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Seeking Identity in our Retirement

the dilemma of the elderly

(Discussion by our Patron, Glen Postle)

Recently I read an article by Phillip Adams (ABC radio personality). It struck a chord with me and I thought it might have a message for TOMNET members as they attempt to redefine themselves after a productive and often successful working life. Adams says, ‘Being successfully successful isn’t all that difficult. Not when everyone’s your friend, when you’re a human maypole that sycophants dance around. When your every utterance is received with reverence and all your jokes are funny. It’s dealing with it after that’s hard. When the music stops. That’s the test of character. How do the players in any field handle life when they are no longer major?’

I know that this resonates with me. As an academic I achieved some success and know that my students would more often than not,  listen intently to what I had to say. My colleagues would often say positive things about papers I’d written or conference presentations I’d given. It can be quite a different matter now for when I do attend the ‘odd conference’ many of the delegates are more interested in seeking out the company of younger, more current individuals. On occasions when I visit the campus where I spent a large part of my academic life students are more likely to inquire of current staff, ‘Who is that old bloke who wanders around the campus occasionally?’

Adams goes on to say ‘…when all else fails, as it often does for the once mighty and or admired, when they can’t pull a crowd…or reinvent themselves, depression awaits. Packs of black dogs as big as the Hound of Baskervilles prowl the mindscape of these misbegotten if not forgotten people.’

This can be exacerbated if one opts out. Just because you’re not ‘the human maypole sycophants dance around’ shouldn’t translate into a life where interaction with people disappears. In fact it’s an opportunity to ‘ditch the sycophants’ and seek out people who are sincere in their relationships, people who appreciate human company for what it should be, people who care about one another.

As Adams goes on to say, ‘The people I admire are the ones who can live with it – and who can stay involved, often as mentors of the young….or as visiting professors of this and that. Or simply as parents or grandparents. Passing on their knowledge, their painfully acquired skills or wisdom. Not regretting what they’ve lost but proud of what they achieved.’

Since I’ve retired I’ve tried to stay involved. I enjoy people, I enjoy the company of young people, I value sincerity and honesty in relationships. In fact some of the relationships I’ve left behind are now seen for what they were – shallow and opportunistic, not deep and meaningful. I recently had a young person suggest that I was ‘a good bloke’ – believe me when I say that this meant the world to me. I’ve also seen young people at Flexi School reach out to say thanks to older people who they have come to know. This is the stuff of real communities.

In some communities even today the elders are considered the ‘wise’ and the ‘respected’. In some cultures the elders  still pass on values and morals through narratives and stories. Our modern-day culture seems to have left that behind but I’m confident that we can resurrect elements of the traditions of past community life, not in the way it used to be for society has changed and it won’t return to those times. However, the values and morals that bind a community need to be transmitted – we need to find a way to do this and we as elders have a role to play in that.

We should try to avoid regretting what we’ve lost and focus on what we’ve achieved. Becoming tribal elders. There’s dignity in that.

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