My Middle-Age Bucket List

DSC00171I’ve never been a fan of the idea of having a “bucket list,” mostly because I don’t like the idea of having a set list of goals that I need to reach before I “kick the bucket.”  How am I supposed to know now, in my middle age, everything that I still want to do with my life?  And what am I supposed to do when I finally cross the last item off my list?  Just check myself into the nearest nursing home and wait for death?  I think not.

But I am a natural procrastinator, so I do see the advantages of having some actual goals for the second half of my life, as long as they are appropriately fluid and on-going.  After giving the matter some thought, I finally came up with a bucket list I can live with:

1) Travel somewhere new as often as possible.  It doesn’t have to be far, as there are lots of interesting places I’ve never visited within a two-hour drive from my home, but it does have to be somewhere I’ve never visited before.  Discovering someplace new and wonderful is a joy I’ll never outgrow, and few things match it for making me feel young again.

2) Once a month, do something I haven’t ever done before.  It doesn’t really matter what it it is….just be brave and get out there and try something new.  Not everything will end as badly as my attempt at water-skiing.  (Note to self in case I ever try that again:  keep your feet together when the boat pulls you up out of the water.  Doing the “splits” on a lake is just as painful as it sounds.)

3) Try to make a new friend at least once a year.  I’ve heard people say they don’t want any new friends because they can barely keep up with the ones they have now.  And while I understand that from a time-management aspect, I am not willing to limit myself to the friends I already know, no matter how much I value them.  (And that’s a LOT!)  But some of my favorite people are those I’ve only gotten to know in the past few years, and trust me, they’re worth the time.  When it comes to adding good people to my life, I believe there’s always room for one more.  Always.

4) Never, ever stop thinking of new goals and new ways to make sure the second half of my life is as interesting, fun and meaningful as I can possibly make it.  Because when I’m not willing to do that, then perhaps it really will be time to find that nursing home….

Quick, Before I Forget….

I’ve been reading some terrific reviews of the new movie Still Alice, but I haven’t been able to make myself actually go see it yet.  It’s not that I don’t think it will be good enough to be worth my time and the price of admission.  I’ve read the book, and it was very good, and I’d kind of like to see how the book compares to the movie.  It’s just that the book struck a little too close to home, because it is about a middle aged woman who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  And I have a horrible memory, and it’s getting worse all the time.

I don’t know about the movie, but early in the book, there’s a scene in which the Alice, the main character, is out for a jog on a path she has run daily for years, and suddenly looks around and realizes that she has no idea where she is or how to get home. Her memory has begun to desert her, and the rest of the book deals with how she is diagnosed with the disease and struggles to cope.   So now every time I have a lapse in memory, I find myself worrying, “is this normal, post-menopause memory loss?  Or is this just like that early scene in Still Alice?”

To be fair, I’ve never had a great memory.  My family still teases me about the time when I was about ten years old and put a glass bottle of Coke in the freezer to chill it more quickly.   Naturally, I forgot about it, but I did find out that when you leave a glass bottle of carbonated beverage in the freezer too long, it explodes, coating the entire freezer with frozen Coke and shards of glass.  And that your parents will not be happy about it, either.

Then I hit menopause, and found that my naturally poor memory has gotten much worse.  I can forget a word in the middle of a sentence, and in casual conversation I find myself interrupting people far too often.  It’s not that I’m trying to be rude, it’s just that I know I’ll forget the point I want to make if I wait for the other person to actually stop talking.  Recently I was having a conversation with another middle aged friend, and we were desperately trying to think of the word for “kennel,” as in a canine breeding facility.  There we were, two college-educated, somewhat intelligent women, and the best we could come up with was “dog farm.”

So, while I have no doubt that Still Alice is a great movie, I’m still not so sure that I want to see it.  Frankly, it scares me.  And I’ve never liked scary movies.

Old Dog, New Tricks

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about aging is that we have become too old to change our habits:  the way we think, the way we act, etc.  The world tells us this in so many ways, and we tend to believe it.  I sometimes tease my 84-year old mom (who is less than five feet tall and weighs a little over 100 pounds) about how she struggles to eat every last bit of her meal when we go out to eat, claiming, “my mother always taught me to clean my plate.” I’m sure her mother didn’t serve the enormous portions that are so common in today’s restaurants, but no matter…this is how she was taught, and she’s not going to change now. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right?

Actually, you can.  I know this because I have watched so many of my friends try new things in their middle age and beyond.  I have friends who have taken up golf, horse-back riding, soap-making, yoga, and even friends who have launched new businesses, and all of them are over fifty.  Empty-nesters move from big suburban houses to condos in the city, women who stayed home to raise their children venture out into the workforce, and still others return to college to get a degree in a whole new field.  I found the nerve to start this blog, despite my deep and continuing distrust of the internet.  And while my mother may not be willing to leave food on her plate, she was willing to move to a whole new city and create a new life for herself when she turned 79.  Change is not just for the young.

By the time we’ve reached middle age, most of us have have lived long enough to realize that we’re much stronger and more resilient than we thought we were all those years ago.  When  I was young, I was so terrified of anything medical that I once almost fainted just visiting a friend in the hospital.  Then I had two kids, and realized that I was actually strong enough to endure a hospital visit, even when I was the patient.  Now I’m planning an elective medical procedure to get rid of a droopy eyelid…which is a quite an accomplishment for a person who once hid a dental probe while sitting in the chair, waiting for the dentist to come in.  (I had a sore tooth and wanted to make sure he didn’t touch it with that sharp little thing.)

The fact is that we “old dogs” really can, and often do, learn new tricks.  And it turns out that we’re usually quite good at them, too.

The Sandwich Generation

It’s not as if I had never heard the term.  People have been talking about the “sandwich generation” for years.  And is not as if I didn’t know friends who were still talking care of their kids while dealing with a parent who couldn’t live independently anymore.  It’s just that I was naive enough to think that it would never happen to me.

I had the vague idea that my kids would graduate from college, then immediately find a terrific job and a great place to live.  I’d get to see them all the time, but I wouldn’t worry about them anymore.  As for my parents, I pictured them living happily on their own until they were at least in their mid-nineties, at which point they would depart from this world quickly and peacefully, knowing they had lived a full and satisfying life.  Looking back on it, I’m amazed I didn’t still believe in Santa Claus as well.

But then reality came knocking, and I learned that life doesn’t get less stressful or complicated when our kids become adults.  A father who slid slowly into the early stages of dementia before passing away; a mother-in-law who spent three years in a nursing home (in another state) before we lost her; and a father-in-law who died unexpectedly five weeks after we lost my mother-in-law and were still in deep grief over her death, all taught me that real life is challenging and messy in ways I had never even dreamed of.  And I’m still waiting for that magic moment when I stop worrying about my son and daughter.   My mother told me that would never happen, and now I know she was right.

Maybe it was just denial that kept me believing that my parents and in-laws would never require any real care from my husband and me, and that parenting was something that you did only for twenty years or so per child.  If so, I think that’s a defense mechanism that is shared by a lot of us.  Whenever I talk about some of these issues with friends whose kids are younger and whose parents are still alive, independent and healthy, they react just the way I used to:  with sincere, but distant, sympathy.  They can’t quite make themselves believe that this will ever happen to them.  I remember being that innocent.

I’m not going to lie.  This “sandwich generation” stuff can be hard.  Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m much more sympathetic to my friends who are going through the same thing, and often much worse.   Supportive friends help, and so does a sense of humor and the occasional glass of wine.  But mostly, I just remember that the alternative is worse.  I worry about my kids because I love them, and that isn’t going to change.   And I am very grateful for the time I have with my mother while she is still here, because I know once she is gone I will miss her just the way I miss my father and my in-laws.  Being in the sandwich generation may be challenging at times, but honestly, I want to stay in it for as long as I can.

So, You Really Think I’m Old?

I will never forget the first time someone called me old.  I had pulled into the parking lot of my church one cold winter morning, only to discover that although the streets were in good shape, the church’s parking lot was still very icy.  This was a problem because I was wearing heels and I had my two pre-school age kids in the car, so I wasn’t at all sure I could get the three of us in the building safely.  As I sat there, debating whether to try to go inside or simply turn around and drive back home, I heard a tap on my car window.  It was a middle-schooler I knew, offering to help me and my children get inside, and I gratefully accepted.  He was big for his age and wearing snow boots with a good tread, so I let him hold my son’s hand, while I clutched his other arm and held my daughter’s hand.  As we made our way slowly and carefully toward the building, I thanked him for coming outside and helping me.  And that’s when he blew it by answering, “No problem.  My grandpa told me the parking lot was slippery, so I should go outside and help the old people come in.”  If I’d had a free hand, I’m pretty sure I would have smacked him.  I was all of 34 at the time.

I think that’s when I first realized that age is relative.  I may have only been in my mid thirties, but my young friend saw me as “old.”  And now that I am in my mid fifties, I’ve realized that the number of people who think I’m old has grown much larger.  They’re not just middle-schoolers anymore, they’re also teenagers and often adults in their twenties and early thirties.  Honestly, sometimes it can be a little hard on the ego.

Yet I’ve learned there can be an upside in dealing with people who insist on believing that I am well into my geezer years.  When I buy a new cell phone, the young adult who waits on me is usually quite willing to completely program it for me, going on the assumption that I have no idea how to do it myself (which would be correct.)  Baggers at the grocery store routinely ask if I would like help carrying my groceries to the car.  Actually, I’ve gotten quite bold about asking people younger than me to get the tight cap off my bottle of Diet Coke, read fine print for me, or do whatever else I’m finding it difficult to do.   Requests that would have gotten me a strange look when I was in my twenties or thirties are now usually just met with a willingness to help.

I may not be old yet, but if others see me that way and think I need some extra assistance, I’m not going to let it upset me anymore, and I’m sure not going to turn it down.  After all, if my young church friend didn’t think I was old all those years ago, I would have had to make my way across that icy parking lot all by myself, with two young kids in tow.  Sometimes it’s best to just go with the flow.

Snow Days For The Middle Aged

DSC00116 First of all, let me say that I know that heavy snowfalls can cause a lot of problems for a lot of people.  Travelers stranded at the airport, or even worse, stuck in a ditch by the highway on a freezing cold day, have a legitimate reason to complain about the snow.  So do farmers who have to tend to their animals, no matter what the weather.  And when a snowstorm stops me from going on a vacation I have looked forward to for months, I am the first to complain bitterly about it to anyone who will listen.  I have a nephew who works for the State Highway Department, so I know just how much extra work heavy snowfalls create, and I am incredibly grateful for the work he and his crews do to clear the roads so the rest of us can get where we need to go.  (Thank you, Jason!)

Even so, I have to admit that I still really, really like snow.   Few things are nicer than sitting in my living room with a fire going in the fireplace, watching out the picture window as the big, fluffy flakes drift gently to the ground.  And once the snow begins to accumulate, the world is transformed, if only temporarily, to a gorgeous winter wonderland.  I always think that a snow-covered landscape gives us just a little glimpse of how the world is supposed to be: beautiful, peaceful and unspoiled.

Beyond that, a really heavy snow brings the gift of a “snow day,” which to me, means an often unexpected gift of a day off from my daily routine of the usual worries and demands.  A snow day means I get the luxury of temporarily ignoring my “to do” list, leaving the car in the garage rather than heading off to run those important errands, not going to the Humane Society to walk the dogs, etc.   It means simply accepting that the world will get along just fine without me, if only for the next twenty-four hours.  A snow day offers a chance to relax and regroup, to be a bit selfish and focus on just me, and to recharge my batteries for the days ahead.

Maybe that’s why, even now that I am well into my middle age, I still get a little thrill when I hear a prediction of heavy snow in the forecast, just the way I did when I was a child and a snow day meant a welcome break from school.  I guess, for those who are lucky enough to enjoy them, we’re never too old to need a good, old-fashioned “snow day.”

Taking Care Of Yourself Is No Longer Optional

Remember the days when you could pull an “all-nighter” before a big test, sacrificing sleep in order to cram for an important exam? And after it was over, instead of going to bed, you might have headed to the nearest college bar to celebrate with a quick beer or two?  And (for those with naturally pale skin) when you wanted a “little color” before the big dance, you spent the afternoon laying in the sun wearing nothing but a swimming suit and a whole lot of baby oil?  One way or another, I think we all took silly risks with our health when we were young enough to get away with it.

But guess what?  Those days are over.  The last time I went an entire night without sleep was the night my son was born, and believe me, that wasn’t by choice.  (Why do babies never seem to enter this world late in the day, so we can get a decent night’s sleep afterwards?)  These days, if I’m awake after midnight, it’s a given that I’m going to be a cranky, sleepy mess the whole next day.  And I never spend time in the sun anymore without wearing a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF.

We may not like it, but the fact is that our bodies require more care than they used to.  We have to be more careful about what we eat, what we drink, how regularly we exercise and how much sleep we get, and that’s the easy stuff.  The harder, and certainly less pleasant, part of keeping our middle-aged bodies healthy are the screenings, shots and procedures we have to endure once we reach the wrong side of fifty.

Flu shots aren’t considered optional anymore, and once we turn sixty, neither is being inoculated against shingles.  (Well worth it, as anyone who has suffered from shingles will tell you.) And although I understand there is now some debate about how often women over fifty should have a mammogram, I follow my doctor’s advice and go get my breasts squished by an X-ray machine once a year.

Most intrusive, of course, is the colonoscopy, with its dreaded prep routine followed by a procedure that can’t be discussed in polite company.  But according to my doctor, colon cancer is absolutely preventable through regular screenings, and colon cancer is often deadly.  So it’s pretty hard to justify wimping out and not getting a colonoscopy.  I know, because I tried, and it didn’t work.

Staying healthy in our middle age can be complicated and is not always for the faint of heart.  But the people who care about us are counting on us to do everything we can to make sure we stick around long enough to enjoy our old age.  Which means we really don’t have any choice but to suck it up and do it.

The Middle Age “Must Have”

A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip to France to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary.  Although I prepared for the trip by studying guidebooks and memorizing as many French words as I could, there were times when being in a foreign country just overwhelmed me.  While trying to buy an apple tart at a small bakery, I finally gave up trying to find the correct change and simply held out a handful of coins, letting the clerk take what she needed.  She was very nice about it, but I still felt like a clueless idiot.

Sadly, there are still times when I feel that way, and the reason is that I can no longer read regular print.  Fading eyesight, combined with dim lights in many public places, has made me completely dependent on my reading glasses.  The problems start when I don’t have a pair handy.   If I go out to dinner and forget my glasses, I have to either have someone read the menu to me, or simply point at something when the waiter comes and hope I’ll like what I’ve ordered.  Ditto for trying to read a text on my cell phone, the expiration date on a carton of eggs, or the price tag on a sweater I’m thinking about buying.  It’s no fun to get into the brightly-lit dressing room and discover that the sweater I thought was $49 is actually $149.  Especially if it fits and hides my back fat.

I’ve accepted that I need reading glasses, and keep several pairs scattered around the house and carry a pair in my purse.  But there are times when I don’t carry a purse (walking dogs at the humane society, for instance), and also many times when I reach in my purse only to find that the glasses aren’t there.  And then I am just as vulnerable as I was in that French bakery, only I don’t have the foreign accent that makes people more willing to help.

But it’s no use complaining, so like middle-aged people everywhere, I just muddle along as best I can.  I’ve been known to simply hand a receipt or pamphlet to the nearest young person and say, “Your eyes are still good.  Can you tell me what that says?” And they usually do.   I have a friend who is more creative:  when she couldn’t read the small print on a parking meter, she simply whipped out her cell phone, took a picture of it, and then expanded the picture until she could read the words.  I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m in a dimly-lit restaurant without my reading glasses…..

I Believe That’s Meant For Someone Younger….

I was watching the Super Bowl last night with some friends, and like many people who aren’t that big on football, I was paying much more attention to the commercials that I was to the actual game.  Many of them were good, but one thing was quickly clear:  as a middle-aged woman, I was not the target audience for most of the ads.  Our society is focused on youth, and my youth left me a long time ago and has no plans to return.

Being middle aged in a youth-obsessed culture can be a bit strange at times, and sometimes it’s hard not to feel somewhat irrelevant. I don’t often see women my age in magazine ads, even the ones selling skin creams and anti-aging serums.  Middle aged women are rarely the main character in television shows or movies, since there again, the target audience is usually the twenty to thirty-year old age group.  There’s just no getting around the fact that our society focuses most of its attention on the young in body rather than those of us who are simply young at heart.

But that lack of attention can also be a good thing.  When I was younger, I knew that people tended to notice what I looked like, and more often than not, the attention made me feel self-conscious and awkward.  I pretty much assumed I would be judged harshly if I wore something that wasn’t stylish or flattering on me.  Now, I feel free to wear what I want, figuring most people aren’t going to notice much one way or the other.   If it’s cold out, you can bet I’m wearing warm socks, even with ankle pants and flats.  (Although I do try to coordinate the colors.)

Of course middle aged women don’t expect people our own age, especially our spouses, to ignore us now that we’re no longer young.  They’re in the same boat, so they know that hiding within our aging bodies is the same youthful spirit we’ve always had.  We just don’t have to worry about them judging our looks, partly because they understand, but mostly because they haven’t seen us clearly for years.  Fading eyesight can be a good thing.

Because You’ve Got To Take A Chance

IMG_3571Thirty years ago, my husband and I were deciding where to go for our annual vacation.  I was almost six months pregnant, so I was looking into places that would be within easy driving distance.  Then a friend mentioned that she had just returned from Sanibel Island in Florida, and said it was really very nice.  She said there were great beaches, beautiful bike paths and lots of unspoiled scenery.

That sounded great, but I wasn’t sold.  We’d have to fly, and I didn’t know how much that would cost or if my doctor would even allow it.  I had no idea where to stay on the island, didn’t own a maternity swimsuit, and weren’t there a lot of alligators in Florida?  I thought Lexington, Kentucky sounded like a safer bet.  But it did seem sort of silly to choose Kentucky over a beautiful barrier island, and after careful thought and with my doctor’s permission, we booked a condo on Sanibel Island and hoped for the best.

Our flight got in late, and we drove for a long time on a dark, unmarked highway, fairly sure we were lost as we tried to find the causeway to the island. We finally made it and located our condo, only to discover that they had put us in a two bedroom condo which was way more than we had budgeted for, but there was no manager on duty at that hour to switch us.  By that point, we were frustrated, exhausted, and quite sure we had made a terrible mistake by coming.  All we could do was go to bed and hope things would get better in the morning.

Luckily, they did. The morning light revealed that my friend had not exaggerated when she told us how beautiful the island was, and a friendly manager moved us to a nice one bedroom unit with a view of the ocean.  We had a great time, even if I did have to walk the beach wearing a swimsuit that looked like a tent.  Sanibel  is now our favorite vacation spot, and we have been back there too many times to count.  But we never would have discovered it if we hadn’t taken a chance and stepped out of our comfort zone all those years ago.

I need to remember that now, as I tend to want to stick with the comfortable and familiar with my middle-aged self.   But the truth is that almost every good thing in my life is a direct result of going out of my comfort zone and taking a chance on something new.  And almost all my regrets come from the times I wimped out and stuck with the comfortable and easy choice.  As I’m returning from another great week at Sanibel, I’m so glad I chose to come here instead of Kentucky thirty years ago.  And twenty years from now, I want to be just as glad about the choices I’m making now.