“…we believe a full life is one that gets richer with age … rediscovering lost passions and plunging headfirst into new ones … embracing new experiences … bringing joy and meaning to every moment.” This is a shortened version of the text on the website of Ryman Healthcare. Is it realistic to expect old age, whether or not in a Ryman retirement village, to be so idyllic? Or is it more likely to be dominated by adversities such as loss of health and vitality both mental and physical, lack of occupation, reduced income, bereavement, loss of status, social isolation, and the prospect of death whether feared or welcomed? I expect it depends a lot on individual attitude.
Quite a number of my own contemporaries have died before reaching old age, having for no apparent reason developed some fatal disease, usually cancer. Others are still alive and during my recent holiday in England I had the pleasure of renewing friendships with some of those I have known for a long time – from high school, medical school, or hospital jobs in Southampton and Oxford. Since coming back home I have also met up with my New Zealand friends. Our conversations often touched on the question of how to adjust to retirement.
Almost all of us, in our 70s or 80s, have the good fortune to be living in comfortable circumstances with reasonably good health, family connections and ample money, allowing plenty of choice about how to spend our free time after leaving paid employment. My friends described a wide range of activities including charity work, looking after grandchildren or animals, gardening, travel, socialising, entertainments, reading, writing, cooking, painting, crafts, sports, fitness classes, music, academic study, spiritual practice.
Everyone seemed fairly content, especially those who were pursuing some compelling interest, or simply enjoying the freedom to relax and do just what they liked. Others, more introspective, found their lifestyle pleasant enough but questioned whether they were making the best use of whatever time might remain. Some were missing former jobs which had involved contributing to society and being recognised for it. They had not been able to find a type of voluntary work which made full use of their abilities and experience.
One woman who is highly artistic stated that the most vital thing was to express creativity, if only for oneself. I agreed that creativity is very important but felt that the resulting products should be shared with others. There is an example of these differing views at home, where my husband and I both spend a lot of time writing. He does it primarily for his own satisfaction and does not care much whether anyone else ever sees it. In contrast, I like to publish my work in the hope that some readers will benefit from my medical books or enjoy my novels – while trying not to be too flattered by good reviews or too upset by bad ones, for the Stoic philosophers advised against seeking appreciation. They said that the best way to live – at any age – is by striving to be a good person, and focusing only on things you control.