Carole Carson: Joyful Aging — five stages of retirement |

Carole Carson: Joyful Aging — five stages of retirement

Carole Carson
photo by Elias Funez/

In the middle of raising kids, advancing one’s career, or simply trying to stay afloat during the pandemic, many of us find it hard to focus on retirement, should we be fortunate enough to live that long. Or maybe we’re already in retirement.

But when you think about it, at age 55, most of us can expect to live three more decades. That’s a big chunk of time to ignore and hope for the best!

Those who study retirement divide it into distinct stages, each with its own demands and characteristics.

Stage One: Getting Ready to Go

Timing is the central issue. Financial factors come into play. A heart attack or a medical problem may force the issue. An unexpected layoff or a new boss who makes work miserable expedites the decision. If we’re married, the decision also involves who retires first.

This stage can occur abruptly. Or, as in my case, over a five-year period. During that time, my values shifted from making money to making the most of the time I had left. Like a lot of people, I thought I would always have more time. But I gradually woke up and realized I didn’t want to be like the man the Dalai Llama described as who “died without having lived.”

Stage Two: The Honeymoon

The Honeymoon period is characterized by an exhilaration in the freedom to get up every day and choose the day’s activities — or whether to do anything at all. A day spent in bed reading a delicious spy story or watching an entire Netflix series is a possibility. The exhilaration is, alas, short lived. But whether it lasts a day or a year, it unfortunately does end.

Stage Three: Go-Go Time

Go-Go Time is characterized by mostly good health and is frequently spent discovering long-awaited goals. Travel (cruises, car trips to national parks) entices some of us. Golf, tennis, hiking, classes — the leisure recreations we never had time for earlier in our busier lives — beckon us. We volunteer, serve on boards, run for office, organize neighborhood parties, start a new business, explore a hobby, learn new skills, redecorate the house, or build our dream home. The search for meaningful activities as opposed to simply filling the hours is critical.

Stage Four: Slow-Go Years (16+ Years into Retirement)

Over time, our to-do list in retirement gets done or becomes irrelevant. The newness and novelty of travel may begin to wear thin. Perhaps money becomes more limited or illness intervenes. Sometimes our lessened energy makes the pressure of nonstop activities less attractive, especially as the comforts of home take on a new importance. A lovely fall day, a tree foliage turning bright orange, the photograph of a new grandchild — these simple pleasures are leisurely savored.

The Slow-Go Years are a time for us to search for meaningful endeavors, at least for those who realize that such endeavors are key to longevity and retaining mental acuity.

“Goal disengagement” is a term psychologists give to those who fill their hours during this period with meaningless activities to pass time (hours of television, for example). In contrast, their studies reveal that meaningful activities reduce cognitive decline, particularly for women. In layperson’s terms, it simply means that even at this late stage in our lives, we still need to have a reason to get up in the morning.

Stage Five: No-Go Years (25+ Years into Retirement)

The No-Go Years are labeled as “waiting for the diagnosis” by a depressed person in Daniel Klein’s “Travels with Epicurus.” The author labels it “old old age.”

At this point, we may be housebound by illness or dealing with limited financial resources. For sure, at some point, if we live long enough, we will need help from others with our care.

But this stage isn’t all bad. For many, this period is characterized — and made richer — by spiritual renewal, and seniors address whether they fulfilled their purpose and the legacy they leave. According to many researchers, spiritual resilience comes from a sense of divine support, gratitude, and purpose. The resilience that brought us this far keeps many of us from sinking into despair.

We could rightfully question, what is the point of knowing about these stages?

A person hooked up to a machine is alive, but being conscious in the here and now is a whole different reality. That’s true for us as well.

Essential to our wellbeing is knowing where we are on the journey. To be conscious — that is, fully aware and appreciative of our current stage of life — is a singular gift that only we can give ourselves. The winds of awareness are always blowing. We only need to set our sails.

Carole Carson, Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact:

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