Home as health

Home as Health

9/11 was a life altering event. Like many of us, I can remember exactly where I was when I received word of the attack and saw live footage of the twin towers collapsing. It was a shock to the system. Soon after, pundits speculated how our society would forever change, including how many of us would never again feel comfortable flying. Many of those predictions proved wrong. Within two years, US airline travel rebounded to its pre-9/11 levels.

We’re going through a similar moment with COVID-19. Much has been written about how our society will change from the pandemic, including its impact on aging and retirement. (See Wall Street Journal article: “How Covid-19 will change aging and retirement.”) Predicting how society will change in the midst of a disruptive event can be a fool’s errand. For one, I am confident the attractiveness of urban living won’t disappear, remote working won’t be the norm, and we will shake hands and hug once again.

However, I think that how we think about housing will be different. I was a panelist for the launch of Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing’s Housing and Health Initiative. The discussion covered the link between place and health across the life spectrum, highlighted innovative approaches, and discussed the next frontier for important research. I was part of a similar session recently with the Brookings Institute.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the intersection of place and health, and it’s something critically important for researchers, policymakers and, perhaps most important, consumers to carefully consider.

The 9/11 terror attacks shook the world, but air travel traffic rebounded sooner than many expected (Source: Business Insider)

Home as Health

Where we call home matters. Research on longevity show us that DNA is a factor, but its significance is far outweighed by other elements. By rough numbers, genetics only account for at most 30% of our longevity. Other lifestyle factors, including the role of place and your living environment, are more influential in healthy aging.

Research has highlighted the impact of place. Raj Chetty, an economics professor at Harvard University and director of Opportunity Insights, has harnessed big data to demonstrate how life expectancy can differ by decades based on zip code. And, Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, a book by Dan Buettner, shows specific regions where people have lived significantly longer and healthier. In each case, place had a key role in nudging people towards greater purpose, social connection, physical activity and more.

How to Think About Home

The first step is to think about home as more than a house. Often, the terms are used interchangeably. A house has a set address and is a physical dwelling, most often a single-family house. A home is much more. Home is a composite of our country, region, metropolitan area, neighborhood, streets and physical dwelling, such as a house.

But home is more than a physical space. It has economic, psychological, and social dimensions. It is also a feeling, a sense of attachment. Home has a time dimension, as well. A connection to home can change without necessarily moving. Friends and neighbors move. Interests shift. The perfect home for one point in time can be a terrible place later on.

The right home can elevate well-being. It can help promote purpose, facilitate human connection, catalyze physical activity, support financial health, and inspire community engagement. The wrong home can do just the opposite.

The right home as health
Home should not be confused with a house; it is much more (Source: Jacques Bopp)

What to do about it?

In some cases, nothing. You or a loved one may be in a great spot. It may be the right region, metropolitan area and neighborhood. The physical dwelling may precisely fit your needs and desires.

More often, a minor modification may be best. It could be a lifestyle change, such as making efforts to strengthen social connections – no doubt harder in a pandemic, but even more important – or exercising more regularly. It could be a change to your physical environment. Since we spend about 90% of our time indoors, mostly in our homes, even small changes to our place can have a big impact. Small ideas include finding ways to include more indoor plants, utilizing natural colors, and rearranging furniture for better aesthetics and safety. More significant changes can be done through remodeling.

In other situations, a more significant change may be required. Maybe it is a move to be closer to family. Maybe it is a relocation to a different neighborhood where it is easier to develop and maintain friendships. Maybe it is a move to a smaller place that is more affordable and more in line with the needs of your current life stage.

People who live alone should be particularly cognizant of the impact of place. Older people who live alone are less healthy, and they feel sad or depressed more often than their counterparts who live with a spouse or with others. These correlations stand up even after controlling for demographic factors such as gender, race, age, income and education. Maybe the necessary change is to find a roommate or to move into a congregate setting when it becomes safer after the pandemic.

Big Decisions Take Time

Pundits aren’t the only ones to come to brash conclusions about the long-term impact of the pandemic. Many of us are equally capable of making predictions about the future that don’t last the test of time. The key is not making big decisions that we may regret.

We do know that our environment helps drive our health and well-being. The pandemic has made this link more obvious. With more research, we’ll know more about the factors that matter most when choosing place. Ultimately, it’s our choice as to whether we take advantage of this information and add more quality years to our lives.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Should You Move?

Should You Move?

On average, people move 12 times over their lifetime. Demographers attribute most moves to changes in life circumstances: new job, marriage, kids, and so on. The data bears it out. Most moves are front-end loaded. By age 45, the expected number of moves is shy of 3.

But what about 2020? This year has been a litany of body blows from a pandemic, economic recession, political strife, urban unrest, hurricanes and fires. There are plenty of reasons to wonder if your current home is the best place to weather these times, irrespective of whether there is a change in life circumstances.

While the media has highlighted people moving, in some cases with buyers purchasing houses across the country without having physically seen them, the trend may be overblown. Many of the recent moves may be people accelerating a decision that was already in the works. For others, a move may be temporary until life returns to normal.

Regardless, it is best to carefully weigh moving to a new location, particularly as we get older.

Over 400 Age-Friendly Communities Nationwide (Source: AARP)

Pros of Moving

Moving can offer the prospect of being part of a better environment.

Climate change is an increasing concern, with some places affected more than others. I have a friend who lives in Northern California who may move out of state due to the increasing frequency of wildfires. For him and his wife, it’s not just the risk of losing their home, it is the ongoing stress from the threat of a fire that hinders peace of mind. They find it hard to sleep during the ever-increasing wildfire season.

Where you live matters. If you are in a place where are you not flourishing, better alternatives exist. If you are socially isolated, finding a place where it is easy to make friends could be worthwhile. If you live a sedentary lifestyle but wish to be more active, a move to a locale where activity is the norm could be helpful.

Moving can elevate financial wellbeing. For homeowners, selling a home and moving into a less expensive rental apartment or house can free up capital to help fund retirement. Homeowners are often not aware of the true costs of ownership and the risks of having a meaningful illiquid asset.

Lastly, a move can help with successful aging. There are over 400 age-friendly communities in the country. These communities have taken specific steps, through outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing and more, to make life work better for all ages. A home in an age-friendly community with age-friendly features, such as single-story living and bathrooms with slip-resistant tiles, can be a wise choice for the long-term.

Cons of Moving

One of the biggest risks is assuming that a new location will necessarily lead to a better life. If you’ve lived in a place for a while, you likely have a network of friends and knowledge of the area, a valuable commodity that takes time and effort to replicate in another place. The elements that you appreciate about your current home may not be possible in a new environment. A move may lead to a worse situation.

Moving is expensive and takes energy. If a move involves a house sale, transaction fees and taxes can be meaningful. Moving costs, especially if across regions, can be many thousands of dollars. It also requires a lot of energy to move, particularly if there is downsizing involved. Decluttering can be exhausting.

The wrong move can be hard to undo. Given the cost and energy involved, it can be difficult to return to your prior life if you so desire. When moving, it is safe to assume that you will not be able to recreate your prior life.

Moving, decluttering and downsizing is a chore (Source: Wisconsin Public Radio)

Best to be Patient

The headlines are not encouraging these days. There can be a temptation to make a change in the hope that change can improve our lives.

Chip Conley, best-selling author and founder of the Modern Elder Academy, lived in San Francisco for decades before realizing shortly before the pandemic that he needed a change of scene. It was a challenge for him to leave close friends and a place with many memories, but his soul was ready for something different. It was a good change.

Chip’s story may be the exception. For most of us, we may be best to stay where we are unless there is an overriding need for change. There are ways to improve your wellbeing without necessarily moving. Even a modest renovation can go a long way toward making a place work better for the long haul.

The best strategy may be to be patient and make sure you make a move at the right time and to the right place, if a move is required at all. This is far better than making a panic move. I suspect in the coming years we will hear stories of panic moves from 2020 that didn’t work out as well as envisioned.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Where You Live Matters - SmartLiving 360 blog

Where You Live Matters

Home is multi-pronged. Sometimes, we view it too narrowly, as simply our physical dwelling. Our single-family house, apartment, condo and so on. But the reality is that the country you live in, your metropolitan area, your neighborhood and your physical dwelling all combine to form your place.

The coronavirus crisis is a strong reminder that the place we call home matters. (See Power of Place.) For some, all considered, place has fortified their health and provided reassurances. For others, place has magnified fears and increased health risks. It’s no exaggeration to say that place can be the difference between life and death.

Warren Buffett once said: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

For our institutions and as individuals, the coronavirus has exposed us. For many of us, we hadn’t thought through how our place would be impacted by a pandemic. Unfortunately, neither did enough of our public officials.

My friend, Jeff, and his family live in Seattle. They love it. A number of years ago his brother moved to be near him and, a few years later, his widowed mom left North Carolina to join them. She moved to a well-appointed, high-rise senior living residence downtown. Everyone was pleased with the situation. They had separate spaces and social circles, but also had the ability to regularly get together in person.

When Seattle became the first coronavirus hotspot, Jeff and his family had to act fast. Concerned that his mom would not fare well in a small apartment during a period of quarantine, they swooped in and made accommodations for her to live with Jeff’s brother. It’s been a couple of months now and the new living situation has been better than imagined. Their choice to change places was a good one.

Where you live matters, Los Angeles has been safer than New York City
Place Matters: Living in Los Angeles during the coronavirus has been spectacularly safer than New York City

On the other side of the country, my aunt and uncle in their early 80s live in a retirement community outside of Pittsburgh. (See Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop.) They are so grateful to be there during this time. Several years ago, they moved from a remote, single-family house in Wyoming. Their home had a spectacular view of the neighboring mountains but a grocery store of any size was an hour away, as was medical care. Now, they live in a cottage, have healthy food reliably delivered to them and care, if they need it, is close by. They moved seeking peace of mind which they have found in their community.

We live in a neighborhood in Austin with ample space for walking, running and biking. We’ve been sheltering-in-place for 28 days (who’s counting!?!) and have survived okay thus far. However, on the surface, our neighborhood is not ideal for older adults. A number of older adults live alone and are understandably concerned about venturing out for anything. Social isolation is a concern, but so is procuring the basic provisions for living.

Living alone during a crisis is difficult, but is made better with helping hands
Living alone during the crisis is difficult, especially for older adults, but is made better with helping hands

This is where the neighborhood, another component of place, has stepped in. An engaged member of the neighborhood, Roseann, is working with the local police department to coordinate with older neighbors who live alone or could use help. The list is about twenty households. Roseann has created a network through Nextdoor of nearly the same number of people in the neighborhood willing to help. We’ve pitched in to buy a trash can for an older neighbor, and made and delivered a dinner for a widow. We’re not unusual; this is a cultural norm for the neighborhood.

Our neighborhood has what sociologists call social capital. Neighbors generally seek to know and help each other. (See What Does It Mean to be a Neighbor?) The social networks may not show up in economic figures but they matter. Living alone is tough, but it’s certainly worse in places where social capital is low.

The reality is that place has always mattered. It’s just getting a lot more attention now. As we get through this crisis, if you’re in a great living situation, you should feel grateful. Use it as an opportunity to help those who may not be as fortunate. If you’re not in a great situation, please reach out to others. Perhaps a family member could sweep in, like Jeff did for his mom, or others can come alongside to help provide physical distancing with social connection, or needed provisions, like meals.

There’s not any one right answer for place, but some are better than others. It comes down to individual preference as well as age and stage. Regardless, it’s hard to see the downside of having good neighbors willing to chip in and help no matter what. It’s also valuable to have options. Planning ahead has benefits. (See What Will You Do with Your 8,000 Days? and Are You Prepared to Live to 100?)

Once this crisis passes, an important question will loom: how will you think differently about place post-covid-19? How should your loved ones think about place? It may be one of the most important questions that we collectively and individually face. It’s not fun getting caught naked in general, but especially during a crisis.

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Are You in the Right Place? SmartLiving 360

Are You in the Right Place? The Importance of Place for Healthy Aging

With Christmas and New Year’s Day so close together, it is understandable that the transition from opening gifts with friends and family to reflecting on the past year and future year can happen rather fast. Inevitably, this reflection prompts the question: Am I where I think I should be? Or, said differently, am I in the right place? Research has shown through the “u-shaped” happiness curve that people tend to be less satisfied when they are younger and more satisfied when they are older. (See The Little Known Happiness Curve).

But there is an important related question: Am I in the right physical place?

For you, the answer may be a resounding “Yes!” I have friends of all ages and stages across the country for which this is the case. They love their cities, their neighborhoods, their friends and their homes. Their physical place is helping them thrive.

For many, however, the honest answer may not be as positive. Their physical environment may hold them back and a change, or at least a tweak, may be needed. But change is hard.

In fact, Americans are moving at an unprecedented pace. An unprecedented slow pace. For a country founded on exploration and adventure with the promise of a better future by moving to find it, we have become sedentary. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, less than 10% of Americans moved in the last year, about half of what it was in the 1950s, and the lowest since the U.S. has tracked this statistic.

An example of one person’s forever house
An example of one person’s forever house

Perhaps part of this slowdown is an underappreciation for the impact of place. Our place influences our relationships, our habits and, ultimately, our well-being. Research has shown that positive lifestyle habits, often influenced by our place, can add years to our lifespan and “healthspan.” (See Power of Place.)

After careful consideration, my family decided to move from Baltimore to Austin earlier this year. We were grateful to find buyers for our Baltimore house who fell in love; they saw the house as their “forever house.” They loved the walkable neighborhood, the charm of an old house built in the 1890s and an open backyard which included chickens.

But, in the Age of Longevity (see Are You Prepared to Live to 100?), the idea of living in one house forever has become less realistic. Although it avoids the hassle of moving, which we all can appreciate, it also underestimates that the fact that at different stages of life there may be better places for us than our forever house.

There are a number of reasons why a different place may in fact be a better place.

For those in growth mode, such as growing families, the desire for more space can be the driver. For single urbanites, the idea of leaving the hustle and bustle of the city can be anathema to their values. But marriage and a few kids later, the sudden allure of the spacious suburbs can be too much to deny.

Sometimes, it is a move to economic opportunity. Go west young man. Geographies of high growth and opportunity often lift all boats. This dynamic can appeal to people of all ages and life stages. For my parents, born and raised in the Rust Belt, their move to Northern California in the 1980s created opportunities unavailable to them in their hometowns.

Other times, a move is triggered by a shift to a more desirable lifestyle. Better weather. Less stuff to maintain. Shorter commute. Walkability. Less expense.

Some people are trading their forever house to be near walkable suburban town squares (Source: Adrmore, PA)
Some people are trading their forever house to be near walkable suburban town squares (Source: Adrmore, PA)

There are also times when a move happens based primarily on loss. Maybe family moved away. Perhaps the neighborhood has changed and you don’t know your neighbors. (See What Does it Mean to be a Neighbor?) Or, there’s a decline in health or loss of a spouse. A move to a new location can lessen social isolation and also provide a living environment that is better set up for aging-specific needs.

In all of these situations, a move may not be necessary. Sometimes the better place is the same place just oriented differently. Maybe it’s a remodel to create more space. Maybe it’s changing the design to be more age-friendly, such as adding slip resistant tiles and grab bars in the bathroom. Maybe it’s welcoming in a roommate to reduce housing costs. Maybe it’s cultivating a strong sense of community around you. (See Why Community Matters.) 

One of the psychological challenges we face is that we can be the last people to recognize a change for something better is needed. It can be easier to see changes that others should make. Unfortunately, this lack of self-awareness can be detrimental to our well-being.

Enjoy your time exchanging gifts and ringing in the new year. But don’t miss your opportunity to reflect on whether you and loved ones are in the right physical place. The decision to choose a new and better place may be the most valuable present you get – or give – this holiday season.

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What Will You Do with Your 8,000 Days? Retirement Planning and the Importance of Place

What Will You Do with Your 8,000 Days?

8,000 days and growing. This is the number that Joe Coughlin, head of the MIT AgeLab, uses to estimate the amount of time we’re expected to live beyond the age of 65. It’s roughly the same period as from growing up to graduation from college (early 20s), post-college to mid-life (40s) and from mid-life to retirement age. This “retirement” stage represents 1/3 of adult life today.

It’s great to be living longer but I imagine few of us want to live them as Bill Murray did in the movie Groundhog Day. For 8,000 straight days?

A key question quickly emerges: what will you do with your 8,000 days?

It’s becoming increasingly relevant as more people wish to rewrite the script for retirement planning, particularly as compared to their parents. In some cases, it’s a necessity based on financial realities; in fact, more than half of U.S. workers plan to work past 65, the traditional retirement age. For others, it’s a sense that there is more to life than permanent leisure. The research bears this out: as Dr. Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, states in the Big Idea in 4 Minutes, “There isn’t anything in the psychology literature that suggests that it is good for people to go on vacation for decades.”

The general trend appears to be towards a more active retirement, according to Catherine Collinson, President of the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Work and time for personal pursuits or leisure are not mutually exclusive. This transition to a new stage of life is highly personalized, not as monolithic as the days of receiving a gold watch and moving to Florida.

The 2018 Class of Stanford’s DCI Program - An Effort to Reinvent Retirement Planning
The 2018 Class of Stanford’s DCI Program – An Effort to Reinvent Retirement Planning (Source: Stanford)

Some are looking to go back to school to figure it out. Literally. Five years ago, Stanford started a program called the Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI) that brings together a cohort of “highly accomplished individuals from all walks of life who are eager to transform themselves for roles with social impact at the local, national, and global levels.” As part of the program, these older students enroll in classes across the university. Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative is a similar program with a particular focus on helping leaders’ transition from their main career to their next years of service. More universities across the country, including the University of Texas, are creating similar programs to support this group, often catering to their alumni.

Other resources are becoming available to help think through what to do with these 8,000 days. Designing Your Life was birthed out of an elective class at Stanford University. It applies designing thinking to one’s life (click here for previous SmartLiving 360 blog on the subject). The intended audience is recent college grads but it has struck a chord with older people, too. Faith-based thinkers are entering the conversation as well. Earlier this year, Jeff Haanen released An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life. His book provides a basis for how to think about retirement in the context of faith and a specific approach to create a customized plan.

Another trend is to avoid age-segregation. That’s not to say that older people don’t wish to be around people like themselves but to do so exclusively is less desirable than it may have been in recent generations. Beyond personal preference, there is recognition that age-segregation is not good for one’s health: according to a Harris Poll, 74% of people believe that age-segregation is harmful. Another poll found that the vast majority of people (92%) believe intergenerational activities and relationships are particularly helpful in reducing loneliness for all ages.

Tomorrow, I’m excited to be moderating a discussion with a friend and mentor of mine, Marc Freedman. Marc has given these extra 8,000 days considerable thought as a gifted social entrepreneur and founder of Encore.org. He sees tremendous potential in the longevity revolution for both personal and societal good and envisions a particular opportunity through greater intergenerational connectivity as outlined in his book, How to Live Forever. And, as he enters his early 60s, planning for these 8,000 days is becoming less theoretical for him.

New Retirement Housing Models on College Campuses that Integrate Residents, Students & Faculty
New Retirement Housing Models on College Campuses that Integrate Residents, Students & Faculty (Source: NY Times)

One of things that Marc gets is the importance of proximity. Location, location, location. We can have the best vision for this life stage but place can either hold us back or propel us ahead.

Take housing. Margaritaville has made a splash with their Jimmy Buffett themed age-restricted communities in the southeast. They promise to inject fun and a sense of belonging – both areas often neglected in this life stage.  However, will Buffett songs hold their charm for 8,000 straight days??? And, if you value intergenerational relationships, it’s hard to see how living separate and far away from younger people is conducive to developing and nurturing such relationships.

Others may wish to “age in place”. However, if that increases social isolation and presents physical hazards then it may not be a very effective strategy, regardless of how long one has lived in a home.

Fortunately, new housing models are emerging at a range of price points and locations that offer more choice for people in this life stage. The Stories at Congressional Plaza, an intergenerational community co-developed by SmartLiving 360, is one example. There are also a growing number of retirement housing options near or affiliated with universities. I would expect these and other options, particularly ones that lean more heavily on technology to help people stay healthy, to accelerate in the years ahead.

Simply, it starts with a vision and a plan for how to lean into these 8,000 days – understanding there will need to be flexibility and contingency planning – and to make sure that one’s place and home is aligned with this vision.

No doubt, it’s not easy, but it’s probably better than the alternative of not living as long. As my friend, Paul Irving of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, puts it, “We’re living longer, now what?” That’s for each of us to figure out.

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Evolution of Housing

House & Home Exhibit

Earlier this year, I visited the National Building Museum in Washington DC. The museum has a widely praised special exhibit entitled House & Home which examines how the American home has been shaped by transformations in technology, changes in government policy and consumer culture over many centuries. The exhibit serves as a reminder how much our living environments have evolved and will continue to do so at a rapid pace.

The exhibit is comprehensive and goes beyond construction type and architecture style and shows how technology has impacted our lives within our homes. For example, as noted in the picture above, irons (far left) as well as washers & dryers, dish washers and vacuums have freed up many hours of people’s time each week. It is easy to forget that prior to these innovations, homemakers spent the vast majority of each day washing clothes, cleaning and the like.

Changes of Today

Our homes and living environments continue to evolve. Today, we see greater housing density in thriving urban areas and neighboring suburban areas, particularly in the form of high quality apartment living. Walkability – and even “livability” – is seen as a highly sought after attribute. We are witnessing changes in how people think about and use space.  There is Interest in smaller spaces, such as small houses as evidenced by televisions shows like Tiny House, Big Living and advent of microunits, sometimes as small as 300 square feet, in urban areas. Even bigger homes are being designed in more usable ways. Sarah Suzanka’s Not So Big House book series, which has sold over a million copies, continues to evoke interest and help people design homes for how they really live.

Technology continues to shape how we live. Almost over night, Amazon Echo, or “Alexa”, has become ubiquitous in many households and, in our case, has eliminated the need for a physical grocery list.  Smartphones and tablets have allowed for multimedia viewing from anywhere in the house. There is now less of a need to be tethered to the “entertainment room” or perhaps have such a dedicated room at all. Sonos has done a remarkable job of a making streaming music an easy, relatively affordable and eliminate the need for built-in speakers. With autonomous vehicles available on demand, we may see garages and parking spaces become less necessary.

A Call for New Housing Models

With technology advances, changing consumer preferences and an aging demographic, there is a call for new housing models. Joe Coughlin, Director the MIT AgeLab, believes that “longevity changes everything” and has contributed his vision of the future in what he calls “Gerontopia”, though it is probably more accurately described as “Intergenerational-topia”. This community of the future is designed with all ages in mind and incorporates the right mix of activity, intensity, density and accessibility to work successfully for all people. Naturally, Dr. Coughlin’s model also takes advantage of technology advances, such as easy access to digital and on-demand services, including home delivery of meals, transportation and other elements of the sharing economy.

The Opportunity for Housing to Meld to Desires & Evolving Needs

At Smart Living 360, our vision for housing is to be far more than a place to hang your hat; we believe our living environments should inspire us, create true community and adjust as our needs change. Like Dr. Coughlin, we see an opportunity to develop intergenerational communities in walkable areas which can seamlessly enhance the well-being of a wide range of people. We do this through smart design, an orientation towards community and personal connection and access to important lifestyle and health services. Our onsite Lifestyle Ambassador is key. Evolving technologies also help enrich people’s lives and support on demand services as needs change.

House and Home Exhibit of 2050

Given changes underway and ahead, it will be fascinating to see the House and Home Exhibit of 2050. It’s impossible to accurately predict how precisely our housing will change but we can expect that the iPhone will be considered a relic of the past, which is a crazy thought in 2017.  My greatest hope is that our housing will continue to evolve in a way to help us live an enriching life at any stage in our life’s journey.