Preparing for retirement is not just about saving money. It’s more about transitioning from a life of obligations to one we shape to our liking. We’re not guaranteed a long life, so sooner or later we may want to cross this bridge. When a friend, Bob, continued postponing leaving his job, he confessed the real reason: “What am I going to do with all my time?” He loved golf and liked gardening. It’s a start. Would it be enough? Life doesn’t begin at the finish line, but retirement offers a unique opportunity to explore the world inside and out.
“Oh my God,” Anne Lamott writes, “what if you wake up someday, and you’re 65 of 75, and you never got your novel or memoir written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools or oceans because your thighs were jiggly or you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.”
There is more to aging than just staying alive. Each part of life serves a purpose. Every transition includes emotional adjustments. When I watched my youngest child pack the car for college, a lump grew in my throat. Months later, I said farewell to a career. I spent my adulthood being somebody important and needed. But like a pawn on a board at the end of a game, my doing is now about being.
This last period of our lives can be a moment to come alive like never before.
After retiring from Procter and Gamble, John Smith (alias) played, on average, 200 rounds of golf each year. One day, standing over a putt on a green, he said to himself, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life.” What replaced golf on his calendar was culinary school. He found he loved to bake. John started a business making cookies he boxed and sold. Instead of unlimited golf, it turned out what brought him the most joy was something sweeter.
When Tim and I retired, visiting national parks felt right, so that’s what we did. The freedom to travel with no deadlines or children at home was exhilarating. We drove Route One around Iceland and crossed the Canadian Rockies on a train. Oh, the places we saw and the golf we played; the Plantation course in Maui, Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, and others. We were like kids in a candy store. When not doing, we were planning. But like everything else in the world (sans chocolate), eventually, our wanderlust waned. What once was charming we now described as wasting our lives in lines at airports or in traffic jams. Ten years into retirement, it was time to reevaluate what was right for who we are today. What brought joy and meaning to our lives?
The last phase of life follows the same patterns as earlier periods, a series of starts and finishes. Sometimes, our aspirations never leave the ground. You planned to climb Mount Everest. Then you discover your high altitude yearning has faded. Other choices await.
This period is about gaining insight into our likes and dislikes and knowing ourselves—coming closer to who we are at any given moment. The last season is for exploration and introspection. Regret is not insight. Remorse is the sand trap of the soul that drains the future of new possibilities. There are many different ways to find fulfillment, each as unique as we are. The commonality is the willingness to listen to our inner voice.
Perhaps your deepest calling is to be of service to others, adding value to your community? A mindset of purpose brings opportunities to your doorstep. You ask what possible impact you can have in making a difference. You are eighty years old, and the only living thing that appears to appreciate you is your Chihuahua and the fern growing in the shade of your porch. Purpose isn’t measured by what you do compared to others but by what you do within your means. Sometimes it’s simply inspiring others, like my friend Suzanne walking towards healing, overcoming one obstacle after another.
In her book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, Joan Chittister writes: “Margaret at ninety-five, once a master seamstress, still goes looking for work. ‘I’m open for business,’ she says as she hunts around for new slacks to hem for friends or new drapes to sew. She talks to everyone around her, seeks them out when they miss coming by. She reads and listens to music. She keeps in touch with old pupils. She listens to new lectures on CDs. She lives. There is something about her that sanctifies time, makes it creative rather than stale. She gives me insight into the part of my own life that I cannot yet see. She tells me that life is not measured by years.”
Ask yourself how you will choose to live the rest of this one precious life you’ve been granted. Will you take this time to find out the truth of who you are and explore the unknown? No one approach guarantees happiness, but stepping into unknown territories offers a more expansive view and new flavors to enjoy in the remaining days. Changing paths, peace of mind, new hobbies, and new destinations are all on the menu.