Dear Older Self,
You have worked all of your adult life. You have worked to run your home, and you have worked as an employee and have been self employed. Much of your time has been structured by the demands of work in your life. Monday mornings meant rising to get children to school and going to your place of employment. Weekends meant rising to spend time with friends and family and to take care of the many chores that you couldn’t get to during the week. All this work not only structured your days, it also structured, in part, how you came to see yourself. It formed a very real part of your sense of yourself. It demanded much of you, and it blessed you in more ways then you knew.
Now you are not able to work in the same way. It has been a long time since you have had the responsibility and joy of taking care of children. You probably no longer go to a place of employment to work for the day. And you are likely not able to do as much in the management of your own home. In fact, you may no longer have your own home to run.
You have been letting go of some of the pillars that have held up your life—the pillars that allowed you to make a contribution, to give back, to gain satisfaction from the gift of work.
As you continue to let go of this identity formed over many long years, think about embracing the gift of becoming a volunteer. Part of the opportunity of this stage in life is to give your time, your talents, yourself to others without financial compensation. Giving freely, serving joyfully! What amazing gifts these are. These are some of the most surprising treasures aging offers.
Be observant as you enter this process of letting go of paid employment. As you step away from employment you can expect the sense of both loss and relief to be multilayered. The structure of your days and weeks will not be what it once was. The socialization that your employment offered will not be as available. The income will decrease. The ways the work itself gave to you will be gone. Your identity as a worker, as an active contributor to this world through your career, will be lost.
Give yourself time to notice these complex changes. It is likely that you will experience mixed feelings. You may experience both grief and relief. Make room for all the feelings. Write and talk about them all. You might do well to write or speak your gratitude for the gift your work has been to you and all the ways it has blessed you. As you let go in this way, you will be honoring your past and making room for the possibility of finding new ways of contributing in this world. Your work has been an enormous gift to you. Exchanging it for volunteer work that is a pure gift to others is an adventure in the joy of giving.
When you are ready, you might begin by thinking about your options. Pray for guidance. Seek counsel from someone you trust. What do you have to give? Who is looking for help?
Perhaps a natural place to begin this exploration is to think about your gifts and training. Think of the woman you know who, after a long career as a therapist, began to lead support groups at her church after her retirement. She used the skills developed over a long career to support others who were facing great difficulties in life but who did not have the financial resources to afford therapy.
Another way to approach volunteering is to reflect on your passions. Think of the elderly family member who began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity after she was widowed. She worked side by side with other volunteers and the future home owners, picking up a hammer and pushing wheel barrows. Or if you are not able to be quite this physically ambitious, you might consider expressing your passion for human rights by becoming more involved in volunteering with an organization like Amnesty International. You might join their letter writing campaigns. There are many ways to volunteer. It would be a good idea to try out different opportunities and see what fits you best. Can you help at the local school a few hours a week? Can you rock babies in the church nursery? Can you read to children at the local library? Or Skype with children to help them with homework? Can you read to a friend your age who can no longer see well enough to read? Can you write emails or make phone calls to friends or others who need encouragement?
Think outside the box. Ask for God’s guidance in this. And see what comes.
Perhaps you will be like the 104 year old woman you saw featured on a local news station. She answered an ad when she was 96 to volunteer at a local hospital, and continues to go every week, providing needed help. Or you might be like the elderly family member who taught the basics of sewing and knitting to children at the local community center.
Or perhaps you will organize something in your community like the elderly couple who put together a fishing club for the kids, or the elderly man in your neighborhood who became the primary resource person for boy scouts working on their wood carving badges.
Or perhaps you will participate with a group that supports homeless people in your area. Or perhaps you will volunteer at a local juvenile detention center and form a friendship with children held in custody. Volunteering your time even a few hours a week will keep you involved with other people, engaged in the world, and experiencing the gift of giving back some of what you have been given.
Work has been a big part of your life. But you are are not your work. You are much more than this.
Volunteering in any way allows you to express in simple, straightforward ways your love. It allows us to express the love that God has placed in your heart. Let that love shine. Find ways to volunteer, ways to give to others. You know well that you will be blessed, because in the giving, you have always received.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com