Having a sense of purpose is never more important than when you’ve retired
By Wendy Haaf
Before leaving her teaching career, Allison O’Connor of London, ON, knew that her love of music would play a part in her life post-retirement, but she didn’t foresee just how big that role would be.
The mother of an adopted son with intellectual disabilities and a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), O’Connor had played in bands and sung in choirs for many years, and she fervently wished she could somehow relay to her son Cameron, then 19, the wonderful feeling that always enveloped her while performing in front of an audience. However, for him, the music programs and classes they tried had the opposite effect, making him feel anxious and causing him to withdraw even further. “He was unable to articulate how he was feeling and struggled with trusting people,” O’Connor recalls. And while Cameron had a few friends at school, he had difficulty making new ones. One day while walking her dog, O’Connor was talking with her sister, wishing aloud for a music program where Cameron could thrive as he had in the Special Olympics. “She said, ‘Why don’t you start it?’” O’Connor says.
Today, two years later, Dreams Come True Music Studio, a musical theatre group, has grown to include people with a wide range of ages and abilities. “We focus on what we can do,” O’Connor explains. For instance, during COVID-19 self-distancing, they learned to sign the lyrics to a song from The Greatest Showman via Zoom. If a participant requires a support person, that person becomes part of the production. The theatre group even has a four-legged cast member: one musician’s service dog.
The looks on participants’ faces during a performance alone are reward enough for O’Connor. “The musicians just give it their all,” she says. “Cameron is out there belting it, totally off-key, and it’s beautiful.” Best of all, “Cameron now has friends, so they can text and set up video chats. He just thrives being with them. He feels so safe and successful with these people.” In fact, the young man who not so long ago didn’t want anyone to know he lives with FASD now has no problem sharing that fact. “He always says, ‘Tell everyone I’m the reason you started it!’” O’Connor says. “He’s so proud.”
Having a sense of purpose is never more important than when your days are no longer circumscribed by work. Apart from the obvious benefits on psychological and emotional well-being, research shows “that if you have purpose when you get up in the morning or meaning in your life as an older person, your life can be extended by as long as seven years,” says Helen Hirsh Spence, the founder and CEO of the for-profit social enterprise Top Sixty Over Sixty. Loneliness and isolation, on the other hand, have detrimental effects on health and longevity roughly equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
However, while some people may have a dream project or role lined up before leaving the workforce, that’s not true of everyone.
“Most of us have come from a world of very externally driven goals—that’s why we’re successful, that’s why we still have a roof over our heads,” notes Lyndsay Green, a sociologist and researcher, and the author of The Well-Lived Life: Live With Purpose and Be Remembered (HarperCollins Canada, 2019). Consequently, when you have a chance to step back and ask yourself what really matters to you and your loved ones and how you can make meaningful use of your new-found free time, “it’s like a muscle you haven’t used,” Green says. What’s more, some of the standard advice on how to go about doing so—such as “Think back to what you loved as a child”—can be less than helpful. “People will say, ‘I loved playing baseball and skipping. Where does that take me?’” Green says.
So what can you do?
Don’t feel pressured
First, if you’ll be retiring soon or you’re newly retired, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to have plans to launch a passion project. Underneath the notion of rediscovering your passion and purpose in retirement, “there’s a kind of assumption that puts pressure on people that they need to keep growing and keep being productive, and that no matter how old we get, we always have to look and act like we’re middle-aged,” says Deborah K. van den Hoonaard, a professor emeritus and researcher at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB, and the social-science editor of Canadian Journal on Aging. “I think part of having a retirement that’s satisfying is to let some of those pressures go.
“A researcher here interviewed baby-boomer women who were anticipating retirement and an amazing number of them said, ‘I’m not going to volunteer,’” van den Hoonaard observes. “I think a lot of women are tired when they retire, so I do think they need to be generous with themselves and realize they might need some time to just decompress.” A rest might also allow you the space to figure out what you’d like to do next or to dip a toe into different pursuits until you find one that makes you want to dive in. Being too busy, van den Hoonaard says, can interfere with finding out what’s most meaningful to you and where you might want to channel your time and energy.
Consider part-time work
Even a shift to part-time work, whether with an employer or as a consultant or entrepreneur, could give you enough freedom to explore other possible paths. For example, when Eunice Stepak realized as she neared retirement age that, lacking a private pension, she wasn’t going to be able to do the things she wanted to in retirement, the Torontonian quit her job as a law clerk and set up her own business doing similar work for small firms with too few staff. “It’s more interesting to be able to work part-time,” she says. Now 83, having given up her last client five or six years ago, she’s been able to combine her loves of travel and of art by visiting galleries large and small in half a dozen different countries.
Stepak’s path isn’t uncommon. According to a 2018 labour force report, nearly 38 per cent of the working population is 55 or older, and between 1995 and 2015, the proportion of working Canadians aged 65 or older nearly doubled, to 20 per cent, with most of the increase coming from part-time work.
“Today, the average life span is the early-to-mid-80s,” says Top Sixty Over Sixty’s Hirsh Spence. At the same time, thanks to our economy, retirees may be more likely than those in previous generations to be lending a financial hand to adult kids. Consequently, people without a formal pension in particular may not have “enough retirement savings to keep themselves in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed,” Hirsh Spence adds. “Therefore, they have to work.”
This is just one of the reasons Hirsh Spence believes “retirement is an outdated notion.” In fact, she founded her company “to bring attention to the fact that older adults have the potential to contribute productively and meaningfully to society.”
Check your inner ageism
Our culture is so steeped in negative stereotypes about aging that we may not even recognize when beliefs that we’ve unconsciously absorbed may be narrowing our view of what we can achieve.
That was one of the things Hirsh Spence found while doing a 2018 research study (with support from the Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation) that probed how unconscious, internalized bias against aging was hampering the ability of participants aged 55 to 75 to find work or pursue other goals.
“If you’ve ever looked at somebody and thought what they were wearing or their hairstyle was not age-appropriate, you’re guilty of unconscious bias,” Hirsh Spence says. Her enterprise has developed a program, soon to be available to the public online, aimed at helping “people rediscover purpose and passion in determining what to do with the next couple of decades,” she says. Top Sixty Over Sixty has also held gatherings and other events to allow people to take a one-evening workshop covering a single component of the course, as opposed to a series of classes.
Eunice Stepak, for one, didn’t let age deter her from turning a wish into reality. “I’m not a wannabe artist or a wish-I-was artist; I like looking at art and thinking about art,” she says. Consequently, she had always envied a cousin in the United Kingdom who belonged to a group centred on doing exactly that. “They went to stately homes and looked at art and had all these amazing people who came and did study groups on art. And there was nothing like that, that I was aware of, in Canada.”
So a few years ago, when Stepak learned that the same art society wanted to expand its reach, she helped found what she believes is its first North American chapter, The Arts Society of Greater Toronto. Decades older than other committee members, she’s had her eyes opened to art forms that were entirely new to her. “It’s really expanding my knowledge,” she says. Sharing an interest with younger people has also removed the cloak of invisibility that society casts over older people, particularly women. “When you get older, you can be overlooked and ignored,” Stepak says, “and I know from meeting a lot of seniors that they feel that way. My passion helps me connect with younger people. If you’re sharing an interest, you’re not invisible anymore.”
Stepak’s advice to others? If there’s something you want to do, don’t let age hold you back. “Maybe it can’t be in as large a form as you dreamt when you were 25,” she says, “but you can make it happen.”
Look for those left out
Finding ways to give back to the community or to share knowledge and skills with younger people can be very rewarding. “There is nothing more meaningful than to be of service,” van den Hoonaard says. “And there are all kinds of ways to be of service.”
One way that often slips under the radar is to look for people who seem to be alone and invite them into your network. “In our society, everything’s on the individual—you have to put yourself out there, it’s up to you,” she says. But “not everybody can do that. I think one way women could find their passion is by noticing people who seem to be on the margins and including them. People who are in groups often don’t notice that there are people who are not.”
For example, a widow van den Hoonaard spoke with recently was deeply touched when a group that invited her to sit with them at Theatre New Brunswick later asked her if she wanted to subscribe with them the following season.
Tackle a practical project
Lyndsay Green says that when she talks to people about thinking through what’s important to them, “people say, ‘I’ve been a person of action and I’m not going to sit and navel-gaze now.’” However, in her experience, a few types of practical projects can “ease people into it and let them be introspective without being idle.”
Writing a family history to ensure that your stories don’t die with you is one such task. And it’s a great gift to the grandkids, since research has shown “that the more children know about a family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their life, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believe their family functions,” Green says. “This is true even if your family had a lot of skeletons.”
Another riff on the same theme is using one of your skills or talents to create something concrete for your loved ones. One of Green’s late aunts who loved to cook, for instance, put together a book of her favourite recipes. “We would never have her onion cheese bread without thinking of Aunt Jean and talking about her,” Green says.
In writing The Well-Lived Life, Green also discovered that for many people, an object passed down to them held special meaning. She suggests going through your possessions and documenting them—for instance, where you bought that souvenir and what it cost, or what your great-auntie’s surviving descendants can tell you about that special plate she brought back from her honeymoon.
Who looks up to you, and do you have something they might appreciate receiving one day? Green tells the story of a musician who was doubly devastated when he wasn’t given the opportunity to even bid on one of the guitars in the collection of a much-admired uncle after the older man’s death.
“Something we can do as part of our purpose is to try to see how we can ease the lives of the generations that follow us,” says Green, “and have them understand more of the richness and wealth of their own legacy.”