I retired in 2014. I was only 55 years old, which is young to be retired. I somehow never connected the idea of retirement, which just sounded like a long-term “staycation,” with the idea of aging. I know that seems irrational, but I did not feel old or dilapidated or on the downhill path of life. Physically, I did not feel any worse than I did when while I was working. In fact, my health improved once I left the ranks of the employed. Mentally, I had lots of activities to keep my mind spinning around in my skull. Some would argue I had too many activities spinning around in my skull. At any rate, I did not feel that my brain power was becoming slower and creakier. Emotionally, I did feel some separation anxiety over leaving my friends and the life I knew in California. When my mother’s stroke decimated my world, I suffered more emotionally than I ever had in my life, but that suffering had nothing to do with retirement. In fact, if I were not retired when the situation occurred, it would have been much more difficult.
So, retirement never felt like a reflection of my aging process. I left my job and, for the most part, I was at least as healthy, intelligent, and happy as I was while working. I congratulated myself that I did not let my career define me. I celebrated my ability to live vibrantly and richly even without a job. I looked at other people in my life who retired and immediately seemed to turn from “movers and shakers” to “sitters and steadiers.” I just did not get it. I felt a little smug that I escaped that fate.
That is, I felt a little smug until recently. It occurs to me that some time ago- maybe as long as two years ago- I seemed to enter a new phase of retirement. I did not want to acknowledge it, but I think it is time to draw back the curtain.
I now understand those people who seem to equate retirement with age. I am definitely in retirement 2.0 now. I see clearly that I am old. I seem to always be somewhere on the exhaustion spectrum. There is something in my body that flirts between discomfort and pain just about every day. I was never the most agile creatures, but I see that now I cannot even do the same things I used to be able to do- things as simple as sitting on the floor and getting up under my own power. Close friends, who I think of as my contemporaries, are facing serious health challenges that will likely never get better. Some members of my circle are dying. There is no doubt that my brain is moving more slowly and cannot efficiently process multiple ideas at the same time. It is not that I feel like I am leaking cognitive ability like a sprinkler leaks water, but I do notice a sort of slogging tendency in my thinking. It is like thoughts do not flow smoothly, but get caught and hung up on clogged, corroded, and pitted places in my brain.
None of these phenomena is very pleasant, but I am also struggling with a piece of retirement and aging that is even more scary. I am stumbling over my place in the world, grasping to create connection. When one has a job, especially in a leadership position, there are many connections built into your day. Forming those connections is organic. I did not have to try to find connections; they came to me. Too many of them came to me if truth be told. Managing those connections could be exhausting, but the lack of them can be soul-killing. For many retirees, even ones like me who are not exactly alone in the world, the absence of built-in connections can be even more debilitating than physical decline.
I have worked hard since my mother’s death to find ways of building connections. I am about as extreme an introvert as they come, but I still knew I would crumble without a small, tightly bound group of people with whom to live my new retired life. It took a lot of energy to find ways to do this when I was not being randomly exposed to people all day every day. It is not just finding anyone with whom to connect; it is finding the right people with whom to connect and figuring out the right balance of giving and receiving. I think I am a pretty awesome friend, actually. I have a lot of love to give and am generous with it. I do not want to be more trouble than I am worth, though. I know I can be a little needy and insecure. On the other side of that self-knowledge, I also know that it feels good to give and it is selfish not to let loved ones give to me in the same way I enjoy giving to them.
My efforts at connection have born fruit. I know I do have a group of soul-level friends in my community, in my church, and from my past. I am absolutely secure in that knowledge on an intellectual basis. I still struggle daily, though, to feel it all the time. I often feel isolated, alone, and unworthy.
I struggled the most with this feeling during the pandemic. I took the initiative in finding strategies to advance connection and communication. It was arduous work partly because I had to create opportunities to connect rather than just react to my everyday interactions. At times, I felt like I was trying too hard to solve a problem that didn’t exist. I thought I was taking up this “connection flame” for other people. I worried about people who were truly isolated. I wanted to show them that someone cared. I came to understand that my actions were not just for other people. They were just as much for me.
Aging is not easy and sometimes the burden of it knocks me to the floor. On the other hand, I have learned many new skills during the aging process. I have learned to be more accepting of myself and others. I have learned much more about being happy.
I now understand retired people who always are tired, confused, not in good health, or lonely. I am experiencing those feelings. My age is catching up with me. However, I do not intend to go gentle into that good night of aging. I think the secret is to acknowledge that I am aging and accommodate it to the extent it serves me to do so, but not surrender to it. When I am tired, I may decide to push through that tiredness to enjoy something I want to do and cut out something that does not sound as fun. When I have a sore ankle or aching back, I may decide to spend a little longer in a hot shower and go a little easy on the housework so I can merrily traipse around Disney World. When my brain is moving a little more laboriously than it used to, I may slow down and take on fewer responsibilities so I can succeed without as much multi-tasking.
Aging is something that is happening to me, but it does not have to define who I am.
How do you deal with the aging process? What strategies have you found to increase your satisfaction with life without a job? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a lively day!