Category Archives: Health and wellness

Try this Antidote for Aging: Leave the Car at Home

I gave up my membership at CorePower Yoga in September, in anticipation of becoming eligible for Medicare. After nine years, I said a reluctant goodbye to the Colorado-based chain that brought fast-paced, fitness yoga to the masses, at least those of us who could afford it.

Now, my Blue Cross Blue Shield Advantage plan, which supplements the hospitalization and basic clinical coverage in Medicare Parts A and B, offers free membership at certain health clubs. The youth-oriented CorePower is not among them, and so I took another step down the path leading directly to old age and signed up at the YMCA a walkable distance from my house and Lifetime Fitness, a bus ride away.

Exciting, yes, but the busing and walking will benefit my aging mind and body more than any health club membership ever could.

Four reasons why:

  1. I will engage in active transportation — walking (with or without my dogs) or riding a bus or bike — far more often than I’ll get to BodyPump at the Y or the Gluteous MAXout class at Lifetime Fitness.
  2. I notice more about my community and the wider world when I get around in a way that de-prioritizes cars, which separate us from other people. Paying attention makes me aware of how the world has changed, keeping me current on social trends, and that’s good for older people.
  3. I am more likely to engage with others — greeting them on a sidewalk, chatting with them on a bike path — and social interaction sparks my aging brain.
  4. My imagination takes flight and my worries right-size when I am gazing out the window on a bus or train or moving freely outdoors. Speed no longer is the top priority.

Being a daily pedestrian, a regular transit rider and at least a two-season cyclist have become ingrained habits. Because I live in a city — in a neighborhood with sidewalks, bike paths and several bus routes an easy walk away — I can incorporate those practices more readily than someone who lives in a small town or a suburb. And yet a walk or a bike ride can happen almost anywhere.

Active transportation is an ideal way to exercise as we age, at a time of life when we’re more serene and less competitive. (At 65, my last timed run is a decade behind me, and I never bought a computer for my road bike.) I have been keeping a multimodal diary since July, jotting down why I was grateful on any given day to have made the counter-cultural choice to leave the car in the garage and move instead on my own power.

Communal transportation requires patience, flexibility and, at times, humility — having to explain, for example, that a late bus is beyond your control. But all three traits are invaluable to graceful aging.

Consider this:

  • If I hadn’t taken the bus to a volunteer shift at Planned Parenthood North Central States, I wouldn’t have gained 3,000 steps on a brisk and bracing day, warmed slightly by the sunshine, when I missed my bus and had to high tail it to a different route.
  • If I hadn’t walked to the bus stop for yoga on a Sunday morning in July, I wouldn’t have been able to greet a neighbor and introduce myself to another. I would have lost the chance to read an article in that morning’s Washington Post. Still, had I driven, I could have left home 30 minutes later. In a go-go society, that matters.
  • If I hadn’t bussed to a business meeting where I didn’t have the option of running late, I would not have recognized the luxury of having choices. I allowed myself five minutes to get to a bus stop three blocks away: Why did my dog choose this moment to escape from the back gate? But, of course, I could always use my car if I missed the bus. Privilege means having options — and less anxiety than the young man in the back of the bus shouting into his mobile phone about how he was short on rent because he spends too much money (“meals out, shin guards”) on his girlfriend’s kids.
  • If I hadn’t ridden my bike to meet a friend for coffee, I wouldn’t have discovered the private, pristine patio behind Cahoot’s Coffee Bar on a lovely autumn day. It was the safest place to park my new bike, and the barista kindly helped me get it back there.
  • If I had driven to a meeting where the bus did make me late, I would have missed the 12-minute walk to the bus stop and the reminder that I used to commute to work by foot — 17 minutes each way — and need to build that exercise into my new routine of at-home contract work.
  • If I hadn’t taken the Green Line train to a meeting in downtown St. Paul, I wouldn’t have figured out how to feel safe on a transit system wrestling with crime. I sat in the car closest to the conductor, looped one strap of my backpack around my arm, kept my smartphone out of sight and minded my own business.
  • If I hadn’t walked to a meeting at a favorite coffee shop just far enough away to contemplate driving, I wouldn’t have snagged the metal plant stand shaped like a tricycle from a neighborhood antique store just moments before they closed.

We can’t lecture or guilt people into driving less, even though we know it helps cut greenhouse gas emissions. Sure, we can cite climate change as an existential threat, but Americans know that — we’ve been whipsawed all summer by news of drought here, torrential rains there — and still, our self-defeating practices don’t change.

I used to work for a man who left his climate-controlled house in the suburbs, got into his climate-controlled vehicle in his attached garage, drove freeways to the campus where we both were employed and parked in a climate-controlled garage beneath the student center. Once upstairs, he walked the equivalent of half a city block outside to reach his climate-controlled office. That was the extent of his engagement with the outdoors.

I don’t have enough years left on the planet to spend them encased in air-conditioned structures that separate me from what is real, and essential. I want to be out there, amid it all, with the city and Mother Nature, as unpredictable and sometimes scary as they both may be.

Photo courtesy of Jan Huber on Unsplash

The ABCs (and Ds) of Medicare: Back to the Basics

Why do so few people in Medicare brochures wear glasses? (Sometimes the men do.) Why do so many of us aging Americans view 65 — the age at which we qualify for government-sponsored healthcare (thank you, LBJ) — as a natural end to our full-time working years? Who could have predicted that learning the ABCs would be a task not only for toddlers but for those of us toddling toward retirement, too?

“Don’t let the alphabet confuse you,” a BlueCross BlueShield Minnesota rep told me last January during the first of my phone calls to learn more about Medicare. Back then, I thought understanding the multi-pronged program would be child’s play.

“Parts A and B are original Medicare,” he explained patiently, while I pictured him holding up colored wooden blocks. “Part C is an advantage plan. Part D is prescription drugs.”

D is for drugs, I told myself: I can remember that!

The ABCs of old age

Turns out, there’s so much more. I have learned that the weightiest decisions about Medicare — whether to enroll in a Medigap or an Advantage plan, when to enroll in Parts B and D without facing a lifetime penalty, which private insurer to use — can all be delayed since I plan to keep working full time, with employer-provided healthcare, after I turn 65 in July.

Still, my months of research have changed my perception of where I am in life. Wrinkles flank my mouth and crease the bridge between my eyes. My right hip hurts from over-exercise. I feel the beginning twinges of arthritis in my hands. Or am I finally just acknowledging the obvious?

“I’m officially old,” I texted my lifelong friend, who turns 65 in May, six weeks ahead of me. “Just enrolled in Medicare Part A.” (That’s the part that covers most hospitalization expenses and is free at 65, provided you’ve worked long enough to qualify.)

“If I didn’t tell you today, I LOVE YOU!” she replied, reassuring me that I am really only “young-old.” Age reveals the importance of family and friends, the relationships we nurture because we need one another as we feel our way forward, toward the inevitable end time.

Marketing Madness

An unmarked white envelope fell out of my newspaper the other morning, an ad to join AARP. Did all subscribers get these, or is generational marketing that sophisticated? My mailbox hasn’t been so stuffed with ads —invitations to Medicare 101 classes, appeals from insurance companies whose chief executives earn multiple millions of dollars a year — since I aged out of the desirable demographic of 18 to 54 years old.

The first piece of Medicare mail has proven the most useful. A tall, laminated, two-sided flyer from UCare, it looks and functions like a large bookmark and has sat atop the growing pile of brochures for months. One side declares in oversized, old people–friendly type what steps to take six, four and three months before you turn 65; the other side urges you toward the research you should do anyway if you plan to keep working past age 65 and are fully insured.

Three key points that months of research has taught me:

First: Other than Part A (the standard hospitalization coverage), Medicare, contrary to assumptions, is not free. Nor is it the Bernie Sanders vision of a single-payer, government-sponsored program. A former colleague of mine retired nine months before turning 65. Despite careful budgeting and the blessing of her financial advisor to walk away from a six-figure salary before she qualified for Medicare, she said the monthly cost of post-retirement healthcare coverage surprised her: “It’s expensive!”

Second: If you have healthcare through your employer, and plan to keep working past 65, determine whether the prescription drug coverage is “creditable,” meaning it at least equals Medicare Part D; that’s the only way to delay Part D enrollment without a penalty once you have turned 65. (Given that a trusted neighbor contradicted the advice from a BlueCross salesman, I have fact-checked this several times.)

Third: “Original Medicare” — Parts A and B — covers only 80 percent of your expenses. That means you have to figure out the distinction between a Medigap supplemental plan and the relatively new (since 1997) Advantage plans, which are cheaper, more bound to a network of providers and recently have been in the news for denying claims. Heavily marketed, they appeal to healthy, young-old people like me because of their emphasis on fitness programs and coverage for fashionable eyewear.

We ego-driven Baby Boomers don’t feature ourselves ever sliding into decrepitude or suffering the indignities that a more expensive Medigap plan would cover.

Medicare’s Promise and Potential

Just as I started saving for retirement at age 27 and have counseled my grown sons to do the same, I have spent months now researching how Medicare works and what health coverage I may need heading into these years when the uncertainty of life has never looked more certain.

Key to keeping the fear at bay has been talking to people who have crossed the bridge:

  • My politically conservative confidant who favors UCare because he won’t buy health insurance from a for-profit company like United HealthCare.
  • My friend who thinks Advantage plans are overrated and overmarketed; she uses a more expensive Medigap supplemental plan because it serves her wherever she travels, including overseas.
  • My buddy who swears that the free services of a broker — who, of course, is getting compensated by insurance companies — bring clarity to the head-spinning confusion of Medicare options. He laughed at my insistence on doing my own research (“that’s so like you, Amy”).

For those of us who have earned enough and had the discipline to save throughout our working years, Medicare opens a door to the final active stage of life. However much I may mock the glossy brochures — color photos of women walking in the woods, a laughing couple out on bikes, a man lingering in a bookstore, two women talking over coffee — I have to concede that the calmer life they portray looks good.

Nothing in the stack of marketing materials tells me how to decide when to leave full-time employment. How I’ll fill my time or discover a new identity. How my husband and I will belt-tighten once a tidy sum of money no longer drops into our checking account every other Friday.

Most of us know that retirement requires a baseline of financial planning; but emotional and spiritual planning are just as important.

Connie Zweig, Ph.D.

What I do know — and what one of my older sisters predicted — is that my view of work is shifting, almost without bidding, as I edge closer to the time when healthcare coverage no longer ties me to a demanding full-time job. Allowing others to control my schedule, always carrying the worries with me, rarely getting a full night’s sleep: It’s all less appealing and less physically possible as I age.

“How we retire, and how we imagine retirement, may be more important than when we retire,” says Connie Zweig, Ph.D. in her 2021 book The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul. “All this emphasis on working and doing . . . stresses that purpose comes through productivity and doesn’t appear to include more service-oriented doing or more contemplative, spiritual development,” she writes.

Maybe the Medicare brochures with all their bicycles and coffee breaks are marketing more than overpriced health insurance, after all. Maybe it’s time to listen, to see the end of work-as-identity as a new beginning. As a time when I finally will be free.

‘Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me?’

I have hummed the Paul McCartney tune numerous times since my birthday in July, the ditty describing a funny, fantastical, faraway place that young people think they will never reach. Until they get there.

When I get older, losing my hair” has become real at 64, except I am losing it in places I had never imagined, both visible (the legs and eyebrows) and unseen. My thumbs ache every morning as I wiggle them back to action on my daily dog walk. My calves and toes cramp after a long day on my feet, especially an arthritic second toe.

So far, unlike some friends, I have escaped any surgical side effects of growing old.

  • The woman who hired and trained me to be a fitness instructor when I turned 40 just got knee replacement surgery, after years of downhill skiing and step aerobics.
  • My best friend recently fell 7 feet from a ladder while doing yardwork, and the surgeon who replaced her shattered hip commented on the evidence of osteoporosis.

These women are my peers, age 64 or thereabouts. We are the “young-old,” a term variously defined as the entire 60s, ages 65 to 69, and the period of life after paid work and parenting. Ask any of us, however, and we will tell you we don’t feel old — emotionally, intellectually or even physically, on most days.

We see images of healthful aging, the trim, wrinkled people with gray hair and no eyeglasses in Medicare ads, for example. But no one describes what aging will feel like or who we will become. “The stories of our complexity, our wisdom, and our joy are not often told,” writes cultural anthropologist and clinical psychologist Mary Pipher in her latest book, Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age.

If you only complain about old age, you descend into an embittered stereotype. Better to embrace than to deny, to focus on this stage of life as being not better or worse, but different. “Remember the first rule of the wilderness: don’t panic,” writes Pipher, who seeks solace and spiritual growth in nature.

Pipher has been criticized for writing in the plural “we,” making pronouncements on behalf of all aging women, whatever their cultural background or economic circumstances. Still, her well-researched guidebook is a helpful starting point, and her emphasis on maintaining emotional stability — “Let’s aim to become more curious and less worried and more self-aware and less reactive” — is spot-on.

Here is what “when I’m 64” looks and feels like for me, a woman who is white and well off, athletic and adaptive, and who has benefited from having health insurance throughout her life.

How aging looks

Photographs reveal what I don’t notice in the bathroom mirror, the creped skin on my neck, the parentheses of wrinkles that flank my mouth, the indentations beneath my eyes, which look bald without makeup.

“Maybe you should turn the light on in the bathroom,” joked a friend when I described the younger version of me who stares back while I brush my hair or floss my teeth. Extra light wouldn’t matter. Eyebrows raised, face alert, I see what I want to see, the person I think I am, a woman still vibrant and full of life. My face relaxes more in photos, and I look old.

During a long lunch recently with the friend who had made the bathroom joke, I noticed that her face, 13 months younger, is aging in the same ways as mine. I observe that fact calmly as we sip our steaming teas, without the cringing or harsh judgment I heap upon myself. I see her beauty as clearly as when we met in our mid-20s, tempered now by wisdom and experience.

At CorePower, a young person’s yoga studio, I take classes during the workday or on early weekend mornings when I am more likely to be among people my own age. Raised in a competitive era that valued women for their looks, I measure my body against those of my classmates: Your waistline will never be what it was. Your thighs are still trim, though dimpled with age. Why not emulate the body positivity of the older men who bare their sagging breasts and ample bellies without shame?

Next step: Switch on the bathroom light and look myself squarely in the eye while I acknowledge that, indeed, I’m 64.

How aging feels

Anyone who knows me well will cite work, my career, as foundational in my life, a pursuit that has defined and consumed me for almost 40 years.

I took pride in supporting my family while my husband was primary parent to our children, even as I recognized in later years what that role cost me. I have valued the intellectual stimulation of work, always pitching ideas, seeking more responsibility, pushing myself to start graduate school as my mother was dying.

Now, my parents are gone, my children are grown, and I’ve got more time than ever to be a Boomer workaholic. Except my head and heart aren’t in it anymore. Deeper into my 60s, work simply matters less. I no longer feel like my career defines me.

Instead, I am expanding my cooking skills and learning to knit again. I volunteer my time and talents, took up weightlifting during the pandemic and walk, bike or jog every day. I am intentional about maintaining friendships and family relationships.

At 64, I find myself less able to multitask, more prone to caffeine interfering with my sleep and, with retirement on the horizon, less willing to deal with drama and work-related stress. I am starting to yearn for a life less driven by my Outlook calendar and to-do lists. I wonder some days whether I make a difference anymore.

This newfound need for balance sneaked up on me, as surely and subtly as the wrinkles between my eyebrows. “It’s all about change,” intoned the narrator of an AARP online driving seminar that my husband and I took to lower our insurance rates. “Older people slow down.” Physical fragility increases and mental acuity decreases between ages 60 and 64, the seminar taught us (as if we didn’t know).

“You wake up in the morning and something always hurts,” my late father used to say. Humility becomes an unexpected source of strength.

How aging can render you irrelevant

I insist on stating my age to colleagues at the university where I work, almost daring someone to judge me lesser for it. At a time when our society is rightly focusing on the marginalized among us, I consider it something of a calling, even as a privileged white person, to remind people that ageism is a reality, too.

A “climate survey” sponsored by Human Resources provided 12 categories — a dozen boxes we could check — to define our identities and provide more accurate data. The categories ranged from geographic (Minneapolis or St. Paul campus) to options that help delineate sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender. No category asked about age, and yet it is a dominant factor in my evolving perspective about work, life, love, meaning, spirituality and my commitment to social causes.

“I felt my maturing as a journey inward and the beginning of a new kind of freedom,” writes Isabel Allende in her memoir, The Sum of Our Days. How is being heterosexual or working on the St. Paul campus any more relevant than being 64?

You don’t realize, or at least I didn’t, that eventually you will slide into a stereotype. A Boomer, a butt of jokes. I serve on several community councils, often with much younger people, which I think of as mutually beneficial but particularly good for me. Until I hit the predictable wall of resentments against my generation.

During a field trip recently to document neglect in a vital commercial section of our city, one 30-ish man decried the lack of support for telecommuting among the Baby Boomers at his law firm. I told him that after 14 years of a brutally long commute, I vowed never again to work at a job that required me to drive rather than walk or use mass transit or that lacked the flexibility to work from home. He didn’t respond. My experience failed to fit his age-related assumptions.

But I was the one who stayed silent when the conversation turned to the missteps that a young colleague of ours is making on social media, where he represents the organization. I suggested communications coaching, assuming they would seek my advice given my decades in the field. “I think the coaching would have to be from someone closer to his age,” said the young woman in our trio, describing how older women had tried to “mother” her at work.

Irrelevance is more painful than visible wrinkles or aching knees, and we combat it only through vocal protest and courageous action. So, stand up! Speak out! Just organize the activity before 9 p.m. or I’ll be sleeping.