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Successful Aging: What you need to know for a fulfilling retirement experience

In last week’s column, K.M. had recently retired from her management job in Iowa and relocated to a retirement community in sunny Southern California. She’d given little thought about what she would do with her time: She finds pickleball, clubs and other activities in her complex less than satisfying. She asks, “How do I create a more fulfilling life?”

Having a purpose is part of the answer to a fulfilling retirement experience. The search is an important one with no shortage of resources that include retirement coaches, life coaches, workshops, seminars, podcasts, films, retreats and classes. Google indicates millions of books on the subject.

The biggest question is how to define, understand and take steps to create that fulfilling retirement. Although different for everyone, there are common elements that apply to most people.

That first one is having a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. In a study of centenarians, Dan Buettner, author of the “Blue Zones” (2012, National Geographic), found that having a purpose was a characteristic of long-lived people in Okinawa. They have a word for it: ikigai. This finding is supported by the research of Celeste Leigh Pearce and colleagues in the study published in “JAMA Current Open.” Results indicated those in mid-to-later life who did not have a strong life purpose were more likely to die, particularly of cardiovascular disease, compared to those who did have a strong life purpose. This was true regardless of gender, race or education.

If having a purpose in life is so important, what is our problem in finding it? Tony Robbins, noted American author, coach and speaker identifies two obstacles.

The first is our human need for certainty and stability. As I mentioned in last week’s column, retirement is a period of change; it is dynamic and not always predictable or consistent. The second reason is that we often limit our beliefs in what we can and cannot do, particularly with the stories we tell ourselves. This can lead to getting stuck without being able to move to the next step. To address these obstacles is a case of attitude. We need to embrace change and be open to new possibilities.

One way to get in touch with purpose and priorities is to look back at our work experiences. For example, think about what you enjoyed or loved about your work and what you miss. Was it the people, making a difference, the income or the learning opportunities?

Not everyone is thrilled with their work experience. It may have become boring or too demanding, the commute too taxing and the stress, particularly with new work arrangements and management, just too much. Add to that an increased awareness that there is more to life than work. Whether or not individuals loved their work, it might be time to explore something new such as creating an encore career, engaging in the arts, taking a class or even running for an elected office. Volunteer opportunities exist in working on political, climate-related or homelessness issues or becoming more involved with one’s church or synagogue.

Finding engagements that provide a level of satisfaction can occur by having lunch with a person who is doing something that interests you. Consider it an informational later-life interview, similar to the informational interviews used by students and others when looking for a job.

Some may have the expectation of waking up in the morning and knowing their purpose. Most often that’s not the case. Purpose can be revealed by just participating in an endeavor. For example, Margit Novack, author of “Squint” (2022, Extra Step Media) is a pioneer in creating the move management business that assists older adults to move from their homes typically to smaller quarters. She didn’t realize that older adults were her passion until after she was in the business. Her purpose was discovered.

To recap, having a sense of purpose is an important element for a fulfilling retirement experience. The second is connection, which we will address next week. In the meantime, stay safe, well and be kind to yourself and others.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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