Barbara, Age 70
I retired 2 ½ years ago and recently turned 70. I have always looked for meaning in my life, and found it in my work. But it’s been a struggle finding day-to-day purpose in retirement. I love the freedom that retirement offers – sleeping late, exercising as much as I like, reading a book in the afternoon, visiting friends without restraints on my time, but it’s not been enough. I don’t volunteer well, like other people I know. And I don’t have any particular hobbies. My son lives in China and doesn’t have any children as yet. I pondered what to do with my time for a while, then about six months ago the purpose of my retirement came clear. They say “you get what you wish for.” Well suddenly every minute in my life was purposeful, and I was busier than ever before.
In November 2016, my husband and I were out bicycle riding in the retirement community in which we own a vacation home. There was a small hill just three blocks from our home. My husband whizzed past me and sped down the hill in order to pick up momentum for the uphill climb. At the bottom of the hill something happened. I looked up in time to see him tumble over the handle bars, bouncing head first on the concrete road. He was not wearing a helmet. I knew in a split second that my life had changed forever.
Upon arriving by ambulance to a local trauma center, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury with a poor prognosis. In that moment, my life’s purpose became clear. I vowed to do everything in my power to see him through this tragedy, no matter the outcome.
My husband spent eight weeks in three different hospitals. I was at his bedside every day, communicating with health care professionals, making life and death decisions, and speaking with each doctor and nurse who touched him to be sure they had the proper information. There was no room for error in his precarious situation. I watched a once healthy and joyful man reduced to a body with tubes coming out of every opening in his body. He did not know who he was and what was happening around him. He couldn’t speak, was highly agitated, and fought so violently that he had to be restrained to the bed. He underwent surgery to repair fractures in his face and eye, was fed liquids through a feeding tube, needed a respirator to breathe. I networked as best I could to find the best facilities for him.
Miraculously after 8 weeks in 3 hospitals, I brought him home. By then he was breathing on his own, and the tracheotomy was removed. But he needed full time care for several weeks to navigate the 75+ stairs in our multi-level townhouse and assist with his liquid feeding. In time, he learned to walk and swallow well enough to eat solid food.
Now, after six months of doctors and therapies he is playing golf, hiking, and driving a car. He still has some short-term memory issues and a soft raspy voice, but basically, he is close to the man he once was.
In hindsight, retirement was a blessing. There was no way I could have managed my husband’s recovery while working the long hours and traveling back and forth across the country – as my job required. Today I feel fortunate that my husband doesn’t need me as much anymore. So, my pursuit of meaning in life has picked up where I left it six months ago. I approached my 70th birthday with the attitude that it was just another birthday. I didn’t have fear, excitement, or any feeling. But I decided to make something of this arbitrary number to reexamine who I am, what matters to me, how I respond to people, and how I can be a better person. Along the way, I’m hoping to find some new activities that bring added meaning to my life.