Next Chapter(s)

NEXT CHAPTER QUESTIONS at any age are potent, and they deserve attention .  Perhaps you are 40 and thinking about what’s next careerwise.  At 50 and 60, you will hear whispers of your mortality and  find the issues of retirement, non-retirement, or illness, looming for yourself, friends, or parents. For example…

  • What’s actually next for me?
  • What’s my passion and how can I do more of what I love?
  • How will I keep myself busy, happy, healthy, and solvent?
  • How will I be of support to parents who may need care taking?

The  period from 50 – 75, has been labeled as a “third chapter” in a book of that title by Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.  Other academics name or date the stages differently.  No matter. This unanticipated gift of longevity has prompted a new field of study and is receiving and deserving much attention. At whatever age, questions will come for you and you won’t be able to ignore them.  You will have lived more years than you have left to live, and decisions are in order.

While you are likely still active, the notion of “retirement” is dissolving, and you need something different to do for the next 20+ years that gives you meaning and purpose. We don’t particularly relish a “retirement” of TV, golf, or lazing around, nor can we afford it for the next 35 years.  We still have the energy with which to reinvent ourselves, as workers or volunteers,  and to share our gifts and talents in  new ways.  These are our “bonus” years, or “encore” years, or the years of, as Catherine Bateson suggests, a “second adulthood.”  They exist for our pleasure and for continuing work that is meaningful to us, and which meets our financial needs.

As I age, I find myself in what might be a “fourth chapter”.  I’m aware I will die someday, and no longer grace the planet with my presence.  I’m beginning to encounter (hopefully consciously) the challenges and lessons of later life:  Awareness of increased vulnerability, the need to soften an intense insistence on independence, and the grief with our inevitable losses.  This next chapter brings along its own set of questions and challenges.

  • What does acceptance of my mortality mean for the way I now want to live the rest of my life?
  • What are the challenges I can now anticipate in my life?
  • What is it that I need to talk about with myself, parents, children, partners and allies in order to face those challenges?
  • What do I do now that I’m aware I’m not able to be so independent?

These post-70 years don’t yet have an agreed upon name among the sociologists or academics.  For me, they represent a new phase of adult development, a kind of deeper aging, and along with it growth, wisdom and an opportunity for conscious eldering.

As I look back, I was precisely 74 when it hit me.  For the first time, I started viewing my life forward as one of living out my “remaining days.”  With that sharp new awareness, came a new set of questions to tackle:

  • What most matters to me at this point in time?
  • How will I live well (purposefully, meaningfully, joyfully) with what I’ve got?
  • How will I prepare to die well?

If we haven’t addressed them before, we now need to give attention to life’s practical realities and legalities.  Given that some of us will be alone and forgetful at some point, let’s start preparing! Given that we have no guarantee about how long we will live, let’s do the best we can to complete our lives while we’re capable!

There’s the practical: Get to our doctors with our Advance Directives in case of a serious accident or illness. Appoint a health care agent (proxy) in case we can’t speak for ourselves. Engage an elder lawyer and establish our power of attorney, and  create a will. If these practical issues are not given attention, our default legacy could be miserable and messy for those left behind.

And extremely important are the agreements to be made in sooner than later frequent family conversations:

  • What about living arrangements as I age? Especially if I am a solo ager?
  • How do I assess my likely emotional and physical needs? And plan to accommodate them?
  • How do I grieve the losses that have started accumulating in my life?

And let’s not forget some of the larger issues that ground quality of life.

  • How can I live my “remaining days” in a way that fulfills who I really am?
  •  What’s most calling to me?
  • What constitutes a good death? And how can I have one?
  •  How would I prefer to be remembered? And, what legacy would I like to leave behind?

All of the many questions associated with the journey towards the end of life take time and reflection and certainly more than one chat.  Conversation groups are key.  As there is no one path for everyone, we create our own unique path by engaging with these questions with equally committed others.  In the goal to find the answers that will work for us, everyone teaches, and everyone learns.

More and more you will find these kinds of conversations and support groups variously offered at churches, libraries, senior centers and the community colleges.  Look around.

Who knows what will be next?  Possibly a “fifth chapter”  (80’s and 90’s) of active and enlightened dying and a death with dignity?   Keep yourself tuned in during all your upcoming todays. These conversations and contemplations are difficult AND necessary.