“As we age, our priorities change, our identity and interests will evolve, and I think it’s really important that we mentally prepare for this journey that we’re on,” says Bob Koehler, Authentic Aging founder and speaker. “This time of life offers us opportunity for growth and exploration that previous times in life never did.”
This is the perspective Koehler, of Bloomington, Minn., shares with people across the country now, after going through a difficult "post-career" phase in his own life. He worked as an entrepreneur with a series of companies until he was 60 years old, when he finished with a technology company during a stressful time.
“On the…best ways of retiring, this was probably right near the bottom, because it was under stress, it wasn’t my idea, I had no plan,” Koehler said during a recent Celebrate You conference hosted by the Todd County Council on Aging and Wellness in the Woods. “But I really wasn’t worried about it because, like most people who look at retirement, …how hard can that be? It’s like walking into the Garden of Eden.”
Koehler said his first few months of retirement were enjoyable, with a lot of golfing, fishing and biking. Then it became, “very confusing, and I got a little sad after awhile and, quite frankly, went down a little bit of a hole.”
The next two years included loads of studying on transitions, adapting, and finding purpose. He learned that the emotional process that almost inevitably follows retirement -- or follows the loss of a spouse or friend, or the start of a new career, or the sudden inability to participate in activities you enjoy, etc. -- can take weeks, months or even years.
For people who are going through these adjustments, he recommended four ways to improve life in the interim: exercise, food, relationships and finding purpose.
“Does doing the same things create a sense of safety and knowing what’s next, or does it build a fence around our lives and our ability to grow and explore?” Koehler asked attendees to consider.
He said exercise is about movement and not just difficulty level. Exercise helps the heart, lungs and muscles as well as the brain, and can be paired with activities people enjoy, like bird watching.
“The point is, if you just keep moving in this phase of life, if you just keep moving physically, if you keep moving intellectually, emotionally, keep feeding curiosity, things will happen that you cannot possibly imagine,” Koehler said.
Koehler emphasized the 'why' behind eating healthy and said that a large amount of the body's neurotransmitters (chemicals) that relay messages to the nervous system are in the gut. These chemicals help with learning and memory.
While these are things a person can work on individually, Koehler said building a community of friends and family around you is especially important during transitions. Friendships are about connecting in your own times of need, as well as in others'.
“Being vulnerable, if you’re with somebody that is a trusting relationship, that allows them to be vulnerable with you in return. It’s in that vulnerability that you find your deepest hopes and dreams and fears and ideas, values. It’s a wonderful thing to have a good relationship,” Koehler said. “The opposite also has a negative impact.”
Community helps improve life expectancy, quality of life and mental health.
“Does doing the same things create a sense of safety and knowing what’s next or does it build a fence around our lives and our ability to grow and explore?”
— Bob Koehler
But the big question Koehler asked is, "What is the joy that helps you get up in the morning?" This is the purpose that will bring a healthier and happier life, he explained: Purpose is a “process of discovery of finding out who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing with ourselves."
He recommended sharing talents, which every person has. Community volunteer opportunities like mentoring young children, gardening, serving meals or caring for animals, or self-growth opportunities like taking a community education class or attending a university course, are some ideas. Try things, and if you find you don’t like something, move on to something else.
“Purpose is a wonderful thing,” Koehler said. “We don’t have to take giant steps and rush the process. The fun should be in the journey.”
The ways you enjoy life should include trying new experiences, as Wellness in the Woods director Jode Freyholtz-London encouraged attendees of the ‘Celebrate You’ conference.
“I’m not suggesting that you live on McDonald’s because healthy eating is important, exercise is important, getting enough sleep is important, pain relief is important, so this is not about throwing your caution to the wind,” Freyholtz-London said. “It’s just about probably thinking about things maybe a little bit different than you have.”
One of the new experiences she took was a big one: ziplining in Costa Rica several years ago. The trip included hiking to different locations before reaching a quarter-mile long zipline to end the trip. She and her husband Tom rode this one together with the tip: “Be sure that you go fast enough because if you slow yourself down too much with your hand you’re going to end up stuck in the middle over this 900 foot drop.”
She shared how relieved and overwhelmed she was by the end of safely reaching the finish—and how she planned to never do the activity again. But she still did it.
The experiences don’t have to be this wild, they can be activities like riding in your family’s car with the windows down, teaching your grandchildren to bake cookies, learning a new aspect of technology, enjoying the view outside or of the grandchildren playing when your family can be together, or going swimming.
The goal is to participate in life with all of its challenges and changes, as Freyholtz-London said.
If you need a listening ear, the Wellness in the Woods Warmline is available daily from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. at 1-844-739-6369. The anonymous and confidential calls offer emotional support. The Virtual Peer Support Network is daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with specific senior sessions every other Friday morning.
“Do you feel connected and authentic with others? Do you feel supported and that you belong?” As one of six healthy living domains, personal trainer Nicole Pomerenke said social connections are important. The domains, including relational, extensional, mental, physical, emotional and environmental, are areas she invites people to reflect on in their life.
“They’re not separate little categories,” Pomerenke said of the six areas. “They are all connected in one way or another, so improving on one will actually improve on all of the others.” The whole body is involved in living healthy from mental health to physical and social health.
Pomerenke offers these ways of evaluating the domains:
Environment: If you are able to feel safe and supported as well as have access to healthcare and food, you can make good choices for your health.
Physical: There are lots of ways to shift your physical health, such as removing processed foods, increasing your daily water intake, shifting to fruit instead of candy and getting outside to do activities you like: walking, biking, gardening or fishing. You might even try including friends for a social event of exercising.
Mental: Problem-solving, focusing and prioritizing are improved as you take care of your mental health. You can work on your mental health through creativity, puzzles and card games.
Emotional: Your daily emotions impact your nutrition habits and how you interact relationally. Here you’ll want to be sure to manage your stress through deep breathing, coloring, walking barefoot in the grass, calling a friend or sitting in the sun.
Existential: This is the deeper why of life, and when you value yourself it will positively change how you treat the people around you as well as your mind and body.
Relational: Social support, through in-person and phone connections, encourages your success.
“Purpose is a wonderful thing. We don’t have to take giant steps and rush the process, the fun should be in the journey."