When Alice falls down the rabbit hole in the classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she encounters a new reality. For many of us, facing a major life transition is rather like falling down a rabbit hole.
Retirement is often one of life’s most challenging transitions. Adulthood is expected to be a period of productivity followed by a time devoted to leisure activities intended to occupy our remaining days. For some, retirement is gratifying. Others ask, “Is that all there is?”
Because we are healthier and are living longer, retirement can stretch for many years and become less satisfying. As more than one retiree has put it, “You can only play so much golf.” Losing work colleagues or believing that we can no longer follow our life’s purpose may cause feelings of grief.
In Claiming Your Place at the Fire, authors Richard J. Leider and David Shapiro invite us to view the second half of life through a different lens, suggesting that our later years are the “first real chance to define ourselves and to live in a manner of our own choosing.” They also declare, “Callings never end when careers do.”
Ken Dychtwald and Daniel J. Kadlec remind us that the literal meaning of retire is retreat or withdraw. In their book, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life, they say that crossing into maturity often brings a desire to reboot and reengage, finding ways to apply our skills and insights into the many years ahead.
It is not too late to identify our calling—that something that one “cannot not do,” a pursuit that puts forth an energy that excites joy and gratitude. Some people have a sense of purpose early on. Consider the pediatrician who, as a young farm girl, cared for injured animals. Or the journalist who wrote and delivered a neighborhood newsletter as a child and who returned to his passion as a newspaper journalist following a first career. For others, the path comes later, sparked by life’s experiences. A woman nearing retirement explained that she was planning how she could use her skills to become more active in social justice advocacy.
How then do we plan for the second half of life? After Alice took an elixir labeled “drink me,” she was able to climb through a tiny door. There’s no magic potion to help us prepare for life’s transitions, yet happily, many of us are finding that midlife and beyond can be an exciting time of new discoveries and rekindled purpose—a time when we can be more courageous.
So think beyond retirement, and retire or not. Rewire or retread. Identify the things you love to do. Discover your skills and strengths that transcend a job title. Find what fills you with joy and gratitude. Reflect on how you have used your gifts in the past, how you are using them today, and how you can use them as you age. And finally, remember: There is no right or wrong way to face midlife and beyond. This is our time.
Linda Henry writes regularly on topics related to aging, health care, and communication and is the co-author of several books, including Transformational Eldercare from the Inside Out: Strengths-Based Strategies for Caring. She conducts workshops nationally on aging and creating caring work environments. Her volunteer emphasis is age-friendly communities.