By Sara Orem
Sara Orem, Ph.D, is a longtime OLLI instructor, member and volunteer.


The guiding principle of the philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry (an early creation within positive psychology), is to begin any project, or develop any idea with the question: What is working now and how can I build on that? “What works” is a very different place to begin than the more common project management or consulting question, “What’s broke and how can I fix it?” The “what works” question is more active and calls for creativity in expanding what is already positive movement. At this juncture in my life — oldish age, a few chronic health conditions, adult children, a relatively long marriage, and some stimulating work — I feel stuck. Stuck by some things I’ve loved doing for a long time, but now find stale. Stuck by some less satisfying relationships but not quite knowing how to extricate myself or change them. Stuck by continuing to do too many things that others want me to do. Stuck by an energy store that isn’t what it used to be. Wanting more art in my life. More free time or loose time. More good food, but less cooking.

My husband is calling this period The Great Furniture Purge as the first signs of what I want to change have appeared on the sidewalk outside of our house — chairs, beds and tables I’ve gotten rid of to make more space in my office, my guest room and my life.

So, I ask myself, What works?

  1. Walking. I walk with three different friends on three different days each week for an hour or two. I don’t call this hiking any more because it is mostly on flat ground due to my heart condition. We talk about what’s going on in our lives. I ask for their advice about things they’ve already changed that I want to change too. For me, walking is a one-to-one support group. It is also a way to stay active. I can’t swim any distance now, though I have for years, because I get breathless so easily. But I can walk and talk. That works.
  2. Yoga. I have found a wonderful, gentle yoga teacher who works with me and other cancer patients. She checks in with me if I don’t appear in class and reminds me to do only what’s easeful and not what’s at the far edge of possible. I’m learning to be gentle with myself. It’s working.
  3. Writing and facilitating groups. One of my first bosses, when I worked in finance, said I was just a frustrated school teacher. Well, I’m not frustrated any more. I love to learn with others and to explore what our shared experience can mean for each of us. I also teach formal classes a few times a year, and write about aging (mostly) with two different groups. Both the introspection of what I write and the social sharing of what I teach and learn work for me.
  4. Art. Here is the real opportunity, and here is the place where I have most dragged my feet. For the last two years, since just before the pandemic I have taken drawing, painting and collage courses both live and on the internet. It is the way I lose myself most completely. A bird’s wing I segment with colored pencils, a cactus flower I copy with watercolors, or a long exposure I create on my iPhone camera all take all of my attention. It is my own kind of FLOW. I lose time, my aches and pains, my sadness or frustration. I am the wing or the flower or the swirling water.

My art supplies are now in three 24" X 36" boxes. If I want to draw, I have to retreive all of the boxes from a back hallway and position them on my dining room table so I can find and remove the supplies I want. I don’t do this nearly as often as I’d like, because of both the mess and the clean-up. This week I moved a big piece of furniture from my home office to the guest room to create space for a storage cabinet. It took two trips to Ikea to decide on the one that fit my space and had enough space for the supplies. My husband put it together. It was not easy. But it now exists and all that remains is to fill it, and clear my desk so that I can draw, paint, or edit photographs to my heart’s content.

These are the things that work in my life. Making them bigger or giving them more space is my unsticking challenge now.


Sara Orem, Ph.D. is a longtime OLLI instructor, member and volunteer who facilitates workshops for older adults about vitality in the aging process. She also leads the Vital Aging Interest Group that is open to all OLLI members. Sara originally published this post on medium. It is republished here with her permission.