Expert Interview Series: Kathy Gottberg: Aging, and Living a Fulfilling Life

Kathy Gottberg is a published author who explores ideas about well-being, health, meaning, and positive aging on her blog SMART Living 365. We recently spoke with Kathy about what people should focus on as they age and when they retire.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to start this blog?

As an author of several published books, I was intrigued by the idea of writing and sharing my thoughts and ideas with people from around the world through a blog. I knew I wanted to explore ideas about happiness, well-being, and other thoughts on creating a quality life, but a name eluded me. Then I came up with the acronym of SMART, which stands for Sustainable, Meaningful, Aware, Responsible, and Thankful. Fortunately, those five categories are broad enough so that I can write about what I find most interesting and still fit within my brand. Two years ago when I turned 60, I began including a very strong voice about positive aging. Together, all of these ideas show how a person can live well 365 days of the year.

According to your readers, what are some of the major concerns or worries that plague people as they grow older?  

Like most people, I am not immune to the message of ageism in our society. From the time we are small, most of us are indoctrinated into thinking that youth is always superior and that aging and old people are to be avoided at any cost. When you throw in the highly commercial message that all of us are bombarded with that emphasizes the need to do everything we can to look and stay young, it is no wonder people see aging as a problem, rather than a benefit.

So I think the number one problem in our country that plagues people as they grow older is the perception that once you reach a certain age, it is all downhill. What I am increasingly optimistic about is all the studies and research being done that shows that aging can be a time of incredible opportunity and ongoing adventure. Sure, our bodies and circumstances are changing, but many of those changes are positive and beneficial. What I do on my blog is to share the good news about aging and serve as a cheerleader for the process.

For people who found a great deal of meaning in their work, how should they approach retirement?

Staying open-minded, curious, and optimistic is a wonderful way to approach retirement. I have found that retirement is the perfect occasion to disengage with what society has told us for most of our lives: that our greatest value is our productivity. Of course, that remains a big part of the challenge too, because so many people have identified with and found their life meaning within what they do as their work.

Instead, retirement offers us all the opportunity to discover who we really are on a deep soul or personality basis. It also gives us the chance to recreate ourselves and do things we always wanted to do but never found the time or courage to do in the past. Even better, it allows us to get to the heart of what really matters most to us and let go of all the rest.

Finish this sentence: “The most important trait to have if you want to have a happy, fulfilling life during your retirement years is…”

After all of the research I’ve uncovered, I am convinced that the most important trait any of us can have at any age is curiosity or inquisitiveness. Why? To me, curiosity implies that we remain open to new ideas and a willingness to continually keep learning. It also suggests that we are adaptable and open to change. Curiosity implies an optimistic, forward-thinking perspective rather than looking backward and wishing things were as they used to be instead of what is happening right now. The more we can nurture and encourage this character trait in ourselves and each other, the more resilient and the more optimistic we become.

What are some of the most innovative and imaginative hobbies and activities that SMART Living positive agers are engaging in these days?

From everything I observe, I must say that some of the most innovative activities for my age group are ways to stay active and healthy, both mentally and physically. A large majority of us are not trying to stay young; instead, we are striving toward staying healthy, active, and engaged for as long as we are here. Most people who read my blog tend to see aging as a way to embrace all the things they never had time for before, or the things they discounted up until now because they didn’t realize their intrinsic value. Things like elder travel, pickleball, and growing participation in age-related sports come to mind. I’m also witnessing a strong effort for people to create more community because research is showing how important social connections are for a long and healthy life. Oh, and reading and book clubs!  Because I’m a writer, I am happy when people enjoy reading.

How is “rightsizing” different from downsizing, and why is “rightsizing” important as people age?

Several years ago, my husband and I made a fundamental choice for our future. Up until then, we lived like many upper middle-class people in our area of the country did: big house, nice furniture, landscaped yard, pool, spa, and three cars in our three-car garage. But when the real estate market crashed, we started asking ourselves whether that lifestyle was sustainable for the long term. Even though we had a small mortgage that we could easily afford, we knew we’d be paying on that mortgage for 25+ years. That’s when we decided to downsize.

Unfortunately, that word didn’t feel right. Downsizing implies that you have to sacrifice and give up what you really want. Instead, we decided to pursue a more fulfilling life full of quality experiences rather than “stuff.” We called our move towards what we wanted “rightsizing.” Once we found a smaller home in a desirable neighborhood filled with quality amenities, we were able to use the proceeds of our former house and additional savings to buy it free and clear.

With our new smaller home, we began saving all that money we previously used just to maintain it and pay our mortgage. Besides adding to our savings, we were also able to easily travel and do more things we enjoyed doing together because we lived so far beneath our means. Best of all, we were unprepared for the amazing feeling of freedom that we experience by living in a free and clear home. Sure, our home is smaller; but honestly, we never needed (or even used) that extra space. The “look” of our former house might have been more impressive, but the “feel” of our new house has far more benefits.

That was just the beginning of our rightsized life. The journey of making choices that focus on things that really mattered to us, and letting go of everything else, has been amazing. In all my writing, I continue to remind myself and others of the enormous benefits of living a rightsized life – and I recommend it no matter what your age.

For older people, what are some signs which may indicate that moving into an assisted living facility might be a wise choice?

No one I know wants to contemplate living in an assisted living facility. I believe that is because most assisted living properties are modeled after for-profit facilities run by organizations designed for efficiency and profit rather than care and community. Instead, if we made facilities that feel like a community of people who go there to live and enjoy life rather than die, many would start looking forward to being a part of them. I am hopeful that in the future, more people will begin designing communities of cooperation for those who want to age in a positive way.  Co-housing is one such model and I've written about it on my blog. In the meantime, connecting people of advanced age with services and other social organizations will help people age in place. I do my best to offer suggestions for how to work towards this while people are physically and mentally able to design ways for their future to unfold.

With people living longer, what challenges will 70-year olds, 80-year olds, and 90-year olds of the future be facing?

While health coverage, cost of living, and housing expenses are big issues for older people to face, I believe that behind all that is a need to make the quality of our lives more important than the length. Sure, people are living longer, but that doesn’t always mean that they are happier or more fulfilled. Once basic needs are satisfied, showing older people ways to find purpose and meaning in life becomes extremely important. It is also imperative that all people remain connected and in relationships with others to avoid loneliness and isolation. Research shows that at long as people have purpose, feel connected to others, and are optimistic about the aging process, they tend to live long and happy lives. Making those experiences an option for us all is a worthy goal.

Sure, it is nice to think that once we age and/or retire we can just kick back and do nothing or whatever we want when we want to. But is also important to remember that people of advanced age still have a great deal to offer our families, our communities, our country, and the world.  Learning to appreciate the wisdom of elders and then encouraging those people of advanced age to keep contributing what they know will benefit both them and everyone else. It is my goal and intention with all my writing and my blog to continue to encourage and remind people to remain vibrant, hopeful, and happy no matter what their age.

Would you rather age in place in your home? Check out our senior home care options.

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  1. Great article! I have learned to “rightsize” my garden. Other interests have crowded out my once full time garden hobby! Will be right sizing our home in the near future! Thank you again ML
  2. Great answers, Kathy! I’m still a big fan of your term “rightsizing” and hope you will continue to inspire other people with this interview, your blog and your books. Whenever I retire, I want to see it as a new phase, full of more time, more opportunities, more satisfaction, and less stress and needs to be productive.
  3. Hi Wendy! I just today found your comment. Thank you for adding your very valuable perspective to positive aging. As you say, when you recognize the disadvantages to not living until we are old, it makes the process that much more precious. I so agree with you that “every day is valuable and must be enjoyed.” Thank YOU for that reminder today! ~Kathy
  4. Hi, My father died when I was young and I envy those people who reached their older stage of life. I envy them because I want my father to reach that age too. There are so many things to learn, enjoy and experience during this stage of life. To those people who do not enjoy their retirement days, just think of the days that you are wasting. Every day is valuable and must be enjoyed.
  5. Hi, I also agree that curiosity is one of the important traits to have a fulfilling and happy life during the retirement years. It doesn’t mean that you retired you already know everything. For me, it means, a new beginning to learn at that stage of life.
    1. Hi Jenny! I just received notice that this interview was published….a couple of months later. Thanks for checking in and letting me know that you too believe that curiosity is very important both early and then later in life. And as you say, retirement is really just a new stage of life. ~Kathy

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