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For months I have been having a recurring dream. I am back at one of my former jobs – sometimes as a returning employee, other times as a visitor – and as I look around for familiar faces, I don’t recognize anyone. The workplace itself is different too – more modern, sleeker – and I realize that all my experience is hopelessly obsolete. Two emotions wash over me in alternating waves: first, anxiety that my incompetence will be discovered, followed by relief that I am not really working there anymore so my secret is safe.

I don’t have a degree in dream interpretation, but the meaning of this dream lies right on the surface. It’s about the ambivalence I feel in my waking world: on the one hand, joy at being free from all the workplaces of the past, and on the other, a desperate fear that in Retirement I have become irrelevant.

I love Retirement, but I am not ready to fade away.

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“When a person retires, does she still exist?” asks writer Brenda Mahler. who noted that society labels people according to their work and their accomplishments. “Apparently,” she writes, “my existence is now defined by what I am not anymore.” Carl Landau calls his podcast “I Used to be Somebody,” although the title is meant to be ironic – Carl interviews people who have launched second or third careers after Retirement.

While I may be the only one with this particular dream, I’m certainly not the only retired person resisting his own obsolescence. My mind happens to be blessed with more than its share of ambivalence. I’m delighted to have gotten off the train, yet fearful that the train will roll on and I will be a dusty antiquity – out of sight, out of mind.

From External to Internal

The annals of social science research include many studies suggesting this problem is worse for men than women. “Men are encouraged, and probably to some extent are genetically engineered, to focus on external performance,” writes Josh Gressel, a clinical psychologist. They are not, however, encouraged to explore their internal makeup, and when the focus on career and achievement comes to a halt, men find it difficult to shift attention from externals to such internal concerns as finding a purpose or pinpointing what makes them happy.

What is true equally for men and women, however, is that aging forces us out of familiar roles and into new ones. For decades, we spend our energies in the roles of an employee, a spouse, or a parent, and these identities gave our lives meaning. “When we lose those roles,” says Baylor University associate professor of sociology Markus Schafer, “there can be quite a hole, leaving us to wonder where our significance is now.”

Schafer says it is important to remember that our worth does not change just because our roles do. What older adults must do is find new roles that enable us to be relevant to our communities and our families. Teacher, mentor, and grandparent come immediately to mind.

Tips for Relevancy

Alan Heeks, who wrote a book titled, appropriately, Not Fade Away, suggests seven tips to help older adults make fresh choices and learn new skills:

1.      Maintain a positive outlook – happiness is a choice that we must make continually, and it includes believing the positives about ourselves.

2.      Embrace your fears – instead of battling them ferociously, invite them to tea, have a dialogue, and try to reach an understanding.

3.      Create cheerful daily habits – get outdoors in nature often, bring humor into your daily life, and express gratitude for what’s good in your life.

4.      Treat problems as adventures – choose to believe that every problem contains an upside, if you can find it.

5.      Explore elderhood – connect to the wisdom you’ve acquired through living, and in the wisdom of our ancestors.

6.      Be more conscious of your values – choose deliberately to live by them.

7.      Cultivate your people skills – at any age, it’s valuable to hone your abilities to express, hear, and work with feelings.

To which I can add a few more ideas that other writers and psychologists suggest:

  • Remember, it’s never too late.

  • Find something you love and do it.

  • Continue to learn.

  • Stay flexible.

  • Share your knowledge and wisdom.

  • Socialize.

  • Get a good night’s sleep.

    If you, like me, worry about fading into irrelevance, may I suggest the cheerful daily habit of affixing these tips to your bathroom mirror?

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Don Akchin Publisher/Podcaster at The EndGame

Don Akchin is a recovering journalist who publishes a weekly newsletter and biweekly podcast called The EndGame, which encourages "chronologically gifted" baby boomers to live their later years with joy and purpose. In his former life he wrote for magazines, newspapers, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations.