Most of us know or have heard stories about someone (almost always a man) who, just a few months into retirement, drifts into a general malaise, then sinks into depression, and then, without warning, drops dead – usually from a heart attack. As if his heart, no longer buoyed by gainful employment, had any good reason to keep on pumping.

More than other citizens of the world, Americans identify themselves with their work. At a party, when you meet someone new, the conversation almost always veers to: So, what do you do? Not, who are you? Where did you meet your spouse? What makes you happy? It’s what do you do? Because in most Americans’ eyes, what you do defines you as a person. Woe to the person who answers “garbage collector” (school dropout), “car salesman” (low life) or “writer” (pompous ass) – all noble professions.

So it’s easy, in our work-centric culture, to understand why people who have lost their jobs, voluntarily or otherwise, believe they have lost their identities. Maybe even their very souls. Why go on living? Too great an existential hole has been blasted into their now hollow lives that no amount of golfing, fishing, quilting, volunteering, gardening or grandparenting can fill.

Work gives all of our lives structure and, for many of us, it gives our lives meaning as well. Most of us spend the vast majority of our lives preparing for work (school, college, technical training) and then going to work. Some aspire to building coherent careers (a strand of pearls), while others are happy stringing together multiple jobs (a charm bracelet).

And so, when the time comes to step off the workplace wheel, we may lose our balance, stagger and fall flat on our faces. This situation is of notable concern in Maine, for a couple of reasons. One, vast numbers of Baby Boomers, the largest demographic bulge in our nation’s history, have reached or are fast approaching retirement age. Two, Maine has one of the oldest populations in the country. Twice cursed, you say?

As someone who’s nearing retirement age, I’d argue that we’re twice blessed – that is, if we can get past our job-equals-identity obsession and turn our attention to all the wonderful things we can do, for ourselves, our families and our communities when given the precious gift of more personal time.

Once retired, I plan to write a Maine-based novel I’ve been plotting in my head for years. A former colleague is starting a nonprofit organization on a Caribbean third-world island to help island kids get into college. A retired school counselor friend has published two lovely children’s books and teaches wood carving to kids at summer camp. A former college professor I know is teaching body balance classes to the elderly.

Wine gets better with age, why not people? Especially Maine people, who I know from personal experience have the talent and moxie to turn their golden years into platinum ones. May we all reap their many blessings.

— Special to the Telegram

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