For all the years I worked in the aging field, I wondered wistfully what it would be like to retire. No alarm clocks to beat into submission each morning, no lunches to pack, no racing to get everything done day and night. Instead, once the rat race ended, I figured I’d be able to hike or read or nap whenever I wanted. Retirement looked great.
But I also knew that older people have the highest rate of suicide in America, and studies have consistently shown that older people are happier than any other age group. The yin and the yang of aging. Clearly, retiring well is more complicated than it seems.
The three most important ingredients of successful aging — being socially active, eating nutritiously and exercising — has to be part of my life in retirement, I felt sure. Having purpose and being mentally active are also critical.
I retired gradually over a period of three years, filling my non-working hours with volunteer activities I’d never been able to fit in when I worked: serving on a couple of boards, helping out at school, volunteering in the library.
I also never had the mental bandwidth to read books while I worked, and I began to read fiction and nonfiction voraciously. I joined a book group.
And then, quite by lucky accident, I enrolled in an art class two years ago. At first it didn’t feel lucky. I had drawn and painted as a kid, but now I was painfully rusty. I forgot to do the homework the instructor assigned. But as the four weeks of classes passed (then another four weeks), I started getting the hang of drawing as a routine (important, I’ve learned, for making progress in one’s art skills). When classes ended, a participant invited everyone to her art studio to continue. I was the only one who took her up on it. Another lesson: you have to make time to do art — it’s not something you’ll do “someday” if you don’t force yourself to DO IT NOW. Many people wait for the magic moment and never get to it.
I also had a mindset that enabled me not to worry about failing (unlike in my career). “This is all an experiment,” I told myself. “I can have fun!”
I’ve tried different media — first #2 pencils, then colored pencils, then pastels — and I throw away what doesn’t work. As a journalist, I write very painstakingly — each word must be perfect, and writing one article can take weeks — but, thank goodness, I don’t agonize over my drawings like I do writing, and I love the rush of creating a drawing that’s good. I’m a literal person, so my drawings have mainly been realistic, but now I’m experimenting with impressionism (which lets me splash colors across a page and is so much fun).
I’m still experimenting — and I have a portfolio (oh, my) of work to show for it. I’ve had two art shows. I have a wonderful mentor who pushes me forward (thanks, Ginny!). Certainly in this last third of my life, I’m discovering a creative joy and passion I didn’t know I had.
Liz Taylor, an eldercare specialist for 40 years, lives in the San Juan Islands, where she is semi-retired. She wrote a popular column on aging for The Seattle Times for 14 years, and has consulted with thousands of older adults and their families. Liz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.