When I worked, I had a saying, which I admit to stealing from my husband, “Change or die.” This was for the people at work who were so rigid they couldn’t accept change in the work place or, for that matter, probably anywhere else in their lives. They were the ones who railed against any change in policy, function or, worse yet, personnel. “But, that’s the way we’ve always done it,” they would lament. “We can’t accept Suzie in that position because we loved Mary so much,” they’d whine. By hanging onto what they viewed as stability, they made life miserable for Suzie, for themselves, for their supervisor and for their fellow employees. And, worst of all, because they wouldn’t or couldn’t give up the old ways, their career usually died right then and there. Of course, because they were so unaware of their inner workings and their negative contribution to the situation, they rarely understood they were solely to blame for their lack of promotions or raises.

Unfortunately, even those of us who rolled with the punches in the work arena, often find ourselves unable to move forward in retirement. We become rigid and inflexible, sometimes without even recognizing it. This is usually the result of identity problems. We cling to the stability of our old identity. We thought of ourselves as being whatever our work title identified us as being. With that identification gone, often our self-esteem evaporates as well. So, what do we do? We revert to talking about who we were at work, reliving our work place triumphs, rolling out our old title at social gatherings in response to the question, “What do you do?” Because our ego can’t let go of our mental image of ourselves as the teacher, nurse, vice-president, manager, business owner, sales guru or whatever title we held, we create a type of stability by hanging onto who we were instead of looking to the future to who we will become. By so doing, research has shown our neural pathways begin to close in a short period of time, which leads to cognitive decline. Therefore, stability is not an option.

Keeping your neural pathways open takes vital engagement in life and working toward something personally meaningful to you. Yet, what do most of us do with the last third of our lives? Along with trotting out our glory days from work, we continue to do the same hobbies we engaged in while working. The gift of retirement is we can make personal development a priority. We have the time to fully and vitally engage in the rapidly changing world around us. We can try new things, living on our personal edge and stepping out of our comfort zone. By so doing, we expand our minds, maintaining our cognitive function as we age. Additionally, we enjoy a higher quality of life as we forge a new, meaningful identity in retirement.

Recently, I had to fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions was, “What are your areas of knowledge or expertise?” For a moment, I began thinking in terms of real estate instructor, business development and marketing. Then, I pulled myself back. Whoa! I no longer have expertise in any of those areas. I gave up my real estate licenses, including my teaching license in 2010. When people ask me questions these days about the real estate market, I tell them I’m no longer involved in the local market so I don’t have an answer for them. Yet, here I was ready to trumpet all my expertise in real estate. When I finally wrote my answer it included Certified Master Gardener, blogger, artist. That’s who I am now. Obviously, even after four years, letting go of an identity, which was 40 years in the making, is still a work in progress. But, the operative word is progress. I’m working toward something meaningful in my life as I continue to bring in new energy from the outside world, which, for me, includes my readers, other students in my art classes, other gardeners and ongoing learning experiences. Blogging and art are new experiences for me. Although I’ve gardened for most of my adult life, my involvement in the Master Gardeners Program is a new twist. By trying new things I’m creating a new identity for myself as I open new neural pathways in my brain ensuring a strong cognitive function.

Oftentimes we talk ourselves out of trying new things. We are uncomfortable with the idea of doing something different, consciously or unconsciously, so we create self-talk to convince ourselves it’s not for us. It might sound something like, “Oh, that’s not me.” Or, “I can’t do that.” Or, “I was never any good at that type of thing so why waste my time?” These self-imposed limitations serve one purpose. They limit our capabilities. Limiting our capabilities limits our cognitive functioning as we age. Limiting our capabilities limits our quality of life as we age. Limiting our capabilities limits our self-esteem as we age. On the other hand, deliberately creating instability by placing ourselves in situations or activities outside our comfort zone stretches our minds, creating new neural pathways in as little as 30 days. Opening our minds to the possibility of a new identity in retirement brings interactions with other people, new friends, fresh perspectives, an aliveness. Ask yourself how you want to age. Our bodies may inevitably decline with age but giving up our minds when there’s something we can do about it is not an option.