My Time Author on Life Stage Formerly Known as 'Retirement'

By Trafford, Abigail | Aging Today, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

My Time Author on Life Stage Formerly Known as 'Retirement'


Trafford, Abigail, Aging Today


You're restless. Not so young, but restless. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

You don't look old, don't feel old. But the kids are grown. The house is quiet. And at work? Talk of downsizing, takeovers, the R-word-retirement-and then, what? You can expect to live, and live well, for another three or four decades-an entire lifespan in centuries past. Instead of winding down, you have to gear up. Instead of sitting back in a rocking chair, you have to find new purpose-new work, new relationships. Longevity's imperative is regeneration. But how do you master the art of reinvention?

A NEW PATH

Bernard Hillenbrand of Washington, D.C., knows. The hard-charging executive, who for decades led the National Association of Counties, went to seminary and became a minister at age 60. Eighteen years later, he's in good health and a good marriage. "I have 20 years to go," he says with a smile.

Aida Rivera of Puerto Rico knows. The high school dropout went to college when she was nearly 50 and earned a college degree to become a therapist at age 60. She now counsels women who are trapped in domestic violence. "Nothing stopped me," she says. "This is my life. I love it. In helping others, I am helping me."

However, Hillenbrand, Rivera and others I interviewed for my book My Time: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life (New York City: Basic Boons, 2004) didn't know when they started down their new paths where they were going to end up. They didn't know they were part of a huge demographic wave that is altering every aspect of the social landscape, from politics and sex to family life to the creative arts.

A new stage has emerged in the life cycle. This bonus period comes after middle age but before old age. "It's not like we have a lot of role models," says James P. Firman, president and CEO of the National Council on the Aging. The bonus decades are a "gift-years of opportunity, years of health," he continues. But no one told you that you have to write a new script for this "extra" period. "The concept hasn't sunk in ... We're all lost as a generation."

It is not an easy period. There are lay-offs and mammograms, retirement parties and forgetting where you left your keys. There are wrenching losses, too. Deaths of family members and close friends. Major illness. The loss of income, the loss of status in a culture geared to youth. For most people, this new phase involves some crisis and a lot of confusion. Yet it also heralds unprecedented possibility.

A SOCIAL REVOLUTION

In the early, high-stress years of juggling children and marriage and job, one gets pretty exhausted from meeting other people's needs. As one thirtysomething woman wailed at a college class reunion: "When is it going to be my time!" My time! It's here. Get used to it. Then get ready for the ride.

My time comes when the primary tasks of adulthood have been completed, for better or for worse. Children have been raised. Marriages have been made-and remade. Career goals have been achieved-or not. The mortgage is paid, and you Ve filled out your résumé. Then what? It could be anything. Look around. They're everywhere: Two women of a certain age are walking the Appalachian Trail, a group of men with craggy faces linger over lunch, a graying couple hold hands at the matinee movie or scramble over the rocks of the Grand Canyon. A sixtysomething husband is off building houses for his church in Mexico while his wife goes on a poetry retreat. They are fit, energetic, engaged and engaging. They have an aura that says: "I'm free. I've paid my dues. I can make a difference."

My timers are mentoring in schools, working on community projects, starting businesses, designing jewelry, painting portraits, running for political office, getting advanced degrees, nurturing grandchildren, falling in love, redefining marriage, managing their bodies and searching for their spiritual center.

A century ago, even 50 years ago, life was too short for my time.

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