Category Archives: Personal Reflection

The Invisibility of Being Old and Queer

I’ve noticed recently that I am no longer obviously gay and that worries me. You may wonder what does ‘obviously gay’ mean and that would be a good question. Members of the LGBTQ+ family come in all shapes, sizes, colours, dispositions, walks of life, cultural backgrounds, presentation, etc. Sure, there are stereotypes and some of us can embody those, but most of us don’t exactly fit the stereotypes either. Though I may have some stereotypically gay attributes and sometimes enjoy playing with those stereotypes, I have never been the stereotype that popular culture portrayed about what a gay man is. And yet, for a large part of my adult life I was consciously obviously gay. 

Prior to coming out in a big way when I was 20, I lived very closeted and secret double life connected to the church. When my big secret was revealed to my community and my family I was abandoned and homeless. Luckily, I was ‘adopted’ by a rag tag bunch of gay men, lesbians, and transfolk who for a variety of reasons were considered the dregs of society. They took me in and brought me back to life. That community felt a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys from the old Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer Claymation Christmas special…with one exception. Though they all claimed their “misfit-ness” they were not sad or miserable like the misfit toys in that TV show. They embraced and celebrated who they were and lived authentic and visible lives. They were outrageous, loving, giving, loud and a lot of fun too. (Think of the TV programme POSE and you’ll get a sense of the community that adopted me) Even as AIDS began to devastate that community, they continued to be outrageous, loving and visible. They learned to live with dignity in their queerness, and in the height of the early AIDS epidemic they showed others how to support each other to die with dignity. When society abandoned us at our hour of greatest need, we banded together and thrived….even in death. I began to realise at this point that every act of being out, whether of the outrageous/flamboyant type or the quieter “this is who I am” type, was both personal and political. The AIDS crisis made it even more important for LGBT people to be visible and to be seen as part of wider society. When my partner died from AIDS and I was immediately made homeless for the 2nd time in my life due to homophobia I became a bit of a militant “in your face” gay man and I made sure strangers in the street were aware I was a gay man. Though I mellowed a great deal over the years I’ve always been adamant about the importance of being out. I’m convinced that one of the reasons we made great strides in LGB rights is that so many of us began to be out and huge proportions of the general population began to realise that they had lesbian or gay family members, friends, work colleagues, doctors, plumbers, nurses, cleaners, etc. It was difficult to ‘other’ and demonise that which you know. As I progressed in my career, I thought it was even more important for me to be visibly out so that younger LGBT people could see successful and happy older LGBT people…something I didn’t have growing up.

So here I am now at 60 years old and I worry that I am no longer easily identifiable as a gay man. I think this is partly down to ageism and wider society still doesn’t see older people as sexual beings or as having a sexuality. Ageism also exists in the LGBT community and we can be excluded from the younger LGBTQ scene (though there is a sub-culture of ‘daddy chasers’ who like us older men).  But moving beyond ageism, some of the external stereotypical things I used to like to do have diminished as well. For example, how I present myself has changed. I look like an old man now, rather than as a gay man. Certainly since I retired I no longer have any fashion sense at all –  joggy bottoms and a fleece with coffee stains will do just fine for a trip to Tesco (what have I become?)! The LGBT work lanyards are gone. My public leadership of LGBT staff networks or city Pride organisations is gone. In addition, I’ve gone from doing things with a large LGBT friendship circle to having few LGBT friends I do things with publicly. In my 30s and 40s I was regularly going out to restaurants, the cinema, theatre, sporting events, theme parks, conference, sports tournaments etc with 5, 10 or 20 screaming queens and butch dykes. Last night we went to see the Pet Shop Boys with another older gay couple and aside from the initial kisses and cuddles when we saw each other, we would have blended into a predominantly straight crowd. 

On one hand there is something to be celebrated in the fact that I can quietly live my life as part of a gay couple and have peace of mind that I now have the same legal rights as a straight married couple. Never again will I be flung out on the streets if my partner dies. There is something to celebrate in the fact that I can go to a concert, meet two gay friends and have a brief cuddle and kiss in public and not get beat up or arrested. But there is also something very disconcerting about being invisible again. 

Invisibility feels particularly dangerous at this particular time in history because the pendulum of human rights for LGBT people is beginning to swing in a regressive direction. I lived through and have the scars from the horrible homophobia and oppression of the 1970s 1980s and 1990s. I remember the hate fuelled murders of Harvey Milk, Mathew Sheppard, Rita Hester and many other less famous LGBT people. I remember all the hateful discourse and backlash against LGBT people as public opinion regarding LGB people began to shift positively around the turn of the century until it peaked in the past 20 years. I recognise the language being used against trans people today as the same language used against gay people back then, and how that same language is now once again also seeping into discourse about LGB people too. I recognise the divide and conquer techniques the right is using to get parts of the LGBT community fighting against each other. I also recognise how those same techniques are turning working class people against the poor, refugees, immigrants, BAME people and other marginalised communities. If we get riled up and start fighting each other, we won’t notice when those in power further line their pockets and further undo years of progressive advances. Those in power are not even pretending any longer and are blatantly hostile against the LGBT community as well as other marginalised groups. I must find new ways to stand up and say each and every day that I am here and I’m queer and I’m not going away. I must also find new ways to stand in solidarity with others who are being marginalised. I am also finding my LGBTQ community again. I will not be invisible, nor will I stand by in silence as I see others oppressed. Act Up had it right all those years ago: Silence=Death; Action=Life

The Intentionality Fallacy in Caring

The research I did for my PhD was on stress and coping for family caregivers of people with dementia. I was particularly interested in the appraisal process and how that impacted burden. Stress and coping models suggest that events may not be stressful in and of themselves. How people think about an event (appraise it) can greatly influence if they experience something as stressful or not. Two different people may experience the exact same stressor and one person has a meltdown and the other simply takes it in stride. Though this is an oversimplification it does have some truth to it. How we think about an event can influence how we experience an event, and this can impact our behaviour. Albert Ellis was a psychologist who developed a type of cognitive behavioural therapy built on this idea. He wanted to help people overcome irrational beliefs and manage their emotions and behaviours. His ABC model helped people explore their irrational beliefs and make changes. The A was Antecedent (or activating event), B stands for Beliefs, and C stands for the Consequences of that belief (or emotional reaction). If one could understand their ABC process, they could break the irrational chain. The stress and coping models and Ellis’ ABC model come from very different places, but both land on the idea that how we think about an event or what our belief is about that event can increase our stress or negatively impact on our emotional wellbeing. 

My research suggested that if a caregiver of someone with dementia was afraid that they were going to get dementia too, then the symptoms that came with cognitive decline were more stressful. Carers were more likely to think “this is what is going to happen to me too,” and they experienced more stress. An example from my years of supporting carers also demonstrates this point. Some carers would think that the incontinence of the person they were caring for was intentional. They would say things like John is just wetting the bed to annoy me. Or Margaret waits to defecate until after I change her on purpose. Carers would get so angry at their loved ones, or feel hurt or betrayed because of the belief that the behaviour was intentional. I had countless conversations with a range of carers describing the nature of dementia (or whatever other condition was responsible) and how these behaviours were symptoms of the disease and not intentional acts. When carers were able to get their heads around this, their stress levels would decrease, and it made it easier not to get angry or short with the person they were caring for.  Sure, it was still a royal pain having to change the bedding (again) or to clean someone up (again) who was incontinent of bowel, but not feeling angry or hurt at the ill person for doing something unintentional lessened the emotional burden. Being able to reframe the behaviour as part of the disease rather than a personal attack was important.

I really understand all of this, and yet, when it is my own life, I somehow forget all of this. Though my husband does not have dementia, one of the conditions he has requires the use of a medication during a flare up that significantly impacts cognition. It takes longer for information to get into the brain, and longer for the brain to process, and longer still for a response to occur. The condition itself during a flare up can also really add to this deterioration. Age related hearing loss doesn’t help (especially if he ‘purposefully’ doesn’t wear his hearing aids), the cognitive processing is synergistically impacted. 

Despite having some expertise in carers issues and also really understanding the condition and medication side effects, I found myself getting so frustrated, snappish, short, unforgiving and blaming. I ascribed all sorts of intentionality and became angry and resentful. I even heard my mother’s voice in my head saying, ‘after all I’ve done for you, you treat me this way…’  When this mental story is playing in my head, the caring feels like a burden rather the loving, supportive relational activity it really is.  

Luckily now I do recognise this pattern, but sometimes I recognise it too late and say or do something I regret and feel guilty about. It helps to acknowledge the intentionality fallacy and to apologise for my snapping or my less than charitable behaviour or reactions – when I notice what I’m doing. My morning meditation practice also helps keep me centred and lessens the frequency of my stinking thinking. My regular exercise also helps me keep perspective. 

One of the themes that is emerging across my blog is that knowing something doesn’t mean that you get to skip the experience. I wish that all my knowledge about carers meant I could care for my husband and be a long-distance carer for my mother without making any mistakes or by not having to experience some of the downsides. In my hubris I thought maybe I could escape all of that…but once again I get to learn a little humility and that I do have clay feet too. Strangely there is something reassuring about that. 

Adjusting to retirement income

March was the first full month of living and feeling like a proper retired person. The most important indicator for this was living on our actual retirement budget. Prior to last month the budget was a well-thought out – but untested plan. Could we really live on our reduced income? Could we really live within our means? The answer for that first month was yes. We managed just fine. However, it really did force me to re-think my relationship with money and spending. Prior to retirement I didn’t think twice about popping out to the shops (or online during the Pandemic) to get something I ‘needed’ or wanted. I was in the privileged position of having a good paying job and good disposable income. Unfortunately, I disposed of it too quickly! But now that my income is drastically reduced, I find myself asking, do I really need this? Is there money in the budget to buy this? If we need it, can it wait until next month or should I take money out of ‘one envelop’ to put it into this envelop? Can I find the same thing (or something similar) for less money? I have become mindful about all of my spending. We also continued to find more ways to economise – e.g., we planned out all of our meals for a week in advance, bought only the required ingredients, and did batch cooking…making good use of the freezer. I became much more mindful about money and spending. 

Now I know this is pretty basic stuff and those living in poverty have had to do this all the time, but with even less and without the same safety nets I have now. But this was the next big test of my retirement planning. It’s been a long time since I needed to watch every penny and was barely scraping by from pay check to pay check. It has been even longer since I was without a job, a home, and without a safety net. Still longer yet since I watched my mother rob Peter to pay Paul. She was the queen of reuse, recycle, waste nothing. But somehow, in my privileged, nice income existence I stopped living like I had any of those experiences. So, I am embarrassed to admit that it is a ‘bit’ of adjustment to go back to having to be mindful about money.  I have to say, I’m a bit cross with myself for not doing this years ago as if I had my retirement existence would be at an entirely different level. But at the same time, I’ve had an amazing life and a lot of great experiences, and I will be more than comfortable for the next 30 years. And it’s clear that my planning for retirement was sound. We really can manage on our retirement incomes. Now I just have to work on consistency….never one of my strong points!

Homophobia is a thing of the past in UK blood donation

Last June I gave blood for the first time ever, though it wasn’t the first time I tried to give blood – that was 40 years ago. I was a seminarian back then, studying to be a priest, living in a rectory, while going to university. There was a blood drive on Sunday after mass. I stood in the queue with all the other parishioners while we completed our medical forms. There on the form it was made clear that as a ‘homosexual’ man I was not allowed to give blood. I was closeted at the time and already felt like there was something wrong with me for being a homosexual. The AIDS hysteria and rampant homophobia of the time only added to those feelings of self-loathing.  I had to think quickly on my feet and find some excuse to mark on the form so that I could get out of giving blood without letting on I was a gay man. My conscience wouldn’t let me fake being straight to give blood just in case I had the gay disease. I just accepted at the time that I was a risk to society, simply because I was gay. That was certainly the messaging in the press and government at the time. Gay men were dangerous. Full stop. As a class of people, we were tainted, risky, vile, poisoned and must be avoided. Of course, it wasn’t just us. It was also drug users and Haitians – but the vitriol was focussed primarily on us. 

Twenty years later and in a different, more progressive country, I thought I would give blood. But no, the blanket ban on gay men giving blood was still in effect in the UK.  By this time, I was a very out gay man and had really come to understand homophobia and all the other isms in society. I recognised this time that the problem was not me or my blood. The problem was homophobia. The original and continuing ban was based on prejudice and fear about an entire class of people. With the advent of reliable HIV testing, I could guarantee that my blood was not tainted. How did I know this? Well I had regular testing and completely changed my behaviour. I did not engage in ANY risky behaviour. Most of my friends at the time were doing the same thing. We went to safer sex parties, which were much like Tupperware parties – not parties to have sex, where we learned about safer sex practices. We used self-help and community development activities to educate ourselves and change our behaviour. These were also a lot of fun and a good laugh. During this period I had two 4-5 year periods of celibacy as well as a long-term monogamous relationship. My blood was safer than most sexually active straight people I knew at the time.

I had straight friends who didn’t believe they were at risk of HIV infection so got up to all sorts of unsafe sexual behaviours. How did I know there was lots of unsafe sex going on in the straight world? Well, as my gay male friends can attest, many straight women love to talk to us about their sex lives. I think sometimes it’s nice to talk to a man about sex, without any sexual feelings getting in the way.  Regardless of the reason, we gay men often know all sorts of things about what straight women get up to or what they want from their male partners. For example, some of my female friends practiced anal sex – both so they didn’t get pregnant as well as for pleasure reasons. Another friend was called “Head Queen” by her sorority sisters as she thought that oral sex would not transmit HIV or other sexual diseases. Others who used oral contraceptives had a range of partners without using protection. Still others used types of protection that were not really useful against HIV (e.g. lambskin condoms). Though straight men were not as likely to share these types of details with me as a gay man, I still heard enough straight men talking about their sexual exploits to know that they too were engaging in high-risk behaviour – though some of what I heard was likely made up or at least exaggerated! Because I had become a safe sex expert out of necessity, I tried to educate my straight friends about their risk for HIV. Often, I was ignored because in the messaging from governments and media outlets, most people heard only that AIDS was about being a type of person (e.g., gay men), and not about behaviours. This is homophobia. As long as you weren’t one of “them” you were safe. This is an example of how homophobia also hurt straight people….worldwide now 50% of new infections occur in women and currently in the UK more straight people than gay/bisexual people are being diagnosed with HIV. But getting back to the main point of this blog post, the ban on donating blood should always have been about behaviours….not sexual orientation. It took untilJune of 2021 for this to happen in the UK.  It is still not the case in the USA, despite the Red Cross believing the UK approach should be adopted.

As I gave blood last June during the 1st week gay people in the UK were allowed to, I let staff know what it meant to me to finally after 40 years be able to give blood. They were so welcoming and happy to see us coming in droves to give blood. They said lots of the gay men were saying the same thing as me. I knew I would be back. You are able to donate blood every three months, but I was unable to donate in September for a behavioural reason – I got a tattoo that month.  I needed to wait 4 months after my tattoo to be able to give blood again. This is a very sensible behavioural screening. After my 4 months were up, I gave blood the second time. Because I came back to give another blood donation, I got a special pin for showing up again, and I also got some information about my blood type. I have a rare blood type that is constantly in demand, and all I could think of was the number of people I could have helped save or help treat over the past 40 years if it wasn’t for the homophobia and fear that guided public policy for so long.  I plan on making up for lost time and giving blood as often as I can. I encourage others to do the same if you meet the now sensible eligibility criteria. Now if we can just tackle the rest of homophobia and the other isms too. 

Content and Questioning: Living Comfortably with Contradiction

My last blog entry was just over 8 weeks ago, and my retirement decision continues to feel like the correct decision. However, retirement only feels like a reality now. The very beginning of my retirement occurred over the Christmas period, and we had a 12-day Norwegian cruise booked for the 30th of January as one of the bucket list events on my things to do in retirement list.  So essentially from the 17th of December until the 13th of February I was living in a retirement, holiday, vacation bubble. Sure, as my previous retirement blogposts document, I was working on developing a shape to my retirement life, but retirement didn’t feel 100% real. That initial two-month period was fabulous and I felt myself de-stress, relax, lighten and begin to recover. The trip to Norway was particularly rejuvenating and I remained in a childlike state of wonder, amazement, exploration, mindfulness, and joy for the entire trip. (More about that in another blog). Normally on holiday I would remain worried or thinking about work – and often doing some work. Not having the unconscious/semi-conscious worry was palpable (and lovely). 

On Monday the 14th of February I woke up and had a panic – “Shit I’m retired now. What am I going to do with myself?” I was shocked at the intensity of the panic and anxiety that washed over me in that minute. I sat with those feelings as I went about my new morning routine – coffee for my husband, dogs out for a walk, exercise, meditation, journaling, breakfast and bath. The panic eased, but I was left with an uneasy questioning sense of “is this enough?” I began to engage with the days domestic tasks and then began to do my intellectual pursuits in the afternoon: reviewing an article for a journal, reviewing promotions applications for an international university, preparing for some mediation sessions coming up later in the week. The rest of the week followed a similar pattern as I continued to work on those intellectual pursuits.

In my meditation practice I began to simply ask the question in the 3rd person, “What do you want to do in retirement?” I just let that question percolate in meditation and in my unconscious for the next several weeks. Thankfully there was no panic, just a reflective wondering. On one level it seemed a bit odd that I would be asking myself this question because I had done so much pre-retirement planning and thinking, but I know myself well enough to realise that my processing and discernment process occurs in waves. (Even for simple decisions – which drives my quick decision-making husband crazy). There was a sense of comfort in simply asking the question in meditation even though the initial structure I developed was working for me.

The following two weeks were much the same, though we came down with a cold. We went to our first big event since lockdown over that weekend and our immune systems must have gone into a state of shock! Though I was still doing some intellectual activities, the cold really slowed me down (e.g. I was having to take a nap everyday and my thinking wasn’t as clear). I reflected on how while working I would have continued to push through the cold. At the end of that two-week period I had my delayed night out with the staff from the School. It was so good to see people from work and I was reminded just how much I liked the people I worked with. I got to hear about some of the university machinations and that was enough to remind me that I really don’t miss the stress that came with being Dean, but I do miss the interaction with the amazing people there. The School gave me an incredibly thoughtful and beautiful retirement present – a commissioned painting (the graphic with this blogpost) by DJCAD alumna Stephen French. I was so touched and it is one of my favourite views from Dundee – a view of the V&A looking across the River Tay. I lived on and looked over the Tay every day for 13 years and I do miss the beauty and power of that majestic river. 

I took the train home the next morning and again reflected on how retirement really was the right thing for me at this point. I also felt very fortunate to have had such a great career and to have worked with such amazing people over the years. I was also very proud of my legacy. It was a nice place to be mentally/emotionally. At the same time, I was still asking myself, “What do you want to do in retirement?” No panic, no anxiety, no fear…. just a simple question.

Our immune system must have been weakened by that lingering cold, as I picked up another bug in all those festivities/train journeys and was totally flattened for two weeks. We were convinced it was COVID at first because of the horrible cough and extreme fatigue, but numerous PCR and LFD tests said no. Again, I reflected on the experience of being unwell while retired as compared to being unwell while working. If I’m honest with myself, I really was rubbish at self-care while working. I frequently went to work while sick, came back too soon, or worked from home while ill. Part of that was being an American who was brought up with having only two weeks sick leave entitlement each year, but part of it was my own workaholic drive or my fear of letting people down. For the past 2 weeks I just let myself be sick, engaged in soothing self-care, slept a lot – a whole lot, played on my PlayStation when I had the energy, and took the dogs out for their walks. It was such a strange, but pleasant, experience to be sick, but not stressed. I do have some deadlines coming up in the next 2 weeks, but I felt no stress or worry. I wonder what my working life would have been like if I hadn’t run myself ragged all the time. 

So here I am now, back in the saddle again. Back to doing my routine, feeling well, engaging in my intellectual pursuits, doing a wee bit of volunteer work, continuing my caring responsibilities and picking up my hobbies. I am really content AND I’m still asking, “what do you want to do in retirement?”  This apparent contradiction feels great. Let’s see where this ends up.

Liebe und Arbeit – To Love and To Work. Retirement Reflections

According to Elms (2001), Sigmond Freud never said that love and work are the cornerstones of what makes us human or that the ability to love and work is the hallmark of a healthy life. However, the idea that to love and to work were key to mental health or normality were not foreign to Freud and could be seen to be the point of psychoanalysis. The idea has moved way beyond psychoanalytical thinking and permeates much psychological thinking, popular culture, and self-help movements. Even the early social model of disability movement placed great emphasis on work as a core concept. There is undoubtedly some truth to these ideas. However, there are critiques of the idea that work makes us human and linking humanness or worthiness to work (productivity) reeks of ableist and capitalistic ideologies. We are more than what we do. I know many people who do not currently work and some who have never worked who are very human, have meaning and purpose and have contributed to my growth and development. Still, there is something important about the place of love and work in psychological health, and I have thought a lot about the apocryphal saying of Freud since I retired one month ago yesterday.

I know for myself that I need to feel a sense of productivity, getting things done, making a contribution to others and society. Every job I had as part of my social work and academic career was an embodiment of that need. As the comments people made at my virtual leaving gathering evidenced for me, I did make a difference and contributed to the development of others. In my own way I have helped make the world a little bit better. But now that I am no longer working, what happens to that need to feel productive, to contribute, to get things done?

On a very micro level getting things done can include activities like those that took up yesterday: completing a long list of household chores, baking some bread, doing some needed shopping, cooking a healthy dinner, exercising and meditating. I hate those days when I footer about and get nothing done or accomplished, and yesterday was definitely NOT one of those days. I crossed off most of the items on my to do list and that kind of productivity feels good. However, that type of productivity will not sustain me over time. It’s not enough.  

A lot of the chores I did yesterday also fall into the “to love” category as they were things I need/want to do in my role as a caregiver. Caregiving considerations did play an important part in my deliberations to retire early, so my balance of to love and to work have shifted. But as important as the caring and the loving are, being focused on only that ‘side’ of Freud’s apocryphal love and work equation would be bad for my mental health.

The initial shape to my retirement life I’m creating does support the sense of accomplishment I need to feel each day on the micro level. I’m still finding my feet regarding the larger sense of feeling productive/contributing to society.  So far in my 1st month of retirement I have engaged in doctoral supervision, blogging, reviewing manuscripts for journals, beginning reading for an article I am writing, and beginning to do a small piece of work for Irish Social Work professional and regulatory body. I’m also exploring doing a very small amount of volunteering with an LGBT+ organisation. Time will tell if these activities help me to feel productive and to feel like I’m contributing to the greater good. I also wonder if my need to feel productive will wax and wane as I continue this journey into retirement. I have been reflecting on my sense of doing versus my sense of being, so who knows. But I am pretty certain I will always want to find a way to contribute to my community and my society. Just what that shape will be is anyone’s guess at the moment. For the time being, I am content to continue exploring and see what happens next. 

Elms, A. C (2001). Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s most famous “quotations” and their actual sources. In Annual of Psychoanalysis, XXIX, pp 83-104. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press. 

Early Emotional Responses to Retirement and Developing a Structure to Test

My first official day of retirement was the 1st of January 2022, though my last official day at work was the 17thof December. I was technically on annual leave from the 18th of December until the 31st. I say technically I was on annual leave because, like most academics, I still did some work while I was on leave. I didn’t quite get everything done before my ‘final’ day. I finished the last reports I needed to complete before I could retire in good faith on the 30th of December. I then made sure all my emails were cleared and all personal files were off university systems. It was such a strange feeling when all of that was done, and I was a bit surprised by the strange hole that suddenly opened in my gut. I had a momentary panic, but that soon passed. But then, the reality of retirement hadn’t really sunk in yet. In many ways it felt like being on Christmas break. 

On the 2nd of January I had a real moment of, ‘oh shit this is real’ when the University changed my IT permissions. I knew that I would briefly lose access to all systems and then some would be restored because of my emeritus status. But when it happened, I actually felt hurt, like ‘how could they do this to me? Don’t you know who I am?’ I had to laugh at myself and my reaction. Of course, that must happen. I’m not an employee anymore, I don’t need or want access to all that sensitive data anymore, and more importantly, it would be corporately irresponsible and against GDPR if the University still allowed access to all those systems. I knew all of that, but it still took my breath away when it happened. It was the first moment that it was clear that I was no longer in role and was retired. My position of privilege and power was over. By the end of that week, I received the formal confirmation that the Emeritus was now in the system, and I had access to the university resources I was entitled to as an Emeritus Professor…. another marker of the transition.  

It wasn’t until it was time to ‘go back to work’ last week that I finally began to feel retired. Even that was delayed a wee bit as we had a friend visiting for the 4th and 5th of January, so it wasn’t until the Thursday and Friday that I felt like I ‘should’ be at work. In those two days I was able to do my bits on a co-authored paper and do an article review for a journal. I also began the planning for another article I am starting to work on. I also had longer exercise sessions, longer meditation periods, long walks with my husband and dogs at lunch. Those were nice days, but not quite the shape I think I want. 

This past weekend felt like my first retired weekend. Normally on a Sunday (or the day or two before going back to work after holiday) I would start worrying about all the things I needed to do before Monday morning and/or for the week ahead. Suddenly that anxiety was gone. I am still getting that occasional pang of sadness that the important chapter in my life (being an academic and a Dean) was over.  I have moments where I think it ended too soon and that there was still unfinished business to take care of. But mostly, I feel a sense of hope and optimism about what is next. 

I’m really aware I need to have a shape and a structure to my days/time or I’ll become anxious and unhappy. Work gave a lot of shape and structure to how I lived my life, but now I’ll need to create my own shape and structure. I’ve reflected on my first 3 ½ weeks of retirement, my pre-retirement planning and goal setting, and my theme for the year (restoration) and have come up with a shape for my days. I’ll try this structure out for a month or two and see how it fits, how it nurtures, how it supports the restoration of my physique and my psyche.  I won’t be rigid about it, but having a basic structure will be helpful to me. 

Early Morning – The plan is to wake up at my regular time (6:30ish) and after walking the dogs, do my exercise, mediation, have breakfast, complete morning ablutions. This was my pattern for most of my working life especially for the past 6-7 years. Now, however I have more time for exercise and meditation so I am spending more time.

Mid Morning- Complete routine tasks and errands from to do list

Lunch- Healthy lunch and nice walk with dogs and husband

Afternoon- Spend 2-4 hours engaged in activities to feed the mind: writing, blogging, doctoral supervision preparation, learning French, other learning activities, etc

Evening – fun

We’ll see how this basic shape works.

Reflections on Retirement

As I have just retired, I thought I would use my blog to share and reflect on my transition. I doubt there will be any earth-shattering discoveries or anything particularly new about my experience, but sometimes reading someone else’s experience can be helpful. I am sure that my reflections will be helpful to me. I tend to think and figure things out as I write. I am certain my brain is really in my fingers. 

One of the other things I am sure will emerge in this journey is that my experience will likely fit into the research or theoretical understanding of retirement and early old age transitions. One of the things that frustrates me is that I am not special or unique. As much as I want to be different or want to not have to experience things because I ‘know about such things’ – I can’t seem to escape being human like everyone else! For example, years ago I was doing a talk/workshop in a geriatric hospital where I was working to a group of caregivers whose spouses were currently in the psychiatry or dementia wards. My partner at the time had bi-polar illness. As I was giving the workshop about self-care all I could do was think…I should be sitting in the seats with them! Just because I knew about the stresses and strains of caring, didn’t mean I could escape all the stresses and strains. Another example, I have reflected on my life at regular 10 -15 year intervals and built new structures to prepare for the next phase of life….just like Daniel Levinson wrote about in his normative research on the Seasons of a Man’s Life. Because I’ve spent my career looking at ageing and life transitions, I think I should be exempt from having to experience the uncomfortable parts and just get to the good stuff. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Well that’s what goes on inside this brain of mine. I get to learn the lesson of humility on a regular basis.

I’ll make regular posts about my transition, but I’ll make this first blog post about the decision to retire. It’s a bit historical now, but it will set the scene for future retirement posts. 

My Decision Making Process

My husband and I have been together for just over 20 years and he is 8 years older than me. I always planned on retiring a bit early so we could have good healthy years together in retirement. Prior to this relationship I had always thought I would be one of those academics that was found dead in their office at 85 years of age. But then, before this marriage, I was married to my job. One of my pensions allowed for retirement at 59½ without penalty so I knew that was the earliest I could retire – never thinking I would retire that early. But knowing that date set an early financial parameter.

Two years ago (just before the pandemic) we took a 3-week holiday over Christmas and New Year and booked a cottage on the Kyle of Lochalsh. I hadn’t had such a long period of down time in 20 years. I used this time as a ‘taster’ for retirement. Could we stand to be in the same place all by ourselves for this period of time? What would it be like to have a long stretch of unstructured time? Would I get bored? I also used this time to start some serious retirement planning. I’d done a lot of reading and some financial planning previously, but this was now done in earnest and with the potential reality on the 4-5 year horizon, rather than something abstract. This three-week period was really useful and a couple of things emerged. The 1st was that we really did like each other enough to survive being cooped up in a cabin all by ourselves for 3 weeks (The 1st lockdown confirmed this even more). The 2nd was that I was okay with unstructured time. I wouldn’t want to do it indefinitely so I would need to develop a structure and pattern when I retired (duh…that’s that all the research says).  Finally, I outlined what I needed to do to get ready to retire and get a firm plan. This included some serious financial planning with our financial advisor and doing a proper retirement planning course. At this point two years ago, I was still thinking of a retirement date 4-5 years away, but knew I wanted to get the planning started now and done soon. I put those wheels in motion. Then the pandemic hit. 

Despite the pandemic I was still able to have a planning session with my financial adviser (virtually of course) and also enrolled in a great online retirement planning course that covered every aspect of retirement. It was well worth the money. Through both of these processes I discovered I really could retire at 59½ if I wanted to. I still loved my job and was getting great intrinsic reward from it. The pandemic made things a bit more stressful, but I’ve always thrived in a crisis (one of the benefits of growing up in a dysfunctional family). Being a good leader and helping my school and staff survive and thrive themselves while also providing excellent education despite the pandemic was rewarding, exciting, but also VERY exhausting. 

Though I was still thinking of retirement being 4-5 years away, we decided to start making changes to prepare for retirement.  Again, some of the research talks about the importance of planning and getting structures in place prior to a transition. I wasn’t thinking about the research, but I can be so normative. Anyhow, we loved Dundee and the Tayside region. It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and the City of Dundee is a small vibrant city in the midst of a remarkable transformation. It’s simply an amazing place. Yet, it wasn’t quite right for us in retirement. We decided it would be better for us to retire to Glasgow for a range of personal reasons – including being close to family and friends who could help out with caregiving and being part of a larger gay community. We decided to move before retirement so we could establish a good social network and be part of the community. And that’s what we did. We downsized further and bought a small flat in the City Centre, close to all amenities and travel links. (Sounds like a retirement planning cliche)

During this time there had also been a series of leadership changes at the University. Previously I had been very influential within the University and was making a very positive contribution both to my School and the wider University. With the changes in leadership I began to feel pushed aside. Having been central to many important developments and having a lot of influence over a number of years, it was painful and frustrating. I know that universities across the world do these sorts of things from time to time – in with the new and out with the old – and it is not personal. But it is still sore and feels personal at times. There was also a period of considerable moral distress when processes were occurring that were wrong (in my opinion) and I was unable to influence the processes to be fit for the light of day. It also became apparent to me that my face did not fit for future leadership roles. There was great sadness about this. I also knew myself well enough that if I stuck around in a lesser role, I would turn into one of those people that could be destructive rather than facilitative. In my family of origin, I learned how to be fantastically passive-aggressive. Luckily, I have a very good Superego that keeps that sociopathic ID-driven part of my psyche well controlled. However, occasionally that passive-aggressive side does break through my defences. I worried the temptation to be a snide, snarky grenade thrower would be too great. I didn’t want that to happen and wanted to leave my career with integrity intact. I went back to my financial advisor to discuss moving up the timeline, and there was no real financial reason to delay retirement. 

At this same time, I was approached by two head-hunters for other senior posts in two other universities – I was the ideal candidate for both. Head-hunter’s always butter you up, and it feels nice. At the same time, they also can talk straight about how you sit in the pool of potential candidates.  They were both really keen on me and said both universities were keen on me too. In the end I decided to not go forward for either of these positions, even though it felt fantastic to be wanted by two good institutions when I felt pushed aside by my own. I believe if you go for a senior role, you really need to commit to at least 4-5 years to the job or its unethical to go for it or take it. With my husband’s decreasing health and my increasing need to provide care, I knew I couldn’t realistically commit to that length of time. This brief interlude did help with my discernment process, and I decided to make the decision and actually retire early. 

Once I made that decision a huge weight was lifted, and my stress levels plummeted. Ironically, a new senior appointment was made at my university who quickly began to fix the processes that were so wrong in my opinion. I had a momentary twinge of…did I jump too soon? But quickly realised, no I haven’t jumped too soon. This is the right decision for me and my family. I have had a long discernment process, did a lot of planning, and made changes to support the transition. I feel prepared and eager, and I believe I have built the structures that will support the life I build for the next life stage.  

My next retirement blog entries will chronicle the transition as I go through it. 

Fathers and complexities

Today I was listening to a Russel Brand podcast and his guest was talking about his father and how his relationship with his father grounded him and allowed him to hold steady in times of difficulty. It made me reflect on my father and how this was true for me as well. I then began to ponder some of the real contentious issues of the day surrounding the so called culture wars. We seem to be living in such a polarised time, and this polarisation just doesn’t make sense to me. I think Hegel’s dialectic is an important concept, but as we don’t seem to be able to talk about differences today, the dialectical process won’t happen. Anyhow, as I was thinking about these two ideas (fathers and polarisation) I thought again about my father and his ability to live in the grey, liminal spaces, embracing both the light and the shade. I went back and read the eulogy I gave at dad’s funeral, and once again thought that his life has something to say about the crazy polarised world we are living in. Perhaps if we could embrace the complexity like dad did, we’d find a way to counteract these harmful centrifugal forces plaguing us today. I share that eulogy with you now.

Eulogy for Patrick C. Kelly

Written and delivered by Timothy B. Kelly

Transfiguration Catholic Church

Marietta, Georgia

18 August 2017

 

Mom asked me to speak at dad’s funeral and told me to talk about what he meant to me, about what he meant to the family, and about who he was…but to leave out the bad bits. I told her that the bad bits were part of what made him such an amazing person. She said, “well I guess so, but make sure to say good things about your mother.”

So I thought I better play it safe and start off with something good about mom. There is one thing for certain, she knew how to pick a good man…and she, like dad, had endurance. They both really needed it! Even if you find your soulmate, it’s still hard work.

In a world that wants everything to be black and white and good guys vs bad guys, we try to get rid of complexity. Life is complex and filled with shades of grey. Somehow, we all have to find our way through that mess of uncertainty and find a way to live decent, generous, principled and meaningful lives. My father did that and I will always have his example to guide me for the rest of my life.

My father was badly damaged in his childhood and carried ghosts with him for most of his life. He suffered abuse and neglect in all its various forms as a child. Despite those traumas he became a man capable of deeply loving others and forgiving those people and institutions who so badly failed and hurt him. Take for example his mother. He found a way to have a relationship with her as an adult and helped us kids to have a good relationship with her.

He was also able to forgive the Church and hold on to his deeply rooted faith, despite what had happened to him as a child and to our family. Outwardly his faith could be seen by his being a founding member of Transfiguration, being active in the life of Transfiguration for decades and being very involved in the Knights of Columbus. His faith was amazing to me. His was not a blind adherence to dogma or doctrine – for he knew his history all too well (and didn’t mind sharing that ad nauseam). He saw the Church and all her foible’s and loved her anyway. This love of the Church comes in no small part from the good priests and religious brothers in St Vincent’s in Latrobe Pennsylvania who taught him and nurtured him when his mother basically dumped him out of the house as a young boy. These good priests and brothers also helped dad develop his understanding of faith as a matter of conscience – rather than a faith built only on the dogma or doctrine. This matter of conscience is what guided dad.

Both of these examples, his relationship with his mother and with the Church, illustrate one of dad’s bests characteristics, and one I wish the whole world could emulate. Dad could see, hold, tolerate and embrace both the good and the bad in people and institutions. For all of us have good, bad and everything in between. 

It’s hard to believe that a man whose own childhood was in many ways emotionally impoverished could be so incredibly imaginative, playful and attuned to children. But he was that. Some of my fondest memories of him as a very young child involved imagination. He could take us to imaginary worlds, create flights of fancy and plan for great adventure. We were in his world of make believe and took absolute delight in his play. He also liked to lay in the grass, look up at the clouds and see shapes. He was a practical joker, and he liked to play games. I think Kathy and I learned to play Rook, Pinochle and Cribbage before we learned our ABCs. He built model airplanes with Terry and me when we were as young as 5 or 6. He was very fond of Reney’s imaginary playmate – Emily. He and mom pretended to have magic and make our plates move during dinner. Dad was also VERY affectionate. Cuddles on the couch while watching TV, an arm around the shoulder while walking, kisses goodnight or of greeting – all of these were natural and second nature to dad. And then of course there was the music – man could he play the piano and sing. Dad also encouraged all of us to play sports and engage with other people. Both he and mom were involved with our sporting activities and friends. It was not unusual for our friends to come over to our house for fun, but many also developed their own relationships with dad…and some of you are here today.

So Dad was a gentle, nurturing, creative, affectionate loving and fun filled parent, but that is not the whole picture. It’s important to acknowledge all of who dad was and not whitewash the dark parts. He had a temper and could be quick to anger and that was really scary. There was also a period of several years when he became haunted by his own demons and they got the best of him. He started drinking too much and did things he regretted. But even during this dark period, that picture of the gentle giant that I painted was still also present in our house –  darkness and light in one person.  Life is complex and messy and good people sometimes do bad things. Eventually he came to terms with what he had done and was able to forgive himself –helped considerably by knowing we forgave and loved him.

Another key message from my father’s life is the value of unconditional love and he has been an amazing example of true unconditional love. Once he made the decision to love someone, his love was a rock – steadfast and unbending. His marriage to mom of 61½ years is testament to this. All of us kids have also felt that rock of dad’s unconditional love. The older 3 of us kids have each really put that to the test in different ways over the years, but dad’s love was unwavering.  Well I think I almost did push it to the breaking point once. He almost disowned me when I came out as a vegetarian!

Dad was full of seeming contradictions. He was:

Playful – stern

Gentle-dangerous

Damaged-whole

Troubled-peaceful

Romantic – realistic/practical

Principled – but not rigid

A towering intellect who loved being a grunt

Imaginative – mechanical

Committed to his religion – embraced matters of conscience

Hilarious – dead serious

Light-filled – dark

Idealistic-cynical

Full of sorrow and hurt – yet joyful

Maybe it was his Celtic spirit – holding all these false dualities together into a whole. We Celts do love our simultaneous laughter and tears. Complexity makes life divine…and dad was truly divine.

I hope that dad’s life can be an example to us all about how to embrace the complexities of life and celebrate them. Let’s not try to put everything and everyone into boxes. Dad touched each and everyone here today and each of us will have the light/dark/shades of grey to who we are. And yet he loved because of our complexity.

One final note to you young people here, and especially to my nieces and nephews, one day it will be your turn to mourn your parents. Remember today, what I’ve said and the life of my father. All parents have their flaws, some are deeply flawed. And yet, despite dad’s flaws, he was able to leave this world having given each of us kids the sense of being deeply loved and this allows us each to flourish. I am so grateful that each of us kids was able to embrace the complexity that was our father and love him for who he was – the good bits and the bad bits. Dad died in the knowledge that his family reciprocated that unconditional, steadfast, accepting and unwavering love that he had for us. As a surviving child, this gives me great peace.

 

 

 

 

So when did I become a caregiver?

lot of hands form the word caregiver

Since I became a social worker in 1986 I have had a keen interest in carers – though back then and in the States we called them informal, unpaid or family caregivers. Here in the UK we use the term carer. I think caregiver and carer are terms that can be confusing as these words are also used for nurses, nurses aids, paid care workers, etc.  One of my doctoral students has started using the words caregiver to mean  informal/family carers and occupational caregivers for all those whose jobs it is to provide care for another person. I really like that distinction and will use that here (thanks Marianne). Anyhow, as I was saying, I’ve always had a keen interest in caregivers and worked hard to support them while I was in practice and as a doctoral student my research focussed on stress and coping in caregivers. One of the things I discovered in my doctoral research was that knowledge was important for coping, but that knowledge could also increase stress. If as a carer you don’t know that much about dementia, for instance, but learn what the disease progression can look like while the person you are caring for is in the early stages, you can get scared out of your wits! By and large knowledge is a good thing and even though stress might increase at first, I find having access to good information when it is needed is a key component of the support carers need. 

Later in my career I was involved in research about how to identify caregivers early. The idea was that we should identify caregivers as early as possible to make sure that they received the supports needed early in the caring trajectory. It was shocking to hear how often caregivers were not identified as a such. Other times they could be ignored or seen as a hinderance to the professionals’ roles. So we wanted to see if we could help professionals recognise earlier when someone was in a caregiving role and offer support. 

Interestingly one of the things we began to hear from this early identification work is that many caregivers reacted negatively to the label of carer or caregiver. They objected because they did not see themselves as caregivers – they were simply a wife, husband, partner, parent, sibling, daughter or son doing what any spouse, parent, child would do. And yet, many of these people who initially objected to being called a carer would at some point begin to identify as such. It’s this transition from being ‘just’ a spouse (or whatever relationship descriptor that is appropriate) to being a caregiver. On a personal level, that is what the rest of this blog post will be about. I’ve recently realised that no longer am I just a husband, but I am also a caregiver, and I’m not exactly sure when that happened.

Certainly as a spouse I have taken on a wide range of caring behaviours and I have altered my life choices in the interest of the relationship. I’ve also nurtured, supported and cared for my husband when he was ill or injured. He has done likewise. This ebb and flow of support is part of any mutually supportive and healthy relationship. Even during periods of intense caring behaviours, it all felt part of ‘normal’ caring…. the kind of thing you do in a relationship. 

There was an event some years back and a deterioration in mental well being that necessitated me taking on significantly more responsibility in our relationship, but even then I didn’t feel like a caregiver. Again, it was just what you did as a spouse in a committed loving relationship.

There was that first chronic illness that began to impact on functioning and a reduction in his working. That made me the primary bread winner and gave me another thing to worry about, but still I didn’t think of myself as a caregiver, though looking back I was increasing my caring. 

Then there was the 2nd chronic illness that came with pain and fatigue…but being a caregiver never crossed my mind…despite increasing worry and providing extra support.

There was the realisation that my husband was ageing and no longer middle-aged and signs of declining mobility and functioning were beginning to emerge more. I was doing more of the lifting, jar opening, heavy chores…but still I wasn’t a caregiver.

Then I noticed I was getting irritated, grumpy and short over little things like why few (or no) chores were done while I was at work, or mistakes were made, or I was having to clean up dribbles off the toilet seat everyday, or I had to repeat myself for the 12th time because he still hadn’t put in his hearing aids yet, or that I was making more and more choices to accommodate his increasing needs. I found myself getting a bit more angry/irritated about such things.

And then I thought….damn I recognise all of this. I am a caregiver. When did this happen? I have no idea when that happened, but I woke up one morning and it dawned on me. I knew it did not happen over night, but I couldn’t put a finger on when it happened. Somewhere along the line I became more than just a loving, caring and supportive spouse – I became a spouse who was a caregiver. That realisation made such a difference to me as so much of the resentment, irritation, blame I had been feeling for a while just kind of drained away. Suddenly it all made sense. 

And then I had to laugh at myself a wee bit. As I wrote earlier, since 1986 I’ve either been supporting caregivers in practice, researching caregiver’s issues, or teaching about caregivers and how to involve them in health and social care…..but despite being an expert in the field – I didn’t recognise what was happening to me and my relationship. 

Having knowledge really does help. Now that I know I am a caregiver, things are much easier for me emotionally. Sure I still get frustrated, but I know that I am consciously choosing to do this. I no longer am accidently falling into being a caregiver. That strangely gives me a sense of control. You would think after all that research I would have figured it out for myself quite a while ago!

https://carers.org