Whether you think of your retirement as a permanent vacation or as a major source of stress, there is one element that will make it better, absolutely guaranteed: connections to other people. And the stronger those connections are, the better your whole retirement experience will be.
I didn’t always believe this. I used to believe that when my husband dies, I will lose all interest in the world and just become a hermit. I had visions of taking up gardening in my backyard, well away from other people, using my husband’s ashes to help my orchids bloom (I have always hated gardening). I had other visions of joining a secluded convent, walking silently through narrow and dark corridors, with no communication except a nod to another sister to ask for the salt at mealtimes. Well, maybe some sacred singing – my model was Diana Rigg as Sister Philippa in In This House of Brede.
But these and similar people-less choices, while perhaps bringing some solace in the short term, would very likely shorten my own life. Maybe that was my unconscious intent, but I realize now that I’m older, for a variety of reasons, I am probably going to live some years beyond my husband and I want those years to be as fruitful as possible. Life is a precious and irreplaceable gift and I believe we need to honor that for as long as we can.
Study after study on aging Americans shows that being in contact with other people, having meaningful and significant relationships, and participating in social activities will strengthen and prolong your life. Isolating yourself, cutting yourself off from others, especially emotionally, will very likely shorten it. Why? There are many reasons, but the primary one is that having good relationships makes us happy and improves our mental health, and that helps us live longer.
This is not about making yourself so busy that you don’t have time to think about your situation. It’s also not about numbers. Immersing yourself in meetings or classes with lots other people you barely speak to isn’t the solution. Even if you can count your close friends on just one hand, it’s the word “close,” not how many you have, that makes the difference to your well-being.
Yes, as we age, some (many?) of those relationships will disappear on their own. Death, grandchildren choosing to live in a different part of the country, and others in your circle who choose to isolate themselves may all happen, but we need to be constantly on the lookout for the opportunities we do have to continue to strengthen the relationships we maintain and to make new ones.
I once thought that self-imposed isolation would be the defining characteristic of the last part of my life, however many years that would be. I know better now that I need to take care of myself by staying in the world, keeping up with my friends and family, and caring deeply about others.
I'm Linda Fleit. My husband and I were lucky enough to retire when we were 61, about nine years ago. We love being retired and want to share all that we've learned over the years about this wonderful stage of life.