Our society glorifies youth. The collective aversion to gray hair, wrinkles, and aging bodies has been a growth industry for hair dye, plastic surgery, Botox, and extreme diets and exercise regimens. These are just a few of the shadows cast by the cultural pursuit of everlasting youth. One can also see our society’s love affair with the young adult’s agile mind and body in both traditional media and social media. And, hey, let’s be honest! There are indeed wonderful aspects of this life stage that should be celebrated and enjoyed. But what are the implications for those of us who are fortunate enough to live beyond midlife? Is this really a time to hang up one’s hat or is this a time that summons people to a different perspective, newfound potential and way of being in the world?
Different Strokes for Different Folks
While young adulthood is traditionally associated with finding a life partner, creating a family, and building a career, the “second half of life” has a different calling. With an ever-increasing lifespan, it becomes essential that we appreciate the gifts that the mature soul has and to capitalize on this self-understanding. We would not live to old age if longevity had no meaning for our species. So how, exactly, does one go about finding meaning in later life and not succumbing to the undertow of ageism? While this is an enormous topic, I would like to share here two potential ways to start the process of creating a meaningful and purposeful later life.
Tapping into Unused Potential
The idea that we are stuck with whatever path we chose when we were young adults is a suffocating perspective. As full human beings, we all have pockets of interest and ability that never were realized due to the constraints of growing up and being responsible. Later life is a rich time to seek out this unlived potential and develop these other aspects of ourselves. Maybe it is a time to awaken and find our inner artist or inner musician. Or perhaps it is a time to learn how to garden or scuba dive. The opportunities are endless, but fear often holds us back. It is as if we have been developing only one part of our mind, brain or soul and the ignored parts have atrophied and become weak. The vitality created by plunging into something new and allowing ourselves to explore and play can awaken our senses and help revitalize our energy and gusto for life.
Another source of deep satisfaction is the act of older adults sharing what they have learned and developed with younger adults. The act of giving back to younger individuals and society as a whole can create the experience of purpose, meaning and direction for an older adult. After all, older adults have spent a lifetime cultivating and developing themselves and are in a unique position to share what they have learned through living, working, raising children and being in the world. Younger adults, in turn, have much to gain from this mentoring relationship. For younger adults, it is a second chance to have a “parent” who is deeply interested in their development and progression through life. When the match is right, it is a win-win situation for both generations. The older adult experiences a sense of generativity and the younger one benefits from the mentor’s expertise and caring in a way that could guide and enrich his journey.
“You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:21)
The task of expanding our vision of the post-midlife years and re-conceptualizing the newfound space created by longer lifespans has import for all of society. While the task is immense, it must begin somewhere. Stay tuned for more tips and suggestions as we explore this new terrain together.