Take our survey of older bloggers: how and why they blog

Please take the Older Bloggers’ Survey. People say it’s fun, and we hope it will lead to new policies and opportunities related to the ageing population. We have made assumptions, and now we want facts. We want to know how you blog, why you blog, when you started, and what you gain from blogging. You can do the survey no matter what your age, as long as you have your own blog.

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Take the Older Bloggers’ Survey today on the popular SurveyMonkey website

cartoon of woman blogging
See the lady blog. Blog, lady, blog!

Seniors with a personal blog: an unexamined sphere

We are part of a huge community of bloggers with an important role to play in the world. But who pays attention to us? All research into blogging seems to be focused on business blogs, but most of us are blogging for personal reasons.

  • We’re the first cohort to be getting old en masse, and we are finding our way. What to do when you are old in the internet age?
  • We’re the first cohort to plunge into blogging as a retirement activity, because blogging wasn’t possible before.
  • We know our own blogging world very well, but we’re like a secret society to the rest of the world.

My reasons for launching a survey of older bloggers

For years my work was focused on business, government, academic and non-profit content. Then I withdrew from my business and launched a personal blog on an unrelated topic—ageing. To my surprise I found numerous kindred spirits, many of them also writing about the strange and unexpected experience of growing older. This world, buzzing with active, eloquent, knowledgeable people, has been pretty well undocumented until now, and I always want to know more. Don’t you?

I want to test these hypotheses—in other words, assumptions that may be right or wrong:
  1. Blogging provides social, emotional, and mental benefits for people over 60
  2. Older bloggers have some problems with usability and accessibility
  3. Blogging could usefully be promoted for the social and emotional benefit of isolated older people

The survey will shine a light on the world of personal blogs

First let’s get some facts. Then we’ll see how our experience can help others, and maybe solve a few problems along the way.

Thank you to our seven testers: as a result of your input we have made many questions clearer, added some new questions and removed others.

There will be a time limit to this historic survey of older bloggers—but so far, it’s open to all. Ready, steady, go!

Take the Older Bloggers’ Survey today on the popular SurveyMonkey website

Our credentials as researchers

The people behind the Older Bloggers’ Survey are Rachel McAlpine and Dr Judith Davey. It’s wise to be cautious about surveys, so we hope our bios will show you that this is a genuine initiative, and that your data is in safe hands with us.

Rachel McAlpine

I was a pioneer in the field of web content, researching and writing and teaching about this topic from 1996 onwards. My non-fiction books include Web Word Wizardry, Write Me A Web Page, Elsie!, Crash Course in Corporate Communications, Business Writing Plus, Global English for Global Business, and Song in the Satchel: Poetry in the High School. I am a poet and novelist, and for a brief period was a Chartered IT Professional of New Zealand. I am not an academic but I do have has a BA Hons in English Literature and a Dip. Ed. in Education.

Dr Judith Davey

Judith’s personal focus for research is the ageing of the population and its policy implications.  She is a keen advocate for Positive Ageing and for everyone to enjoy “the stage of life formerly known as retirement.”

Dr. Judith Davey was Director of the New Zealand Institute for Research on Ageing (NZiRA) from 2002 to 2007 and is now a Senior Research Associate of the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) at Victoria University of Wellington. She is also a voluntary policy advisor for Age Concern New Zealand.

Prior to joining Victoria University in 1991 she was the Deputy Director of the New Zealand Planning Council and started up in business as a consultant on social policy and social research in the 1970s. Judith is a graduate of London University and did her PhD at Durham University. Before coming to New Zealand, she was also a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge.

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PS: Assumption is the word of the day. By a lucky coincidence this blog post is all about getting facts instead of making assumptions. Daily Prompt — Assumption.

Soon: a survey of older WordPress bloggers—what do you like, dislike, and need as a blogger over 60?

1961 White House Conference on Aging
1961 White House Conference on Aging

Hello there! I have been looking for any research into bloggers over 60—without any luck. So I’m preparing a survey that aims to discover what you like and dislike about blogging with WordPress. For example, I’ll be asking:

  • What annoys you about other people’s blogs?
  • What problems have you had with your own blog?
  • What improvements in WordPress would you appreciate?

The purpose of the survey is to alert WordPress developers to any areas where they could improve the experience of older people. We do have special issues, physical limitations for example, or perhaps problems with some technology.

My hunch is that more and more seniors are getting involved in the blogosphere. I believe that blogging brings thousands of seniors a creative outlet, a purpose, a mental challenge, and an active social life—even if it’s not face to face, we still are conversing and making friends. All these factors are known to help us to live longer and healthier lives, at the very time when most nations are having to adapt to the challenges of a rapidly ageing population.

When the survey is ready for action, I’ll update this page and I hope you’ll also spread the word.

In the meantime, you surely have your own special bug-bears or delights while blogging. Please tell me, and if possible I will build your questions into the survey.  I would really, really appreciate your contribution.

 

 

The power of names and nicknames

child sitting on a ram in front of an old army tent
Robin the tomboy about to become Rachel the ewe lamb: the summer before high school

To name a child is brave,
or foolhardy; even now it shakes me.
Lauris Edmond

How many names and nicknames have you had? Have they stuck, do they still work for you? I had a baby nickname, a kid nickname, a couple nickname, and a wife nickname. I’m wondering whether they still hold some truths, some messages for me as I blunder towards the void. If I talk about these nicknames, maybe you’ll be thinking about your own…

But when I think about them, one inescapable truth astonishes me: all my names and nicknames were given to me by other people. None of my names or nicknames were actively chosen by me or even endorsed by me, except for adopting and keeping my husband’s surname, and even those were default decisions. A name plays a powerful part in building your identity, especially when the name-callers have strong opinions about the kind of person they believe or want you to be.

Who am I—a person who accepts and conforms with barely a twitch? Looking back, I think maybe so.

Baby Jigger jigs on forever

As a new baby I was Jigger, so-called by my big sister Jill, because I never stopped jigging and jumping. My mother pinned me into a sleeping bag and pinned the sleeping bag to the mattress of the pram, and still I jumped right out of the pram at the ripe old age of three weeks. Does Jigger still work as a nickname for me today at seventy-eight? Possibly, when I go prancing and even jumping around the dance floor. And possibly not, as I am lazy for much of the day.

Robin a-bobbin’—wistful hint of a former self

This nickname was discarded for Robin, and so I was Robin Taylor all through primary school. Why? The story goes that I could not be a Rachel, because a Rachel was mature, a grown-up woman. They said I was a tomboy, running wild, up trees and in creeks, grubby and fearless and happy outside. (All this is relative, of course—I had my partners in crime.) I was forever making huts up trees, under hedges or in the fowl house.

How does Robin work today for me? Robin Taylor is a delightful name, round and cheerful and honest, don’t you think? And the South Island robin is very cute and it hops around your feet as you walk through the forest stirring up insects—a wild bird that poses as tame for the sake of dinner. I love little Robin Taylor but I think of her as someone from my past.

I carried on making huts and homes in unsuitable places for much of my adult life, but today I look through windows at Wellington’s Green Belt from within the solid enclosure of an apartment. I do love a brisk walk to the top of a hill, but I prefer a strong roof  that does not leak. Nobody would call me a tomboy today, although perhaps I have remnants of rebellion.

As a child I rejected the very idea of being a woman, I wasn’t having a bar of it, and when the symptoms appeared, I was wracked with horror. (Some years later I grew into my destiny as a woman, even embracing it with a certain glee.)

A dignified first name is imposed on an unsuitable child

B&W photo of 11-year-old Rachel in Christchurch Girls High School uniform
Hair cut, school uniform: the day Robin became Rachel. Mission: get some dignity!

My parents believed that I wasn’t dignified enough for a Rachel. When I was about to start secondary school, my godmother stepped in. “Why do you call her Robin? She has her own name, a fine name, and that’s what she should be called.” She, whose own name was Phyllis, won the battle. I was not consulted.

So I had to stop being my own self and become somebody else’s construct of me. The new me had her long blond plaits cut off, wore an ugly gym tunic, spent her days scuttling around a scary corridors full of tall strangers, and had to answer to a spiky new name.

What sort of a person was a Rachel? I was a grubby talky precocious little blonde kid and the only other Rachel in my entire world was a tall Plymouth Brethren girl at school, with a heavy black plait roping down her back: a quiet, calm, grown-up woman who was always clean and tidy. In other words, an alien. And this was to be my role model? Apparently Rachel meant a ewe lamb: luckily I could identify with that instead—running around sheep paddocks was normal behaviour. Baa!

So Rachel was my grown-up name: I had to grow into it. That’s odd, isn’t it? Usually a name grows around a child and the two become one. But Rachel still didn’t fit, apparently, because at university my future husband’s friends called me Tosh, while he called me Pud. Tosh was half of Mac ’n’ Tosh, and Pud was—perhaps my shape, perhaps my cooking? I quite enjoyed these marks of affection at the time. Do they still apply to me? Not on your Nelly.

To the rest of the world I have been Rachel McAlpine ever since.

Switching from patronymic to maritonymic

What? McAlpine? In 1959 a bride’s identity was swallowed by her husband’s: we took their surnames at the altar without blinking. When Grant and I got divorced twenty years later, I looked aghast at that custom. If only I had remained one of the Taylor girls, or renamed myself McTaylor, or Taypine, or Celia!

Too late. By D-day I had been McAlpine for more than half my life, and my four children were McAlpines, and my first three books of poems had been published—as an author I was already Rachel McAlpine. It all seemed far too complicated so I chose to keep my married name forever. I’ve put my mark on McAlpine: I’ve earned it. I know I’m Rachel McAlpine and I’ve grown to like the balance and pointiness of these two words.

Many years later, the role that I’m resisting is that of an old person who happens to be a woman. Another round of forcible growing up is in process. So maybe I need a new name for this phase; how about Griselda Old?

Motivation: all about feelings

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Writer’s block: Part IV

So much fuss over starting a simple task—writing a book. When I was still stuck, I mumbled about this to a young AirBnB guest, who has certainly never written a book in his life. He instructed me with great confidence: “You just need to make time! It’s that simple.”

But no, turns out it’s not that simple.

You also have to really really want to write a book. And apparently I didn’t, not this book, until now.

Looking back three years, I’ve had a year of being old (doing my boot camp); then about a year of refusing to write about the experience in any depth; and then this last year, a year of good old-fashioned writer’s block. In other words, a year of saying What? A year of saying No! A year of saying Yes But…

That’s what I was thinking. But what was I feeling?

Neuroscientist-philosopher Antonio Damasio posits a simple idea that instantly sheds light on great cultural movements and petty daily personal problems such as writer’s block:

[…] feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiators of human cultural endeavors.[1]

His idea is so original (in the world of neuroscience at least) and is so beautifully argued that it will be adopted by the masses and refashioned and misinterpreted and appropriated for many purposes. I am about to do this very thing.

Looking through Damasio’s lens, I can see I’ve been engaged in a struggle to regain homeostasis. I wanted to write because I had decided to write and I love to write. On the other hand, I also did not want to write, because of certain feelings.

Watch out, I am now going to use bullet points.

  • I felt strongly attached to early morning exercise, which made me feel strong and proud.
  • I felt contempt for the iPad Pro.
  • I felt angry with myself for failing to get over writer’s block, and embarrassed too.
  • If I should write this book about my boot camp for the bonus years, I feared I might patronise people, or trivialise the terrible challenge of ageing, or come across as a know-it-all or a bully.

Powerful stuff. But month after month I had ignored these feelings, doggedly trying to solve writer’s block through logic and professionalism, and mystified when it just didn’t happen. It was high time I faced up to these feelings. And that’s all I did, nothing more.

What shifts writer’s block?

What kick-started me writing again, quite suddenly one morning? Maybe it was losing stress, or decluttering my mornings, or reverting to an old computer. Maybe it was reading Damasio’s words and acknowledging certain feelings. Maybe it was a few jolts to my security—illnesses and deaths in my world—reminding me that oh yes, I’m going to die soon, today or in 20 years. Anyway, I got going. Something lit the dynamite stacked around my writer’s block.

Next time someone says to me, “I want to write but I can’t find the time,” I will for the first time understand what they mean. In the past this conversation has tended to focus on practical problems, like schedules or computers, or on the type of writing that appeals. But from now on, the first thing I’ll ask will be about their feelings.

As for me, I’m belting along nearly every morning, no problem. Just me and a notebook in bed, then me and the MacBook Pro for a couple of hours. It’s deeply satisfying. Even if I chuck away every page, even if the book is never published, I’m into it. I’ve got my rhythm back. I’ve got my mojo back. The happy act of writing has justified my existence for today.

In general, I believe my own experiences are common ones. I never think my life is at all unusual, and I don’t mind that one bit. But this particular experience, writer’s block, was new to me, so of course I was puzzled. However, I imagine many of my readers have gone through a similar process,  either eluding or melting or exploding a case of writer’s block. True? Or have you employed different tactics?

[1] Antonio Damasio The Strange Nature of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures Pantheon New York 2018

Photo public domain, Charles Darwin, The Expression of The Emotions in Man and Animals

Reclaiming the magic morning hours

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Writer’s block, Part II

So, it had been decided that I wasn’t too old to write another book. So what could be the problem? If there is an external reason why this book wasn’t getting written, I can either change something and write, or at least get the message and move on.

Writing a book requires more than a functioning body and brain. It requires habits, tools, and (as I have advised many a would-be writer) motivation.

My almost forgotten morning habits

For about a decade I was a full time writer. Imagine that, what luxury! During those blessed years, early morning was dedicated to the current creative project. Wake, think, write. That’s how it went, day after day, year after year. Wake, think, write. I suppose I ate breakfast, probably in bed.

One by one came changes that destroyed the simple beauty of my mornings.

When I started a business in my 60s that familiar rhythm went right down the tubes. My early morning routine became more cluttered: wake, meditate, feed the cat, tai chi, breakfast in bed —so far so good, it’s still only 6.30—but oh la la then came the smartphone and social media. To add to the confusion, I now host occasional AirBnB guests, adding more flurry to mornings. And thanks to my boot camp for the bonus years, I then developed a beautiful exercise routine that took place, naturally, in the early mornings.

Goodness knows how I managed to spit out the occasional book. My last novel took a very long time to write, which only makes it harder. My writing behavior was chaotic. I’d create plans that changed from week to week — I would vow to spend Thursdays at the National Library, or write after lunch (daft), or write on Saturdays, or stay in the country for a few days. None of these habits ever stuck. Mornings are better. Mornings happen every day.

Arresting the smart phone saboteur

My smart phone perpetrated the deadliest, most pervasive sabotage. It didn’t just disrupt my mornings: it was disrupting my brain. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? I’ll confess to my own folly, confident that I’m not alone in this. For you it may be a tablet that lures your attention, but same reason: the internet and all who sail in her.

I had been squandering that precious early morning time by diving into the iPhone at breakfast or even earlier. Sometimes even before meditating. Now that is weird, like getting a fix before rehab. What would I check in the morning? Some, no, many of the following: messages, The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC news, Stuff, news apps of Japan and Korea, The Daily podcast, Facebook, comments on my blog, other blogs, the weather, earthquakes, meet-ups, and yesterday’s step count. (Over 24 hours I might use 30 applications, including books, podcasts, email, videos, browsers, notes, maps, and games.)

Social media snuck up on me

Social media is a prime culprit, and it contributes to an endless jabber and jumble of news, flinging handfuls of trivial, deep, true, fake, wanted, unwanted, personal and global information in our face. I had been paddling in the shallows, just the way Nicholas Carr predicted.[1]

Worse for the mind is the fact that all this activity was merely consuming content, not doing original work, not producing. Those very words—consume, content, produce—have gained new meanings with the rise of the internet. They used to puzzle me, but now I get it: content means stuff, any old stuff that you put into a container such as a blog or app or website or magazine. Quality is irrelevant. Some people produce stuff and stick it in containers. Other people suck it up, they consume it. Some stuff is good stuff, but we don’t need it more than once a day.

Whenever I picked up my iPhone, I stopped thinking and started sucking. This had been obvious for years, had I cared to see it. Now, finally, I looked at my iPhone and saw the physical manifestation of writer’s block, and I’ve changed the way I’ve been using it.

I’ve kept my Facebook page, Rachel McAlpine Books: that still matters, but I’ve disabled my personal Facebook timeline. Sorry, my Friends, I won’t see your posts any more.

WordPress matters to me: my blog and the blogs of others. But blogging, though “creative”, is fragmented and unsatisfying compared with a bigger work. So that drops back in the queue for my attention.

News finds you: no need to graze

I’ve unsubscribed from news sites. I got addicted to the New York Times when Trump was elected, that’s a fact. But you don’t need to actively hunt for news. You get news by default, you can’t avoid it. If something big happens, people will tell you. Now I get news on the kitchen radio, and I read the New Scientist and local newspapers in cafes. Later in the day I sometimes sample a more reflective article instead of the thrill of endless updates.

My job is not sucking: it’s writing. For the last three weeks I have changed my habits, writing for two hours every morning. When it’s reading time, I read a book. (The iPhone’s handy for that.) Wish me luck with the new regime.

[1] Nicholas Carr The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Photo by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0

 

Too old to write another book?

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Writer’s block, Part 1

I wrote the first draft of the first chapter of my next book. Unconcerned as always about the quality or even the topic, because a first draft is just that. (Significantly, the chapter was called I didn’t want to write this book.)

Months have passed since I wrote that first chapter. I’d never stopped “working on it”, and my office is overflowing with books, links, and notebooks real and virtual. I kept writing on my blog now and then— and yet curiously, I hadn’t written another word of the book.

Is old age the cause of my writer’s block?

This nasty question is a variation on a mantra that rings and rings, like an automated fraud call from India: “Your current problem is an inevitable, insoluble, bloody awful consequence of advancing age. Get used to it.” Too often that thought springs to mind automatically.

Resist, refine, reframe! Make a list—that might help.

  1. First let’s clean out the pejoratives and make it a genuine question: Is this non-typical (of me) procrastination at least partly a consequence of old age? (Now we’re in business.)
  2. If so, what can I do about it?
  3. If not, what else might be causing the problem?
  4. OK, how can I solve the problem?

Because I’m 78 I have to take this question seriously: is it a sign of old age, that I, who have loved the act of writing all my life, cannot get started on this particular book?

True, my short-term memory does seem to be changing. It’s mobile, it feels like layers of misty muslin, shimmering and distorting with digressions and flourishes. But I believe it was ever thus.

Is my ageing short-term memory to blame?

Half asleep one morning, I constructed half a chapter in my mind, just the way I used to do for every book I’ve ever written. But at my desk later, I couldn’t remember the gist. That delicious creative hypnogogic creative flash was gone, puff, into the void. Like we all do, one day.

So what does it mean, that I forgot two pages of “thought”? As I learned recently[1], our memories are dynamically recreated with each recall. Our brains do not store complete memories but dedicate perhaps a single neuron to remembering something highly specific, freeing most of our brain resources to work on constructing meaning. Remembering and perceiving use the same mental process. When we try to remember something, we’re not just fishing in a pool of complete memories, a pool that grows bigger and bigger as we age, we’re working to make sense of something.

So if I can’t remember what I was going to write, too bad. Why waste time reconstructing a reconstruction when I could use the same resources to construct meaning from scratch, to start from the same point (namely forgetting what I’d decided to write) and think a new thought? The old thoughts were not wasted just because they got forgotten.

Instant write-up trumps instant recall

Fortunately I remembered something else: After thinking a scene or a chapter, I used to write it down immediately, without delay. Interrupting the flow is wasteful, damaging, an insult to the muse. To re-establish contact, I would need to tweak my morning routine—again.

Writing a book requires a functioning brain and a functioning body: all of these eventually degrade—but right now mine are functioning, and that’s all I ask.

Writing a book requires energy and stamina

It also requires intense, sustained, consistent bursts of energy. For us old people, loss of energy can be a problem. I commiserate with my friends but I tend not to admit to it personally. However, at this moment, as I type, nobody’s reading these words, so I will admit that torpor features in most of my days. Catch me after lunch. Sometimes, happily reading, sometimes doing pointless Sudoku. Never dozing! It’s just that I often wake from not-dozing with quite a jolt. Sometimes I debate whether to have a little lie down, but by then it’s too late.

Nevertheless, for many hours of the day I have a familiar level of energy, and my days are my own, I’m in charge of the way I spend my time. No job, no business, and an almost manageable set of commitments. In the last two years I’ve kicked two major stressors out of the way: first my business, then the thankless role of body corporate chair. I am free to reshape my days.

Rejected: old age as a barrier to writing

And so, here and now, I forbid myself to blame the physiology of old age as a legitimate cause of my mysterious procrastination.

Surely now I’ll be able to unpick the true cause or causes of an unfortunate case of writer’s block.

[1] Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. The Forgetting Machine: Memory, Perception, and the “Jennifer Aniston Neuron.” Interview with Ginger Campbell, MD. Brain Science Episode 141

Illustration from Old Book Illustrations, public domain, by Peter Newell in Hunting of the Snark