Getting Ready to Retire: Finding Yourself

Next Avenue recently published an article by Bart Astor, a writer specializing in life transitions, titled “When will you be ready to call it quits?” After talking to numerous retirees, Astor concluded that the following factors played into their decisions to leave the workforce:

  • a milestone such as a significant birthday or a work anniversary
  • dissatisfaction with the direction taken by the employer or profession; unwillingness to adapt to workplace changes
  • health concerns
  • a feeling that life is short

Certainly other factors– family needs, lack of passion in the work, or desire for change–can be important as well. I was interested in one factor that Astor added to those listed above: identity. He explained: “That is, when you no longer want, or need, to identify yourself as, say, a teacher, manager, director or writer — even if the job title carries some prestige.”

This giving up our identities can be quite a barrier to retirement. It’s not just a matter of losing status by giving up titles, perks, or authority (though for some of us that factors in). It’s the prospect of losing who we are, how we’ve defined ourselves through the years. That potential loss can be frightening. I recently had a conversation with another psychologist who recently turned 70 and is thinking of not renewing his license to practice when it next expires. Being able to think of himself as a licensed psychologist has been quite important to his self-concept and it’s hard for him to give that up. Here’s the interesting thing about him: he has been disabled for twenty years and hasn’t been practicing psychology for that long. At first he had hopes he would recover from his medical problems and be able to practice again, but he gave up on that dream about ten years ago. Despite being permanently sidelined, he’s repeatedly renewed his license to practice, just because it’s been too hard for him to give up that aspect of his identity.

My work identity is like a tent stake holding my sense of self in place. I am likely to resist pulling up that stake unless there is something else attaching me to the ground. What other ways can we be grounded when we transition to retirement? The answer is probably different for each of us. I would like to suggest that we think about this question by looking about our past, present, and future identities. Here are three questions to help with that process:

  • What aspects of my past identity still can serve a stabilizing function?

Our life stories are a rich source of insight into who we have been through the decades. What beliefs have I always returned to? What life goals have been a persistent source of direction? What have been my lifelong interests and passions? Reconnecting with these aspects of ourselves can ground us during times of change.

  • What aspects of my identity in the present can I rely on going forward?

We are all much more than our careers, and it’s useful to think of aspects of our present lives that transcend work. What relationships matter to me? What gives direction to the time I am away from the workplace? What or who do I put my faith in? What sustains me; what gives me the energy to go on in the face of difficulties? In all likelihood, all these things will still be with us after we retire.

  • What aspects of my future identity can ground me as I go through this transition?

We each have a future self–a person we imagine we will be one day. Some of us can picture that person clearly, while for others the image is quite blurred. It is useful to give some thought about who we envision being once the retirement transition is behind us. What will our days be like? Where will we spend our time, and with whom? What will give us satisfaction, what challenges will we face, what will be our source of hope? That future self has made the transition out of the workplace and has an identity no longer dependent on earning an income. Knowing that such a person awaits us gives us the courage to go in search of him or her. Best wishes as you explore your past, current, and future selves!

Traveler–a characteristic of my past, current, and (hopefully) future selves

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Complications

I’ve been writing recently about my medical problems. After living a year and a half with prostate cancer, I had surgery a couple weeks ago to remove my prostate. Last week, I blogged about the surgery and the first week of recovery. A few days after my post, I received the pathology report. The cancer had invaded both sides of the prostate, but there was no evidence that any had spread outside that organ. Of note, the lymph nodes were free of infection.

That was good news. I expected the recovery from that point to be a course of incremental improvement–a gradual decrease in pain and increase of strength at the incision sites, a progressive expansion of the activities I was able to perform. The path ahead seemed clear.

I didn’t reckon with complications. Last Friday I started having abdominal cramps that became stronger and stronger. Even when the cramps subsided, I was bent forward with pain. I waited a day, then phoned my doctor’s weekend answering service. The doctor on call advised that I go into the emergency room at Spectrum Butterworth, and I went.

The ER staff began assessing me immediately–urine test, blood test, physical exam, CT scan. The scan revealed fluid accumulating in my abdomen. The level of creatinine in my blood was high, suggesting that my kidneys were not working properly. I was admitted to the hospital. The admitting doctor tried to be reassuring. Perhaps the kidneys would be fine tomorrow; they had been fine less than two weeks earlier, at the time of my surgery. Still, the thought of kidney disease was sobering.

I arrived at my room about 8 in the evening. In the middle of the night another patient was wheeled in to occupy the room’s other bed. He was hospitalized for pneumonia, and had been transferred from a smaller hospital because at Spectrum he could also receive kidney dialysis during his stay. So his kidneys had failed at some point; I was later to learn that they had been destroyed by overly high doses of medication prescribed for his diabetes. I was lying there concerned about the specter of some sort of kidney problem, only to be housed with someone ten years younger than me whose kidneys were already defunct! I suppose that might have increased my fear, but it had the opposite effect. I felt sympathy for someone who had it worse than I did. I realized that my problems paled in comparison to his.

The next day, my attending physician came by. He thought that urine was probably leaking into my gut from an area of the urethra that had had to be repaired during my surgery. A urine leak would explain the abdominal pain, and would also explain the elevated creatinine level. X-rays taken after dye had been injected into the bladder confirmed this hypothesis. I was then hooked up to a couple medical devices that should keep urine from the opening until it heals itself. I and my devices were sent home Tuesday night, so now I’m there recovering.

As it is with healing so it is with life; even when the path forward seems clear and without impediment, circumstances can change suddenly. Fears can then loom; some will be justified, others not. Time and chance happen to us all, says the Preacher. I am no exception to that rule. During the journey, it’s best to hold our expectations lightly, prepared for disappointments along the way, but also for blessings. We will experience plenty of each.

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A Wineskin in the Smoke

I had surgery a week ago. I had only undergone surgery under general anesthetic once before, an outpatient surgery about fifteen years ago. This time, I had a cancerous body part removed, meaning I was unconscious for longer than during the previous go-round and had to stay in the hospital overnight.

On the day of the surgery, I had to report to the hospital at 5:30 a.m. I got up at 3:30 and took a shower, read a devotional, and practiced yoga by the time I left for the hospital. I was ready to get it done with! It took over an hour to get prepped for surgery, with the activities that took place during that process not being enough to distract me from the apprehension that loitered around the edges of consciousness. I wasn’t exactly fearful, but the thought of spending three hours supine and senseless while someone was cutting on my flesh was discomforting.

During the prep time, the dramatis personae of the operating room (nurse, surgeon, anesthetist) all made brief appearances. They went over what they and I already knew, then gave me time for questions. These interactions were oddly reassuring. Calm, competent professionalism was exactly what the situation called for, and they provided it!

The anesthetist’s assistant started a drip and I was wheeled out in the hallway, heading for the operating room. I remember only the first ten seconds of that journey. My next memory was of the lights in the recovery room, with my first thoughts being that I would like to sleep a little longer and that parts of my body were hurting that hadn’t been hurting before. The doctor had apparently come to my bed before I had come to. He told Paula, the friend who had stayed in the waiting room for the duration of the surgery, that he didn’t see any evidence that the cancer had spread beyond my prostate. He will know more when the pathology report comes back. For now, though, the news is good.

I remember the next gurney ride, to the room where I stayed until discharge the next day. Recovery during that 20 or so hours and in the six days since then has been a series of small steps. For example, I went from sipping water to having tea and gelatin, then watery oatmeal, then tomato soup, and gradually on towards my regular diet, having to backtrack when I went too fast. I moved little the first few hours, but by late afternoon was sitting up and during the evening shuffled down the hallway, clinging to the IV pole for support.. Now I can walk slowly up and down the street in front of where I live.

I still have a moderate amount of pain, especially at the sites in my abdomen where the incisions were made. The incisions aren’t large, but their effect on me is. I move delicately, hunching a bit when I walk so my abdominal muscles won’t be stretched and using my arms as much as possible to position myself without pulling on the stitches. If I’m not careful enough, pain quickly calls me to heel (and hopefully to heal as well). I’m not driving yet; I’ve met the criteria to do so, but my focus now is more on recovery than on going anywhere.

Surgery and its effects on my body remind me of my fragility. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we come from and will return to dust. Even during the interim between dust and dust–when the life force flares within us–we are not as hearty as we imagine ourselves to be. I thought of this recently when for the first time I noticed a particular verse in Psalm 119:

wineskin-300x274“Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke
I do not forget your decrees.” (v. 83)

The note in my TNIV Study Bible (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2006) explained: “As a wineskin hanging in the smoke and heat above a fire becomes smudged and shriveled, so the psalmist bears the marks of his affliction.” Lately I’ve been feeling smudged and shriveled by the heat. It’s nice to know this sense of myself fits with a long spiritual tradition!

The second part of the verse, about remembering God’s commandments or decrees, seems to indicate that the psalmist remembers what is important even in times of hardship. I wonder whether there’s a bit more to it than that, though. In the Hebrew scripture, the law is not just a list of commandments or rules to follow but is God’s comprehensive response to the tragedy of Eden. It is aimed at restoration, at nothing less than a new creation. When life seems flimsy and transient, the thought that God is at work making all things new is a comfort. I may be a wineskin withered by the fire, but I will eventually be restored. For now, I’m at rest.

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Thinking About Cancer: Metaphors

I’ve been blogging recently about cancer. This topic has been on my mind since I am about to have my cancerous prostate removed. One thing I have been reflecting on is culture’s dominant metaphor for dealing with life-threatening illness. I’m wondering whether this metaphor is the best way to characterize what we go through when faced with such illnesses.

What metaphor am I referring to? It’s one that comes up regularly in conversations with survivors and is often included in the life narrative portion of obituaries, e.g. “I’ve been fighting cancer,” “after a long battle with congestive heart failure,” or “she struggled with multiple medical problems.” The dominant metaphor is of a war or battle. Eugene Peterson has suggested that there are two basic types of story, fights and journeys. The stories we tend to tell about our encounters with illness are fights.

Is this the best type of story to tell, though? State writer Katy Waldman suggests that urging people to fight cancer or other serious illnesses puts an unfair burden on them. If they succumb, the implication is that they didn’t fight hard enough, and that in turn can lead to feelings of guilt or inadequacy. I will eventually die of something; I don’t particularly like the idea of being considered a loser after my last battle, the one that I had no chance of winning.

So what’s the alternative? Waldman prefers journey language to fight language. She cites the press release subsequent to the death of theater actor and director Roger Rees in July, 2015, which stated that Rees had “passed away … after a brief journey with cancer.” For her, the term “journey” evoked the image of “a man walking slowly into the sunset, hand in hand with an adumbral figure.”

Holding hands with cancer doesn’t sit well with me. That seems to be friendship language, and I don’t see cancer as my friend. Plus I don’t like an image that portrays cancer as my only or primary companion during this phase of life. An alternate image that comes to mind is being handcuffed or tied to cancer, but the element of coercion in those metaphors contains too much battle, not enough journey. How about walking alongside cancer, trying to maintain some distance but realizing that the path isn’t wide enough to keep from brushing against it from time to time?

Waldman rejects the alternative metaphor of “a journey through (rather than with) cancer. I like that better–or, to be more specific, I like an elaboration of that image. Thinking of a journey through cancer reminds me of the book of Psalms, especially the best known Psalm, number 23. God is compared to a shepherd, and his followers to sheep. The psalmist emphasizes God’s protection in times of danger:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.

Some older translations refer to the valley as “the valley of the shadow of death.” That’s cancer–the dark valley, the one where death casts its shadow. That’s where I’m walking. As I see it, the journey through this valley is not a solitary one, or one in which cancer becomes my primary companion. It’s God, not cancer, who is walking beside me. There may be a battle in store, but it is not my battle, it is God’s. Should I die, it would be in God’s presence. Such a death is nothing to fear, and is neither failure nor evil. It is the start of another journey, one of homecoming.

psalm-23v4

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When Time Flies. When It Doesn’t.

calendar

Time is measured according to physical events of a cyclical nature–the earth circling the sun or turning on its axis, the phases of the moon, or the electronic transitions of certain atoms. Time matters to us, but it isn’t these physical cycles that concern us so much as our subjective experience of time. And subjective time varies tremendously.

We are all familiar with the manner in which time seems to speed up as we age. When we were children, each season lasted forever. It seemed summer would never arrive, but when it did, it plopped down and took up residence. The seasons move faster when we become adults, and still faster when we become seniors. We older adults have learned not to be fooled by the vast expanse of time each new year promises; we know that in short order it will be December again and we’ll be wondering “Where did the year go?”

I’ve been noticing that, despite my age, I don’t always experience time as rushing past. When I am eagerly anticipating some particular date, time moves particularly slowly. I know someone looking forward to retirement who set the date a year ago; now that he is just two months out, time isn’t racing for him, it’s crawling.

I wasn’t looking forward to retirement, so for me the time leading up to my final day didn’t move slowly. If anything, the opposite was the case. After taking my leave I relocated to Michigan to help my parents, and that’s when time slowed for me. I had to rebuild my life, and it took a very long time–longer than the calendar indicated–for that construction project to be completed. Once I had made friends, established my part-time psychology practice, and got involved in a church, time stopped dawdling and picked up its pace again.

Last year, time started slowing once more for me, and it’s still lagging. In the summer, it slowed as I was eagerly anticipating a major trip. Before and after that, I was dealing with several changes in my life: the church I had joined closed, some of the relationships I formed there didn’t last, and I started cutting back on work. The year before, I had put my house in North Carolina up for sale, but at first I was ambivalent about selling it. Now I’m ready–actually, I’m at the stage beyond ready–but the house is generating no more interest than if it were located in a toxic waste dump.

So there was something I was looking forward to, some unwelcome changes, and some changes I would have welcomed that didn’t occur. All these seemed to weigh down time. There’s one more thing that has impeded time for me more than all the others. In late 2015, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was put on a regimen of active monitoring, meaning I was tested every three months for a marker that would signal that the cancer was progressing. Time sauntered slowly from one test to the next. I eventually had another biopsy and learned that the cancer had worsened. Surgical removal of the prostate now seems the best option. The surgery date is set. Time may slow when we’re waiting for something we want to happen; it goes even slower when waiting for something like surgery, I’ve found.

So why does time slow for situations as diverse as waiting for retirement, anticipating a vacation, adjusting to a move out of state, having a house go unsold, and waiting for cancer tests or treatments? Adjusting to a move and rebuilding one’s life are active, while waiting on retirement, travel, sale of a house, and medical procedures are more passive. Perhaps a feature common to all of them is that coping with each requires effort. My friend has to make more of an effort to get up and go to work every day. I had to work on rebuilding my life, and now I’m having to deal not only with preparing for surgery but with concerns about my future health and thoughts of mortality. Clock time kept going at its usual pace, but each month I had quite a bit of psychic distance to cover.

It occurs to me that in each case the psychic journey associated with time’s loitering was one that developed qualities of persistence and patience. In other words, I was growing as a result of these experiences. Perhaps the lesson is that time slows when we are in seasons of growth. I’m glad for the growth, but I have to admit that I won’t mind it when I have less to deal with, even if time resumes its breakneck pace. Time, stop your dawdling! Take flight again!

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Thinking About Cancer: Other People’s Stories

Prostate cancer cells. (Image by Dr. Gopal Murti/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.)

Prostate cancer cells. (Image by Dr. Gopal Murti/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.)

I recently posted about my cancer diagnosis. I am scheduled to have a radical prostatectomy next month, that being one of the treatment options available for prostate cancer. Deciding to have the surgery made me aware of things to which I had given little attention before.

As I noted in my earlier post, I became much more attuned to people’s stories about cancer. I know a few people currently undergoing treatment for cancer, and have learned recently that there are more people in my circle of acquaintance than I realized who have stories about surviving cancer. I also seem to hear more often than I used to about people who lost their lives to cancer and are no longer here to tell their stories. It’s not as if I had always dismissed such stories; I’m petty good at listening to the troubles of others and having compassion for them. What’s different is that now these stories speak to me personally. Before, I empathized and sympathized. Now I identify.

Some of the stories I hear are of fast-moving cancers that splash through the body as quickly as a spill, soaking into every crack and crevice. One woman went in for a chronic cough and fatigue; her diagnosis was advanced lung cancer, and she was dead in two weeks. Another was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live, though she only lasted three. These are the cancer horror stories, the nightmares, the blitzkriegs that quickly disorient and displace the person. In comparison, my cancer is more like an unpleasant dream, or, to use a military analogy, trench warfare, in which my body’s defenses will only gradually be displaced and can retreat to several fallback positions before ultimate defeat becomes likely. Like me, most of the people I know who have been diagnosed with cancer don’t have to contend with the horror-story variant.

To die from galloping cancer seems the worst way to go; the person has time to know what’s happening, but  not time to cope. I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to be in that position. What feelings emerge–despair, anger, fear? Does the urgency of getting things in order take precedence? Is there a temptation to try to protect others by holding back information or pretending you’re more at peace than you are?  How difficult or easy is it to turn to God for comfort? I hope I’ll never have to find out the answers to these questions.

Of course I’m especially sensitive to any mention of prostate cancer, the form that I have. It seems that just about everybody knows someone who has or had this cancer. Some with prostate cancer chose to have internal radiation (brachytherapy), some had prostatectomy. Some are still having the cancer monitored via blood tests and biopsies. A cousin delayed surgery for years because he was praying for God’s guidance. He eventually decided God wasn’t going to tell him what to do and went ahead with the prostatectomy. He had a good outcome, unlike a friend who had surgery promptly after being diagnosed only to learn that the disease had already spread to surrounding tissue. He now has to endure the side effects of androgen suppression therapy.

These stories and others make it clear that there is no way of eliminating all potential for future problems. A course of action that works well for one person doesn’t work well at all for someone else. And even if initial treatment response is good, there is always the possibility cancer will return. That possibility becomes a permanent feature in the psyche. I know a woman who had a mastectomy and chemo for best cancer twenty years ago but still gets quite anxious for several weeks before her annual evaluation with her oncologist.  We never know what will happen. Of course, that’s nothing new: I’m not guaranteed the future and any day could be my last.

It may well be that something entirely different from this cancer will take my life in the end. Once a thief has entered through a particular door, though, it’s only human to pay close attention from then on to that door. I may be caught unawares by something, but I probably won’t again be caught unawares again by that intruder. Such is the psychic armor donned by a cancer survivor. I hope that I’ll wear it lightly.

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Thinking About Cancer

As we age, our bodies tend to buck and sputter on occasions when they used to run smoothly. Joints ache, as do muscles after modest exertion. We can’t run as fast as we used to, or can’t run at all. We can no longer  shortchange sleep for days and still expect to function. All these insurgencies happen gradually, and most of us accept the changes without difficulty.

Besides the age-related changes that we all experience, we are more prone to be diagnosed with any of a variety of medical conditions–hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis,  elevated cholesterol. Though I have for the most part had good health, I have been on medication for cholesterol for at least fifteen years. I’ve also had an enlarged prostate. That wasn’t too much of a concern, but about two years ago my physician noted that the lab results from my PSA tests had been gradually rising. PSA, or prostate specific antigen, is a protein produced by the prostate and found in the blood. Men with prostate cancer often have a high PSA score, though other conditions can also produce elevations.

My doctors recommended a more definitive test for cancer, a biopsy of the prostate. I was biopsied in September, 2015. It’s an unpleasant test–lying on one side, mostly undressed, curled like a comma, while a probe inserted from the rear (I’ll leave to readers’ imaginations the orifice used) snips away bits of tissue. Three of the twelve samples taken contained cancerous cells. The urologist indicated that the cancer was low grade–Gleason Score of 6, the least aggressive form. “It probably shouldn’t even be called cancer,” he said, which is not the same as saying it isn’t cancer. He recommended regular monitoring of PSA but no active treatment. It took some convincing, but I finally agreed to that plan. with the stipulation that at some point my prostate would also be assessed via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnets, radio waves, and possibly other forms of magic to produce a picture of the structures found in bodily tissue. Such an image is useful in assessing the extent of cancer.

I went in for blood work every three months. The PSA level stayed around 5. That’s high, but at least the scores weren’t increasing. The promised MRI was done in October of last year. One area in particular looked troublesome to the radiologist. It would take another biopsy to determine whether there was any cause for concern, so a month later I was back on the table trying to decide what was most disagreeable about the procedure–the indignity? the pain? the doctor’s efforts at cheery encouragement?

This time, there were five samples with abnormal cells, and one of these was given a Gleason score of 7, pushing my risk level from low to intermediate. It is unlikely that the cancer has spread outside the prostate yet. However, the progression up to this point makes eventual spread more likely. After meeting with my doctor and researching treatment options, I decided that a radical prostatectomy– surgery to remove the prostate– would be the best option. I’m scheduled for surgery in late February.

It’s estimated that each year in the US there are about 180,000 new cases of prostate cancer and 26,000 deaths from this condition. It is a common cancer: an estimated 12.9 percent of men will be diagnosed with it some time in their lives. I am not alone.

I’ve been much more attuned to people’s cancer stories in the past few months. All of a sudden, those stories seem to be everywhere. Some hit close to home: my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram. She had a lumpectomy and started chemo a few weeks ago. A friend in his 30s went to the doctor because he thought his lungs harbored an infection and he didn’t want to pass it on to his newborn son. Instead, the doctor found a cancerous tumor in his chest. He will be hospitalized for five days every three weeks for high-dose chemo.

Stories like this make me think that my cancer is nothing by comparison. It’s not nothing, though, and I’ve noticed that it has influenced my thoughts in a variety of ways. I’ll write more about those effects in a future post.

blodgett-hospital

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Cheat Days

Sweets! Image from Yummydelicious.com

Sweets! Image from Yummydelicious.com

As 2017 approaches, it’s natural to think about things we would like to change in the new year. In other words, we think of ways to improve ourselves. Many plans for self-improvement require long-term self-control. Losing weight, for example, may require a diet in which for weeks or months we deny ourselves delicious but high-calorie foods and endure hunger pangs without relenting. Fitness requires regular exercise, meaning we have to get on the treadmill or elliptical machine over and over despite our aversion to breaking a sweat. Improving blood pressure may require a tasteless low-salt diet; completing projects may require reducing social media use and turning off our cell phones for periods of time.

Self-control is no fun, of course. Whatever we have decided to give up tends to become more appealing to us. We get grumpy, and our motivation gradually erodes. Often as not, there is eventually a lapse, followed by a “failure cascade.” “What the heck,” we think. “I’ve already had one cookie, so I’ve broken my diet. Why not have a few more while I’m at it?”

A recent study proposes that we can short-circuit this pattern of good intentions followed by misery, hopelessness, weakened motivation, and guilt-producing relapse by planning to cheat right from the start. A recent article in the Atlantic describes a paper by scientists in Portugal and the Netherlands reporting on three studies into the effect of planned cheat days. In the most significant of the studies, participants were either put on a  1,500-calorie per day diet or a 1,300-calorie per day diet with a 2,700-calorie splurge day at the end of each week. As the Atlantic reports, “Those who had the cheat day reported they were better able to sustain their motivation and self-control than those who ate the same amount each day.”

The study was only for two weeks, and there wasn’t a difference between the groups in the amount of weight lost, so this seems to be one of those findings that needs to be substantiated by further research. Still, even if outcomes between approaches are the same but having planned cheat days improves my mood and helps me feel better about myself, including them in self-improvement plans would be wise.

The strategy of using cheat days is probably only useful for those areas of our lives in which exercising self-control is still taking quite a bit of effort. In my case, I don’t feel any need to have cheat days in the areas of exercising or following a vegetarian (actually pescetarian) diet; I’ve done those things so long, I don’t feel tempted to do anything different. Restricting sweets, on the other hand, still is work for me, and I would welcome a cheat day now and then. As a matter of fact, now that I’m thinking about planned times to cheat, I’m starting to plan which would be the best days for me to indulge a bit!

So, dieters, exercisers, and other self-deniers! Plan to take some cheat days! You’ll be happier (though not necessarily more successful) for it!

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Identity, Purpose, and Belonging in Retirement

Older workers preparing for retirement (or those, like me, part way through the process)  deal not only with logistics and practical questions, but also with questions regarding how to live our lives. Three sets of issues that retirees face–issues of identity, purpose, and belonging–all have to do with what sort of life is most fulfilling and what kind of people should we be. Let’s take a look at each of these three, thinking especially about how these choices reveal our values:

On a recent trip to Israel. Should I travel more?

On a recent trip to Israel. Should I travel more?

Identity

When we leave the workplace, we leave behind a major source of identity. For years we’ve been teachers or accountants or executives, but we aren’t that anymore, so what are we now? We’re told we can reinvent ourselves, meaning that we can choose who we will become. But what sort of person should I become? Should I try to cultivate wisdom through reading or attending lectures? Should I develop my aesthetic side by going to concerts or art museums? Should I foster my creativity by taking up painting or writing? Should I expand my horizons through travel? Should I focus on challenges such as climbing a mountain or running a marathon? Should I become more spiritual, praying, meditating, or participating in religious ritual? Should I focus on what gives me maximal pleasure, whether that be as a gourmand, a gambler, or a golfer? Whatever direction I take will define my new identity. Choosing one direction over another is a decision as to the best person for me to be.

Purpose

When we leave the workplace, we also lose the sense of purpose that our jobs provided for us. We’re told we should develop a new purpose. Sure, establishing a new identity gives  some sense of purpose, but most retirees looking for a new purpose are looking for more than an identity; they are looking for a way of making a difference in the world. Should I try to help the less fortunate in society, volunteering in a soup kitchen or working with the homeless? Should I try to help the next generation by tutoring schoolchildren or caring for my grandchildren? Should I become an advocate for a cause–immigration reform, healthcare reform, criminal justice reform, or any among dozens of other issues that affect human well-being? Should I take a job that would again give me a work-related purpose? Should I run for public office?  Whatever I choose to do, I’m “voting with my feet” regarding what is worth doing. I’m making a choice as to what constitutes a meaningful and valuable purpose.

Belonging

Our workplaces gave most of us not only a purpose but a sense of belonging. We interacted with co-workers on a daily basis; some of them became friends, and some even seemed like family. Our work also determined in large part where we lived; many of us moved far from where we would have lived otherwise because of work. When we retire, we must again think about where we belong. In part, that is a question of where to live. Should we move closer to aging parents or grown children and grandchildren? Should we move back near our childhood home? Or should we live in a place providing opportunities to form new relationships–a resort town, for example, or a retirement community? Wherever we live, we also have to decide with whom we’ll spend the bulk of our time. With family members? With friends, whether old or new? At church, synagogue, or temple? With others who share some interest–musicians, say, or motorcycle enthusiasts or oenophiles? As with identity and purpose, deciding where to live and with whom to spend time reflects our values. In making the choice, we are selecting certain people as the ones most worth our time.

Who should I become? What should be my purpose? With whom do I belong? When we plan our post-retirement lives, we are revealing our values. We are showing what sort of life we think is worth living. These are serious choices, ones that no one else can make for us. Best wishes in determining your new identity, purpose, and belonging!

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Caregiving: Imperfections and Opportunities

bobby-wonderful

I recently read an article by Next Avenue writer Chris Hewitt about Bob Morris’ book Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents. The book is an account of Morris’ involvement with his elderly parents towards the end of their lives. As the subtitle suggests, Morris sees himself as less than saintly in how he handled these interactions. Hewitt’s article summarizes some of the shortcomings Morris describes:

“So Bobby Wonderful is candid about Morris being unable to decide whether to cut short a vacation to visit his dying mother, Ethel; about yelling at his dad, Joe, when his father’s weak heart made it difficult for him to walk and about hoping an anti-depressant prescription for his dad would get Joe off Bob’s back.”

Morris’ struggles make me think of the past four and a half years in my life. My father, who has since died, had dementia, and my mother, who was his primary caretaker despite having multiple medical problems of her own, couldn’t do all that needed to be done so that he could remain at home. I left my full-time job and moved in with them in order to help. I remain here because, though dad is gone, mom’s limitations have grown and she would have difficulty living independently if I didn’t give her some assistance.

Those who hear what I’ve done sometimes think I’m selfless and noble. As with Morris, the reality is more complicated than that. I did give up much of the life I had in order to help, but I still held onto some things. I maintained my professional identity, for example, continuing to work part-time as a psychologist. I continued to read, to blog, and to spend time with friends. So, no, I didn’t sacrifice everything. I gave up just enough to meet a need, and that’s still what I’m doing.

For a couple years I helped dress dad, took him to the bathroom, assisted with meals, and provided him with reassurance when he was anxious. Mom provided much more care than I did, and towards the end of his time at home we had a paid caregiver three mornings a week. I didn’t particularly enjoy providing physical care. Doing that seemed all wrong, as if some mistake had been made that kept dad from functioning as he should have. I was irritated at times–when he woke us up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t settle back down, for example, or when he was overwhelmed with anxiety concerning imagined problems and couldn’t be reassured. I did pretty well at containing my irritation, though. When impatient, I still acted patiently. Most of all, I was reliable. I was there for him.

Here’s a quote from Morris:

“Most aren’t perfect and selfless children who want to move their parents in with them and have their ashes scattered at the ballet. They don’t have the vision to see what only the selfless and enlightened can know when in the middle of it, and what I only know now that the experience is behind me, making it easy to say: Caring for your parents is an opportunity.”

On March 21, 2014, about twenty months after I came to help my parents and less than three months before my dad had to be transferred to a nursing home, I wrote the following in my journal:

“It occurred to me yesterday that caring for dad is really a gift; not a burden, but something provided to teach me patience and attentiveness to human need. Help me receive the gift with gratitude.”

It took me quite a while so see the opportunity that Morris alludes to, but I did see it. With God’s help, I was finally able to receive the gift that had been there all along. Now, I’m grateful for every minute I had with dad.

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