How to give yourself credit for the life you’ve lived… is it simply luck, or something better?

Yesterday we were watching a Youtube video of a boating tour around Venice. Visiting Venice in the mid-1980s was one of my most favorite trips ever. It felt like a trip back in time for me and I loved it! As I watched I kept saying, “I was so lucky to go all of the places I’ve been in my life!” Then I questioned that statement. Was it just luck? Not at all.

When I was young I got the travel bug from my Dad, so whenever I decided to go somewhere, I just did it. I would spend money I didn’t have to go live in Bangkok, float down a number of rivers all over the West, or go sailing in the Caribbean. A friend and I took what we called “the people’s ferry” up the Pearl River to Guilin, China before anyone else was going there. None of these were planned tours, we just went.

This was not a simple case of luck, but rather a perfect example of my belief that ‘what you focus on grows.’ It was my natural inclination to see as much of the world as I could. Luck had little to do with it. Of course the tough part was the bronchitis I had in Bangkok, China, Taipei and Venice, and my difficulties breathing at 8,300 feet in Cuenca, Ecuador. Health scares drove me to visit as many places as I could before my lungs became a problem, making me ever more thankful that I traveled so much when I was young.

Another example of apparent luck? Having such loving beings around me as I find myself not so healthy or able to travel easily. Now I see that was not luck at all. I am one of those people who doesn’t have many friends, but those I have are completely loyal. They know me and love me unconditionally, through thick and thin.

Believing it was just luck that I now live in such a naturally quiet and beautiful place with an amazing garden is pure foolishness. Getting here took quite a bit of time, stress and energy, but it was all completely worth it!

Through this thought process I realized how easy it can be to simply feel lucky, but I think it is important that we give ourselves full credit for the choices we’ve made consciously throughout our lives.

Perhaps we have been better at life than we thought! Imagine that!

Boomer health is failing earlier than our parents

In a very roundabout way, I learned recently that we Baby Boomers are the first generation in American history to have worse physical and mental health than previous generations. Disturbing huh. Along with celebrating my Mom’s 89th birthday this week, I got some results back from a two hour test of my memory, a baseline for future understanding of how my memory is changing. One of the most concerning findings to me was that I suffer from apathy and depression. So, like a good researcher, I started checking to see how common these feelings are among my own generation. Come to find out:

“Americans born between 1948 and 1965 are more likely than the generations that preceded them to have multiple health problems as they age. Many develop two or more health conditions up to 20 years sooner than folks from other generations…” according to the articleCohort Trends in the Burden of Multiple Chronic Conditions Among Aging U.S. Adultsin the June 2022 issue of The Journals of Gerontology

It seems our apathy may be showing… This study classified people, based on the generation they were born into, like this: Greatest generation (born 1923 or earlier); early children of the Depression (1924 to 1930); late children of the Depression (1931 to 1941); war babies (1942 to 1947); early boomers (1948 to 1953); mid boomers (1954 to 1959); and late baby boomers (born 1960 to 1965).

The researchers looked at nine chronic conditions: heart disease; high blood pressure; stroke; diabetes; arthritis; lung disease; cancer (except skin cancer); depression symptoms; and trouble with memory and thinking skills. Among adults with multiple chronic health problems, arthritis and high blood pressure were the most common for all generations, higher rates of depression and diabetes drove the surge in chronic conditions seen in boomers. Some links can be found between the introduction of fast food and television:

“Fast food restaurants became very popular during the 1950s because families were busy and they needed a place where they could quickly pick up food; people also wanted to be able to get quick food that they could eat in front of their new TVs.”

In other trends, American baby boomers scored lower on tests of cognitive functioning than did members of previous generations, according to a 2020 nationwide study. Findings showed that average cognition scores of adults aged 50 and older increased from generation to generation, beginning with the greatest generation (born 1890-1923) and peaking among war babies (born 1942-1947). These scores began to decline in the early baby boomers (born 1948-1953) and decreased even further among middle baby boomers (born 1954-1959).

 What was most surprising to me is that this decline could be seen in all groups: men and women, across all races and ethnicities and across all education, income and wealth levels. Results showed lower cognitive functioning in boomers was linked to less wealth, higher levels of loneliness, depression, inactivity and obesity, and less likelihood of being married. Could this also be linked in some way to how many of us have tried to live up to our parents’ demands and standards and failed?

The biggest concern is that these apparent trends in lower cognitive functioning in those in their 50s and 60s, could lead to a higher rate of dementia as we age. Among the aging population in the United States, we are already seeing an increase in the number of Americans with dementia. This may continue in our future.

Gratitude for Internet Friends!

With so many nasty things happening on the Internet these days, I would like to call attention to a few marvelous friends I have made over the years and recognize a wonderful source for these friendships. The “Women of Midlife” group on Facebook was started about a decade ago to attract and assist women writers with support and friendship. I joined as soon as it formed, and through the years, as I read the writing of various other women past age 40, I developed online friendships. But I had no idea how much these women meant to me until I ran my last post about aging faster than my friends.

I wrote there about friendship loss as we age and our health begins to fail and was astounded by the response from the friendships I have developed over the years on “Women of Midlife.” These few women have watched me grow as a writer and as a woman over the years and therefore understand best my frustrations with brain injury and how that is now limiting my abilities to communicate and connect with others. They also seem to know that it has been quite difficult for me to make any real friends in my new environment in rural southern Colorado.

One message in particular hit home for me:

“Laura, you have always been tenacious in your hold on life. Your connection to nature often pulls you through. Your love for those in your life MAKES YOU YOUNGER than many. And finally your mental strength. I believe when we lose some of the physical the mental takes over. That is certainly the case with you.”

Blessings, Beth

I had no idea Beth understood my struggles so well and yet continue because of my desire to keep pressing on in spite of multiple challenges. I knew that some women, whom I have known for years but have never met in person, do care for me, but this response was unmistakable in its understanding, love and concern.

Thank you to “Women of Midlife” for fostering these kinds of close online friendships!

P.S. I also just learned what ‘ghosting’ is from one of those friends. Shame on those who do it!

What it feels like to age faster than my friends

Recently I have begun to realize that what I am experiencing at age 67 is what most in my age cohort will experience later. Because of my present health concerns, lung disease and a few serious brain injuries, I feel now what most in my age group may not feel for a decade or two. This has come home to me with a few recent occurrences.

First is my upcoming 50th high school reunion next summer. At first I got confused about whether it was this year or next year, and when I realized it was next summer that they were trying to schedule for, I had to respond with, “I’m not sure if I’ll even be here by then…Either way I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to come.” 

I have also recently heard from a few friends from decades ago. My best friend from high school wrote out of the blue to “catch up.” She is probably a typical 67-year-old who recently retired, loves to travel, and is proud of her children and grandchildren. They seem to have very few health problems. I told her the truth about my situation. I didn’t hear anything back, period.

Same with a lover/friend from my mid-20s. He sent me a brief e-mail in April saying, “Hope all is well.” I sent him a summary of my life now and received stark silence in return when I told him the truth about what is happening with me.

One thing is for certain, my life experiences in the past decade or so have changed my outlook on life. One cannot suffer a traumatic brain injury and fractured ribs, with periods of unconsciousness over 24 hours, without seeing life differently. Now I see that experience as a gift, one which greatly raised my appreciation of life while showing me that death is truly not so unusual or scary. We may simply experience an accident, lose consciousness and it’s over. Is that so bad?

Losing my ability to breathe without oxygen has taught me compassion for those who lose any basic ability that others take for granted. I know now how others can suffer from judgments from others and how harsh I may have been by unconsciously judging those with limited abilities through no fault of their own.

These challenges and insights I face now are the same as many in my age group will face eventually. I’m just getting an early start. I find my experiences so revealing about disability and aging. I try to face all new experiences with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Too bad others seem to want to avoid looking at my life now and possibly their our future.

Divorce is legal? When did that happen?

Thanks to one of my readers, I just learned something fascinating about American history. You know how if something is legal today we assume it has always been that way? Well divorce is relatively newly legal in our country! Especially no-fault divorce, meaning either party could walk away for any reason. The modern concept of a divorce varies by culture and religion, but early forms of divorce were almost always only if the husband wanted it. I remember when I lived in Taiwan in the early 1980s, only men could choose divorce and then only he had all the power to decide whether to keep the kids or not. He usually only kept them if they were male.

The first recorded divorce in the American colonies was that of Anne Clarke and her husband Denis Clarke of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on January 5, 1643. The divorce was granted by the Quarter Court of Boston, MA on the grounds that Denis Clarke abandoned his wife to be with another woman.

If your marriage broke up in the 1750s, you had to obtain a private Act of Parliament—essentially, an exception to Britain’s draconian divorce law—to formally divorce. The process was expensive and time-consuming, so wife-selling arose as a form of faux divorce.

Until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, it was essentially impossible to obtain a divorce in the U.S., no matter how bad the marriage or how cruel one’s husband. A couple could only be divorced by the passage of a private act through Parliament, a remedy available only to the very wealthy.

If you wanted a divorce in the early 1900s, you had to prove your significant other had committed adultery, abused, or abandoned you. By 1916, the U.S. led the world in number of divorces and in 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Williams v. North Carolina that other states had to recognize divorces, under the “full faith and credit” clause of the U.S. Constitution. It wasn’t even until the late 1960s that Americans were allowed no-fault divorces.

If there was divorce in your own family history, like mine, the family was usually quite secretive about it. And as we all know, secrecy usually equals shame in our culture. In my family, who were basically Southern Baptist farmers in the Kansas City area in the early 1900s, I can think of three family secrets that my Mom had to really dig for when she decided to do our full genealogical history: divorce, marrying someone of the Jewish faith and severe mental illness.

My own 2001 Colorado divorce was quite quick and painless. We never had to show up in court because the filing was uncontested, meaning we were not fighting over assets and we had no children. We just filled out some forms, paid $99 and we were done. No muss no fuss, except for a few hurt feelings and the various biases and criticisms I experienced from others afterwards. One great side effect for me, my TMJ went away never to return!

Did you know that more than one quarter of Americans getting divorced in the United States today are over age 50, and most of those divorces happen after 20 years of marriage? Pew Research found that the rate of divorce among those over 50 nearly doubled from 1990 to 2015, and the attitudes of those Americans have shifted to feeling much more supportive of divorce.

Here’s my own conclusion a few years after my own divorce:

“Perhaps it’s mainly women who get stigmatized by divorce: “What’s the matter—couldn’t keep your man?” The assumption being that any man is better than no man at all. Come on—we can do better than this, people! Few marriages are matches made in heaven, and sometimes they truly need to end. Mismatched is no match at all. It’s only fair that after a mistake, each of us can try again to find happiness before it’s too late.”

My experiences with aging, disability and my own mental health

I’ve been thinking a lot about aging and mental health lately, so I looked up the topic. According to an article from our National Institutes of Health:

“The most common mental disorders in older people include depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Mental disorders are associated with increased healthcare costs, mortality and suicide, along with interference with daily living, and a reduction in quality of life.”

From my own experiences, this makes perfect sense. As our health declines, so does our ability to feel good about our lives, and then there are those predictable thoughts about how we’ve lived our lives and what it must feel like to die. One thing I experience is the daily differences in how I feel about my life, but I’m not certain how much of that is caused by my head injuries. Some days I feel almost like I used to, happy and ready to get out and try new things. Other times I can barely get out of bed and face the day. The problem is I cannot predict what will happen each day, so it’s difficult to plan ahead.

Mike has observed this unpredictability and also wondered what causes it. Now I believe part of it is a natural response to losses later in life. Some days I see little future for myself and so I feel depressed. I do not want to drag him down, because there is no need for both of us to suffer. Other days I feel that old optimism and then I can’t believe I was so low yesterday.

What could be more natural than our ability to confront our own aging and disabilities better on some days than others? Also it takes time to adjust to such major changes in health and abilities…

Realistically my ability to travel very far or go anywhere I want to is limited. But also my desire to travel has become less with age and with so many fantastic travel videos to be enjoyed on Youtube. The place Mike and I most want to visit now is Patagonia. There’s a very good chance I won’t ever get there, but I love watching travel videos and dreaming… Now that’s something previous generations did not have! We really are very lucky, even in our old age. I appreciate that everyday!

“Even in seemingly dormant times, we are in transition. Losses and gains are in constant play. We are the change-agent, and we are changed. Even without toil, we transform. So, wisdom advises us to open our hearts to transition; to honor fully what is passing, to learn from all that unfolds, and to welcome what arrives at our door each day with courage and curiosity.”