I enjoy many holiday traditions – decorating the house, making cookies with my mother’s hand-written recipes, preparing and sharing festive meals with loved ones, watching classic movies and listening to Christmas music.
I used to like shopping and gift-giving. Invariably, while selecting items for others, I would also buy something for myself. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more concerned about over-consumption and waste.
So, the grandchildren, who already have a mountain of toys, are getting gift certificates to The Learning Store, where local teachers go to buy games and activities that engage kids in the classroom. Just browsing through the store’s catalogue will exercise the grandchildren’s imaginations, and the items they choose will at least teach them something.
As for me, I am blessed to have reached a stage in life when I no longer want for much of anything, at least in the way of material things. So rather than shopping, this year I am giving the gift of gratitude – to others and myself. I have been working up to this for the past fourteen months.
The Money Pit
In October of 2021, my husband and I bought a house. The whole experience of finding it was anxiety-ridden, and the stress didn’t end when we signed the papers and moved in.
We began the process optimistically. Since we had married later in life, this would be the first and probably last home we would buy together. In our mid 60’s, with just us and our two cats, we wanted to “right-size” and find a better fit for our stage in life – a single-level home with a manageable yard where we could age in place.
The year 2021 was a crazy time for real estate. Pandemic buyers, now working from home, could live just about anywhere, and many chose to move from expensive west-coast cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland to our hometown of Boise, Idaho.
The housing market exploded, and a shortage of homes ensued. Prices in the Treasure Valley, where Boise is located, saw the largest increase in the nation. Amidst aggressive bidding wars, some homes sold in a single day for up to $100,000 over the asking price. Between 2020 and 2022, the population increased by about 55,000 people. And it is still growing; local realtors say that 70 new people move to the Boise metro area every day.
It took us six months to find a house in this market, and we made an offer quickly. The house was 20 years old, and we knew it needed some work, but we figured we could make the necessary repairs gradually over time.
Right out of the gate, we had to repair a section of the foundation and replace the furnace, air conditioner, and hot water heater. An inspector told us that the “presidential” roof, which supposedly had another 30 years on its exclusive 50-year warranty, would have to be replaced “sooner than later.” We also quickly discovered that delayed maintenance was a problem throughout the house.
We hadn’t realized how expensive home repairs had become during the pandemic, as well as the cost of workmanship. Over the past fourteen months, we have spent almost $50,000 replacing, repairing and updating. Meanwhile, the housing market has cooled, and our house is worth less now than what we originally paid for it. That’s not a very good investment for a couple of retirees.
I am married to a frugal perfectionist who imagines the worst outcome to every scenario, so these last months have been very stressful. I kept thinking of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and The Money Pit (1986), movies in which happy couples buy a home and encounter problems that lead them to the brink of divorce. Very funny – if you’re not going through the same thing yourself.
Putting Things in Perspective
It is very easy to become overly focused on your own problems. The world narrows, and you lose sight of the bigger picture.
That’s the time to rethink your priorities and focus on a basic spiritual principle: when you are feeling bad, do something good for others. So I scanned a public-service website (https://www.volunteermatch.org) and signed up to volunteer for a local non-profit that assists people facing eviction and homelessness.
Since last spring, for two hours a week, I have talked to people on the phone and helped them fill out applications for rental assistance. The work has put my small problems into perspective.
I have so much to be grateful for, especially my expensive house! Many in my community, including senior citizens, are struggling to afford any kind of home at all.
The rush of out-of-towners during the pandemic led to a housing crisis for local renters. During the past two years, rents have risen by 40%, and Idaho wages have not kept pace. Idaho did not participate in the federal moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, despite federal resources made available for housing, and in 2021, 819 evictions were filed in the Treasure Valley. Filings have increased by 18% in 2022, and the number of people experiencing homelessness has nearly doubled.
This housing crisis will not be solved any time soon. According to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Idaho is short about 24,500 available and affordable rental units. When they can barely meet the rent for an over-priced apartment, hundreds of working people will remain just one missed paycheck away from eviction. This is the meaning of “housing insecurity.”
The organization for which I volunteer cannot provide financial assistance to all the people in need. But we can talk to them, problem-solve together, and suggest other resources.
Our conversations remind me that we are interdependent. During my times of need, people have assisted me. So whenever I am able, it is given me to assist others, which means I must carry a feeling of gratitude with me at all times. I have been trying to keep this in mind as I approach the holidays, when we often lose sight of spiritual gifts in favor of material ones.
The Grateful Flow
Gratitude is not a momentary feeling that arises out of nowhere. It is a life force that lies deep within us. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence likens gratitude to a radio channel that is always there; we just need to remember and tune in.
The frequency of that station is what psychiatrist Phil Stutz (The Tools, 2013) calls “the grateful flow.” As my holiday gift to you, I offer an exercise from Stutz that is guaranteed to make you feel good.
(1) List four things you are grateful for, the smaller the better. (For example, I am grateful for flannel sheets on cold nights.) Name each thing slowly out loud, and pause before you name the next thing. Take the time to feel your gratitude.
(2) Now think of the four things again, but don’t say them out loud.
(3) Now stop the force that is thinking of the four things. This is the grateful flow; it is the state of mind that breaks through the cloud of apathy, boredom, anxiety, and depression that so often envelopes us.
(4) Now reflect on how it felt to be in the grateful flow. (It always feels great, even if it lasts for only a few seconds.)
(5) Whenever you get in a dark mood, repeat this exercise.
(6) Your goal, over time, is to move into the grateful flow as often as possible and stay there for as long as possible.
The more you practice this exercise, the better you will feel. My wish for you – and for me — is that we can keep this feeling going all year long.
Happy new year to you and yours.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers for a local animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.