“Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” —Jimmy Carter
Older adults are generally perceived as becoming more risk adverse as we age. A host of studies confirm that risk aversion can be due to many factors, from lower dopamine levels in aging brains, to just plain good old fashioned accumulated wisdom. Yet, challenging our comfort zones, even incrementally, can expand and enrich our lives. To understand more about how older adults perceive risk, I asked 15 friends—in their 60s and 70s—what actions or activities felt risky to them, where their risk gauge was set, and how risk avoidant they feel they are. Here’s what I learned:
Most of my friends agree the perception of risk—in any endeavor—is in the eye of the risk-taker. That’s why it’s not helpful to go “risk-comparison shopping” by comparing yourself to others. Bike riding might feel risky for one person and an enjoyable pursuit for another. Caring for grandchildren may be a joy for some or feel risky to someone with painful arthritis who fears not being able to keep up with the kids. Clearly, growing your risk muscles doesn’t mean doing something death-defying—it can simply be just stretching a bit or trying something new.
There are many areas where we often perceive risk—the four most mentioned were financial, health, physical/recreational, and social/emotional.
When it comes to financial risks, the response is universal. My friends aren’t interested in taking financial risks, at least intentionally. The general agreement being that as we age, there just isn’t enough time to recover from a financial misstep.
I’m sorry to say there are many older adults who do take known health risks. Overindulgence in alcohol, food, and being sedentary are a few nemeses that can cause illness or shorten their lives. Those are risks we should all avoid! Others pay closer attention.
When friends Mike Darr and Brad Trenary moved to Vashon Island, they agreed on some house rules designed to reduce risk of injury, such as no walking around the house in the dark (a toe was broken), always know where the rugs are, and no using ladders when home alone. Mike and Brad also feel a time crunch as they age. Brad says, “For the last two years during COVID, we weren’t willing to fly or take road trips to visit family, but we long to see our loved ones again and say things that need to be said in person, so we’re planning those travels now.” Mike added, “We’re willing to take calculated risks for things we value. For things that will enhance our lives.” They’re only going out on a limb for the fruit if someone is steadying the ladder.
Kyoko Matsumoto Wright also hasn’t traveled much lately or performed in plays for a few decades—both pursuits she loves. “When I have time, I’ll pursue more international travel and get back into acting,” she says. Sometimes taking a risk means getting back up on a horse you haven’t ridden in a while.
I love hiking and climbed Mt. Rainier. Many would view this as a dangerous, off-limits adventure or downright crazy! But I didn’t just start hiking next to some guy who was on his way up. It was a carefully calculated plan. Friends my age, who were average athletes like me, had summitted Mt. Rainier. After learning how they did it, I trained for six months and hired Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI Expeditions)—an internationally known guide service—to lead me up with a group. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro when I was 63 using the same plan and made lifelong friends on both trips. There are many ways to mitigate physical risk while trying new activities. Partner with a friend, join a group, or take a class.
The majority I spoke with agree that the toughest risks for them are often in the social/emotional category. My friend Bill says, “Sometimes we need to accept some discomfort to be of service to others.” One such friend is Nancy Slote, who went outside her comfort zone to sign on as a volunteer for a health care and abortion hotline. It’s intense and uncomfortable at times, but she told me her drive to help is worth the exhaustion she feels at the end of her shift.
Bill points out, “Risk can also be different at each stage of life. If you try out for a play at 22 and don’t get cast, you have decades to try again. At 82, it may be the last time you can try that.” It’s the anxiety of recognizing that the older we get, we are running out of time. All the more reason to try for the ripe fruit out on that limb.
Mike, Janis Cox, and Rhonda Gardner all sell their art online and agree it can be a scary endeavor. “What if no one buys? Does that mean they don’t like my work?” they said. But they’ve each done it anyway. They accept the uncomfortable feeling that comes with putting their work and themselves in the public domain. Rhonda has taken and taught many art classes but admits that entering her art in a juried show feels more personal, especially if she doesn’t get chosen. She feels the anxiety and still enters the show. After all, she may win, too!
Can you live a little larger? Instead of risking, think of it as reaching.
The upside of stretching your comfort zone and reaching for a goal is that you might succeed and even if you don’t, you will surely grow. When something holds us back, it’s because we often fail to quantify the perceived downside. What, exactly, are you risking? Loss of life or limb, or only a strange taste in your mouth from trying a new food. Or, are you simply afraid of being embarrassed or looking silly? My friend Rebecca Crichton follows a Buddhist tenet: She’s “open to outcome, not attached to outcome.” She enters into activities or new friendships hoping for success, but if it doesn’t work out, she doesn’t have to label it as failure. She knows that trying something new can be its own reward.
Rather than being patently risk averse, as we age maybe we simply know ourselves better. We have tested our limits over our lifetime and we are more aware of what is an attractive risk and what isn’t. Some escapades may have lost their appeal. But that doesn’t mean we should stop being curious, open, and reaching for more fruit. Be brave. Keep looking at what feels like a risk to you, why it does, and if there’s something keeping your life smaller than it needs to be.
My latest emotional risk? After over three decades of being single, I’m taking a risk on love at age 70! Several months ago, I met Mack McCoy, 67, while singing with friends at a karaoke studio. He wasn’t looking for a relationship, as he was still grieving his wife’s death. I had tired of online dating. Luckily, we both said, “Yes!” to meeting again, and to the rewards of planning our future.
Dori Gillam writes and speaks on creative aging, resilience, and ageism. She has toured the state with her presentation, “What’s Age Got to do With It?” A lifelong Seattle resident, she has worked for Sound Generations, AARP, and the Bayview Retirement Community. Learn more at www.dorigillam.com.