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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Coping with Stress: Different Ways In Later Days

From Christmas morning through Boxing Day, my wife and I were on the Island visiting our daughter. She shares an apartment with two other young women. It wasn’t crowded because until the day following Boxing Day her housemates were away visiting their own families.
         We brought Ella, our cat, with us.  From the turning on of the car engine in our driveway she was stressed and traveling for several hours, including an hour and a half inside a ferry full of loud noises, made things worse. 
         Then when we got to apartment Ella found a cat belonging to one of the other women already lives in the apartment.  Both cats were stressed about each other, hissing and growling whenever they met. They remained that way most of the time we were there. Along with Ella I was getting stressed. The long drive over and being in an unfamiliar household where I continually had to search for things I wanted also triggered stress in me. Occasionally I almost lost my temper, something I seldom do.
         During this adventure, I was sometimes able to stay in the “here and now” by paying attention to my breathing, listening to the tinnitus ringing in my ears and occasionally chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.  As I meditated, the stress did not go away but I was able to detach from it and investigate mental attachments as they emerged. It was the first time I have ever meditated during an ongoing series of stressful events.
          It has been found that as we age the amount of stress we experience becomes a good predictor of our life satisfaction; the more stress, the less satisfaction. Stress is moderated by resilience. In later life resilience is associated with good health and well being in the face of financial and other stressors. There is also evidence that a growing number of older adults are able to develop effective ways to deal with the emotions accompanying stressful experiences.
          There are, of course, differences among seniors; some of us cope better than others. For instance the experience of retirement may involve different amounts of stress for different people and having ongoing negative feelings about retirement builds even more stress.  At worst with their job gone some retirees may feel a loss of his or her self/ego and become depressed.
         All psychologists see resilience as a form of coping, which can be successful in moderating stressful experiences. But their explanations of how it works can be quite different. The core to understanding the resilience process seems to be found in understanding the specific ways we respond to stressful events. Western psychologists see coping as an unconscious ego defense mechanism directed at stress. For example, “rationalization” is a subconscious justification using excuses that explain behaviour.   In my experience sometimes students, due to a lack of adequate study habits, may receive a lower test score than he or she expected. Using rationalization they may blame their unwanted grade on me: “.. he had it in for me etc..” A problem with this approach is that too much use of defense mechanisms may contribute to increased dysfunctional behavior. It may moderate stress in the short term, but in the long run it is not a very adequate coping strategy and can lead to future stress in similar situations. 
         So far, aside from reporting my experiences during my visit to the Island, I have been presenting information about  “Western” views of the stress/resilience process. I will now turn my attention toward  Buddhist approach.  It has been suggested that the differences between these two approaches refer to definitions of stress coping styles and practices, connected with different interpretations of the term “reality.”  As stated above Western psychology tends to focus more on the emergence of personal identity or “Ego” and the defense mechanisms it uses while attempting to remain dominant and avoid stress. 
         Buddhist psychologists explain the origins of stress somewhat differently. For them the Ego, is much less important and is basically an illusion with many attachments; “I am ….”.  The Ego itself is seen as a major source of stress and negative feelings. In this way of thinking, stress occurs when we are unable to see reality and we are fixed on making interpretations through the eyes of the Ego about the future based on past experience. In doing so we ignore things about ourselves such as motivation, expectations and dysfunctional coping strategies.
         Both groups agree that by using effective problem solving we can reduce the stress and narrow the gap between reality and our perceptions. At best we can problem solve the effects of stress by finding a way to relax and develop ways to cope with similar situations when they occur in the future. Western psychologists focus on the understanding of defense mechanisms while Buddhist psychologists see meditation setting aside the Ego is an effective method for accomplishing this goal.
         In summary it appears that both approaches see the “Ego” as a central stress factor but they have some disagreement about the Ego/stress relationship. In the “west” the Ego is seen as more individualistic and in need of protection. Buddhist’s see it as a self-creation that we can set aside while we examine our stress directly.  As we age perhaps it is more likely for us to reduce seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe and more as members of the community with increased insight that can lead to more effective conduct and understanding of the meaning of life. 

Sources of information for this blog entry are:

1. Buddhist and Western Perspectives on Suffering, Stress, and Coping by Paul Tyson and Rana Pongruengphant  and
2. Resilience-as-Process: Negative Affect, Stress, and Coupled Dunamical Systems by Mignon Montpetit et al
3. If you would like to look more into your own the stress/health issues Google the “Social Readjustment Rating Scale”.  Take the test and see if it’s relevant to you.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


In our society there is a belief that older worker’s regularized retirement provides benefits to other workers and to society because the transition is predictable and ultimately less expensive. This was one to the basic primacies of mandatory retirement before it was abolished in Canada. In current society there is still a negative ageist stereotype that older workers wind up being more costly and are therefore less beneficial to society.
       Negative ageism is easily understood and is defined as “any prejudice or discrimination against an age group.” If we were talking about racism all we would have to do is change the word age to race.
       There are also positive types of ageism involving prejudice that is based on positive stereotypes and attitudes.  They also lead to discrimination at both the personal and institutional levels.
       Key ageist stereotypes on the negative side are: lack of sexual desire, ugliness, mental decline, mental illness, uselessness, isolation, poverty, and depression. On the positive side are: kindness, wisdom, dependability, affluence, political power, freedom, eternal youth, and happiness.
       In both cases the ageist stereotypes like racial stereotypes prevent others and sometimes ourselves from seeing who we really are right here, right now. A good example of this is older person’s beliefs in “senior’s moments.”
       Dr. Erdman Palmore, who has created a book on the topic, argues that positive ageism was more typical among our ancestors.  First of all there weren’t that many older persons, as life expectancy was much lower.  Also, churches and families were more likely to be controlled by elders and seniors were also more likely to control land and work environments.
       In conclusion, Palmore warns that if we have a worldwide economic setback, like the one in the 1930’s in which inflation increased, banks failed and there was a general collapse, negative ageism could again become a major societal experience. This could also happen if a new pandemic occurs, that threatens the healthcare system. It has been reported that the average time elapsed between each of the last four pandemics was 25 years. It has been over 30 years since the last one. If this happens we elders will get less medical support because of our age.

       On a more optimistic level, Dr. Palmore argues that things will be much better if, instead of moving seniors out of the mainstream we find a way for reintegration.  Do the ideas presented above make sense in terms of where you live?  And if so, what can we do to get things rolling?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Financial Stress and Retirement

This blog entry is a beginning of my journey into the topic of financial considerations for retirement.  Hopefully I will, at some point, have a deeper understanding about this part of retirement. As I increase my confidence and knowledge more finance related posts may follow. Relevant knowledge can be a key element in reducing stress.
         Almost everyone experiences stress. It’s wired into our bodies. Sometimes it triggers activity that saves our lives. At other time’s it takes us in the other direction. There is strong evidence connecting negative feelings and stress in our daily activities. I imagine that everyone visiting this blog has experienced stress and the negative feelings that go with it.
         Resilience is the process that helps us cope with stress that has been created by daily concerns such as health and finances.  It has been found that the more resilience we have the easier it is to recover.  Without resilience we will likely face extreme anxiety and depression. A growing body of research supports the idea that, in general, older persons who have reached retirement age tend to get better at regulating stress and negative feelings.  Perhaps resilience is one of the characteristics of wisdom.
         Worries about work income or retirement finances are major stressors for many people. Everyone who works or has worked for a living knows that there stress is associated with work life.  Books have been written about work stress. Coping with it sometimes requires a great deal of resilience.
         Two key sources of retirement stress are poor health and family finances.  I am still in pretty good physical shape but over the last several years I have become more stress conscious when I think about what my family’s financial status will be following retirement.   Those who have been following this blogspot couldn’t help but have noticed that up to now I have avoided commenting about the financial side of retirement.  Concern about having adequate finances is one of the most stressful things I experience. I am ready to make some changes.
          Taking a baby step forward, I recently purchased a book entitled Retirement Planning for the Utterly Confused written by Paul PetilloIt’s scary but I intend to study it.
                  My current retirement workshop says that it’s not just about the money. The fact is I know almost nothing about it. The financial side of retirement, compared to social issues, is discussed frequently on the Internet. Obviously, like paid employment, these concerns are part of the foundation for successful retirement. To open a discussion about finances I have relied on sources, like the one cited at the bottom of this blog entry.
         More than a year ago all Canadian provinces with the exception of New Brunswick abolished laws that allowed employers to end employment of workers once they turned 65.  Many people still choose to retire at that age or sooner. It appears that at least three economic factors lead workers to retire at 65. (1) Some persons with good pension plans can actually earn more money in retirement than if they were working. (2) Most private pension plans begin to pay full benefits when a person reaches 65. and (3) Along with Canada and Quebec pension benefits OAS and GIS, if we keep working past 65 we lose benefits in taxes.                              
         People’s timing of retirement decisions appears to be connected with the size of the monthly pension benefit and its rules. In addition the monthly dollar value of social security benefits and expectations of adequacy of these main incomes over the future years of retirement are influential factors.

        Below are some beginning analysis questions on Sun Life’s Financial website. The questions on the website are multiple choice. Here I just introduce them as “think about this” questions. 
1.   What does retirement mean to you?
2.   What is your biggest financial worry in retirement?
3.   What is your biggest emotional worry in retirement?
4.   Where do you plan on living in retirement?
5.   Do you plan on retiring early?
6.   An ideal vacation for you is: ____
7.   Do you anticipate that you will make major purchases in retirement such as vacation home, going back to school? A new motor home, a luxury car or cottage?
8.   What are your wishes about leaving an inheritance (modified from original question)
9.    What type of entertainment will you spend your time doing in retirement?
10.      Do you plan on working in retirement?

         (For the complete questions and more go to the SunLife site)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Who Am I Now: The Challenge of Retirement

 Often when we meet someone for the first time one of the first questions we ask each other is: What do you do for a living? But is this who we are?  Well lets see, hum…  “I teach psychology at a university.  Does this mean I’ve made my work my identity? After all I’ve been doing it for almost forty years and I’ve enjoyed the self-sameness and relationships with other faculty members on one hand and students on the other.  Even though I have maintained a continuity of personal character, at the core of things, I don’t think I am what I do for a living. It helps pay the mortgage and other expenses and most of the time I enjoy it.  But it’s not who I am.
Well then who am I? Am I a husband, a father, a Canadian Citizen? Think of all the labels that others attribute to us as well as those that we give ourselves.  They may mean a lot to us and we are likely to become attached to them.  Am I who I have been “identified” with as I was growing up? For instance labels I was given? “You’re a good boy”  “You’re strong” or on the other end “you’re a bad boy and a pain in the...” What labels were you pasted with while you were growing up?
It appears that our cat, Ella, does not have these problems; Her main concerns are food, sleep, and having our attention. She is attached to us and does not hesitate to rub herself against our legs when she seeks attention or to complain when she’s hungry. But I don’t imagine that she wonders about who she is.  She lives in the here and now.
I recently wrote a poem on my blog entitled: Me is We. What I meant to say in poem is that I am more complex that my ego accepts.  It basically pays attention to the “good” things. So as I pay attention to the thoughts that continually emerge from within; some of which are positive and some quite negative, all must be accepted as part of my ego.  But my ego is not me!
We can consider our ego as something that is wound up in activities, self-attachments and self-labels with a focus so narrow that we are often oblivious to what’s happening in the real world around us. 
When I retire next year, a major part of my ego will be challenged. How well I will adjust to retirement depends on my willingness to accept major changes in my life circumstances. Retirement needn’t be seen as a bad thing. It can provide a major shock that awakens us to the surrounding reality or we can plan carefully and experience a less tense transition. In either case it’s a major change in our lives.
I think we should remember that much of whom we “are” has been assigned to us and reinforced by others starting with our parents.  Retirement is a good time to drop the labels and be who we really are.  I think this may be connected with the process of elder wisdom, which concentrates on reevaluating what behavior is really important in the here and now and resolving the conflict between integrity and despair
Let me assure you that I struggle with these thoughts everyday, some days more successfully than others. When I look around and see things without the urge to label them I can think about retirement without becoming anxious.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Looking Back and Looking Forward

        As the time approaches for the formal beginning of my retirement, I reflect on my work life and anticipate my experiences after I stop regular paid employment. In the past my academic path went straight through to the achievement of a PhD and my first faculty appointment at Lakehead University in Ontario in 1967.  During most of my adult life I have been a teacher.  There are various models of teaching at the university level. The one I favour is “independent contractor”. My work has always been in a context of self decision-making regarding the activities that need to be done by my students or by my clients.
         During the middle phase of my work life, after I moved to the West Coast. I spent about four years as an employment counselor.  First I worked for a private company and then developed my own private practice.  I always planned, however, to return to academia. 
         I think that my desire to be self-directed is related to my childhood. I was the first born with three years of development before my brother Rodger was born. After that I learned to do things on my own.  As I grew up I developed the attitude that things would turn out best when I was making my own decisions. Most of the time, but not always, that approach has been successful for me.
                  During the middle phase of my work life I spent about four years as an employment counselor.  First I worked for a private company and then developed a  practice of my own.
         I am proud of my accomplishments during my work life?  I would like to have published more but for a long time the work environment did not support faculty research especially while Kwantlen was still a College.  So the idea of publishing came rather late in my career.  And I think that one of the pleasures associated with creating this blog is having the opportunity to share ideas with the wider community of persons who are retired or preparing for retirement.
         Through the years I have also been involved as an activist, first in the Civil Rights Movement while I lived in the United States.  After moving to Canada my environmental concerns led me to participate in the early days of the Green Party. I currently am happy with my volunteer work and community activism at the local senior’s centre. In a more formal sense Elizabeth and I have founded a private company that is entitled Community Building: Research and Action. 
         After I retire I will still need to find ways to top up my pension income.  My workshops through Community Building and money we may be awarded through our non-profit ICAL (Intergenerational Centre for Action Learning) should help.        
         While I was resisting mandatory retirement I was allowed to teach only two courses per term. After it was abolished I could have pushed to get a full course load again but I have adapted to two courses and just having two feels right even with lower economic consequences. 
         I like the thought of retirement because I will have even more control over my own life. Retirement is a big transition. The challenges it presents are exciting!

Visit                           ICAL.CA

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Some Paths of Retirement

          Retirement means leaving the paid labor force. Many people think that it is a single event; a happy one if we are financially secure and are retiring voluntarily and not so happy if we are financially challenged and/or are being forced to leave our social connections and/or our professional identities behind. 
         I am voluntarily going to retire next year in August. I have been preparing to do so for some time, including the creation of this blog and workshops including humor, wisdom and retirement workshops for both those doing pre-retirement planning, and those who have already have already left work.
         According to Robert Atchley, a highly respected gerontologist, rather than thinking of retirement as a single event, it can be better understood as series of adjustments[i].  Not everyone goes through all of them.  See if any of the following three possible paths may reflect your experience. They are:
     1. The honeymoon path is a happy time, especially for those with good financial status when a person attempts to do all the things that he or she never had time to do while working.  Traveling is a frequent choice.
     2. Another option is immediate retirement routine. Many of us already have activities besides work.  For instance I volunteer and the local seniors centre and am creating a series of workshops that will not only benefit the community but also help me financially.
     3. The last option is rest and relaxation during which individuals sit back, relax and catch up on their reading. This period may last several years and then we pick up on our previous level of activity.

         Retirees may also experience disenchantment.  Honeymoons don’t last forever. We may miss our work and feel a lack of productivity. Or we might experience the death of a loved one or be forced to move from our neighborhood and community. These experiences may last several years before we can return to our previous level of activity. In extreme cases we may experience depression. Fortunately the proportion of people who become depressed is reported to be quite small
         The return to activity is seen as a reorientation period during which we re-evaluate our situation and become more realistic in our choices.  We can then develop more satisfying routines.
         In planning for retirement it’s important to remember that, as a society we are increasing our longevity.  Retirement can last a long time.   Do any of the above descriptions reflect you own experience?

[i]   Robert Atchley --  Retirement as a Social Institution

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A feeling of Emptiness

This past week was significant for me in several ways.  I taught my last aging class, which I designed and began teaching about 15 years ago, before I was forced to resist mandatory retirement. And, I had a very good conversation with Chris, one of my fellow instructors who has just finished teaching his last class. He is now retired. After we finished talking, I gave him a hug. It felt like the right thing to do.
         When I got home I noticed that inside I felt and continue to feel partly empty, about 25%. It’s not a big space but it’s there. I cannot remember ever feeling this way before. It’s not bad or good it’s just empty.  I wonder what I will feel next year when I am completely retired like Chris?
         It’s not that I haven’t been preparing post retirement activities for example creating this retirement blog and some workshops including my retirement workshop.  And I believe that in time I may be almost as busy, with my volunteering and workshop activity as I am now.  
 Thinking more about it, I imagine that my feeling of emptiness is a small fraction of what others feel when they have had greater losses.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Me is We

In younger days I was I
And me was me
But as I’ve grown
I’ve come to see
That there is more to it
If we’re to be

There are many me’s
Selves yet unfound that I must own
And many he’s
Where I have sat…
I must find their keys

In my head, I am at home
And free from need
But in my heart’s a tiny gnat
So full of greed

When my heart is full of ease
And my head’s without a hat
I feel a  welcome breeze

An Elder now, is where I’m at
At last my selves are working free

Near journey’s end me is we

Monday, December 6, 2010

Social Goals and Volunteering After Retirement

       There is quite a bit of evidence that older workers were more respected for our knowledge before the industrial revolution. In those days senior farmers’ experiences counted for something.  Now, with the rapid development of technology, especially computers, the average teenager seems to be leaping ahead with their Twitters, Cell Phones, and Facebook while at work we older workers are “facing” stereotypes such as low motivation, resistance to change, inflexibility, lack of creativity, and no interest in learning new skills.  Under these circumstances retirement, at least initially, may be a real relief. But we will still have to deal with certain stereotypes that, in the extreme, may lead us to feel that other people don’t need us.  And, when we die, we won’t even be remembered. 
         So during retirement we need to establish a new set of social evaluation criteria. Do we feel that we have a responsibility to improve our neighborhood?  What can we do for society after years of work experience?  What kinds of unique experiences can we share with the wider community? Do we have experiences volunteering? How can we help make things better?
         Much of our success in postretirement volunteering is connected with how we see ourselves and what we feel we can contribute
There are many opportunities listed on the Internet for. The following items are an example:

 Some examples of how to help your community

• Volunteer at a seniors’ home/centre – visit, read, play cards or board games, take seniors for walks, make crafts.
• Help organize local community events – food drives/banks.
• Take part in environmental initiatives – cleaning and recycling operations, park cleanup, planting trees and flower beds.
• Get involved in charitable activities – walk-a-thons, daffodil sales,  canvassing for organizations.
• Assist with sports teams – community leagues, parks and recreation programs.
• Volunteer in a leadership role with community groups.
• Volunteer in hospitals, libraries, or any organization recommended by  Volunteer Centres.
• Volunteer with social service or animal welfare agencies – Red Cross, United Way, Humane Society.
• Get involved in the democratic political process – scrutinizing, canvassing, campaigning.
• Offer service through religious communities or places of worship.
• Assist with literacy initiatives – at local libraries, daycare centres, community centres.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Continuing to Matter After Retirement

Some of us, particularly if we had a professional career, may after retirement find ourselves longing for the power and prestige of our previous work.  In short, we need to be noticed. For me as a university professor, it is a question of prestige more than power.  Standing in front of the class lecturing or facilitating discussion groups is both challenging and exciting.  And, having someone I meet on the street say “Hi professor Anderson.” Is very pleasing. The question is will my former successes get in the way of my retirement adjustment. Will I be able to let go of my previous expectations?
I think that the creation and presentation of my workshops may be a partial way of adjusting to a new life. I will still be on centre stage as I facilitate the workshops.  This will help me to reflect on my life and perhaps develop some wisdom about my life process.  Even now I reflect on the time I have left, what skills I will be able to bring to the community and appropriate goals for the time I have left. 
I developed my first intentional goals in my last year of high school when I decided to go to university and play football.  Some of my co-players at the University like Tommy Larscheid and Merlin Olsen expanded their sports goals from university and became famous professionals with athletic professions. I followed the goal of becoming a university professor.  For the last ten years I’ve been on the Board of the local senior’s centre and now I’ve created this blog. Each of us has a unique story that continues after we retire.  I would like to hear about some of yours.  
Key ideas for this blog entry were taken from:  Revitalizing Retirement by Nancy Schlossberg