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Start with Why

Start with Why

Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk, Start with Why, has been viewed over 50 million times. He argues that for leaders to inspire action, articulating the why of the movement is far more important than the what or the how.

It turns out the same is true in the context of successful aging. Since thriving over a long life depends more on good lifestyle decisions than our genetics, we need to be motivated to consistently make the right decisions. Understanding our own why can be instrumental in this process.

Purpose is important at any age and is one of the best predictors of happiness. In this context, purpose is defined as the sources of meaning that are both goal-oriented and motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world beyond one’s self. People who have a defined purpose tend to be both psychologically and physically healthier than those who do not. Individuals without purpose are more likely to suffer from depression, loneliness, and anxiety.

One of the challenges is that living with purpose can get harder with age. For many of life’s earlier stages, purpose is more clearly defined and socially acceptable. Find a fulfilling career. Provide financial security for family. Raise kids. But as we approach midlife and beyond, purpose can be elusive, particularly if some of the earlier goals were met. Retirement can add fuel to the fire. The word “retire” means to withdraw. A move to retirement can be a move away from purpose, particularly the type of purpose that is goal-oriented and motivated to make a difference beyond one’s self.

A grandfather’s reward for a year of hard work

A grandfather’s reward for a year of hard work (Source: Supplied)

Doc Morris, a European pharmaceutical company, highlights this lesson in a recent holiday season ad called “Matters of the Heart” that has already been viewed over 15 million times. The two-minute clip features an older man who lives alone and becomes motivated to lift weights every morning to strengthen his core and arms. His initial struggle to lift a kettlebell alarms his nosy neighbor and perplexes other passersby. His mission propels him through early challenges and he gets stronger. His purpose is to be there for his extended family, his granddaughter in particular. He wants to be strong enough to lift his granddaughter to put the star atop the tree at Christmas.

Start with Purpose But There’s More

It’s important to start with purpose, but it’s not enough, argues BJ Fogg, behavioral scientist at Stanford, in his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. In his research, BJ finds that motivation, or one’s why, is powerful, but it’s unpredictable. Some days you’re motivated to exercise or avoid the ice cream in the freezer; other days you’re not. Relying solely on motivation is generally not a recipe for sustained behavioral change.

BJ’s research points to two other key areas that help define behavioral change: ability and prompts. If the older gentleman was incapable of getting stronger, if he had a degenerative disease for example, it would be unlikely he could have been able to do the exercises to get stronger. However, he had the ability to get stronger and, further, he did not let the stereotypes of aging, often referred to as ageism, prevent him from doing exercises for which he was capable.

Prompts play an important role, too. He develops a daily routine. When the alarm goes off – much earlier than one would expect for a retiree, he takes a look at the picture of his granddaughter and this propels him to take action. He brings her picture with him as he works out as a constant reminder of his purpose. This prompt helps him stay committed in what appears to be a full year of sustained effort.

Fogg Behavior Model

The Fogg Behavior Model: Focus on where motivation, ability and prompts align (Source: BJ Fogg)

Make It Easy – Even Tiny

He starts small. His first accomplishment is to find his kettlebell in the shed and drag it a few feet. Over time, he lifts it. He has setbacks – at one point he drops the kettlebell and grunts in pain – but he keeps progressing. He gets stronger.

He raises the ante. He wakes up earlier and dons an exercise outfit. He assumes an identity as someone who regularly exercises and is not deterred by his skeptical neighbors. He becomes able to do repeated squats with his kettlebell.

Success begets success. He builds momentum and confidence. He is soon able to do what others would not have imagined and perhaps what he would have doubted initially. Ultimately, he lifts his granddaughter without trouble to everyone’s surprise and joy.

Consider the Role of Place in Behavior Change

Place has an important role in his success. The pictures of family hanging on his walls serve as the initial impetus to get stronger. He lives in a physical dwelling where he is able to exercise and on his schedule. He transforms his shed from a storage receptacle to his exercise room for all seasons; he uses the outside entry when the weather is nice.

Importantly, no one stops him from his dreams. The nosy neighbor shoots looks of disapproval and his family expresses concern but does not intervene. At one point, his granddaughter even mimics his squats with him. His environment enabled his success.

What’s Your Why for 2021?

2020 was an awful year by many measures but we can hope that 2021 will be better. Our behaviors will have a key role in our outcome for the year. What do you want your 2021 to look like? Do you have dreams you would like to realize? Is there a new challenge you want to take on? Do you want to live closer to family and loved ones? Do you want to help others in a more proactive way? Are there intergenerational relationships you would like to form and nurture?

Start with why.

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


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What's your map of life?

What’s Your Map of Life?

We are working on an outdated paradigm for living argues Dr. Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center of Longevity. Our society assumes a three-chapter life – education, work and retire – where the final chapter is approximately a decade. However, this narrative doesn’t match the reality for many people today, and certainly won’t match the one-hundred-year lives of tomorrow. The life script needs to be rewritten. This week, Dr. Carstensen, along with dozens of luminaries and thought leaders, laid out the case for why it is so important to think differently about ways to live in light of a one-hundred-year life, as part of the virtual Century Summit.

To help change the narrative, Stanford has embarked on a project called the New Map of Life. The goal of the initiative is to “envision a society that supports people to live satisfying, engaged and financially secure lives for 100 years.” The initiative focuses on seven domains – early life, education, health, work, financial security, social influences and, yes, the built environment. The work has a global lens with implications for public policy and research.

Your map of life may involve lifelong learning to help create new opportunities for income and growth (Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash)

The Map of Life at the Personal Level

Stanford’s efforts are important, but the exercise of creating a map of life is most critical at the individual level. One is best to envision what is desired and then build a realistic plan to bring this vision to life. This map has a number of components to consider, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • An optimistic mindset. Dr. Carstensen asks her students what they would do if they were to live a bonus of thirty extra years. This is what has happened in recent generations, thanks largely to advances in technology and healthcare. Additional gains are expected in the decades ahead. How do you wish to spend these extra years? Do you have older role models that you would like to emulate? Who do you wish to become?
  • Work extended and supported by lifelong learning. In the context of longer lives, people have the opportunity to create intermixed chapters of working and leisure and to pursue new challenges. One thing is for certain: in an age of knowledge-based work, more educated people can work later in life. AARP estimates that about 50% of its members are still actively working. How long do you plan or need to work? Do you have new vocations that you wish to pursue? If so, what levels of additional education may these require?
  • Intergenerational engagement. A recurring theme from the Century Summit was the need and likelihood of increasing levels of intergenerational interaction. Some of this will happen naturally, perhaps through lifelong education, work and living arrangements. Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, refers to this as the undoing of “age apartheid.” There will be a growing number of opportunities for intergenerational interaction if that’s desirable to you.
Denver offers dynamic economic opportunities, an active lifestyle and intergenerational interaction (Photo by Lonely Planet)

The Critical Role of Place

Place has a key role in the map of life. You may have specific visions of where you want to live. Perhaps it’s a warm climate or a place with four seasons. Maybe it’s a single-family home in a walkable neighborhood or a downtown condo. Perhaps the plan is to stay where you are but make modifications to make it a better place for you.

Place also has important indirect considerations. Place can help or hinder other parts of your map of life. Place can impact purpose, social connection, physical well-being and financial well-being. In short, where you live matters both directly and indirectly.

Consider work. If you are a knowledge worker and want to extend your career – or at least have the option to – living near a dynamic job center matters, even in an era of increasing acceptance of remote work. Being able to cultivate a network of people and companies doing interesting things is aided by proximity. While working remotely is more possible now than ever, it remains more challenging for making friends and work connections than in-person interactions.

Consider intergenerational engagement. If such interactions matter, you should think twice about moving to an age-restricted community, or choose one where inviting younger people to the community is part of the culture. Some living options, such as living near family or an intergenerational co-housing community, can make intergenerational interactions a part of daily life.

Something to Talk About Virtually with Friends and Family

As 2020 – the year of COVID-19 – comes to a close, many of us will have our holiday plans disrupted. Our family will spend Thanksgiving and Christmas without extended family for the first time. It’s both sad and weird. But this disruption in our schedules coupled with vaccines rolled out may allow many of us to think about post-pandemic life. I invite you to use this time to envision your map of life in the context of increasing longevity. Perhaps even do so as you virtually connect with friends and family. While the pandemic has dominated the headlines this past year, it is likely that the trends of increasing longevity and associated visioning and planning will be of greater consequence to you in the long run. And for this, taking a cue from Stanford, many of us will need a new, or at least updated, map of life.

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


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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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A-Team - SmartLiving 360 blog

Who’s Your A-Team?

I probably watched too much TV as a child. A Gen-Xer, I consumed many of the iconic shows of the ’80s, including The A-Team. It was one of my favorites with Hannibal, Faceman, Murdock, and B.A. — played by Mr. T – defying the odds to get the job done. If someone was in trouble, a call to the A-Team would save the day.

I was reminded of the A-Team as a recent guest on the Dr. Cloud Show Live to talk about the intersection of place, including housing, and successful aging. One question particularly struck me. A caller asked: How can I successfully age on my own? How can I manage all that’s necessary, from housing to health to health care to finances to purpose and beyond, by myself?

The answer: You can’t.

Successful aging is a team sport.

Unfortunately, not enough of us have our own A-Team. One of the great successes of our modern age is increasing longevity. Researchers predict that half of babies born today in developed countries will live to at least 100 years of age. However, a long life is only a positive if paired with a matching health span and wealth span. It is best to create a plan that includes others to help you.

The reality is that successful aging is incredibly complicated and multi-faceted. Even with the Internet and social media, it’s impossible to stay on top of everything. It requires much more than information collection. Setbacks and curveballs are inevitable. These hurdles require emotional support and at least an extra pair of hands.

This poses a challenge for singles and couples. More than a one-third of people 65 and older, including nearly half of women, are single; 2 million of these people do not have children and are described as “Solo Agers” by author Sara Geber. In absence of a partner or children, these individuals must create a support network. But it can also be a challenge for couples. It’s unrealistic to expect a spouse to handle all that’s required to help you age successfully. No one person can do it all.

Successful aging is a team sport (Source: National Senior Games)

Creating Your A-Team

A recommended approach is to create your own A-Team. An A-Team may include a talented and committed combination of people ranging from family and friends to professionals and subject matter experts. Here are some of the areas to think about:

  • Social Connection. Who do you enjoy spending time with? Who will help you no matter what? The longer we live, the more likely we will need to rekindle existing friendships and create new ones. We need to find our kin.
  • Exercise Buddies. Exercise is critical for healthy aging, and its powerful effects are even greater if pursued in tandem with others.  Do you have friends to walk or jog the neighborhood?
  • Health Advocate. It’s easy to get lost in our complicated health care system. It is important to have someone looking out for you who has knowledge of your condition and of the health care system. Do you have a family member or friend who can help in this area?
  • Health Care Professionals. A primary care physician who knows your health history, genuinely cares about your health and has access to a network of quality specialists is vital. Consider making an appointment to better get to know your family doctor and provide an update on your current health.
  • Legal Advisor. Getting key documents in order, including a will and health care directives, is essential. Seek recommendations or online resources to make sure key documents are prepared.

Being Part of Someone Else’s A-Team

The best relationships are reciprocal. Consider not just how to build your own A-Team but how to be a member of someone else’s A-Team. Many of us could use help.

There are benefits of being a member of someone else’s A-Team. It can provide purpose which is one of the best predictors of happiness. It can be valuable to be needed and be in a position to help others.

Adult children are often key members of their parents’ A-Team. However, adult children must not assume too much responsibility and make sure that their parents have a team of support. Adult children trying to be a one-person A-Team is a recipe for failure.

Pocket neighborhoods and shared spaces can make it easier to get to know neighbors (Source: Patrick Schreiber)

The Role of Place

Place has a significant role in cultivating your A-Team. At least some members of your A-Team should be local. Face-to-face connections make a difference. It’s impossible to have your A-Team only exist on Facebook.

Consider your community and neighborhood. Do you know your neighbors? Do you have close friends that you can see on a regular basis? For older adults, the best places to live are often where support structures are in place. A lack of sufficient support may be reason enough to trigger a move. Where you live matters, including in finding your A-Team.

The Time is Now to Create Your A-Team

In the famous words of Mr. T, I “pity the fool” who does not make time and effort to assemble an A-Team. To be fair, this is hard work and may require resources. At a minimum, we should recognize the significance of successful aging as a team sport and be resourceful in attracting others to join our journey.

Dr. Cloud points out that people should look to build their team at a young age, as early as their 30s. My A-Team is a work in progress, partially because I recently moved to a new area. I hope my answer to the talk show caller was instructive, but the question was an important reminder for me. I’ve got some work to do and so may you.

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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Community as a Technical Term

Community as a Technical Term

The word “unprecedented” has been used a lot during the pandemic. Nearly 75% of public companies reporting their earnings in the spring used this word, including IBM which used it seven times. Google Trends shows that searches for the word have spiked about five times higher than ever before. That is unprecedented.

The fact is that words and their definitions matter. Excessive use dilutes significance. Broad definitions water down meaning. The word unprecedented may have already lost its power.

A Proper Definition of Community            

Consider “community.” According to Webster’s, community is a “unified body of individuals such as people with common interests living in a particular area.” Master plan developers routinely describe subdivisions as communities. Apartment developers do the same for apartments. I’ve even seen empty buildings described as communities by their creators. Has the use and definition of community become too broad?

What if community had a narrower definition? According to Charles Vogl in his book, The Art of Community, community is defined as a “group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.” This definition would limit the word’s use and give it more significance.

The pandemic has been a reminder that community – the more technical definition – is critical for wellbeing. People with strong social connections have better immune systems, better brain health, and they sleep better. This definition of community is more involved than simply living in an area with people with shared interests.

Gated community
Does this gated community deserve to be called a community? (Source: RealManage)

Do You Live in a Community?

Do you live in a place where others care for you and, just as important, you care for others? As Warren Buffet says, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” The pandemic has likely revealed the truth on whether you have community or not. If you don’t, it is not necessarily a simple fix.

Community doesn’t just happen. It takes work and relies on reciprocal relationships. It’s one thing to recall the name of your neighbor, but a completely different thing to truly know your neighbor. And, it’s rare: only about a quarter of Americans purport to know all or most of their neighbors. When you know your neighbors, you’re informed about ways to support them. Equally important is for neighbors to get to know you. There’s a level of mutual vulnerability.

It takes time. For nine years, we lived in a neighborhood that is a community. People know each other and are quick to help and receive help. It is a natural back and forth. No one keeps score. A year ago, we moved to a new neighborhood and we are in the process of determining whether it will be a community for us. Our daughter recently delivered care packages to older adults in our neighborhood. I was encouraged when she received a call from a recipient to say thank you and also to see how she was faring. This is mutual concern.

Capitol Hill neighborhood
Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. has a reputation for strong community (Source: The Wandering Road)

Building & Finding Community

If you don’t have community, there are two options: build or join.

Charles Vogl provides tips for community builders. His seven principles include: boundary, initiation, rituals, temple (or place), stories, symbols and inner rings. Vogel’s advice is important because, unlike a passive building, a community is active and changing. It requires investment and leaders to get involved. Community can’t be taken for granted. Places change as do the cultures around them.

An alternative to building community is to join one. There may be opportunities to engage in your area by joining a neighborhood association, connecting into a faith community or volunteering at a local school. In some cases, however, a search for community may require moving.

Finding community can be an important but challenging issue for older adults, particularly when their current home lacks social connection. Jill Vitale-Aussem, CEO of the Eden Alternative, is an expert in creating community for older adults. In her recent book, Disrupting the Status Quo of Senior Living, she highlights that too often senior living errs on the side of safety, like a hospital, or on service like a hotel. It’s not that safety and service are unimportant – particularly during a pandemic – but these approaches often don’t adequately engage the human side. True communities require active engagement where people act as citizens, not patients or consumers. Older adults searching for community need to look far beyond websites and marketing collateral to get a sense of whether a particular senior living location is a community or just a building serving older people.

Use the Narrow Definition of Community

Be on the lookout for “community.” Ask yourself whether the term is properly applied. In my experience, the claim of community is often unsubstantiated. Community anchored in mutual concern is a good thing for your health at all times, but particularly when the next unprecedented event hits.

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


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Places change - New York City

Places Change

The coronavirus epidemic has highlighted the importance of place in our lives. Certain countries have been able to contain the outbreak and lower fatality risks associated with the disease. Others have not. In the U.S., we have seen a wide range of outcomes within regions, states and metropolitan areas. In a number of respects, our individual health has had more to do with where we live than how well we practice social distancing.

Places, like people, are not static. They change. Sometimes imperceptibly, other times more obviously. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. And, given the fact that where you live matters, ensuring that you are in a spot appropriate for you, particularly as you age, may not be a simple exercise.

Uncertainty of Urban Environments

Take urban environments. I have a friend in her 70s living in the Northeast, who traded a bucolic, suburban lifestyle for an active, urban one. Her suburban life required a car, and she felt socially isolated as she increasingly knew fewer of her neighbors. Her move into a downtown apartment allowed her to walk to various amenities and regularly participate in social events, including seeing nearby friends and family.

Then covid hit. Her place changed dramatically. She has been confined to her apartment and has been unable to meet new acquaintances or see friends and family. She has also felt less safe, with protesting and riots near her home.

While these current conditions may be temporary until the epidemic subsides, there may be lasting changes to urban environments that make living there less compelling. Remote work has been surprisingly productive. Most large companies have not seen any productivity loss and more than quarter have reported a productivity increase. Researchers speculate that nearly half of companies may allow as many as 40% of their employees who switched to remote work during the pandemic to continue doing so after the crisis, at least in part. Fewer workers downtown may result in less congestion, but it also translates to less demand for restaurants and various amenities that help create the energy of cities, as well as a critical loss of tax revenue for city services.

Percentage change in murder and robbery from 2019 to 2020

Safety may become a greater issue for cities, too. For years, crime has fallen dramatically in the U.S. Since 1993, crime in urban environments has fallen nearly 60%. However, in 2020, there has already been a noticeable uptick in crime in various large cities across the country. No doubt, recent rioting contributes to these figures, and this activity may be more of a moment in time than a trend. However, as author and urban studies professor Joel Kotkin points out, “Safety is a prerequisite for urban growth. I can’t see how cities can thrive if they’re unsafe.” Safety, even just its perception, is perhaps even more important as we age.

Given these challenges, coupled with the high cost of living in large cities, more people may opt to live in smaller cities or more dense suburban areas that provide some of the urban lifestyle benefits but without some of the current drawbacks of larger urban environments.

Places Where Healthy Aging is Getting Easier

If certain urban areas may be getting more difficult, where is it getting easier? The network of age-friendly states and communities can be a guide. There are nearly 500 communities covering nearly 1/3 of the country that have signed up for a process to make themselves age-friendly through an assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation. This process can lead to a number of potentially valuable interventions, ranging from better transportations options, improved housing and more age-friendly infrastructure in general, including dedicated walking and biking areas.

Places where healthy aging is getting easier tend to benefit from strong political leadership and available resources for older adults. Cities with strained budgets or other high priority issues, including public safety, may simply not have the bandwidth to make their places work better for an aging population. The Milken Institute’s Mayor’s Pledge is encouraging civic leaders to commit to purposeful, healthy aging at the metropolitan level and is another resource to identify leading places.

Springfield, MA
Springfield, MA has been focused on various age-friendly initiatives (Source NextAvenue via josepha/Flickr)

Springfield, MA, a city with a population of about 150,000, is an interesting example of a city that is operating on all cylinders as an attractive place for older people.  In this case, a mayor is helping to create a momentum for the city and bring together various stakeholders. It is the first city to complete the age-friendly trifecta: Age-Friendly City, Age-Friendly Health System and Dementia-Friendly city.

Implications

Pay attention. See what’s happening in your current environment. If it is becoming better as you age, appreciate your good fortune. If it the environment is getting more difficult, see what you can do to mitigate its effects. It may even become an opportunity to get to know your neighbors better. As crime became a greater concern in our old neighborhood, neighbors banded together to walk the streets and create a text thread for regular communication. This intervention helped.

If you are considering a move to a new place, it is valuable not just to get a sense of how it is today but, perhaps more importantly, in what ways is it changing and how quickly. It is also worth considering how sensitive a new place could be to sudden changes, such as with pandemics and climate change. This research is well worth doing.

We’ve learned a lot from the pandemic. It’s been a reminder of the importance of place. But it’s also a reminder of how our places can change for the worse, and quickly. Best to be prepared.

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


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Intergenerational Fatherhood - SmartLiving 360

Intergenerational Fatherhood

I am a few years into the teenage kid stage of fatherhood and I’m working my way up the learning curve. I’m finding that the timeout is not an effective punishment, my jokes aren’t as funny (or funny at all) and my IQ has plummeted. I have changed my approach. I seek out one-on-one time and say ‘yes’ to almost any offer to hang out that comes my way, even if it means risking my life with a driver in training. Doling out punishment has changed, too. I’ve focused on essay writing as a mechanism to prompt self-reflection and deep thinking. It seems to have had some impact. One of my kids, commenting on his frequent essay writing of late, shared in his Father’s Day card to me, “I may not enjoy it, but I know it’s good for me.”

But, whatever my strategy, it’s clear that just me won’t be enough. I need some reinforcements. I need intergenerational fatherhood. And, the thing is, I think elder fathers need it, too.

We’re living in the Age of Longevity where people are expected to live longer than ever before. That’s great in many respects – so long as our health and financial well-being match to a longer life – but it also comes with challenges. Chief among them may be finding continued purpose in life. Purpose, particularly the type that finds meaning in making a difference outside of oneself, has been shown to improve overall wellbeing. This is an opportunity for our elders.

At the same time, it couldn’t be more clear that our youth need help navigating today’s world. And their fathers – people like me – can’t do it alone. We don’t have all the answers and often don’t have enough time. Heck, if our current times are the 1960s part deux, we can’t offer a comparable parallel. My generation read about times of intense racial tensions, but elders lived through them. That brings credibility and perspective.

Erickson on intergenerational fatherhoold - SmartLiving 360
Erik Erickson, a 20th century psychologist, introduced generativity as the 7th step of human development

Collectively, there is an opportunity for generativity, a theory created by Erik Erickson, a legend in the arena of human development. As Marc Freedman describes in his recent call for a Generativity Revolution, Erickson’s theory suggests that we have a drive to contribute what we’ve learned from life to future generations. The well-being of future generations becomes part of the legacy of elder generations.  

A number of organizations, like Generations United and Encore.org, help connect the young and old. They do great work and can point to countless inspirational success stories. But what would it look like if we did a better job of connecting the young and old within our own families? What would it look like to truly father our grandkids?

A mentor of mine once said that your values are not expressed by what you say but how you budget your time, resources and energy. Following this logic, if you want to be an intergenerational father, you need to make sure that your actions back up your intentions.

So, what can you do?

Start with a plan. If you live close to your grandchildren, determine how often you can reasonably connect in person. Understand their age and stage and what activities and conversations are most appropriate. Identify shared interests that help bring you naturally together.

If you don’t live close, it can be more difficult. Find opportunities to connect regularly on the phone or on video. Prioritize travel schedules to visit and be intentional with your time together. Try to forge one-on-one times for greater connection and impact. Make strong memories in your time together.

Intergenerational fatherhood - fathering your grandkids - SmartLiving 360
Effective intergenerational fatherhood may require moving close to grandchildren

If intergenerational fathering becomes a high priority a question emerges: does my current home allow for me to engage with my grandchildren in the way that I would like? For some, this may require a relocation to be closer to grandkids or creating more of a seasonal schedule, if life permits, to visit for longer periods of time. I was fortunate that my mom’s parents spent a month of the summer with us and it allowed me to have significant time with my grandfather. In fact, Eric Erickson and his wife moved in their 80s across the country to be a part of their grandchildren’s lives. Place can make a big difference in nurturing these relationships.

Be prepared to be more tech savvy, too. A smartphone is a pre-requisite and texting may not be enough. Instagram. HouseParty. TikTok. You may have to download them all.

When looking to do intergenerational fathering, it’s important to get buy-in from the father, too. Odds are he will welcome the involvement with open arms. I’ve given my two fathers the green light. Each has embraced it. One has started an unofficial reading club for the summer. He and one of his grandsons alternate choosing books and then discuss and compare notes over Zoom and email. I think they also use these sessions to concoct practical joke ideas, often at my expense. My father-in-law has made special efforts to see his grandkids and adventure seek with them, imparting lessons of life along the way. Be careful – greater engagement can come with greater risks. A three-hour horseback ride at the age 76 was never part of his master plan but he toughed it out to get more time with his grandkids.

For some families, what I’m envisioning is nothing new. It’s a way of life, particularly for extended families that live together. As our society has become more affluent and assumes a greater reliance on the individual, this type of intergenerational fathering has become less common. It’s probably made us all more lonely, too.

Are you ready for fatherhood part two? The teenage parenting years really aren’t that bad. Especially if you’re the grandfather this time around.

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


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Commitment to Place - SmartLiving 360 Blog

Commitment to Place

More and more, we are realizing that place matters. Zip code can predict life expectancy – gaps of as much as 30 years exist for zip codes within Chicago, for example. And, of course, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the impact of place. On a per capita basis, states like Oregon, Texas and Vermont have been relatively unscathed while New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have been ten times more lethal. We may not know the exact reasons, but it’s clear that place matters.

By place, I mean the elements of country, region, metropolitan area, urban, suburban or rural environment, neighborhood and, of course, physical dwelling. All considered, these variables can create an almost endless list of possibilities, particularly for those with financial resources. To find the exact perfect place, you would need a quantum computer to create all of the possible scenarios.

But what if you intentionally limit your options? What if you made a commitment to stay in one place?

Some people are suggesting to do just this. In his commencement speech to the Purdue University Class of 2020, President Mitch Daniels makes a case for rooting yourself in a place. His argument is based on the value of social connection. He admits that he has prioritized work over relationships and, looking back, he’s worse for it. He fears that young people today, raised entirely in the iPhone era, “won’t make friends at all.”

Daniels points out that one of the main ways to immunize against loneliness is geographic rootedness. People who live in the same community for extended periods are far less likely to be lonely. Proximity facilities repeated interactions and time together is a key determinant in developing friendships. Researchers indicate that it takes about 50 hours to move from an acquaintance to a casual friendship, about 100 hours to call someone a friend, and over 200 hours of togetherness to become best friends.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels delivering his 2020 commencement speech on the importance of place

For those who have not chosen place yet or are open to change, one option is to live close to your friends. C.S. Lewis was explicit in this strategy when he wrote, “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods … the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young person about where to live, I (would) say sacrifice almost everything to live near your friends.” Even now in the area of ubiquitous zoom and houseparty video calls, I suspect that C.S. Lewis would offer similar guidance.

Shortly before the coronavirus outbreak, I had lunch with an acquaintance visiting from Indiana. The conversation led to why his family chose to move to a suburb of Indianapolis, particularly given that he is not from the area and his job didn’t require him to be there. For him and his wife, it was simple: friends. They coordinated with four of their closest friends located in various parts of the country to move into one neighborhood and onto one street. They are raising their families together. It comes with trade-offs – most are not close to family, some could afford nicer homes in “better” locations, and more lucrative jobs could be found elsewhere – but, in their view, the day-to-day lived experience is incomparable being enmeshed in life amongst their dearest of friends.

People who commit to place and invest in relationships locally to the betterment of their area are called weavers, according to David Brooks. Weavers view their community as home and look to make it as welcoming as possible. They have a genuine concern for the trajectory of their place and prioritize neighbors, broadly defined. They may not do it for the relationships, but odds are these relationships take on great meaning in their lives and provide a level of social support, almost akin to family. It’s important to note that you can’t be a weaver if you move every couple of years to find the next best place.

However, decisions related to place can get more challenging as we age. Within the last twenty years, the percentage of retirement-age citizens living within 10 miles of their children, in the same neighborhood with any relative, or having a good friend living nearby, dropped by double digits. This reality has left many of us or our loved ones with tough choices: should one stay in place or move closer to family and friends? The best option may to remain in one’s existing neighborhood but get more rooted.

Minneapolis is an Age-Friendly City that is also Making Sweeping Changes to its Zoning Laws to Enable More Housing
Minneapolis is an age-friendly city that is also making sweeping changes to its zoning laws to enable more housing

Trends are making it easier to stay in existing communities. Changes in zoning laws, such as allowing for accessible dwelling units (ADUs), are making it easier to downsize to another home in your existing area. Technology advances and health services are making it easier for services to be delivered to you. The World Health Organization and AARP are helping municipalities become more age-friendly, with about 500 communities signed up as part of the program. Collective impact initiatives, including a recent effort by Praxis in starting place-based guilds, are helping communities band together to raise the quality of life of their residents.

For author, poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry, committing to place has come naturally. His place is an agrarian small county in Kentucky. He writes:

“And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place and had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”

Perhaps now is the time to evaluate your commitment to your current place. If you’re in a reasonable spot, maybe it’s worth doubling down in a more significant and long-term way. If you’re not in such a place, perhaps it’s worth finding an attractive spot and creating roots as you age. Odds are that your future self will thank you.

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.

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


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