Friday, March 27, 2015

Senior Success: Living Larger While Trending Tiny

What if life got bigger, instead of smaller, as we age? 

As we downsize our homes, possessions and expenses, can we grow socially, creatively, mentally and physically?

Aunt Tae, Wii bowling champ at age 98
Photo by Letty DiLeo
I’ve been seeing signs all over that we can. I just joined a new gym, and it has a Silver Sneakers program. Many Medicare plans include membership to this fitness program, housed in 13,000 locations all over the country. I’m not old enough to join, but when I peek in the packed studio I see not only active people, but people forging bonds and sharing laughs. One member, age 70, told me she had no time to take classes before she retired, but now attends up to six a week. She values the friendships she has made as much as the benefits of exercise.

Daniel J. Langton’s new book, 
much of it written in his 80s
A recent New York Times article, “Finding Success, Well Past the Age of Wunderkind” by Abby Ellin, cites many examples of seniors who now excel at skills they developed later in life. The article quotes Karl A. Pillemer, a professor of gerontology at Cornell University: “We absolutely have to revamp this idea of a linear pattern of accomplishment that ends when you’re 50 or 60. There are simply too many examples of people who bloom late, and it’s the most extraordinary time of their life.” The examples range from the famous (Grandma Moses) to the lesser know (Jan Hively, a retired educator in Yarmouth, MA, who is quoted in the article: “I’m doing my most meaningful work at 83.”)  

Within my own family I find dear relatives over 80, some continuing to do well, or even better, what they have done for decades. Others are taking on whole new roles. My cousin Daniel J. Langton, the poet, has penned some of his richest work in his 80s. My Aunt Tae, now 100, became Wii bowling champ in her assisted living home at age 98. 

And it turns out science is on the side of seniors. The Times article points out two different types of intelligence: crystallized (general knowledge) and fluid (problem solving) intelligence. Fluid intelligence and the ability to solve problems usually peaks in our late 20s. But crystallized knowledge increases as we age. Yay! All that general knowledge is bound to find a creative outlet, especially once retirement gives you the time to think about it.

Studies also are showing you can improve fluid intelligence, the intelligence that shrinks with age, with non-academic pursuits, according to an article in Psychology Today. The author, Christopher Bergland, lists physical activity, playing a musical instrument, making art, improving motor skills, meditation, daydreaming, and getting a good night’s sleep. Sounds like a great checklist for tiny retirement to me.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Seven Steps to Smaller Joys

The vintage North Carolina 
pottery glows against 
the wood grain.
Photos by Letty DiLeo
The bigger your house, the harder it is to trend tiny. The more stuff you have, the more difficult to downsize. This seems pretty obvious, but until you make the move, you have no idea.

And our move from our house of 2,200 square feet to one of 1,700, while not dramatic, still called for more purging than we realized. Our old house, almost 100 years old, had nooks and crannies to store all kinds of stuff accumulated over 23 years. The new house, five years old, is more sparse: spacious rooms, but far less storage. Here are the steps we took to get ready.

1. We started by making lists of major items that were coming with us, being sold, or being donated. Since we were using a moving company, we didn’t want to move even one item that would not fit in the new house. 

2. We used a floor plan and scale model rectangles of our furniture to plan out each room. 

3. In addition to lists for keeping and donating, we also had sub-lists of the best place for sale times to go. 


Even the teardrop camper has its own home in the garage, 
ready for some tiny retirement camping.
4. We decided against a yard sale as too much effort for too little return. Instead we chose two consignment stores and an auction house, and listed a few big items, like a piano and treadmill, on Craigslist. 

5. The first store offered free pickup, but was very selective in what it accepted. We got them to take as many of our nicer, bigger pieces as possible.

6.The second consignment shop was less selective, but you had to get the stuff to them. We brought in smaller, nice items that were easy to transport and likely to sell.

7. The auction house took just about anything, and offered pickup, but a small cash return since stuff sold so cheaply at auction. We offered them some bigger items and also donated many things to our favorite charity thrift shop.

It was a bit frantic at times, but finally all that remained was what we were bringing with us. I’ll skip over moving day. We liked our local movers and we were going only 15 minutes away, so it went pretty smoothly.

My pottery collection in a thrifted corner 
cabinet adds warmth, memories, and joy.
The overwhelming part was waking up to a sea of boxes. We had packed ourselves efficiently, but in the rush did not do a great job of labeling. It seemed to take forever to clear a room of boxes and find places to put three generations of stuff. I had pared down my keepsakes, but not enough. But nothing big had to go: our little rectangles had done their job. Our desks even fit into our tiny new office, a fifth the size of our old one, by mere inches.

But I had to get tougher on my boxes of tchotchkes, knickknacks and antiques that date back to my great -grandmother. I’ve now boxed up stuff I have no place for but am not quite ready to sell or give away. I also boxed things I know I want to keep but don’t have a spot for right now. I donated a bunch more things. And I chose the items I did want to display: my North Carolina pottery from my cousins, aunt, mother and grandfather. We had sold our large china cabinet, knowing it would not fit. But I went in search for a small corner cabinet and found one at the second thrift store I tried for $40. Three generations of rustic pottery now adds a homey charm to a new house that’s short on nooks and crannies.

We learned that trending smaller involves carefully curating your belongings, finding creative ways to dispose of stuff you don’t need or want, and taking time to display and enjoy things that give you joy.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tiny plan provides big support

A web of support
photograph of a show performed by Fuerza Bruta 
Photo by Letty DiLeo
A plan to trend tiny may look small, scribbled on a napkin, jotted down in a note on smart phone, but it has a big impact.

Ours was short and sweet – fall in love with a smaller house and make ourselves fit into it. And we are just about there...10 days and counting. That little plan has given us a blueprint to follow over the last few months. And sometimes our goal of downsizing seemed to be the only stable thing in a whirlwind of larger life changes.

Fun with grandma
To give you an idea, our daughter's departure for college a thousand miles away happened the same day my dear mother-in-law passed away after a long illness. There we were on the road from Florida in a North Carolina motel, with the message, "She's gone," still vibrating over the phone lines and nothing we could do but get back in the car for another eight-hour drive.

It was a sad time. Our daughter is the only grandchild in the family, and grew up with grandma's spaghetti and sauce and sleepovers full of giggles. As we drove up the coast with heavy hearts, I texted our friends and family and condolences started to pour in. It gave us a warm feeling that love and technology could weave a tight web of support even roaring up I-95.

Dorm room contents 
waiting for carts
We started to tell stories about fun and funny times with Dale's mom, and soon we were all laughing more than crying. Dale pointed out a great irony: for years he had slept with his cell phone by his bed, waiting for a late night call about his mom. With one day between losing his mom and dropping his daughter off at college, for 24 hours he didn't care where his cell phone was. But the next night it was back on the bedside table.

When we move to our smaller house in 10 days, a lot of things will be gone, but that phone will still be a beacon of love and technology in the night.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Beat of Change: You Say 'Goodbye' & I Say 'Hello'

Our house of the future
Sometimes you’re so busy living life, there’s no time to reflect on it. Or blog about it. That’s been the case around here for the last three months, so it’s time to take stock.

We’ve made some decisions about our future and things are starting to happen. We realized that as we downsize, we are not quite ready to rent a house instead of owning again. We don’t need the flexibility yet: We want to keep St. Augustine as our base for a least five years. We also are not ready to go truly tiny. Our home needs room for our business and our daughter when she comes home from college. 

With that in mind, we discovered a neighborhood we had not noticed before, and it had one house for sale by owner that called our name. It is a smaller, newer version of the 1920s bungalow we live in now. We didn’t want to move until the Fall, and the homeowners didn’t either because they are building a new home. So we all got creative. We borrowed on our home, bought the house and are renting it back to the lovely couple and their two little girls.

Our house today
Over the next six months, we will continue our work of getting rid of stuff from our current house. Our daughter will leave for college, and pare down her things before she leaves. We will put our house on the market in the next few months. So we will have to live with less, which may be the only thing that will force my hand in the downsize department. Luckily, I do well under deadline.

The new place is trending tinier for us in more ways than stuff and square footage. Because it’s further from the water, it costs a lot less per square foot, and insurance is a small fraction of what we pay for our old house now. It’s more energy efficient and the upkeep will be easier and cheaper. It feels good to be buttoning things up a bit as we trend toward tiny retirement.

Housing is not the only arena that’s been in flux around here. For over 20 years, we have published, warehoused and shipped books in the disability field. Over the last few years, we’ve been converting to ebooks and on-line training. Bit by bit we downsized, reducing inventory storage units, our downtown office and shipping supplies. As we sold out of a book, rather than reprint we made the ebook version available.

The last of the shipping supplies
This week, on my daughter’s final day of high school, I shipped our last book. After two decades of shipping, and seven years of school carpooling, I wanted to do the happy dance and sing, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks!” But my family frowns on my singing, which is fully justified, so I settled for just the happy dance. Now when we move, we won’t need a room dedicated to shipping and product storage. 

But don’t get me started on my daughter leaving for college. I’m not big on change, so it feels good to have some concrete plans. It’s a lot easier to say goodbye to what you’re used to when you can say hello to something new. 

You say "Yes", I say "No".
You say "Stop" and I say "Go, go, go".
Oh no.
You say "Goodbye" and I say "Hello, hello, hello".
I don't know why you say "Goodbye", I say "Hello, hello, hello".
I don't know why you say 
"Goodbye", I say "Hello".
Lennon-McCartney

Friday, February 14, 2014

Home Is Where the Heart Is

My mom, Mary Delano Langton, in her room in assisted 
living with the son of my friend, interviewing 
her for a school project on seniors.
Some of the tiniest and most challenging living that people do often comes at the end of their lives. 

In their early 80s, my parents had a great apartment near the beach. It had a pool and was only 10 minutes from our house and their new, and only, grandchild. But within a year of moving in, my mom fell, breaking her pelvis and arm and almost doing herself in. 

While she was in the hospital, and then rehab, it became clear that my dad’s growing forgetfulness was actually a serious memory problem. A nurse I trusted studied him closely when he visited my mom, and realized how much he and my mother compensated, convincing us all that he was fine. My mom emerged from rehab a much frailer version of herself, and all agreed she could no longer do all that she had been doing to help my father. 

They moved into an assisted living facility two blocks from my house. Among seniors who need care as they age, they were the lucky ones. They both had retired from the railroad, so they each had good pensions to supplement social security. They were just able to afford their new home.

Paring down her stuff to move was hard for my mom. She had done wonders when she moved from my childhood home, a four-bedroom Dutch Colonial on Long Island. She had lived there for 50 years, and it was crammed to the rafters. But she blazed through it, and she and my dad moved to a two-bedroom apartment with their most precious possessions.

Now, faced with moving into one room, she had to pare down in earnest. I did most of it while she was in rehab, and my husband helped with a giant yard sale. My mom directed Operation Downsize from her bed. She said it was actually easier that way, to say good-bye to things she had not seen in a month. “Out of sight, out of mind,” she proclaimed bravely. 

They settled into their tiny new home, and were quite happy. “It’s like a cruise ship, but with bigger windows,” laughed the woman who had never been on a cruise. “It’s like a college dorm, but with no classes,” crowed the man who had never been to college. My folks were always known for making the best of things.

Three years later, my dad died. Without his pension, my mom moved into a smaller, more affordable room. Again she carefully chose what to keep, what to give away, and what to make me promise to save forever at my house. Her room was about 10 feet x 10 feet, and she loved it. “It’s my nest!” she’d proclaim, perched like a tiny bird on the edge of her loveseat. 

My mother had several wonderful years in her little nest, with constant visits from family, friends and the staff who loved her. Then she fell, breaking her pelvis again. Even after rehab, she could no longer walk and her chronic heart disease forced her to use oxygen. Her medical needs had increased beyond assisted living, and she decided to move into the nursing home next door. The room was the same size, but it also held a roommate and institutional furniture. 

One final time, she and I made decisions about her things. She kept her clothes, a small dresser and two little containers she called her treasure boxes. I saw her every day for two years, and did my best to be sure she was happy and cared for. Most of the staff was wonderful, but a nursing home can never be the same as home. It is a place you go when your life gets very small and you are out of options.

But yes, my mom was one of the lucky seniors, in more ways than one. She had the grace and pluck to see her through forced downsizing, she had a decent railroad pension and free full health care (Thanks, Amtrak!) and she had loving family to support and visit her.

This Christmas, my mother-in-law Irene made the same transition, moving from her daughter’s house to a small group home after a series of strokes. Now my sister-in-law visits her every day. Irene, too, is one of the lucky ones.

Those who are not so lucky, without family support or finances, end up in nursing homes way before they have serious medical needs. Some states have programs to fund in-home or group-home care; most do not, or have long waiting lists. Senior service agencies, such as the vibrant Council on Aging in our town of St. Augustine, do all they can to help people remain in their homes. But they fight for funding as baby boomers flood the system. 

People don’t need big houses, they just need support to live in their own homes as long as possible. And it would be cheaper in the long run: the very system that fails to fund low-level services that keep people at home kicks in for a nursing home, possibly more care than needed, at five grand or more a month. 

Meanwhile, not only seniors are faced with the support dilemma. For example, nearly 200,000 Americans under 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. One of them is a dear friend. These families haven’t even made it to retirement, and their family finances are being decimated.

So this is kind of a depressing Valentine’s post. But if you love someone who plans to age—and it beats the alternative—talk to him or her now about the future. Learn about the services in your community. Petition your elected officials to recast elder care. And call your local senior center right now to volunteer. It’s a great way to spread the Valentine love. 









Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Memories Pile Up While Paring Down

We have our eye on a smaller house, so my big New Year's resolution was to go through my stuff and try to pare down.

I'm one of those people who has a hard time getting rid of things, and I come from a long line of pack rats. I am the keeper of many generations of pictures, papers, and other memorabilia. It's hard to know where to start. And, oh, the detours that beckon.

I've been going through piles, and it isn't pretty. My current storage system doesn't discriminate between historical document and whimsical keepsake. I find my grandfather's original citizenship papers sandwiched between a funny birthday card from my aunt and a ticket stub to a Sly and the Family Stone concert. I have to get a system if I am ever going to live tiny.

So I make piles from the piles, inventing categories as I go: Family History. Exercise. Travel. Finance. Health. Letters. House. Pictures. Trash. Recycle. Cute Things My Daughter Made. The Dreaded Miscellaneous. 

And then, either because I'm tired of sorting or I've been thinking about my father lately, I exit at Dad's Army Stuff and get lost for quite a while.
My father, Staff Sergeant William Langton
WWII

Staff Sergeant William Francis Langton fought in the Pacific in WWII, and I know by heart the few stories he told about combat. But I find a book in the folder about the Battle of Saipan that came out just after he died 11 years ago. The author sent a copy because my dad gave him some material for the book. In my sadness at his death, I had never brought myself to read it. So I settle in, to see if a stranger can tell me something more about the life of the man I miss so much.

I get more than I bargained for. The author is the nephew of a lieutenant colonel in my dad's infantry regiment who was killed on Saipan. He interviewed hundreds of old soldiers for the book, and their memories give a human face to the grim strategies and statistics.

The details are excruciating, and it is harder still to realize my dad saw and did what is described. That gentle man carried a horror inside that he hid from all who loved him. For the rest of his life, it bonded him to his fellow fighters. Those who survived knew all too well the tale of their Bronze medals earned on Saipan. They met at reunions for years to keep the memory alive, or to make it bearable. I'm not sure which; maybe a bit of both.
My father's medals

It has grown dark and chilly, and my legs are cramped. I tuck the book away, and peek in one more tattered manila envelope with my dad's blocky scrawl on the front: “The Guys.” Inside are typed sheets, over 60 years old, with names of his whole company. They are scribbled with notes about Christmas cards sent and addresses changed over the decades. I used to help my dad write those cards so long ago. One by one their names were crossed off, until no one was left to keep a tally.

I put the yellowed sheets back into the envelope, and place the envelope in a pile by itself. I call it, simply, To Keep.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Getting in Step with Smaller Living

The last of 35,000 steps
Photo by Letty DiLeo

Having trouble walking can sure make your world tiny.

I went to crazy town a few weeks ago and ran my first half marathon on the spur of the moment. It turns out there’s a reason people train so hard to run 13.1 miles. It’s not just about how fast you finish, it’s about finishing at all. Which I did, thank you, in three-and-a-half hours. I even beat a few folks. OK, eight to be exact.

Our house from the side, 
the only vantage point 
to see the addition
But what I did not beat are the laws of nature. If your body isn’t used to pounding for 35,000 steps, including four trips over bridges, you are going to pay the price. It cost me not only moving in comfort for a few days, but the ability to walk. It’s unclear if I have a stress fracture in my foot or a soft tissue injury (ugh, sounds gooey). I haven’t had it looked at yet in hopes it just resolves itself. At day four, I was hobbling around on a crutch and the surgery shoe my daughter used when she fractured her foot in a dance performance. I staked out a little corner of our living room to do my work on a laptop, because the stairs up to the office are not my friends.

I’m happy to have done the race, and even more happy that my cane is a temporary tool. But it’s made me think about stairs of the future. I’m not saying that I’m too old for stairs, or that I don’t expect to be able to climb stairs in retirement. And people say stairs are good for you.  
But I hope to continue to be an active person who seeks out exercise and doesn’t have to rely on having a second story to keep me fit. This race reminded me that there are events and injuries that make a house without stairs a lifesaver.

Our house from the back, 1991
Our house from the back, 2013
I’ve always liked one-story houses because they tend to be smaller and cuter than their taller cousins. Our current house is a 1920s bungalow that was a 1,300-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-story when we bought it. Once we had a child, we wanted a third bedroom for an office and guests. Tucked onto a small downtown lot, we had nowhere to go but up. We are also in the historic district with strict guidelines. We discovered the “airplane” bungalows of the past, and were approved for a one-room upstairs addition that blended into the design of the house. From the front, cute little bungalow. From the back, stately two-story. Kind of like the mullet haircut of houses. It’s the best of both worlds.

Our house from the front, 1991

Our house from the front, 2013 
You can't see the addition in the back
But as I’ve blogged before, it’s just more house than we are going to need soon. We’d been looking at smaller places, even condos. But we’d focused more on square footage than access. There are plenty of second-floor condos and duplexes here in our waterfront town, perfect for rising seawaters, and some small two-story houses. But now I’m leaning toward keeping my feet, and my house, on the ground. At least until I take up skydiving at 70.