Dr. Amy Case Study: Expecting more out of your retirement

After over thirty years of working with older adults, I have found that as people age, they often have a belief that their lives can’t be as fun, or easy, or fulfilling as they once were. Changes in their health or mobility may reinforce that belief. Yet, frequently it isn’t the health or mobility changes that keep people from living a rich and full life. Instead, it is often a strongly-held idea about where and how they are going to live as they age that keeps them from adapting their living situation to the different seasons of their life.

I saw this happen with Ryan* and Betsy*. When I first met them, they were in their early 70’s and just beginning to experience notable health challenges. They were living in the home they had been in for almost forty years; the one they had raised their children in and planned to live in forever. It was a lovely home, but like many homes, needed a fair amount of upkeep. At the time I met Ryan and Betsy, they were still managing their lives and their home well. But I could see that over time this might not be as easy. Ryan has had type 1 diabetes since he was young, and the impacts were starting to become more notable. There were vision changes, and cardiac issues that weren’t yet serious, but that he knew would worsen over time. Betsy had osteoporosis and was just starting to have some mobility limitations.

Betsy and Ryan were very active in their church community and had a rich social life. Ryan was still working part time because he enjoyed it. But over the next decade, the changes began to mount. They were often too tired from managing day-to-day household tasks to go out with friends or participate in activities at their church. Slowly their world got smaller and smaller. And Ryan and Betsy accepted this as the natural course of things.

Now In their early 80’s, Ryan and Betsy finally decided the time had come to move into a retirement residence. They were very reluctant to leave their home, believing they would stay in their house forever.

I decided to have coffee with Ryan and Betsy about six months after they moved into the retirement residence, and boy was I was shocked. They looked younger and more vibrant than I had seen them in years. When I asked them how they were settling in, and what they were doing to look so good, Ryan told me that the move they had dreaded and delayed ended up changing their lives for the better. Freed up from cooking, cleaning, shopping, and household maintenance left them with time and energy to spend on the things they wanted to be doing. They had reconnected with old friends and were meeting them for coffee and dinner, and were much more active in their church again. Ryan was also back doing a little writing for a professional publication, something he had stopped a few years ago because he didn’t have enough energy. They had also started participating in activities at the retirement residence and were making new friends.

During our conversation, they told me they did have a regret: they regretted that they hadn’t made this move a decade earlier, before their health had begun to decline. Even though they were fully enjoying life now, they realized the last few years could have been much easier and more stress-free if they could have let go of the idea that there were supposed to stay in their home forever.

I have heard this comment countless times during my career working with older people and their families. People often tell me they wished they had moved forward much sooner than they had. When my own parents moved into a retirement residence, something my dad resisted for several years, almost six months to the day after they moved he also told me that he wished they had done it years earlier.

When the seasons change we adapt our clothing; usually without resistance. Imagine wearing a winter coat in July and complaining about how miserable you are. Then imagine shedding that coat and realizing that the weather is beautiful and you can fully enjoy it. You turn your face to the sun, breathe deeply and smile. Now imagine that we adapt the same way to the seasons of our life. Instead of hanging on to homes and possessions that begin to own us because they no longer serve us, we move forward into new living environments that support the stage of life we are at now. This, too, is a bit like shedding that winter coat and turning our face to the sun and breathing deeply. Freed up from what no longer serves us, now we are ready for our next adventures. Are you ready for your next adventures?

*Names have been changed to maintain privacy.

Dr AmyAbout Dr. Amy D’Aprix

Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.