles. Too many people constricted their behavior to fit the models of what they think they should be. Letting go of those constrictions can be very challenging, but also very liberating. Sell the family home. Move into a different neighborhood or city (or country!). Here’s a hard one: let some of your toxic friends go. How do you tell? What are they bringing to the friendship as opposed to what they are taking?
Harsh? Only briefly. But be clear about your reasons for changes when asked. This clarity is something you should consider and be prepared to talk about, because it will force you to evaluate. Which is actually what this diatribe is about. Reassessment. One of the things about that second third I mentioned earlier is that we usually don’t have much time to assess things. We’re too busy. You don’t have to be too busy right now, in fact you need to learn how to be less busy in the ways you were. There are things you can do now, that really weren’t possible before.
We need to redefine how we think about work. First, to be clear, let’s assume we have at least 30 more years on this planet. This is not the time to stop working, but it is the time to drop the things that you really don’t find rewarding. That does not mean parking yourself on the couch and eating bon-bons. It means seriously thinking about what kind of work you’d really like to do and the kind of work you’re really good at. One reality of getting older in our society is that we gradually become underutilized. It’s patronizing but often, in the workplace, older people get pushed into less challenging work. If that is your circumstance you really need to recalculate.
Have you ever assessed your skillset? You’ve got at least sixty years of skills development, so there are certainly some well-developed ones, including some you may not acknowledge. Mine include writing, marketing, meditation, house painting (!), cooking, physical training, a lot of business experience, etc. If you can’t do this kind of analysis, consider finding a life coach. They should not know you. It’s going to take some objectivity to help you see yourself, not unlike therapy. I can promise that you know more than you think. I’m not talking about information, I’m talking about experience, the kind of experience that embeds itself into you on a subconscious level. That’s the definition of skilled.
I’m going to keep this short because it is not a major factor for me personally. I take pills for blood pressure that is genetic, but they have no discernible side effects. I wish this was the case for all of my friends. If you’ve been on the same meds for years, please get a medical and/or psychiatric opinion regarding the entire cocktail you’re taking. This should come from a professional who was not the person or persons who prescribed the drugs. It is not uncommon for there to be interactions between meds that you are not aware of. I’m not suggesting dropping things, which can be dangerous. I am suggesting wholistically evaluating the things you’re putting into your system, in terms of clarity. Clarity really helps you navigate aging. By the way, I include drinking and other self-medicating, in this. Overindulging does a number on clarity. I know this from personal experience.
Health and the myth of exercise
This is the big one for a lot of people. If you’re entering your sixties with health problems, you’re not alone. I happen to be in good shape (knock on wood) but I never smoked and I’ve become a gym rat (more on that in a few). I’m also thin, which is genetic. I don’t eat sugar but I like martinis, which pretty much turn into carbs the second they hit your system. But I’ve gotten systematic about certain routines that I work at to keep things the way they are (excepting those martinis- they’ve got to go). Fortunately, you’re more likely to have the time now to work on some of this stuff.
As I’ve written about previously, I no longer own a car which means I walk a lot. I average around 4–5 miles daily. I really like walking and when the weather is crappy, I miss it. You don’t have to do 5 miles a day but even doing 2, which is about forty minutes, can make a huge difference. Walking is great for problem-solving and as a form of meditation. There’s no real technique- just focus on your breath or your footsteps as you walk. I do recommend one of those fitness tracker wrist bands or watches- they gamify the distance and you’ll find yourself going just a bit further. And you may be surprised how much walking we do that we don’t think about.
As I mentioned, I’m a gym rat. My workouts are strength training with dumbbells, cable machines, and body weight. If these things are intimidating, I strongly recommend getting an appointment with a physical trainer. Try to find one who works with older people or people that are beginners. I had workout routines prior to doing this, but the difference after a few sessions was pretty amazing. She pushed me harder than I ever did and I found I liked it. But the big thing is she walked me into the weight room and got me up to speed on the various options and exercises. It took the intimidation out of it. You don’t need to lift heavy, just have some resistance. You’ll be surprised how fast you can progress.
My goals were better balance and to be fit, not to build bulk, because honestly, that is not going to happen with me. I don’t talk much in the gym and the phone stays in the locker room. This is a very focused period for me so I don’t listen to music or multitask. I also have found myself learning new exercises from videos so I have a selection of different things to do each session. You can do it. Don’t get attached to that internal dialog that says ‘I hate the gym’. Don’t worry about how you look. If the gym is macho (it’s a bad sign if there’s a lot of grunting and dropping weights), get out and go somewhere that is not judgemental- and let the management know why you’re leaving. To sum up, choose the workout that appeals to you and try and get in every third or fourth day. Training with a trainer really helps you develop a routine.
Americans eat horrible things
Do you know what processed foods are? If it comes in a package and has more than a few ingredients, or ingredients that sound like chemicals, it’s processed. This stuff is killing people because of two of those ingredients: various forms of sugar (any ingredient whose name ends with -ose is a sugar) and sodium (salt). These things are addictive and that’s why they put so much into this stuff, plain and simple. I love to cook. so eating healthier is easier for me, though there is probably a bag of chips on my counter right now. I don’t make a fetish out of eating healthy, I just try and eat fresh veg and fruit (whole, not juice, which is almost pure fructose sugar). On the dark side I do eat out a lot and you have to watch the type of thing you eat, especially portion size. Eat less, you’ll feel better.
I’ve mentioned meditation a few times, so I guess I should address the subject of spirit, as opposed to religion. While I am a Buddhist and have been since I was young, I am not religious. Buddhism does not believe in gods, deities, or higher powers. In that sense it is atheist in the literal meaning of the word. What it says is that we have the ability within to be better, more compassionate people, and it’s right there in all of us. In my belief, this is a training regimen, one all belief systems have at their core, if they seek the betterment of everyone (not just their selected group). But organized religion has cloaked this simplicity in ritual and rigid rules to the point where it becomes an ideology rather than a spiritual support system.
The obsession with mindfulness tells me there a deep longing for guidance out there, guidance without dogma, to the point where the mindful gurus and apps have stripped out everything except the technique. I find that understanding the thousands of years of thought and observation about spirit and mindfulness gives it a much more powerful impact. All major religions have this knowledge once you go back to the actual roots of the belief system. Simple meditation is incredibly powerful yet it intimidates a lot of people. This intimidation is the busy conscious mind doing everything it can to keep us from simply being for a moment now and then, without thought or judgement. Try it.
Habits are at the root of all of this
It’s easy to dish advice. I’m certainly no paragon of virtue. I’m terrible with money and I’m trying to change a menu of bad habits. There is a ton of advice out there for how to do that. I’ll give you the concise roundup of what it says: Break your habits down into small trigger events and change those little things, one at a time. Decide you won’t leave your kitchen with dirty dishes in the sink, for example. After making that a little mantra and doing it for a few days, you’ll stop that habit.
Don’t try to crush the big ones all at once. You’ll likely fail and then things will be worse. You may even double down on the bad habit. For some reason, that is human nature. This is especially true with addictions. Eckhart Tolle says this about them (paraphrased): They are a being inhabiting your mind, a subset of self whose primary purpose is to pursue the addiction. They are not your core but they can fool you into thinking they are. His suggestion for dealing with them is a perfect example of a small step to deal with habits. He suggests that when this mind starts a craving, take three breaths and remind yourself that it this petty being that wants that thing. This is a classic meditation technique that removes you far enough back from an issue to see it more objectively. Reframing. Simple, but it has power.
I want to hear from others
Because a piece I wrote on psychedelics at 64 has proven to be my most popular article here, I got to thinking that the audience on Medium might not skew quite as young as I thought. Or maybe the youths actually think our perspective has value. Actually there’s no advice or observations here that can’t apply to anyone. I’ve decided to start a publication here called When I’m 64, that addresses the third third. I’m still getting the graphics together (as a writer I’m a bit design-challenged!) but it should be up this weekend. I’ll update this when it is. And I’ll want feedback and experiential articles from other writers. For me, my next diatribe is dating after 60…yikes.