Chatting with someone seated next to me at a family event in D.C. last weekend reminded me of how fortunate I am to be living in a large retirement community.  The 78 year old retired lawyer I was talking to said he had been very disappointed to be turned down as a volunteer based on his age.   That rang a bell because I, too, have recently been told I was too old for two temporary volunteer jobs in Israel that attracted me.  In my active retirement community, no one is turned down on the basis of age.  In fact, a former city mayor was 90 when she served.  We have a Century Club with quite a membership — some for more than a year or two.  And our  retirement community of about 18,000 residents is basically run and governed by old folks.  Even part time paid jobs within the community are available for those of any age who want to work.  One of my 93 year old friends does just that.

We CAN do things — like ride horses at the stables our community owns, plant flowers or vegetables in garden plots, organize and manage over 250 clubs and organizations, go hiking, golf, work out daily at either of two fitness centers, run after tennis balls, dance, participate in the Senior Olympics, swim in any one of 5 swimming pools (each with a different temperature), produce talented art work in a variety of genres, mold pottery, successfully use tools for woodworking, lapidary, jewelry making.  Our technology savvy computer, photography, and video labs are filled with avid users.  We are studied by researchers looking into modern old age that stretches into the 80s, 90s, and even 100s.  Our synchronized swim team has been written up in National Geographic.  We had a springboard diving champion and still have impressive swimming competition champions.   Having our own bus system helps people get around who would otherwise be prisoners in their homes.

The documented healthiest, longest lived people are societies in other countries in which people have lived very physical lives and eaten very modestly.  However, in the U.S., experts stress that seniors need purpose, physical activity, and social interaction to stay healthy.  Indeed, it is the artists, writers, exercisers, and the ones with a passion for a particular activity who are excited about living another day.  I had a friend come to visit who was surprised at all that goes on in our community.  She said she expected to see a bunch of old people just sitting around.  She wasn’t prepared for the hustle and bustle of people voluntarily going, doing, thinking, producing.

Although I could also list disadvantages of living surrounded by people 55 and older, the advantages of living in large retirement communities like Laguna Woods Village in southern California definitely outweigh the options.

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I’m getting ready to go on vacation for three weeks, first to visit a good friend, and then to spend my granddaughter’s winter break with her when I don’t have to share her with school.   It strikes me as strange to take a vacation from retirement.  After all, isn’t retirement a never-ending vacation?  Your time is your own and how to use that time is totally in your control.

But wait!  Retirement isn’t quite all that free.  First of all, there’s 60 to 90 minutes of exercise 6 days a week required for my self-imposed mandatory heart medicine.  Since I no longer drive, that means taking a bus to get to the fitness center for weight training and cardio, to the gym for aerobics, and to the senior center for yoga.  Of course, I have to fit in a shower at some point in the day to wash off the sweat.

So much for the body.  But then there’s the brain.  How many times have I been told that the brains of seniors must be stimulated to keep it from atrophying?  I have friends who love doing  jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, making up original riddles, doing crossword puzzles, finding the hidden words, and beating themselves on electronic games.  I hate all those things, and always have.  But when I was younger, I didn’t see any need for exercising my brain.  It just happened.  Now, as I regularly forget people’s names and why I walked into a room, I wonder if I shouldn’t force myself to do those brain stimulating games I hate.

They say that learning languages is a good way for an old brain to stay active.  I’ve studied Chinese off and on for years, never progressing past a certain level of survival Chinese.  But a Chinese resident of our retirement community has offered to give a class once a week, so I’m trying again.  Most of what I’ve accomplished so far is just re-learning what I’ve forgotten over the years.

Volunteering has always been a part of my week, so I continue to volunteer for clubs and committees, am the President of a local branch of the National League of American Pen Women, and am entering the tenth year of spending my Sunday afternoons as a docent with seals and sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

I noticed a shift as I aged from “doing” to “being.”  So, I make time for “being,” going down to a pretty creek near my home and sitting in a tree, taking solitary night walks, meditating and deep breathing.  I am usually reading a few books at a time, which is another form of “being” because it brings me to different ideas, new places, stationary travels, without “doing.”  I try, but don’t often succeed, in getting through one Saturday and one Sunday newspaper a week.  I used to get magazines, but they were an expense I’ve had to cut out of my dwindling budget.

Socializing is necessary for mental well-being, and mutual enjoyment.  Since I live alone, I need to allot time for being social and nurturing  friendships.  Living in a retirement community helps by offering many activities, club events, and chances to be with other people.  I won’t say there aren’t any isolated people among the 18,000 of us who live here, but there are numerous, convenient, and easy opportunities to be social.

I used to spend a lot of mental energy on planning what comes next, where to live, where to go next, how to find a job.  Although I like to be thinking a few months or a year in advance of travels, my future planning doesn’t extend too far into the future anymore.  It is in proportion to my lower energy level and my severe financial restraints.

Reluctantly, more of my mental energy seems to be going into physical realms.  Blood pressure and cholesterol and keeping down my food intake are daily thoughts.  There seems to be an increasing rate of “little” problems — strange twinges, tweaks, creaks, and pains that weren’t there when I went to bed.  Of course, Medicare reminds me regularly of all those regular preventive tests they think I should be taking.  It’s boring – and scary – as friends succumb to all sorts of ills.  I count my health blessings daily along with wondering, as I did today, if I really should still be climbing up a ladder to clean the outside of the my bedroom windows.  I still do all my own housecleaning, but it’s more tiring than it used to be.

In fact, retirement is a busy time.  No wonder I need a vacation!

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