In Gail Sheehy’s classic textbook of human development, “Passages,” she discusses the various periods of life (“passages”) one experiences as life evolves from infancy to advanced maturity. Youth, with its excitement of exploration and discovery, inevitably leads to the highly productive middle years in which we exercise with maximum energy our greatest creativity. It is during these middle passages (there are various stages even within this middle period) that we create families, fortune, and fame, and the challenges of creating drives us and keeps us at a peak operating efficiency due primarily because we are young enough to be healthy and physically able to handle the tasks of 24-hour parenting, planning, and producing.
Coupled with this drive to create is a certain feeling of indestructibility. Although an incomprehension of our mortality is evident from the early days of youth, the compelling evidence which we observe on a regular basis…deaths and illnesses of friends and loved ones combined with life-changing accidents and events, has little impact on our personal conviction that “none of these things will ever happen to me,” or “this thing may happen to me, but it will be sometime far into the future.” This personal concept of indestructibility can sometimes work toward a positive outcome and is why younger generations are usually more willing risk takers. It is the reason they don’t hesitate to attempt to beat the odds in physical activities, business, or personal relations no matter how stacked against them the odds may be.
Inevitably…and in the passages of life the word “inevitably” is sprinkled throughout the entire life process, once we have survived our years of maximum production and activity, the period of deactivation begins. It is during this period that working overtime no longer has great appeal regardless of the extra pay, and, where an uneventful evening was once considered lost time, a quiet evening at home is now highly anticipated. The children have long since left the nest, and now there are grandchildren visiting. The grandchildren are loved dearly, and when they visit it is an exciting, joyous time, but once children and grandchildren have said goodbye and gone back to their home, we heave a big sigh of relief and collapse on the sofa.
The most anticipated event of this period of life passage, however, is probably retirement from full time work. Having worked fifty or more years on the average and hopefully been fortunate enough to have a retirement plan, the freedom from a full time work obligation creates endless opportunities for activities which have been put on the back burner for years due to work restraints. Travel, recreation, hobbies, and various other enjoyable activities are now within reach, and the anticipation of this “free time” is what motivates many experienced workers as they see their retirement day approaching.
One of the beauties of retirement is the clock ceases to be your master. No longer burdened with the time requirements of employment, use of the clock’s alarm pleasantly diminishes. Leisurely breakfasts can be enjoyed at will, and each day becomes a blank schedule which can be filled in at the whim of the retiree. Want to be busy? Fill in the schedule. Want to lay low? Keep it blank. It is a lifestyle almost incomprehensible to the middle passage person with a full schedule of parenting, working, and managing a home. Mention retirement to a middle passage person and that same glazed-eye look appears on his/her face as when we try to talk to children about finding jobs when they grow up.
At the same time, the challenge of parenting, working, and managing a home, though we wistfully look forward to the day when these obligations are passed, satisfies for the middle passage person a critical requirement…a fulfillment of dependency. The drive for success during the middle passages is fueled by the knowledge that others are dependent upon our productivity. Parents are driven to provide for their children. An employee’s production affects the success of his manager, and a manager affects the working environment of his/her employees. In short, we want someone to need us. We strive to be good parents, employees, or managers because we would like to think that someone needs us to do well.
Retirement, with all its free time, takes away this fulfillment. Since we are no longer productive members of the workforce, there are no employees anxiously awaiting our management decisions. There are no bosses anywhere impatiently waiting for us to show up so the big problem of the day can be solved. Even at home, there are no lunches to prepare for workers or students. We can leave our schedules open for the day because no one needs us. That perception can extend to family. With children now grown and faced with fighting their own parenting wars with our grandchildren, we feel that, though we may be concerned observers, we are not required as our children carve out their own destinies.
The result of this perceived lack of need can be a nagging depression, especially if the perception of uselessness is within the home. Faced with a lack of obligations, retirees can easily retreat within themselves to the point that though a husband and wife have fought the parenting and working wars for years together, once the battles have been survived, each one enters a personal cocoon replete with his/her own personal activities, preferences, and interests. Seldom sharing moments of common interest, they intensify the isolation to the point that in time they become strangers sharing only a roof over their heads.
In most cases, of course, this perceived lack of need is just that…a perception. Husbands and wives still love, children and grandchildren still love, and friends are still friends. Psychologists however, will attest that many of our thoughts and actions are based on perceptions and not actual facts. With that in mind, retirees must initiate active attempts to deflect any signs of depression encountered upon retirement by any member of the household. During the middle passage years, there is a feeling of camaraderie while a couple works together to raise a family and provide for its general welfare, but upon entering the later passages when retirement has come and the children have gone, that feeling of working together for a common cause can vanish. The truth is, that feeling needs to morph into a realization that close personal support and companionship are needed more than ever. Their personal bonds of love and need, cultivated years before during courtship and enriched during a life of sharing, need to be strengthened, not weakened.
I penned the following poem the year I turned sixty years old. Although it was written pre-retirement, the gist of the message still applies today.
Nothing Rhymes with Sixty
Nothing rhymes with sixty as one turns the annual page.
Nothing rhymes with sixty. It’s an awkward, frustrating age!
Too young to be old; too old to be young,
Concerned that your song has already been sung.
The memories of the past grow stronger, yet fade,
While the future once dreamed seems fainter in life’s shade.
Helpless and hapless, trapped in time’s ceaseless tide,
Then saved from the gloom by, “Hey Papaw! Come outside!”
The message becomes clear; it’s not the future or past
But the present is where our legacy is cast.
Children and grandchildren, the love of a wife,
The closeness of a family…therein lies life.
With His hand to guide us as we travel along
Everything rhymes with sixty…if you play the right song.