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Writing

Aging in America – Part VII

Books

It is getting easier to box up books to donate to the friends of the public library used book sale. I donated seven boxes so far and three more are ready to go. Creation of two large sorting tables has helped move library downsizing along.

The room I built for writing has bookcases on all four walls. For the first time in years I am dusting and rearranging them. I’m not sure there was any consistent method in how they were shelved.

A lot of space is taken with collections by author: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, John Irving, Joan Didion, Jane Smiley, Vance Bourjaily, David Rhodes, Ruth Suckow, James Baldwin, Hamlin Garland, Al Gore, William Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, William Styron, W.P. Kinsella, and others. There is a case to be made the collections by author belong in boxes. If I labelled the boxes, I could draw on the books when I need them, leaving shelf space open for my current research and interests.

I keep thematic collections: U.S. Presidents, Iowa City and Iowa writers, Iowa history, reference books, cookbooks, gardening books, art books, and poetry. One shelf is devoted to a printed copy of my blogs. Another has volumes on ancient history. I find myself asking the question, “which books are meaningful for life going forward?” Not as many as there are.

With retirement during the coronavirus pandemic, things changed to enable this sorting and downsizing. Our automobile remains in the garage most days. The weekly shopping trip has become a special event, for which I shower, shave and consider which clothes I might wear to the store. There is time to work on the project especially when weather is wintry.

Part of the great book sort is learning more about myself by remembering who I have been. A different me bought a copy of The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill at the corner drug store soon after seeing the then recently released film. I used money earned from my newspaper route in grade school. Today, I feel compelled to buy John Irving’s latest book, The Last Chairlift, in part for his Iowa City connections, in part for his discussions of the LGBTQ community, and in part to fill out my shelf of Irving novels. Sorting books juxtaposes all the different versions of me during the last 60 years. There are more than a few of them.

I am lucky to have lived to be seventy. Book sorting is teaching me to be more deliberate in life, to consider each element of life’s construct. I also realize there is not enough time left to read everything I want. If luck holds, I will read everything I need.

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Living in Society

Reading While Aging

Books by Iowa-connected folks.

On the corner of my sorting table rest piles of recently read books. I am shocked at the level of retention from the experience. It is not as much as I want. Is there an issue with reading while aging, or not?

In an article titled, “Reading in Normally Aging Adults,” authors associated with the American Psychological Association present the following article abstract which describes the physiological and cognitive process. Sorry, it is a bit long, yet everything in it is important.

Skilled reading requires coordination of knowledge about language with a broad range of basic cognitive processes. While changes due to aging have been documented for many of those cognitive processes, the ability to read declines little during healthy aging. Aging is associated with slower reading, longer eye movements and more regressive eye movements, but the qualitative patterns of older adults’ eye movements in response to lexical characteristics (e.g., frequency) and sentence characteristics (e.g., word predictability) largely resemble those of younger adults. The age-related differences in reading behavior are due in part to older adults’ reduced visual abilities. In addition, they may result from compensatory strategies wherein older adults rely more on their intact semantic intelligence and less heavily on perceptual processing of text, or alternatively they may be a consequence of older adults being less adept at effectively coordinating word recognition with processes of oculomotor control. Some age-related declines are seen when reading comprehension and text memory are assessed at lower levels of representation for complex sentences. However, older adults perform as well or better than younger adults when higher-level meanings of a text are assessed. These high levels of performance reflect older adults’ ability to draw on crystalized semantic intelligence that provides well-organized structures in long-term memory of the patterns that tend to occur in natural language. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved)

Reading in normally aging adults by Gordon, P. C., Lowder, M. W., & Hoedemaker, R. S. APA PsychNet.

My take away is that while my vision has somewhat deteriorated, mental capacity remains strong, and I can draw on information and experience gained in my past to better and more quickly understand what I am reading. According to other articles I read this morning, reading can maintain mental functioning, and stave off common mental illnesses among the elderly like Alzheimer’s disease.

The money quote is, “However, older adults perform as well or better than younger adults when higher-level meanings of a text are assessed.” In theory, these psychologists say, since I have visual acuity, I retain the potential to be as good a reader as anyone.

Why am I worried about the piles of books read yet little remembered?

The abstract points to a borderline area of reading: the interaction between read text and the stored intelligence in my brain. To what extent am I processing what I read in context of past reading experience, and to what extent am I taking in text to gain new experiences? My fear is it is the former. If we read, it should be to expand our knowledge and experience, not to intake words and sentences as a form of confirmation bias.

Because I curate a large home library, I plan to continue reading for as many months and years as possible. My daily reading goal is 25 pages from a book. For the most part, I exceed that amount depending upon how engaging the writing has been. Importantly, I want more than to check off the daily reading goal box on my to-do list. I want to gain knowledge and experience that will help me better cope with society. I want to read to become a better writer.

By year’s end I will have read almost 60 books. If the text is being assimilated into my existing cognitive capacity, there is nothing wrong with that. I take up each new book with hope it will reveal something about society, something specific in life, an answer to a question or something about myself. I also read to see how other authors write. As long as I take a few minutes to appreciate each book after finishing it, I am of an age where everything read becomes part of my world view.

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Living in Society

Grassley and Social Security

Autumn at Lake Macbride

Like many Americans, after my paid work life ended, I planned to use my pension from Social Security as a basic financial support system. So far, so good.

I’m not sure I’m finished with paid work. The prospect of earning a couple hundred dollars a month to supplement my pension remains. A disruption in Social Security could devastate our lives, leaving the future uncertain. We need a contingency plan for dealing with changes to Social Security.

The Social Security system is a key campaign issue in 2022. Republicans and their libertarian financial backers have not liked Social Security since FDR proposed it. The latest is the Republican proposal to sunset all laws every five years, about which I wrote in August. Feeling some pressure from challenger Michael Franken, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley spoke to reporters, including Caleb McCullough, who published this story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Sept. 29.

Grassley: No sunsetting Social Security, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Sept. 29, 2022.

Grassley adopted a majority view of Social Security with this article. While he hits some highlights — not changing the benefits for current and soon to be retirees, and removing it from sunsetting every five years — his statement is vague enough to leave anything open. Grassley said any changes to Social Security would involve “broad consensus.” What we don’t know is if he means the consensus of all U.S. Senators or just the Republican caucus.

Do voters believe him? I posted the clipping on Twitter and the answer was a resounding no in the replies. Of course Twitter serves as an echo chamber for views, so reading those replies is not a scientific data collection method. There was consensus among posters Grassley could not be believed.

Since leaving the workforce during the coronavirus pandemic I spend more time at home. I try not to think about worrying things all the time. Yet it is like the embers of a campfire waiting for new wood to burn. For the moment, I’ll warm my hands on the present, vote Democratic, and watch for new information in my news feeds.

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Living in Society

Aging in America – Part VI

Worn t-shirt from the 50th anniversary of the Stratford Festival of Canada in 2002.

Passing Down History

I have conversations about stuff with our child. It is specific stuff. It is my stuff, eventually to be her stuff, at least some of it.

For example, a couple hundred vinyl LPs rest on my bookshelf. A lot of good music there, a lot of great memories. The technology is old and hardly portable. The sole album for retention to pass down is Beethoven’s Opera Fidelio because it was a memory from childhood. That will make it easier to dispose of the rest of them, I hope.

I want to pass down some of my Iowa history books but there are too many of them. I have hundreds. My guidance was to select maybe three or four of the best ones to pass down. My work is cut out. To get started, here are the first dozen that came to mind. It is a first draft of the list for posterity and by no means final.

  1. Iowa’s Groundwater Basics: A geological guide to the occurence, use, and vulnerability of Iowa’s aquifers by Jean Cutler Prior, Janice L. Boekhoff, Mary R. Howes, Robert D. Libra, and Paul E. VanDorpe.
  2. Eastern Iowa Prehistory by Duane Anderson.
  3. Black Hawk: An Autobiography dictated to Antoine LeClaire, edited by Donald Jackson.
  4. Wakefield’s History of the Black Hawk War by Frank Everett Stevens.
  5. Hunting a Shadow: The Search for Black Hawk: Eye-Witness Account by Participants compiled and edited by Crawford B. Thayer.
  6. The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa by Cornelia F. Mutel.
  7. In Cabins and Sod Houses by Thomas H. Macbride.
  8. Robert Lucas by John C. Parish.
  9. Executive Journal of Iowa 1838-1841, Governor Robert Lucas edited by Benjamin F. Shambaugh.
  10. The Trader at Rock Island: George Davenport and the Founding of the Quad Cities by Regena Trant Schantz.
  11. The Life and Times of Samuel J. Kirkwood, Iowa’s War Governor by H.W. Lathrop.
  12. Iowa: The Middle Land by Dorothy Schwieder.

Reducing the number of history books to three or four is an impossible task, although one worth considering as I write my autobiography. We’ll see how the list changes over time. By spring, I should have a better idea.

Figuring out what to pass down becomes more important as we age. Partly we seek to let go of the past. Partly we seek to make room for a future.

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Living in Society

Aging in America – Part V

Lake Macbride State Park trail.

The neighbor who owned the grocery store in town for 40 years took to walking the state park trail in retirement. He used a cane and we stopped to talk from time to time. I was wondering where he was last Monday. It turned out he died at home on Sunday.

I didn’t know the family well, although I stopped at their home on association business a couple of times through the years. Seems like a lot of people in our association died the last few years — at least five since 2018. While we are well below general U.S. statistics for deaths per 100,000 population, when people we know die, it has greater impact.

Being in the community for more than 29 years makes a difference. When people move out or die, we notice the broken relationships. The trail remains, with its joggers, bicyclists, and walkers. On Monday morning, when the work week begins, there is a loneliness on the abandoned gravel path.

As we age, we come to accept it.

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Living in Society

Aging in America – Part IV

Vegan applesauce muffins.

For septuagenarians, an overnight visit from a child is a big deal.

We prepared for weekend guests most of the week. That meant cleaning the house and making space for extra people to sleep. I emptied the vacuum cleaner dust trap many times. There were countless loads of laundry. It seemed like a miracle, yet by the time they arrived we were ready. We are thankful for the work of preparing for a visit.

Our child lives close enough for a weekend visit to make sense. Time together was limited. We had dinner of tacos Saturday and my homemade corn tortillas were well-received and eaten up. I prepared a grab and go meal of vegan applesauce muffins with a fresh apple and some peanuts for an early Sunday departure. We are thankful for the time together, the chance to plan a meal and share it with someone other than ourselves.

The main challenge of aging is to live independently for as long as possible. In part, that means taking care of our health — eating a proper diet, exercising, regular visits to health care professionals. Part of it means a solid financial platform — making do with a fixed income and living from our own resources. There is also a part about dealing with potential and actual emergencies, although I try not to let that dominate my life. Once those parts have been addressed, everything else is optional.

Well, sort of. As we age, we need help from other humans.

The lilac bushes planted soon after we settled here need cutting back. After delaying this work the last couple of years, I hired a professional to do it in the fall. The windows and doors need attention after 29 years. We never built the deck I had planned or finished the lower level of the house. We replaced the roof in 2010 and it will need replacing again in a few years. All of that requires the help of professionals.

For now I can mow the lawn and work in the garden. I’m hoping to continue that work into the future, at least for another ten years. Whether the lawn tractor we inherited from my father-in-law’s estate back in the 1990s will make it that long is doubtful. I rely upon having a good tractor mechanic in town and being able to locate new parts for repairs. I avoid thinking about it when he talks about slowing down and retiring.

Making the transition from a work life to a home life sneaks up on a person. What was once a sideline to a career takes center stage in the form of yard, garage and garden work, and cleaning the house to prepare for visitors. I’m glad to have lived this long, and being aware of these parts of life is essential to successfully aging in America.

Even though we are not rich, we are better off by having a family and home… and by preparing for overnight guests.

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Living in Society

Aging in America – Part III

Wildflowers by the state park trail.

The loss of social relationships as we age is expected and well-documented. Not only do we miss people who died, such as parents, grandparents, and friends, there is no replacement for relationships that stretch back in time for decades. People are gone and the sense of loss remains tangible.

I find there are more invitations to do things than time allows. This seems especially true in retirement, yet maybe I’m simply more aware of what’s going on. This social situation is complicated by living on a fixed budget. Given the choice to get out of the house and attend an event, most often, I opt to stay home. Keeping the auto parked in the garage saves on fuel. Besides food and sundry shopping, and walks along the state park trail, I seldom leave the property. I don’t see that changing near term.

My trips to the county seat have been reduced to as close to zero as they can be. There are trips to the doctor or pharmacy. Most of the other groups to which I belonged have faded to the background.

There are political events because of the Nov. 8 midterm election. I attend few political fundraisers. I donate to candidates online and try to stick to a tight budget. Once I log in each month and make my two or three donations, that’s it until the next monthly pension check arrives.

There are groups of which I’d like to be a part. The group of seniors in our nearby town does a lot of good and they would welcome some help. I love our public library, even if I don’t go there that often. They need volunteer help, too. That is the short list of what I’m interested in doing.

Coping with loss and loneliness is part of aging in America. I’m like everyone else in that regard.

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Living in Society

Aging in America – Part II

On Aug. 14, 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. FDR is rightly credited with leading the United States out of the Depression and re-framing the relationship between government and society. It is hard to imagine what modern life would be like without The New Deal.

By the time I made my first payroll contribution to Social Security in 1968, the program was stable. One hoped to be able to earn a pension or save money for retirement but I didn’t know how that would unfold during my work life. The job I held as a stock boy in the drug department of an early big box store wasn’t intended to pay for the retirement of a 16-year old entering the work force. I knew then Social Security would be there for me when I retired, no matter the financial outcome of a lifetime of work. This freed me to do other things, like being a teenager.

As I wrote in 2017, the Social Security Administration is currently doing fine. It follows a plan that begins to deplete the trust fund in 2034. In the current Trustees Report, that date holds true. The problem is longer term.

Social Security and Medicare both face long-term financing shortfalls under currently scheduled benefits and financing. Costs of both programs will grow faster than gross domestic product (GDP) through the mid-2030s primarily due to the rapid aging of the U.S. population. Medicare costs will continue to grow faster than GDP through the late 2070s due to projected increases in the volume and intensity of services provided.

A summary of the 2022 Annual Reports from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees, Social Security Administration website.

The Republican plan to address this can be found in U.S. Senator Rick Scott’s plan to rescue America, in this sentence, “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”

When asked about sunsetting Social Security and Medicare, Senator Scott said, “No one that I know of wants to sunset Medicare or Social Security, but what we’re doing is we don’t even talk about it. Medicare goes bankrupt in four years. Social Security goes bankrupt in 12 years. I think we ought to figure out how we preserve those programs.”

The fact is Democrats are talking about it and have introduced appropriate legislation to address the long-term problems presented by the Trustees. For Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, fixing the program is straight forward, “As Republicans try to phase out Social Security and raise taxes on more than 70 million hardworking Americans, I’m working with Senator Sanders to expand Social Security and extend its solvency by making the wealthy pay their fair share, so everyone can retire with dignity.” Warren and Sanders introduced The Social Security Expansion Act in the U.S. Senate.

The weasel-words of Senator Scott are evident. Rather than offer solutions to long-term problems, he speaks vaguely about the people he knows and what they believe. The only purpose this serves is to raise doubts about choices pensioners like me made over the last 54 years. It is a scare tactic from Republicans’ long list of them.

As much as I’d like to see Democrats and Republicans engage together in solving the long-term issues with Social Security and Medicare, I don’t think that’s possible in today’s divided Congress. As President Joe Biden has demonstrated with a series of recently passed legislation, finding common ground and passing laws is possible even in the toxic political climate of Washington, D.C. We need to do more of it.

Pensioners and other senior citizens vote, so I’m confident Social Security will be addressed at the ballot box. Just give us the facts, without your political spin, and we can make a good decision. Today we appear to be in the spin cycle.

Sorting the facts from bogus assertions is an ongoing issue. Democrats have a good story to tell about expanding Social Security. We need to bring Republicans in, if we can, and solve the long-term problems. If we can’t bring them in, we must solve them on our own.

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Living in Society

Aging in America – Part I

Vegetables drying on the counter after harvest, Aug. 10, 2022.

The first thing I noticed upon my April 20, 2020 retirement is nothing changed. We were entering a period of living in a global pandemic, and a main goal was to live to see the other side of it. Since then, it has become clear the coronavirus pandemic will change, yet not end.

On Feb. 3, the Iowa governor extended the state’s Public Health Disaster Emergency Proclamation regarding the coronavirus pandemic. She announced it would expire at 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 15. After that, “the coronavirus becomes normalized in daily, routine public health operations,” she said. Agree, or not, our lives of living with the virus continue, such normalization as has been dictated by the government has not made life like it was before we heard the words “coronavirus pandemic.”

This is the first of a series of posts I hope to write about aging in America. While my reach is not far beyond Big Grove Township, universal themes run though my life and I hope to think about and tap into them for my writing.

Since retiring during the pandemic I became a pensioner, which means there is a fixed income mostly from my Social Security pension. I feel flush with cash when the monthly check hits our bank account. That feeling diminishes rapidly until I’m waiting for the next check to hit. As long as there are no major crises, we’ll be okay.

A while back I inventoried every distinct part of my body. There were issues with every major system, and aches and pains accumulated over a lifetime of being physically active. I’m not as flexible as at age 30, yet can bend and crawl in the garden much as I have since our first small one in 1983. The frequent jogging I began during military service has turned into walking. I take a cholesterol medication which is fully paid by insurance. Everything else I do regarding inputs is completely voluntary. My frame seems sturdy, I feel healthy, and am mostly ovo-lacto vegetarian.

Most concerning is my ability to see. I wore eyeglasses since high school and now have a pair of transition lens glasses for general use and a special pair for the computer. I expect my cataracts to harden with increased age. My ophthalmologist told me they have already begun to do so. I have an ophthalmologist.

While my financial and physical condition are important, they are not my main interest here. There are questions to be addressed, if not answered:

  • What does intellectual development mean to a septuagenarian?
  • How should my diet change with aging?
  • What types of social engagement should be pursued?
  • What role will I play in Democratic politics?
  • What kind of creative output do I seek to accomplish?

It is hard to say how many posts this will take. Like with other big topics, they may not be immediately following each other. Writing about aging in America is a worthy topic, though. I will do my best to not be boring.