At some point in a long and busy life, “what’s next?” becomes a nagging question.
Perhaps you’ve done what you’ve done long enough, achieved financial critical mass or just run out of energy. Maybe you’ve encountered health problems, or simply concluded that birthdays have piled up to the point that they might run out before long.
Retirement may come as a relief to some whose personalities can tolerate an open-ended or curious approach to life. It takes a certain type who can relax with the idea of an unstructured future where smelling the roses is the only activity on the calendar and that is enough to provide comfort and satisfaction.
But that’s not going to work for most of us.
Programmed to plan
Why is that? From an early age we learn to plan our days, weeks, seasons, semesters and life in general. It’s all tightly choreographed until late middle-age, when the progression becomes a bit murky.
There is a strategy, called the three-legged stool approach, which can provide a foundation on which this life stage can be more comfortably built. Originally, people applied this idea to financial planning for retirement. But here I refer to something even more fundamental: life planning.
In reality, a three-legged stool offers a solid foundation. If you stand on it, your weight is evenly distributed and it supports you. Likewise, but metaphorically, if you can find three supportive elements in daily life, you will experience the feeling of stability.
My retirement epiphany
Importantly, the three legs need to provide support in three areas: cognitive, physical and aesthetic stimulation. This is what I discovered when I retired, and this is what I advise those who worry about the vagueness of their future.
When I was planning my retirement, I knew I needed a solid infrastructure to support my daily life and avoid being overwhelmed by too much time. What I came up with was a three-legged stool, although I didn’t label it as such at the time.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How we approach a life stage depends on our personality style as well as our age. Introverts, who are comfortable learning and doing things on their own, tend to gravitate to solitary activities — maybe gardening, crossword puzzles or memoir writing—that can make extroverts uncomfortable, and vice versa. Extroverts are more comfortable in the company of others to learn and experience life.
How I built my 3-legged stool
Keeping in mind my personality, I created placeholders to begin my journey. The first placeholder was daily exercise, which for me meant acquiring a gym membership and making a commitment to use it. Another was learning to play the cello (aesthetic and cognitive stimulation), which included daily practice and weekly lessons. The third was writing (cognitive stimulation), a craft that I’d had for many years and that produced several nonfiction books and many magazine articles.
If my placeholders seem to be an introvert’s choice of daily activities, they are.
For contrast, an extroverted friend walks and takes bike rides with friends, attends a foreign-language class and participates in a watercolor painting group. These are her three legs, all of which include people interactions and feedback.
Think long term
Volunteer activities that occur on a regular basis, such as working in a soup kitchen or giving talks as a museum docent, are also options for extroverts.
Frequently spending time with friends is satisfying, and necessary for both introverts and extroverts.
For 100 years, developmental psychologists studied the human lifespan and the stages of growth and development until people began to decline. They observed mostly men for at least the first half of that time span, recording how men navigated their lives — the why and the wherefore.
But when the average lifespan was less than 50 (in 1900) or 65 (1950) there was no point in studying the years after people retired. The years beyond 60 were left to the imagination, not to science.
But now 6.7% of the population — more that 22 million Americans in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available — live at least 75 years, and increasingly beyond. Developmental psychologists have not fully caught up with this trend yet, but some have started paying more attention to the final third of life for men and women.
Erik Erikson, the most famous 20th century life-span theorist, concentrated on the years through middle-age. He believed that the last two life stages were critical in rounding out a person’s life. He called this stage generativity, which is in keeping with what many of us understand intuitively, that our later-in-life mission is to pass on our know-how and wisdom.
Share your wisdom
It is a time for taking stock of who you are and what you know and begin to share it with the next generation. But as you do so, the unfinished business of self-development is uncovered and unrealized hopes and wishes can become apparent.
Time is running out — time to take risks and develop what is necessary for fulfillment. Maybe you could pull out some oil paints, become a tutor, join a cycling club or go back to school.
As you consider options, know that how you approach this stage depends on your personality. Whether introvert or extrovert, a universal theme as we traverse our final years is the desire to make sense of life, to pull any loose threads together and fulfill one’s sense of destiny. And maybe metaphorically, or in fact, write life’s final chapter.
Reflect and recharge
This life stage provides a sense of closure. It enables you to see, in retrospect, that you met your goals as best you could, satisfied your basic needs and achieved humanness. It gives you the opportunity to acknowledge your own life as meaningful, worthwhile and righteous. But how exactly do you do that?
While 21st century developmental psychology weighs in on the late-in-life stages and researchers continue longitudinal studies of adult development, the practical day-to-day business of forging a retirement plan is up to each of us individually, an uncomfortable option because of the open-ended nature of retirement living.
This last life stage can be the richest and most satisfying. It’s important to do it your own way: rely on your three-legged stool and pay attention to your personality style.
Guided by the wisdom that your years on earth have amassed, ask yourself, “if not now, then when?”
Francine Toder, Ph.D. is an emeritus faculty member of California State University, Sacramento and is a clinical psychologist retired from private practice. She is also the author of “The Vintage Years: Finding your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty.” Her most recent book is “Inward Traveler: 51 Ways to Explore the World Mindfully.” Her extensive writing on diverse topics appears in magazines, professional journals, newspapers, blog sites and as edited book chapters. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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