My husband’s eldest brother died this week. It did not come as a complete surprise, given his hermit-like existence. We often wondered how he sustained himself. We knew he had Canadian health insurance provided, and probably some kind of social assistance to allow him to eat. But his appearance at rare family occasions always looked like he was barely surviving. He hadn’t worked in twenty-five years. It’s not that he retired. He just stopped trying. He unplugged from society. His mousy grey hair sprouted from all sides, with a balding spot widening with each year. His beard was a similar color and crept down his shirt. His skin was a pasty pallor. He rolled his own cigarettes. We’re not sure where he lived or whether he had showering facilities. He often filled the room with a putrid odor, causing us to believe a shower was either a luxury or something he didn’t think was important. We had heard at one point that he was living in the corner of a warehouse with only a bed and a sink with cold water. We suspected he had some sort of autism that remained undiagnosed.
Most of us view retirement as a respite from the commute and the stress of a day filled with activities. If we love our jobs, it becomes difficult to imagine life without work. It is a time to let go and look forward to new explorations… to learn something new, spend time with family and friends. Rather than unplugging from society, most of us get more involved. What brings meaning to this new chapter? It requires we still have a purpose, a reason to wake up in the morning and feel productive. For many of us, thinking about what shape this will take does not enter our consciousness until we are faced with it. Thinking about the next phase of our life is also facing mortality, not a pleasant thought. We avoid it and therefore avoid thinking about how we will spend our time.
Then the day comes, whether forced upon us or planned. It’s like standing at a precipice and looking across a wide chasm, trying to figure out how to get to the other side. Jump? Take a parachute? Hire a plane? And what is on the other side? Do we have a vision or are we just jumping into it with our eyes closed screaming at the top of our lungs in either celebration or utter fear of the unknown?
Successful retirement is not retirement at all. It is a time to relax but stay busy. For some, it’s a time to focus on one’s self with more doctor appointments. For others, its getting more involved with healthy living, taking up running, Pickleball or Pilates. Or it may include volunteer work to give back to the world from our experience and knowledge, travel, or taking a course. Often, introverts become more extroverted, while extroverts take on a pensive, quieter existence. We all strive to explore the unexplored, to bring balance to our lives. To do what we never had time to do before. We lift our faces to the sun and take in the world with a new perspective.
For my husband’s brother, we’re not sure he found a way to celebrate his existence or give back. He just lived day to day. What motivated him to get up every morning? Did he see the sun and rejoice? His last two weeks were in the hospital without visitors. The staff did not know if he had any relatives. They finally found his three daughters who were unaware that he was in the hospital. Very sad.
If we all think of retirement as a time to ensure we make the world a little better than it was before, we’ll wake up with a purpose that will be motivating and exciting. Otherwise, we will just exist and then disappear without any impact, like dust in the wind.