Have you noticed that as you grow older, nobody asks what you want ‘to be’? People stop asking questions about what’s next in your life. Is there an assumption that who you are at 60 or 70 or 80 is who you want to be for the rest of your life? Do we stop learning and becoming better? Have the final steps of growth and change occurred?
At retirement events, people are often asked about future plans. Will there be travel, new hobbies, a consulting career, or another job? Interestingly, most people never get asked what they want to BE in retirement or in old age. With retirement lasting 30 years or longer, shouldn’t we set a purposeful agenda for this critical time of life? Shouldn’t we plan what we want ‘to be’ when we grow old as carefully as we planned our careers or our lifestyle when we were younger? After all, nobody wants to waste the precious time that is left by drifting along.
‘To be’ vs ‘To do’?
Proper English usage says that ‘to be’ refers to a state of being while ‘to do’ refers to taking action. Does ‘being’ involve stopping all action and doing nothing? After a lifetime of getting on with things and getting things done, many of us find it difficult to figure out how ‘to be’.
If asked what you want ‘to be’ when you grow old, older adults typically give answers that relate to good health, mental alertness, and financial security. Sometimes answers include having fun! But, surely there is more to growing old than health, wealth, the pursuit of experiences, and thinking capacity. Perhaps, as we age, it’s time to define success in learning how ‘to be’ as carefully as we defined success in doing things while working.
Distinguishing what you want ‘to be’ from what you want ‘to do’ is difficult. But this is an important consideration. How have you integrated the successes, failures, traumas, relationships, and goals of a lifetime? Have you used these experiences to serve yourself and to serve others in a meaningful way? Are you living the way you want to live? It’s tempting to fall back to the bucket list of crazy things to experience, or travel destinations to visit, or goals to achieve. Getting into the ‘doing’ frame of mind is easier than staying focused on ‘being’. It takes courage, soul-searching, and a deep understanding of how you have become the person you are now.
Gains and Losses
Deciding who you will be as you grow old might involve assessing the inevitable gains and losses of the ageing experience. How have you dealt with the challenges and losses of growing older? How have you dealt with adversity? ill-health? loneliness? death of loved ones? financial setbacks? How have you managed success?
Living through painful situations takes great emotional strength. The burden of deteriorating health when facing an incurable disease, lower stamina, and potential loss of independence due to the inability to perform basic tasks doesn’t leave much energy to worry about what you want to be when you grow old. Social isolation and loneliness can result in depression. A positive attitude helps to overcome chronic health conditions and personal losses. With enough time and a strong economy, financial losses might be recovered. Social support from neighbours and friends helps to overcome loneliness. Regaining stability and purpose is possible after well-being is jeopardized by failure.
What about the successes of growing older? You care little about what other people think or, at least, you care less. The wisdom of a lifetime of experiences is available when faced with decisions and choices. There’s a richer context to time and place. Birthdays, anniversaries, and special holidays are precious with the awareness that these events may not come again. There’s much that an older person can bring to the party including an attitude of fun, an enthusiasm about daily events, and the excitement of new discoveries.
Manifesto on how ‘to be’ when growing old
At 73, I find myself wondering about how ‘to be’ when I grow old. While I imagine that life will go on forever, my logical brain reminds me to seek every adventure while I can. I try hard to maintain a realistic, mellow, and non-judgemental approach. When researching material for this post, I’ve distilled various pieces of advice — some from young writers, and some from older people — into a few rules to guide this phase of my life’s journey.
Stay flexible and ready to try new things. It’s unnecessary to choose one thing or one way to be. Options and choices are a strength. If there is a choice ‘to do’ something, it’s not necessary to achieve mastery or even to be good at it (unless you want to do so). You can just have fun trying things of interest when you don’t have to make a living proving your skills.
Do things that make you happy. You no longer need a socially acceptable job title or a job. I have a friend who spends hours and hours watching movies. He never had time for movies when raising a family of six and pursuing a busy career to pay the bills. Movies make him happy in retirement and he makes no apology for being enthralled with the screen.
Re-define and re-evaluate. People change over time. After some years of pursuing a certain path in retirement, boredom may signal that it’s time to re-evaluate or take a break. Changing wants and needs mean re-defining your retirement journey just as you changed jobs or career directions during work years. Re-evaluation may cause you to quit doing things. A few years ago, I resigned from all the volunteer boards that I chose when I retired. I realized that long meetings were dragging me down and making me feel like I was at work again!
Keep unscheduled time. Being a productive member of society doesn’t mean working. Unscheduled time helps you enjoy retirement. It also provides time to explore thoughts, consider new ideas, and to make sense of life.
Stay tough, yet tender-hearted with yourself. Your choices of how ‘to be’ may differ from the choices others make and that’s okay. Ageing isn’t easy but it’s inevitable. Accepting limitations while remaining hopeful will help in creating a positive vision for how ‘to be’ as you grow older.
Michelle Obama, in the epilogue of her recent best-selling book, Becoming, writes “……….becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self.”
This quotation encourages aspiration. It affirms that we never stop becoming who we want to be. It’s never too late to ask the difficult question of how ‘to be’. The answers will point in the direction of what truly gives happiness.
By the way, what do you want ‘to be’ when you grow up/grow old?
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