The following has been adapted from an original academic paper submitted by the author as part of the Post Graduate Certificate of Ageing and Pastoral Studies at Charles Sturt University. All names and locations have been changed to respect the privacy and identities of those described.
“It was like I woke up in that hospital bed suddenly an old man.”
Up until the moment of his heart attack, Robert had considered himself invincible. There he was, in his mid-seventies and still able to function as well as, if not better than, many of the younger men who worked alongside him. People were often astounded to learn his actual age, as Robert neither looked nor acted “elderly”. However, waking up in a hospital bed after open heart surgery changed everything and ended his career.
Robert did not choose to give up the job he loved, stating “I became very angry…at my body for failing me…at the doctors telling me it was time to slow down…at my employer who let me go without a fight…I was expendable…not needed in the world.” In Robert’s eyes, society had deemed him no longer desirable, pushing him out of his career unwillingly and removing his sense of identity in the process.
Being forced into retirement was only the beginning of change for Robert. After heart surgery, Robert was often breathless and his energy levels were not the same. Not only could he no longer work, everything he enjoyed from home improvements to re-building old cars got harder. Robert began to need help with things he never needed assistance with before his heart attack. Looking back, this is what he considers to be the most difficult change of all.
“I now had to ask my son for help because I couldn’t climb a ladder. My wife had to learn how to drive the lawn mower…(laughs)…she liked it though! Said it was fun to learn…but for me…it was like I wasn’t the guy she could rely on anymore…she was now taking care of me.” Although Robert can now find humor in the situation, at the time he felt little joy in allowing others to assist him or make decision for him, especially medical professionals and his own children.
When I ask what it was that got him through this point in his life, Robert simply replies, “God.” Robert explains how he could not stand before God in prayer and at daily Mass in a state of self-pity. “It was impossible,” he says. “God would have none of that…and he showed me that I had a choice to make. I could either become a recluse, mad at the world for taking away everything (that) I was…or I could take this new road opened before me and start again…let God shape a better me.”
Similar to participants in a study on the experiences of ageing in the third age, Robert’s forced retirement allowed him to experience a level of transcendence which helped him to “let go of the things (he) could not change and plan other ways of achieving what (he) really wanted to do.” (MacKinlay 2017, p. 227). Importantly, Robert’s connection and communion with God is far more than just a mere coping mechanism. As explained by MacKinlay, Robert’s faith is able to assist in “the spiritual task of ageing” and help him to find meaning in the face of the challenges of ageing (p. 233).
For example, Robert began to spend many hours in silence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. This, he explains, helped him to discern God’s Will over his own. After a time, Robert felt a desire to become more involved in his church and local community. With his wife’s encouragement, Robert joined the Knights of the Southern Cross and began volunteering, supporting local charitable events and visiting residence at the local aged care home.
Later, Robert trained as a Janome quilting machine technician, partly because there was not one available to assist his wife and the women of the town when a machine broke down, and partly as a way to keep his mechanical mind active and to support a continued sense of purpose and worth. In a way, Robert accommodated himself, his abilities and his knowledge to his environment. If Robert could no longer travel the globe improving the world of mechanical engineering, he could put his talents to good use closer to home, improving the stitches of the women of Cobram.
Interestingly, Robert’s ability to transcend losing his work identity echoed MacKinlay (2017) regarding the “importance of sanctification and vocation in later life (as) part of the process of change from doing to being,” (p. 230). In doing so, Robert examples a remarkable agility in traversing Tillich’s four principles of sanctification, that is: (1) with “increased awareness” Robert is able to acknowledge that his life would never be the same, and thus he is able to avoid despair; (2) Robert recognizes an “increased freedom” that allows him to put himself out there and learn new skills as a means of remaining productive; (3) by way of “increased relatedness”, Robert is able to move beyond self-pity and form new relationships within his church and community through volunteering; and (4) through Robert’s continued relationship with God, he is able to transcend the challenges of forced retirement to a life of continued purpose and meaning (1963, as cited in MacKinlay, p. 230). In this way, Robert shows signs of gero-transcendence in his outward display of new found wisdom and as evidenced in his communion with God and a reinvention of self.
Robert’s story affirms the difficulties of a forced transition from work to retirement. Although the experience had a devastating effect on Robert and was a blow to his sense of self-worth, his is an example of how a relationship with God can buffer the effects of disengagement and lead to a life of being that may still be perceived as having value and purpose. Robert changed his own perception of himself in order to adapt to the changes forced upon him and to open up new opportunities. In his own words, Robert “didn’t know that (his) life could be better after retirement”. Robert no longer fears changes in health or ability and looks forward to continuing on this new path bestowed upon him until he is “called home.”
MacKinlay, E. (2017). The Spiritual Dimension of Ageing. (2nd ed.) London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.