As well as writing about the issues that face us as we get close to retirement, I’d like to share with you some personal reflections about aspects of this stage of life that I’ve experienced. I’m re-publishing an article I first shared in 2016.
In the midst of planning a retirement lifestyle and how best to enjoy all that life has to offer, there is often loss. Not just loss of work, of a role, even an identity and connections with colleagues, but also the loss associated with parents aging and, yes, dying. So preparing for retirement can be tempered by experiences of loss and letting go.
My Dad was 85 when Mum, his partner for nearly 70 years, died. Actually, it felt as if she’d left us some time before, as by stealth Alzheimer’s had progressively clouded her memory, stolen her personality and eventually snatched away her joy of life. It took its toll on Dad, who cared for her over 15 inexorable years, until just before her death. He was stoic.
After Mum died Dad was exhausted. He’d cared for her for so long, then coped with the emotional and logistical business of the funeral. He’d read her eulogy and responded with a hand written card to every one of the condolence messages he received. Dad insisted on doing these things as a way of sharing with everyone what Mum was really like. So they would know and remember her as she was before illness gradually erased her character, until she was a mere sketch of the woman she’d been.
I’m relieved that she has been released from the horrible confusion and mental dullness of her last years. But I miss Mum. I miss her great zest for life, her love of a clear blue sky and her ever positive outlook. She was interested in most people she met, was a natural teacher and loved children. Mum liked to be outdoors and active, swimming and walking in most weathers. She read and recited poetry, enjoyed word games. She had a tenacious strength that saw her sailing with Dad even when she disliked being cooped up. And Mum was a defender, a tigress when it came to all matters concerning our family.
Dad grieved quietly. He talked about her sometimes and got teary. He found it difficult to sleep without her and the house has a different energy these days. Dad dealt with cleaning out Mum’s clothes, handing on her jewellery and the practicalities of her will. He visited her lawn grave, putting fresh flowers there and sitting quietly for a while in the peace of the cemetery, surrounded by trees, before walking home.
Nearly a year on, Dad asked my brother, Martin, and I for help with a headstone. Apparently, after a burial in this part of the world it can take up to a year for the earth to settle enough for a headstone to be set and grass seed sown around. We met at the front of the stone masons where there were around 100 old, mossy and water poked headstones lined up ready to have another name added, representing 100 recent deaths. It was quite shocking when your see death represented like that.
We agree on simple wording, name dates, and “Rest in peace” and also to leave a space for Dad’s name and dates with “Reunited” underneath. Martin and I are teary. I watched Dad and he seemed fine, even as he made provision for his own demise.
A year after Mum died, Dad took down the mementos he’d kept of the funeral and put them in the box where they kept all their cards and letters. Looking at them you can chart their relationship, from the poetry Dad wrote before they married (quite a feat as he’s more the engineering type) until right up to Mum’s death. But Mum stopped writing cards as she got worse, so towards the end it was a bit lopsided.
After that Dad wanted a quiet time, watching sport on TV, spending time with family and catching up with friends. It was time for him to look after himself and once again take enjoyment in simple pleasures: connections with loved ones, sitting in the sun, walking by the sea and keeping the house in order. Time to redress the balance of all that caring as he gently celebrated the life he still grasped with both hands.
#healthyageing #healthspan #lifespan#ageing #ageingparents #grief #Alzheimer’s #dementia #babyboomers #fiftyplus #retirement
First published in 2016.