As people live longer and retire earlier, the third stage in life, euphemistically called "the golden age" or other such pretentious titles, often stretches out like an empty expanse before the newly retired. He (and certainly she) can expect to live twenty or thirty years after retirement, but the question in "modern society" is how to fill those years?
In accordance with Eric Erikson's seventh stage in life, "they [pensioners] enage in a summing up period, making order out of life's experiences."
In western society, addicted to the Protestant work ethic, people are afraid to grow old, to be unproductive. After all, for many years, their identity was closely tied up with what they did. "I'm Mr. James, assistant manager of sales." "I'm Ms. Field, history teacher in 6th grade," etc. It takes a great deal of effort to give up the values and judgements of the work world, to realize that in "Life After Work" there's no need to constantly prove oneself and participate in a competitive society.
Much has been written about the older citizen who, without the pressure of work, simply does nothing, or worse still, begins to spend his free time in doctors' waiting rooms. Unprepared retirement can lead to such "professional patients." It can also produce chronic worriers or marital strife as the aging couple, kept apart by their varying routines all through their married life, are suddenly thrown together all day long, seven days a week. They haven't spent so much time together since their honeymoon.
But age offers opportunities. The elderly person has access to a new source of wealth -- time. According to a popular maxim; in youth we squandered this precious commodity; in maturity we were too busy to take advantage of it. Now finally, in old age we have the luxury and freedom to use time as we see fit.
The pensioner has time for spiritual growth.
He can learn for learning's sake, without worrying about career considerations or examinations. He has both the maturity and the mindset to develop his intellectual facilities. Community centers, churches and synagogues, as well as colleges, have opened their classrooms to the elderly. The Elderhostel has developed educational seminars for the elderly throughout the world. Many are able to engage in spiritual pursuits for the first time in their lives.
Some simply spend their later years in "productive contemplation." In accordance with Eric Erikson's seventh stage in life, they engage in a summing up period, making order out of life's experiences. The retiree might gain new insights into his motivations. He often mellows, is able to conquer residues of bitterness, jealousies and resentment that may have poisoned his interactions with others. He has the opportunity to grow as a person and sweeten his memories as the perspective of time and self-knowledge gives him a new outlook on his world.
Creativity is another spiritual means of expression open to many older citizens. We all know some local "Grandma Moses" type, an older person who discovers hidden talent in art, music, drama or literature in his/her latter years. Interestingly enough, emotional isolation frequently results in creative activity and loneliness and loss are known to act as an impetus for creative work. A person may be talented in art or music, but only find the time to express these gifts after retirement.
Creativity can also be expressed in community and charity activities. Many people find fulfillment in "the need to be needed." Today it is very common for the elderly to engage in volunteerism. In fact, many institutions and projects would be unable to function without the assistance of volunteer staff, including services for the blind, retarded, chronically ill and social outcasts. Hospitals also depend upon them.
Even the homebound or the ailing can make significant contributions in many of these spheres. There are wheelchair-bound elderly who give telephone support to the needy. Some roll bandages or pack Meals-on-Wheels for others. There are frail older people who have discovered the joys of spiritual growth; with the aid of tapes, Internet, or videos they're learning new fields. Indoors gardening, knitting, crocheting and drawing are all satisfying activities that some handicapped elderly have developed despite their limitations.
One enterprising project is a video exchange program between homebound elderly. The participants are filmed describing an aspect of their previous work, some interesting tidbit from their family history or a particular skill. This is shown to another homebound elderly person, who reciprocates with a video of his own. The tapes are circulated and widen the contact and contribution of each participant. Today Internet allows the homebound elderly to e-mail friends all over the world.
Perhaps the most significant "opportunity" of old age is closest to home --devoting time to one's family. Indeed studies show that many pensioners prefer developing this aspect of their retirement, aiding their children with household chores, advice and financial aid. Grandparenting is a profession which has been sparsely documented, but which gives much joy to its proponents. It is not rare for a former businessman to invest time and ingenuity in building an airplane model, or playing the drums with a grandson, something he regretfully did not have time or patience to do with his own children.
Throughout the ages it was the task of the elderly in every society to transmit the culture to the younger generation. The verse from the Bible ("Ask your forefathers and they will tell you") reflects this. The experience of the older generation can still mold and guide the young; the grandparents, as role models, show their offspring what is expected of them. In contrast to the parents, grandparents are often less demanding, which enhances the interaction between the generations and assures the transfer of values.
Today with the growth of the graying population there is a new industry of Leisure Time exponents. People are encouraged to develop hobbies and all kinds of busywork are recommended to the elderly to "help pass the time" or "kill time." How tragic those after years of study, growth, toil, maturity and retirement, it all ends in "killing time."
Long life is not a goal in itself. The goal has to be a quality of life; a reason to live which gives a sense of meaning to aging. "Old age to the uninitiated is winter; to the learned it is harvest."