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A Reason for Living

Let me tell you a story about my mother. 

My mum was a very intelligent woman and a talented musician growing up in an era when opportunities for women were limited. As a young woman of some standing in her village (she was the headmaster’s daughter), she fell in love with a young man of no real distinction but with big dreams and ambitions. Against the better judgement and wishes of her own mother, they got married. Throughout their married lives, she dedicated herself to supporting him and her children, and celebrated his success as an academic and a scientist. Over the next five decades, she sacrificed her career as a musician, and her own personal ambitions, to keep the family together and support her husband. Throughout my life I struggled with this, yet my mum never saw this as a problem, partly because she was of ‘that generation’ and partly because she had always seen, understood and admired the burning ambition that had driven my father all his life.

Nearly 50 years after they were married, my father suddenly left her. A massive heart attack took him from her and she was left alone. How would she cope? What did her new life hold for her? Well, initially she withdrew from her family and friends and went into ‘full mourning’. She only wore black, purple and other austere colours. She stopped eating and lost a lot of weight. She was no longer her usually bubbly, outgoing self. What could we do? It was heartbreaking.

 

Then, quite suddenly one day, about 2 months after my father’s death, my mum suddenly and quite dramatically shed her ‘widow in mourning’ persona.  She got back into life, and regained her happy, extroverted, infectious personality that we all knew and loved. What could have happened? My theory for decades was that after he died she was waiting to die too, but her austerity, and weight loss drastically improved her health, so one day she suddenly realised that she wasn’t going to die and that she had better make the most of her remaining life! In actuality the truth is a bit more mundane. My elder brother, to whom she was very close, sat her down one day, and made her understand that she had a life worth living and that my father certainly would not have wanted her to just fade away as she was so intent on doing. 

For the next 20 years, my mother lived her life to the fullest. She immersed herself in her church and her music, and enjoyed her children. Her life was full of adventure and excitement, and she touched so many people along the way. Then, at the age of 84 years, she was admitted to hospital with a serious heart problem. As always, she was gregarious and talkative, even at this time of illness. The nurse tucked her in to bed, and stepped away to get the blood pressure kit. When she came back, my mother was lying peacefully in bed, with a smile  and a very contented look on her face. She had passed away.

What does this story tell us? Well, there are many lessons to be learned here, but to me the biggest one is the importance of having a purpose in life, and feeling the joy of living. As we get older, particularly around the time of retirement or when we lose our life partners, we often question the meaning of our lives and struggle to find a motivation to keep going on. For many of us, our identities are so intertwined with our jobs and our family relationships, that changes to these integral parts of our lives can lead to a real crisis of existence. However, like my mum, when we reach one of these crossroads in our lives, we need to challenge ourselves and have some difficult internal conversations about who we are and who we want to be.

The world of work is definitely an environment that contributes to our sense of identity and self-worth. There is a lot of evidence that retirement is often a marker for deterioration of mental and physical wellbeing in older people. However, this does not mean that continuing to work to the end of our lives is either a viable or desirable option for everyone. 

When faced with increasing age and retirement, we need to think about how we find meaning in our lives and what would make our lives worth something to us. This does not have to be work related, but there are several simple ideas that can help to guide us. Firstly, human interaction is important, so find activities that will keep you in contact with others – older life is a great time to make new friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Secondly, volunteering can be very fulfilling, so don’t be afraid to join a local charity group and give back to the community. Finally, this is a time to share your wealth of experience, and there are many forums for professionals and other groups in which your life skills and expertise will be valued – you just need to overcome your hesitancy and go out and find them! On the other hand, this may be a perfect time to learn a new skill or branch out into a completely different direction in life. It’s never too late to learn!

In summary, life is worth living, but sometimes you have to actively find your purpose and meaning, especially when major events disrupt the status quo. Live you best life, and live it well!

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