top of page

Successful Aging: I have free time after decades of hard work, so what’s the problem?

I have been working as an operating room nurse for the past 41 years, arising at 5:30 am every morning. Recently, I retired and moved to Southern California. Until my home sells in the north, I am living with my 80-years old cousin for which I am most appreciative. My issue is that I feel I am being judged about what I am doing – or not doing – every day. My cousin who is very busy asks me daily, “And what are you doing today?” I am busy when I want to be; I chill when I want and go where the winds blow. I feel I am being judged which is not a good feeling. Your thoughts? (P.S., I am taking tap dancing and flower arranging and spending time with grandkids.) M.S.

Dear M.S.

Let’s start with looking at the bright side of your concern. You have a place to stay in a new geographical area where you might live until your home sells. That’s a plus.

Now, let’s try to understand your cousin’s questioning. She may not be able to relate to your new experience. Perhaps she never had the need or opportunity to just stop and consider the options of her life stage; busy might just be her norm.

The operative word is “busy.” David Ekerdt, Professor of Sociology and Gerontology at the University of Kansas, coined the term “busy ethic.” He noted that our view of old age and retirement has been perceived as one that should be filled with activity and busyness.

According to his article in The Gerontologist (1986), a busy ethic serves several purposes in helping people to adapt to retirement. It makes leisure legitimate when it becomes analogous to work, supporting conduct consistent with the ideals of the work ethic. I recall my late sister who was a volunteer at a local bookstore saying, “Today I am going to work.”

A second purpose is to symbolically defend retirees against aging. If one believes that vigor preserves well-being, then being active and vigorous in retirement makes one more middle age rather than “old,” according to Ekerdt. Furthermore, being busy may serve as a defense of being judged as obsolescent or even “losing it.”

Third, the busy ethic places a boundary on the retirement role that in turn, allows some true leisure without guilt. Think of the work cycle. One works, then has time off at the end of the day, on weekends and during vacation. There is a cycle between work and non-work. In retirement, we can have a similar cycle of retirement activities and then taking a break. For example, if one spends the morning running errands or caring for grandchildren, one can feel comfortable taking a nap or watching television in the afternoon.

If you ask a recently retired person, “How is retirement going and what are you doing?” The response might be “Great, I go to the gym in the morning, then meet my friends at Starbucks, then back home for some domestic tasks. In the afternoon, I have a board meeting or I’m taking care of the grandchildren and then have a book-group meeting or attend a meeting at my church or synagogue. What follows is, “I am so busy, I don’t know how I had time to work.”

OK, this is a bit of an exaggeration and may be true and fulfilling for many, but not necessarily all. The point is that in a work-oriented society, many feel the need to express their busyness to justify leisure time, making it sound similar to work since work often is more valued than leisure. Note: Some are comfortable indicating they had a busy day of fun and loved every minute.

When your cousin next asks what your plans are, here are a few suggestions.

“Thanks, cousin, for asking. I am having a flexible day. In fact, I look at this time of my life as a self-styled sabbatical. This unstructured time is a gift that allows me to think about what is important and experiment with something new with a sense of freedom. I’ve been getting up early and standing on my feet for over 40 years. Now, I am enjoying this free time, catching up with myself — as well as friends.”

American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Is it enough to be busy? He answers that ants are busy and then poses the question, “What are we busy about?”

Thank you, M.S. for your good question. It seems prudent to take your time rather than rush into an activity just for the sake of being busy. Enjoy your sabbatical.

bottom of page