Growing Old in the New Normal
Will Present Some Special Problems
By J. D. Belanger
Homesteading—providing as many of your own needs as possible—has always made sense for retirees as well as the unemployed. A garden, a few chickens, and some rabbits or goats give people without paying jobs something to do and puts food on the table.
The problem is, homesteading involves work—and we get old.
Several years ago Countryside’s “Question of the Month” asked readers how they were going to cope with homestead chores as they aged. The most common answer was an optimistic “the same way I do now, only more slowly!”
They were only partially right. Young people have a tough time envisioning themselves aging.
I vividly recall the moment I first realized I was old. I was helping a son and son–in–law re–roof our house. I wasn’t keeping up with the younger guys, and my back and knees were aching. I was halfway up the ladder with an 80–pound bundle of shingles on my shoulder when I paused to think: “When I was a Marine I ran up and down hills all day carrying an 80–pound pack plus a 9.5–pound M1 rifle. What the heck is wrong with me now?”
Then it hit me: that was 40 years ago!
I climbed up to the roof, dumped that bundle, climbed back down the ladder, and never went up again.
Many more years have passed since then, so from the perspective of an old guy who was once young, here are a few observations on homesteading and aging based on personal experience.
- Plan ahead, but expect the unexpected.
- Use your head, not your back.
- Know that goals, ideas and ideals change along with muscle tone, vigor and ambition.
- Think about financial planning like a homesteader.
- Find something to be passionate about.
Some people do die young, but many others live to complain that, “had I known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!” Part of that care involves planning.
Much planning is financial: accumulating savings, and hopefully deriving at least a modest income from them; insurance considerations; paying off the mortgage and having the homestead in place. This includes having the tools essential for your level of self–sufficiency, and the knowledge, skills and experience to use them profitably. This could mean a small garden and a freezer, or the whole kit and kaboodle—garden and tools, canning equipment, root cellar, greenhouse, chicken coop, goat facilities, and all the essential peripherals. These obviously must be addressed long before your retirement party.
Will you heat with wood? If so, what happens when you can no longer lift a chainsaw, fell a tree or swing a splitting maul? What about butchering? Making hay?
While planning is important, don’t think it’s etched in stone.
For example, in the introduction to Homesteader’s Handbook to Raising Small Livestock (Rodale Press, 1974, now available as a reprint from Dover), I pointed out that raising small stock was something you can enjoy all your life.
“When I was in grade school, some of my best friends were pigeons. I still raise them, I enjoy their beauty, their personalities, their grace of flight. And one day I hope to be like the old man who sold me my first good birds: my life’s work done, sitting in the shade of a vine–covered white loft, still thrilling at my birds—a little bit of me—winging their way to the clouds.”
When I retired 26 years later I did indeed have several breeds of pigeons… and chickens, and guineas, and golden pheasants, and ring–neck doves, and cockatiels…
…and hypersensitivity pneumonitis, also variously called “pigeon lovers’ disease,” “chicken lovers’ disease” or simply “bird breeders’ disease.” When a lung biopsy went awry I was hospitalized for two weeks with a lung that collapsed several times, and when I returned home, all the birds were gone: Diane saw to it that not a feather remained. I needed a new retirement hobby.
I have heard similar stories of plans gone sour: a fellow who was going to spend his retirement as a woodworker found he was allergic to sawdust; a goat lady couldn’t handle the herd by herself after her husband died; plans were drastically changed after a house burned down or a subdivision or new highway swamped a homestead, and more than a few people develop medical problems that keep them from doing virtually anything physical. A tornado, flood or hurricane can change plans. Anticipating all the possibilities is impossible, but we must be prepared for them, if only psychologically.
Use your head
Number two, using your head not your back, obviously makes sense for everyone, but it’s essential for older folks. Bales of hay, buckets of water, lumber and logs, all seem to increase in weight as we add on years. We learn to appreciate leverage, the inclined plane, the wheel, even more than before. And most importantly, we learn to be careful and to avoid risks that we might have ignored when younger.
However, one of the best uses of the head is to ask whether a specific task needs to be done at all. Many, we often decide, are not.
Between these extremes are numerous examples of how merely taking a few moments to think through a situation or to assess a problem can result in using brainpower to compensate for muscle power.
If you’re young you probably don’t give a thought about running down to the basement root cellar for an onion or one more potato while making supper. But when stairs present a real challenge you’ll soon learn to gather everything you’ll be needing for a meal, or even the entire day, and bring it all up in one trip.
Maybe you’ll grow vegetables in containers, or use one of the heavy mulching systems to avoid tilling a garden. Raised beds are widely recognized as being beneficial to disabled people of all degrees and ages. Growing peas, beans, and cucumbers on trellises makes harvesting much easier on the back.
Yellow beans are easier for sight–impaired gardeners to pick than green ones, which can be hard to distinguish against green leaves. Speaking of that, prepare for trying to make out the info on a seed packet or the instructions on a container of pesticide when you’re outside and your glasses are in the house.
That drip irrigation system you’ve always wanted makes even more sense when lugging hoses becomes impossible. If an irrigation system isn’t in the retirement budget, you might have to settle for a smaller watering can… that is, if you’re able to make more trips.
Various forms of arthritis are common as we age. In some cases, tools with longer or padded handles might be called for. We want to avoid over–reaching. Paths must be level and not slippery, and perhaps wheelchair accessible. If you have never used kneepads, now might be the time to start… or you might prefer a seat of some kind, even if only an overturned 5–gallon bucket.
Warm–up exercises have become almost a fad: some of us have scoffed at the folly of exercising to get ready for… exercising! But as our muscles turn to mush and we creak in joints we weren’t even aware we had and gardening starts to feel like more than just light exercise, maybe a little stretching beforehand is a good thing after all.
Everything changes, including change, itself
Be prepared for changes—in yourself, both mental and physical, and in the outside world. Of these, the changes in your own ideas might be the most surprising.
Most of us anticipate growing weaker with age, although it can still take us by surprise (as in my roofing story). If we have spent a lifetime eating properly, getting plenty of physical exercise and living sensibly, we tend to think of ourselves like those 70–year–olds who still run marathons or swim the English Channel, and we’re surprised when we realize that ain’t gonna happen to us. Very few have such lucky genes. I knew making firewood would become more difficult, but I never expected that even the small chainsaw, formerly used just for brushing, would get so heavy!
Similarly, we might not be able to imagine ourselves living without our beloved chickens, or goats or horses.
My bird experience was unusual; not so with the goats. As a young man I was certain I’d be milking at least one goat until the day I died. I loved goats, I loved working with and consuming their products, they were entertaining pets and friends as well as providers, and except for a few chores such as barn cleaning, they didn’t involve much strenuous labor.
But there came a time when we didn’t drink much milk any more and making cheese for two elderly people became more bother than it was worth. Yogurt is a no–fuss product, and we still consume that regularly, but not enough to warrant keeping even one decent goat.
And I’ll admit it: we reach a stage in life when crawling out of bed to do chores every single day, regardless of the weather or aches and pains or anything else, loses its attraction.
Some changes are obvious and easy: the 200 quarts of tomatoes we canned each summer for a growing family would be ludicrous now, and everything else also decreases proportionately.
What’s not so obvious is that appetites change with age: we eat less, and differently. Raising a pig doesn’t make much sense when two people can share one pork chop. This is one aspect of aging that’s a plus: we don’t have to do as much because we need less.
Then there are attitudes toward self–sufficiency. When I was a young and fanatical homesteader a crop failure was catastrophic, and even shortages were life–changing. Buying potatoes was verboten. If we ran out of potatoes before the new crop came in we ate Jerusalem artichokes, or beans, or homemade pasta instead.
Not many people are that fanatical at any stage of their lives. But now, even for us, the prohibition against buying spuds isn’t nearly as strong (although the store–bought ones are so inferior there’s not much incentive either), and again, we really don’t need very many anyway.
The ideals of independence and doing for ourselves—of self–sufficiency—fade with age. When it’s impossible to continue to be superman or superwoman, we have to accept reality. If we simply can’t hack it, we have to consider the options. “Aging gracefully” means knowing when it’s time to give up certain activities and doing so without bitterness.
In the olden days when two or three generations of a family lived and worked together this was less of a problem. When you progressed from diapers to knickers to long pants to hobbling with a cane you were part of a team. Only the job description changed with each stage of life. By the time an old man was confined to his rocker and wearing a shawl, maybe the job was nothing more than shelling hickory nuts, crocheting afghans and telling stories, but it was a job, as important in its way as the work of the younger family members.
Now the job description still changes, but instead of family, we have to rely on outsiders to take over the chores we have outgrown. And because we have to compensate them in cash, we worry more about money.
Life–altering changes and money
Some of the most significant life–altering changes today involve money. Total self–sufficiency is impossible. So is living without money. Dedicated homesteaders push the envelope on both as far as they can.
Few people today collect pensions and for years, many of us were certain we’d never collect Social Security either. The only other options were to work until the very end, or to save enough to survive old age.
So you saved a nickel here, a dime there, which became a few dollars, and after many years, a respectable retirement kitty. Invested in stocks, or even CDs, it could be expected to provide a comfortable income, at least by homestead standards.
Unless, of course, the Dow Jones Industrial Average goes from 14,164.53 to 6,547, as it did from Oct. 9, 2007, to March of ’09, and wipes out your gains as well as a good chunk of principal. And unless the interest rates on certificates of deposit go from the long–term average of 5.4% to the 2012 rate of 0.03%. At that rate, even a million dollars in savings returns a paltry $300 a year. Or put it under your mattress and watch inflation eat it.
And then there’s a good chance your home isn’t worth nearly as much as it was a few years ago, further devastating your net worth.
In other words, even careful planning and doing everything “right” has been no guarantee of a prosperous retirement in recent years. Heaven only knows what might be “right” for the next generation, but clearly, being debt–free and possessing at least the basic tools for self–sufficiency (and the skills and experience needed to use them profitably) provides more security than a stash of cash. Knowing how to transform raw wheat into bread, a dollar’s worth of seeds into $50 worth of vegetables, and having the ability to create a free meal by foraging for wild foods—these are all up–to–the–minute 21st century survival techniques, despite what the majority of Americans think. (Most of them would consider purchasing $50 worth of wheat berries ridiculous, but think nothing of a $300 or $400–a–month bill for the family’s four cell phones.)
Those who have already retired have few choices. Some have gone back to work, even in their 70s and 80s. Nearly all have had to rein in their spending, regardless of how meager that was even before the crash. Living with as little cash as possible—one of the foundations of homesteading—can be anticipated in retirement.
Serious homesteading—that is, providing as many of your own needs as possible, including food, shelter, clothing and entertainment—is the solution to many money shortage problems for people who are unemployed, or under–employed, as well as retired. It’s the equivalent of creating your own employment. But it only works if it’s handled like real employment, not just an expensive hobby. This means you must have at least the basic tools in place before you actually need them, and you must have the skills and experience to use them profitably. This is no time for those beginners’ mistakes resulting in $40 tomatoes and $5 eggs.
Fortunately, real homesteaders have plenty of practice at frugality, as do many younger people today, homesteaders or not, thanks to the Crash of ’08. The homestead advantage is that we can see what’s really important and what is useless. We know there are alternatives to the financial planners’ advice concerning stocks and bonds and bank savings. (Don’t just gripe about the average Wall Streeter taking home $362,950 last year: refuse to support them with any of your hard–earned pennies. Invest in your homestead, and yourself.)
At any age, homesteaders realize that the best things in life are free. We know how to make do or do without. We know how to appreciate what we have, in any amount, and we recognize that no matter how little we have, someone else has even less. When you consider that even those living in poverty today have more than the richest royalty of yore, it’s apparent that wealth and lifestyle are largely a matter of relativity; much of it’s in your head.
This being the case, maybe the most important aspect of homesteading isn’t physical self–sufficiency: it’s psychological self–reliance. We don’t wait for or expect others to fulfill our needs, we don’t base our needs or wants on advertising or tv shows or what the neighbors have or think, and we adapt to whatever nature hands us.
And then there’s the passion. I’ve observed that those who have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning and have something they can really sink their teeth into are much happier and healthier than those who do little or nothing and don’t enjoy even that. Crossword puzzles and tv just don’t fill the void.
This might be one of the major benefits of homesteading. A garden, and certainly small livestock, can keep a person happily occupied well into old age. Such activities allow us to learn something new every day, which is also important. For many, that’s enough, but the possibilities are unlimited.
Whether volunteering at the Salvation Army or on a citizen committee, becoming involved in a plant or historical society, cooking or baking or wine–making, taking a college course or learning a new skill, finding something where we can continue to learn and grow, and ideally, share our enthusiasm with like–minded folks, is one of the best tonics for old age. I have learned from experience that merely joining an organization isn’t enough. To get the most benefit you have to volunteer, get involved, become part of the inner circle.
After my unfortunate bird experience I turned to bonsai, which led to an interest in conifers, and the American Conifer Society. Now I’m a technical editor of their magazine and editor of the Central Region newsletter, I’ve developed a slide presentation for garden groups, and I tend a collection of more than a hundred dwarf, rare and unusual conifers.
Do I miss the chickens and goats, the eggs and milk? Of course! But conifers are a trade–off: I’ll probably miss them too, someday. That’s life.
Besides, I still have birds, right outside my window. We have scads of finches and chickadees, and families of blue jays, cardinals, and mourning doves, among many others. A pileated woodpecker has been a regular at the suet feeder recently, and Bohemian waxwings and grouse have been entertaining us while enjoying the fruits and berries remaining on our trees and shrubs.
Resourceful homesteaders will always find a way to not only survive, but to enjoy life, at any age.
There was something else I wanted to share, but it slipped my mind…
Oh well, it’ll come to me later.
J.D. Belanger, who is proud of having written this article without once referring to “senior citizens” or “golden agers,” founded Countrysidemagazine in 1969… when back–to–the–land hippies were saying ”never trust anyone over 30.” He was 31. His most recent book isEnough! A critique of capitalist democracy and a guide to understanding the New Normal, available from the Countryside Book Store.
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