Before retirement age the internal glow of happiness can be independent of external circumstances. Despite the gloom and doom during the great 2007-09 economic recession, a Time Magazine survey found that 90 percent of Americans considered themselves optimistic about their health, finances and relationships.
In one of my favorite stage dramas, according to conventional wisdom 42-year old Shirley Valentine would be happy. She was healthy, her children were on their own, she has a stable marriage and a husband with a steady job.
She was miserable. Fixing dinner and sipping a glass of wine, she was talking to the walls that seemed to wonder why she didn’t just leave. But she wouldn’t know where to go or what to do. A friend calls and invites her on a two-week vacation. Free. Leaving dinner on the stove and a note for Joe saying she’d be back in two weeks, she leaves for Greece.
Sailing with Costas with the wind in her hair, surf on her hands and a horizon stretching out forever, she falls hopelessly in love with the idea of feeling alive again. She decides she’s through fulfilling prescribed roles and pretending she’s happy.
Joe comes to rescue her from her insanity. As the play ends she tells him he’s welcome to stay, but she’s not returning to the walking dead wearing masks and sterilely greeting each other.
Reflecting on the play, I wondered what my father’s life was like for him when I was growing up. How happy was he? The oldest of 10 in a desperately poor and often malnourished family, he got his barber’s license in high school to help feed the family.
When I was growing up we had what I considered a happy, stable middle class life. We felt loved, were comfortable and without want. We lived over Dad’s busy, downtown barbershop in a farming village. He was articulate, had perfect grammar, did crossword puzzles during work-day lulls, and was the school-board treasurer. His hobbies were occasional rounds of golf, Thursday night choir practice and church choir on Sunday.
He’d trudge downstairs to work daily at 8 a.m. and return after 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays he stayed open until 8 p.m., but it was often much later before he was done. He spent many Sunday afternoons lying on the couch with a headache.
In his 90s he told me about visiting my mother in Ypsilanti when she was in college. Walking past a barbershop with an open chair, he paused to wonder if he might be able to work there and go to college. “I wonder what could have happened...” he said, with voice trailing off. There might have been time.
My mother’s mother wouldn’t allow her to marry until she had her life-teaching certificate.
For over a decade after retiring they had an active social life in Michigan in the summer and in their small Florida mobile home park in the winter. They walked for exercise. He sang in a church choir, continued doing crossword puzzles, played golf regularly, took up shuffleboard and joined a league. He continued playing golf and doing puzzles until developing dementia after a stroke a few months before dying at 95.
Unfortunately, my mother’s story is very different. Retiring a little early, she missed teaching second graders and her Richmond book-study club. Saying she was retired, she stopped driving. Her mind gradually withered and descended into Alzheimer’s. She died while being tube fed and strapped to a bed in a Florida nursing home so she wouldn’t suffer the supposed pain of starving. She would have been mortified. We were horrified.
I believe she began dying not long after retiring. There were few opportunities available then to continue the level of intellectual engagement with life she’d thrived on.
Masterpiece Living, a nonprofit corporation spawned from “Live Long Die Short,” written by Roger Landry, based on research sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, is facilitating communities dedicated to enhancing opportunities for retirees’ lifelong personal growth and development.
The national pilot community-based Masterpiece Living program is Four Pointes in Grand Haven. The four points are social, physical, intellectual and spiritual well being.
With 1,700 members, local tax millage and widespread community support, Four Pointes promotes the vitality and well being of older adults by offering 45 monthly programs for life-long learning and enrichment, in-home support, consumer advocacy, information and referral. Many program ideas come from members.
With aging, the enigma of happiness gives way to the need for continuing satisfaction and contentment from living. In other words, living long and dying short.
My father did that on his own. It’s too bad my mother couldn’t.