What am I doing the rest of my life?

04/22/2010 12:00 AM |

When I was a teenager, I knew exactly what I’d do with my life. The script was written, down to the last detail. Naturally, it changed a few years later. So much for planning my life to come.

The older we get, the less certainty there is. Nevertheless, once we’re in our seventies or eighties, it’s important to begin to plan ahead, not because everything will work out as we predict, but just so those closest to us have some idea of our priorities and direction. It’s not the same as planning for retirement (however we define it) in our 50s or 60s. It’s more a matter of where we want to be for the rest of our life — “be” in the full sense of the word — what we want to be doing as long as we’re able and who we want to live near. We can be pretty sure that at some point we will have debilitating health problems. Where would we turn for help? What are our thoughts about end-of-life care? These are always part of our thinking in later life, even if they’re only implied in our decisions. Meanwhile, no matter what our age, it’s important to look or move toward something.

When I was a children’s book editor, our managing editor, Ada, often spoke of her retirement. She would have a room a block or two from the library and spend her time reading. Meanwhile, she was the heart of the children’s book department and also caring for two elderly aunts. Her release came at night, when she’d read mysteries until the early hours. She was 80 when she retired. Her aunts had died by then and she had a few years to live her dream. She never missed a beat, even when battling cancer. She surprised me on one of my visits when she showed me an article in a scholarly journal by my daughter Susan, then a graduate student focused on 16th-century England. This was a relatively brief time for Ada but, in its own way, very happy and fulfilling.

Some of my friends have chosen to move into a retirement community, and it’s made their lives easier and richer. They have new friends, pursue a variety of learning opportunities and continue to be active in the larger community. The couples among them know that the one who becomes the caregiver will have the necessary support, and that the one who lives longer will be cared for, too. No one knows how the future will work out, but they have done what they can to make it satisfying and easier.

My mother arranged to join a retirement community at least three times and each time, at the last minute, she backed out. When she finally moved in, most unwillingly, she was over 90 years old. It didn’t work well for her because she didn’t want to be there and kept looking back. Sometimes it’s hard not to, but it isn’t helpful. My mother’s home was eight to 10 hours from me, which made helping her very hard. When my friend Marilyn was dying, her daughter commuted between New York City and Washington, D.C. — not an easy distance either. So geography is important, too.

Why am I thinking about this? With children either across the ocean or on the West Coast, it’s time for me to consider being nearer to at least one of them. A few weeks ago I put my house on the market. I know that the way real estate is these days, it’s likely to take some time to sell. So I’m using this period to enjoy my friends and savor my life on the North Fork. I’m doing some grieving, too. When it’s time to leave, I hope to be looking toward the rest of my life.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.

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