Lisa Weitzman of Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging: “Take care of you”

When older adults become disengaged, it impacts not just their mental health but their physical health as well. Without community, some stop eating — or at least no longer eat nutritiously. Moreover, their apathy may also lead to a general lack of energy. They stop moving, and this lack of activity negatively impacts their physical well-being. And, […]

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When older adults become disengaged, it impacts not just their mental health but their physical health as well. Without community, some stop eating — or at least no longer eat nutritiously. Moreover, their apathy may also lead to a general lack of energy. They stop moving, and this lack of activity negatively impacts their physical well-being. And, without motivation and energy, many stop engaging mentally, which leads to cognitive decline.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Should Do to Optimize Your Wellness After Retirement”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Weitzman.

Lisa Weitzman is a licensed independent social worker at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging. Weitzman has worked with older adults as a counselor, case management, and advocate. Passionate about addressing the social determinants of health, Ms. Weitzman currently manages WeCare…Because You Do, the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s national family caregiver support program.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Social work is not my first career, and my road to social work has certainly not been traditional. In fact, I began my career working with the Office of Soviet Union Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and spent time working at Embassy Moscow. After obtaining a Master’s Degree in Soviet Studies and International Economics, I worked with organizations that wanted to conduct business with Russia before leaving the workforce to start my family. During my “stay-at-home years” (which my children describe as the years that I was never at home!), I became increasingly involved in community-based programs to address social justice. As the projects I undertook as a volunteer continually grew in scale, I realized that I needed to change my career focus from international work to social work. My Master’s work for my social work degree focused on working with populations that are the most vulnerable and that few choose to serve. After graduating, I found a job working with older adults, and I know I have found my calling here. In my current role, I oversee the delivery of WeCare…Because You Do, the family caregiver support program designed by Benjamin Rose. Our program focuses on providing family caregivers and the older loved ones for whom they care with the resources they seek and the emotional support they need to navigate the caregiving journey.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I entered the field of social work because I was deeply committed to the power of relationships, and I prided myself on the relationships that I was able to develop with my clients. On a particularly cold, gray day one winter, I walked into a client’s home. Looking to begin our visit with positivity, I remarked on how nice she looked in her blue plaid shirt. She thanked me and casually remarked that it had been made by the clothing company for which her husband had worked for his entire career. I took a deep breath: her husband’s lifelong employer was my grandfather. As I figured out which parts of my story were appropriate to share with her within the context of social worker and client, we came to realize that she had met my mother as a young girl, had spent time in my grandparents’ home, and even still had the thank you note my mother had written to her for the baby gift my client had given to my mom when I was born. How extraordinary to meet people who knew my grandparents, now deceased for more than 30 years! This story embodies the interconnectedness of our community and how the stories of one generation carry into the stories of those that come after them, linking us together as long as we are willing to look for those linkages.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

When I was a social work student, I interned for a small non-profit that worked with women who were newly-released from incarceration. I had a wonderful supervisor and mentor, a woman who was calm, experienced, knowledgeable, and compassionate. I often sat in on her initial intake assessments with clients and observed her in action, trying to absorb all that I could. I vividly remember one client, who spent the entire session banging on her head with her palm. My supervisor never strayed from the conversation, seemingly unflustered by what appeared to me to be a very awkward nervous tic. When the client left, I remarked to my supervisor: “I am so impressed that you were able to continue on with the assessment despite the client’s mental health challenge.” With that, my supervisor doubled over in laughter. When she was able to compose herself, she told me that the woman had recently had a hair weave, it was uncomfortable, and that was why she was patting her head. Clearly, I had a lot of cultural learning ahead of me!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My first job as a newly licensed social worker was at a particularly turbulent agency. The relationships between staff, supervisors, and senior management were often fraught with tension, misunderstanding, and miscommunication, leaving frontline workers vulnerable and insecure. In the midst of this chaos, I had a supervisor who took me under her wing. While she was at the agency for only a short period of time, she remained committed to my growth and development as a direct practice social worker and therapist. She met with me weekly for several years, ensuring that I would obtain my LISW license. Generous with her time and her expertise, she offered guidance on specific disease processes and manifestations as well as on the nuances of working with clients and families and the delicate dynamics of these relationships. She helped me to see my strengths, to address my weaknesses, and to give me the confidence to push myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the opportunities I had.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

I think there are two key ways to thrive and to avoid burnout in this field:

  • Focus on your “why.” Social service agencies are often mission-driven organizations. By staying focused on the mission of your agency and on your own “why” within it, you can best maintain your motivation and engagement in the work you are doing. Your “why” will also draw others to your work and will help you to find ways to feel like your work is impactful.
  • Take care of you. So often we are led to believe that self-care is selfish and thus lose sight of our boundaries and allow our work to swallow us. Self-care is critical if we wish to avoid burnout and to continue the fight for social justice and true social equity.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

  • Lead with vulnerability, humility, and transparency.
  • Embrace change and celebrate innovation and creativity.
  • Keep your mission front and center.
  • Provide employees with the tools for success and motivate them to act.
  • Mentor employees to grow, succeed, and lead.
  • Create an environment where each team member is valued, relationships are key, and staff are connected to and invested in each other.
  • Prioritize collaboration.
  • Celebrate early and celebrate often.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In some cases, retirement can reduce health, and in others it can improve health. From your point of view or experience, what are a few of the reasons that retirement can reduce one’s health?

  • Many people wholly define themselves by their work. Their work embodies their purpose and meaning, and their success is measured by their accomplishments at work, their title, and their salary. Retirement brings all of these measurement tools to an end. Without this clear-cut path to purpose, some struggle with depression.
  • When older adults become disengaged, it impacts not just their mental health but their physical health as well. Without community, some stop eating — or at least no longer eat nutritiously. Moreover, their apathy may also lead to a general lack of energy. They stop moving, and this lack of activity negatively impacts their physical well-being. And, without motivation and energy, many stop engaging mentally, which leads to cognitive decline.
  • As I work with families through the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s WeCare family caregiver support program, we see first-hand how older adults struggle to accept the losses associated with retirement and with aging. Using a strengths-based approach to care, we help families create plans that provide a framework for navigating aging. This structure helps families regain a sense of control and purpose. We also help older adults reconnect with hobbies and to find new outlets for socialization as a means to address mental health challenges. Lastly, we work to ensure that families are enmeshed in community-based services to support their daily nutritional and other wellness needs.

Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize their wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Follow your passion and continue to learn: remain curious
  • Define your purpose: set goals, establish routines that give structure to your days
  • Stay active: remain engaged with friends, family, and your community
  • Give back: share your expertise and time
  • Let go of worrying about the future: focus on maximizing today

I am blessed to have parents who have truly optimized their retirement years. Both intentionally left their salaried jobs at the peak of their careers, determined that no one would push them out. They immediately found ways to share their expertise and to give back to their communities, volunteering as teachers and serving as mentors in their fields. At the same time, they have embraced their retirement years as time to explore passions and interests that demanding careers did not allow them to enjoy and to find new hobbies to explore together. For them, many of these moments are found on their tandem bicycle, and they are forever seen riding together all over the city, in their matching cycling jerseys, both of them now in their 80s. They have both prioritized fitness, wellness, and intellectual pursuits as well as friendships which allow them to remain engaged with peers. While every day may not be perfect — and they have certainly faced adversity — they are quick to treasure the sunset, the budding flowers in their garden, the peace of the snowfall, and the time they have together. They have aged with dignity, grace, and gratitude and prove every day that age is only a number.

In your experience, what are 3 or 4 things that people wish someone told them before they retired?

  • Plan ahead: Plan financially, but also plan for how you will find purpose and how you will manage your relationships. Anticipate the impact of this major life change and prepare yourself for it.
  • Don’t fear retirement: You have worked so hard for this moment. Find ways to enjoy it.
  • Retirement does not mean the end of contributing: Retirement does not even mean you have to stop working; it just means that work is no longer everything.
  • There is still never enough time.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

One book that has particularly resonated with me is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande poignantly uses the story of his parents’ aging to shed light on the American approach to end-of life-issues, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for both patients and families. He encourages the reader to recognize that the medical profession does not necessarily have the elixir for aging; in fact, medicine is focused on cures — and there is no cure for aging. Instead, Gawande offers motivational examples for helping older adults to find meaning and purpose in their lives, regardless of their capacities or life expectancies.

Gawande’s book dramatically impacts my work with my oldest older adults and shapes my interactions with them and my advice for their families. It also continually reminds me to remain focused on grace and dignity and to strive for policies which support and enable this end-of-life approach.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start a movement — or if I could have one superpower — it would be to have the wisdom, the knowledge, and the capacity to remove the legacy of racism and to eliminate wealth inequality and privilege in our society. Imagine a world in which we no longer had to contend with the burdens of systemic racism, not because we had ceased the fight but because we had finished the work that had to be done and found a new way forward informed but no longer tarnished by our past. All of us, regardless of our cultural heritage, would benefit from this liberated society.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“When I get old, they are never going to say, ‘What a sweet old lady.’ They are going to say, ‘What on EARTH is she up to now?’” As I have gotten older, I have found myself increasingly unencumbered by the guilt and unfounded “I should’s” that defined my younger years. This freedom enables me to experience life in all its color and nuances. It allows me to push myself at the gym, to ask more of myself at work, to think big, to dream bolder, to remain engaged, passionate, and committed. I hope forever to serve as a change agent, not content with the status quo — but highly content with the life that I am living.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

If I could have breakfast or lunch with one person, I would want to dine with Betty White. Betty White is an extraordinary older woman. Vibrant, engaged, and active, she continues to contribute to her craft and to give of herself to causes far larger than herself. White states that her sense of humor keeps her young, and she clearly embodies the adage that laughter is the best medicine.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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